Chapter 1: A Visit to the Gallery
We start with Condwiramurs and Nimue having a breakfast dicussion about the recent events taking place in Nilfgaard by revisiting the past.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Once upon a time, the Sun King stepped into the dark forest of the Moon kingdom, bereft of its King and Queen. The everlasting twilight realm drained the Sun king of his light and life. His dying light lured a strange girl…"
From the tales of the Wandering Storyteller: Issun of Zanguebar
Condwiramurs Tilly, the oneiromancer apprentice of the Sorceress Nimue, was lightly- and absentmindedly- poking at the yolk of her fried egg with a fork. The breakfast consist of sausages, bacon, mashed potatoes, and tossed green salad, all washed down with green tea and lemonade. No fish this morning -another unlucky day for the Fisher King. His growls of frustration could be heard from the lake surrounding the tower that is her current home.
It was another quiet dawn. The only sound disturbing the silence were the chirping of the birds and the soft, gentle lapping of the water against the shore and jetty, and also the aforementioned grunts coming from the lake: the Fisher King on his boat hauls yet another empty net.
Nimue, the diminutive sorceress also contributed to the silence knowing that Condwiramurs will eventually break it. She brought a forkful of lettuce drizzled in olive oil into her mouth.
“This is the tenth day of nothing” Condwiramurs grumbled, the tines of her fork barely ripping the flimsy layer that glazed over the yolk like a cataract. “We know Emhyr married the counterfeit Ciri, yet she was barely mentioned in any books or treaties. It’s as if the false Ciri is nothing more than a footnote in Nilfgaards’ history. Nothing in my dreams point to any significant events after her marriage to Emhyr.”
“Yet progress has been made as I see it.” Nimue serenely contradicted her apprentice. “The fact that she barely registered in your dreams gives credence to certain hard truths: the false queen of Cintra has little to no influence beyond her marriage. She has been living quietly under Emhyrs’ shadow : the wife of the most powerful man in the world.”
The unbroken yolk of her fried egg reminded Condwiramurs of the Great Sun. The current situation in the Southern empire is a controversial one- not only is the empire in disarray but another var Emreis sits on the throne: the great, great, great, great-grandson of Emhyr var Emreis. The Imperial academy, schools and libraries all over the world were purged of any books, journals, treaties, manuscripts, paintings, and etchings of the var Emreis dynasty. A law was enacted, prohibiting anyone from ever uttering that family name, and those who violated this law were severely punished. This paranoia started during the reign of Calveit the Third when one elven- imperial astrologers’ reading of the cosmos was revealed to him: that a descendant of the White Flame and the White Queen shall raise the Sun to greater glory. When Calveit V became emperor, history forgot about the var Emreis. Thoughts of the var Emreis dynasty were also purged.
A massive civil war ensued in the Southern Empire after Emperor Calveit V was overthrown by Nilfgaardian aristocrats-who manage to convince renegade mages and astrologers in Calveit V employ to misread the signs in the stars- began fighting among themselves who should be the next imperator. Patents of nobility were required in the choosing and every noble houses brought proofs of their royal lineage to the Citadel, some expertly overblown or conjured out of fanciful imagination-or a great deal of coin- were disqualified, stripped of their title and thrown in the dungeons for perjury.
One claimant to the throne effectively silenced the infighting: a prince of seventeen hailing from Metinna. His patents of nobility was brought to the courts and thoroughly investigated. Unlike the other claimants who boasted that they came from a long line of nobles and are even related to a king or several kings, the young Metinnian prince descended from an ancient line of emperors- the var Emreis. The var Emreis were regarded as one of the most powerful rulers of Nilfgaard, and the most ancient dating back to the time of the Black Seidhe.
Another civil war broke out: this time between Metinna, its allies, and the other contesting nobles and their allies. It ended abruptly: the opposing contenders were executed and the rest surrendered and sworn fealty to the new Emperor. The Nilfgaardians behaved as if they were shaken from a deep stupor. Those who still remembered the ancient dynasties began reminiscing about the “golden era” of the empire, spreading their recollection to others. The problem with this is that their version of events were warped- a story mixed with rumors, revisions and subjective opinions that no one could weed out the truth from the chaff of wish-it-could-have-beens.
The reign of Emperor Torres var Emreis was the beginning of that "golden era" which his descendants continued, and Emhyr expanded. Upon knowing that the young prince is a var Emreis, a great excitement and greater unrest ensued. Excitement because the var Emreis were historical rulers and that Emhyr was also known by his title as the White Flame, and unrest because historians, scholars, and even poets scramble to find out who the White Queen is to the White Flame and undo the damage caused by Calveit the Third and his successors. The new emperor took it upon himself restoring the empire to its former glory, the way his great, great, great, great, great grandfather did.
“When I gave you this task, I told you to open your mind to certain possibilities that what passes as history is an altered, abridged, version- thanks to Calveit V.” Nimue, added honey to her lemonade, her spoon clinking as she stirs. “We have achieved the easiest part years ago: restoring the history of the Nilfgaardian Empire starting from the reign of Emperor Torres to the rise of Emperor Emhyr var Emreis and his involvement with the White Wolf and the Child of Destiny– up to a point. Now, we are drawing a blank between the events after the third Northern war and the rise of Emperor Morvran Voor. Similarly, we- and I mean you- are drawing a blank on Emhyr’s married life. Fortunately, this tower contains some materials that survived the purge, and it falls unto us to piece together what was torn from history.”
“Nimue, it is a fact that the Child of Destiny, is Emhyr’s only heir and she chose the Path over the throne. Emhyr did not father a child with the fake, nor did he had any bastards stashed in some castle somewhere. It is the logical conclusion why Emhyr abdicated the throne and ended his line to his most trusted general to placate the Trade Guild and the noble houses.”
“Nonetheless there is a var Emreis sitting on the imperial throne. Something of historical import happened and we are tasked, and paid, to retrieve it. Incidentally, your egg is getting cold.”
Condwiramurs finally stabs her egg and it bled golden goo on her toast. She made a face chewing the cold, yolk soaked bread. She swallowed, and then continued the discourse.
“A var Emreis heir not birthed by both false and authentic Cirillas. When the elven prophesy was thoroughly studied, it points out that the White Queen comes from a forgotten royal line. The current emperor’s father- and those before him- assumed the maternal name to hide their paternal lineage when Calveit the First became emperor. Unfortunately, the maternal line also got muddled in the passage of time. “
Nimue nodded. “That is why we are relied upon to uncover its’ mysteries. Oneiromancers can pluck the truth within fiction and historical inaccuracies. And you have already scratched the surface.”
Condwiramurs massaged her weary forehead, glanced at Nimue. “For three nights my mind ached from wondering just who did Emhyr fathered his heir with, I had persistent “apparitions” of a moon and a red rose. Ever since you made me read that fairy tale by Issun, I keep seeing the moon or the rose in my dreams. I’m afraid it will remain a symbol until I acquire more information.”
Nimue clasped her hands, overjoyed underneath the serene mask. “At last! Your mind stumbled upon the opening we seek to recollect the true events. The symbols you mentioned, let’s search for them in the gallery.”
After they break their fast, Nimue and Condwiramurs entered the vast picture gallery. Paintings of events involving the Child of the Elder Blood dominated the walls, but here and there are sprinklings of still life, portraits and landscape paintings: the fairy tale duchy of Toussaint, the free city of Novigrad, the golden towers of Nilfgaard, the unity city and botanical gardens of Metinna, to name a few. This floor is currently in disarray as it was undergoing a remodeling of sorts: paintings with no relation to the tales of the White Wolf and the Child of the Elder Blood were being moved into another room Nimue christened as The Hall of the Monarchy and, so far, the portraits of royals have settled in nicely.
The oneiromancer glanced at Nimue for assistance, but the diminutive sorceress smiled her mysterious smile. Realizing that she has to find the picture herself, Condwiramurs gave a short exasperated snort and began looking for a rose amongst the plethora of paintings, tapestries and prints covering the walls.
Half an hour passed and nothing. The “rose” in her dreams weren’t amongst the landscapes, portraits and still objects. Nimue, who left earlier, came back up with a tray bearing two glasses of cold lemonade. She motioned for Condwiramurs to take a break. She and the oneiromancer sat on the small table in the corner, sipping their drinks.
“I see no rose of any color in the pictures, Nimue” Condwiramurs was almost whining. “Can’t you just point out the painting to me?”
Nimue shook her head, giving Condwiramurs a scolding stare. “And increase your dependency on me? I cannot always be around to hold your hand. Trust your intuition, my dear. Is there a painting that draws your attention?”
Condwiramurs gave the walls a cursory glance, her eyes making a quick scan of the plethora of paintings and shook her head. “Nothing. No rose or moon in any of them.”
“That’s because you’re looking for a literal rose.” Nimue replied with slight amusement curving her lips. “You already said the dreams were symbolic.”
Condwiramurs blinked-immediately slapped her forehead. “Of course! How stupid of me.”
She puts down her lemonade and approached the paintings starting on the south side: the obvious starting point geographically since Nilfgaard is a Southern Empire. Five minutes in, she stopped at an oil painting of two dancing nobles in the midst of black blobs that could be discerned as the audience. She must’ve passed over this piece many times: it was the type to be ignored considering how plain and shabby it looked.
Nimue noticed where here apprentice stopped and went to her side.
“This painting is but a poor reproduction of the original, given to me by one of the elven sages who foresaw the purge before they left this world. He tried his hand at painting but discovered he’s not as proficient with a brush as he is at predicting the future” Nimue couldn’t suppress a giggle at the thought, looking at the painting with mild interest.
Condwiramurs narrowed her eyes, trying to make out the faces. “Gods, this is a shite portrait. A child could paint better” she mumbled.
The dark haired man was wearing a frock the color of dried tomatoes with what looks like a gold noodle draped around his shoulders. The woman, also dark haired, wore a stiff red gown which contrasts her pale, death-like pallor. Condwiramurs guessed correctly that it was an attempt by the amateur artist at creating a fair complexion- if the color of chalk is described as “fair”.
Condwiramurs took a step back, her chin resting on her knuckle. “I think I found the rose. And … this is probably Emhyr, I think.” She added, unsure.
Nimue gave Condwiramurs a curious look but that amused smile never left. “This crude painting is Emhyr var Emreis? Hmm, who would’ve guessed? Scholars have said that Emhyr abdicated the throne to his successor Morvran Voor, yet could not shed light why Emhyr did not groom his natural heir- other than Ciri- for the imperial throne. One would think monarchs prefer to keep their lands under their direct bloodline. And even if an heir is too young, a Regent would rule in their place until the rightful heir comes of age. Instead of an Imperial Regent, Movran Voor ascended to the throne with Emhyrs’ blessing.
Whatever happened during that significant time gap was erased from history and that, my dear Condwiramurs, is your job to find out.”
“Did the new Imperator give us the name of the maternal line.”
“No. Only that she is a Nordling.”
That night in her private chambers, Condwiramurs arranged her pillows in a way that the last thing she’ll see before she closes her eyes is the shitty painting of Emhyr and his pasty skinned dancing companion perched on a straight backed chair.
Who is she? And where does she fit in the story?
The oneiromancers’ eyes grew heavy the moment her head settled on the pillows. Her dream was shrouded in fog, clearing gradually. She looks through the eyes of a pigeon perched atop the awning of a shop selling unusual antiquities. She took wing and flew to another spot, this time on the lip of a stone fountain, water gurgling from a jar held by a shapely half naked maid. Across the fountain was an elegant-looking building with a crowd gathering at the entrance. Condwiramurs the Pigeon saw a young woman approaching the entrance but did not push through the crowd. The young woman took a few steps backward, looks at both sides, and began to walk around the building looking for another- less conspicuous way- to enter the establishment.
Condwiramurs is certain this is the rose in the painting. But something did not add up. Instead of the woman in her rich red gown, the rose was a young wildflower of an undetermined age: possibly between late twenties to early- or late- thirties and dressed in shabby peasant clothes.
And she was in Novigrad.
Here is the actual portrait! not the poor copy hanging in the lake tower.
Welcome to my first ever attempt at fan fiction! First, I must thank Alphagravy who has been pushing me to publish this yarn to AO3. I still think this should stay in the MS WORD files and gather pixel dust. But, here I am. Hope the first chapters is enjoyable enough that the readers would like to know more about Sarah, the vagabond, and her chance(s) meeting with the most powerful man in the world.
Chapter 2: The Wildflower Outside Looking In
We get to read the changes that happened after the end of the Third Northern War as well as a cameo appearance of the female OC.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The Culture Capital of the World - as advertised and spread across the said world, but only the North believes in such boasting- and to live up to that title, an art exhibit opens up in one of the prominent buildings located to the west of the Temple Square. The sandwich board outside reads “Kingdoms of the Known World” and below it, as an afterthought, “Open to the Public”.
Security is tight due to the many treasures on display. Everywhere there’s a sentry roaming about, wearing the surcoats issued to the temple guards, each with a face that can take a bite out of a wooden pillar and spit it to a random passerby, paid to keep an eye out for troublemakers, pickpockets and thieves. Three well to do folks have already been thrown out of the building and into the cobblestone street for pocketing trinkets sold as souvenirs.
“Ugh! Why do they even put THAT up on display?” says a richly dressed noblewoman, feathered fan against her nose as if detecting a nasty whiff coming from the direction of the Nilfgaardian exhibit. Or someone passed by and expelled a silent but fragrant intestinal gas.
“At least it’s placed all the way there, my dear”, replied her equally well dressed husband, draped in fine linen and chains of gold. “Nobody in their right mind would even grace it with a glance.”
“Except for THAT!” she hissed, pointed with her beady hazel eyes at an unwashed, illiterate halfwit: the sole visitor of the Nilfgaardian section looking with genuine curiosity.
The nobleman smirked. “An audience Nilfgaard deserves.”
The couple laughed discreetly and joined their equally rich and loud friends, fawning over the other royal portraits on the opposite side of the gallery. The North wing displayed priceless treasures, artifacts and portraits of the Kings and Queens of the Northern Kingdoms: each kingdom sectioned off with brass partitions.
King Foltest of Temeria -the crowning Jewel of the Northern exhibit, flanked on the sides by Queen Saskia, Queen Adda, Prince Stennis, King Tankred of Lan Exeter,and Queen Meve. A portrait of the new Temerian King, consort of young Queen Anaise LaValette, in its elegant frame was mounted on an ornate easel stand stood next to Foltest portrait. Despite the fact that Foltest is deceased, Temerians still remember him fondly as their benevolent king, and his replacement- though a capable ruler, is a poor substitute and favored their young queen even less as she was pronounced Temeria’s sovereign by the grace of the Nilfgaardian Imperator. A large oil painting of King Foltest’s handsome profile, worthy of being pressed into a coin, captivated the guests, of who are largely composed of women who are sobbing softly behind large lace kerchiefs. It was about the size of a dwarven banker’s desk and placed high enough to be admired and fenced by another brass partition preventing the audience from touching the portrait.
On the West and East wings were various heads of Kerack, Skellige Isle, Offier, Cainghorn, Cidaris, Zerrikania, Mahakam and even far away Haakland. The audience was considerably less.
The South side consists of exhibits from the Nilfgaardian Empire: Cintra,Toussaint, Dol Blathanna, Nazair, Gemmera, Ebbing, Vicovaro, Metinna, Brugge, and the capital itself: Nilfgaard. It was as empty as the Korath desert. The brass partition may have kept away unwanted physical contact but it could not protect the portraits from verbal blows- peppered with insults, obscene gestures and daggers shot from eyes full of disdain.
These sentiments were understandable given the fact that the Northern Realms lost the 3rd war leaving Redania’s treasury bare, Temeria becoming the second vassal state and the rest of the kingdoms had no choice but to agree to submit to vassalization and it's terms. Aside from swearing fealty to the emperor, the Northern Realms are to cease all provocations and give up large portion of their territories to Nilfgaard as war reparations if the kings want to hold on to their independence.
The occupied lands were large indeed, but also uncultivated, neglected, and some barren. Nilfgaard might have demanded the head-or several heads- as an example for shortchanging the empire, but the emperor's advisors saw this as an oportunity to show the Nordling monarch that the empire can turn something from nothing. Nilfgaardian settlers received ample support from the Imperial Treasury as well as bringing in expert farmers, builders, artisans who repeated the success of Kovir and Povis– by exploiting hidden resources and cultivating the land.
These “little Nilfgaards” as politicians calls them- enjoyed greater economic wealth and prosperity. These pockets of territory became favorable to non-humans and they ply their trade without additional taxes imposed on them for being different. Any political observer knows this was a calculated move by the emperor. Dwarves were excellent smiths; gnomes made beautiful jewelry, elves were masters of cosmetics, fashion and architecture, and halflings were outstanding farmers. The non-humans happily transferred their families to these lands and enjoyed working alongside Nilfgaardian settlers. Each season, a banner of Imperial soldiers and clerks visited these lands to collect levies and taxes: a greater percentage was sent to the capital, while a small agreed portion was given to the kingdom. This only added to the growing disdain and envy of the Nordlings.
The south wing is richly decorated - thanks in no small part from the wealthy Nilfgaardian ambassador Henry var Attre- yet no one cared to even stop and admire the treasures in their clear crystal casings, and the intricately designed full black armors flanking the portrait of its master: Emperor Emhyr var Emreis.
Nobody came to admire it. The visitors gave that side a wide berth as if the south wing is contaminated with the Catriona. Its sole visitor is not even inside the gallery, but outside looking in. Though open to the public, certain members of the public weren’t permitted to enter unless suitably attired. Beggars were shooed, shoved, and threatened with the pike for milling outside the gallery hoping for coins tossed by the wealthy and the middleclass.
With her filthy dress and overall unwashed appearance, the young observer admired the display through the clear crystal window. She had an unobstructed view of the emperor’s portrait- saw the bronze plate that etched his name- but at this distance, she couldn’t see the words she knows by heart: Deithwen Addan yn Carn Aep Morvudd
The peasant girl pressed her cupped hands against the glass with her face leaning forward as if this method can magnify the powerful visage depicted in the portrait. The artist who made the painting made the emperor look younger than his true age when this was taken, as royal artists are wont to do: omitting details considered by many as unattractive. A beekeeper whom she passed by once said-in his own hick words “the imperors got a comely mug but cruel lookin”. Even without the artistic flattery, the painter captured that description perfectly.
A thoughtful smile lifted the corner of the peasant girl’s lips. Portraits were commonly used by monarchs like some gilded business cards given to another monarch with the intent to marry- or alliance through marriage. And a painter is instructed by pain of death to make their image attractive and impressionable. That is, to say, do not include the moles and warts, lighten the birthmarks or eliminate it completely, de-aging, and, in some cases, make the subject look ten pounds lighter. It’s an oversimplified translation to “bring out the inner beauty onto the surface”. There were notable individuals looking at the crowned heads: barons and baronesses, counts and countesses, lordlings, and merchants wealthy enough to buy a crown. All admiring the portraits as if choosing which one they’d want to marry. Or become an in-law. The peasant girl raised her hands to her lips, hiding a grin while suppressing laughter. Imagine the shock when meeting the subject of the portrait and realizing they are the complete opposites of their framed counterparts.
The paintings are merely an idealized version of them. The late king Foltest- he was a handsome one, the peasant girl thought- painted in a profile exuding charm and charisma, but the color palette did not convey the king’s impulsive nature. Foltest is a good king to his people, but is found wanting when it comes to dealing with conflicts. Thank the gods he’s got good men like Natalis and Roche to deal with the stickier stuff, and are now members of the Regency Council supporting the young queen and her consort. The portrait of Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia, beautiful and imposing, failed to capture the queen’s cold and cunning nature. Her portrait isn’t the most recent in the display: the Rivian queen sustained a facial scar during the 2nd war with Nilfgaard.
The exception is His Imperial Majesty Emhyr Var Emreis, the White Flame of the South. His portrait reflected his cruel and intimidating persona. Like Queen Meve, the portrait is not the latest depiction of His Imperial Majesty. His hair was coal black- a compliment to his slightly tanned complexion- enhanced with brownish gold lights, combed back emphasizing a square forehead. His eyes were the color of pale blue sky - looked at the right as if the admirer is not worthy of his attention- perched above a powerful and prominent aquiline nose resembling a beak of a hawk, strong angular jaw tapering to form a chiseled chin. No amount of lighting or artistic editing could soften his Imperial Majesty’s ‘comely but cruel looking mug’. As expected, the portrait lacks any facial markings: no moles, tags, warts, and birthmarks. Even the wrinkles looked subdued. Her distance from the portrait made the Imperator looked much younger. Definitely not faithful to the source material.
The peasant girl stares at the painting with narrowed eyes, imagining the missing details the painter omitted with her mind: the Imperator would be older than this here portrait by ten years, give or take. Maybe even twice as that. His coal black hair would be graying, his intense eyes set deep into their sockets, fine lines around the mouth and brows, and crow tracks on the corner of his eyes.
The peasant girls’ lips curled upwards.
So that’s what you look like.
She continues to stare at the painting, his powerful and frightening image forever etched into her mind.
What was once a single paragraph turned into several and even expounded on the changes in the North when Nilfgaard came out victorious. Here we see/ read how a single portrait made a lasting impression on the female OC.
Chapter 3: The Sun at My Doorstep
Cut to 2 years after the Art Exhibit in Novigrad, a hostage escaped the clutches of a band of mercenaries called the Rowan Reds. Meanwhile, our female OC in Geso woke up to another uneventful day.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Two Years Later
They lost him in the river rapids dividing Geso. The mercenary hansa, who called themselves Rowan Reds owing to the said color of the short caped hoods they wore, dismounted their hard ridden horses. Today, the hoods are down as they search for any clues, cloth, blood or spoor of their quarry. The group’s tracker, Milo, stopped at the river bend where the blood trail ends. The current was swift, the waters treacherous, and the trail cold.
Korbin, their designated leader, spat a short stream of spit tinted red with blood, on the ground from a tooth that recently vacated his mug courtesy of a gauntleted fist. “Who the fuck thinks that all noblemen can’t wield a sword? Who thought that they are as helpless as sheep without their bodyguards?”
He cast a scathing, murderous look at his posse, what’s left of them anyway.
The Rowan Reds fought ruthlessly hard and most of them were war veterans, each member sporting fresh cuts and bruises on top of existing ones. They knew the Impera Brigade is not to be trifled with- heavy armored bastards expert at wielding both sword and spear, ready to fight to the death defending their master. Their victory over the twenty black clads rang hollow: the Impera cuts the original three dozen Rowan Reds to just eight men. Eight tired, bloodied, frustrated survivors.
Correction, Korbin added to himself. Six survivors. Ren and Crazy Eye won’t survive the day. The two they left behind were still breathing despite half drowning in their own blood. When Korbin and his men return, it’ll be to bury them.
All avoided his stare. They knew the job is a bust. Without proof of the kill, they will not see a single florin of the five hundred thousand promised to them.
“This isn’t some dipshit baron we’re after, but a tyrant!” Korbin shout echoed in the wind, causing birds to fly from nearby trees. “Had we not assumed, we could be in Novigrad by now, getting our stupid asses drunk, and fucking high-class whores!”
Alcide, or Bat to his comrades due to his large ears -ear, one was lopped off by their quarry and has stopped bleeding during the ride- raised a hand.
“Maybe… we can bluff our way and say we did the job.”
The group looked at him, the horses snorted as if Alcide wasn’t making sense as usual.
“What do you mean, Bat?” said Milo.
Alcide unfastened the plumed black helmet adorned with wings on the sides, from his saddle. Specks of blood stained the white plumage. He showed the helmet to the group. “We could say we finished the job, and buried the body in the forest!”
Milo stared incredulously at him. “And who would believe that?”
But Korbin stopped him from saying more. “He may have something there.” Korbin nodded to himself, and then looked at his pose with a conspirators grin.
“We’ll say we buried him instead of carrying the head as a trophy, to avoid unwanted attention. We take the money, look for some poor slob who can fit in the armor, cut off his head and bury him in Nazair, the usual place.” He unsheathed his longsword and grinned at it: the sword point was split from the fight and it was edged with fresh blood. “We cut him up pretty good back there and he’d end up floating all the way to the Alba. They’ll find the stiff. And us? We’ll set up shop in Kovir! We’d be famous as the slayer of the Tyrant! Fuck, they’ll give us a medal and a position in the Kovirian cavalry!”
The greedy grins on the Rowan Reds faces told Korbin that all were in agreement to the plan and the prospect for advancement sounds appealing. They mounted their horses and went at a relaxed gallop, laughing and congratulating their leader for his ingenuity.
No one acknowledge that it was Alcide who came up with the idea.
Meanwhile, in the heart of the Mirrah forest, Geso...
She had been dreaming of walking along the seashore, the water pulled back by gravitational force, returning to the surface as sea foam over her feet. She awoke not to the sound of rolling surfs, but of rustling leaves. The unfamiliar ceiling of the thatched roof is the first thing that she sees.
Still groggy, she slowly rose from the straw bed, rubs the sleep off her eyes and looked around the unfamiliar interior of the hut. The light, bleeding through the many crevices and cracks of the wooden planks put together to create the crude walls, had a dreamy quality to it.
Is it… afternoon? No, it’s the canopy. It filters the light like a sieve. Hard to tell time in this place.
Her stomach gurgled in protest at being neglected. She had slept through breakfast and it was nearly lunch.
She’d been here two weeks and, until now, still couldn’t think of this ramshackle hut as home. The girl hasn’t found a single dwelling to finally settle in. She yawned, finger-comb her dark disheveled mane, swung her feet off the bed and into her worn canvas shoes. Across the bed is the crude kitchen – nothing more than a table and a stone kiln- where she placed the items she foraged yesterday: wild vegetables, berries, ferns and bird eggs. She could make one of her mystery vegetable soup.
Another loud gurgling from the pit of her stomach. Right! Lunch! Her eyes looked at the meager supply of kindling.
Not enough firewood for cooking and for keeping warm.
She yawned again, got up and tied an apron around her waist. She shuffled to the tiny kitchen, poured a knock of water onto a wooden bowl and sprinkled a pinch of salt. She made a ridiculous bubbling sound in her throat as she gargled, spitting last night’s saliva into the sink before going out the door.
The smell of pungent earth, litter and humus greeted her. She stretched her arms to the sky and bent her body on the left, then on the right, groaning at the stiffness that settled in her joints. She heard a satisfying creak of her spine and a pop in her arm sockets.
Right, off I go!
Few hours later the peasant girl emerged from the forest thicket, her arms burdened with branches she collected for firewood. Her face and clothes were smudged with dirt and sweat. The forest was still damp from the rain three nights ago, and the ground was disgusting under her feet. She expected the kindling to be as damp as a kitchen sponge, but luckily there were some dry ones protected by the trees heavy boughs. A Gabrielle hung on the belt of her waist served as a protection as well as a hunting tool.
She acquired the crossbow when she came across a battlefield graveyard on the North side of the Yaruga years ago during the ongoing 3rd Northern invasion. There were others scavenging around the decomposing bodies of armored soldiers and war horses. There were corpses wearing the Northern colors: Redanian red, Kaedweni dune, Temerian blue and sprinkled with nondescript hues of paid mercenaries. The other side wore the black and gold of Nilfgaard, and their mercenaries in nondescript hues. The stench of rotting corpses rose up to the heavens, but her nose grew accustomed to it. This was not her first foray, nor will it be her last. As an unwritten rule, pick a spot and stay away from other scavengers lest you want to fight them for any valuables deem worth keeping. She found a few chipped orens, a steel dagger, and a one handed crossbow famously called the Gabrielle in usable condition, with a bolt in it. She accidentally pulled the trigger and it made a sickening squelching sound when it hit a Temerian corpse in the eye. She turned to one side and dry heaved.
She was heading back to her unfamiliar hut when a sight of a body lying outside the door stopped her. Acting without a second thought, she dropped the kindling and approached the body cautiously, arming the Gabrielle with a wooden bolt.
It was a man, dark haired, broad-shouldered, a bit thin in build and well-to-do by the looks of his gray and white clothing. The threadwork was intricate, the black riding boots made of tanned leather- young calfskin by its sheen, and the empty dagger scabbard is richly decorated with gold runic symbols. As for the owner, he was soaked to the bone, unconscious, face on the ground, wounded, and barely breathing.
Caution gave way to concern. The stranger was in no shape to be a threat. She disabled the crossbow and returned it hanging on her waistband.
This is no bandit but a noble.
What’s a noble doing in the middle of the forest?
Must’ve emerged from the river not far from here, she thought. Her eyes registered the bloodstains on the cuffs of his right sleeve.
A sword wound?
She gently lifted the arm by the wrist, noted the indent of the arm on the congealed blood, some sticking on the torn sleeve like chunky strawberry jam. He lay here for some time, an hour maybe two. She pushed the man carefully turning him on his back.
She grimaced. The gash on his arm was a gruesome sight: from his palm up to his elbow. It looked nasty, swollen and on the first stages of infection. It resembled a sausage, cut along the center.
She heard a weak groan issued from his lips. The peasant girl turned, and took a sharp intake of air. Despite the disheveled hair and pale face caked with dirt, there was no mistaking that angular jaw tapering into a solid square chin and a prominent aquiline nose.
Oh my god!
This was suppose to be 2 chapters: The Lost Prey and The Wildflower. I combined both short chapters and gave it a new title: The Sun at my Doorstep.
Chapter 4: The Reluctant Healer
The forest dweller of Mirrah tended to the injured emperor using any available materials to save his life.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
She waited for the pot of water to boil, sterilizing the makeshift bandages- nothing more than ragged strips of fabric. She had torn a cloth bag she found hidden in the crumbling chest of this unfamiliar hut. Probably from the original owners before they fled to god knows where during the last war. Apart from the bag, the chest also contained a coarse linen shirt- yellow from water stains, a child’s top, a worn leather belt, a reed pipe, some knickknacks she couldn’t identify, and a woman’s knickers. She debated on taking the reed pipe and decided against it. That object is probably filthier than a used footwrap. The girl took the nightshirt instead, and returned the chest under the simple straw bed. Above it lies the shivering, feverish, half-dead Imperator of Nilfgaard, covered by worn sheepskins and furs. With him occupying the only bed, she had no choice but to sleep on the ground covered in dry grass with her arms for pillows.
Her thoughts, that part that always harangued her, took the voice of mother.
Always her mother
Do the world a favor, daughter. Rid it of the tyrant that has caused the sufferings of many, including you. The empire made you a vagabond-
No. Becoming a vagabond was my choice. I won’t blame that on Nilfgaard.
You’ve heard the tales, the accounts of their cruelty. Hasten his death-
I took an oath to do no harm, regardless of my personal opinions. Shut up, mother, I have work to do
She glanced at the slumbering emperor and remembered when she found him at her threshold four days ago.
She wrapped his wound with her apron to staunch further bleeding. Upon inspecting the wound, she noted whatever cut him up narrowly missed his major blood vessels. The muscles of his forearm looked ragged, as if he was carved with a nicked blade. Closing the gash was problematic. Though the clotting stopped the bleeding, infection already settled in making his arm swell like an overstuffed sausage. She carried no needle and her entire search for it in the hut proved fruitless. She contemplated of whittling one, but it would take time. The local plant life yielded no thorns suitable enough to be used as a makeshift needle. Instead, inspiration struck her: tree sap! Plenty of those around here. She went out and began bleeding young trees she could identify as safe for skin contact, collecting the sticky sap on a small clay bowl.
On her return, she made a small pile of snapped sticks under the stove, struck a flint and created a small blaze for boiling water. While waiting, she began mixing the sap with charcoal, creating crude glue. She washed the detritus and contaminants off the gaping wound, causing fresh blood to flow, and treated the wound with warm water and Mahakaman vodka. The Imperator moaned in pain. Despite his weakened condition from the infection and great loss of blood, he made it difficult for her to treat him. He pushed her hand with what little strength he had when she poured the spirit on his injury, causing her to spill some of it on the bed. She used comforting words in a gentle but firm tone while leaning over and steadying the impudent hand on his side. More words of “it’s all right” and “you are in no danger” with added courtesies of “sire” and “your majesty” until she got her message through the fog of his hearing.
Or he simply gave up the futile struggle. Either way, she encountered no resistance after that.
Next was the application of the bandages. The girl tucked one end of the fabric strip above the cut by winding it around the arm twice. She applied the sap an inch away from the wound and pressed the bandage on it until it was sufficiently glued to his skin. On the wound itself, she applied a poultice of herbs- “little whisper” and others mixed with oils. She placed the bandage across of the mix, then another dab of sap to secure it in place. The meticulous process took a short time and the end result was clean and efficient. Pleased, she felt like patting herself on the back.
Cleaning the river muck and mud was also on the list. She stripped him of his river-soaked brocaded gray vest and silk shirt- even his knickers which she stripped under a sheepskin cover, casually discarding them on the floor to be washed later. His body was bruised from his ordeal and the welts stood out like prominent birthmarks. She began cleaning him using a sponge soaked in warm water mixed with some vodka and crushed herbs- quickly and efficiently- but more quickly, then guided his arms and head into the nightshirt all the while her face felt like it’s on fire.
Despite trying to be professional, she couldn’t stop herself from admiring his physique. Contrary to his age, the bruises and minor cuts he sustained, his Imperial Majesty kept himself in excellent shape: he was lean, well-built though a touch thin but more muscle than fat. Calluses on his palm and fingers: he’s very proficient with the sword. Spry for a man his age. Laying a hand on his person is punishable by three weeks in the dungeon, but she reasoned that decorum has no place to lecture her at this time. Reminder, she thought to herself, knickers and trousers on him as soon as it’s dry.
For the fever, the peasant girl applied a cold compress on his forehead: a simple cloth folded into a rectangle soaked in sterilized water and vinegar sprinkled with healing herbs and left to cool, spoon fed him a bowl of rabbit soup mixed with arrowroot, sage and parsley. She added ginger to mask its medicinal taste as well as the herbal sedative she spiked in his soup. It would do them no good if he was uncooperative during his period of healing. If she was a healer, she’d be stripped off her badge for malpractice and will never work in the medical fields again.
She didn’t care.
She was not a physician.
In his delirious state, the emperor drank the soup on instinct. He’d sometimes cough it back out, but the girl was very patient: wiped the soup off his chin and resumed feeding him. Then the sedatives would kick in and the emperor falls into a restful slumber. This would be the opportune moment where she’d change the bandages.
She repeated this routine on the next day, the day after that and so on.
The pot began to rattle and steam, snapping her out of her reverie.
The peasant girl gingerly removed the pot off the stove. She then took a stick, stripped off its bark with a dagger, and fished out the makeshift bandages, satisfied that they have been thoroughly sterilized. She then hung them on the narrow beam next to the open window, after removing the first batch of makeshift bandages she hung three hours ago. They, too, underwent the same sterilization process. Then she wiped the sweat off her brow and cheek with her forearm, not realizing the black soot on her arm from the pot created a streak on her face. Only her hands were clean.
Mid-afternoon, the sun took on a soft golden hue. The girl sat on the bed beside the recuperating emperor, tying a cotton kerchief on her head to keep her tousled ebony curls in place. She removed the bandages, scrubbing the residual sap off his skin with alcohol, noting the wound has closed with a thin pink line marking it. She sighed with relief. His wounds healed, the infection stopped, and color has returned to his cheeks. He was breathing evenly.
She covered the scar by winding fresh strips of bandages, eliminating the application of sap. She flex his fingers slowly and methodically: thumb, index, middle, ring, and little finger, massaging the joints, manually exercising the stiffness out of them before returning his hand back to rest on his chest. This too was part of her routine.
He should be awake by now: she had stopped spiking his food yesterday.
The peasant girl studied the emperors’ sleeping face, her head tipped to the right. She though, bemused: I can’t believe I’m giving medical attention to the Imperator of Nilfgaard of all people!
She remembered his portrait: a powerful, cruel and commanding figure. The face of Nilfgaard, hated, feared, respected-or repulsed-by all. Even asleep he bears that patina of command and cruelty on his visage. She has her own opinion about the Nilfgaardians but didn’t express it openly: for they run counter to popular sentiments. If one goes against popular opinion in a land hostile to Nilfgaard, chances are one will be accused of spying for the Empire and then a short trip to the pillory, or the noose.
She thought, recalling her mother telling her Nilfgaard is their enemy, and that the emperor is the devil.
She should’ve hastened his death, not keeping him alive.
She remembered her professor at the lectern. “Fear the consequences of impulsive action. Remember your oath: Do no harm.”
She lets out a deep sigh. She hasn’t thought of Oxenfurt for a long time
It’s been two years since she saw his portrait in Novigrad. She wonders what made her go and look. Maybe because it was a public display, but not everyone was welcome to peruse.
Maybe because I miss culture and civilization.
Or maybe my natural curiousity got the best of me and I wanted to see what my “enemy” looks like.
Or maybe… it was fate.
She shook that thought away and scoffed. Blind chance… I’m just unlucky.
The painting depicted a mature, powerful face. The real deal is older, with broad shoulders and a thin but lean physique. Not bad for a man of his age. There are the crow tracks on the corners of his eyes, the two lines on his forehead, the noticeable moles- below his right eye, the corner of his left eye and below his mouth with the lesser ones scattered like fine pepper on his forehead, and the deep creases on the corners of his lips, even the graying temple roots that were missing from the depiction. His thick eyebrows were entirely gray too, and the shadow of his brow gave him a brooding look- while the furrow between them gave him a permanent scowl. The only exception is the rough black stubble that sprouted on his cheeks and chin while unconscious. In the painting, the emperor is clean shaven.
She studied him- very much like studying a fascinating specimen. The emperor is obviously –majestic, and frightening: a sleeping lion. If she’s not careful, the lion could wake at any moment and devour her where she sat.
Now here is a man whose name, when uttered, invokes a feeling of disgust that might compel the utterer to wash their mouths with lye. Most would cower in fear, others react with scorn.
Her lips formed his name silently: “ Emhyr”.
Yes, she felt something. A slight tickle in her gut. Disgust?
Oh my god! I called him by name without permission!
Is he really as monstrous as mother- as people made him out to be?
Even unconscious, one is compelled to be courteous.
She chuckled at her musing. I just wasted daylight woolgathering. Now, to do something about that birds nest of a hair.
She took a worn hairbrush and proceeded to the new task at hand: taming the emperor’s wild bed head.
No sooner had her brush passed through the emperor’s hair that Emhyr’s bandaged hand shot up like a coiled viper and gripped her wrist. She yelped in surprise, dropping the hairbrush on the grass-covered ground.
Emhyr’s eyes slowly opened. They were not pale blue: they were amber, like fire. Golden against the afternoon light. Predator’s eyes. The color of hardened sap with an ant forever trapped inside. And they look at her cruel and hard.
That tickle in her gut spread throughout her body, paralyzing her. She is caught by the lion. And he was going to devour her. The lion spoke in a deep masculine voice.
“Where am I?”
I did a bit of google research as well as some folk treatments I learned from my elders and wrote them into this chapter. I recall when I was a child, that my grandmother would crush these fragrant leaves into a bucket of water and it made the water fragrant. It also killed bacteria. I intentionally did not use the characters proper names until near the end when the OC called Emhyr by name. I still dont know why I did that.
Chapter 5: The Pauper and the Emperor
The emperor of Nilfgaard woke up, frightening his peasant host. An unexpected visit prompted the girl to put her home defense to the test.
Sorry for taking so long in updating the fic. I've had a week long migraine from wearing the wrong lenses. I'm using the correct grade now (bifocals). We are getting to know a little bit more of our mysterious forest hermit in this chapter and her interaction with a fully awakened emperor.
Emhyrs’ deep baritone rumbled like thunder, his grip on her wrist tightened.
The frightened girl futilely tugged against his hold.
He pulled roughly and she was yanked forward, her face a mere inches away from him.
“Aiee! Mirrah Forest, in Geso, Your Imperial Majesty!” She almost screamed the answer, involuntarily staring at him with wide, frightened eyes. It was like staring into the mouth of an active volcano.
Emhyr’s brows crossed and his thoughts spoke.
What peculiar eyes!
The frightened girls’ eyes were the gray green of the Alba, which really isn’t that remarkable. But her eyes were strange: the dark gray iris laid out like a silver coin under the deep glimmering emerald green of her eyes- which was pulsing, adjusting constantly to the light. Something else in her eyes caught his: the outer edges of her irises and pupils were a lighter monotone gray.
Silver. Emeralds set in silver.
He wrinkled his nose and abruptly turned his head to the side and sneezed, causing him to let her go.
The frightened girl immediately stood up, face red with embarrassment. She must’ve offended him with her smell.
Emhyr saw her holding her wrist against her bosom. He also noticed the red welts peeking from under her hand. He glanced at the dry grass covered floor, saw the worn hairbrush he mistook for a dagger.
He momentarily closed his eyes, summoning calm, and softened his tone. “Apologies, I acted instinctively. I thought you meant me harm.”
The girl mustered a smile but kept her eyes lowered. “No apologies needed, sire. I understand.”
Emhyr looked around, taking stock of his surroundings. He saw strips of cloth hanging against the window waving in the wind, bottles of oils, salves and bunches of dried herbs on the wooden shelf, small jars and wooden containers in odd places of the room, the grubby kitchen in the corner, the thatched roof, his doublet and shirt hanging on a nail on the wall and the filthy girl with her eyes to the ground refusing to look at him.
“Who are you?”
His stomach growled reproachfully- and audibly- interrupting their conversation. Now it was the emperor who looked away, hiding his embarrassment. The frightened girl pretended not to notice, but her lips were pressed painfully, keeping the giggles behind it. Getting herself in control, she broke the awkwardness.
“You’ve been bedridden for days, sire, I made a stew to fortify you. Forgive me, it’s not a culinary masterpiece, but it taste better than it looks.”
She heard him grunt. Emhyr was trying to sit up. He wasn’t making any progress in his weakened state.
“Here, hold on to me sire.”
The filthy girl- ignoring protocols she probably did not know about approaching royalty- sat beside the emperor and extended her arms to him. Emhyr ignored her offer as he tries to right himself up, but his arms refused to support him. She still held out patiently. He begrudgingly grabbed one of her arms and she pulled him up in a sitting position.
She involuntarily glanced at the Imperator again, caught him looking straight into her eyes.
She felt the world grind to a halt.
It’s one thing to stare at a portrait of the emperor as a distance, staring at him in the flesh up close is another. Orange gold. Amber. Wolf eyes. Sky at sunset. Her mind was running all the words to describe the color of his eyes. Her heart jumped from her chest and lodged into her throat. And her mind spoke one conclusion:
Emhyr repeated his earlier observation: Emeralds set in silver.
They were luminous, sharp, and intelligent. Her eyes were remarkable.
Too bad the setting doesn’t complement those jewels, he thought. It was like looking at emeralds on a tarnished, antique silver crown.
Emhyr wrinkled his nose.
Embarrassed, the filthy girl hurriedly got up and walked towards the stove. She uncovered a smaller pot and scooped its contents into two clay bowls. It was stew thick with pieces of wild vegetables floating in the broth and threads of egg from a sparrow. She placed the bowls, and a hunk of slightly stale bread, on a makeshift tray -more like a short, lightweight plank- and pulled a chair next to the bed.
Sarah offered her meager rations to him while keeping a respectable distance, as to not offend him with her stench.
Emhyr took the bowl proffered to him giving it a suspicious look. It was warm with wisps of steam rising from it, and the smell of wild onions made his stomach growl again audibly.
He watched her drink from the other bowl. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and raised her eyes.
“It’s edible, Your Imperial Majesty”.
“What’s in it?”
“Rabbit, egg, wild vegetables and Offieri ginger, sire.”
Emhyr brought the bowl to his lips, sniffed, and took a swallow. That one mouthful sent a warm and strange invigorating feeling that reached his belly and spread outwards.
“How did I wind up in here?”
“I found you unconscious outside the hut, Your Imperial Majesty. I dr- helped you inside, tended your wounds.”
The filthy girl carefully avoided looking at him directly, her cheeks pink with the memory of his bare skin.
Emhyr emptied the bowl after three swallows. He puts the bowl back on the plank-tray and noticed the ragged bandage wrapped around his palm and extending to his elbow.
“And what kind of salve did you use on my wound?”
“An elvish plant called ‘little whisper’ in the common tongue and other assortments of medicinal herbs, sire.”
Emhyr raised his bandaged hand and unwound the wrappings. The filthy girl took the bowls and the untouched bread, and deposited them in the sink. She watched from the grubby kitchen the Emperor tracing the thin pinkish line, the only proof left of his injury. There were no puncture scars.
” A wound this big would require stitching. How did you manage?”
The filthy girl tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear, directing her smile on the dish-washing.
“I have no surgical implements to bind the gash on your arm so I use sap for adhesive. Luckily, no nerve or major blood vessels were damaged when you sustained the injury, Your Imperial Majesty.” She quickly added after realizing she hasn’t added a courtesy anywhere in her explanation.
Emhyrs fingers touched one of the black remnants on his skin. He tried scratching if off. It stubbornly remained attached. He frowned.
“I- apologize sire, it will take several alcohol scrubs to completely remove the glue.”
He glanced up at her, noticed the refinement of her speech and was struck by it. He clenched his fist tight. There was some stiffness and a bit of soreness, but his grip was strong and there were no tremors. He flexed his fingers several times.
“Removing the pitch is the least of my concern. What you did is nothing short of a miracle. You have my gratitude.”
The emperor is courteous, no one ever said that!
The filthy girl bowed low, hiding the relief on her face.
“You fear me.”
It took a while for her to realize the emperor said something and it was not a question, but the hanging silence meant he was waiting for a response.
She heard rumors that the emperor is quick to anger. She had to come up with an answer that would not offend the emperor.
“S-Surely, it’s an offense for a peasant to look at your person Your Imperial Majesty” she stammered
He held off answering that she probably looked directly at him plenty while he was unconscious. Her manner of speaking, however, had none of that freeman drawl. It was polite, cultured, and intelligent. Civilized.
“For a peasant, your vocabulary and speech is quite refined.”
“I was a student of Oxenfurt before….all this, sire” she replied gesturing at her surroundings .
“Hmm. I will allow this exception. You have kept me alive, and safe, after all.”
Odd, she couldn’t get her eyes to look at him.
She finally managed a glance. Upon meeting his stare, she quickly dropped her gaze. Her face instantly flamed. She could hear her heart thumping. What the hell? Why can’t I look at him now? I’ve stared at him plenty before, even down to his imperial knickers!
Her eyes once more darted on his face, saw him looking at her with an impatient scowl, and promptly looked down again.
Emhyr sighed and got up on his feet, steadied himself and noticed the shirt he was wearing. He walked over to his clothes hanging on the wall nail and began to pull the yellowing nightshirt above his head, giving the red-faced girl a full view of his wide chest. She immediately turned away and busied herself with drying her hands on a rag.
“I washed your clothes in the river and hung them inside the hut. It would be odd to see such fine garments hanging to dry in the heart of the woods....” she shrugged ruefully as the sink, while commending herself for putting his trousers on.
Emhyr dressed and buttoned the vest, smelling of soap and sunlight. The bloodstains on the torn sleeve were barely visible. He wondered briefly why she did not use the soap on herself. She clearly needed it. Then his mind concluded that she probably- and likely- used it all up washing his clothes. His boots were also cleaned, and was standing below his garments. He grabbed them, sat on the edge of the bed and began to put them on.
“There’s a Nilfgaardian garrison northwest of the river, between where the water forks. I must reach it.”
The filthy girl placed the wet bowls on a rack. Emhyr saw her hands were a lighter shade than the rest of her and had to bite a remark that she should at least use that wet rag and clean herself.
“I know where the garrison is, your majesty.”
“Aye, I’ve come across it several times during my foraging expedition.” Thus I avoid it, she though. She did not want any of the Black Ones to spot and follow her. She has heard enough horror stories of what soldiers do to women during long days of no diversion, regardless of the colors they wear.
“It is a long trek, sire” she added “but I know a path you can use to reach the garrison fas-“
A distant sound of crunching footsteps and laughter interrupted her. The filthy girl walked towards the door and peeked through one of the cracks.
It was a group of seven scrawny men in mismatched armor, each sporting an assortment of weapons: short swords, daggers, clubs, and iron pokers. Only one had an arbalest. She saw one of them wearing a beat up sallet slap his comrades’ shoulder and pointed at her hut. They hunched a bit and walked faster, like curious predators homing on an easy target.
The frightened girl acted quickly, shutting the windows and bolted the door.
“We’ve got unexpected company, sire. Bandits!”
Emhyr reached for his scabbard on the side-table and realized it’s empty. The frightened girl pressed a steel dagger bearing the Redanian eagle on its hilt on his hand. She puts a finger on her lips for silence as she took a clean linen cloth, folded it trice and dabbed some peppermint oil on it. She handed it to Emhyr, motioning him to cover his mouth and nose with it.
The sound of footsteps grew louder, and the voices more obscene.
This is bad. She was no fighter, and the emperor was not in the best shape to defend them both, let alone himself.
The frightened girl took the Gabrielle hanging on the wall, and loaded a bolt. Whenever she found an abode, she placed these jars on strategic locations of the house for home defense. She began frantically twisting the caps off the wooden jars all over the hut: windows, the cracks on the walls, and one hanging on the door.
Emhyr’s nose wrinkled. The smell was akin to rotting meat. If it wasn’t for the peppermint soaked cloth he’d have gagged at the stench. The peppermint managed to blunt the odor to tolerable levels. The girl, however didn’t need any.
“Buckthorn”she whispered. He was familiar with it: his nursemaid said it wards off vampires. Emhyr didn’t put much stock in old wives tale, though its horrible stench is an effective repellant.
Emhry looked at her quizzically. The girl knew what he’s thinking. How could she be breathing this foul miasma and not be revolted by it?
Back at the academy, she and her fellow students were introduced to two cadavers: a male and female. They were road bandits killed by Redanian patrols and were given to the Academy when no family came forward to claim the bodies. Seeing the damage to the important organs, the bodies were useless for study. The professors elected not to embalm them.
The students were told to perform a dissection, but did not inform them that the corpses weren’t fresh and were putrefying. It took several days for the class to bear it without puking, and several days they were locked in that room, enduring both the stench and the insults of their proctors. “You think you’ll be performing surgeries and treatments in sterile rooms?” the rail-thin male proctor outside yelled above the sounds of heaving, gasping, crying and retching, fists slamming on doors desperately trying to escape the room that was locked from the outside. “More likely you’ll be operating in the battlefield or some shithole camps reeking of blood, piss, shite and gangrene! So you’d better get acquainted with the stink of rot or you lot will never make the grade!”
Compared to that, buckthorn is fragrantly pleasant.
She whispered, pointing at her nose.
“I’m desensitized to it.”
They both crouched low, him with the dagger at the ready, still covering his nose. And her, with the Gabrielle, leaning against the door, breathing hard.
One of the bandits banged his fist, making the door- and her- rattle.
“OI! Anyone there? Open up!”
The panicked girl covered her mouth with a shaky white hand, trying not to make a sound.
“Oi! OPEN UP!” the knocker demanded, then drew back involuntarily and spat on the ground. “Urrgh!”
“Whatsamatter Bokhai?” The sallet bandit asked the knocker.
“I think summat died in ‘er” Bokhai drawled though his pinched nose, grimacing. “Can’t ye smell it?” One of the bandits went around the hut, toward the window. The panicked girl aimed the Gabrielle towards it, trying to steady her trembling hands. Cold sweat dotted her forehead.
The bandit tried peeking through the cracks. Unfortunately for him, the buckthorn jar was underneath it. It made his eyes water. She and Emhyr heard shuffling steps, then the sound of retching.
“Gods! They must’ve died from the pox or summat!” the bandit said, dry heaving. “Let’s get out of ‘ere.”
The group started walking fast, getting as much distance from the stink until the girl and Emhyr heard only silence. She waited some more until she’s sure they’re alone.
The filthy girl lowered the crossbow; her quivering hands took a while to disarm it. Emhyr sat heavily on the bed, breathing in the peppermint. The girl began capping all the jars and opened all portals to air out the stench. She took a small brown cloth pouch of dried little whisper leaves and crushed some with her fingers. The air freshened instantly. She tasted the air with her nose- inhaling deeply.
Satisfied that the air no longer stank of rotting meat, she wiped her face with her hands. Ground grit stuck on her palms now smeared like war paint all over her face. She swore softly, rolling her eyes.
She then went out the hut and on to the makeshift table on the side where she placed a bucket of rainwater she collected days ago and began splashing her face by the handful. The cool water felt good against her hot skin.
She didn’t see Emhyr emerge from the hut, looking around cautiously.
“Unusual tactic but effective nonetheless.” He spoke beside her, inhaling the fresh damp forest air.
She raised her head from the bucket, and without looking, said colorlessly. “Practically a fluke Your Majesty. It’s called ‘putting theory into practice’. Men may stand the sight of corpses but almost always run away from the stench of decay. Looks like that theory is correct.”
She yanked the kerchief off her head. Emhyr watched long locks of light absorbing ebony curls cascade over the girls’ shoulders and back while she wiped her face, the kerchief muffling her reply. “Can’t believe it actually worked.”
Emhyr shook his head, chuckled, looking at the filthy girl. She glanced at him, the kerchief exposing only her eyes.
Emhyr recalled a gift given to him by a Toussaint noble on his coronation. A milky white ivory goblet with a base of silver, encrusted with emerald chips. Free from the concealing grime and dirt, her skin beneath it is alabaster white. At this light, her eyes were pure sparkling emeralds surrounded by gleaming silver. Her thick dark lashes cast a shadow over them served to enhance their depth. He was staring at a lake several fathoms deep, the light dancing on its surface.
The girl spoke behind the kerchief. “Um, something the matter, Your Majesty?”
“You still haven’t given me your name.”
She finished wiping her face and looked at the stained kerchief, and then at him, hesitantly replying.
“I am Sarah.”
The inner poet of his youth spoke.
Emerald eyes set in silver framed by thick long lashes, hair a roiling twilight ocean in a turbulent evening storm, full lips curved like an elven bow the color of cherry blossoms- like the bloom of pink on her cheeks, skin like polished marble… and a smile that is as bright as Ard Feainn yet gentle as a spring rain.
Emhyr regarded her warmly.
She doesn’t belong in the wilderness.
((To those who are curious about her appearance, this is how Sarah looks ))
Chapter 6: Farewell Your Imperial Majesty
Sarah is entrusted with the emperor's safe return to the capital, by becoming his personal emissary. She is greeted by the Alba Divisions' General, Morvran Voorhis and informs him of the emperors' whereabouts.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
They spotted her. It was not a surprise: the emperor told her what to expect when she reaches the garrison.
The sentries perched atop the guard towers use magnifiers, the afternoon light reflected by the lens of the spy glass. She saw the reflected light abruptly disappears as the guard tower sentry hollered to the soldiers below that they are expecting company.
It was precisely as the emperor described. A large barracks of black and gold checkered tents, within a massive clearing flanked by the river on both sides, encircled with large trunks of sharpened stakes that discourage guerilla attacks from all fronts except the north, but weak spots were heavily fortified with halberdiers and arbalests. Half a dozen guard towers stood within the encampment.
It took only half an hour for her to travel from her hut to the camp using the shorter route she mentioned to the emperor. She remembers her conversation with him why he chose to stay behind:
“I will only slow you down. You will inform the guards of my location and bring a small escort to take me back to the capital”
They were inside the hut again, with the emperor sitting on the edge of the bed and Sarah on a chair at a respectable distance.
He leaned over the side table and opened a drawer to discover it empty.
“I need something- paper or parchment- to write a message.”
Sarah paused for a moment, raised a finger in thought then pulled a weather-beaten satchel from underneath the bed. She took out a ledger and an unsharpened goose feather quill.
“Will this do, sire?”
Emhyr took the ledger and flipped through its yellowed pages while Sarah used the Redanian dagger to sharpen the quill. Columns of debts and profits, as well as personal notes of no importance to the emperors’ objective were ignored, until he found one page that suited his purpose, and ripped it from the spine. One side contained irrelevant numbers of a merchant’s accounts while the other side is a blank.
“Do you have any ink I can use?”
“I can make some with vodka and soot, sire.”
Sarah handed him the freshly sharpened quill and walked towards the kitchen. She turned over a pot and began scraping the soot, collecting it into the same clay bowl she used earlier. Sarah then poured all that remains of the vodka into the soot, causing wisps of black dust to rise. She immediately turned to the side, covered her face and nose with one hand and sneezed.
“Sorry” she said.
Emhyr did not reply. He was deep in thought, constructing the message in his head while moving the side-table before him.
Satisfied that she did a good job with the ink mix, Sarah picks the bowl and puts it down on the table. Emhyr already had the paper and quill ready. He dips the quill into the bowl: it sucks up enough of the crude ink and he began to write the header. He felt she was observing him.
“Sarah, I need you to give me some privacy-“he glanced up and the state of her face stopped the rest of his command. There were five large smudges on her face: four on her left cheek and one on the right side of her nose. He was wrong on one thing: she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at her feet.
Emhyr cleared his throat, frowning. “I wish to compose my message in private. Please step outside for a moment.”
“As you wish, sire.”
She reached for the door.
She turns around immediately.
Emhyr attention was rooted to the paper and the quill made sharp scratching sounds against it. He dips it into the ink.
“Wash your face again. I want my messenger- at least-to look clean, if not presentable”
She touched her face, planting four more black fingerprints next to the existing ones, and she glanced at her hand. She noticed the soot on her fingers – some partially covering her palm and realized she just soiled her face- again. Flustered, embarrassed and red, she quickly mutters “O-of course, sire. At once!” before exiting the hut.
Emhyr wrote more instructions on the paper then paused to dip the quill in the ink. He writes the next line. He hears the sound of splashing water outside the hut.
Sarah took deep breaths to calm her anxious heart as well as ease the nausea roiling in her gut. This was outside of her comfort zone. The last time she was surrounded by people was at the Novigrad exhibit, but even there she was comfortably isolated.
Now she’s about to enter an army garrison full of Nilfgaardian soldiers. Being in the midst of a crowd gave her the cold sweats. She did not volunteer to be his majesty’s messenger: she was pressed into his service.
She walked towards the camp. Each step felt like a second heartbeat synching with the primary.
They did not react yet. It was only when they realize that she was walking straight towards the camp, and not deviating, that they straightened up. The arbalists pointed their crossbows at her while the halberdiers on both side of the entrance crossed their weapons menacingly.
‘This garrison is off limits to civilians!” Right Sentry said, using the Nilfgaardian tongue.
“I-I bring a message to the garrison commander from His Imperial Majesty!” Sarah stammered nervously, using a mix of elder speech and the Nlfgaardian tongue and was thankful she studied it in the past, even if she was unable to complete the course. She even got a bit of an accent in: it’s effect was ruined by her shaky vocal chords.
The sentries looked at each other and spoke rapidly in their tongue that Sarah could only make out a phrase or two. Something about “questioning” and “spy”. Right Sentry glanced at her, sizing her up, nodded to his partner, and signaled for the arbalists to lower their weapons.
Left Sentry addressed her.
“I will take you to see our Field Marshall. Follow me.”
Sarah was flanked by another from behind and an arbalist with a crossbow pointing on the ground, ready to swing in position if she made a false move. She was right in leaving her weapons with his imperial majesty. If her home defense failed to repel unwanted visitors, at least he could protect himself. Had she took her dagger and crossbow, the guards might treat her with hostility.
Sarah walked with her armed escorts. Inside, the camp was bustling with activity and order. So much for believing those horror stories about soldiers and the lack of diversions. They were far from idle.
To her left were soldiers grooming their own mounts while discussing matters which were not her concern. To the right were the tents of the army, all organized in neat columns. Behind the tents was the mess hall, currently empty as most of the soldiers are either cleaning their swords, practicing on hay-stuffed dummies, or gathered around a campfire, sharing stories and gossip.
She mused; even the most disciplined soldier can’t resist a good intrigue. Everywhere, she could see them giving her a cursory glance, even those faces hidden under a visor.
Not even the grating sounds of whetstones scraping the dullness off their blades can mask their conversation.
“I can’t wait to be promoted to commander and have my own base. I just hope it’s in Alosha. They got cleaner whores at the cheap.”
The speaker was looking at her. She quickly turned away, pretending she didn’t hear that.
Sarah’s heart pounded heavily she could feel the thumping in her ears. Somewhere in the back, the rest of the army were doing their drills. Their shouts in unison carried by the wind scaring the birds and bandits alike.
They approached the largest tent set at the rear of the encampment. There were two columns of heavy knights flanking the entrance. By the looks of their armor, they differ from the soldiers of the garrison. Sarah heard her escort mumble “Alba Division”.
The Field Marshalls’ tent flap was open, inside were two men standing opposite each other, having a serious conversation. The Field Marshall wore a chainmail coif over his head and the standard black and gold armor of the heavy infantry. The man on the right, however, was dressed in a dark brown leather surcoat with two rows of steel studs like half-moons on his shoulders: ruffled gray sleeves covered his arms. Below his white ruff collar he wore a heavy gold chain necklace which hung a nine point star within a flame, inside a pyramid, centered on the sun emblazoned on his coat. Above it is a head with dark blonde hair, and skin so pale the red on his cheeks stood out like a woman’s rouge as well as the freckles on his forehead, and his lips were the deep pink a woman would envy.
A man of significant importance, Sarah thought. The only armor he wore over his robes are black steel gauntlets with gold segments around the finger joints.
Her soldier escort turned around to face her, raised a hand “wait here”, and then took two steps inside the tent.
“General Voorhis… Field Marshall… There’s a woman who claims she has a message from His Imperial Majesty!”
The remarkable man with the heavy necklace looked at the soldier, raising a suspicious eyebrow. He has a bored look that appears to be his natural state. Sarah filed the name in her head: General Voorhis.
“Really? A message from the Emperor?” he drawled, turned to the Field Marshall of the garrison. “I shall take this one. See to it that we are not disturbed.”
The Field Marshall nodded and gestured to the guards within the tent to follow him. Sarah’s escort beckoned her to enter, and when she took a step inside, everyone left, closing the tent flap behind her.
General Voorhis motioned for her to sit on the chair across the large table which displays a map of the empire and stacks of forms beside it- weighed down with an ornamental rock. The elegant man took the straight backed chair of the Field Marshall. The seat was slightly elevated, making the guest on the opposite side look and feel small.
“I am Morvran Voorhis, General and Commander of the Alba Division. And to whom am I speaking?” He said while looking at her with his pale blue eyes. Unlike the emperor’s hawkish aquiline nose, General Voorhis’s resembled the slopes of the Dragon Mountains, smooth going down with a dented side.
Courteous, young and arrogant, she thought. If it wasn’t for his premature receding hairline, she might’ve mistaken him for a man in his forties. He obviously knows he is in a seat of power and is oozing with authority judging by the tone of his voice: a tone she immediately distrusted. But then, aren’t all pureblood Nilfgaardians arrogant in their superiority?
Sarah cleared her throat. “Im Sarah, and Im a civ-… uhh... Forgive me my lord; can we converse in the Common Speech?”
Morvran leaned back, brows raised in surprise, and then he grinned. Her language lacked the inflection common among Nilfgaardians.
“So… Elder speech to expedite your entry to this garrison. Very clever.”
His common speech was excellent even with his heavy Nilfgaardian accent and drawl. “I would’ve assumed you to be a spy, but then you’d make a poor spy if you can’t pretend to speak like a… provincial.”
He cocked his head, noticing that Sarah was not only fetchingly attractive for a forest dweller even with her filthy appearance, but was wringing her hands on her lap.
“Relax, you are in safe company.”
There was no hint of mockery in his voice and he sounded reassuring.
Sarah cleared her throat again and exhaled slowly. “I… I’ve been isolated for years. Crowds make me nervous, especially armed ones”
“Ah… it can do that to a man. Or woman. Have no fear, you are among civilized folk and we judge people by their merits and intelligence over appearances. You clearly have both.”
He rapped the desk with his gauntleted hand and went down to the business of interrogation.
“You truly know where Emperor Emhyr Var Emreis is?”
”Yes, my lord. And I have this letter“ she handed him the rolled paper tucked in the waistband of her skirt. It was tied with one of her clean bandages. Morvran hid his amusement very well and proceeded to unravel the knot, unrolled the parchment and read its contents with his eyes.
To the Garrison Commander of Geso,
I am safe and this woman, who is known only as Sarah, acts as my temporary emissary. She will lead you to my location. Bring a small escort unit on horseback to take me to the barracks for a brief respite and meeting before returning to the capital. Pertinent information will be revealed in Nilfgaard.
Till then, no harm must come to Sarah.
That was it…
Morvran looks up from the letter, chewed the inside of his cheek and reading the hidden information between the lines while looking at her. He spoke.
”What is your name, milady?”
He gave a thoughtful nod. That confirms one part of the communiqué.
“How did you come about meeting the Emperor?”
“He was unconscious outside my hut.”
Hut, not house or home. A vagabond.
“Hmm, this will be difficult, given that our intel mentioned he broke his leg fleeing from his captors. I’ll have someone fetch a carriage.”
Sarahs brow furrowed, confused. “No, that’s not right. His Imperial Majesty did not have a broken leg, but sustained a fatal sword wound on his right arm.”
Morvran raised both hands in a placating gesture and smiled. “Do not be angry, milady. I was just testing the authenticity of your claim. Its standard operation procedure to weed out spies and frauds. Anyone could’ve picked this letter on the way here, claiming to be his Imperial Majesty’s emissary.”
The General said only what is necessary to the public. Everything else is classified.
Morvrans’ men have captured the mercenaries paid to kill the Emperor. The Imperial spy corps shadowed representatives of individuals who were involved in the plot. They waited for the opportune moment, and it came when they were caught in the act of exchanging purses: the mercenaries bargaining for more coin for the men they lost against their fight with the emperors’ personal guards. A fight ensued, and the survivors were locked in the dungeons for interrogation before carting them off to the Millenium Square. During interrogation, the surviving mercenary by the name of Alcide revealed that the Emperor escaped, and that the body they buried in Nazair was some decapitated dirt farmer dressed in the Emperor’s armor. But no names were given other that what the spy corp knows. The emperor might shed a light on that mystery, and possibly reprimand Vattier, again, for sloppy intelligence gathering.
“At any rate” he got up and walked around the table, towering over her with his hands on his back. “The letter is definitely in the Emperor’s hand.”
He can tell the emperor wrote it just by his script?
General Voorhis did not expound on this either. When Emhyr sends a written communication with the utmost secrecy, he used a signature only his inner circle would recognize. The letter itself is barebones with not a mention of his name or title, lest the message falls into enemy hands. Letters and correspondences to royals bear his stamp and familiar signature. Any other communication, including missives receives only a stamp.
“I shall ride with a small contingency with you to escort the Emperor. Kindly indicate on this map the location, Lady Sarah.”
She sighs heavily, rose and pointed at the spot on the map.
She just gave away her location… and gave up her solitude.
A small light cavalry unit consisting of two dozen men, including six arbalests, Morvran Voorhis and Sarah- who is sitting behind one of the arbalist- stopped just outside the forest hut. They also took with them an unmounted warhorse for the Emperor. Movran dismounted and approached Sarah, taking her by the hand and helping her dismount while signaling the men to take up defensive positions around the hut.
Satisfied that the perimeter is secured, Morvran gave Sarah a nod.
She walked and knocked on the door.
“Your Imperial Majesty, General Voorhis is here with your escort.”
The door opened. At the sight of Emhyr Var Emreis, the escorts kneeled along with General Voorhis. Emhyr glanced at Sarah and gave her an approving nod.
“Well done, girl.”
Sarah bowed low immediately to hide the blush blooming on her cheeks. Emhyr shaved his beard stubble while she was gone. Despite the torn sleeve and wrinkled doublet, Emhyr looked every bit the emperor in the painting.
“Your Imperial Majesty” Morvran approached and bends the knee once more. “We are pleased to see you safe and sound.”
“I see you taking this matter into your own hands, General” Emhyr replied.
“We have dealt with the criminals responsible for your abduction, in Nazair sire. The surviving prisoners await your judgment. The Field Marshall’s tent has been prepared with food, bath and a private room before your return to the capital.”
“Good, good. But first, I need to speak to my emissary.”
Morvran got on his feet and walked towards his mount.
Emhyr turned to Sarah who waited behind him, head still lowered.
“I thank you for your service, Sarah.”
“You’re welcome, sire.”
“What will you do now?”
Sarah glanced at him then quickly lowered her eyes again. She framed her answer carefully.
“I will resume my journey north, sire. This place has been compromised.”
“My army will ensure your safety.”
“I am grateful, sire. But I value my solitude.”
“I see” He paused for a moment; bit his lip, thinking.
She doesn’t belong here in the wilds.
He imagined her as a rare and beautiful orchid wasting away in the damp and darkness, and every flower needs fertile ground and sunlight.
She should be flourishing instead of wilting in the middle of nowhere.
He squared his shoulders and said-
“Come with me to Nilfgaard. You will be well taken care of for the rest of your natural life.”
The escorts were subtly glancing at each other: it wasn’t uncommon for the emperor to be generous to those who serve him, but extending that generosity to a commoner and an outsider? It was a rare display of kindness of this magnitude.
Emhyr knows his men views this as an imperial magnanimity. But to him, it was an escape: freedom from debts of gratitude. The last time he was this generous cost him his heir. There was not a single day that he did not regret that decision.
Surely she wouldn’t refuse? No more wandering from one ramshackle hut to another. No more wondering where she’d get her next meal. She’ll have a servant or two at her beck and call.
Sarah’s answer surprised him.
“I am honored by your kindness and generosity, sire. To refuse it, is foolish and fatally disrespectful. Please pardon my foolishness …” she raised her head, but maintained looking at the ground.
“I must respectfully decline.”
Emhyr blinked. Even Morvran was nonplussed. The emperor did not expect a refusal, even if it was delivered courteously. His escorts looked at each other again; their bewilderment hidden in the shadows of their visors. They also felt affronted by her reply. If the emperor gave them that offer, they would be down on their knees kissing his boots while swearing their fealty to him hundred fold.
It was awhile before Emhyr overcame his disbelief.
“Are you sure? The offer still stands.”
“I am sure”
She did not even hesitate.
Emhyr hid his exasperation well. Not even a tic of an eye nor an edge in his tone.
Turned down by an unwashed peasant!
Emhyr glanced at Voorhis. “Do you have coin on your person?”
“A hundred florins worth, your Imperial Majesty”
“Give them to her. The Imperial Treasury will reimburse you.”
Sarah raised her hands. “Sire, please I do not need any rew-“
“Just take it” Emhyr interrupted, losing his cool.
Sarah recoiled as if stung, the coin pouch gripped in the emperor’s fist at arms’ length. Sarah immediately took a step back, head still lowered.
Emhyr gritted his teeth looking away. He knew he was making a scene and could sense the soldiers’ discomfort. He almost tossed the bag of coin at her feet. She saved his life. At the very least he could show some decency. Emhyr took a deep breath, exhaled through his nose and said calmly.
“Take this Sarah. It’s a token of my gratitude”
Sarah glanced at him. He gave her a nod and mustered a smile to mask his impatience.
Sarah took two steps and, rather than take the coin, she open her palms together with her eyes to the ground like a supplicant.
“Thank you, your Imperial Majesty.” The coin pouch clinked on her hands. Without looking at him, she added softly that only he could hear.
“Have a safe journey, sire.”
He grimaced. Sarah’s remained looking at the ground, depriving him of the last chance to glimpse her peculiar eyes. He reached out and raised her chin.
The action surprised Sarah, her eyes grew the size of a ten floren. Emhyr noticed streaks of dirt on her face, marring her fair complexion. Probably from brushing against tall grasses and low hanging branches, he thought.
The way he gazed at her made her want to squirm, but she stood stiff as a statue, her cheeks tomato red. He lets her go and did one of his exasperated exhales.
“You should take better care of your face, Sarah.”
“I-I’ll take that advice into heart, your Imperial Majesty.” Sarah replied, self-consciously wiping her cheek with the back of her hand. The streaks of dirt became smudges.
He turned to his men. “We are leaving” then back to Sarah.
“Farewell, Your Imperial Majesty”
She watches the emperor, Morvran, and his escorts gallop away. At a considerable distance Emhyr var Emreis, Imperator of Nilfgaard glanced back. He saw- before the thick forest blocked her from his sight- Sarah standing with the coin pouch on her hands.
She was smiling at him.
Sorry for the long wait. I was juggling job, social media and editing screenshots and hardly have the time to rest, let alone re-write and proof-read. This chapter is a combination of two, and given the long wait period, I think, dear readers, deserve a lengthy chapter.
Chapter 7: The Vagabond of the North
After the events that made her decide to leave Mirrah, Sarah head towards the North in search for a place to call home.
We get to learn a bit more of Sarah's past. She also makes good use of the reward money she received from the emperor.
Sarah’s journey to Dol Blathanna, an elven duchy whose queen swore fealty to the empire at the end of the Third War, felt like a monumental waste of time. Though the lush and green valley’s where everything –and anything- grows and prosper was a sight to behold, it did little to lift her spirits.
Of all the lands in this world, she expected this last frontier to yield all manner of plant life. From anything agricultural, wild and things that sprout up or down- even weeds. But no little whisper.
Little Whisper- Beagtuathe in the Elder Speech. According to elven legends, little whispers sprouted when the blood of the Aen Seidhe soaked the lands during the wars and pogroms–represents their dying breaths. When human settlers took the land, farmers took the little whispers- regarded as nothing more than weeds- ripped them and fed them to their cattle or worse, burned them together with the chaff.
She has always been fascinated by the Elder Race, elves in particular. They have so much to teach humans about this world: medicine, history, and their way of life. But instead, mutual distrust drove both races to kill each other. Sarah was one of the few who wanted to learn about the elves, which made her an oddball student in a room full of academics who’d readily blame every malady or disaster to the fae folk.
The contents of her travel sack clinked and rustle as she adjusted the rope strap on her shoulder. In it were packets of seeds, bunches of fresh and dried herbs, tubers wrapped in paper and her bottles of oils. She even carried some exotic medicaments that could fetch a good price at any apothecary shop- provided they still remember their names. But her prized find is the little whisper shoot she found many years ago which grew on the river’s edge called the Ribbon, bordering the forest of Brokilon: home of the dryads infamous for their indiscriminate shooting of any human regardless of gender, age and station.
She recalled the warning bells ringing in her head seeing the obvious human bones scattered a few feet outside the border. Raising her hands in surrender, she spoke in Elder Speech conveying to the forest dryads that she only wants the little weed by the river, and she will not cross it. There was no reply to confirm that she was heard, but there was no arrow shot from the deep forest either. She took it as a sign. Sarah bent and carefully scooped the precious herb into one of her wooden jars, wrapping the container several times over with sheepskin, and promptly fled before the dryads decided to fire a warning shot.
She was able to make the shoot grow and thrive during her stay in the swamps of Velen, in one of the long abandoned villages. The damp was hospitable to the precious herb, prized for its many restorative uses. In her academic years in Oxenfurt, she came upon a book written by an elf, about plant species that went into extinction- or heading to one. Beagtuathe was one of them. Learning of its history, she visited areas where elves died, even the local necropolis. Nothing. Little Whisper was culled to extinction.
It was a great loss for medicine. Still, she read all she can about the extinct plant’s properties: its scent wipes away days of weariness in the body, purifies the air, and clears the lungs and bronchial tubes of any obstruction. Oils and extracts from beagtuathe stems and roots applied to wounds eliminate almost all known and unknown infections. Its regenerative properties excite the cells to create tissue patching the cut faster and safer than any medical means. All were proven correct when she treated the emperor.
Damn, I should’ve written it all down! If I’ll stop by at a village market, I’m going to buy a quill, ink and a journal. I have the funds now.
The thought of the emperor snapped her out of her reverie.
She is presently in Dol Blathanna, not Velen and certainly not in Oxenfurt: no longer a robed student reading about the world in the library. She was in a small farming village aptly called Hollyhocks. Although she has access to books no longer, the world is now one big library with knowledge learned firsthand.
Sarah waited until the farmers retire for the night- and waited some more for it to get late enough for the night watch to leave to the local tavern before sneaking into the closest tilled land. Among the cabbage patches, she got down on her knees and deposited her bundle on the ground. Hanging on her hip is a small cloth pouch with the little whisper peeking from its opening- like a bushy green head under the sheets. She loosened the string and took out a slightly cracked clay pot, scooped out the lush little plant- careful not to harm the fragile roots and replace the exhausted soil with the rich earth. She replanted the little whisper and returned the clay pot back on its cloth pouch, tied it to her left hip and hitched her bundle.
Before leaving, she flitted between crops of tomatoes and began picking a few ripe ones as well as some that were a tad green. By morning the farmhands will blame the rabbits and raccoons for the loss. She took a big bite off of one plump tomato. Its sweet and slightly sour juices tickled her tongue and dribbled down her chin. She closed her eyes, savoring the acidic yet tartly flavor. Fresh produce taste ten times better after a diet of dried nuts, wild berries and stale rye bread.
Sarah stealthily moved over to another field and began digging with her bare hands for carrots and turnips- putting them in her bag. She saw a few rabbits in the field doing the same thing: digging. A raccoon scampered past into the cabbage patch with a turnip in its clutches.
Satisfied with her vittles -a weeks’ worth at least, she thought- she stood up and shouldered the hefty sack behind her. A drop of sweat crawled down from her forehead to her cheek, triggering an itch and she instinctively raised her hand to wipe it off.
“You should take better care of your face, Sarah.”
She stopped and looked at her hands. It was filthy. Her fingernails were caked with Dol Blathanna dirt. She used her arm instead to wipe the moisture.
I wonder how he’s doing, she thought. To her reckoning, it’s been four months and a week since she left her one time home in Mirrah. He has occupied her thoughts ever since, still unable to comprehend that it happened. A vagabond giving medical attention to the most powerful man in the world.
She looks up at the twilight sky and its glittering jewels: a bright waxing crescent hung like a scythe.
She took a sharp breath, making her chest swell for a moment, and exhaled through her mouth. Another crescent night: the second this month. The first is always the worst. It’s the damn beacon: the reason why she couldn’t stay in one spot for long.
The image of the hut she abandoned came to her mind. It was the perfect spot: forest boughs were thick enough to hide the beacon. She would’ve eventually get use to the place and perhaps call it home one day… until he stumbled upon her abode.
What are the chances of her and the emperor meeting? Not even slim, just nonexistent!
But it almost happened… a long, long time a-
She quickly silenced that thought. The past is behind her and she needs to keep moving forward: figuratively and literally.
Sarah turned and walked away, leaving the rabbits and raccoons to their feast
It was finally pouring after several days and nights of humidity. Thunder rumbled like boulders rolling down the mountains and the rain drenched every unlucky soul immediately to the bone.
“Innkeep! Two more tankards and be quick about it!”
“Aye! Muriel, take these to those gents!” Lund the Innkeeper – a balding middle-aged man with a large gut stretching the dirty apron around his middle- and sole proprietor of the Silver Salmon heaved two large wooden tankards of beer frothing at the brim and placed them on the round tray without spilling so much as a drop. He added a bowl of salted nuts and waved the servant girl towards their intended recipients.
Muriel, a young, unmarried girl in her early thirties- an age menfolk considered too old for courtship- deftly carried the heavy beer-laden tray and weaved through tables and customers with ease. Even when she was playfully slapped on the rear, she did not yelp, scream or cry: she bends like a reed against the wind, preventing the drinks from spilling. Unlike the other serving wenches in the Silver Salmon, or all the taverns and ale houses in Temeria, she was accustomed to the crude flirting and the occasional groping- it comes with the job. But she heard from her cousins in Rinde- called Little Nlfgaard by some- that the serving wenches there are paid twice her wages with hardly the inconveniences that comes with the job. Also, they are strictly told to come to work bathed and perfumed!
Muriel longed to, someday, move to Rinde, live with her cousins and replace the fragrance of eau de brewage for some notes of lavender and lemon.
The door chimes rang loudly, announcing the arrival of another customer.
Sarah came in shivering, looking like a drowned rat, a puddle forming on the floor where she stood. The inn momentarily became quiet. All eyes were on her, but more curious than threatening. Somewhere at the back, a drunken man laughed and began to exchange lewd comments with his two equally drunk companions.
After their initial curiosity is sated, everyone went back to their business.
Sarah hitched her sopping sack higher and walked straight towards the counter, trailing water with each step. Lund took a clean wooden mug and began to wipe the inside with a rag.
“Do you have a room available for the night?”
“Just one- the Silver Suite- and I doubt you have the coin to pay for it.” His eyes gave her a look over and the state of her garments screamed “pauper”.
Sarah did not bristle at his words. Instead she reached for the coin pouch securely tied to her right hip.
“How much, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Thirty Novigradian crowns, or sixty Temerian orens.”
The innkeeper grinned.
“Do you take Nilfgaardian florens?”
He stopped polishing the twice cleaned mug: his grin vanished like a puff of smoke.
This time it was Sarah who grinned. After Nilfgaards’ victory, the exchange rate of the floren went up: from the normal three Novigrad crowns or five Temerian orens, a Nilfgaardian floren is worth five Novigrad crowns or seven Temerian orens.
“You have imperial currency?”
“I do.” Sarah placed a ten floren on the counter. It glinted gold against the lamps. “This should be more than enough. Just for the night, and I want the dinner special brought up to my room. Water instead of beer, but if the cook can brew me some tea, I’ll be grateful.”
It was a few moments before Lund found his voice. “Where did you come up with imperil coin?”
“A… Black One paid me, generously.” A glimmer of smile raised the corner of her lips at the memory of the emperor dropping the coin pouch on her upturned hands.
The innkeep also smiled.
She did not like the lopsided grin, or the way his eyes crinkled. Sarah leaned forward, her pleasant demeanor gone. The silver edges of her iris gleamed menacingly. She spoke, enunciating each word.
“I am not a whore.”
Lund was taken aback by the deep threatening tone of her voice. She may have come in looking like a drenched beggar but she has the air of a nobleman’s mistress.
“N-no miss, that’s not what I-“
Sarah slammed a three floren on the counter.
“Fifteen Novigradian crowns or twenty-one Temerian orens worth in Nilfgaardian florens, to ensure I will not be bothered by anything other than the delivery of my food, some extra towels and sheets.”
“R-Right away” Lund blubbered and waved at Muriel.
“Muriel! Take the esteemed lady into the suite!”
Sarah continued to stare daggers at him and Lund averted his eyes to the counter and picked up the mug to give it a third wiping. He finally sagged on the counter with relief when Muriel escorted Sarah to the suite.
Half an hour later Sarah was sitting on the small wooden table of her rented room wrapped in a clean cotton robe: a towel wrapped around her hair like a turban. The servant girl, Muriel, came back carrying her dinner: A bowl of hot corn pottage, beef and chicken sautéed in butter with cabbages and peppers, a large loaf of rye bread and a steaming cup of tea with honey. She momentarily set it aside to assess the damage the rain caused on her supplies. Thankfully all were salvageable and are drying on the floor. Her little whisper sat on the bedside table next to a lit candle while the coin pouch is safely hidden inside the drawer.
Her clothes are a lost cause, hanging on the screens and will take more than a night to dry. She has no plans to extend her stay beyond what she paid for. Sadly, she doesn’t have a spare change of clothing.
A knock on her door. “Miss?”
The waitress. Sarah opened the door and Muriel entered carrying a bundle of clothes in her arms. On her hands is a pair of cheap-looking leather shoes with thongs and a canvas bag.
Earlier, when Muriel brought in dinner, Sarah asked her for some clothes. Muriel was close to Sarah’s size though Muriel was a touch plump with a generous bosom. Muriel was hesitant at first but Sarah changed her mind when she offered to pay for them. Muriel eyes widened at the sight of two five floren coins in Sarah’s palm. It was more money than what her clothes are worth. Sarah added another five floren if Muriel could also provide her a pair of knickers, shoes, a hat and a bag for her belongings.
Muriel carefully placed the items on the bed. A simple peasant dress: not at the height of fashion for Temeria but at least they were clean and all the tears were mended.
Sarah looks at the off-white dress with a scooped neck. Thankfully the neckline and the waistband have strings that can be adjusted to fit. Two clean knickers that needed minor alterations so they won’t slip as she walks, sturdy- looking cheap shoes, and a bag big enough for a traveling merchant.
“You might need this too.” Muriel handed her a small sewing kit: a cloth purse containing a single needle and a spool of white thread.
“Good thinking” Sarah took the kit and gave Muriel three five florens. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you Miss.” Muriel gave her several grateful bows- excited at the possibility of moving to Rinde at last- before she left and closed the door behind her.
Sarah bolted the door and sat at the table to eat her dinner, savoring the rich flavors of seasoned meats and spices, knowing that this indulgence won’t last forever and as soon as she’s back on the road, its nuts, berries and other wild edibles.
After dinner, she moved the dress and bag to the desk and busied herself with sewing the knickers, adjusting it to her size then wore one. Then she plops on the bed. The cushions, pillows and sheets were so soft and luxurious that she started moving her arms and legs in a slithering motion, giggling to herself before she stretched and sighed in contentment. Enjoy this brief moment of luxury while she could still afford it.
She reached over the bedside table for the simple hand mirror. Sarah sat up and looked at the face staring back at her. The contented smile slowly disappeared.
The rain washed away the accumulated dirt from her travels but it was not the clean state of her face that she focused on. It was her eyes of green and silver- not gray-green or greenish gray. When she was a child, her mother told her she inherited her eyes from her father, who has green eyes, but not the silver. Probably from an ancestor.
She has no memory of her father except that he died in the war.
It even has a medical term: heterochromia iridium. Two colors of varying sizes in one iris or both, sometimes one iris is a different color from the other.
Hers is unique: two colors on both irises, one on top of the other, both symmetrical. The emerald hue slightly smaller than the gray, making her eyes look like it’s encircled in silver. The medical examiner in Oxenfurt surprised her because he was not all that surprised, even if he admitted that her condition is extremely rare. It was just a unique physical trait, which has been documented many times over: like double jointed thumbs or albinism. Her green and silver eyes gave her a perpetual cold stare that’s more prominent when she isn’t smiling, and in her academic life she rarely smiled. She stared at the mirror image of her eyes, trying to discern its secrets. But the mirror only reflected the obvious: forest green over silver gray. She placed the mirror back on the table face down. She looks out the window, watching the heavy rain drape the world in a thick wet glassy curtain and began to assess her life.
She’s been on the road since she turned twenty-six. She used to mark the years she spent wandering until she lost track of time and dates. Only the changing colors of the foliage helped her identify the seasons. She couldn’t even tell her true age anymore.
Sarah reached for the tallow candle and snuffed the flame.
When morning comes, rain or shine, it’s back to wandering. She’ll continue to walk this path until the day she finds a place she can call home.
Chapter 8: The Land of the Great Sun
Lost and in need to find shelter quick, as winter is slowly approaching, Sarah finds herself going deeper into unknown territory, She meets a familiar face and learns of a grave situation.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Condwiramurs unrolled the large, antique map of the Continent on the space she cleared on the table.
“She took a barge, you say” Nimue spoke next to the oneiromancer.
“That’s what I dreamt last night” Condwiramurs traced Sarah’s path on the map with her index finger, speaking to the diminutive sorceress without looking up. “From the port of Cidaris to the Great Sea, stopping at the port area of Salm, and from there Sarah went around Gemerra and into Etolia on foot.”
Nimue rested her chin on her knuckles with a thoughtful expression on her serene face.
“Our wildflower was headed to Povis for the winter. Instead she got aboard the wrong ship, sending her ever southwards. Bad luck or… Fate?” Nimue directed an amused grin at the spoken words.
“I doubt she gave it a passing thought” Condwiramurs glanced at Nimue. “Winter is approaching and she has to look for shelter fast.”
Sarah was geared like a proper adventurer.
She was able to stock up as much supplies as she can carry-thanks to the Nilfgaardian florens purchasing power - even bought a sturdier pack to carry all her vittles: salted meat jerkies, hardtacks, dried fruits and nuts, a jar of honey, hard cheeses, pickled gherkins and wheat biscuits- along with some extra clothes, a small iron pot, tinderbox, bottles of alcohol, charcoal sticks and a small journal. The items she collected throughout her travels were safely secured in a small wooden box in one of the pockets of the pack. Her little whisper pot still on its canvas pouch hanging on her hip.
She knew she was burning through her funds faster than a moths’ wing catching fire, and she was not the least bit worried. She has survived the years with not a single copper to her name.
Carrying the pack on her back, she paid for a barge to take her to Povis, leaving her with six florens in her coin pouch. She was not the only one going to warmer places for the winter. The port was crawling with other passengers waiting for the ships. She was caught in the crush and climb aboard the barge. Unfortunately, in the rush, she realized her error when the ship sailed in the wrong direction.
Instead of looking forward to a warm, balmy winter in Povis, she was in Salm, near Ebbing: A vassal of the empire and an unfamiliar land. It is the farthest she has ever gotten, and she has no idea where to go from here.
Where do I go from here, she thought, brows meeting with worry. If this was any other season, she’d take the time scoping the lands while looking for habitable spots. But, day by day, the air got a bit more cooler-chilling her to the bone, even when dressed for warmth, and the trees were shedding their foliage, looking more and more withered and skeletal.
Sightseeing was out of the question.
Hitching her pack, she left the port and stepped further into unfamiliar territory.
Another month passed since she left Salm and Ebbing. The uneven gravel tore a new hole in her shoe. Her once pristine clothes were less so, her alabaster skin was dulled by dust, and it itches! She cursed herself for not having the foresight to purchase a map, or a compass. And looking up at the night sky, she lamented that she did not learn basic astronomy so she could identify the stars. She knows of the North Star that never changes direction, but there were also false stars that beguiles travelers. She couldn’t rely on luck and chance. Instead she followed a river in vain hopes that it would lead her to Geso. If she spots the Nilfgaardian garrison, then she can easily return to the abandoned hut in the heart of Mirrah- provided that no one occupied it in her absence.
Despite the discomfort of having dry skin due to the cooling air, a bath was at the bottom of her priorities. Rains are getting colder, the waters icy, and she still hasn’t found a place to winter. She regretted burning through her funds. Six florens could pay rent for a month or two in the North, but in Nilfgaardian territory, it wouldn’t even pay for a days’ rent in the stables.
And with each day of not finding a hut, forest camp or even unoccupied caves spacious enough to hunker down for the winter, she has no other choice but to find the nearest human settlement and offer her services as a servant in exchange for food, room and board.
She did not like that idea and she held off entertaining it. Maybe if it was the home of someone she knew then she could be open to the idea.
Who do I know?
But as her pack became lighter, using up vittles that is supposed to last her for the winter, the thought of being someone’s servant in exchange for food and a warm nook next to the dying embers of a hearth sounded more and more enticing.
Better than freezing her derriere in the cold.
The sound of the gurgling river broke through her troubled thoughts. Perhaps a quick dip? No, the river is busy with activity. Ships and barges passed her by carrying with it the stink of freshly caught fish. The river led to a large city port. The largest she has ever seen. She found herself looking at the ships masts.
Black masts that bore a golden sun.
She’s been following the Alba.
And beyond, framed by the rays of the rising sun, is the city of a Thousand Golden Towers.
Her feet have taken her ever deeper than she thought possible
Va vort bu’rac!
Nordlingaens erre allaidh!
She wasn’t endearing herself to the masses.
Her dirty white peasant clothes were dirty brown, her face smeared, and her hair an unkempt mess of curls- the city beggars looked cleaner than her.
A man wearing a fine gray and black coat took out a white kerchief, covered his nose and mumbled something to his companion- also covering his nose but with a gloved hand- and Sarah could make out what they were saying.
She smells like a nordlings’ armpit. This was followed by laughter and further distance.
To prove their point, flies were buzzing around her and she absentmindedly waved the ones in front of her face.
Sarah couldn’t stop her jaw from falling off the floor. Like any tourist on their first time into a foreign country, she was mesmerized by the sight of something new. She walked the marbled streets. Marble! The City of Nilfgaard is the epitome of wealth, prosperity, commerce and discipline. Indeed, a civilized and modern land. It made Sarah feel as insignificant as the insects flying above her hair.
She finally bought a map, leaving her with only a floren left. Here, money is money, even if the hand giving it is filthy. Her last floren could buy her two fritters. She debated on buying the fritters- her stomach was clamoring for them.
She turned the coin on her hand.
She decided she did not want to part with her last floren. Instead, she stuffed it in the canvas pouch with the little whisper.
Armored soldiers were aplenty, ensuring law and order is observed. People were coming and going ignoring the confused looking girl in filthy rags carrying a pile of rubbish on her back, most were giving her a wide berth. The rich folks looked offended by her presence.
The main square is crowded with merchants and buyers alike, plying all sorts of wares and all around, banners and flags of the great sun are hung on every shop, house, and streetlamp.
“Get out of here! You’re scaring away my customers!” yelled a disgruntled produce merchant while buyers scowled at her, pinching their upturned noses. Sarah promptly scuttled away.
Her feet led her to the Victory Square. Elegant mansions and high end shops were prominent in this part of the city. Passing nobles were affronted by her presence, speaking in Nilfgaardian about summoning the guards to drag her back to the poorer districts.
Sarah quickened her pace.
She heard a familiar voice. A man in gray and gold, no escort, was talking with a servant at the threshold of one of the mansions, whom he quickly dismissed as soon as the discussion was concluded.
Sarah was suddenly conscious of her looks. She spotted a stone water fountain in the shape of a giant clam spewing water from the stone pearl. Sarah scoops up the water pooling on the basin and began to wash her face, noticing too late that the water hasn’t been changed: it smelled like pond scum.
Morvran searched for the voice calling out to him and saw Sarah waving as she approached. His brows drew together as it took a moment for recognition to dawn on his bored face.
“Sarah! It’s a pleasure to see you -“ his jovial demeanor slowly meted into a look of disapproval: he recoiled at the sight of her “and looking filthier than the first time we met.”
Sarah feeling embarrassed, shooed a fly that hovered in front of her eyes. “I know a bath is long overd-“
“Nevermind that,” he interrupted her with a gesture. He walked with her while keeping his distance. Morvran sneezed, took out a perfumed monogrammed kerchief and covered his prominent nose. Sarah stared at her feet. If she was blushing, the dirt hid it.
“Apologies milady, but sad to say you reek. What brings you here finally?”
“Nothing, General. I just found myself walking towards Nilfgaard” she said, taking in the view and sighed. “The city is a marvel!”
“It truly is” he nodded. “A tour of the city is in order, but I have people to see and audiences to attend. If you are staying at any of the inns, have them send a message to me to pick you up for that sightseeing.”
He gave her a cordial bow and turned.
Morvran stopped and glanced over his shoulder.
Here is a person she knew only for a few hours. Perhaps he could help her.
Sarah took a deep breath. “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t planning on even travelling this part of the world. Through sheer misfortune, I am stranded here and winter is approaching. I am wondering if you- or anyone you know- would be willing to hire me as a servant- at least for the winter.” She added, ashamed that she is resorting to this desperation. Even her voice sounded softly pleading.
“You need a place to stay?” He stared through narrowed eyes.
“Only for the winter and not for free of course” she quickly clarified. “I’ll work as a servant, do chores, and tend to animals in exchange for food and lodging.
Morvran bit his lip. Sarah could imagine the wheels and cogs in his head turning, weighing her offer. She resisted the urge to wring her hands and instead grasped the straps of her pack. Her white knuckles stood prominently against her sullied skin.
Morvran glanced both ways to ensure no one is eavesdropping, moves closer to the walking dust-cloud whose hair looks like balls of yarn after a playful cat had its way with it. He sneezed into his kerchief.
“I think we can put your wisdom and expertise to better use other than simple menial labor.”
Two Days Ago
The light has become unbearable to Emhyr these past few days. Despite the heavy curtains filtering most of the noon glare, the subdued brightness still hurts his eyes. His body refuses to obey his mental commands. Even the simplest task of opening his eyes made him tired. And that was most of the time. His bones ache. His muscles felt tender and lack the strength to support him.
His mind, however, remained sharp and aware.
He is very much aware that he is dying.
Is this what it feels like to be trapped in your own body while the mind takes in the experience?
It’ll be only a matter of days till a new emperor is declared by the nobles and the Trade Corporation when confirmation of his death is announced.
He refused to surrender to the inevitable, yet he is unable to rise from sinking deeper and deeper into the darkness.
His doctors were hopeless dolts. At first they conjectured it’s just simple exhaustion, a common body ailment due to age. Their diagnoses were proven false as their treatments did not work- it only made him feel worse. By the time they figured out what was wrong with him, it was too late.
He had Vattier investigate the doctors and their kin thoroughly. No telling if they participated with the conspirators.
As days passed and most of it were spent lying in bed, his mind slowly gave in to the idea of death, and the peace that came within it’s cold embrace.
No more burden of responsibility. The weight of his office will be shouldered by his successor.
He can finally rest.
Let someone else deal with the problems of the empire if they think they are better at it than him!
He lamented that he delayed announcing publicly who will succeed him. His ideal successor, Cirilla, didn’t want anything to do with him- or the empire- and is busy playing at being a witcher.
Whenever he is truly alone with no ears or listening devices present -his bedchamber is free from surveillance: he made sure of that- Emhyr succumbs into deep internal reflections.
He thought again of Cirilla.
He wasn’t hurt that she didn’t consider giving his offer a chance, it was the fact that she has never forgiven him for all the necessary wrongs he has visited upon her. They were too dark, too deep that the light of reconciliation didn’t reach.
He failed to redeem himself in his daughters’ eyes… it pained him like a stiletto lodged in his heart. When he dies, he will forever carry her hatred of him in the great beyond.
He hopes that whoever takes his place will not bungle his job. Voorhis was his second choice. He had prepared the possibility of abdicating the throne to one of the noble houses and Voorhis was the obvious contender, even had it in writing (in the presence of a few witnesses) and handed his last will and testament to his adjutant, executor, and the tribunal to be read upon his untimely demise in the absence of a public proclamation. Young Voorhis is fit for the job in terms of blood and experience. That, at least, is something he and the noble houses agree.
But the opposition couldn’t wait. They wanted him out sooner rather than later. And they’ve become cleverer. He had to give them credit for getting this far into sinking their daggers on his back. The perpetrators may have been caught, their plans uncovered, but they achieved their goal. Now it’s just a matter of time.
His memory, against his will, paraded faces of his past. His father Fergus, shrewd and uncompromising, refused to surrender when the usurper’s mage Braathens turned him, Emhyr, into a monster.
Fergus dissolved and turned into the face of Pavetta. She who loved him despite his hideous form, and he… well… he wasn’t a model husband.
He tried to remember his daughter’s face. His memory conjured her big green eyes.
Eyes akin to the emerald depths of the Alba, the light of the sun dancing on its’ surface. Eyes with silver rings coyly looking at him from behind long ebony lashes. Stormy ebony curls that cascaded on alabaster shoulders in a frenzy of tumbling surfs.
A smile to outshine the sun.
By Ard Feainn, Im waxing poetry while in deaths bed!
His courtiers were baffled upon learning how he survived the last assassination attempt with the help of a forest recluse.
I wish to see her eyes again.
I only knew her briefly yet her image refused to leave my head.
His hand, weak and frail, struggled to rise. The faint pink line on his palm extending to his elbow stood out against his gray skin.
That girl… she spurned my offer.
I can’t even persuade a peasant to a life of luxury. Such an ordinary name for one with extraordinary eyes… Sarah.
Emhyr closed his eyes, sinking into the darkness.
Finally got the time to sit down and re-write this chapter. Been busy with work, and acquiring supplies for Morvran the Hamster to keep him entertained. Anyway, this chapter was a doozy to re-write: it was mostly a lot of exposition and went straight to telling what is going on with the emperor. Fortunately, listening to The Last Unicorns' Walking Mans' Road helped with the mood.
Chapter 9: Stoking a Dying Flame
Sarah was brought into the imperial residence, vouched by General Morvran Voorhis. She is introduced to the chamberlain, Mererid, who informed her of the plot that was carried out successfully against Emperor Emhyr. And so she met the emperor again, and again in the worst circumstance.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It was late afternoon when Sarah was allowed entry to the palace. Even with the general vouching for her, Chamberlain Mererid, despite the need for urgency, refused her audience with the emperor unless she was thoroughly bathed and properly dressed. She did not protest. Arguing would waste more time and she was itching- literally- for a bath anyway.
Sarah was shown into a room with a large brass tub complete with soap, scrubs, towels, and two chambermaids. They scrubbed her thoroughly, vigorously, hell- bent on their task to turn this disgusting nordling bu’rac into a civilized member of modern society. They poured buckets of rose scented water on her head to wash the suds.
Chamberlain Mererid came in unannounced. Sarah quickly sank deeper into the tub to cover her nakedness, pushing out sudsy water to splash on the floor, much to the amusement of the servants. The Chamberlain ignored the indignant scowl and appears to be immune to shame or embarrassment at seeing a naked woman. Instead, he made swift gestures with one hand, and the servants immediately acted upon it.
They wrapped her in a towel. Still dripping, she was ushered behind the lattice screens to dry and dress-up. They provided her with an unadorned white servants dress, arm sleeves, hairnet and soft cloth slippers. The material-cotton- felt luxurious and she couldn’t stop her hands from caressing the fabric. The dress, simple as it may be, fitted her like a glove. She wondered briefly how they knew her measurements, and concluded that the palace employed servants of all shapes and sizes, thus a uniform is readily available.
The contents of her travel pack were laid on the long wooden desk. All were segregated, identified and inventoried. A single sheet of paper held down by an obsidian paperweight bore a list. Whoever did the inventory incorrectly identified her little whisper and a few of the herbs.
She chuckled. Amateurs.
Sarah finally came out of the room, looking adequately presentable, carrying the small chest containing her bottles and herbs, and the little whisper, on both hands. She told the chamberlain that, except for her paltry vittles, they are vital to the task set for her.
The chamberlain gave the filthy pack a disdainful sniff and ordered the servants to incinerate the rags she came with.
The hallway they walked was wide- about five men abreast- grand and felt like it extended forever. There were sentries on each door. Sarah felt their eyes following her and the chamberlain.
He was talking all the way, mostly about how to behave in front of the emperor. She must observe protocol and courtesy even in his weakened state. All of this talk of etiquette went from one ear and out the other. She couldn’t even be distracted by all the wealth and opulence around her.
Her mind was occupied with the conversation she had with General Voorhis:
Morvran Voorhis took an alternate route to the imperial residence, where the crowd is thinnest and he could converse with Sarah without raising his voice or requiring him to get closer to her. Still, he kept holding that perfumed kerchief to his nose, though not frequently.
“The palace? What purpose can I serve other than as a chambermaid?” Sarah asked, walking beside him at arm’s length.
“The palace has more than the required servants that even servants have servants” he grinned, then sniffed at the kerchief-again. “You have skills, Lady Sarah. How you saved the emperor from certain death, is not lost to us. Upon his return, Emperor Emhyr told us of his ordeal, and your involvement in his survival. Even showed the scar: an impressive one at that.”
“So I can patch a wound, any physician can do that. I just happen to be at the right place at the right time-“ she paused, going back to what he said about her saving the emperor. Her ears barely registered the ambient sounds, including the way their shoes scrapped the ground while walking.
“Are you saying the emperor is in danger?” she asked tentatively, feeling something cold settling in her stomach.
“Im afraid so.”
“How grievous the injury, if I may ask?”
“He is dying.”
That cold feeling in the pit of her stomach spread like icy fire from her toes to the crown of head.
“There is really no other way to soften the blow of this terrible news to y-“ Morvran turned and saw Sarah had stopped following him.
Sarah was rooted to the ground and at a considerable distance from him. Morvran walked back towards her.
A few passing civilians gave them both a cursory glance and went about their business.
“I….” Sarah’s head swiveled both ways and, just as she observed, Nilfgardians were carrying on with their daily routines.
“How come no one is talking about this?”
“And cause a panic in the empire? The last thing we need is the news reaching the nordlings ears.”
“What about audiences with the emperor, who is receiving his guests?”
“Peter Eversten, his head advisor.”
Sarah detected a note of disdain when Morvran mentioned the name. It was punctuated by a barely perceptible wrinkle on his almost smooth brow. Sarah had a strong suspicion that the general disliked the emperor’s head advisor... greatly.
“In any case, Eversten isn’t your problem. Let us not dally further. If you wish to know the specifics about the emperor’s condition, you can pick the brain of Mererid, the emperors’ chamberlain.”
They started walking again.
“Are you not privy to such facts, general?”
“…No” he replied without turning and walked faster. Sarah followed suit. His response to her was telling: Emhyr has little trust in him, and the lack of it irritated Morvran judging by his stiffened jaw.
They finally reached the gates of the grand palace. The sheer size and elegance of the residence made her feel small. Insignificant.
Morvran turned and saw her standing still, neck craned looking at the golden towers of the palace. She swallowed and turned her attention to him.
“Why me? What do you think I can do where the emperor’s highly decorated physicians failed?”
The sentries withdrew their crossed halberds and opened the gate for them.
For him, she corrected.
Morvran gestured for her to follow him. Once they were beyond hearing distance of the guards, Morvran took a deep breath, and without inhaling through a kerchief, opened his mouth to speak. But then he shook his head, a little frustrated.
She interpreted his reaction accurately and aloud.
“You are desperate for help.”
“I am grasping at straws, and it just so happens that the person who last saved the emperor is in front of me. We all failed him where you succeeded: bring him back alive and safe. So, Lady Sarah, I am hoping you will succeed where the best and brightest of Nilfgaard failed.”
He paused as is for effect. Sarah waited anxiously.
“Perform a miracle.”
So, Morvran sent me here, not as a physician, but a miracle-worker.
“His Imperial Majesty made mention of you Lady Sarah”
Sarah snapped back into the present, nearly colliding with the chamberlain’s narrow back. She quickly stopped and took a step backward just in time when the chamberlain turned around.
“Really?” She had to feign a look of surprise so as not to offend the chamberlain that she has heard this before from General Voorhis.
“He mentioned how you tended his wounds in great detail, to the envy of his doctors.”
Chamberlain Mererids’ face remained expressionless save for the sense of urgency.
“His Imperial Majesty is presently occupying an apartment on the third floor. We shall take the stairs.”
They passed by more rooms, more sentries, and busy servants. Not one of them looked out of curiosity.
One of the rooms opened and a group of four men came out. They were dressed in their merchants finest. Sarah looks up and saw it was a well-furnished office with high windows draped in heavy deep red curtains with gold trim. On the desk sat a mustached stocky nobleman in a black and gold cape covering a handsome black doublet and white ruff. A necklace similar to what Voorhis wore hung squarely on his chest.
The man was writing on the desk, the quill busy scribbling lines on the parchment. He looks up and met Sarah’s curious eyes.
Realizing that she had been staring, Sarah quickly looks away and forward, trotted behind the chamberlain who is unaware that Sarah briefly stopped following him.
That must be Peter Eversten, the emperor’s chief advisor, she thought.
They stopped at the door of the chamber the emperor currently occupied. The chamberlain turned and gave her a look over. After washing the equivalent of the continent off her, Sarah looks adequately presentable and exactly as how the emperor pictured her: Raven curls, fair complexion, youthful, and striking gray and green eyes. That was the chamberlains’ conservative and simplified observation: the emperor expounded her description in a more… poetic detail that he deemed inappropriate to divulge.
“We are here. Lady Sarah. Behave appropriately.”
Sarah tucked a strand of her raven hair behind her ear that escaped the white cap holding it in place, nodded.
Yes, best not tell her. Mererid got the impression the emperor is overly fond of his savior. And Emhyr is not in the habit of giving praises- not even to his favorites and certainly not to a peasant- even if she is described by the emperor as “exquisite”.
Chamberlain Mererid opened the door and entered first.
“Your Imperial Majesty, Lady Sarah of… Geso.” His introduction was delivered in a much sober and modulated pitch.
Sarah walked in and, after two steps, stopped.
The first thing that hit her was the smell of the royal chambers. It smelled of death and despair that no perfumed sheets could mask.
Did not expect that smell outside of a field hospital.
The bedroom was cloaked in gloom, like a sky overcast with rainclouds. The furnishing is rich and fitting for a monarch, yet its’ splendor was lost amidst the sorry state of the owner. It was like entering a royal mausoleum.
Or a morgue.
The emperor was lying in bed. His poor diet made his skin gray. He was thin to begin with. Now he was gaunt, almost skeletal. And at this distance it appears that he isn’t breathing. Only the slow rise and fall of the heavy linen sheets gave the indication that he still holding on for dear life.
She was silent for a while.
The emperor is dying.
Sarah was hit by a great wave of compassion for the poor man that she had to grab the doorframe as her knees threatened to buckle under her. Except for his breathing, the emperor did not give any indication that he heard the announcement.
After a long drawn out pause, she walked and stood beside the stoic chamberlain and spoke objectively with an air of a trained physician.
“When was the last time he ate?”
She was whispering.
“A week ago.”
Sarah shuts her eyes, blotting the emperor from her sight.
“Has he taken anything? Sustenance? Medication?”
It took tremendous effort to remain professional.
“The physicians have tried every possible remedy. But his Imperial Majesty couldn’t keep it down- food or medicine. The only sustenance he could take is water. But even that he doesn’t have the strength to take more than a mouthful.”
Sarah noticed a glass of colorless solution suspended on a rod on the right side of the bed. A rubber tube snaked down from it, its end covered by the sheets. She guessed, by the tubes’ trajectory, that it’s inserted into the vein on the inside of his elbow. It was plain saline by its clarity. The solution ensured normal blood circulation.
“And what happened when the medicine was given intravenously?” she asked.
Master Chamberlian blinked at that, surprised at the medical jargon uttered by the strange girl. She gave him her famous emerald glare for his hesitation.
Mererid cleared his throat. “As soon as the medicine entered his imperial majesty’s’ veins, it sent him into violent convulsions. The doctors concluded that the medicine must be introduced to his body by natural means… and well, that was impossible.”
“How about mages or healers?”
He scoffed. “The Emperor refuses to have mages attend to his person.”
Sarah didn’t ask for elaboration. It’s another waste of time… and the emperor has precious little of it left. Time to pick his brain for information the general couldn’t provide.
“How did this happen, master chamberlain?”
“One of the usurpers bribed an assistant to the cook to poison his meals each night. Smaller doses to avoid detection. ”
“And when he sleeps, the poison adapted and began damaging his body unimpeded.”
Chamberlain Mererid nodded. “The imperial taster fell ill the same day as the emperor. No one made the connection between the two incidents. It was only when a second taster succumbs to the same malady that the physicians concluded that His Imperial Majestys’ food was laced with poison.
Sarah chewed her lower lip. Discarding protocol and all that etiquette talk the chamberlain spewed earlier, Sarah placed the chest on the end table and sat on the bed, beside the emperor.
Mererid inhaled sharply.
Sarah leaned over, observing him, her eyes absorbing every little detail. She noted the slow breathing, chapped lips, and the lack of color on his face.
On the brink of death again!
She placed her hand on his forehead and with the other, on her own.
“Lady Sarah, that is highly inna-“
“His Majesty is dying and all you think about is etiquette?” Sarah cuts him calmly; hand still on the emperors’ forehead. “Would you rather I curtsey first and ask his permission to touch his imperial person? Is he in any condition to give me his approval?”
Sarah’s eyes narrowed with cold fire and the authoritative tone she used silenced Mererids’ tongue. She then chose to ignore the chamberlain.
Her fingers lightly brushed Emhyr’s cheek down to his lips. How raspy his skin feels! His exhalation sounded distant, like a death rattle.
“Body temperature low, severe dehydration, gray pallor, weakened immune system, loss of appetite.” She mumbled clinically, leaned closer and sniffed. Odor similar to sulfur “Stomach acid, ulcer.”
Sarah took his right hand and pressed his thumb. It took some time for his thumb to turn red- when it did, it was faint. “Anemia” She whispered, grimly.
She turned to the chamberlain. “The saline can only do so much to keep his blood moving, but with this level of anemia, His Imperial Majesty may soon require a blood transfusion.”
She saw his face turned pale.
“Does his majesty have any close kin that could provide him blood?”
She could see the answer behind his mouth, struggling to be free by the way his jaw was set. Sarah lost her cool and hissed.
“Chamberlain… General Voorhis sent me here because he believes I can do something the imperial doctors couldn’t. Believe me, I want to save him. Palace intrigues and subterfuge have no purpose to my task and will be discarded- just like your etiquette lessons. I need information- medical information- to come up with a solution for him! And to keep my limbs from being ripped apart.”
She was still holding the emperor’s hand and, in her frustration, realized she tightened her grip. She immediately lets go. Like what Sarah observed earlier, it took moments for blood to paint his skin pale red.
Mererid also noticed and finally relented.
“The emperor’s closest relative is his daughter. But he has lost contact with her and her whereabouts are unknown. No one else carries the var Emreis bloodline, save perhaps cousins from distant relations.”
Sarah cursed under her breath. She has to come up with something else.
She bit her thumbnail only for her front teeth to click together: she remembered they trimmed her nails. She, instead bit the tip of her thumb while her mind processed all pertinent information, forehead creased in thought.
She then got up, took the chest, sat and opened it on her lap. She rummaged within its contents, searching for what she needed.
Sarah took out a white shriveled tuber with long thin roots.
“The doctors couldn’t remove the poison because it has been absorbed in his bloodstream, destroying him from within bit by bit. Devilishly clever of them. By administering the poison in small doses each night, it adapted to his body’s metabolism, weakening his immune system. The medicines were designed to combat the poison, but his body rejected the cure thinking the medicine is the poison. Had the perpetrator not been caught, the coroner might rule his death as natural causes. It’s too late to rid his body of the poison, so we have to build his resistance. If we can get his immune system strong enough, he’ll have a fighting chance. But-”
She paused again, placing a hand on her forehead, her face twisted with worry.
In the academy, they were taught to think of the next course of action when treating specific illnesses. It doesn’t stop with just administering the correct medicine, but what would be the plausible results to such action. And as with all medicines, there are side effects. Then another step must be taken, and another, and another. A doctor must be two steps ahead of the malady.
Two steps ahead of death.
“It’ll be a dangerous for him. Fighting any infection will result in a fever. I anticipate the temperature to be… alarming. I- we have to remain vigilant, by his side for as long as it takes.”
Sarah glanced at the still-stupefied chamberlain.
She took Emhyrs’ hand and turned it over. The pink scar was still there, though more prominent next to his graying skin. “Morvran, you’d better be right about me. This makes the last time look like a paper cut”, she mumbled.
Sarah inhaled, held it in and let the air out slowly.
“You said he can still take in water?”
Mererid, who was still shaken by her admonishment, realized she was asking him, nodded.
Sarah broke off a small piece of the tuber.
“Have the kitchen brew black tea with ginger for the emperor. Have this chopped and added to the mix. Bring the pot to me as soon as it’s done”
“You are giving him mandrake?” Mererid looked horrified.
Her gray and green eyes swiveled towards the chamberlain and were quiet for ten seconds. Mandrake, seriously?
“The person who did the inventory of my items needs to be sent back for re-education. This is ginseng. It’s a herbal root in the far east, known to boost stamina, brain function and… nocturnal performance.”
She reddened slightly and returned to the business of educating the chamberlain.
“Simplified, I’m making a blood strengthener. We’ve no time for botany, please do what I ask!”
As soon as the chamberlain left, Sarah got up and drew back some of the heavy curtains. A professor in Oxenfurt whose name she couldn’t recall except that he was a compulsive neat freak lectured that to begin the process of healing, the chambers should be clean and fresh, and should not feel like a sick room. She unlatched several windows and threw them wide open allowing the air to circulate.
She took out the pot of little whisper and placed it on his bedside table. The plant’s properties were immediately felt. The air became fresh. The lingering stink of sickness, un-emptied chamber pot and bodily waste ceased to assault the senses.
She also rummaged for a bottle of little whisper oil and peppermint. Defying protocols, she unbuttoned the top half of his nightshirt and applied a few drops of the oil on his wasted chest, massaging him gently. The lingering vapors help ease his lungs to take in fresh air.
“Time I put theory into practice…again. And again, with his life on the brink.” Sarah muttered and shook her head in disbelief.
Satisfied that the oil has been absorbed, she spoke softly. “Your Majesty?”
His forehead creased a bit.
“Your Majesty…. Can you hear me?”
That voice…His lips began to quiver. “S…Saaarah?”
Sarah let out a trembling sigh. Hearing him speak- even if it was just above a whisper- gave her hope. She composed herself and answered. “We meet again, Your Imperial Majesty.”
No, I’m hallucinating. She’s a figment.
Emhyrs’ trembling hand rose slowly, laboriously, expecting to meet no resistance. His hand brushed her cheek, grasping. Against his cold, numb palm, her skin felt warm and heavenly.
“Impossible… How?” he asked feebly in a voice as course as sandpaper, each word was an effort to speak.
“I am, and it matters not” she replied. “Can you open your eyes?”
He tried, but could only manage a narrow slit. The gloomy room appeared too bright and he sees her as a blurred shadow haloed by the light. Her voice had an echo-y dream quality that barely cut through the buzzing in his head.
Sarah lowered her head and exhaled through her nose, preparing herself mentally for the mission: to save this very important man.
The trick is to treat him orally. But how to do it if he’s going to sick it out?
I do not believe in the existence of gods but I need divine intervention.
Emhyrs’ muscles betrayed him and his hand slid from her cheek. Sarah caught his hand before it fell on the mattress.
“Death will not take you for as long as I can prevent it. I swear I’ll do everything, anything, to save you. All I ask is that you do not give up.” Sarah vowed. She held his hand close to her lips. She felt him respond with a weak squeeze: a shadow compared to when he gripped her wrist long ago.
A young girl came inside carrying a tray bearing a small gilded teapot, two even smaller teacups, a saucer of sugar, honey and milk. Sarah took the tray and thanked the maid. The servant closed the door and Sarah is, once more, alone with the emperor.
Sarah could smell the earthy aroma of the ginseng root infused tea. Sarah plucked a leaf of little whisper, bruised it between her thumb and forefinger, and added it to the tea. She placed the tray on his bedside table. She leaned over him placing her hand under his head, lifting him and propping the pillows underneath. He was definitely a few pounds lighter. Emhyr moaned like a frail old man in the throes of pain.
She heard the door open. Without turning, she asked. “Please, lend a hand?”
“What do you need milady?” It was the chamberlain.
“His Imperial Majesty needs to sit. Please prop him up. I’ll put more pillows behind him.”
They manage to get the Emperor on an elevated sitting position. Emhyr groaned.
Mererid handed Sarah one of the little teacups and pour the still warm tea. Sarah added honey and stirred, blew the surface of the tea, took a sip, and made a face. Satisfied with the infusion, she brought the teacup to Emhyrs lips.
“Sire, drink this. It will restore you”
It must be the pleading in her voice. Emhyr’s lips parted, and Sarah slowly tipped the cup, trickling the liquid into his mouth carefully. She repeated the procedure, giving him the infusion one sip at a time until the entire cup was empty, wiping his mouth with the edge of her sleeve. Mererid frowned but kept quiet, saved for a short “harrumph!” that Sarah was oblivious to.
Emhyr’s jaw began to clench. He started to cough.
Sarah immediately took his hand and pinched the soft muscle between his thumb and forefinger, clamping down hard.
“What are you doing milady?”
“Suppressing his gag reflex. A technique to distract the mind when taking something unpleasant, I read about it. Haven’t tried it on myself or on anyone though. His digestive organs are too weak to do their job that’s why I gave him a blood strengthener. He needs to keep the infusion down, whatever it takes.”
Her eyes were riveted on Emhyrs grimacing face. “
It must’ve worked. After an agonizing three minutes, Emhyr’s coughing subsided. Both the chamberlain and Sarah breathe a sigh of relief. Sarah realized she had been biting the inside of her cheek hard enough she tasted blood. She picked the jar of honey.
“Do you have any more of this? And maybe some royal jelly?” she asked the chamberlain.
“We have both”
“Both it is then. His Imperial Majesty will require a quick source of energy. Solid foods are out of the question.”
Sarah gave him a weak smile. “I apologize for my discourtesy. I-“
Mererid shook his head.
“Saving his imperial majesty is more important than any protocol. And… you are correct. If you fail, it is dismemberment: by horses.”
Sarah did not wince and there was no tremor in her voice.
“I am prepared for that end, Master Chamberlain.”
He nodded and squared his shoulders. “Please, do not hesitate to ask for assistance from me or any of the servants-“
Sarah ignored him again, to the indignation of the chamberlain, and stuck an index finger in the honey.
“Thank you” Sarah replied with an oblivious smile and touched Emhyr’s dry lips with a honey-glazed finger.
The chamberlain harrumphed, gave a courteous bow and left.
Sorry for the long wait. I had to re-read and re-write the chapter, plus real-life work gets in the way. I did a bit of research about medicines and herbal remedies as well as gleaning from experience on my near-death experience with bronchi-pneumonia when I was a child. I hope my readers will find this chapter interesting.
Chapter 10: A Fragment for a Dream
A very brief entry. A respite from the events of the past. Conwiramurs and Nimue, unable to push forward with their task, seeks help from the source.
Im swamped with RL work and personal matters, so this is what I have added to the fic. This was even shorter in the original and my brain simply wanted to expound on this little segway to the main story. I hope the end will make you excited for the upcoming chapters to follow. Please let me know in the comments your thoughts so far.
Back in the Lake Tower
“I’ve hit upon a metaphorical brick wall, Nimue”
Condwiramurs puts her quill down and rubs the weariness settling on her eyelids. They were in the tower’s modest library busy recollecting the events of the past. Condwiramurs already filled several pages about the mysterious recluse of Mirrah, and her coincidental encounter with the most powerful man on the Continent.
Nimue took a high backed chair and sat next to the pile of parchment on the table. She plucked the latest entry resting on the top, still glistening with Zerrikanian ink.
“A dream block? And what have you written so far?”
“So far? Emhyr is dying from a prolonged food poisoning and Sarah wasted no time in using her resources trying to cure him. After that meeting in his sickroom, the image fades like morning mist. All I can think of filling the blank is “Sarah tended Emperor Emhyr until he regained his health” but that would be an abridged version. I feel there is something more: an encounter or an event worth noting for posterity. And whoever is paying us to recollect history would think they are not getting their money’s worth.”
Nimue smiled. There was something in the oneiromancer’s tone that implies it’s not just the task or the payment: she was showing genuine enthusiasm that did not involve the Child of Destiny.
“I am pleased with your dedication to this task, considering it hardly involves The White Wolf and Ciri.”
The blush on Condwiramurs face answered her.
“Yes,” Nimue agreed “her story is fascinating. We are talking about a classic Cinderella tale. How did a forest hermit, a wildflower, blossomed into the rose? And still no sight of the moon to complete the symbols in your dreams. But in this case, I think we need to look at this as a tale of Selene and Endymion.”
“What does the mythological moon goddess and the human shepherd had to do with Sarah and Emhyr?”
“As I mentioned, the purge destroyed most visual and written artifacts about the var Emreis dynasty. To recreate the past event, we have to resort to drastic avenues-”
“Oh no” Condwiramurs shook her head. “I will not take narcotics to force myself to break the dream wall“
“Who said anything about taking drugs?” Nimue narrowed her eyes, lips pressed together. “We simply change the characters of the myth: Sarah for Selene and Emhyr for Endymion. After all, the emperor is but a shepherd to his flock and Sarah looks after him while he sleeps.”
“It wont do. I could look into a picture of that story and maybe even read the tale, but the resulting dream will be unreliable, confusing, and fictitious. What I need is a hook: like that painting of Emhyr in Novigrad or Sarah in the red dress. It’s a shame the reproduction is a subpar imitation of the genuine article.”
“Of Emhyr, we have” Nimue stood up and motioned for the oneiromancer to follow her. Once more they entered the picture gallery. On the South corner, among portraits of monarchs is a large tempera on wood depicting the strong, masculine image of Emhyr: the same portrait that Sarah saw in Novigrad.
“Will this do for a hook?’ Nimue asked.
Condwiramurs inclined her head, still uncertain. “This is half a hook. Is there really no surviving portrait of Sarah, even a sketch?”
Nimue let out a heavy sigh. “There was one but-”
Nimue walked towards the bookcase and plucked a thin leather-bound journal. The name on the cover says Raphael Degas. Codwiramurs recognized the name. Raphael was one of the court painters of Nilfgaard.
“Read the entry on the 54th page.” Nimue instructed.
I presented my finished painting commissioned by His Imperial Majesty entitled “Lady of Mirrah”. It was based on the vivid description provided by His Radiance, of a woman with long curly black hair, green eyes with silver rings, and fair complexion. I asked if the subject is a real person or imaginary and he answered curtly that such person exist but is in absentia, and I can certainly recreate her based on the details he described. Need more specific description for accuracy.
Unfortunately, His Imperial Majesty was not pleased, to say the least. His face was as cold and grave as a marble slab. And he was quiet all the while. I was paid by the imperial clerk and sent on my way. Later I heard from a friend of mine who works as a palace guard that the emperor took a dagger and cut my painting to shreds. It was one of my finest works. Though I was fully compensated, the loss of that painting hurt my career as court painter.
Condwiramus closed the journal with a snap, sending a thin cloud of dust leaping from the musty pages. “How could he?” She exclaimed. “The one portrait of Sarah and he ruined it!”
Nimue nodded. “He did. Emhyr must’ve felt insulted that the painting, though one of Raphaels’ best works pales in comparison to the idealized image Emhyr had of Sarah.”
“This only makes my task more difficult. I have to weave through the fiction to get to the historical facts, and that could take weeks. The situation sounds close to hopeless”
Nimue pursed her lips, a thoughtful expression on her face. “Well… not entirely hopeless. I could send a letter to our benefactor- a petition for aid in our search for the truth.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let us return to the library.”
Nimue rifled through the stack of papers on the desk, searching for a specific entry. She found it.
“You wrote here that Sarah hides an object she calls the beacon. If we present this fact as proof that you are making a headway on your research to our benefactor, he might be inclined to provide some measure of help: maybe even a portrait of Sarah.”
“That’s like asking for the moon in a jar” Condwiramurs replied dourly “whatever this beacon is, there was no such object on her person. Could be symbolic, I don’t know” she scoffs and shrugs “might as well give it a try.”
Nimue penned a letter and sent it with the messenger. While waiting for a response, Condwiramurs and Nimue spent the empty days doing the mundane: reading, looking out the lake, discussing the latest intrigues happening outside of their towers, and talking about their common interest: The Child of the Elder Blood and the White Wolf.
It took three days for their patience to be rewarded: A courier stood on the edge of the jetty from one end of the lake handed the Fisher King a parcel, to which the Fisher King handed to Nimue. It was a tube of treated wood, and with it, a note with a wax seal bearing the crest of the new emperor.
Condwiramurs could barely hold her excitement: her fingers curled tight as Nimue read the note.
“This was bought from an auction house in Maecht during the reign of Jan Calveit the 1st at a sum of seven thousand florins. May this object help you in your quest for the truth.”
There was no signature. The seal was evidence enough that the note was written by the young emperor.
Nimue twisted the cap of the tube.
Condwiramurs gasped. Inside was a long strip torn from a painting. Nimue handed the empty tube to Condwiramurs and unrolled the strip.
She glanced at the oneiromancer with a triumphant grin.
“It is but a fragment of what we requested, but will this d-“
“Yes! Yes!” the oneiromancer couldn’t suppress her excitement, showing Nimue a set of perfect pearly whites.
The torn piece, frayed at the edges and slightly dulled by the old fixative, showed two deep emerald eyes ringed in silver.
Chapter 11: A Dangerous Man
Sarah finds out more about the man who runs the empire in Emhyrs' absence from Morvran Voorhis, and realize that Peter Evertsen is not a man to cross.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Three days passed
The immense palace library is the size of a cathedral, its collection reaching towards the Great Sun painted on the ceiling. Unlike Oxenfurt Academy where books are often seen piled up against the walls in crooked columns or in small mounds due to either neglect or the lack of bookcases, the tomes in the palace library were neatly organized and each book found its snug space. Every morning, helpers would come in to dust, wipe and sweep. The head librarian and his assistants would check the rows of bookcases, plucking books that were misplaced and putting them in their correct categories, while muttering under their breaths about the mess the courtiers make and the numerous times they had to go up and down the wheeled ladders.
It was high noon and the library was nearly empty except for a few student and courtiers. Normally, they would be reading or sharing intrigues in hushed tones behind large almanacs, but today a few curious heads turned towards the oddity at one of the reading desks. Even the head librarian was distracted from cataloguing.
The occupant is a female with her nose stuck on a journal. A quill quivered energetically as she copied notes from an open book leaning on a brass bookstand.
Nothing odd about it except she was wearing palace servant whites.
“Lady Sarah? ”
Sarah glanced up from the journal she was writing on, mildly annoyed at the interruption.
General Voorhis, looking very official and neat in his spiffy black and grey civilian wear, held a large leather bound book tucked against his chest, covering the heavy gold chain necklace of flame within a pyramid. His gloved hand obscured the name of the author.
She flashed him a tired smile.
His forehead crinkled with concern.
“You look like you dragged yourself out of bed.”
Sarah puts the quill down and rubbed the dark circles underneath her eyes. The beacon had kept her awake all night and left her with three hours of sleep. But she need not tell the young general that.
She occupied a modest servant’s quarters a floor below. Initially, chamberlain Mererid offered her one of the lavish guestrooms a few doors from the emperor’s sickroom. Sarah, though awed by the opulence of the apartment, did not accept her lodgings. Rich and well-furnished as it is, it has two large picturesque windows that reached the ceiling. She suggested a room without one, reasoning that even the slightest illumination will keep her wakeful and she can only sleep in total darkness. It was a bullshit excuse and the chamberlain probably thought it too. But he, thankfully, took her suggestion. Her new lodging was sparse: a single bed, wooden closet, a desk with a straight backed chair and a bronze candlestick, a ceramic basin and a pitcher of water.
What sold her to the room is that it had one small window, covered by a thick gray curtain. There are probably spare blankets in the closet she could use to cover up the window more.
“Keeping strict vigilance, general. I promised the emperor that I will do my best to help him.”
Morvran pulled the chair opposite hers and sat down. He placed his book on the table: Encyclopaedia Maxima Mundi: First Edition was the title on the cover, leans forward with his arms on the table.
“How is our emperor doing?” he whispered
“It… it is difficult to speculate and it will take maybe another day or two for signs of progress but at least I halted his decline.”
He gave a sigh of relief. “Then there is still hope.”
Sarah cocked her head, a thoughtful smile on her lips. “Your genuine concern for the emperor warms my heart. Everyone else seemed indifferent, or concealed it well.”
“More of the former than the latter. There are few who truly knows the situation and, within that number, fewer who cares.”
“The chamberlain and you”
“Include yourself in that number, Lady Sarah.”
Now it was his turn to cock his head to the right and was gazing at her with a boyish grin.
“It looks good on you. The smile I mean”
Sarah snorted, causing a few patrons to glance at her, frowning in disapproval.
“Careful, General. There are nobles watching and you don’t want rumors flying that you are fraternizing with the help.”
“Let them. I’ve heard even more absurd intrigues about me”
He looked at the title of the book she was copying.
“Herbalism and the Forgotten Cures by Agneta Linus. Found whatever it is you are looking for in those pages?”
“No. The book offers suitable substitutes for my dwindling remedies.”
Morvran leans back in thought, his arm draped on his seat.
“The librarian kept books in the backroom accessible only to scholars, high nobility, and students with written permission from the Imperial Academy. Perhaps what you seek is in there.”
“I don’t exactly look like any of those.”
“But I am. Follow me.”
They left the table. Eyes tracked them on their way to the librarian’s counter, more as a passing curiosity, and then went back to their reading and gossip. Sarah and Morvran looked like any other nobleman dragging a servant behind him.
Morvran did most of the talking, leaning his head towards Sarah: she whispered the title and author of the book.
“Seidhe Floras of the Old World by Gilthonel aep Sauvinon.” Morvran relayed to the elderly male head librarian.
Unfortunately, the palace library also did not have such book in their collection and even dampened their spirits when they mentioned the Imperial Academy also doesn’t have one. Morvran thanked the man and gave Sarah a defeated shrug. She sighs, looking at the double doors.
“I should return to… my duties”
“I’ll escort you”
Their hushed conversation resumed as they walked. The hallway they entered was, except for a few servants and the sentries, devoid of any guests. It had large bow windows offering a splendid view of the garden. It was starting to snow and already the grounds have an inch of white, like icing on a wedding cake. If the sorry state of the emperor left only little doubt of her wintering in the capital, the falling snow quashed all possibilities of leaving.
Sarah confided in Morvran that no one knew of her true role in the palace except him and the chamberlain. To everyone, she is just another maid in the emperor’s service. Chamberlain Mererid made it official that the emperor has appointed a new personal court physician, but kept them in the dark as to the identity and name.
“It was easy” she said “I go in with the chamberlain on some pretense to clean the room and to bring him food. No one knows I’m treating him behind those doors.”
“I can imagine the rumors in the coming days: the emperor’s personal doctor is none other than Chamberlain Mererid.”
“I know there is a suppression of information, just like you said, General. It still baffles me that there is a lack of concern or query about the emperors’ absence in the public eye. The chief advisor must be doing an exemplary job keeping that detail from spies.”
“No matter how good of an advisor and proxy Evertsen is, there will always be perceptive people who can complete a puzzle with very few pieces. Before you know it, the heads of intelligence in the Northern Realms will glean than there is something amiss: A chief advisor running the empire in the emperor’s prolonged absence could mean that Emperor Emhyr is either incapable of ruling, an internal conflict in the empire and a possible declaration of a new emperor.”
Sarah detected animosity in Morvrans’ tone, pondered on what to say next, and decided to “poke the bear”, so to speak.
“I take it you are not fond of the emperor’s chief advisor.”
“Evertsen is close to the emperor, has tremendous pull in court and with the Trade Corporation” his free hand came up, touching the symbol on his chest, his lips twisted in obvious distaste “Only the emperor can contest his will, and he is tasked to oversee the running of the empire in the emperors’ absence.”
“He wields that much power and influence?”
“He was the chamberlain when Emperor Emhyr regained the throne, and has risen to great prominence. Some even say he is the true wielder of imperial might.”
“If that’s the case, why is he not the emperor?”
“He would rather be a kingmaker and stand behind the emperor with his right hand on the throne: the left is free to do what it pleases without restrictions. He, recently fired the emperor’s physicians for failing to cure him, and threatened to ruin their and their families’ lives if they speak of the emperors’ condition.”
“So that explains why the doctors were eager to hand over their notes” Sarah recalled. She was with Chamberlain Mererid when he requested all the doctors’ notes. Sarah said nothing and let the chamberlain do all the talking. She expected reluctance and indignation when he mentioned that another physician is overseeing the treatment, but instead they were relieved to be relieved.
“Correct, milady. The doctors are fresh out of the Imperial Academy and if they fail to deliver favorable results, they will not only lose their badge, they will lose their credibility… and if Emperor Emhyr dies, so will they. Instead of trying to save the emperor with their expertise, they are more concerned with saving their own necks from the-“
Morvran stopped and turned to Sarah, horror slowly dawning on his pale face.
“Frm the noose, general?” She finished for him with no hint of humor or sarcasm.
“Milady… I.. did not mean to put your life in danger “ he stammered. “I was-“
She raised a hand, interrupting him.
“I know, I know. You were desperate, grasping at straws, because of lord Evertsens’ decision. New doctors may shed light on the emperors’ condition and possibly come up with the cure in time. But time is short and Emperor Emhyr has precious little of it.”
She gave him another tired smile: she already accepted her fate of inevitable death that comes with failure. The dark circles under her eyes magnified her exhaustion, and Morvrans’ guilt.
“I could’ve refused” she added softly. “Politics and intrigues do not concern me. I could just be on my merry way looking for a place to winter. But… if he dies, I cannot live with myself knowing I could’ve done something. At least, this way, I tried and my death will not be in vain. But, if you could do one thing for me, general-”
She paused and took a deep breath to compose herself.
“Should I die, keep my name off the annals of history. I do not wish to be branded as a murderer. I do not wish… to be remembered.”
They stopped at the bottom of the stairs. The emperor’s sickroom is a floor above them.
“You are a remarkable woman, Lady Sarah.” Morvran spoke with admiration. “I will ensure your name will not be dragged into the mud. Or mentioned as requested. But I will remember you and your acts of kindness. Still, I must apologize for not taking your life into consideration.” He gave her a courteous bow.
“Please don’t do that” she hissed, looking uncomfortable at the sight of him bending at the waist in view of the sentries guarding the apartments. What would they say seeing a nobleman bowing to a servant?
A masculine voice echoed behind Sarah at a distance accompanied by echoing footsteps.
Morvran face went dark.
Peter Evertsen, followed by a small contingency of nobles approached them. Luckily Morvrans’ courteous gesture went unnoticed- Sarah’s back covered most of it.
Sarah immediately lowered her head in subservience, determined to avoid being identified by the chief advisor standing beside her.
“Lord Evertsen? What can I do for you?” Morvran replied, all stiff, formal and cordial.
The chief advisors eyes flicked at Sarah for a moment. She did not see him look at her with cold indifference: she was looking at his boots polished to mirror sheen and smelling of tanned leather. She could faintly see her reflection,
“Send the servant away to her task. I need you present at the meeting with the Guild of Merchants today. I trust you are prepared.”
“I am indeed. I shall have a few words with this chambermaid before I fetch my papers.”
Peter Evertsen gave him a nod and glanced again at Sarah- this time with mild curiosity. Sarah bowed even lower.
She conjured a mocking grin on his face to match the condescending tone of his voice. She did not straightened up until he and his coterie of nobles turned to disappear on the corner; only their clipped footsteps remained echoing in the hallway.
“Any longer and I might’ve fallen asleep” she muttered, straightening up and turned to Morvran.
His eyes, heavy lidded to begin with, lingered on Evertsen’s receding back.
“Be careful of Evertsen, Lady Sarah” he warned “he is a cunning and ruthless man. More so than the emperor.”
He gave her a curt nod, turned and walked away.
Sarah watched him disappear into the opposite direction to fetch his papers for the meeting. She felt cold dread prickling the back of her neck and that atmosphere of unease lingered in the air.
That makes it three things on my already overflowing plate: the emperor’s life, mine, and avoiding that dangerous man who could shorten it further.
She went up the stair and towards the emperor’s sickroom only to be greeted by the chamberlain at the door. He was holding a harp.
“As you requested, I still do not see the point why you need it”
“Are we doing this again, master chamberlain? Would you like the emperor to recant his order?”
“And I see no point in dragging this argument further. We must attend to him now.”
Mererid conceded, and opened the door for her.
Emperor Emhyr is still holding on for dear life, one foot still in the grave. The little whisper and blood strengthener she had him drink were working: he was breathing without the death rattle sound, and his gray pallor receded.
But there was still so much to do and all she managed, so far, is to be two steps ahead of death
His... and mine
She felt a numb pressure in the palm of her hand and realizes she had an iron grip on the journal. She swallowed and felt something click: it was the hand of the empire around her neck, poised and ready to squeeze.
She turns to him, eyes sunken from lack of sleep and worry. But her resolve- her vow- remains unshaken.
“Things will get worse before they get better. When that time comes, there will be no sleep for either of us.”
Been re-reading this chapter with whatever free time I can get. After this chapter, I still have 15 more projects to submit. This chapter is not included with the original fic. I decided to add more scenes and rather than a summary of Sarahs' time in the palace, why not flesh out some events and interactions.
Ok I'm tired, Im getting a headache and I need a nap!
Chapter 12: A Winter of Uncertainties
Sarah spent a not-so-idyllic winter in the imperial residence doing everything she can to cure the emperor at the cost of her health, and reveals a little of her past. Emperor Emhyr var Emreis fights for his life, and then came the day he opened his eyes.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
True to her word, she never left the emperor’s side, except when she was ushered out of the chambers for his scheduled baths. Her simple quarters was used very little: she opted to sleep on the alcove of the emperor’s bedroom, always keeping her view on Emhyr, looking for signs of improvement… or a relapse.
Using the doctors’ notes procured by the chamberlain, Sarah formulated her own procedures while rejecting various attempts at treatment when it was documented that the previous steps ended in failure.
Sarah took the liberty of using his majesty’s desk. She wrote copious notes on fine paper-dipping the cockatrice quill in a bottle of Zerrikanian ink: recording the state of his condition, documenting her procedures, the effects of the medicine, his reaction to the treatment, and his progress. Mererid had to bite his tongue seeing her sitting on his majesty’s chair and using Emhyrs’ desk without his majesty’s permission.
“Documentation is vital, and I have all I need here. Your doctors would want to know what methods I’m using in case such attempts are repeated, that is if he survives. Of course, if I fail, these entries will serve as irrefutable grounds for my execution. There will be no contestation, and I will bear the full brunt of the blame.”
Sarah continuously fed him the ginseng infused tea and, with her forefinger, dabbed a line of honey on his lips for him to consume, sometimes it’s half a glass of lemon and honey water. This went on for a week until all her ginseng was used. The blood strengthener did exactly what it was called: as evidence of his receding gray pallor, and his temperature approaching close to normal levels- and yet she still anticipated that it will spike one of these days. Little whisper, sadly, is no antidote for poison, repaired the damage to His Imperial Majestys’ internal organs.
Signs of improvement became more noticeable: he awoke one afternoon, feeling very hungry. Sarah quickly informed the sentries outside the room that the emperor wants the chamberlain summoned. Mererid came in almost immediately and was none too pleased when he realized it was actually Sarah who summoned him- and gave him a list of instructions to be given to the chef- under strict supervision- herbs that should be added to a chicken soup. All written in the emperors’ finest paper.
When the soup was sent to the room, Sarah tasted it first: elderberries, cat’s claws and licorice root mixed with chicken stock. It was not a gourmet fair, this medicinal meal. So while Sarah slowly spoon-feeds Emhyr with it, she used the same gag suppressing method on him to keep it all down.
When the bedchamber was as quiet as the grave, Sarah would pull up a chair next to the bed and play soft ballads with the harp. This became part of her routine. It was not included in the Academy’s medical curriculum, but she found music comforting.
The medicines are for his body: the music is for his mind.
The soft slow tune comforted Emhyr, but it was her company that soothed him.
Sarah’s diagnosis came true. Several sleepless nights Emhyr ran a fever as his immunity gains strength and finally waged war against the invading poison. Sarah’s confidence and professional calm was on the verge of breaking into directionless panic during these fragile periods: his temperature rose high enough to cook him, sending him into delirium. He ranted and raved incoherently, swearing vilely about “reason of state” and “imperial leeches”. Once, during a temperature spike, Emhyr suffered a frightening nosebleed while screaming names from his past, including his parents, and his wife Cirilla- whom Sarah never met nor seen during her stay. Sarah massages the little whisper and peppermint mixture on his head, arms and legs to lower his temperature in place of frequent baths. She argued fiercely with Mererid that soaking the emperor in the bath every day to keep his fever down would only weaken his body.
On the fifth day of his fever, she heard a knock on the door and opened, saw Chamberlain Mererid with three servant girls and knew exactly what they came for: another unnecessary cooling bath. Sarah lost her professional cool. She told the chamberlain in hushed tones to wait for her in the adjacent room.
Then she let him have it.
“I have been correct so far and you still question my methods? You and the doctors can cast all kinds of aspersions about my lack of a medical degree, but do not doubt that I am committed to saving His Majesty, even if it kills me!”
Sarah quickly about faced, opened the door and closed it hard on his shocked face. Then she broke down into tears which, thankfully, lasted mere moments before regaining her professional calm.
Sarah monitored his temperature every other hour, placing her hand on his forehead- sometimes against his cheek. Then she’d put a cold compress on his head or massage her cooling oils on his body. She doubled on her vigilance, often times forgoing food and sleep.
When the emperor could finally eat something more solid without help, Sarah began feeding him edible forest ferns: a plant that has surprisingly high protein value. There were none sold in the city square nor the herbalists stock them. Surprise, surprise! None from the upper crust ever heard of it thus the nonexistent demand. The poorer district struck out too. Sarah had no choice but to leave the city and forage at a thicket further west of the capital. The gods must’ve cut her some slack. She found what she needed in great abundance.
Sarah had to fool the chamberlain that what she’s feeding the emperor is a rare royal fern. If the chamberlain knew what kind of wild edible she’s feeding His Imperial Majesty, he’d surely have a heart attack and throw her in the dungeons. The fern is unique: it feeds on insects similar to the pitcher plant. It’s also parasitic, latching on to the roots of large maples and oaks. It definitely is not a fare for the high society, but mountain people and dryads know what plants can be eaten to survive, and what can be used to ensure survival.
The “royal fern” tasted like a cross between asparagus and mushrooms, but it was delightfully soft and crunchy. Sarah wrote instructions- to be delivered to the chefs-on another fine paper: briefly boil the curly tips of the ferns to neutralize its natural toxins, lightly seasoned with vinegar and lemon, and give them to the attending servant- herself- in the emperor’s sickroom.
Emhyr’s healing was slow, but steadily moving forward.
He will rise from the brink. It is just a matter of time.
It was evening
He felt something cold and damp on his forehead, smelling of fragrant herbs.
He was tired but a different kind of fatigue.
His fever subsided for the third and, hopefully for the last time, he is no longer shivering from the chill, but his body is spent. His strength all used up fighting the fever that gripped him for days. Emhyr kept his eyes closed during daytime: the room is still too bright, sending sharp needles of pain behind them, though occasionally he’d open his eyes when Sarah pulls up a chair next to the bed, her shadow keeping the sting of the light away, and sings a ballad while playing the harp.
He recalled Mererid demanding Sarah what is the purpose of the harp when he, His Imperial Majesty, should be resting. Sarah, as polite as she could, answered “this is His Imperial Majesty’s bedchambers, not a sickroom or a temple. I used an ancient technique to help him keep his food down. I wish to lift his spirits and a pleasant tune helps with the healing process.” Mererid still argued about proof which woke him and told the chamberlain to “cease your nagging chamberlain and do what she says!” The argument ended then and there. Sarah was free to distract him from thinking about his situation.
It also helps that her singing voice is pleasant and melodious. Clearly, the Lady of Mirrah has a myriad of talents. Before and after her performance, she’d place her hand on his forehead or against his cheek checking his temperature. Her very presence soothes him, and her touch is comforting, emanating care.
He couldn’t see her that well but he could sense her exhaustion. It was in the way she talked, the voice of a woman unwinding after finishing the days’ chores. Sometimes she would tell him stories when she ran out of songs. The topic varies: philosophy, science, folklore, even something as mundane as a passing gossip from the city folk. She, thankfully, skirted politics.
Sarah entered his bedchamber-sickroom and performs her routine. She removed the wet compress off his forehead and soaked it in the basin of cold water on the bedside table.
Sarah dutifully checked his temperature in her own way. He likes the feel of her hand: soft, gentle, and warm. He heard her sigh and mumble clinically “at least the temperature has gone down some”. The sound of water hitting water broke the silence. She was squeezing the excess water off the compress above the basin, and then placed it again on his forehead. He knew the next part of her routine: Sarah would pull up a seat and play a song or talk about things of no import.
Today was a revelation.
She was silent for a while. He heard her fingers drumming a nervous staccato on her thigh- fidgety- like she was confessing a scandalous sin to a priest. After some time the rhythmic drumming stopped, a slow exhale, and she began her tale.
“Did I ever tell his majesty the time I got in trouble with the Dean of Medicine? It was a week before the midterm exams, my second year at the academy. Already I had a reputation as an arrogant, frigid recluse: the girl who prefers the company of books over boys, who eats and drinks the written word, and instead of a goose feathered pillow, I sleep with The Worlds’ Atlas under my head. And they were right! I had the arrogance of a mage scholar cooped up in self-isolation-in a tower far away from the human rabble. I was insufferably arrogant.”
Emhyr heard her chuckle softly. He restrained himself from reacting.
“My peers couldn’t pry my nose off my books and even in social gatherings they talk in whispers ‘it’s like she never left the library.’ Such meaningless endeavors were beneath me. I wanted to learn as much as I can, collect my degree, leave the academy and those whispering quasi-intellectuals, and make my mark on the world. I didn’t win any friends with my laurels, my commendations, and my medals of academic excellence. It suited me just fine. I wasn’t there to make friends. My unsavory behavior went up a notch when I took up interest in learning about the Elder Race: elves in particular, and was very fond of an extremely dusty book called Seidhe Floras of the Old World by Gilthonel aep Sauvinon. I devoured the tome until it was reduced to tatters. A pity there’s no such copies left, as all books by the elven race were confiscated and destroyed. People who sympathize with non-humans weren’t showered with love back then. Still is.”
Emhyr heard the creak of her chair and the rustle of her skirt. Another creak, then a twang. She was plucking the strings of the harp. The humor in her voice remained high.
“My views changed that same year. A classmate. Remus of Cidarian nobility. He was exceptionally handsome, charming, and a smooth talker. He had every female –students and teachers alike- in the palm of his hand, but he grew bored of the easy attention and bragged that he could tame the frigid maiden.”
“Remus felt slighted because I told him bluntly that I have no time to waste on him, I have an exam to pass and there are seventy girls who are more physically receptive to his flirting or his position in the pecking order. I must’ve phrased it differently because it stuck on him like a burr on his trousers.
Then the rumors started. Whispers and muffled giggles followed me wherever I go until one time it got so bad it distracted me from my books. Remus, apparently, told everyone that I was a… cold fish, and the reason I shunned his advances was because I had a one night stand with the brewers’ son and gave him the clap. How did he know? He overheard the chap yakking about it at the boys dormitory while soused, but added a twist: my name to the original rumor.”
Her voice was surprisingly light- as light as the melody produced by her fingers on the strings, finding the memory amusing.
She went on.
“It was a lie of course. I even had the medical records to prove it. I got myself tested and walked with my clean bill of health inside the pages of a hefty tome called The Ultimate Guide to Endangered Plant Species by Ulisse of Vole. I faced my defamer and held the piece of paper right in his face, then knocked the good looks out of him with the book, along with a few of his front teeth. I was summoned to the Deans’ office. Though I stood my ground and won the arguments against me, I was vilified for it. Remus lost more than his good looks, I sullied his reputation. I remained, more ostracized than ever. No one sympathized; no one came to my defense. The only comfort I received was from my mother, who told me to take pride in my intellectual superiority. And that’s exactly what I did.
I had my first taste of self-pity and it had the sharp flavor of sour wine. I realize how lonely my life is, even in the company of people, to not have a single person you can confide. I learned that to be different, to be superior- to be above your fellow man- is to be alone.”
The music stopped. He heard a ragged intake of breath. Emhyr opened his eyes and saw her looking at her harp with a melancholy expression, her fingers on the strings. Despite the fuzzy quality of his sight, it was clear enough for him to see the memory caused her pain. She shook her head and chuckled. Emhyr immediately closed his eyes as Sarah glanced at him.
“What am I doing?” She mumbled sounding embarrassed. Emhyr felt her remove the now tepid compress. A splash of water, the compressed tossed into the basin. Another familiar sound: a cork popping. She was applying her cooling oil on him and began massaging his head. The cold, refreshing scent of mint entered his lungs. Her dexterous fingers pressed his temples, making lazy circles, going as far as massaging the roots of his hair. He found her technique pleasurable. Delightful. A lion-like rumble issued out of him in contentment. He wished she could do this longer.
“Sorry for rambling like a fishwife, Majesty” she added, unmindful of Emhyrs’ blissful reaction. “I guess I just needed someone to talk to. Someone to listen… someone to touch. Being a hermit is easy. I have shut myself off from humankind all my life.” She paused for a moment and spoke in a voice as light as a feather, more to herself than to him. “No… I didn’t shut myself. I ran away from everyone- from my mother, associates, the university, humanity. Even from-“
Emhyr wondered why she suddenly cuts herself off, even her massage halted.
He felt her withdraw, then she squeeze his hand.
“Please get better soon, Your Imperial Majesty. And keep this story between us, as a matter of confession. I am honored, as any one worthy, to have this rare opportunity meeting you. If we ever meet again, I hope it is under better circumstances.”
Emhyr heard shuffling and sloshing sounds. Sarah was putting the harp back on the divan, taking the basin and walking away. He heard the soft click of the door closing.
Emhyrs’ fingers closed, keeping the lingering feeling of her hand in.
She managed to open up to him yet felt like she is more of a mystery book, complete with a lock and no key in sight.
Her parting words rang in his ears: If we ever meet again
Is she going to leave when it’s all over?
Emhyr opened his eyes.
Today felt… different.
The light seem gentler, like the first day of spring, and he no longer squinted at the brightness, even if beams of it bounced off the snow lining the window frames, creating flecks of light like glittering diamonds. The fuzziness of his vision subsided and, after many days of looking through a haze, he could see clearly.
His hearing is back to normal, too. Robins perched on the bass relief bordering the windows chirped enthusiastically, their morning song drifted inside like a greeting.
I’m alive, he thought, looking at the familiar ceiling of the canopied bed. Except for the stiffness of being in bed for days, his bodily pains no longer disturb him. Cold winter air smelled so fresh, wafting from two of the large windows, slightly opened. He looks at the side desk and saw a small potted plant: it looked emancipated, skeletal with just a few fragile leaves left sticking on its limbs.
Little whisper. She nearly used it all up… for me.
He heard sounds outside the door, and saw it open.
Sarah, looking extremely haggard, entered the chambers carrying a pitcher of water and a towel draped on her arm. She was wearing a thick white shawl over her servants’ whites. Once, Emhyr, in his moments of lucidity, recalled her complaining about the southern chill to Mererid: that despite the heating provided by the pipes, she still felt chilled to the bone. And Mererid quipped back that her nordling skin isn’t accustomed to the southern temperatures because the baths stripped her of her “natural coat.”
He couldn’t recall if she retorted with an equally sarcastic jibe.
Emhyr followed her with his eyes as she placed the pitcher on the side table, next to a porcelain basin.
Sarah sat beside him. She performed the usual routine: Check the patients’ temperature, and proceed from there. In her exhausted state, she was operating automatically: going through the motions like a pre-programmed golem, unaware that her patient was watching her.
Sarah touched his forehead with one hand, the other on hers, analyzing the difference in their temperature. She closed her eyes and thinking clinically. Body temperature is normal. What a relief!
Emhyr reached out to the hand on his forehead and slid it on his cheek, held it there, taking in the warmth of her skin. After experiencing extreme hot and cold during his battle with death, normal human temperature never felt this wonderful.
Sarah was slowly taken out of her pre-programmed routine when she noticed he was looking at her. He was awake, and that his hand was on hers, against his cheek.
She blinked… then gasped.
Sarah’s complexion, fair to begin with, was as pale as a sun-bleached parchment, her lips the same shade of a pressed rose left in between pages of a book. Her lack of color made her peculiar eyes stand out and yet did little to diminish their captivating beauty.
Emhyr realized she poured her health into him, and felt a twinge of guilt. She didn’t even have enough energy to blush.
He lets go. Sarah’s hand remained on his cheek for a few seconds and slowly withdrew to join the other resting on her lap.
“Welcome back Your Imperial Majesty”
He withheld replying thinking of the days and nights she sat beside him, tending to him: his sickbed companion, this stranger from the forest. What a coincidence that at the moment he surrendered to death’s cold embrace, his last thoughts were of her.
Is that gratitude sending tremors in his breast, rattling the shard of ice?
“You look tired” he said
“So are you.”
Both chuckled in unison. Awkward silence followed.
“How long has it been?” He was referring to the days she tended him.
“Too long, Your Imperial Majesty.”
A fitting reply to a vague question. It could mean the period they last met, instead of the days she cared for him.
“When was the last time you slept?”
Another question. Emhyr mentally chided himself: his queries sounded like an interrogation.
“Sleep is the least of my worries, sire.”
“Forgive me, sire.” Sarah blurted out, lowering her eyes. “Had I agreed to your offer, this might’ve been prevented.”
He shook his head
“There are plotters as long as I’m emperor. Your late arrival doesn’t matter. What does is you foiled their plans.”
Had I walked away we’d not have this conversation.
“I did not intend to visit the city, sire” she apologetically confessed, her right curled against her lap. “I got lost on the way, and then I was just… here. Had General Voorhis not asked for my help-“
Her lips trembled at the thought of what might’ve happened. She immediately looked away and brushed a hand on her cheek. Emhyr saw a wet residue in the corner of her right eye.
“I’m sorry, you have weathered the storm and here I am dredging the past. I’m thankful you survived. That we both survived.”
Emhyr reached out and patted her knee
“You have denied the wishes of those who want me dead and to reunite me with my departed family. Ask me anything and I shall grant it.”
“I want nothing and you owe me nothing, Majesty.”
“I’ll have none of this modesty-“ Sarah shook her head wearily, cutting him off.
“Sire, I have no need for riches or material possession. I survived the wilds with nary a single crown and will continue to do so for the rest of my natural life. If you persist in rewarding me-.”
“Live, your majesty. You are living proof that all those years I studied to be a healer weren’t a complete waste. That’s all I ask.”
Emhyr was, once more, struck by her nobility: part of him wonders if she is putting on an act because no one could be this selfless.
“How do you feel, your Majesty?” she asked.
Emhyr shifted with a wince. “Starving”
“That is excellent news, your appetite returning, I mean. I shall inform Master Chamberlain to bring you some food.”
“Dine with me Sarah.”
“Is… is that an order, sire?”
“Only if you refuse”
The corners of his lips rose in a smile.
Sarah was visibly flustered, unable to look at him any longer in embarrassment.
“His majesty has the energy to engage in light flirting, then I pronounce him recovered- physically at least. Your mental faculties might still be hazy if you just asked the palace servant for luncheon.”
She grinned, indicating that it’s a jest, and then her expression softened into a tender, thoughtful look.
“What is it, Sarah?”
“I’m just… happy to see you safe, and alive.”
He returned her smile.
“I’ll go call for some food to be sent.”
“… for two”
Sarah got up, swayed for a bit, steadied herself, and went towards the door. After so many days of uncertainties, so many sleepless nights worrying if the next day will be their last, she can finally... rest.
Her hand reached for the door handles
No, there is still the after care. A few more days to ensure full recovery till he can get off the bed and on his f-
The world started spinning and she felt her knees buckle.
She crumpled in a heap on the carpeted floor, sinking deeper into darkness.
This chapter is inspired from my experience battling bronchopneumonia at the age of six. It was a harrowing experience and I survived. I could imagine the stress it caused my family: a great deal of stress and worry, unsure if I would survive to reach the age of seven. I survived, and here I am injecting all the experience, the stress and the relief in this chapter.
And like Sarah, I too feel the need of a long rest. Expect the next chapter to be uploaded in the next few weeks :).
Chapter 13: A Magnanimous Reward
Sarah is released from her duties and finds herself adrift in the imperial residence. Emhyr struggles with the thought of Sarah departing and comes up with a plan to make her stay in Nilfgaard permanent.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Sarah opens her bleary eyes and saw Mererid looming above her.
“Be at ease, milady. You are all right. By the Great Sun, this apartment is so gloomy!”
Despite her disorientation, her mind was doing all the silent questioning.
She instinctively tried rising but the chamberlain gently pushed her back on the bed.
“You need plenty of rest and food. Imperial doctors’ orders.” he gestured at the wooden table across her bed- a single plate with mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables and the largest roasted chicken leg she has ever seen rested between the cutlery. There was also a tall glass of lemonade. It was warm judging by the lack of condensation.
Food? Doctors? My room?
Questions after questions bottlenecked her brain: Why am I here? How did I get here? The emperor! Who is looking after him?
Mentally waving away the cobwebs of her disorientation, she retraced the last thing she remembers.
She was in the emperors’ room, sitting beside him, talking to him, and then going to the door to get food. Then her hand slid before she could touch the door handles. Everything went dark afterwards….
Her face turned as white as snow making the blush on her cheeks stand out like a bruise. Her hands went up, muffling a mortified groan. “Oh- ohhh noooooo…”
Mererid nodded in sympathy.
Emhyr chewed on a piece of softened steak; eyes closed in bliss, savoring the flavor, the texture- the seasoning! His meal also came with sautéed vegetables, fresh sliced fruits and wine- Est Est.
A fine meal to wash down after days of having Sarah’s herbal hermit diet shoved down his throat. He was grateful for everything she has done, keeping him and his hopes alive. It wasn’t disgusting by any means, and she managed to help him keep the food down, but still... he wouldn’t want another spoonful of her medicinal recipes for as long as he lives.
Two hours ago
He called for the guards to summon the chamberlain immediately. Even if he still hasn’t regained his full strength, Emhyr manage to pick Sarah off the floor and into his arms. She was surprisingly light. He carefully lays her on the alcove, placing a cushion under her head.
The emperor sat beside her. The white cap she wore is still in place and held her tousled ebony mane but a few wisps escaped its enclosure. He reached out and moved an errant curl that has settled across her lips.
“My poor wildflower” he mumbled, stroking her pale cheek with his thumb.
Mererid came in and stood in silent anticipation, the door closed softy behind him. His lined face was a mask of discipline and attention, hiding the joy at seeing the emperor up and about, and ready to take command.
“Have someone help Sarah to her quarters and send for a physician to examine her. Poor girl worked herself to exhaustion and collapsed where you stand.”
“As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty”
Mererid remained where he stood, knows that his master still has more to say.
“I want my old doctors reinstated” Emhyr added without looking up. “Inform them that any and all cases Evertsen accused them of will be null and void.”
“Lord Evertsen won’t be pleased”
“He will have more to be displeased with. The doctors he appointed are to be assigned as apprentices. Tell Peter that as much as I appreciate his grand gesture, these fresh appointees lack the courage and fortitude to be imperial doctors. They are more concerned with saving their necks than serving me.”
Emhyr finally turned to look at the chamberlain. Unlike Sarah, the chamberlain looked freshly rested in spite of his busy schedule managing the household.
“You will deliver my orders to him, as well as oversee the reinstatement of my doctors. Peter will have a week more on my seat and get his affairs done. I intend to get back to the thick of things. Have all the reports and communications sent to my study. You know where.”
“As you wish Your Imperial Majesty” he gave Emhyr a deep bow. Mererid is one of the few individuals Evertsen cannot influence… or muscle aside.
There was a soft knock on the door. Mererid answered and stepped outside, closing the door behind him. Can’t have the help blab about seeing one of their own lounging in the emperor’s alcove and reach some loose lipped noble, spreading a scandalous intrigue far and wide.
Not long after, he came back pushing a trolley laden with a tray of food under a silver lid, a goblet, a bottle of wine, and silver cutlery.
Emhyr glanced back and saw the chamberlain was now laying the silverware on his work desk.
He scowled. The setting was for one person.
“Your meal is served, Your Imperial Majesty.”
A male servant came in and performed the usual courtesies, went and carefully picked up Sarah. Emhyr watched the chamberlain gave the servant a warning to keep quiet about what he sees before escorting the lad, with Sarah still asleep in his arms, out of the imperial chambers.
Mererid reported the doctors’ findings to his master: Sarah is underweight, malnourished, dehydrated and anemic. She needs plenty of rest and food, and should be sufficiently able to resume her menial duties in two or three days.
Emhyr acknowledge the report with a curt wave of a fork, thankfully devoid of morsels. He was done with the meat and moved the plate aside for the bowl of sliced fruit. Mererid poured in the right amount of cream, and then picked the empty plate with the cutlery.
“Mererid, send for some proper clothes for Sarah. She is not a servant to begin with and should not work as one. Amend that error.”
Mererid hardly paused- he detected a note of irritation from the emperors’ tone.
“As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty” he gave a deep bow and left the room with the trolley of empty plates and used silverware.
Using a small fork, Emhyr speared a cubed pear among the mixed fruit draped in cream and into his mouth.
News of his resurrection would surely reach the populace and to his poisoners. Evertsen will oversee the trial and eventual execution. The sentence will be ten times more painful and equally prolonged: just like the slow death they subjected him to. He’d have to send for one of his generals to make sure his orders are carried out: a lengthy but spectacular death to send a message to the opposition.
He can’t show his face to the public yet- looking like he just rose from the dead. He needs to regain his lost weight so his robes do not look like it hung on him. He has an entire week to plan, to think… to rejuvenate.
He will task Mererid to prepare the carriage, the body double, the right number of security and make it appear that he just came back from a prolonged trip. Not Loc Grim, maybe Darn Ruach or any of the provinces: assuage the public that he is still very much alive and in control.
While pondering the immediate future, the emperors’ eyes came upon Sarahs’ notes neatly piled on his desk and weighed down by an obsidian paperweight. These notes were carefully moved to make space for his meal.
The pages were a mix of personal entries and professional medical jargon. He’d have to sort the pages out and have the medical ones sent to the doctors. They could use her procedures in case such an attack to his person is repeated.
Taking a grape from the fruit bowl, he leafed through the papers and read a random entry.
HIMs temp spiked at noon. HIMs immune system is waging war with the poison. Anticipated the reaction, not the intensity. Applied ice pack on HIMs forehead, cooled pillows and sheets. I will not risk another nosebleed. Body needs protein to burn, antibodies are draining his body’s paltry energy reserves. Meat is not advisable at his present state. Need food that requires the least chewing effort. Will go to the square tomorrow; look for the offshoot to the fiddlehead fern.
Note to self: Give fern a fancy name so master chamberlain wont object to my feeding it to HIM.
Emhyr chuckled. HIM stands for His Imperial Majesty. He noticed her script. It was clean, even and graceful. Not some henpecked scratching or clumsy scrawls a peasant would use. He read another random note, this one much earlier than the last.
The little grin on his face vanished.
HIM relapsed. Temperature shot up again. Immunity weakened due to the chamberlain’s insistence that HIM needs another bath. I despaired at the consequences. I should’ve been more firm. It’s a harsh lesson learned for master chamberlain.
I must not, I cannot fail. I will exhaust all my supply of little whisper if I have to. It doesn’t matter if I die in the attempt. I will not be branded a regicide.
He noticed that there were some circular blurs on the writing where the ink swirled, making some words barely readable.
Emhyr puts down the paper and glanced at the bottom drawer of his desk - slightly ajar. He pulled it halfway open and took out a polished wooden tube. He remembers stuffing this object absentmindedly inside the drawer, feeling confused; wondering what possessed him to act so impulsively.
He dug into his memories.
Five days after his return to the capital, Emhyr summoned Raphael Degas in his office. Raphael, the youngest of the court painters and the most celebrated, arrived and bowed. He was wearing a tasteful black and gold tunic which, like most painters, bore spots and splashes of colors. Raphaels’ were gold, amber, green and sepia. It didn’t matter to Emhyr, as long as the paintings are pristine. Emhyr ordered him to create a portrait of the woman he met in Mirrah, and described her in crystal clear detail. Who could forget those extraordinary eyes, thick curly raven hair that undulates like a stormy sea that is in stark contrast with her fair skin? Raphael asked timidly her age, what clothes she wore as well as the expression on her face. Emhyr didn’t expound too much: she’s younger than the emperor by perhaps ten maybe even twenty or so years, and she’d be smiling without showing her teeth. The only cosmetic change he wanted is her clothes. Emhyr wanted the Lady Of Mirrah wearing a delicate white dress, not the rags he clearly remembers her wearing.
Three month later, the painting arrived. Raphael revealed the portrait with a flourish, very proud of his masterpiece, waiting for the usual praises. Unfortunately, the grave expression on the emperors’ face meant he did not share in the painter’s enthusiasm, nor was in a mood to hand out praises. Emhyr turned to the chamberlain and ordered him to escort Raphael to the Imperial treasury for his pay.
The painting, propped on an easel stand, was brought to his study. Likewise, Emhyr dismissed his guards. Emhyr stared the portrait. The heavy smell of turpentine and varnish made him a little dizzy – he has been feeling out of sorts lately. He was looking at the portrait intensely with his arms across his chest.
All the details he mentioned where there: curly raven hair, fair complexion, thick lashes, and pink bow lips.
He was not impressed.
She looked like a different person. The ebony hair should be longer, curls like the waves of the Skelligen seas, her skin should be fairer, almost glowing, and her upper lip arched like the shape of a heart- a signature style of Raphael and not the bow shape he mentioned. But the painting will have to suffice for its’ purpose.
He paid the portraitist 2000 florens for a painting that displeases him.
Emhyr realized it’s not the painting that angered him.
He was wasting time and resources for a portrait... of a woman- an unknown forest hermit whom his mind refused to discard. His attention sometimes wandered during imperial meetings -where in the North is she settling, and what is her story- that more than once he had to demand the speaker to repeat themselves.
The emperor cannot afford distractions.
He took the dagger hanging on his belt, squeezing its leather bound hilt. He should stop this inexplicable nonsense; excise it out of his head, this… fascination over a forest beauty. That’s is why he had Raphael make the painting of her so he can physically destroy it, and forget- just as he had destroyed any physical evidence of his enemies existence than even history forgot their names.
Except she was not an enemy.
He raised the dagger, ready to plunge it at the portraits face when something stopped him from striking the canvas.
The only detail Raphael painted accurately.
Two perfectly symmetrical silver orbs inlaid with equally perfect emerald gems. All the women tied to him have green eyes: Pavetta, Cirilla, the false Cirilla, and now this Sarah. The eyes that look back at him is exactly as he remembers: deep, mysterious-
Emhyr cuts a long rectangular strip across the portraits face, taking only the pair of emerald eyes separated by the bridge of a nose. These eyes have no right to be in this false face.
He summoned servants to remove what’s left of the portrait and instructed them to toss it in the fireplace.
The Lady of Mirrah is long gone, devoured by the untamed wilderness of the North, and this picture of her eyes is a better memento than the scar on his arm.
I will forget her-in time.
Or so he believed. He never did forget.
Emhyr returned from his recollections.
He twisted the cap off the tube. He took out the rolled canvas piece and gazed at the green eyes, tracing the silver rings with his forefinger. They looked back at him and he is, once more, captivated. During brief moments of respite from imperial obligations, he had taken the painting out of its tube to remember.
No sense keeping this copy.
Emhyr rolled the painting piece and stuffed it back inside the tube. He returns it and carefully pushed the drawer close.
His hand touched his chest.
There it is again, that tremor.
It troubled him.
He had many regrets that could fill a novel: among them is losing people he is genuinely close with on a personal level. During moments of rest he finds them intruding his thoughts: Father, Mother, Calanthe, Cirilla… Pavetta. And they hounded him again on his way to the grave until thoughts of silver and emerald eyes veered him away.
She was going to depart come spring… and the only thing that he will have of her is the painting of her eyes in the tube.
The wildflower must be planted in his garden- That’s it!
Emhyr abandons the rest of his dessert and summoned the chamberlain.
Two days after her embarrassing fainting spell, Sarah was seen wandering around the imperial residence for the next three weeks: staring at paintings decorating the halls, and strolling around the immense imperial gardens. But most often, she could be found inside the palace library, and what a delight it was to be surrounded by books!
Mererid informed her that she was released from her duties: both as a servant and Emhyr’s physician. The last part strangely stung. Word around the residence is that the emperor’s personal physician asked to remain anonymous in fear of being assassinated by the emperors’ enemies. And so the old physicians were reinstated. Mererid encouraged the rumor, but warned the household not to say a word to anyone, especially to the nobles and foreign guests. They did not question this- fully aware of what happens to loose-lipped servants.
Her chambermaid uniform was taken away and replaced with dresses of varying combinations of black, white and gold. It was nothing fancy or expensive. If she were to walk the city, she’d blend in with the civilians.
Being released from her tasks unfortunately gave her more free time than she needed, and so she spends a lot of it either loitering the halls or reading in the library. Yet, even dressed as a nilfgaardian, she was drawing attention of a different kind: she still wasn’t used to the Southern climate, and wearing a thick shawl or a concealing cloak made her stick out like a nordling.
Today she was at the library sitting in one of the single tables with a stack of slim books. She’s been here nearly every day that she was becoming a common fixture that earlier, the head librarian Ingwald asked her if she’d be interested in applying for a library card to ease her search for any specific books she might like to take home.
The exchange went as follows:
“Uhmmm, no thank you. I won’t be staying long in the capital. I’m just here for the winter.”
“Oh? Are you here visiting a relative?”
“A… just visiting, no relatives in the capital.”
“You have a slight accent, milady. Are you from the provinces?”
Sarah’s hut sprang to mind.
“From Geso, but I’ve spend an extended amount of time in the North, which would explain the accent.”
“Ahhh” that would also explain the thick knitted shawl on her shoulders, Ingwald thought. “Well… thank you for your patronage, lady…”
“Lady Mirah, it is a pleasure to see someone who loves to learn. If I may, I can reserve that table over there for you for the rest of your stay in our lovely capital.”
She flashed him a dazzling smile. “That would be delightful!”
Sarah lost track of time while reading and was reminded of noon by her empty belly. Mererid had servants send her food at her quarters every day- promptly too. It was like a free inn service except she was in the palace, staying at a servant’s quarters and eating a meal fit for a noble. Despite the chamberlains attempts to convince her to switch to a more bright and spacious apartment, Sarah simply refuse to leave her gloomy chambers, still insisted that she cannot sleep well in rooms with large windows. Mererid finally gave up after his fourth attempt.
Sarah flipped to the next page of the book titled Kingdoms of the Sands and Seas when she heard footstep echoing towards her. She looks up, curious.
It was the chamberlain.
“Come with me, Lady Sarah.”
She closed the book and followed the chamberlain.
Ingwald came to the table to pick up her books looking confused.
Turns out the chamberlain was leading her to the gardens, specifically further back, where a construction was ongoing.
Carpenters and masons were busy hauling, hammering, sawing, laying down stone and mortar while talking about their personal woes. By the looks of the buildings ‘dimensions, Sarah surmised they are making a small manor… or a large storeroom.
A woman in her late fifties, with a generous body and fading ginger hair, sitting on a stone bench near the construction site saw them approach, stood up and gave a courteous bow. She was wearing a chambermaid uniform albeit different from what Sarah wore in the past. Her white uniform has black and gold trim, which meant the red-head is of a higher rank.
The chamberlain gave the woman a curt nod, halted and turned to Sarah.
“Lady Sarah, this is Martina Caddelle of Eidon. She is assigned by His Imperial Majesty as your majordomo.
“It is a pleasure to finally meet you, milady” Martina said with a bright, jovial smile.
Sarah was shocked to stillness than she could be mistaken for one of the garden statues. Her mind was having a hard time digesting the information.
I have… a majordomo?
Chamberlain Mererid, oblivious to Sarah’s shock, gestured at the construction site and its bustling activity. “This will be your cottage, and it will be ready for occupation come spring. It will be fully furnished and with all the amenities paid for by His Imperial Majesty. You will be provided with servants, cooks-“
The information overload was overwhelming. Sarah finally managed to snap out of the shock.
“Wa-wait. What is all this? A house? Servants? Majordomo?”
Mererid gave her a knowing look. “Isn’t it obvious, Lady Sarah? His Imperial Majesty is giving you all these for your services.”
Her eyes were hopping around like an enthusiastic robin: House, carpenters, an elderly woman-majordomo, chamberlain expecting her to be overjoyed. It took a while to find her voice.
“I do not remember asking for anything, not even specific ones.”
Mererids’ face broke into an amused smile. “His Imperial Majesty is very generous to those who serve him well, and I advise that you receive this honor. Now then-“ he turns to Martina. “I shall leave your new mistress in your capable hands, Martina.”
And with that final announcement, the chamberlain gave both women a curt nod and left.
“Come Mistress; let me introduce you to your servants.”
First photo, please ignore the rest if you can. This is what Sarah looks like in civilian attire
and this too.
Sarah's Nilfgaardian living starts here. What is in store for our mysterious forest hermit now that her feet is secretly- and securely- planted in Nilfgaardian soil? The original chapter is expounded and most of the original "cheese" is cut out. Hope this update keeps my visitor interested in future chapters to come.
Thank you, once again, for reading my fan fiction.
Chapter 14: Now or Never
Unease brewing in the empire as reports of discontent is delivered to the emperor. Spring is fast approaching and Sarah makes a decision before she gets cold feet.
A short chapter that touches on the comings and goings within the remaining months of winter, thus the fragments of events. Bit players are given important parts as observers. These were not included in the original draft. This is also my first attempt at writing political intrigue.
While her “cottage” was being built, Sarah spent most of the cold days reading, eating, wandering around the halls, and sometimes spent hours watching the carpenters work.
It made her restless.
She has never spent the entire winter in hibernation.
Sarah longed for movement: meaningful tasks she used to do before she became stuck in the capital. Back in the North, she would leave her dwelling and forage for berries and firewood, hunt rabbits, haul buckets of cold water to boil, dig the frozen ground for any edible roots, and sew pelts next to the fire.
But here in Nilfgaard, she didn’t have to do all those things. Food and drinks were provided in her room, deliciously prepared by palace chefs. She need not boil water for washing: she was provided a private bath and the water was warm and inviting. No need to make her own soaps, those were placed next to the thick towels. No need to sew furs together for a winter coat: thick cloaks hung in the small closet and she has ten in varying shades of black.
Boredom is stifling her spirit. If it weren’t for the library’s treasure trove, she would’ve gone stir crazy from the lack of physical activity.
Movement is the cure for boredom.
And she cannot find it confined to the palace grounds.
A month before spring
Ingwald waited patiently behind his high desk with an open book in hand, more for appearances than doing actual reading. His eyes never looked at the pages but at the double doors, keeping a lookout for incoming guests.
The library is nearly empty. Most patrons during the winter months were either indoors, or abroad. And even if they did none of those things, the library was not the ideal place for a rendezvous. Not even the large fireplace warming the adjoining room for group readers enticed visitors. Today, the logs were unlit and the tables unoccupied- save for some scholars who are eternally seeking further knowledge to enrich their minds.
If today was any indication of yesterday and the past two months, that special guest would be walking through the threshold.
The double doors opened.
Sarah, wearing a thick brown cloak with the hood down, approached the librarians ‘counter and was greeted with a warm smile.
“Milady! Here to resume reading these books?” he secreted two large volumes from under the counter and placed them on the surface.
“Correct, master librarian” she replied, smiling just as warmly. “I should be done with them… maybe in a few hours. Then, if I may ask, any books about the geography of Ymlac and Etolia for my next reading?”
“We most certainly have! I’ll have a helper bring you the books. Uh, let me escort you to your table.”
“Thank you, master librarian.”
Ingwald beckoned an assistant, a young boy barely in his teens in brown and gray tunic and trousers, and gave him instructions in hushed tones. Then led her to the single reserved table, pulled the chair out for her and added a screen for privacy. Sarah smiled at his thoughtfulness; during her frequent visits to the library, she has never taken off her cloak, causing a few stares from the patrons. Sometimes she heard whispers of “obviously a Nordling” and “oh, look who’s back!”. Ingwald also took notice and, as someone who values patrons who genuinely wish to learn rather than use the books as covers for scandalous gossiping, one day, gestured for one of the helpers to bring out the privacy screen.
The young library assistant wheeled a trolley laden with tomes and carefully deposited the previous two books, and two more of the requested ones on the table, a bottle of ink and a quill. She smiled her thanks and took out a journal from inside her cloak.
Sarah carefully opens her unfinished book and flipped to the page she last left and, with the forefinger of her left hand, guided her eyes to the written words, while the right scribbles them onto the journal. So many interesting spots to explore, resources to forage, perhaps an empty dwelling she can occupy.
She can’t wait for spring to come!
Ingwald took out a quill himself and began logging the titles of the books he lent to his now favorite visitor on the library card: Mandrakes and Miracles: Ymlac and Etolia: The Summer Jewel of The Empire.
Ingwald clearly remembers the name of his guest.
He also remembers the name the imperial chamberlain called her.
Sarah Mirah. Hmm, not every day I see a nordling this interested in learning.
Meanwhile on the other side of the palace.
Chamberlain Mererid stood outside the emperors’ office, back to the door, ensuring privacy. He had the sentries posted at a considerable distance to close off both sides the hall, guisarmes crossed. This protocol is much needed during sessions with the Chief Advisor- and Imperial Adjutant- Peter Evertsen, where raised voices could be, sometimes, heard behind closed doors.
Mererid tried to ignore the occasional heated conversation between the emperor and the advisor, but when Emhyr himself is bellowing, it was difficult to tune it out.
This was the third summons this month. When Emhyr resumed his duties after a week of recovering, he was not pleased with the liberties Evertsen did during his absence. Nilfgaards’ victory over the North brought greater wealth, power and influence to the empire… and to the damnable Guild of Merchants. Bargaining with the trade corp was close to impossible, very much aware of their influence and power, and it was humiliating. Evertsen, who holds a large share in their profits, acts as an intermediary more and more often. The merchants were more willing to listen and bargain with the chief advisor than with the emperor.
Like the previous audience, Peter brought up the subject of his successor. It was a topic the emperor did not like to broach, but the Chief Advisor kept prodding and prodding. Mererid heard every word:
“Yes, Emhyr, they are a stubborn and greedy lot. The war did put a massive hole in their account books and they are still trying to recover that loss.”
“And so you permitted them to raise the prices exorbitantly, using my name and seal. Very slippery of you, Peter.”
“Only to appease them and keep whatever influence we have with the Guild.”
“”We’? Don’t you mean ‘you’”
“Look at it however you like, Majesty. The merchant’s guild are more willing to compromise with me, or to your successor, which I truly hope is set in stone. Cut this heir presumptive business and make it official-“
“I do have an heir and –“
“-she has every right to claim the throne.”
There was more than a hint of mockery in that interruption. It was bad enough that the Chief Advisor is being informal with the emperor, but to be this forward. This…insolent!
Mererid felt the hairs on his neck prickle. The subject of the emperors’ daughter was still a sore spot for His Imperial Majesty. When Emhyr was told his daughter ‘died’, for a time the emperor did not eat, buried himself into his work, and spend hours looking outside the window with longing and regret.
“Your daughter refused to take your family name, and would rather carve one for herself as the famous ‘White Haired Witcheress’.”
“Choose your words carefully, Peter. Or I’ll have that carved on the noose to hang you with.”
A brief pause from Evertsen, probably to regain his composure after that threat.
“Even if she changes her mind and take your place, the nobles will make her reign difficult. Nilfgaardians have had enough of nordlings sitting on the throne, and the princess is half-nordling. Would you want that burden on her shoulders?”
Silence… from the emperor. Evertsen decided to push forth.
“The var Emreis name hold a great deal of power and influence, and I would gladly serve another. Cirilla refuses it. It would be a shame if it dies unless you father an heir with one of daughters of the noble houses-”
The raised voices ceased, and they were speaking in volumes that no longer bled through the doors.
Mererid momentarily shuts his eyes.
Once, he asked the emperor why he tolerates Evertsens’ cheek.
“Because he is honest. Honesty, no matter how brutal, serves the empire. If I surround myself with yes-men, then I am truly blind to the coming and goings of the empire.”
“Even if he defies you, sire?”
“Perhaps… I need one or two who will defy me without fear because I have to hear it.”
The chamberlain sighed. He couldn’t conceive the thought of defying the emperor. Like every noble and civilian serving the emperor, the physical penalty isn’t worth it. Apart from Evertsen, the only individual he knew who is brutally honest with the emperor is Geralt of Rivia. But because he was an indispensable factor in seeking out the emperor’s daughter, the chamberlain was punished for the witchers’ insolence. Mererid was thankful that the punishment he received was reduced.
He spotted a manservant rolling a trolley with the emperor’s lunch, stopped by the barricade. He caught the mans’ eyes and shook his head. The servant’s shoulders sagged, gave the chamberlain a nod of acknowledgement and wheeled the trolley away, back to the kitchens with it.
The chamberlain served Emhyr long enough to predict that the emperor will skip his meal, and will be looking out that damn window with nothing but his thoughts for company.
He heard the door open behind him. He did not turn but glanced at the chief advisor brushing past his shoulder. Done with the audience, the aging chamberlain went inside the office.
Emhyr, without looking back, spoke to the chamberlains’ reflection on the window.
“I wish not to be disturbed for the rest of the day.”
“As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty” he bowed low and left, closing the door softly behind him.
Spring will be here in seven days.
Inside the small servant quarters, Sarah appraised herself in front of a tall mirror… and shook her head, her curls bouncing vigorously.
The cloak has to go!
She stripped off her gray cloak and instantly felt the cold air frosting her skin. Her dress of dark gray and brownish gold was the warmest, but left her arms bare.
If I am to ask for an audience with the emperor, it is best I appear nilfgaardian-like.
She took a pair of thick sleeves matching the colors of her dress and slipped her arms in.
Much better. Except for her exposed shoulders, she was considerably… less cold. She gave herself a look over. Hair combed, face wiped clean…. and her letter sealed.
She picks up the folded letter- sealed with candlewax- off the table and tucked it inside the pocket hidden within the folds of her skirt. She had pondered upon the message all night, read and re-read the contents of her letter until it was stamped in her mind:
Your Imperial Majesty,
These four months of winter in the palace has been the best winters of my life. I am forever grateful for your kindness and generosity.
It is with deep regret that I must refuse your generous reward for a service I render freely. I am honored to be given such a magnanimous gift.
Yet, I longed for my freedom to explore the lands and find that place I can finally call home.
Please do not think ill of me. This is not a rejection of your kindness. In fact, it saddens me that I must do this, this path I chose for myself.
Perhaps we will meet again someday. And I sincerely hope we will meet under better circumstances.
On the floor of her closet, a new travelling bag Martina purchased at her request. She will have a week to pack her essentials.
Letter in her pocket, she gave herself one last look at the mirror and rubbed her exposed shoulders for warmth. Her reflection did the same.
“It’s now or never.”
Her image nodded in agreement.
Palace courtiers ignored her; servants gave her a polite bow as she passes. Sarah, walking at a sedated pace, restrained herself from smiling. Looks like she can pass off for a nilfgaardian after all!
Along the way she asked a guard the current whereabouts of the emperor and was told she had to climb a set of stairs four floors above the throneroom. Sarah groaned but reasoned to herself the climb will do her good and will drive away the chill seeping through her clothes and warm her -figuratively as well as literal- cold feet.
After climbing the stairs and taking a few wrong turns, she found the correct hall and the chamberlain guarding the door of an apartment. Where the chamberlain is, the emperor shouldn’t be far.
A nobleman came out of the room, wearing an impressively tasteful doublet with a neck ruff and that familiar gold chain of the Guild.
The Chief Advisor!
Sarah slowed her pace and kept her chin up, but with lowered eyes. Evertsen gave Sarah a passing glance and turned towards another hallway. Sarah immediately quickened her steps and was stopped by crossed guisarmes.
Before she could speak, the chamberlain saw her and ordered the guards to let her pass.
“What can I do for you, Lady Sarah?”
“I seek an audience with His Imperial Majesty”
“He does not wish to be disturbed today”
“Please, this is urgent” she pleaded. “I must speak with him before… before I lose my nerve.”
Mererid sighed heavily. When it rains, it pours
“What is this urgent business that it must supersede the emperors’ order?”
Sarah took out the letter from her skirt.
“My… seven days’ notice”
Mererid looks at the letter, then at her. His brows met in stupefied disbelief.
“Truly? You still wish to leave- to refuse- the emperors… Unbelievable!”
“You wouldn’t understand why I had to do this. I will, I’ll… try… to make his majesty understand why I cannot stay.”
Mererid’s jaw stiffened at the audacity of this ungrateful woman. “You would insist in throwing away that abode he had the workers build for you, servants he assigned to serve you. You’d defy His Imperial...“
Mererid words trailed off, a faraway look in his eyes.
“Perhaps… I need one or two who will defy me without fear because I have to hear it.”
Mererid narrowed his eyes at her and used calculated words to test the mettle of her resolve. “Is there anything I can say to convince you to give up this futile request? I warn you, those who refused the emperor rarely repeat that mistake.”
“I’m afraid not. I have refused him before, yet here I am” she smiled, opening her arms showing Mererid the living proof facing him.
Iron resolve indeed!
“Don’t be smug milady, it’s unattractive. Very well” he sighed. “I shall go in there and inform His Imperial Majesty of your insistence.” Mererid grabbed the door handle and glanced at her
“It was a pleasure working with you, milady.”
Sarah felt the figurative cold on her feet crawl up her legs, numbing her knees and mixing with the dread percolating in her stomach. She manage to croak a response. “Pleasure is mutual, master chamberlain.”
He gave her a nod and disappeared inside.
Sarah wanted so bad to press her ear against the door and snoop, but that would only add to her agitation. Instead, she stuffed the letter back in her pocket and did some calming exercises: deep breaths and holding it in before exhaling through her mouth, shaking her hands, and pacing the length of the entire apartment while glancing at the door expecting Mererid to return any mi-
“The emperor will see you now, Lady Sarah.”
Chapter 15: Imperial Burdens
Emhyr recollects the event of the past that hounded him to this day, and Sarah gets to hear all of it.
This chapter touches upon the events in the books and the games, through the viewpoint of Emhyr. Its a long chapter full of expositions. Those familiar with the book events knows what Emhyr originally intends to do with his daughter to stop the ice age while strengthening his empire.
TW: Incest is mentioned, but mildly.
She found the emperor on his feet staring out the large window with his hands behind his back- a tight fist clutched by the other at the wrist.
He was wearing his imperial robes: wine red and dark silver damask coat over his white linen shirt, a leather belt studded with squares of silver girded his surcoat of black with intricate gold threadwork in diagonal diamond patterns, dark green pants and black calfskin leather boots. Gold tassels buttoned his coat and sleeves. His gold necklace of office gleamed and the Great Sun medallion glinted against the noon light. His hair, combed back, also gleamed from the pomade used to keep it sleek and the grey hairs on his temples gave off a kind of stoic dignity. She noticed the tips of his hair curled upwards from repeated combing.
Emhyr found himself looking out the windows of his apartments more and more often, trying to sense the pulse of the empire and its subjects. It is a habit he acquired when he regained the throne from his fathers’ murderer. And what he gathered from these observations were assurances: his subjects acted that everything is back to normal, the emperor is still functioning, rumors of his impending death were snuffed out. The malcontents were silenced, but in the shadows, plotted their next move.
Everything is as it should be in the Imperium. The hubbub of the city didn’t reach the walls of the imperial residence.
But lately, staring out the window turned into an escape from Evertsens’ reports. The nobles were overjoyed at the victory, at last, but they tire of him. The loses were just as great as the gains from the war.
They would never openly oppose him, so they do it in the shadows. Discreetly. Treacherously!
Sarah approached him and stopped at the required ten paces. The closing of the door alerted Emhyr to her presence, pulling him out of his thoughts. There was melancholy in his eyes that he failed to conceal.
“The Emperor is troubled”
It wasn’t a question.
Brows crinkling and lips twisted, Emhyr stared at her reflection coldly.
“Take advantage of this rare leniency, Sarah. Whatever it is you wish to address, be quick about it.”
She respectfully lowered her eyes to the ground, adapting a subservient manner. “Forgive my impertinence, Your Imperial Majesty. I did not intend to-“
She trailed off at the sight of the tray of roast lamb and leeks, herb tea porridge with truffles and a cold glass of honey lemon, sitting on top of his desk next to the pile of paperwork. The lack of steam rising from the now tepid porridge and roast, and the cutlery still perfectly positioned on the napkin meant the emperor ignored his food long enough for it to be unappealing. The meal would have to be replaced or thrown away. Sarah felt sorry for the cooks.
The delicious smells of his lunch did not elicit any response from her empty belly. She herself lost her appetite today mulling about this audience. But to see the same condition from him-
“Are you not hungry sire?”
That question took him aback and the genuine concern softened his stance.
Still looking at her reflection, he gestured for her to come closer.
She walked right up to his desk. Emhyr closed his eyes, summoning patience.
“Stand beside me… please.
Sarah walked until she was next to him. Emhyr finally looks away from the window to study her… and he was startled at what he saw.
He has not had a proper look at her and the last time, she was but a shell: a thin and pale girl in servant’s whites with dark circles under her eyes.
He noticed she was tall for her sex and age, though a head shorter than him. Food and rest did wonders for her physique: the dress emphasizing her narrow waist and womanly curves- particularly her chest. Her hair, a riot of ebony curls, braided at the sides to circle the back of her head, holding the rest of her mane in place, rested placidly on her shoulders. Her eyes were respectfully lowered, occasionally glancing up to meet his warm amber flames, only to resume looking at his medallion. Emhyr still couldn’t believe it possible for eyes like that to exist without the help of magic. They were pure emeralds under the shadows of her lashes, sunlight dancing on the surface and the silver rings of her iris gleamed. Emhyr surmised the coming years will only add to her beauty. His nose detected her perfume.
He reached out and took her hand, soft and delicate but with a trace of roughness from her time in the wilderness. He was looking at it for an unusually long time, remembering the feel of her touch, massaging her oils on his head, arms and legs: warm, gentle, and caring. How he nearly crushed her wrist, leaving angry welts as a result. He paid her kindness with cruelty.
He lowered his head and kissed it.
Sarah blushed, experiencing sensations that replaced the earlier dread with something she couldn’t identify. Emhyr could feel the heat coming off her and saw her cheeks turn a lovely shade of rose. He released her hand immediately as if it ceased to interest him and returned to looking out the window.
“I am not ill, if that is your diagnosis. But thank you for your concern. So… what do you wish to convey?”
It took a while for her to act. While he was studying her, she was studying him. The months of food and rest did wonders to his physique, particularly his wide shoulders and broad chest. His face, pale where the beard was supposed to be was chiseled and angular, with a tiny nick on the chin she mistook for a cleft. Deep-set eyes of flame, and that impressive aquiline nose were, in her objective opinion, his best features.
Sarah showed him the letter. His eyes darted to it, and then back at her. He sighed.
“I’ll have a look at it later. Place it on my desk.”
She did as she was told and placed her notice next to the pile of paperwork. The emperor seems to have dismissed her as he was looking at the window again. The glass reflected his mental turmoil, whatever it is that troubled him.
Curiosity guided her steps and she found herself standing beside him.
“What do your eyes see?” he asked without turning.
She glanced at him briefly and looked where he looked.
The emperor’s study has a good vantage point to view the city. She could make out the foot traffic in the distance.
“A busy metropolis with a robust trade- even in winter. Hmmm… patrolling sentries, clean streets… impossible to hear the chatter at this distance, but from the looks of the activities… it’s all peaceful, orderly, and thriving.”
He turned his head to look at her and saw she cupped her chin while she observed. He grinned.
“Your physicians’ eyes miss very little, even inquiring about the state of my appetite when you saw my untouched meal.”
She smiled bashfully at that. “I may have been made redundant, but a physicians’ concern for the patient never ends.”
“What else does my doctor observe in her patient?”
She paused, and without looking, answered.
“He is woolgathering.”
He grew quiet and introspective. Sarah did not push further, worried that she may have been too forward with her reply.
“There are things in the past that haunts me still. And the recent attempt on my life has caused me to reflect on them.”
Now why did he deign to inform her that? It was not in his nature to reveal his personal thought. Much less to an unknown. But…
There was something about her presence that puts him at ease. Maybe because he is so used to conspiracies and betrayals that honest individuals are a surprise, especially kindhearted ones.
“Majesty… The past is something to learn from, not to dwell on. We cannot change it, and we’d be insane to repeat it. Yet all is not lost, because we can still influence the future.”
Emhyr glanced at her with a raised brow. She did not turn her head, but her eyes glanced at his reflection… she smiled and pressed on.
“We’ve succeeded in healing your body. Your mental and emotional state are a different matter.”
“Hmm… I don’t suppose you have a cure for those as well?” It was a weak jest delivered in somber tones that the humor in it was lost.
“I’m afraid my cures are only for the body. The mental and emotional states are not within my field of expertise.”
“Your intellect continues to astonish me. Why did you not choose the Imperial Academy? Awakened minds like yours are better appreciated here. Oxenfurt is overrated, producing pompous know-little-know-it-alls.”
Sarah snorted, and promptly covered her grinning mouth with a hand.
“His Radiance, from what I’ve heard, is not known for his patience and even less for his sense of humor. Clearly that description needs a revision.”
Emhyr chuckled halfheartedly.
“I- Im sorry, sire. That was too forward of me”
He waved of her apology with a hand gesture. “You’ve not offended me. As a physician, what is your advice?”
“As a physician? I have none. But, if his Imperial Majesty will allow an unsolicited one-”
“He needs a friend”
She saw his hand curl and his face darkening.
“Unconventional as expected. I have soldiers, servants, officers, courtiers, supplicants and even sycophants at my beck and call. No friends in that mix, only enemies and shared interests.”
She gave him a sideways glance.
“Everyone needs a friend, even an emperor. It is unhealthy for the spirit to keep troubles bottled; else it will manifest as a physical ailment.”
Emhyr chewed the inside of his cheek. Ever since he lost his childhood, he also lost the ability to trust, and treats everyone, including his closest confidants with more than a grain of suspicion. Everyone in- and out of-his circle are expendable and have to constantly prove their worth to keep themselves in his good graces. It’s a wonder he hasn’t gone mad with paranoia.
Lower my guard to a woman whom I know next to nothing? What thinking noble would bare their soul to a vagabond?
Sarah measured the silence and understood Emhyr needed time- and trust-to consider. She gave him a courteous bow. “Im being too forward again. Forgive me sire, I shall take my leave. My letter is on your desk for your review.”
She walks towards the door. Her fingers closed around the handles.
Sarah lets go and turns around, waiting patiently.
Emhyr recalls her life story: her time at the academy: that Cidarian oaf who defamed her and how sharing ones’ troubles brought her comfort.
To be surrounded by people and yet feeling alone. We’re not all that different, he thought. Something else rose from his memories: Her words.
I guess I just needed someone to talk to. Someone to listen… someone to touch.
“Aye, your Imperial Majesty?”
“If I were to take you into my confidence, I must insist on learning more about you. Fear not” he added when she looked scared. “I will not pry too deep into your personal life.”
She bowed in acknowledgement. Emhyr beckons her to stand next to him. She obliged and walked to his side. Emhyr glanced at the window, framing the question in his thoughts.
“Back in Geso, I asked you if you were afraid of me. The question still stands.”
Sarah lowered her eyes and answered, almost whispering. “…Yes. Deathly afraid.”
Emhyr inhaled sharply. Her frankness stung.
“And yet, you decided to save me.”
“You were in danger and I took an oath to do no harm: aid those in need.”
“I remember you said you studied to be a healer. You had a practice somewhere in the North.”
It was not a question.
Her smile was a touch sad. “I left before I could collect my diploma and my healers’ badge. That makes me, in the academy’s eyes, a quack.”
Emhyr let out one of his exasperated exhales. Sarah could see his reflection frowning.
“Did I displease His Imperial Majesty with my answer?”
“I’m pondering on firing my doctors for their incompetence, seeing as they are bested by a quack”. He chuckled humorlessly, and resumed.
“Were you… a courtier?”
Sarah didn’t react nor looked at him, but her reflection tensed up for a split second. Then she smiled her sad smile. “I’ve spend most of my life in the dormitories of the academy, the other half between the library and its classrooms. Never stepped into a nobles’ mansion, nor set one foot in a palace… until recently.” Her lips stretched on both corners.
Emhyr’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. He sensed her dancing on the truth, framing her answer in a way using truth to hide an even deeper secret. At least she hasn’t tried lying to him yet.
“Why did you choose to become a hermit, Sarah? Why the life of a vagabond when you could be something more?”
Sarah’s face appeared to be carved from marble.
“Because it was safe… better. If I pursued that path to greatness, it would mean a great deal of un-pleasantness to… a great many people.”
Emhyr wanted to ask more, but Sarah’s mood shifted like an overcast cloud blotting the sun. Or a vault slamming shut. He realized he hit on the right question, but instead of answers, she created even more questions. He decided to postpone further queries. There are other means to uncover her identity- Vattier for instance, provided that bungler doesn’t mess it up.
“Thank you for your honesty, Sarah.” He replied, giving her an approving nod.
Sarah bowed. Emhyr gazed out the window.
How long has it been since he confided with someone about something personal? He recalled that day at Stygga Castle. He had been younger, ambitious, and believed he can do anything. It was there where his eyes were opened: there are plans –decisions- that even an emperor cannot – could not- enact, even if reasons of state, or the fate of the world, requires it: a fine dividing line between man and monster.
“I trust that whatever I say stays in this room.” his tone made it clear enough that if she did not honor that trust, she’d regret it.
“Doctors’ oath that what passes in this room is of the strictest patient- doctor confidentiality: Anything His Imperial Majesty says I will carry to my grave.”
Emhyr was also not in the mood for figures of speeches about death. Her overuse of his title is mildly irritating.
“Your oath is sufficient enough to gain my trust without the melodramatics.”
Sarah lowered her head in shame. “Im sorry, Your Imperial M-“
“And cut down on the formalities”
“As you wish, Y- s…sire.”
Emhyr gritted his teeth in frustration, biting the words along with the rest of his admonishments. Mererid clearly schooled Sarah in etiquette, and it has set on her like mortar.
Time I kept my word.
He looks above the city and into the distance. His mind travelled back into the past, to the memories that haunted him.
“I have no shortage of enemies. But no matter how many I send to the gallows, someone else takes their place. The consequence of wielding absolute power is that it creates dissidents whose perceived rights are being trampled upon by my decrees. It’s the hazards of being a leader of multitudes. I sit on the throne: my right hand sign out orders and my left keeps the knives on my back at bay as well as crush any threats.”
He looks at her after a moment’s pause.
“These nobles who made up the opposition are still bitter about what they consider an affront to their honor when I spurned their daughters for a nordling. I’ve survived their past attempts at usurpation and they became imperial ornaments in the Millennium Square. Now, a new set of nobles are trying to get on my good graces, picking up the old cause due to the gains I procured after the war, wooing me with their daughters, getting less and less noble with their intentions.”
It astounds him that he could reveal a lot in one breath to someone who is a complete mystery: a total stranger. He felt a sense of foreboding, yet he also felt some relief in the act of sharing.
Sarah pondered on the facts then spoke her conclusion. “I think, sire, your foes are growing impatient because you’ve not announced a successor, biological or not. And they will announce their choice once his Majesty is out of the picture, preferably someone they can influence. But why is his majesty digging up the past and salting old wounds?”
Emhyr was impressed by her perspicacity. He had enough of the window and felt the burdens of his obligations weighing him down like a sack of bricks.
She sensed his unease and discomfort. It doesn’t help that they are both on their feet.
“Sire, let’s move this discussion over there” she gestured at the cream-colored divan. He sighed and moved towards it, but instead of sitting down- as Sarah intended for him to do- he lays down its’ entire length-boots and all. With no place to sit, she gathers the skirt of her dress and sat on the carpet, her legs curled daintily, next to him: facing him.
Staring at the ceiling, the memories of his past became easier to picture. He glanced at her.
I just needed someone to talk to
Sarah waited patiently.
Someone to listen…
“Do you know that in the North I am respected and feared by men, women and children? Of course you know. You’ve been there. To them, I am a monster that commanded the largest and most powerful army the world has ever seen. I have made cruel but necessary decisions: for the empire and the world. I owe it to my father, who never surrendered to his assassins even if I was at their mercy. He made the Great Sun a unifying symbol of the south should dynasties fall. I aim to unite all lands under one banner, to save it from destruction. The Nordling Kings are too busy scheming and tearing at each other’s throats: none of them can be trusted with the fate of the world. Under my rule and discipline, the Continent will prosper.”
Saving the North by destroying it, she thought. That concept was not new to her. Every kingdom has its fair share of destruction and death upon territories they wish to acquire. But Nilfgaard…. Nilfgaard is doing it on a grander scale.
He stopped for a while, the lines on his brow deepened.
“It’s not easy being an emperor, Sarah. Every edict, every command I send out brings me closer to my goals, but not without costs: lives lost by the thousands, a growing number of enemies, the death of Pavetta my first wife, and the estrangement of my daughter, Cirilla.”
“Your daughter? But isn’t the Queen of Cintra your wife?” And where was she when her husband was dying?
“Cirilla, the queen of Cintra is my daughter. The Cirilla I married is an impostor my enemies presented to fool me. Both Cirillas are gone for years.”
“Wh- What?” Sarah inclined her head, confused.
“There is a prophesy that a child borne from Cirilla, my daughter, will one day rule half world, and her grandson rules the other half- saving humanity from the impending ice age, ushering in the Final Days: have you heard of it? Good, I don’t need to expound on this convoluted mess of a phenomenon. While I wage war against the North I ordered men to look for her, not just to expand the reach of the empire or to bring civilization to a barbaric nation. I was no different from those who wanted her for that gain. If Ciri bore a child- a son- in Nilfgaard, my goal to unite the lands under one banner will be realized. I found my daughter. She is to be empress, but not as my successor.”
He watched her expression slowly change; saw the comprehension dawn on her. The same disgust Geralt wore is now writ on her face.
In the past he believed, with absolute conviction, that the end justifies the means, no matter how wrong or abhorrent the means. He loathed himself and used the years to freeze his emotions so he doesn’t feel the sting of self-hatred.
Does she loathe me now, he thought, and was mildly stunned that he was concerned with her opinion of him.
To go as far as doing something so deprave to his own daughter, to unite the lands-
Sarah is also no stranger to the ways of the monarchy: incest, though taboo and frowned upon, is a well-kept secret among the high nobility, and is done to keep the bloodlines pure. She became aware of her reaction and he was seeing it.
“I had to commit, Sarah, in order to save the world from inevitable destruction I must do this deed. Wouldn’t you, if that is what it takes to save it?”
For the first time Sarah looks him straight in the eyes: the arrogant Oxenfurt scholar about to deliver some cold hard truths.
“Forgive me, sire, for my bluntness. But if peace and unity is achieved by corrupting an innocent together with my soul, I’d rather live in a world torn by war and suffering; pray to any living or mythological deities that I will survive the fallout. And if I damn myself, successfully saved the world, I’ll make sure there are no mirrors or any reflective surfaces- because I couldn’t bear to look at the monster I have become.”
That hurt. Emhyr grimaced sourly.
“Just like him.”
“Cirillas’ guardian, the witcher Geralt of Rivia. He said the same thing you did, without elegance. Geralt was more of a parent to Cirilla than I could ever be. In order to realize my goals, I had to tear my daughter away from the man who became her father in all but blood.”
Sarah was afraid to ask the most niggling question, unsure if she wanted to hear his answer.
“Did you accomplish your end goal?”
She was dancing on the question. He grinned bitterly.
“I thought… I was capable of anything. It turns out there are things I have no stomach for. I chose to let them go.”
Emhyr saw relief on her face.
“And…you made the false Cirilla your wife.”
He nodded. “She was a victim of my ambition and instead of sending her away… or worse, I pretended she was who she claimed to be. I went against the advice of my confidants to discreetly eliminate her. And, as dictated by raison de etat, we were married to unite the North and South, ushering in peace. Even an imitation has its uses. The Cintrians have never seen the Lion Cub of Cintra for years and they believed the rumors perpetrated by my informants that she was in my court.”
Sarah had to keep her astonishment in check. She was horrified at how cold and calculating his logic was, but she was also impressed by its practicality. Is this what it means to rule? To assess everything rationally- callously and with cold indifference?
“Our marriage sealed the end of the war and the empire gained another vassal. My new wife willingly sacrificed her real identity by becoming Cirilla, for my sake and the sake of the empire, never mind that it was also politically motivated. She played the role of Cintra’s queen dutifully. Anyone who found out otherwise and intended to exploit that knowledge were silenced. Permanently. Before we wed, I told her I’m uncertain if I could even learn to love her. She accepted it and I, suppose, felt an attachment to her. She did not relinquish the name of my daughter, never told me her true name. And I never told her the truth. We were expected to produce an heir during the course of our marriage.”
He swallowed the blockage that stopped him from continuing his tale. His mind scolded him in the voice of his father to stop. Cease this outpouring of intel! He has revealed dangerous information to a stranger, a possible spy. To someone who has no worth.
“Majesty” Sarah began “This may be too much for you. Perhaps we should st-“
“No!” He interrupted sharply, cutting her and the inner voice of his father. She recoiled.
“Forgive me, but I must proceed.” He added, gently this time.
“Breathe, and speak when you are ready, Your Majesty.”
He took a deep breath, sighed heavily and stared once more at the ceiling- into the churning sea of his past. “Not once did we consummate during the years of our union. I couldn’t do it, knowing that it would be a reflection of the plan I abandoned. Should we produce an heir, I see only a poor substitute unfit to sit on the imperial throne, just as my wife is a pale imitation of the real Cirilla. Despite all appearances, our marriage was an unhappy one. She died from an illness that was reminiscent of the Catriona plague. She had to be isolated so I sent her to my residence in Darn Ruach with the best doctors, even mages to save her. It was all for naught.”
“By the clause of our marriage, Cintra and its vassals belong to the empire as her wedding dowry. A week after her death, enemies of the state exposed her as a counterfeit, it caused a stir among the noble houses and civil unrest in Cintra, but I resolved it immediately with the truth. Cintra and its vassals are still indisputably mine because I was Pavettas’ husband and Cirillas’ father. In Cintra- and most of the North, a queen has no power other than to produce an heir, preferably a male. Cintra has none, thus my claim is uncontested by virtue of my marriage.”
Emhyr paused for longer this time, observing Sarah as she absorbed the details. Her eyes showed fascination as she listens, hanging on to every word. The creases of her brows indicated that she also finds his tale... disturbing.
Someone to listen…
“As for my only heir… I enlisted the help of her guardian, Geralt of Rivia, determined to do things right - by making her my successor. But she’d rather be dead than take my place. My own daughter sees me as a threat to her freedom. All that I have left is the empire, obedient but dissatisfied subjects, and a host of daggers behind my back. They will remain so for as long as I am in power. Should I prove to be fallible, the nobles and the opposition will not hesitate to cut me down.”
A protracted silence followed his revelation. He felt physically spent, throat raw and clamoring for water. His eyes shifted towards the desk. Sarah turns to where he was looking and understood. She got up and took the glass of honey lemon; thankfully, still cold. The unopened letter on his desk with its vital news of her impending departure, still waited to be announced. Her hand hovered above it: do it now or she will never get another chance.
Emhyr sat up as she handed him the glass. Blessed relief in three swallows!
She returned to sit beside him.
“You’d sacrifice everything, for the empire?” she asked.
His answer had the effect of a steel vault slamming shut with a resounding bang.
“The empire…is everything.”
That vault is the empire, and he is locked inside. Without a successor, there is no escape.
She did not speak, but was looking at him thoughtfully. He saw the effect of his confession manifest on her face. She figuratively aged before him. His imperial burdens – sacks of bricks transferred on shoulders unable to bear its weight.
The emperor spoke of things that she found loathsome yet strangely, rational. His ambition far reaching, his decisions verge on the unimaginable… his life burdened by power, privilege and an obligation he set upon himself to save the world... She didn’t envy his position. He may have been married to a woman but his true wife is the Imperium. What good is all that wealth and power if one lived a life of eternal loneliness and distrust?
By the gods! He married a woman who pretended, preferred, to be Cirilla! Who didn’t know Cirilla is actually his daughter. For the sake of the empire and the world, Emhyr even considered –
She did not finish that thought.
Yet… the emperor revealed something else: he is capable of love. But when his previous wives perished in circumstances beyond his control, he devoted his life to the empire completely. It’s as if his heart has shriveled up. No, he still feels these emotions. But he conceals them so well… until today.
Emhyr looked away, grimacing.
“I suppose it’s true that I am a monster. To unite the lands, I had to ravage it. To bring about the savior of the world, I had to damn my soul. I don’t blame you if you think ill of me, Sarah.”
When she didn’t reply, he turned and saw on her face something he didn’t expect. The disgust and condemnation were no longer in her eyes. Instead, they were full of kindness and sympathy. There was also sadness behind them and realize it was for him.
“You decided to carry the fate of the world on your shoulders; sacrifice your own happiness, even made ruthless choices that would have destroyed lesser men.”
“You’ve done monstrous things and reaped the consequences of your decisions, willingly becoming the monster in the eyes of grown men, frightened women and little children. Yet I see no monster before me. For monsters feel no remorse, guilt or regret for their victims. You had moments where you allowed your conscience to be the voice of reason: you chose to be a father. You chose to be a husband. People find it hard to believe that a tyrant is capable of love and compassion- even in its smallest measurements, and you trusted no one to know this because they might perceive such sentimentalities as weakness in a sovereign.”
Sarah paused, letting her words sink in. The look she gave him was full of warmth.
“But it was love that made you decide to let your daughter go. It was compassion that stayed your hand from killing an innocent; willing to take your daughters’ name by sacrificing her identity for you and, you even grew to love her. Right here, right now, you trusted a singular soul with your deepest sins and regret. His Imperial Majesty, who is capable of a great many cruel deeds, is also capable of great kindness. You’re no monster, sire.”
Emhyr could feel his heart thumping against his chest, drowning the sound of everything except her voice, his medallion bouncing rhythmically with his heart. While deep into his confession, he contemplated summoning his secret service after this “tête-à-tête”. Rather have her silenced permanently than fall into enemy hands. Another cruel, but necessary decision.
“And… what am I then?”
She leaned closer, haunting emerald and silver eyes shining.
Emhyr blinked, brows drawn together in confusion.
“Humans are a contradiction: hate and love, kindness and cruelty, virtue and vice: opposites exist in one body. We are not infallible, sire. We make mistakes, too. I glimpsed into your soul and see you for who you truly are.”
Her hand, warm and soft just like the smile on her face, rested on top of his.
Someone to touch
“You are…beautifully human, Emhyr var Emreis.”
All sound came back in like air filling a vacuum. Relief washed over the guilt, the suspicions, and remorse like cool spring water. It was much like falling from a great height into a dark abyss and a net halted his descent.
He swallowed, felt his Adams apple click against the blockage created by his emotions. It stilled his tongue momentarily, and when he found his voice, he couldn’t completely control its trembling.
“You may go, Sarah. I…I wish to be alone.”
She understood. No man wanted a woman to see them at their weakest.
“As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty.”
She leaned over and did something that stunned him. She kissed him on the forehead.
Sarah felt he needed to be given a bit of tenderness to ease the pain in his soul: an assurance that everything is going to be alright, and that there is someone who understand his pain. Emhyr closed his eyes, marveling at how a simple yet intimate act soothed him. Her scent, jasmine, filled his senses. If kindness and tenderness has a scent, it’s jasmine.
“Thank you” he whispered. No, he will not have her silenced.
Sarah got up and exited the room.
Mererid turned and saw her. The audience took longer than he expected. But by the gods, she looked tired and melancholy.
“Are you all right, milady?”
She mustered a smile with lips that felt weighed down.
“His Imperial Majesty is resting and will wake up hungry. You might want to send in a hot meal in an hour.”
“And did His Imperial Majesty granted your wish?”
Her hand disappeared inside the pocket of her skirt and showed him the letter with the wax seal still intact.
“I decided today isn’t the right time to broach the subject of my departure. It would be an.... unkindness to add this to his troubles.”
Mererid smile and his eyes reflected gratitude.
“Will you be seeking another audience any day this week? I'll find a way to squeeze you in.”
She replied with a shrug to go with the noncommittal smile and walked away. She did not see the chamberlain giving her a deep bow of respect.
Sarah kept walking: head down, hand hurriedly wiping the dampness blurring her vision and then she clutched her chest. She could feel her heart rip at the seams, like a bag stuffed beyond its capacity to hold things in.
We make mistakes
The assurances she gave him… were also for herself.
Chapter 16: What I do Best
Sarah moved in to the cottage and slowly acclimated to living in the palace grounds. As she adjusted to her new role as a house mistress, she was struggling with unfamiliar emotions brought upon by the absence of her powerful imperial friend.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Sarah opened her eyes. Birds at the windowsill greeted her; the sound of their energetic chirping entered through the open window as an accompaniment to the soft dawn light. But it wasn’t their song or the sun that woke her.
It was the smell of cooking from the kitchen below.
It brought back memories of the inn in Wyzim and for a moment she felt a little disoriented. Sarah sat up from the soft bed: the plump pillow slowly rising like dough baking in the brick oven- couldn’t revert back to its original fluffy shape: it still bore the imprinted shape of her head.
It’s the fourth week of the second month of Birke and it still feels surreal calling this abode her house. House, not home. Yet. It took months and a year for her to get acclimated to the life of a wandering vagabond, and it will probably take the same amount of time to get used to this familiar way of living.
When she came in on the third day of spring, Martina and a gaggle of servants greeted her at the brass gate of the two story cottage, which, in her opinion is a manor. It seems housing standards in Nilfgaard differ from the North that to a nilfgaardian, a medium-sized house for a family of four is the equivalent of a horse stable. Sarah was introduced as a noble-born with no specific title, but that alone was enough to command respect and servitude. At first, she did not like the subterfuge, but this was logically preferable than the honest truth that she is several rungs lower than the poorest peasant.
Her hermit routine slowly gave way to normal country living. Instead of foraging and hunting for her food, she has a well stock pantry. Instead of a ratty, prickly bed with moldy sheets and smelly furs, she was sleeping on a cushioned bed with goose-feathered pillows under a quilted blanket. And instead of experimenting with ingredients, she has enthusiastic but strict cooks teaching her how to follow the recipe.
With prolonged comfort comes the return of familiar habits unlearned from years of solitude. In her distant youth, Sarah lived in a large house with three maids, a pair of stablehands and a manservant or two. She did not remember their names. To her, the servants were no different from the furniture: useful but replaceable. Oh how insufferable she must’ve been!
Sarah was determined not to repeat that unsavory behavior.
She rose off the bed and did her few morning stretches before dressing up for the days’ activities- mostly gardening. Mererid informed her that the emperor gave her free reigns of the imperial gardens and she can do whatever she please, even had an adequately sized plot behind the cottage-manor.
Sitting in front of a vanity table with its large oval mirror, she brushed and tied her hair to a tousled bun to keep it away from her eyes and cooling the back of her neck.
Satisfied, she got up and bounded down the stairs.
“Morning, Martina! What smells so good today?”
The jovial majordomo looked up from setting the kitchen table and saw her mistress descending the stairs. Martina is a wonderful helper. The majordomo did most of the managing and running the household, slowly easing Sarah into the role of a house mistress. Her daily interaction with Martina and the girls made her integration to society proceed smoothly.
“Toasts with melted cheeses between, tomato soup with a healthy amount of black peppers, soft-boiled eggs and some freshly squeezed oranges.”
“My, my” she remarked while pulling a chair, sat, and Martina draped the cloth napkin across her mistress’s lap. Sarah picked one of the buttered wedged toasts, plump with three types of cheeses and dipped it in the thick savory soup. She took a bite, puffing out the heat that burned her tongue. Her eyes closed in bliss.
“Delicious! Positively scrumptious!”
Martina’s plump cheeks reddened. “That is very kind of you, mistress. Though it’s nothing to compare to the meals you had in the palace-“
Sarah waved the table knife, cutting the rest of the womans’ modest assessment.
“Nothing beats a home-cooked meal, Martina. Nothing! Do not forget that. Yes, the palace fair is fit for the emperor, but any noble could get the same in the most expensive dining establishments in the capital. Believe me I can taste the florens with each bite. But this…. its love with every bite and care in each spoonful.”
Sarah’s praise brought tears to the elderly woman’s that she hiccupped on her apron. Not only is the majordomo a fastidious woman with a motherly air, but she is also an emotional one. Martina excused this as a side-effect of age.
Sarah inclined her head and spoke softly.
“Come on, Martina, don’t salt this wonderful morning with tears. Grab a chair and eat with me. What is the itinerary for the day?”
Last week of Birke
“The market ran out of strawberries, mistress. The merchants are expecting the new deliveries to arrive in three days” Vrei reported apologetically, head hanging low.
Vrei, Martina and Sarah were looking at the produce spread on the kitchen table: turnips, rhubarbs, lettuces, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlands of garlic and small wheels of cheeses. The sausage links and slabs of prime cut steaks were placed on the kitchen counter.
Sarah picks up one of the rhubarbs and tilted it for inspection “the children are so looking forward to strawberry pies. If only they weren’t so picky!”
“The demand will drive the prices of our local strawberries up this year. What with the Northern lands still recovering from the ravages of war-“
Martina shot Vrei a stern look and she immediately clammed up, peering nervously at Sarah, who didn’t seem bothered by the negativity. Indeed, their mistress is deep in her thoughts.
“We could ask the chamberlain for some in the palace storeroom.” Vrei suggested, but Martina shook her ginger head.
“The chamberlain is away with the emperor.”
Sarah glanced at them.
“Yes mistress” both said.
Since her last encounter with the emperor, she has seen less and less of him. No doubt making all the hard decisions at court, listening to intel provided by his immense secret service, audiences with the guilds and noble houses, and discussing plans with people that he trusts. Morvran Voorhis was among the familiar faces frequenting the palace.
Affairs of state weren’t the only things that occupied His Imperial Majesty’s time. His new pastime surprisingly soured her day. Or he could be picking up where he left off before he got abducted in Geso and fainted on her doorstep.
Vrei whispered in Martina’s ear. “Chamberlain Mererid is probably acting as a chaperone to the emperor again. I wonder who is the lucky noblewoman this time.”
Martina shushed her, casting a worried glance at Sarah, who heard everything with an expression they couldn’t read but her silver ringed eyes gleamed like razors.
Both women clammed up and the kitchen’s atmosphere went down a few degrees.
Sarah’s shoulders shot up in a dismissive shrug. “It is not my business who warms his bed. His Imperial Majesty’s affairs doesn’t concern me or any of us nor does it solve the problem of the strawberry shortage.”
Her voice also went a notch higher.
Sarah shook her head and went back to assessing the situation.
“So… a shortage of strawberries form the North couldn’t supplement the demand for it in the South. In my wintering in the palace library, the main supplier is Toussaint, Vicovaro and Etolia. Then there are the local farms outsides the capital…”
She trailed off with a faraway look, digging into her memories: the many cold days in the palace library with her nose buried deep in geography books. Her face lit up as inspiration struck her like a bolt from a clear sky. She raised her green eyes, the silver rings glinting as she smiled.
“Martina, get me the basket. Assign Emma to take over my gardening duties: I will be out all day. No need to wait for supply replenishment. We will have our pies cooling before dusk.”
“What are you planning to do, mistress” Martina handed her the wicker basket, and a straw hat.
Sarah grinned with unsuppressed excitement and jammed the hat on her head.
“What I do best”
Sarah was humming a mellow tune, kneeling in front of a lush wild strawberry bush, plucking its bounty into her basket.
She was quite a distance away from the palace, and much further than the capital, but not that far from the river of the Lower Alba. Indeed, she could hear the waters lapping not far from her current location.
Finding the wild strawberries was easy. When she was in the palace library, she did not only study the Nilfgaardian provinces, but also the outskirts of the capital: the resources she could gather, and places she could hunker down for the night. There was a handy illustration of the local farms near the outskirts that grew a variety of produce, including strawberries.
Her goal was not to pilfer the berries growing in their fields. With the sun on the horizon, that would be a dangerous and impossible feat. Most of the farms are guarded by the local constabulary, farm hands, and farm dogs. She learned the hard way to avoid the three when she first started her life as a hermit and promised not to subject herself to such a harrowing experience.
She may have retained her hermit sensibilities, but she no longer looked like one.
No, her goal was to look for the origin of their produce. Farms outside the cities start their business by foraging for seeds to plant on their fields. A small farm could start by mass producing wild berries, nuts, potatoes and turnip next to the fenced area where a lone skinny cow and half a dozen chickens are kept. And with enough coin earned from selling these wild produce, they could purchase better seeds and new varieties to plant for the changing seasons.
Her research in the palace library paid off. Upon finding the local produce farm, the location of its wild produce source isn’t that far away. And no sooner she found herself overjoyed at the sight of several bushes like miniature Yule trees heavy with littler red ornament: wild strawberries… and oh joy… mulberries too!
Sarah’s basket also contained other wild greens, seeds and fruits she planned to grow in the large greenhouse behind her cottage: another addition to her abode. She wouldn’t allow anyone to enter it. The little whisper that she has been tending grew and multiply that she had several planters of the precious elvish herb occupying one side of the greenhouse.
Basket filled to overflowing, Sarah stuffed three blood-red mulberries in her skirt pocket. She wipes her hands on her skirt, noticing dirt caking her fingernails. She stood up and stretched her back, hearing her spine pop like a cork off a wine bottle.
Her stomach gurgled. Almost lunch time.
All that squatting and kneeling on the ground did a number on her calves and knees. A cold dip in the waters might offer some relief.
Basket of bounty in hand, she followed the sound of lapping water and easily found one of the long stretches of the river Alba. She can’t wait to sit on a rock or jetty and cool her aching-
“One false move and you will regret it.”
Sarah squealed, dropped her basket, sending fruits and vegetables tumbling and rolling on the earth. She raised her hands in surrender. Someone, a man, pointed a loaded crossbow behind her.
“Please! I didn’t do anything!”
Sarah and her unexpected captor emerged from the forest and into a grassy clearing edging one of the bends of the Alba. Still with her hands in the air, Sarah saw an elderly man at a distance wearing a casual but expensive civilian garb and straw hat standing in the middle of a wooden jetty with his hands behind his back. He was facing the shore.
“Sir, I found a trespasser in the woods. What should I do with her?”
Sarah squinted… and her eyes widened in recognition.
“Lady Sarah? What are you doing outside of the palace grounds?” the chamberlain replied.
“Oh? She is here?”
The third voice belonged to another man sitting while bathing in the river: the water coming up above the waist. The pristine waters of the river distorted his submerged lower half with one leg slightly propped, covering his nether regions. He was naked and his clothes were hanging on one of the crates decorating the jetty.
She also realized who it was and she immediately turned around, now facing the point of the crossbow.
“Forgive me Your Imperial Majesty! I saw nothing! I- I-I didn’t know this area is off-limits!”
“Guard!” Mererid yelled. “Lower your weapon. She is a friend of His Imperial Majesty.”
That word sent a coal of warmth in the center of her bosom. The emperor finally acknowledges her as his friend!
The guard gave a curt nod of acknowledgement and lowered the crossbow, still keeping a close watch on her.
Emhyr spoke from the river. “Mererid, have the guard escort Lady Sarah to the tree.
“As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty.”
The chamberlain made a shooing gesture with one hand.
“Come, follow me” her armed escort said.
Sarah turned to follow the arbalist. Behind her, she heard splashings and a grunt.
Mererid held open a towel for modesty as Emhyr hauled himself out of the river and on to the jetty.
“I hope I didn’t kept you waiting”
“No sire, not at all”
Emhyr sat on the other side of the thick orange carpet. The picnic spread, underneath the heavy boughs of a large oak tree, was laden with picnic food: spring fruits, grilled ham and chicken sandwiches, loaves of bread in a basket, two bottles of wine, a pitcher of water and two tumblers, slices of salted ham, olives, cheeses… and two small books for light reading. She recognized the authors’ name on one of them: famous for his poetry. Two horses were tethered to a low branch not far from where they sat, munching contentedly on the grass.
“Um… were you expecting company, sire?” Sarah asked tentatively.
“No. Mererid tends to over pack before travels and on the way back.”
“Is Chamberlain Mererid not joining us?”
“He is taking two perimeter guards to gather the supplies you dropped in your fright” Emhyr replied, barely keeping the amusement in voice. “You must’ve surprised my guards seeing that you slipped through their watch.”
“Uh… Im sorry for disturbing your… bath” Sarah’s cheeks reddened at the memory of Emhyr scrubbing his forearms, one knee slightly raised for modesty covering his nethers, sunlight glistening against his wet skin. That skin is now covered in white silk shirt buttoned up to his collarbones, and green trousers. The rest of his imperial vestments were neatly folded and rested on a travelling trunk behind the tree.
“I don’t take baths in the open. I merely took Mererids’ advice, finally, to take an hour or two to unwind before returning to the palace and put my nose to the grindstone, so to speak. I intended only to cool my feet, and then suddenly I find myself shedding my vestments and wade into the water.”
“And master chamberlain had the foresight to pack extra clothes and towels on this outing.”
Both chuckled. Emhyr leans back on the tree and sighs. He gestured at the food.
“Go on and partake this spread. These aren’t just for show.”
“Um… thank you.”
Sarah took one of the tumblers and filled it with water. Emhyr filled his goblet with wine. Her parched throat sighs with relief. The Alba is a river of sparkling jewels: emerald greens, with glittering diamonds upon an undulating cobalt blue surface, and a scattering of bright topazes. The spring breeze rustling through the evergreen canopy still carried more than a hint of the winter chill.
“It is so beautiful, this spot you chose to relax, sire.”
“I agree” Emhyr replied, taking a triangular chicken sandwich and chomped off the tall end.
Sarah refilled her tumbler.
“Where did His Majesty go this time?”
Sarah whistled. “That far… can’t be business or you’d be back in as soon as it’s concluded. Must be pleasure.”
Emhyr glanced at her, brows meeting quizzically. She was looking at him through the canopy of her dark lashes.
“Servants gossip about the emperor taking frequent trips abroad as soon as the last snows melted. And it can’t be all business because His Imperial Majesty returns with high spirits.” She picks up a sandwich: salted ham and gooey cheese- took a bite and chewed with relish.
“Is that so?”Emhyr replied with a raised eyebrow.
Her knowing smile answered him.
“Why were you skulking about?”
She sputtered and swallowed, grabbed the tumbler and drank.
“I wasn’t skulking, I was foraging!” she pouted, and added in a small embarrassed voice. “and I wasn’t snooping either.“
The grin on his face at having one-upped her made Sarah want to smack him on the arm, but resisted. Who knows what penalty she’ll incur laying a hand on the emperor, even if it was playful.
“Still haven’t shed the hermit habits, I see” Emhyr scoffed, taking another bite of the sandwich.
“It takes more than several months, and a nice abode, to unlearn old habits.” Suddenly she felt hot under the collar, even if her dress has a scooped but modest neckline, and her hair tied above the back of her neck like a hanging ornamental birds nest. Why is it that when she is with this man, she feels like she’s living in a dream?
“Hmph. Too true” he acquiescence, recalling habits he himself retained till this day.
“I... I haven’t seen a hair of His Majesty since the end of winter. I thought that, after our last encounter, I might have offended him with my outspokenness. I’m glad to see His Majesty again, looking more vibrant, as if his burden no longer troubles him.”
His smiled slipped a notch, belying some of her observation, but enough of it remained as an affirmation to the rest.
“They will always be there, though not as heavy as before, but bearable. And no, nothing you said that day offended me. In fact, you’re words were like a mirror to my soul- which I believed a thing I do not possess. Since you are here, let us catch up. How have you been, my dear friend? In your absence since moving to the cottage, the librarian has been pining for his “studious Nordling patron”.”
Sarah laughed and demurely covered her lips. “Sir Ingwald? Master librarian has been inquiring about me?”
He nodded, wiping the corner of his mouth with a napkin. “Apparently he hasn’t met a reader from the north that isn’t a scholar, a professor or an exchange student. It would gladden the old mans’ heart to see his favorite patron pick up a book and use it for other than hiding explicit illustrations.”
“Well, I miss the library too, and the proprietor. It is one of my favorite places. Perhaps I will give the old man a visit. But enough about me… You’ve been busy with imperial obligations and, uh, personal businesses, that His Imperial Majesty seldom visits the gardens.”
“Drop the formalities, my dear, we are not in the imperial court. And what do you mean by my ‘personal businesses’?”
Sarah plucked a ripe strawberry from the fruit basket, and was looking at it with feigned interest.
“I’m not one to pry into your private life, sire, but I did see His Majesty come back after a week-long trip from somewhere with a lovely fair-haired noblewoman by his side, different from the day before that, and four days before that. If I didn’t know any better, His Im…. Y- you are going out on dates.”
She took a bite of the strawberry: its sweet and tangy taste tickled her tongue. The palace gets the first and best pick, it seems.
Emhyr poured himself some more wine. He inhaled the vapors before taking a sip.
“Peter has been nagging me about pacifying the opposition and strengthening my ties with my own people- nilfgaardian movers and shakers are what he meant. And with methods less messy than public executions.”
Sarah internally groaned. He already said that they are not in the imperial court and this has the beginnings of a council meeting. Emhyr carries his empire wherever he goes like a turtle carrying its’ house.
“Wise insistence from the chief advisor” she replied “Winning them over to your side, making allies out of enemies makes fewer plots and daggers behind your back”
“Poetic” he commended with a sly grin. “He was more straightforward. ‘Nothing bolsters powerful ties with the empire than an alliance, joint business venture… or pursuing a personal relationship with the business partner. Luckily, the lords and ladies of the noble houses have daughters and sisters that are young, intelligent and pleasing to the eyes… and are taught to please the emperor’.”
Sarah did not bother to mask her distaste. Emhyr noticed but refrained from commenting.
He added, “Evertsen is hoping I can find an empress within their numbers and perhaps give the empire an heir so the var Emreis name doesn’t die out.”
“Hmm, a consortium… or a consort” Sarah took another heart-shaped strawberry and bit right into its plump center. It is just as sweet as the last one. “Not exactly a dilemma or a challenge. It worked for you before. This one is no different.”
He smiled thoughtfully. She could be referring to his previous marriages… or the strawberry.
“Each house has shares in the guilds, influences over several establishments strewn across the Continent. Though their shares in the guilds’ profit are slightly greater than Evertsens’, they lack his ties to me. He even took the liberty of regaling me with their achievements, accounts, new holdings in the North... and the names of their daughters or sisters that he thinks I might take a particular interest. Taking one as a consort will not only smooth the turbulent relationship with the ancient noble houses, but also puts the empire at a higher bargaining seat-“
Sarah scoffed, and then froze, realizing her mistake.
“You wish to say something?”
“No sire. My apologies but you were supposed to relax, not talk shop or politics” she gave him a wry, apologetic smile.
Emhyr chuckled without humor. “Old habits, just like you said… I wade through the dangerous waters of politics since I was crowned emperor. The survival of the empire, and my own, depends on how I navigate the waters of politics, statecraft, and even deceit… not like the river before us: calm and free-flowing. It is always churning, turbulent, with whirlpools that will suck you in unless you have the wisdom and will to steer your lifeboat between the vortexes.”
There really is no escaping the grasp of the empire, even in his brief time of respite, she thought sadly.
They sat in silence for a while staring at the clear and placid river mirroring the cerulean skies and white tuffs of clouds. Sarah picked the fruit basket and began rummaging for another strawberry. She found the last one and ate it.
She made a puckered up grimace. Ugh, that was more tangy than sweet. Returning the basket, she shifted her weight and felt something in her pocket, and stuck her hand inside.
Emhyr swirled the wine around his goblet with slow graceful movements before draining it. A white cloud passed draping the day in shadow that seem to reflect this sullen mood.
“I forgot you’d sacrifice everything and anything, for the empire is everything.” Sarah leans back and glanced at him. “But looking for a consort to pacify your detractors itself adds to your workload. What you should look for is a partner: one who will not only help you run the empire, but to give you that much needed diversion from the crush of responsibility. Most of all, someone whom you are happy to see every day: from the moment you wake, to the last thing before you sleep.”
Sarah took her hand out of her pocket and presented him the three mulberries.
“What is this for?”
“To help you find what you seek. Mulberries improve eyesight.”
He laughed. The cloud cover passed and the sun shone bright once more.
He took the mulberries: his hand brushed her fingers.
“I wish you luck and happiness on your endeavors, sire” she added.
What he did next surprised her. He leaned forward, hand gently cupping the side of her face and planted a solid yet soft kiss on her forehead.
Sarah felt the world tremble around her and realize it was her heart beating hard enough to shake her frame. He smelled clean and the musk he perfumed his skin is intoxicating.
“Unconventional yet comforting advice. So different from the usual mumblings of my councilors” he murmured in her hair, smelling faintly of the forest with a hint of jasmine.
He drew back, looking at her kindly.
“Thank you Sarah”
Sarah was mesmerized. When he pulled away, she experienced a sort of tunnel-vision: everything around her was cloaked in a haze and all she could see in front of her is his lips. She admired how the corners creased, making those deep laugh lines on his cheeks appear. She was strangely drawn to it.
Someone cleared their throat.
Emhyr glanced at the sound.
The chamberlain stood in front of them a few steps from the edge of the carpet: a stoic statue with the free flowing river behind him as a contrast to his stiff demeanor. He was holding Sarah’s lost wicker basket.
The haze cleared. Seeing that they have company who probably saw everything, Sarahs’ face burned hotter than a furnace and turned an embarrassing shade of red, which she quickly hid by looking away.
“We gathered most of the produce Lady Sarah dropped in the forest, and also took the liberty of purchasing some from the Meijer farms to compensate for the loss” said the chamberlain impassively, appearing unconcerned with whatever transpired between the emperor and the one-time hermit.
“Very good, chamberlain” Emhyr nodded in approval.
Perplexed, Sarah got up and stepped out of the carpet. Mererid handed her the wicker basket. She noticed plump strawberries, blueberries, and she suppressed a giggle: Rhubarbs!
“Thank you, master chamberlain” she gave him a bow to avoid seeing the glimmer of amusement in the old man’s eyes.
Sarah turned to Emhyr and bowed lower.
“Thank you, sire. This will make the kids happy.”
Emhyr gave her a curt nod. “Thank you for the company, milady” he turned his attention to the chamberlain. “Mererid, send a servant to purchase the Meijer’s current stock of mulberries for the kitchen stores.”
“M-mulberries? As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty.”
Sarah laughed and snorted at the chamberlains’ befuddlement and her attention flicked at Emhyr-he gave her a conspiratorial smirk.
“Why not join us on our way back to the capital instead” said the emperor “Packing this food and getting the horses saddled shouldn’t take long.”
“O…oh, thank you for the offer sire, but-“
“Again you refuse me” he sighs, brows meeting in disapproval.
She did not bristle but resumed soothingly.
“This time I truly must insist on refusing. Enjoy your rest. Take these few moments of respite from responsibility. Lord Evertsen may be eager to see the var Emreis name passed on, but I’d rather see the present var Emreis stay for as long as he can. Unsolicited advice from a capable quack doctor and friend.”
Another gentle smile to accompany her parting words.
Mererid looked at his feet to hide his expression of gratitude. Emhyr regarded her with a fond look… and Sarah couldn’t take it anymore.
She gave him a final bow, turned, half walked and half ran, careful not to spill the contents of her basket while getting as much distance from the river, from the emperor and out of the perimeter. The capital was still quite a distance but she persevered.
She had to flee.
Flee from this dangerous alien affection emanating from her bosom, from his hypnotic ambers and entrancing lips, from the sound of her beating heart and her own intrusive thoughts that refused to be silent.
The usual inner voice of mother mocking her. You know exactly what that feeling is: you are just too stubborn to admit it!
Yes, she knows… and she is afraid that this is something beyond her ability to cope.
All she can do about it is flee.
After a while she stopped. She was panting, gasping for air, grateful that the exertion diverted her attention from the sound of her beating heart. She looks back and did not see the oak tree or the clearing. Only that long stretch of the Alba still peeking between the forest cover.
She felt disappointed with herself.
Fleeing is what I do best.
My edited screenshots of the following scenes:
Apologies for the long wait. This chapter was not included with the original draft and I was struggling to make the transition of Sarah and Emhyr's relationship from close friend to something closer without sounding like a two bit romance novel.
Hope you like the read. Please leave your thoughts and comments, whatever they may be.
Chapter 17: Notice Me, Your Imperial Majesty!
Sarah juggles with her new role and her feelings, causing her to forget the reason why she chose isolation in the first place.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Emperor Emhyr var Emreis has been away for weeks and Belleteyn is fast approaching.
Like with every other holiday drawing closer, the capital became a beehive of activities with preparations for the influx of customers, local and foreign guests. Perishables from Vicovaro, Toussaint, Metinna, Kovir, and even exotic merchandise and curiosities from Offier, Zanguevar and Zerrikania were shipped in by the crates.
The palace residents scuttled about their assignments: carrying supplies and decors, thorough scrubbing and sanitizing the interior and exterior of the palace, barking out orders amidst the excitement and gossip. Worker ants with the metallic, incomprehensible buzzing of drone bees.
One thing is clear: there will be a grand party. Servants, soldiers and nobles have their assigned duties and knows what is expected of them – to exceed the emperors’ expectations. The most affluent of nobles flitted in and out of the rooms and corridors with their papers, discussing amongst themselves the security details, names on the guest lists, recommending a few while disinviting those they deemed irrelevant waste of space and time. A haggard-looking scribe tailed them, taking down instructions while striking down names and plans previously considered, rarely opened his mouth and only when it necessitates repetition of information that was delivered too fast for the quill to jot down.
Servants kept one ear open while going about their menial labors, gathering as much gossip to share later over at the communal supper table.
Mererid is busy overseeing the running of the household, giving out new tasks once the old ones were finished, meeting up with the nobles and answering their questions with practiced ease and brushing off their concerns about the emperors’ absence amidst all the preparation.
A messenger approached him after being frisked by the sentries in the visitor’s parlor and handed the chamberlain a communiqué. It bore the seal of the Duke of Vicovaro. His Imperial Majesty is returning in two days and he brought along a delegation of Vicovarian nobles, including the dukes’ niece and heir apparent.
Sarah was carrying a tin watering can and moved from one flower patch to another. This was a light duty she assigned for herself- as the head groundskeeper.
She has no idea the vastness of the imperial grounds: it extended all the way around the back, including the inner courtyard. When Voorhis first brought her to the palace, her mind was so distracted with thoughts of saving the emperor she did not notice the distance she had to traverse from the gates, crossing the expansive grounds to reach the palace doors.
Living in the cottage-manor, she finally noticed the gardens and all its accoutrements. But what she saw was a fraction of the park-like grounds. When she was given the title of head groundskeeper, it was like someone moved the curtains and flung the windows wide open- stupefying her with its immenseness. She has seen portraits and illustrations of gardens at the library in Oxenfurt: they pale in comparison to the grand imperial gardens.
The previous head groundskeeper, an elderly man in his mid-seventies with a deep tan, was forced to retire due to a crippling injury in his hands and chronic pain on his lower back. Mererid had her summoned to the modest office he used in the palace and then told her of her new designation.
Sarah tried contesting the appointment with Mererid two weeks ago:
“You need only delegate duties to the herbalists, gardeners and the groundskeepers. No need to sully your hands into the dirt and fertilizers” the chamberlain added “and should you wish to make cosmetic changes to the grounds, it must be approved by His Imperial Majesty… or anyone authorized in his absence. Free reign of the gardens has its limitations when palace aesthetics is concerned.”
He was sitting behind a thick oak desk with his hands folded over the polished surface. A small pile of paperwork was neatly stacked on his right awaiting his authorized signature.
Sarah’s indignation was apparent.
“But... this is all so sudden, and with Belleteyn just around the corner… I am to be his gardener? Is His Imperial Majesty testing me?”
The chamberlain’s eyes narrowed into slits. He recalled months ago when the emperor gave him the order. He couldn’t hide the look of surprise on his weathered face, nor was it permitted to conceal a personal opinion in the emperors’ presence:
“Head groundskeeper, majesty?”
“As much as I want her to be officially recognized as my physician, she prefers anonymity. And I agree. I can’t have Peter breathing down her neck while casting aspersions on my choice of confidants.”
“A prudent decision, Your Imperial Majesty. The Chief Advisor has not stopped inquiring about the identity of your doctor.”
“You have something else to add?”
“Forgive me for inquiring, Your Imperial Majesty, but wouldn’t it be best for Lady Sarah to depart when her services are over… after receiving compensation, of course, and avoid any unpleasantness with Lord Evertsen and the noble houses?”
“Sarah is a natural herbalist and her knowledge of obscure remedies should be cultivated, not put to waste. She is a wildflower, Mererid. A rare orchid withering in the damp, dank, and darkness of the Mirrah forest. Put her skills and wisdom to work. Send for the masonries and convert that gardening shed into a cottage worthy of her future role.”
Mererid thinks back on that conversation and the look on the emperors’ exhausted countenance, still recovering from the effects of the failed poisoning attempt: the idea of his Nordling savior leaving weighed heavily on his mind.
To prevent that from coming to pass, his master figuratively planted “his wildflower” in his garden.
“Why would His Imperial Majesty test you when he knows you are more than capable for the job? You have the skills, knowledge and experience, making you the ideal successor to oversee the upkeep of the grounds.”
She stared at him as if he grew two heads: her fall from physician to garden duty is an honor?
“This job is not a demotion to your previous role, milady, if that is your thought. On the contrary, this new designation flatters your skills. “
Mererid conjured the appointment sheet from the depths of the desk drawer. He pointed at the signature.
“His Imperial Majesty made the decision months ago and I advise you, milady, do not refuse this one. The emperor, as gracious as he is with you, has limits to how much insolence he can tolerate.”
I feel like I forgot something vital.
Martina placed a hand on her shoulder and gave her a tentative shake.
“Mistress, you’re drowning the cardinals.”
Sarah felt something wet and squishy creeping between her toes and realized she just emptied the entire can on the flower patch that the ground was oozing mud on the cobblestones.
“Shite!” Sarah exclaimed, tried pushing water off the cobblestones with her work slippers. She only managed to steer the spill on to the groves of the footpath. Her face scrunched up in disgusts, feeling the squelching wetness of her drenched footwear.
Sarah walked over to the nearest cedar bench: each step made a wet comical sound until she reached the bench and sat heavily on its warm surface, watering can on the pavement.
Martina sat beside her. She looks at where her mistress was looking: the palace gates.
“I think my pride has taken a hit, Martina, and I never gave it a thought during my prolonged solitude in the wil-, in the Northern Realms” she corrected herself swiftly, remembering the cover story Mererid told the servants. “It wasn’t so long ago that I had an important role inside the palace taken away as soon as my purpose is served. I was satisfied with this boon he built for me here and live quietly in this little corner of his grand garden.”
Sarah shook her head, looking at her wet slippers.
“I cannot divine his majesty’s decision giving me this role so far removed from the previous one. It was no picnic: working myself to exhaustion with the threat of dismemberment should I fail, but it was the highest honor bestowed upon one such as I. Have I fallen into disfavor with the emperor when I invaded his privacy in the river? And the chamberlain says this new designation is an actual honor!”
This wasn’t the first time her mistress complained about her appointment; however she has not uttered any of the unflattering words she used out of frustration to describe the emperors’ chamberlain. Not in public, at least.
“Milady, the emperor, hardly –if-ever- makes decision based on a whim. Making you the head groundskeeper might sound undignified for a noble-born, but your true role has not been taken away. The highest honor his majesty bestowed upon you still stands.”
Sarah glanced at Martina questioningly.
“He called you his friend.”
The majordomo grinned at seeing the younger woman blush in embarrassment.
“I suppose I still have that” she muttered, eyes rolling. “So much for his confidence in my abilities: I just overwatered the cardinals.“
Martina smiled, relieved at seeing her mistress out of her funk. She picks up the watering can.
“I shall have someone take over your task, mistress. You go clear your head or something.”
“Or find a distraction”
“You could tend to your projects in the greenhouse-“
“Noooo” she said in a drawn out groan “I don’t need more work!”
“Then a visit to the library?”
“Good idea, but first I need a bath.”
“I’ll inform the girls to fill the tub, mistress.”
Sarah waved her hand in negation. “I’ll tell them myself, Martina. Carry one with your work.”
Martina gave Sarah’s receding back a bow and only when her mistress entered the cottage did she forgot to tell her that Emperor Emhyr recently returned.
Oh well, she’s bound to see him on her way to the library.
Brushed, watered and in her casual attire with journal in hand, Sarah entered the palace using the rear entrance and took the scenic route, passing by halls decorated with paintings she took time admiring during her winter stay in the imperial residence. She was in no hurry to find the library, her silver and green eyes drank the beauty of the palace interior while those around her went about with their work and gossip regardless if they were nobility or the help.
Nobody waved nor approached her out of curiosity. She passed by two men in palace servant whites carrying a large, heavy potted plant between them.
“Excuse us milady.”
The delivery was automatic and hurried. A practiced response to nobles they inconvenienced with their dedication.
She halted in front of another painting: the gardens of Loc Grimm overlooking the Alba. Daubs of gold, white and purple of whatever flowers they represent make for a good complementary to the ice blue river reflecting the sky of the same color. The image brought back thoughts of the first days she occupied the cottage.
At first, she was flattered by the emperors’ generosity to “do with the gardens as you please” and get to grow and cultivate her collection of seeds. Then she gets taken aback by being told to care for the entire grounds- and her jurisdiction extends to the inner courtyard.
It is not just familiar habits that are returning, but also familiar sins - pride being her chief flaw. A person of her intellect- and a decorated one at that- who saved the most powerful man twice, rewarded with material boons and, most important of all, his friendship, figuratively stuck a rake on her hands to maintain the upkeep of the palatial gardens.
Sarah could feel her temperature rising, its searing palms pushing down on her shoulders. Yes, her pride took a massive hit and upset doesn’t do it justice. Whatever feelings of fondness she harbors for the emperor were dashed by this underhanded move. In a way, she felt relieved. Keep the relationship platonic, respectful, and friendly.
Or as friendly as a master and servant relationship.
She shuts her eyes and took a deep breath, keeping it in for a few seconds before letting it out slowly, mustering calm.
Successfully reigning in her affronted pride, she resumed walking. To reach the library, she needs to get through the inner courtyard and two corridors. Gods, she could use that distraction by now- in the form of a volume, maybe three.
Sarah halted and groaned. Oh what now?
There was a small crowd of nobles, talking in whispers, milling at the doors leading to the inner courtyard. As a precaution, two sentries blocked the entrance with their crossed guisarmes.
Wonderful! The way is blocked and now she has to turn around and take the longer route.
But… if the inner courtyard is off limits, something of import is happening in there. Something or someone that requires privacy and security.
Her hand immediately came up to her mouth, stifling a gasp.
Courtiers were trying to catch a glimpse of the emperor and their efforts were proven futile. The doors were shut, so are the windows- the glass is colored mosaics depicting the great sun over a field of flowers and butterflies - even the clear ones are frosted, distorting the figures to indistinct blobs.
Sarah caught snatches of their conversation behind cupped hands and lace fans- the emperor is with a new companion:
“The duke’s niece and future heir of Vicovaro, Elena or Lania is it?”
“Much better than the last one, that Baroness de Llwelyn”
“The emperor is also taking in Dervla’s much younger sister. My, my, what a slap in the face!”
“So that’s who I saw! I thought she looked familiar!”
Unable to find a spot to glimpse the two, Sarah repeated her feat in Novigrad: she went around. Most of the nobles are right at the entrance creating an impregnable wall of black, gold, and superiority complex. Sarah backed away and entered a different corridor with only a few curious nobles crowding about, still unable to see through the mosaic glass windows.
Fate gave her a break, literally. One of the windows has a crack and it’s a wonder no one noticed or had it replaced. The crack is a sliver but serviceable for this purpose. Sarah peers through it, revealing a section of the inner courtyard.
She adjusted her position and saw them.
The emperor is sitting on the stone bench, his left side facing the window. A silver tray bearing a carafe of wine- half empty- and two goblets were on the stone table. He leaned towards the right and Sarah saw his companion.
The future duchess, younger than her by five, maybe even ten years, with a flowing honey-blonde hair, elegant dark gray dress with silver ruffles, plunging neckline that displayed two rows of pearls and a stunning smile.
He said something to her and, it must’ve been amusing because she giggled. She heard his deep baritone voice chuckle… or was that her imagination?
They talked some more. They touched some more. And then she said something in his ear which made him smile. His hand, resting on the small of her back, completely circled her hourglass waist and he was leaning over her upturned face-
Sarah immediately drew back.
I’m not cut out to be a peeping tom. Best give the blossoming lovers their privacy. Good thing the security is tight: no one should be subjected to such awkward public display of affection.
From the looks of their “conversation” the inner courtyard will remain off-limits for a quite a while. Sarah left them, the courtiers with their futile snooping attempts, and took the long route, passing by several hallways and corridors until she reached the library.
She was welcomed with a warm smile.
“Milady, you’re back! It has been months!” Ingwald began while keeping his voice at a modulated low volume.
“I agree. I miss this place, and you too master librarian.”
“How may I serve you, milady?”
“If you may curate some books for me about bioluminescent plants and tree grafting, I’d be pleased.”
“I know just the volumes you need” Ingwald replied enthusiastically. My, what an inquisitive nordling! Geography and horticulture!
“And, this is embarrassing, I would like the privacy screen brought out. I’m going to be here for a while taking notes.”
She showed him her slightly worn journal.
“It is no inconvenience, milady. Would you like the usual table?”
Ingwald escorted Sarah to her table and pulled the seat out for her. He also took away the adjacent chair. Not long after, a cart running on silent wheels pushed by a young attendant placed two thick volumes on the table while another attendant unfolded the privacy screen.
She gave them a few words expressing her thanks and then opened Cultivating Brokilon by Glenda Janssen, flipped a few pages until she found the correct chapter: Bioluminescent Moss of the Dryads.
Sarah opened her journal to a blank page, keeping it at the ready for notes. She did not pick up the quill yet and the bottle of Zerrikanian ink remained unopened.
Growing moss is not an exact science, but no horticulturist has ever encountered the unique moss growing in the heart of the Brokilon forest, home of the dryads. The moss isn’t just varying shades of green, but they also glow in the dark and serves as light source for dryads who abhors the use of fire. Cultivating brokilon bryophyte phosphorescence takes skilnpntnc-
Sarah leans back and blinked a few times, taking a sharp breath and resumed.
Cultivating Brokilon bryophyte phosphorescence takes skill and patience in abundance as it doesn’t follow the usual steps in transplanting them outside of Brokilon. First, ensure that the soil is suffcntdmp-
Sarah blinked again, batting away the obscuring curtain blurring her vision.
Drops of water splashed on the pages. Summer rain is here and someone left a window open
Except it wasn’t raining, and all windows were closed. Another drop splashed on the page… and another. A blockage on her throat that wasn’t there before made swallowing difficult. And something else: heaviness in her chest.
She should be indifferent, if not joyful. The emperor established a warming of ties with the opposition, his negotiations with the Trade Guild seem to have improved, and he even found a possible and probable empress consort. It’s good for him, and for the empire!
It did not stop the flow of tears and she brushed them away like one does to an impediment. She’s upset, is all, stuck in the grounds watering the flowers and pulling the weeds. His pet hermit in the biggest enclosure, complete with all the amenities.
Was she really his friend at least? Or was that just something she imagined?
Like a fragile porcelain, her fair visage showed thin cracks: her shoulders started to hitch and tremble, eyes stinging from the salt, and her voice – Sarah couldn’t completely silence the sniffles and a few heads glanced at her direction.
At least the screen kept the curious eyes away. Let them think she is reading a well written tragedy, rather than living in one.
A banquet took place three days after the emperor’s return, and, that night in honor of the emperor’s esteemed guest: the future Duchess of Vicovaro.
It was strictly an invites only affair.
Sarah was, once more, on the outside looking in. At least she was not alone. Her ever dutiful majordomo was beside her plus a few curious workers ogling at the elegant guests through the glass windows framed by thick cream colored curtains. They were insignificant enough to be ignored and the workers were careful not to be spotted.
She watched the nobles dancing to a waltz: a sea of elegant gowns and doublets in varying shades of black, trimmed with greys and golds. Morvran Voorhis was nearly indistinguishable from his peers, who were chatting the night away.
She easily picked out the emperor. He was the only one wearing a gold toch.
Emhyr has his arm circle the future duchess’s waist while she has her hand resting on his shoulder. Fingers pressed against the glass, she could feel her chest burning… again. That ache comes in ebbs and flows.
She moves away, taking her hand off the window, leaving a faint imprint that quickly vanished in the cool night air.
“We should retire for the night, Martina” Sarah turned her face up to look at the night sky with its glittering jewels: a bright crescent moon rising slowly to the heavens. “There is going to be fireworks later, and we will have a mess to clean up come dawn.”
“Yes mistress, but… are you unwell? You’ve been sullen all day.”
She gave her a tired smile that did not reach her eyes, shivered and rubbed her shoulders.
“I still can’t get used to this damnable southern climate! Gather the workers and tell them to go back to their homes. We need to have an early start before visitors are allowed in the gardens.”
Sarah could see the elderly woman couldn’t be diverted from being concerned and was going to ask again. She gave Martina a slow shake of her head that was mildly threatening.
Martina got the hint and gave her a bow before herding the workers.
Why do I feel like I forgot something?
She gave the window a final glance. There were a few dancers gliding on the floor. Most of the guest took a glass of wine proffered by the wait staff. The future duchess strikes a conversation with the chief advisor. He seemed pleased with her, all smiles and politeness. The nobles all looked like they have the time of their lives, faces plump and ruddy from the wine.
But… where is the emperor?
Sarah spends another minute with the window trying to spot him, but to no avail.
Oh why do I care?
Yes, daughter, why do you care? Wasn’t your life mission to vanish from the face of the world? That is why you hid in the armpit of Geso, in the filth and disease-ridden lands of Temeria. You wish not to be seen by anyone. Here you are, mingling with nobles and commoners, shedding your hermit ways and abandoning your self-imposed exile! On top of that, you forgot something. Oh, I’m not going to remind you. Do that yourself!
A shiver ran down Sarah’s spine. Mother’s voice chiding her sounded so precise, she could be standing beside her.
True, she thought, I chose to disappear and I wanted to remain anonymous. Unnoticed by all. Except-
Sarah glanced at the ballroom with longing. “I want him to see me” she whispered.
That familiar mocking laugh echoed in her head, would he notice you now that you are just another garden fixture?
Shut up, Mother! The dead should stay quiet!
Then stop using me as the voice of reason!
Sarah had it with the mental sparring. She tarried enough, futilely looking for the missing emperor and should follow her own order.
She turned and make for her cottage. It was a bit of a distance to traverse, past the white folly, several flowerbeds and trimmed hedges. Her slippers barely made a sound against the cobblestone footpath, illuminated by the lamp posts. And then on her way to the cottage-
A lone black figure was sprawled on one of the sturdy cedar benches looking up at the night sky.
That startled Emhyr into straightening up and glanced at the voice with wide eyed shock. When he saw her, he relaxed.
The fireworks started: it was bursting within her. Earlier self-depreciating thoughts were forgotten… or shoved away: the sight of him brought a smile to her face. She approached him and bowed- as demanded by courtesy.
“Sire, why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be inside mingling with your guests?”
“Yes I should” he replied “I needed some space” Emhyr gestured beside him. “Come, sit, and keep me company, if only for a moment.”
She obeyed- gladly- and sat… on the other end of the bench. She got a good look at him and saw his cheeks were a bit flushed. Sarah sniffed and a wrinkle on the bridge of her nose materialized.
“Are you… drunk, sire?” she asked cautiously.
Emhyr grinned. “I am in awe of your sharp senses. I might’ve imbibed more liquid courage than the usual. The cold air will sober me up quick.”
He looks splendid in black velvet, she thought. The cut of his doublet emphasized his broad shoulders and wide chest with the heavy necklace of office resting dead center. Smooth deep gray trousers- the fabric stretching deliciously against his thighs and calves. Shiny black boots polished to a mirror sheen, she could see the reflection of the moon on it.
Emhyr noted she never stopped smiling: her eyes glittered with gladness at the sight of him.
He felt something tug in his chest. It reminded him of his daughter when she was an infant, smiling radiantly –a cute toothless silly smile- when he loomed at her. Could be that he was making funny faces.
“It looks like you finally overcame your fear of me, my dear.” he said, head cocked on the side.
She momentary looks away bashfully but her smile remained.
“I am genuinely glad to see you, sire, but not so forward as to approach His Majesty in the presence of the nobles. Chamberlain Mererid might tan my hide.”
He shook his head in mock disappointment. “Your overuse of formalities hasn’t changed.”
“My apologies s-“
“So is apologizing profusely.”
Sarah pressed her lips, keeping another apology from escaping. Emhyr chuckled, leaning back and stretched his legs, heels scrapping the surface of the cobblestones.
“Of all the people to stumble upon me in this un-elegant state, I am glad it’s you, my dear friend.”
Dear friend. A fountain lit up inside her, sending sparks into the air.
He is right: her fear of him diminished. Before, she dreaded being in his presence: her heart trying to break free of its’ ribcage to flee where her feet couldn’t and her hands all clammy with cold sweat. She couldn’t even look at him for more than a few seconds.
That was before she knew him on a personal level.
The banquet music could still be heard at this distance, albeit faint. Emhyr doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to go back.
“I did not imagine it, but I saw you at the window outside of the ballroom. Oh no, Sarah, do not be afraid. No rules or protocols were violated. I’m genuinely curious to know what you observed in there from an outside perspective. So, what do your eyes see? But first, speak plainly. I had my fill of formalities. Treat this as a command, if you have to.”
Sarah’s heart did an acrobatic backflip.
He saw me!
Ohh too soon little girl, the voice of mother sneered. Don’t get your hopes up yet.
“I’m… I’m surprised you noticed, sire. Nobility usually ignore us, pretend we do not exist or if they do, we’re just common fixtures of the palace grounds.”
He scoffed. “A good ruler doesn’t share the myopic views of most noble houses, and ignores no one; otherwise I wouldn’t have survived this long. However, I contribute the extension of my life to you, my dear. Enough digression please. My question stands.”
Sarah nodded. “Very well… hmmm.”
Emhyr couldn’t help but smile seeing her familiar quirk of cupping her chin when thinking. Quite endearing!
Sarah think back looking at the ballroom, numbing the ache she felt seeing Emhyr dancing with an elegant noblewoman – and for a moment she imagined herself dancing in his arms. Shutting her eyes, she concentrated hard.
“High nobility, merchants and politicians all in one room congratulating the duchess to be. Everyone, even the chief advisor seems pleased, but not due to the party or the young lady’s promotion. Progress, perhaps? No, the strides taken by you, sire, in the gains the empire has acquired. Trade is robust, rapport established with former enemies and winning them to your side. It is a celebration of success in matters domestic.”
“Impressive! Your acumen is a marvel to behold. Which is why I must rectify an error I made long ago.” Emhyr inched closer and gazed directly at her. Sarah felt her heart hammering.
“I made a lapse in judgment when I appointed you as head groundskeeper. I meant to change it to a dignified position worthy of your wisdom. I admit such matters slipped my mind when I was occupied in gaining back control of my affairs until Mererid informed me of your displeasure- No, let me finish. Sarah, these past weeks I have witness first hand that you are much more than a woman with a head for medicine and a green thumb. Which is why I want to elevate you… as a member of my council.”
Drawn out silence extended between them. Emhyr gave her a stern look. “That is not the wine talking. I’m perfectly sober.”
Sarah opened her mouth several times without a word: like a fish taken out of the water, until she managed to stutter a reply.
“A- advisor? M- m- me?”
“You have excellent observational skills, arriving at precise conclusions with very little clues, a deep understanding of the human condition… blunt yet honest- I could go on, Sarah. It would be a great lost for the empire and for me personally if that intelligence is under-utilized.”
Sarah fidgeted. Awkward doesn’t being to describe how she felt. Compliments and adulations aren’t new: she received them from her teachers regularly it was dulled to the level of a morning greeting.
None of them gave her this deep sense of gratification.
“I trust you will not refuse me like you always do” he added, head cocked inquisitively.
She covered her mouth and giggled.
“I see I’ve finally vexed His Majesty with my many refusals.”
“Vexed I will be tonight if you decline.”
“I shall not refuse, sire…” she smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.
“I’m disappointed you do not seem pleased by this elevation of your status.”
“I am pleased, truly! It’s that-“Sarah peered at him and Emhyr recognized that look.
“You had more to say”
Emhyr remained quiet and an uncomfortable silence hung in the air before he goaded her with a nod to proceed.
“You are woolgathering again, sire.”
“Despite the significant gains, you are outside, by yourself- companionless. Asking for my input, an outsider and impartial observer, like we are back in your apartment and looking out the window. And you drank more than your usual intake of wine… I could go on, but you get my gist, sire”
Emhyr slowly leans back as if something heavy is pulling him onto the bench, even his shoulders slumped. A grimace crossed his lips.
“I was right about wanting you as my advisor. Observant. Precise.” Emhyr directed his statement towards the palace. Both could hear the laughter of the nobles carried by the breeze. Someone must’ve opened a window, or a door looking for the privy.
Emhyr leans forward, shoulders hunched and his voice became solemn.
“That is no banquet, Sarah. It is a nest of vultures. A congregation of turncoats and opportunists who are on their last limping legs dancing on my good graces. This isn’t the first nor last time I had to put up a façade of comradeship. Keep my enemies closer and all that, and I kept them close with the leash I put around their necks. One false move, that leash becomes a noose with one mighty pull.”
“The nobles are aware of their collars?” she asked carefully.
“Painfully aware” a grim smile on his face “it was part of my speech during a toast, after I gave the future duchess her well-deserved compliments.”
“The future empress consort?”
It took tremendous will to keep her tone neutral.
Emhyr scoffed. Sarah cocked her head inquiringly, a gesture he found endearing.
“Peter approves of her, but I haven’t made up my mind yet. Eliania – the duke’s niece, is no different from the other women: trained, schooled… conditioned to use their looks and feminine wiles, to seduce their way into the throne, something beyond their reach. It would a shame to let all that training go to waste.”
Sarah listened intently and said nothing, but her jaw stiffened in clear distaste of how... callously dismissive he is of his lovers. She thought, the emperor is no different from the other monarchs, however, she reminded herself that what he does in private is truly none of her business. These are merely the perks of privilege.
“Do you pity them, Sarah?” he asked her, and Sarah wonders if he is baiting her.
“What I feel bears no weight to your empire, Majesty. You’re appointing me to a position that requires intellect and objectivity: advices based on facts and logic: not feelings.”
Her tone took on a sharp edge, even if it disturbs him, the emperor did not show it. Emhyr pondered, fingers drumming rhythmically on his thigh. Then, after a tense period of silence, smiled
“You will make an excellent advisor, Sarah” he said, beaming with admiration.
Her shoulders slumped with relief that she has not earned his ire. “Was that a test, sire?”
“Perhaps” he gave her a nonchalant shrug. “You did not crumble under pressure, and barely hesitated. You will do well during the actual test.”
Emhyr brushed his dustless trousers and stood up, took a deep breath and sighed. “I need to get back in there before they send guards to look for me.”
Sarah got up, her eyes grew with excitement. “I need to show you something!”
And before Emhyr could protest, she grabbed his hand and pulled him as she fast-walked.
“I hope it’s not too late” she said, keeping a firm grip on his hand. Emhyr did not resist, still very much taken by surprise, even more when he allowed himself to be dragged along.
They stopped at a robust oak tree of an arboretum: one of many that can be found in the gardens. There were two lit oil lamp post. Sarah lets go of the emperors’ hand and extinguished the flames, enveloping them in semi-darkness.
“What am I looking at?”
“It should reveal itself any minute now.”
Emhyr looked at the group of trees and saw nothing but shadows and the rustling of leaves against the breeze. Then slowly…something happened.
Patches of the oaks’ trunk glowed bright green, the roots and the ground as well. Four-point shaped orchids secured on the truck to take root also gave off an ethereal glow that stood out even more in the darkness.
He has never seen such a thing!
Sarah moved closer to the tree and extended her hand towards one of the glowing orchids: it painted her hand with its’ light. Something wafted from the flowers: bioluminescent spores.
“Beautiful aren’t they, your majesty?”
“What… are they?”
“Brokilon moss and orchids. I was lucky enough to acquire some samples and spores, cultivated them in the greenhouse and transplanted them on the trunk of this tree. I thought these would make a positive impression with his imperial majesty’s evening guests. Not many gardens in the world are admired in the darkness.”
She turns to him, the glow illuminating her face, her shining silver and emeralds. “Chamberlain Mererid said I need approval should I wish to make cosmetic changes to the grounds. And… since you are here, sire, I thought it better you see it than the chamberlain. Does His Majesty approve?”
“Only a blind man or a fool would refuse. I am fortunate to be the first to witness this… marvel. My dear, you could’ve been shot by the dryads!”
Sarah was touched by his concern. “Im here, Im alive, and this tree is proof of it.” She looks at the flowers, touching a delicate petal with her forefinger. “Never thought I would succeed grafting these blooms here in the south, let alone growing them. Now, the spores will latch to the adjacent trees and, in a span of weeks, Brokilon orchids will sprout-“
Sarah was absorbed with regaling him about the propagation of the exotic plant, not realizing Emhyr was listening to it all with one ear.
“Sarah, come closer, you have something stuck on your face?”
“Wh-What?” startled out of her lecture, she took a few steps forward and brushed a hand on her cheek.
Emhyr sighed and pulled a square of silk out of his sleeve.
“Here, let me.”
“You can just tell me where-“ she protested, but Emhyr cuts her off.
“The last time I told you to take better care of your face; you couldn’t even do it properly and made an even bigger mess.”
He brushed her cheek with the silk- slowly and efficiently. He drew back and showed her the still-glowing spores stuck on the handkerchief. He folded the silk over and- apparently he is not finished yet- resumed to wipe her cheek, which turned into that lovely shade of rose he remembers.
Her silver and emeralds captivated him without fail, and she was trying to look somewhere, anywhere but his.
“Sarah?” he murmured.
He was gazing at her with such interest that she could feel him staring right through her.
“How did you come upon such fascinating eyes?” he asked. The silver of her eyes were more pronounced tonight, like a silver fish rising on the surface of the Alba.
Sarah wanted to lick her lips but ends up pressing them together. So close, she could smell the wine vapors on his breath.
“It’s…. genetics, sire” she began in a small voice. “Something I inherited from my an-“
Her eyes widened.
By the gods, I remember!
Emhyr heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching them, turned and saw two armored sentries. They stopped in front of him and straightened up in attention.
“Sire, the fireworks display is ready to start.”
Emhyr glanced back and saw he was alone. Sarah has fled while his back was turned. At a distance, he heard the squeak and slam of the brass gates of her cottage.
He felt mildly annoyed. He was so engaged in their interaction that this sudden interruption soured his pleasant mood.
“Inform the guests that I will be there shortly” he flicked his head at them to go away. The sentries bowed and left without question.
Emhyr stuffed the kerchief back in his sleeve and looks at the tree, sighing heavily. He stayed for a few more minutes before walking back to the palace- slowly, taking his time.
Loud explosions and long wheezing whistles accompanied the fiery blooms, seemingly joining the stars in the sky, hanging there for a while until their lights fizzled out. More streaks of light whizzed into the darkness, erupting into multiple sparks and globes of white and gold. The impressive display elicited applause and gasps of delight from the palace guests viewing all of this on the grounds.
Emhyr, and his evening companion, the duchess apparent viewed the display on the balcony of the chambers he is currently occupying on the fourth floor.
He and Eliania leaned on the balcony. The future duchess’s elfin face looked at the sky with unrestrained joy.
“The fireworks of Toussaint are so beautiful, Your Majesty” she exclaimed, glancing at him “I will inform my uncle, the Duke to import some when you visit us.”
“Indeed, they are very beautiful” he replied without returning the glance, nor felt her cool hand resting on top of his, promising more than just a touch. He pictured the tree and its glowing moss and orchids.
Brokilon moss and orchids
He saw her smile.
“Beautiful” he murmured.
He wished he could’ve stayed longer to savor it.
While the skies exploded, Sarah closed the doors of her closet while curled inside. The floor of the closet were strewn with fallen clothes and racks, hurriedly shoved to cover the narrow openings, swallowing her in darkness.
Except it was no longer dark inside the closet.
Light burst forth from the beacon, drowning her in its blinding white glare. Sarah hunched over the beacon but her own body couldn’t even blunt the flood. It shone through her, showing her parts of herself that could only be seen in anatomy books or in the dissection table: nervous system, muscles and sinew. Bones!
She prayed to any gods out there that no one sees the strange flickering light despite the thickest black curtains Martina draped on her bedroom window.
Let them be distracted by the fireworks to notice! Let them think she is burning two lamps till the wee hours of dusk!
How could she have forgotten? The date. The moon phase. The cursed beacon!
Please Melitele, Saint Lebioda, Great Sun. Protect me from prying eyes! Don’t let anyone see me!
“I thought we no longer meddle in the affairs of the mighty, Ida.”
“We don’t. Something triggered: an oracular vision. And it is in Nilfgaard! Oh, not the Swallow. She has flown far away from anyone’s reach and her father no longer seeks her. Come! Look into the scrying pool. Do you read human tales, Enid?”
“Only when they amuse-oh her. You had our brothers and sisters nudge her into the wrong ship!”
“Wrong ship that led to the right direction.”
“Hmmm… looks like she is going seriously considering that again.”
“Shame I can’t portal into Nilfgaard. Not with all that dimeritium they lace their mortars building their city. I’ll pack my travelling bags and head there first thing in the morning.”
“And what will be your excuse for the unscheduled visit to Emhyr’s court?”
“You are the queen, Enid. Surely her majesty has a reason why she sends her court sorceress to have an audience with the emperor.”
“Emhyrs’ spies have already informed His Imperial Majesty of our troubles with the lesser Demavend. You will be my emissary and petition for aid. After all, the dhoines of Aerdrin haven’t stopped trying to take back what they stole from us.”
“Perfect! I need to move swiftly before Cinderella does something she will regret for the rest of her life.”
Eliana sat straight up, frightened, clutching the satin sheets covering her breasts. She was awoken when the emperor beside her screamed.
“What’s the matter, Your Radiance?”
Emhyr also sat up. His heart was pounding as heavily as his breathing. He was freezing- one of the windows was partly ajar and the cool evening breeze seeped in, sending goosebumps on his naked skin.
“Nothing… I just had a nightmare.”
“Nightmare? What is it a-“
“I wish not to discuss it. Go back to sleep, Eliania. You have an early departure back to your duchy in the morning.”
Eliania sank back into the dowdy mattress; hurt by Emhyrs’ cool dismissiveness. After the festivities were over she tried enticing him with promise of evening bliss- better than the previous night, but he was, not only, not in the mood, he has been distracted since his return from the gardens. She was even ignored when she lay down on top of the covers with not a single article of clothing. The emperor simply took off his robes and slipped into the covers, and went to sleep almost instantly.
The duchess apparent turned her back to him, weeping softly. Her uncle is going to be sorely disappointed.
Emhyr touched his chest to steady his heartbeat, and then ran his fingers through his unkempt hair. He recalled the dream.
It was so vivid!
He was at the window, looking at the line of guests below entering the palace. He turns his head and saw the gardens looking unkempt, overgrown with weeds, the water fountains spraying murky swamp water. Furious, he went down and found Sarahs’ majordomo.
“Inform Sarah to attend to me now and she’d better have good reason why the garden is in such a sorry state.”
“Pardon Your Imperial Majesty, but we do not have a worker with that name.”
“What worker? Sarah, your mistress and head groundskeeper!”
The majordomo looked confused.
“Sire… There is no one by that name.”
Emhyr felt his heart pounding, vein on his head throbbing. He staggered back.
“No… I appointed her as …as…”
Emhyr walked fast, almost running, towards the back, where Sarahs’ cottage was built.
There was no cottage. The area where a house was supposed to be is nothing but a rickety garden shed.
There is no Sarah. The Lady of Mirrah doesn’t exists.
Emhyr felt an overwhelming sense of loss swallow him in its dark, cold embrace. He looked at his right arm: it was soaked in blood.
He touched his arm.
It was damp, but from sweat- not blood. He felt the long, raised scar like a ragged line from elbow to the palm of his hand. He closed his eyes, taking slow deep breaths.
She exists… and this scar is proof. Sarah, my wildflower, is safely- securely- in my garden.
Emhyr sank back into the sheets, but sleep took it’s sweet time to claim him.
This was suppose to be two chapters. Sarah struggles with her growing fondness which conflicts with her primary goal: to keep the beacon hidden from prying eyes. Things are going to get interesting from here on. Thank you for continuing to read this tale and I hope you will come back for more,
Chapter 18: A Moments' Decision
Narrowly escaping discovery, Sarah makes up her mind regarding her future in the empire, by returning to a life of solitude. Meanwhile, Emhyr is making some last minute decisions of his own.
The chapter starts with Sarah dreaming (click on the link before the story begins to see her dream).
Apologies for the long wait. There were some real life issues I had to deal with as well as two portraits I wanted to post. Also some creative crises that arouse after posting the portraits. This chapter has gone through some revisions, cutting out a lot of the scenes I thought were too melodramatic. This chapter for me is like the calm before the crapstorm. Enjoy!
Sarah ran away in the middle of the night.
She did not know for how long but her aching calves indicated she’d been running long enough. Her muscles scream in protest- because her lungs lacked the oxygen to do so. She ran while avoiding the patrolling guards, past the cities, then the little towns, villages, entered and exited forests, crossed open clearings, roads tread often or barely.
Sarah kept on running, panting not like a dog, but an overworked horse. It won’t be long until she could feel the gravel scraping the bottom of her feet- her shoes worn down to the canvas. Her companions- the quiet shadow that stretched behind her like some post conjunction monster sewn to her feet, ran with her, showing enviable inexhaustible stamina…
And the other that refuse to be silenced. The voice of reason.
You have always been obedient!
This was a bad idea from the beginning!
Look what happened when you do not listen to me!
Shut up! Shut up, Mother!
She did not give in to the urge to mentally spar with Mother. Her priority is to get away. Away from the empire.
Away from him.
Run as far as she might, she cannot get enough distance from the emperor or the empire’s long reach. The entire Continent is the empire. Where to go? Where to hide? He’ll find her with his armies, with his ships. Nowhere to go but….
Of course! The sky!
Casting modesty aside for self-preservation, she stripped off all her clothing, even her undergarments. Cannot risk the imperial hounds to track her scent. Cold air bit her skin like so many needles.
Sarah ran towards the cliff and leapt. The impetus of her launch allowed the wind to carry her higher and higher. Who knew flying could be so exhilarating! She reached the clouds. It was much colder up here. Freezing! She curled into a fetal position for warmth. The sweat on her skin turned to frost. It will be in a matter of minutes till her blood, too, turns into ice. It’s not important, she is finally safe amidst the stars, the moon, and the concealing cumulous of air and dew. Sarah let sleep cradle her in its’ cold arms.
Safe at last!
Foolish girl! What makes you think he can’t find you up here?
The sun! Of course! He is the Great Sun! The skies lit up. Moon and stars receded together with the night, driven away by the rays cutting through the clouds, piercing the dark.
And she saw him; his arms passing through the clouds, hands outstretched reaching for her. Then his nose emerged like a ship’s prow. His face- strong, splendid, and beautiful.
He found her and wrapped her in his arms, his warmth – like the sun- melted away the frost. She could feel her blood awakening from its cold suspension coursing through her veins as he pressed her against his body. She cupped his face with both hands and whispered.
“You found me”
He brushed a dew off her cheek with his thumb. A strange smile on his lips to go with the blazing amber fire that is his eyes.
“You will never get away from me, my little wildflower.”
And she was swallowed in his brilliance.
“Mistress! Mistress! Oh, thank Ard Feainn you are safe!”
Sarah felt hands on her shoulders gently shaking her. She opened her eyes and squinted at the sudden brightness flooding her chambers.
The majordomo was nearly babbling. “You did not come down for breakfast and I got worried you were sick so I came up here and found you missing. I had the girls look all over the grounds while I searched the house for you and heard a sound in the closet and found you inside-“
“Martina, close the curtains please.”
The majordomo drew back and did what she was asked. Sarah gingerly emerged from the bowels of her closet, causing a few more dresses to slip from their hangers as she brushed them out of her way. She slumped on the edge of the bed, thankful that the room no longer blinds her.
“Why were you hiding in there, mistress? Did someone came in and-“
“No, no” Sarah groggily waved the rest of elderly servant’s concern away “nothing as dramatic as an assassination attempt. I was sleepwalking.”
Martina paused, worried, her arms holding the fallen dresses she scooped from the closet floor.
Sarah sighed and flopped back on the bed staring at nothing. “I have not done that for a long time” she said, more to herself than to clarify the majordomos’ question.
“I think you should go see a doctor”
Sarah chuckled. “I was a doctor, or was going to be one. They will tell me it’s just an ordinary somnambulistic episode and will prescribe some concoction to take before I sleep and maybe strap myself on the bed so I do not do anything dangerous- like cooking a late-night snack and setting the house on fire. No, Martina, this is a… genetic affliction that I had under control that… got out of control. And I will not let it happen again.”
The majordomo finished straightening the closet and shuts it carefully.
“I will call off the search and send for the girls to prepare your bath before you eat. And I’ll make you some hot chocolate. It’s my mother’s proven remedy for sleepwalking. Trust me, it works!”
Sarah smiled, shutting the arrogant urge to correct the majordomo that her mother’s home remedy is nothing but a placebo effect. She allowed the old woman’s motherly concern to comfort her.
“Give me half an hour to straighten myself before the bath. Thank you, Martina.”
Martina bowed and left, closing the door softly behind her.
Sarah let her smile slip and once more flopped on the mattress.
She lets out a slow exhale. Somnambulism. Sleepwalking. Her mother used that as an excuse for her “episodes”. The once-a-month instances where she goes to the university, sleep deprived, looking like an ill-tempered raccoon because she was up all night doing god knows what. The suggestion of strapping herself to the bedposts as an advice, or a joke, cropped up often and she always shuts them down. It is a genetic affliction she has no control over.
In truth, it was a good cover for the nights she had to hide the beacon. And here, in the heart of the empire, she is using the same effective excuse.
Another sigh, this time of relief. No one saw the blinding light last night. Nobody came to inspect why her room looked like it was burning two or three lamps.
Still, it was so damn close!
Against her will and better judgement, the emperors’ face loomed in her mind.
Sarah’s face flamed, but the thought of him discovering her secret immediately dashed the heat. She cannot allow herself to feel a strong emotional attachment to him. It’s laughable, scandalous, and most of all, dangerous. Best to sever it quickly before-
A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts.
“Mistress, your bath is ready” Vrei announced.
She could hear something crackling downstairs in the kitchens. Something frying in oil.
“I’ll be down in a few.”
Vreis’ receding footsteps could be heard outside. Sarah looks at the window with its dark curtains- saw a ray of light like a blade.
She pulls the curtain and covered the window completely, bathing her chambers in gloom. She got up, slipped her toes into the slippers. She thought about her dream. As long as she is in his realm, the beacon is never safe.
The beacon. The reason why she chose solitude. Her mind gave her the answer to her predicament- in the form of a dream.
“No need to say it, mother. I know what I must do.”
You should’ve done that a long time ago.
The voice of reason always gets the last word.
A day before Belleteyn, close to noon.
Mererid handed the list of invited guests to Emhyr. They were in his office where the sound of hustle and bustle of preparation couldn’t penetrate. There were always some last-minute changes and annoying complication. Nothing is truly set in stone and even the emperor himself, who rarely makes a decision on impulse, is not immune to changing his mind at a moment’s notice.
The chamberlain was a picture of calm at the ready, hands behind his back. Not a muscle twitched in anticipation, but within his polished shoes, his toes curled anxiously. Emhyr was holding a quill aloft, poised to scratch out a name or add a detail, face immovable except for his eyes slowly moving left to right.
So far so good, the chamberlain thought. Looks like the list of guests is finalized-
The quill moved, scratched a long line then scribbled above it. Mererid controlled his reactions, but couldn’t suppress a sigh of disapproval, at least it was silent as to not distract His Imperial Majesty.
“Rescind Eliania’s invitation and give it to Peter’s niece.”
“Which one, Your Imperial Majesty?”
Emhyr’s brows crinkled in thought. “Heleen. The daughter of his third sister. Have someone find Evertsen and inform him quickly.”
“As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty.”
Mererid did not move and predicted accurately that the emperor still has more to say.
“I want these councilors summoned tomorrow morning for an impromptu audience” the quill made quick ticks on the parchment. “Include General Voorhis and Viscount de Rideaux . Attendance is mandatory and whatever they have planned in the morning, better pass it along to someone else. I’d like to have Sarah approved as a member of my council before the festivities.”
“As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty.”
Mererid moved towards the desk.
Emhyr made further alterations and pushed the list in front of him. The chamberlain picks the now altered guest invites, took a brief glance at the added instructions and gave the emperor a deep bow. Emhyr dismissed him with a flick of his head.
The door closed noiselessly.
Emhyr leans back briefly on his cushioned chair before bending to open a drawer that held, among other objects, a small stack of blank invitation cards. He took one and picked the quill once more, dipped it in the ink pot and wrote a name and his signature. Only he could add a guest or three that were not included in the original list. But for the evening party, he only added one. After the application of sand and wax seal, he placed the card back inside the drawer and called for the sentry outside the door to send a servant in with his lunch. He will be dining in his office again.
Emhyr got up and walked towards the window. The view of the gardens gave him a moment’s peace which he gladly basked in before later returning to the next task in his busy itinerary: an audience with the Dol Blathanna representative: the elven sage Ida- presently occupying one of the guestrooms in the palace. No doubt seeking his aid in dealing with those upstarts from Aerdrin. The military arm of the empire is now busy maintaining peace and order; a refreshing change from going into war. There are still malcontents among the newly subjugated, guerrillas that need flushing out, kings that need to be reminded they have a sovereign. He had considered strongly that it is time to elevate Dol Blathanna from a duchy to a proper kingdom, at the expense of Aerdrin.
The thought made the corner of his lips rise.
Emhyr called for the sentry and have Ida join him for lunch. He decided to move her scheduled audience early.
She was at the marketplace doing her groceries. Alone. She wanted to try her hand at haggling. Martina taught her how. But she had very little success convincing the vendors to bargain with her. There was no need, for the holiday provided that rare phenomenon called a “discount”.
The items in her basket were consumables with high shelf life: dried fruits, pickles, unleavened bread, cheese and meat jerkies. A vagabonds’ fare. While pondering on her next purchase, Sarah picked up interesting conversations from visitors and locals alike. The discussions varied from the political unrests in their respective realms, to intrigues and personal problems that would be of no importance to anyone but the family affected. Yet she listened intently: what affects a family unit reflects the current status of their country.
“I had to go all the way to the capital just to get this fabric! Even on sale, I cannot afford it in Verden!”
“The Hierarch raised the religious tithe this year.”
“What is that? You can’t find Elihal anymore? Yes, I saw the notice. He moved his shop to Dol Blathanna. I think all the elves in Novigrad are leaving.”
“The emperor still hasn’t made an announcement who will succeed him.”
“We should have a voice who we want as the next imperator. My family cannot take another Emreis.”
“It’s a scandal! The Baron of Angren is dallying with his laundress! His wife fired the poor girl and had her thrown in the stocks!”
“The new governor of Metinna lasted only a month. He was found dead the next morning.”
“That’s is the popular sentiment.”
Sarah has heard enough. She need not concern herself with matters of state when she’s made up her mind on leaving. As soon as possible.
“Mistress! Er, Mistress Sarah!’
Vrei emerged from the thick wall of curious customers, waving frantically to get her attention while half-walking and half-running towards her. She finally stopped and bent down to catch her breath.
“I’ve been looking all over for you!”
“I’ll explain on the way back” Vrei grabbed her arm “Hurry! The chamberlain said it’s urgent!”
-to be continued
Chapter 19: Political Pressure
Sarah's wisdom is put to the test by those above her station. The audience proved to be both enlightening, and disconcerting as Sarah inadvertently revealed more of herself that is worth looking into.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Not even the sound of her heels clicking on marble drown the interrogation of mother.
Why didn’t you just walk out into the night? You could still do it. Turn back and walk away as fast as you can! Cut your ties this moment and spare yourself a prolonged agony of saying goodbye.
(Clip clip clip!)
Sarah considered it but rejected the idea. Besides, mother was wrong: It is already too late.
She was walking behind the chamberlain, her shoes and his boots echoed with each step. Their destination is one of the conference rooms. Today was her test: her initiation to the emperors’ inner circle.
The voice of reason kept pressing for an answer. To say “it’s too late” doesn’t satisfy. Sarah finally acquiesced.
To just up and leave when he has shown me kindness? To have him wondering if he did anything to make me disappear like a thief in the night? No, I will not sneak away. I will not vanish like a ghost. It would be the highest form of discourtesy in the land where respect, etiquette and discipline are held in high regard.
The emperors’ friendship is the most valuable keepsake I will take with me.
She was unaware that they had reached their destination- and collided with Mererids’ back.
“What the f-“ he stumbled and turned sharply.
“Sorry, sorry!” Sarah replied clutching her nose, her face red from embarrassment.
Mererid shook his head in disapproval. “Your test hasn’t even begun and you’re already off to a bad start.”
In a rare display of fatherly concern, he gently took Sarah’s hands off her face and peered closer.
“No damage sustained, thank Ard Feainn.” He pursed his lips up at seeing the faint dark circles on her eyes. “You didn’t get much sleep, I see.”
A faint rumble in her belly.
“You should’ve at least eaten some buttered toast.”
“How could I with that announcement you made yesterday?”
The corner of his lips twitched. Sarah was pouting like a child. Yes, that announcement was a bucket of ice water. He recalled how her face drained of color when he told her that the emperor scheduled her test on the next day, and he- the chamberlain- will send servants to get her suitably attired and made-up for the audience. Sarah’s majordomo and one of the girls had to support Sarah- who looked green and was on the verge of passing out.
“Back straight as a rod” Mererid instructed “do not stare when addressing the councilors but do not lower your eyes for too long either: it is considered lack of confidence…. Are you feeling well, milady? You’re looking a little gr-“
Sarah lurched and quickly stumbled towards the closest enormous decorative vase. Mererid averted his eyes and sighed as the sound of heaving echoed in the halls. He thanked Ard Feainn no one – save for the impassive sentries- witness Sarah making a fool of herself.
“Im… I’m all right” Sarah gasped between words. “Nothing came out.” She straightened herself with some difficulty, her frame trembled with each breath. Mererid handed her a white kerchief he conjured from his breast pocket.
Sarah took the folded cloth and wiped her lips. “Thank you.”
“Feeling better now?”
“I…. I will be. It’s been years since I presented my arguements orally-“
Mererid cuts her off with a shake of his head. “We’ve loitered enough. You can share your life stories after.” He gave her a stern look. “Ready?”
Sarah straightened her back, took a steadying breath.
Into the lions’ den, daughter mine
Sarah ignored mother’s taunting quip.
Morvran Voorhis wished he had something in his hands, a leaf of questionnaire or, preferably, a goblet of wine- but the emperor forbade them from bringing their ready-made questions, trusting them all ask pertinent questions to the candidate on the spot while sober. He was surprised when a messenger approached him while having a luncheon with one of his lieutenants in the local tavern: a folded note containing the emperors’ seal indicating urgency. He excused himself and found a secluded spot to open and read the note: Sarah is to be elevated to the position of advisor and Emhyr himself chose him as one of the judges.
Seated across the table from him is the Viscount de Rideaux- delivering hushed reports to the ears of the emperor (seated at the head of the table) casually leaning to receive news.
Morvran observed the other two advisors. The emperor is wise to choose these two over Lord Evertsen to preside with the judging: no doubt the emperor used the provided intel: Evertsens’ itinerary for the day, and kept the chief advisor busy. The two replacements were themselves busy conversing, voices respectfully muted. The councilors gesticulating hands spoke louder than their voices. They weren’t this animated before. Hardly, if ever, anyone is this excited being summoned by His Imperial Majesty. It was akin to being sent to the executioner.
By the looks of satisfaction on their faces, they were grateful that they weren’t being called for some slight, but for a mundane task of elevating a newcomer to their fold. But that wasn’t the only reason they were grateful.
Morvran’s lips rose in a twisted grin. Count Carmilo’s wife is a notorious spendthrift: the Countess would purchase the most expensive gowns, not for herself or for their daughters, but to deprive others from upstaging her fashion sense. The offended female parties learned quickly to commission designers and tailors to make custom gowns months in advance. The Count? The fatuous noble became wiser by informing all merchants that no purchases from his household will be approved without his personal appearance and seal. Emhyr practically took away the countesses’ treasury on legs!
The other councilor- the lanky and ambitious Baron Sven of Ebbing, is a shipping magnate owning nearly half the ports in the capital, had ports and warehouses scattered all over the south, and manage to acquire several more in Temeria and Redania at a steal, thanks to the spoils of war. Baron Sven was overdue for an advancement in the noble ranks.
A small footnote was scribbled on the bottom of the reports by one of Vattier’s spies: a more subjective opinion, yet a valid point. The baron loves collecting laurels and would flaunt about it to anyone within earshot. Being summoned by the emperor for the important task to judge a candidate for joining the ranks of Emhyrs’ inner circle is but another achievement to be fluttered about in the dinner table- bloating his importance.
Morvran disliked the baron already.
The thick double doors opened. Chamberlain Mererid stepped in and paused at the required distance and bowed respectfully to the emperor as if he was the only occupant in the room. Lady Sarah stepped from behind and stood beside the chamberlain.
“Your Imperial Majesty” Mererid announced “Lady Sarah of Geso” he gestured with his left hand. Sarah performed a modified curtsey allowed by her waist-hugging skirt and kept her head respectfully lowered until she straightened up.
“Your Imperial Majesty, milords.” She greeted them in a respectful yet no-nonsense tone. A throwback to her distant scholar years.
The large diamond on Emhyr’s ring glinted when he flicked his hand. Mererid bowed low, turned and left.
The sound of the doors closing punctuated the looming silence that Sarah could hear her own heartbeat. They were giving her odd looks; examining her like an odd specimen under a magnifier. She noted their stares: two men she never saw before gave her a look over from head to toe and back again. The Viscount whom she never met but saw in passing looks at her curiously as if trying to guess if he has seen her before. The emperor appeared unconcerned. Only Morvran Voorhis seem pleased to see her.
Morvran had to control himself from laughing.
What is with that disguise?
Emhyr rested his face against his hand, propped up on the chair’s arm. Without a glance at Morvran, he flicked his index finger. Morvran got out of his seat, got to the other end of the table and pulled the chair for Sarah. Emhyr went back to examine his recommended candidate.
He couldn’t decide whether to praise or reproach Mererid and the servants for doing a good job disguising Sarah’s humble origins.
She looks like a frumpy librarian, he thought testily.
The girls Mererid sent to assist Sarah combed chamomile oil to tame her unruly curls. They couldn’t straighten it completely and it was tied high on the back of her head like a parade horse’s tail. Her clothes were stiff and claustrophobic- a long white blouse with ruffles that buttoned up to the neck – a Great Sun brooch pinned squarely between her collarbones- and long cylindrical sleeves that buttoned at the wrists, waist-hugging black skirt lacking adornments that flared from the knees down, showing the tips of her black shoes.
He sighed deeply. The dress was bad enough, but-
Those spectacles are too much!
I look like an old maid librarian, Sarah thought, pushing the halfmoon glasses higher up the bridge of her nose. They were slightly tinted and, thankfully, lacking of any grade. Her hair glistened from the herbal oil and her scalp still felt raw from the heavy-handed combing.
She took her proffered place. The emperor, exclusively occupying the head of the table sat directly in front of her, with Morvran and one of the unfamiliar men to his right, and the Viscount and the other unfamiliar man to his left. All men seated at quite a distance. Sarah resisted the urge to lick her drying lips.
Emhyr cleared his throat and leaned further on his right.
“Lords, this is Lady Sarah. Milady, these are members of my council. Morvran Voorhis, you already met, the man beside him is Count Carmilo aep Gilser, from Winneburg. This is Viscount Vattier de Rideaux of Eiddon and Baron Sven aep Matthis of Ebbing ”
“A pleasure” said Sarah, feeling anything but. Her heart was in her throat and she could feel it rocking her frame.
They all gave her a nod for a reply. Depending on their familiarity, Morvrans’ is the most polite, garnishing the gesture with a smile, the others- a quick flick of their heads. Nothing from the emperor: the introduction was sufficient.
Dammit, get a hold of yourself! Think of the tricks you were told to keep calm and in control!
Memories of a different, long- forgotten life came to her in a flood. The remembered smells of musty books and pines. The droning voices of teachers at the lectern. The sound of chalk scratching a diagram on the board. Sarah, in her loose black uniform standing in front of a room full of VIP’s and her peers. She pictured them all wearing identical knickers with the heart patterns. Imagining them looking ridiculous helped calm her nerves and boost her confidence.
One by one she stripped them down to their smallclothes. Count Carmilo’s barrel gut jutting over the waistband of his heart patterned trunks. Beside him, Morvran is looking fine like any young and strapping military man. Sarah could feel her cheeks redden and had to bite her inner cheek from laughing.
She glanced at the stick of a man with the lowest noble title: Baron Sven. She imagined a sunken chest and a protruding belly. Too many beers and not enough exercise. Vattier looking as distinguished as his trimmed moustache that not even a heart patterned knickers could diminish.
She returned her attention to the head of the table.
Another memory intruded- that of emperor Emhyr waist-deep in the river, the water distorting his lower half with his knee blocking his privates from sight. Sarah immediately looks at the tables’ surface, cheeks overheating, mentally cursing at the long-forgotten professor who taught her that stupid advice.
“Who endorsed you for this position, milady?” Carmilo asked. Sarah opened her mouth.
“Me” Emhyr answered the surprised count. The emperor straightened and sat back with both arms on the chair’s armrests. “Lady Sarah is here to prove her worth as my advisor. You may proceed to test it.”
Morvran glanced at Sarah and noticed her going slightly pale at the realization that she is already an advisor, and that the test she’s undergoing is to convince all of them that the position is well-earned considering the emperor personally handed her the position. He felt pity for the poor woman.
Sarah straightened her back and mentally preparing herself to slip into the arrogant scholar, the Ice Maiden of-
“Where did you complete your education, milady?” again, the count was the first to ask.
“Oxerfurt Academy” she replied, a hint of tremor in her voice.
Someone snorted derisively. It was that stick of a man, the baron.
“A Nordling! Meant no disrespect, Your Radiance-” the derisive grin he had earlier vaporized when Emhyr glanced dangerously at him. “-isn’t the position as counselor too generous a reward?”
Sarah, already hot and uncomfortable in her formal yet elegant ensemble, felt her internal temperature rise, but restrained herself from replying. The statement wasn’t directed at her, and by answering would only prove his point.
“Sage advice” Emhyr answered firmly, not concealing his annoyance at the nobleman. “Despite Lady Sarah’s age and origins, she has shown exceptional intellect and keen observational skills: who to better consult about matter of the northern territories than one who lived there” Emyhr glanced at the baron and his voice carried with it a hint of threat. “And you know as much as anyone that I do not grant rewards that easily, not even out of gratitude.”
Baron Sven face went pale that the reddish speckles peppering his skin stood out. The emperor clearly remembers the baron, despite being vouched for by Lord Evertsen, barely earned his seat at the council.
“Let’s not dally further” Morvran spoke up. “I am confident lady Sarah can handle our inquiries.”
Baron Sven regained his composure now focused on Sarah, his arm resting on the table.
“What is your take on the oppositions ultimate goal, milady?”
A barely perceptible wrinkle appeared on Emhyrs’ brow. The spymaster’s eyes narrowed. Sarah was unaware of the internal conflict within the room, kept her expression serene.
She spoke up.
“Their last attempt at regicide borders on desperation. If one wishes to unseat the emperor, resorting to drastic measures should never be used as a resort- first or last. Foolishness like that ends up as examples to be displayed in the Millennium Square.”
Vattier and Morvran chuckled. Carmilo and Sven looked stunned. Emhyr remained silent, observing. Impressed. Puzzled.
Sarah found slipping into her old arrogant self as easy as slipping into her favorite shoes, and equally comfortable. She didn’t like it. All the more reason to leave Nilfgaard before she gets too used to the way of life she left behind.
It was Carmilo’s turn to ask
“There are two factions within the opposition. One wishes to return to the old ways which successors to the imperial throne must be of pure noble stock. The other wants power to be granted-and transferred- to the people. They call it “democracy”, where people choose who they want to govern them. Which do you think is more preferable?”
Morvran glanced at Vattier with a knowing yet troubled look: that was Skellens’ old cause! He may have been executed, but someone else picked up his goals.
Vattier briefly glanced at the emperor who observed the development with mild interest, but the way he gripped the armrest conveyed his displeasure. Why are they asking the new candidate these volatile questions in the presence of His Imperial Majesty?
Just another oral debate.
Sarah leaned forward with her elbows propped up, hands on top of each other: a thinker’s mannerism. After a brief moment of thought, she answered.
“Enlighten us then, milady” said the baron in a mocking tone.
I’ll show you my mettle, you arrogant prick!
Sarah momentarily froze, afraid that she spoke her thoughts out load. Seeing the lack of negative reaction from all of them, she mentally breathes a sigh of relief and proceeds.
“Kingdoms are run by the nobility. It is understood, observed and accepted as our station dictates who rules and who serves. However, that right to rule is taken away if the decision falls upon the Regency Council or the Senate’s hands. Regardless if one wishes the old ways or ‘democracy’, the chosen candidate to lead the populace is almost always underage as long as they meet one requirement: noble lineage. After all, there are princes within the empire who… aspire to be elevated, who cannot even lift a finger without the approval of their handlers- the true puppet masters” she began, looking at Carmilo with piercing eyes the silver rings gleamed through the tinted spectacles. “Their ambitions blind them to the realities of the present. By accusing his imperial majesty is no longer compos mentis, they expose their greed for power, making them blind to its delicate uses. They wish to change the empire with their ideals, but have no clue how to run it.”
Now there’s a term you do not hear often, Emhyr mused.
“A return to the ways of nobility where lineage is given priority as to who should sit on the throne is obvious to anyone, you need not remind us as if we are not aware.” said Baron Sven with a condescending tone as if speaking to an illiterate, or a child.
Sarah eyes gleamed dangerously beneath her lashes, sharp and cold like an icicle falling from a height on the head of an unsuspecting victim. It was a look she is famous for in her university days when her steel solid argument is countered by answers no harder than stale bread. The baron fidgets nervously under her frosty emerald stare. Count Carmilo looked at his hands in stunned silence.
“Is that so, then I apologize for reminding this council something so… basic” she emphasized with a sneer: the frigid maiden of the academy in full form “If one judges qualification by bloodline alone, we might as well hand the empire to a noble with a modicum of intelligence as long as he bleeds blue. A ruler who cannot distinguish between commanding his household servants to ruling the provinces doesn’t deserve to sit on the imperial throne.”
Both noblemen looked at each other. Vattier glanced at Carmilo and Sven with a look of pure amusement. “Shame Shilard isn’t alive to witness this.”
Sarah noticed a flicker of admiration in the emperor’s amber eyes. Emhyr mused at the thought that Sarah might’ve emulated him.
“You speak as if you experience this first hand, milady” Vattier commented.
Sarah replied, still in a lecturing mode. “History tends to repeat itself more often, sir, that it creates a pattern of predictability. Kingdoms of the north seldom make changes and continue to govern with antiquated policies. Therein lies their destruction: The world evolves while they remain stuck in the past. If a shift in governance happens, one must also question if the change in regime will achieve the desired result.
Vattier nodded, though her compelling explanation skirted his question.
“Democracy is idealistic and borders on fantasy” she continued, laying her intellectual arrogance in full display that it dripped of insolence. “Power to the people” sounds more poignant for our time than ‘Political Pageantry’. One must be ignorant of this fact: the distribution of wealth is never equal. Every nation has more than its fair share of marginalized folks, a large middle class, and the wealthy few. The latter wield power and influence over the former two. All they need is to feign sympathy for their plight, deliver empty promises of a better life, build schools and housing for the common folk while cutting corners here and there. A very effective manipulation tool to gain the favor of the masses who wishes this chosen fool to lord over them.”
Morvran planted both hands on the table and added his insights. “If the nobles fail to sway the marginalized class, there are other methods of persuasion, mainly less drastic ones. Support can be bought with coin. And what they spend, they can always regain when they emerge victorious. Sometimes with interest.”
She gave him a respectful nod. “I concur with your observation, Lord Voorhis.”
Morvran’s ears reddened. That was the first time she addressed him with that title.
Sarahs’ piercing eyes scanned the faces looking at her. She then raised a hand, fingers spread. This tactic annoyed her colleagues: it made them look dumb that she had to use hand gestures to make her point clear. Carmilo and Sven were miffed but kept their tongue in check in the presence of the amused emperor – fascinated with her brazen display.
“Whether one belongs to the general population or to the nobility, the people can be divided into four classes-” one by one she curled her fingers, “-the wise, the leaders, the righteous and the brave. By themselves they make ineffective rulers. Seek out the one outside of the four; a unifier who knows the art of ruling.” She then tucks her thumb above her four fingers and continued “He is the embodiment of the four classes and is sensitive to the ones he rules. This unifier must also have the strength and fortitude to bear the burden of the crown.”
She looked straight at Emhyr and he saw, briefly, her expression softened.
Emhyr leans forward. “And what if this “unifier” chooses to achieve his goals at any cost?”
“It’s a choice, like any other decision he makes. Except it’s a moral absolute. And that makes it dangerous.”
“No accountability, no room for reason… and a lifetime of regret.”
She smiled, and he felt his fondness for her tug something inside him.
Emhyr rapped the table with his enormous diamond signet ring. “These are sage arguments. Well done, milady. I trust everyone is in approval that Lady Sarah earned her seat in the imperial council.”
Everyone murmured their approval- some, begrudgingly.
“This audience is finished. General Voorhis and Viscount de Rideaux will remain. Lady Sarah, you stay as well. The rest may go.”
Both noblemen bowed and left: the Count giving Sarah a cordial nod. Baron Sven ignored her.
Sarah’s shoulders sagged. She felt emotionally and mentally exhausted, quickly discarding her insufferable persona. It was like wearing a scratchy fleece coat for hours.
Do it now, Sarah. Mother spoke from within.
“Lady Sarah.” Emhyr gestured for her to approach him.
“Aye, your Imperial Majesty?”
He handed her a card: black with gold trim. Embossed on the surface is the emperor’s crest. She read the writing on the card and her eyes grew wide.
“I’m formally inviting you to the banquet and I expect your presence in the ballroom tonight. Take this too-” He hands her a letter of credit. “This will sufficiently cover the expenses of you chosen gown, and whatever you need to prepare for the evening soiree.”
Sarah read the amount. Substantial for a nilfgaardian, but this much coin could feed a family of five for three months! And the emperor said this will cover the cost of a dress with some extra left to feed a woman’s vanity?
“Sire, may I speak with you in private?”
“There will be time for that after the gathering milady. I have other business to attend.”
Sarah whips off her spectacle.
She said in a strange voice that sounded desperate: an emotion mirrored in her eyes.
Emhyr shook his head. “I will find time to squeeze you in my itinerary, Sarah. You have my word.”
Sarah closed her eyes for a moment. That could take days- weeks even. She couldn’t wait that long.
“So be it. Farewell, Your Imperial Majesty.”
Sarah gave him a modified curtsey- as much as her restrictive skirt could allow- and left the room. She left her glasses on the table.
Emhyr was puzzled at the melancholy in her voice- and chose to set it aside for now. There were more pertinent issues at hand to prioritize. The emperor motioned for the men to take a seat at the now empty table. He, however, chose to remain on his feet, looking out the window.
“What did you glean from this audience, gentlemen?”
“Sven cannot be trusted.” Morvran answered curtly.
“We have long suspected he sympathizes with the opposition.” Vattier said grimly.
“Agreed, I have tolerated his disdain of my rule long enough.” Emhyr sighed and touched the window sill.
“And what of Lady Sarah?”
Vattier choose to be concise, hand rubbing the trimmed stylish beard covering his narrow chin.
“She is an enigma.”
Morvran inclined his head knowingly. “Her answers were precise and well thought off, and outside of her field of expertise. I expected she’ll only share an outsiders’ observation of current events, but to understand the inner workings of politics like an expert? Indeed, an enigma.”
Emhyr caught sight of Sarah below, walking towards the gates: a small, slim figure made slimmer with that old maid ensemble Mererid had her wear.
“Why did she choose solitude over recognition? There is no shortage of scholars and intellectuals hiding from the empire for publishing controversial books. Perhaps it’s the same with her. Vattier “ Emhyr glanced at his spymaster “ look for any clues about her past. You have very little to go with. Seek information from our men in Oxenfurt.”
“At once, Your Imperial Majesty!”
Vattier left his seat and bowed. Emhyr returned his attention to the outside world.
“Speak, General” Emhyr said.
“Pardon my impertinence, sire, but do you have doubts about her character?”
Emhyr inhaled, head tilted upwards and without turning, answered objectively. “I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for her, and you’d already be in my seat giving out orders.”
The general was taken aback by the calm hostility in the emperor’s voice and swallowed. “Sire, that is… I did not mean any offense-“
“I only let trustworthy individuals stand close to me without my guards present” Emhyr finished and turned, eyes on the flame within the pyramid on Morvran’s chest. “Does that suffice?”
Morvran got up and bowed- much lower than usual- in acknowledgement.
“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty. I shall assist Vattier in his task. Will there be anything else, sire?”
“You may go” said the emperor and resumed looking out the window with his hands behind him. He heard the young man’s boots receding towards the exit, then the soft closing of the heavy doors.
Emhyr was finally alone.
How deep has the rot gone, he asked himself. These malcontents haven’t got the spine, or clue how heavy the burden is, nor how big a personal sacrifice the empire demands of its sovereign.
All of them! They do not see it.
My apologies as this chapter took a long time to publish. Due to the changes made in the previous entries, I had to re-write certain scenes. A lot of the discourse is inspired by the DUNE books: Dune 1 and Children of Dune (the part where Leto II explained to Stilgar that a good ruler must be sensitive to the ones he rules).
Chapter 20: Deep Roots
Sarah sets out on an errand to purchase a dress for the banquet. Her grieving heart caught the attention of a strange visitor.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Logs! Consecrated firewood! Get your Belleteyn firewood here!”
“Salted meats! Smoked ham and venison! Buy in bulk and get a ten percent discount!”
“Ale and mead from the wild lands of Skellige! Firewater from Mahakam! Limited bottles of exquisite White Wolf from the Coronata-Vermentino Consortium!”
“Honorable customer, check my wares! Commemorative plates of His Imperial majesty! Perfect for any mantlepiece! Top notch quality!”
“Hey lady! Lady!”
The clamor of the vendors were lost on Sarah: she could barely hear them through the buzzing in her ears. Mother, that nagging voice of reason is silent. Perhaps because her living daughter could no longer be swayed to change her mind.
The capital was a sea of black and gold banners, flags and pennants constantly reminding locals and visitors alike where they are. If those weren’t enough, the patrolling sentries in their black and gold armors quelled any doubts.
Sarah tried basking in the celebratory ambiance of the city and failed miserably. Here and there, the shops displayed decorations and merchandise bearing the Great Sun, some with Emhyr’s imposing profile- even a combination of the two with the emperor haloed by the sun’s golden rays like a divine being.
She was going to bid the emperor farewell. Tonight. There was only that one goal, and the narrowest window of opportunity.
She knew what to do yet certain ideas kept getting in the way. Earlier, she visited one of the dwarven banks and had the letter of credit exchanged for a hefty pouch of florens. It was now hanging on her wrist like a manacle.
This much coin, she could disappear in the crowd of shoppers and be outside the city. Vanish like a thief!
Sarah snorted derisively.
A thief is what she’ll be. Prints of her face will be posted on every village, town and city, with a reward bigger than the coin weighing her down.
She can’t do that.
She won’t do that.
Ruining all that good will, destroy their friendship. Damaging his trust on her– the secrets of his soul he bared in his moment of vulnerability- he’ll certainly have her silenced (although her mind used stronger variation of the word). And her performance back there? That display of her intellect drained her mentally and now she is too exhausted to filter her thoughts. It was running in all directions, heading towards the edge of rational thinking. She proved to the council she earned her seat and that the emperor was right about her wisdom. All that trust, all that confidence, wasted. This was worse that her little refusals. Can she risk embarrassing him? He’d have to come up with a good excuse why his newly appointed advisor decided to discard her advancement-
No more! No more! I don’t want to think!
Running away is easier and damn the consequences! Even if it ends in death – no more worrying about hiding the damnable beacon, much less living in hunger.
Sarah halted in front of a dress shop- her fourth. its large paned windows, shaded by the awning displayed gowns of light absorbing black with delicate laces of gray and gold. No tailor’s apprentice came out to greet her. She could see the owner within- a male tailor dressed in a simple doublet applying pins on an elaborate black gown worn by a customer. His young apprentice stood by holding the tailors’ tools in a wooden box. Yet it wasn’t the tresses that caught her eye. Within the interior of the shop just above their heads hung a large portrait of Emhyr. The same painting, she saw in Novigrad years ago.
Her hand touched her chest, pressing the cold metal of her pendant underneath her claustrophobic blouse. There was no shop or stall that doesn’t have his face embossed, etched or painted in their wares. Reminding her of who she will miss the most. Not Martina and the girls whom she interacts with every day, not the pleasant elderly librarian Ingwald she sees every other afternoon, and certainly not the chamberlain who sees her only when he is ordered to (but she admits that she will miss the old stiff shirt).
She hasn’t even left yet and already she missed her dear imperial friend.
She has stayed too long that she has grown roots, anchoring herself in Nilfgaard’s soil. Sarah recalled the times weeding the gardens. Most of them could be uprooted with a gentle pull from the base; thin fragile roots still whole and intact. But some weeds have their roots in so deep that she had to cut them with a swift stab of the trowel before digging up the rest.
She was like that weed. Her roots have gone deep, grasping hard and refusing to be ripped away from this soft life of dowdy mattresses, savory sustenance, and affable company. Even so, she has to sever that anchor and depart mostly intact, leaving behind the comforts, taking only her memories of good times in the palace. Those too will fade in time.
The wheels of her troubled thoughts grinded to a full stop. She got her answer.
It heals all wounds, wipes away memories, snuff lives. She felt hollow inside, and a sharp ache filled that emptiness. Time, too, will numb that into nothingness.
I miss him already…
She could feel her eyes stinging, her throat tightening despite unbuttoning her collar.
Her roots have gone deep indeed. Once severed, Sarah hopes the rest of her can endure the pain until it heals.
“Banquet or funeral?”
A melodious voice made Sarah glanced to her right and was stupefied by the striking beauty of the speaker.
A female elf! Her gimlet eyes were a lighter emerald shade beneath thick lashes matching the sharpness of her high cheekbones. Her hair is the color of sunset above a bright yellow dress with a provocative plunging neckline of layered tulle with green sashes. Like an approaching dusk over a wheatfield.
“The dress you are looking at. Is it for a banquet or a funeral?”
“Oh… um, banquet.”
A shake of her luxurious sunset hair and scoffed at the gowns.
“Nilfgaardian fashion. You can’t tell with these limited colors if one attends a wake or a soiree. The empire could use a splash of color.” She turned to Sarah. “From the look on your face, I thought someone died.”
In a way, I am in mourning. Was she imagining it or did the elven lady smiled at her silent thoughts?
“Um, no.” Feeling uncomfortable at being plunged into unwanted interaction, Sarah glanced at the dresses, contemplated entering the shop, and sighed. Fortunately, the sun is still high and there are many more boutiques unexplored.
She gave the female elf a cordial nod of farewell and turned her heel. Still within a hearing distance, the elf called out.
“Good luck on your journey!”
Sarah froze, hesitantly turned back with a look of apprehension. Did she read her mind?
“How… Who are you?”
The elf lady walked with light and graceful steps, curtseyed.
“Ida Emean aep Sivney at your service. I’m staying with my people residing in the capital for Belleteyn, before I return to Dol Blathanna. Did I frighten you with my deductions? My apologies, I meant no offense. You looked so lost and sorrowful that, at first, I thought you were shopping for a dress to wear at a wake. If not a funeral, then probably to say farewell.”
Good guess! Overcoming her shock, Sarah’s brows met in a scowl “forgive me for being blunt, but I see no reason why my problems should concern you, lady Ida.”
Ida smile rose up a notch despite Sarah’s frosty reply. She raised her hands.
“Look around you. See their faces? Joyous, anxiously anticipating good times, excited babble and laughter. And then there is you who caught my attention: mourning in the midst of a festival. Like a damp spot in a bonfire. You wouldn’t want to attend a soiree and spoil the merriment for everyone, would you?”
Sarah’s temperament fizzled, replaced by the earlier woebegone, distracted mood as she directed her gaze to the ground.
There were a few who gave both women a passing glance- longer for Ida with her attention catching seductive dress- but were too busy to be inquisitive. None of the positive energies penetrated the gloom surrounding her.
Ida is right. She might as well attend a wake. Like the severed weeds in the gardens: parts of themselves still anchored in the ground. Without those parts, the weeds died slowly on the way to the compost or the incinerator.
When she first stepped into the unknown, discarding her former life to live in solitude, there were no tears and heartfelt words of partings. She simply vanished.
So why now?
Because she has friends.
Sarah, once more, felt the sting of tears.
A hand reached out and tipped her chin. Sarah found herself staring into Ida’s ethereal features: her forest green eyes radiated warmth so unlike Sarah’s cold emeralds.
“You poor thing. No one should be this heartbroken on Belleteyn. It’s a celebration of life, love, and new beginnings” she briefly glanced at the dark dresses with a disapproving look. “These colors definitely wont uplift your spirits. Come! I know just the boutique for you. Make your last Belleteyn a happy one.”
And without waiting for approval, Ida linked her arms on Sarah’s elbow. “You’ve not given me your name yet.“
“Uh, sorry. I’m Sarah. I really don’t need h-” her stomach began to gurgle and Sarah’s face flushed with embarrassment. Ida laughed and tugged at her arm.
“Oh hush! Let’s not tarry while there’s still time. A quick pick me up at that quaint tea house over there then I’ll help you find a dress. For you Sarah, this will be a night to remember!”
I hope my guests and readers enjoyed this short chapter. Also decided to publish the next one so that it will not leave you hanging.
Chapter 21: Rose Red
The arrival of a new guest momentarily interrupted the dance, and other's well laid plans. Sarah acquires a new alias and Emhyr meets her for the first time.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Mererid stood outside the palace doors, greeting the nobles and guests disgorged by ornate carriages. He was cold and anxious, but anyone looking at the chamberlain might think otherwise. Resisting the urge to pace like a worried parent waiting for their child to return during curfew, he remained stoic and stiff as a marble statue, hands folded behind him. His toes, however, curled within his polished shoes.
Another black carriage stopped in front of the gates. A footman lowered the steps and took the ungloved hand emerging from within.
Mererid puffed up his chest.
“Your invitation p-”
His eyes widened at the sight of the new arrival.
Chief Advisor and Lord Treasurer Peter Evertsen swirled the blood red Sangreal in his goblet before taking another swig. The wine, exclusive only to the royal family of Toussaint, went down smooth as silk and fire bloomed pleasantly in his belly. He had paid a king’s ransom for a few barrels, obtained permission from the Duchess that Sangreal is to be consumed for the imperial table, and only for the emperor.
Evertsen kept a few bottles and altered the books.
He felt like celebrating himself. The merchant’s guild was pacified, for now. Profits were slowly pouring in after the war, repairs and reparations bled the imperial coffers. A few more months of collecting taxes and profit shares and the red Mag Turga ink will be replaced with Zerrikanian black.
That was not the only reason for this personal victory. If all goes well, he may even become an imperial in-law. Peter grinned with satisfaction at the ballroom. Amidst the music and the dancing mob of black and gold is his niece- standing out in an elaborate white and gold ball gown, looking like a bride.
Heleen dancing with Emhyr. All that is missing is a priest officiant.
Peter drained his goblet and beckoned his personal servant for a refill, then moved towards a small circle of noblemen- members of the guild- and began to talk shop. The banquet is just another opportunity to engage in an informal business meeting while getting drunk on wine.
Yes, things are going well his way.
“Is that you, Lady Sarah?”
“You tell me, master chamberlain.”
It wasn’t just a make-up session but a total make-over. When Ida led her to the elven beauty salon that enjoyed Queen Findabairs’ patronage, Sarah expected just a simple clean-up job and hairstyling. Instead, she was shown a room in the back – used only by the elven queen on her rare visits- that has a large ornate clawfoot bathtub, tables heavy with various cosmetics from lotions, perfumes, organic soaps, exfoliants, hair and body oils, bath salts, sand and grounded seed scrubs. Cupboards containing combs, exfoliating paddles, sponges, pumice stones, and curlers were stacked on the bottom shelf. Above it were various philters containing mixtures to soften the skin, cleansers for detoxification, and a large earthen jar containing volcanic soil in making mudpacks. She was told to undress while one of the elven assistants took her gown and placed it in the dressing room behind a thin curtain. The tub was filled with warm water mixed with aromatic herbs and a concoction that made the water white as milk. Ida explained the mix will remove every molecule of dirt and dead skin. The milky white water became murky after a few minutes in the soak. Sarah’s face flushed with embarrassment while the elves professionally scrubbed her thoroughly. After the bath, her hair was combed with scented oils and was wrapped around a dozen and five wooden reels while her face was heavy with volcanic mud. They filed her nails and sternly instructed her to wear gloves when doing work that would develop calluses on her hands. Bottles of lotions and skin creams were added to the expenses and made her coin purse lighter. They also recommend that she should visit them once a month for a thorough cleansing if she wishes to maintain her fair skin- a regimen Sarah will also miss.
After the arduous beauty session, they assisted her in putting on the dress and light (according to the aesthician) make-up. When Sarah looked at herself in the full-length mirror, she hardly recognized the woman looking back at her. Sarah glanced questioningly at Ida, and Ida assured her that there’s not a trace of glamarye in the potions or make-up, and that all they did were natural enhancements. Her mind conjured a dull antique copper plaque given a thorough polishing. Even her hair reflected the candlelight with its mirror sheen.
I guess that makes Ida my faerie godmother.
“My word! It took that long to scrub the entire continent off of you? Nevermind, come with me! I’ll announce your arrival. I know just the name to call you!”
Within the ballroom of polished dark wood and gold walls, elegant nobles were chattering and dancing at a fluid pace. Lutes, harps, flutes, drums and other manner of melodious instruments produced music fitting for the soiree. Dresses swish, shoes echoed softly on the white marble floor, bearing names of the Emperor’s foes in so many scattered pieces, one could no longer recognize the names. Instead of torches, scented oil lamps lit the walls and huge candle chandeliers were suspended at a considerable distance above their heads provided ambient lighting.
This was one of those rare celebrations where behaviors such as gossiping and excitement, considered discourteous and uncultured, gets a pass. Lords compared wealth and measured each other by how much coin they accumulated each month, congratulating others on the successes they achieved while boasting about their own greater success whether by marital union or business venture. Ladies gossiped who is sleeping with whom, comparing gowns and mocking others’ lack of fashion sense.
Emperor Emhyr var Emreis is dressed in the color scheme of black and gold. His doublet of damask and cotton- the accepted simplicity of nilfgaardian fashion made even the wealthiest nobles looked like commoner- complimented and contrasted that of his dance partner.
Evertsen prepared Heleen for this night, the emperor mused while guiding the young woman on the floor. Even her perfume- lily of the valley. Evertsen didn’t miss a single detail, and made good use of that personal information. Looks like he spared no expenses primping her up to please me.
The large doors of the ballroom didn’t so much as creak when they opened.
The herald struck the floor with his staff, the sound echoed within the halls over the din of instruments.
Mererid looks at Sarah beside him, and smiled.
“Presenting Rose Red!”
Heads turned towards the new guest. Musicians toned down the volume of the music and the entire room erupted in curious murmurs.
Emhyr relinquished his hold on Heleens’ waist and also turned to look at the doorway. His view was blocked by so many bonnets, high coiffeurs and feathers that he forced his way forward, abandoning Peter’s niece. The milling crowd slowly parted like a wind cleaved sea, bowing before him, opening further in the distance-towards the new arrival.
Emhyr found himself breathless.
Rose Red indeed!
Sarah stepped forward, aware of the curious and awed stares.
She stood out in the sea of black and gold, like the new name chamberlain Mererid christened her: Rose Red- for her dress resembles a rose. A deep red gown of flowing shimmering silk with gleaming silver embroidery in patterns of leaves and vines that corseted her bust giving her breasts a slight lift making the top of her cleavage peek tastefully. Skirt that flared before her and almost brushing the floor. Her dress, bare at the shoulders were folded like petals against her bosom. Rosettes sewn on the arm length red lace sleeves circled her shoulders, ending in lace ruffles at the wrists. She wore a silver necklace adorned with emerald chips that rose halfway to her neck in a design of creeping vines: a large emerald oval pendant below her collarbones. Teardrop emeralds dangled on her earlobes. Unlike the coiffured hairs of the noblewomen, her gleaming curly locks cascaded around and behind her- partially covering her exposed back. Pinned on her hair is a ruby carved rose with thin and fragile-looking petals.
Her new name suited her well.
You are a courtier for the night, Ida’s voice echoed in her thoughts. Cast your eyes down to no one. Walk with dignity. Bask in their admiration and envy. Oh yes, they will envy you!
She could feel her heart beating a fast staccato, but kept on with her back straight just as the chamberlain instructed her as she slowly walked on ruby-red heeled shoes.
Who is she, Emhyr asked himself as if meeting Sarah for the first time – not as the disheveled filthy lass or the uptight frumpy librarian this morning, but the true Sarah: the one he ordered his spies to discover.
He was drawn to her like a man to a mirage. The crowd observed the emperor taking slow- controlled- steps towards this Rose Red.
He stood before her, looking in wonder. Sarah was grateful that the elvish make-up blunted the blush blooming on her cheeks. The chandeliers cast flecks of lights against it, making the crystal rogue on her cheeks sparkle, directing the observer to look at her eyes- sparkling like her emeralds and silver. Her lips were tinted slightly redder than their natural color.
It felt like an eternity, the two standing within the circle of nobles. Whispers replaced music. Sarah did not shy away, and met his gaze straight on… and sighed. He looked powerful… and…
His black and gold, her red and green. She suspects Ida did this to her on purpose, making her stand out like the missing colors in an otherwise bland tapestry.
As dictated by etiquette, men must bow first to the women, Emhyr placed an arm across his chest and did so. Sarah responded with a curtsey, much lower, as station also dictates the degree of the bow.
Mererid, observing at a distance, walked towards the bards and spoke to them. The lead minstrel of the band nodded, picked up a rebec and spoke to his fellows. They began playing a slow melodious music.
When Sarah straightened up, Emhyr offered his hand, to which she obliged. He never took his eyes off her as he guides her to the center of the ballroom; the crowd parting before them. She also kept eye contact, a placid smile on her face while trying to maintain her composure- her heart cartwheeling at being this close to the emperor.
Tonight, she can dare to look at him. He doesn’t seem to mind though, this breach of protocol.
She heard the whispers, hush tones asking each other who is the woman in red.
“Never seen her before. Is she another one-“
“She looks rather young, doesn’t she?”
“Shhh! Not now Heleen”
Emhyr raise his hand, the hand that held Sarah’s, to shoulder height, the other hand planted on her waist. Sarah placed her free hand on his arm. They glided on the floor, like swans landing on the surface of a placid lake. She was not at all surprised at how graceful and fluid he moves. All she needed to do was follow his lead. He lets go of her waist and placed her right hand against his own upraised right. They danced in a circle, reversed, and then back to taking the familiar one-two-three steps. He then lifted her off the floor effortlessly, still not taking his eyes off her, even after he lowered her gently on the floor.
Sarah no longer heard the chatter of the nobles. Felt nothing but the warmth coming from his skin. This close, his scent of wood and musk made her head spin. The ballroom floor ceased to exist. The walls vanished altogether. She was a woman hypnotized- unable to resist his smoldering amber stare and willingly losing herself to this moment.
She was dancing in a dream. It has to be.
“Aye, Your Imperial Majesty?”
Emhry smiled, spun her once. “Nothing. Just reassuring myself that it is you.”
Sarah found herself admiring the creases of his lips. “I wondered about that myself.”
The music reached a crescendo. Ladies were lifted by their lords in a twirl; a few squawked and slapped their partners’ hands, discouraging the lift from wrinkling their expensive gowns. Emhyr also placed both hands on Sarah’s narrow waist and lifted her. She looks up at the chandeliers, her arms spread away from her sides. And as he slowly lowered her to the floor, Sarah’s hands landed on his shoulders. Emhyr deviated from the practiced dance steps and drew her closer to him.
A draft from behind blew her hair to him, like black flame. The sweet scent of jasmine was mildly intoxicating.
Sarah, the jasmine scented Rose.
Emhyr’s thoughts went back to the strip of painting in his desk drawer and discovered the truth he knew all along: the painted reproduction of her eyes pale in comparison to the real thing… and he is drowning, willingly, in their depths.
The music ended and the applause began. The dream gradually fading and the sounds of the present returned like a tide. Sarah lowered her hands and bashfully looked away, flushed. Emhyr, too, felt the spell broken, aware of the attention around them. Both stepped back. He bowed and she curtseyed in return.
She looks up and saw the emperor offered her his hand once more.
“I’ll escort you to the banquet, milady”
The painting that created the story and chapter is this
A screenshot edit of them meeting in the ballroom here
This chapter is divided into four different points of view from the original two; Sarah and Emhyr. Had to cut down the original cheese and added some court intrigue to make this chapter interesting. Two more chapters left. I've decided to turn this fic into a trilogy.
Chapter 22: The Last Supper
Sarah (Rose Red) joined the nobles at the banquet table, enjoying her last day in Nilfgaard.
This is a short chapter expounded to include some intrigue going on between the emperor and the chief advisor. A bit of bloodletting happens so...
TW: blood (just a small amount)
Moodboard: The Emperor and The Rose
The bards play a relaxing ambient music while Emperor Emhyr and his guests dined.
To Sarah, aka Rose Red, it was a banquet to end all banquets: venison, beef, duck, quail, flamingo tongues, caviar, and all manner of seafood. Salads, creamy soups both mild and aromatic spicy for the discerning tongues. Wines imported from Toussaint supplemented the local Nilfgaardian lemon, which was liberally poured for the snootiest of nobles. The centerpiece was a cake in the shape of an elaborate Imperial Crest in –what else- black, gold and white frosting- leaning like a book against a stand. Considering the size of the pedestal-shaped base surrounded by more white frosting- is smaller than the massive crest cake, the baker must’ve added fortification to keep it in place without toppling over. Either that or magic, which was unlikely.
When the guests were escorted to their places at the massive rectangular tables arranged in the shape of a U, no one sat or reach for the silver utensils yet. They waited for the emperor to deliver his speech. When Emhyr lifted his already-filled wineglass, everyone did the same. As always, Emhyr began by raising a toast to his armies for their undying loyalty, service to him and to the empire. Next were the merchants, distinguished by the heavy gold chain around their neck with the Trade Corporations signature emblem. The emperor raised his wine glass and commended their contribution to the wealth of the empire, calling them “the empires lifeblood”.
“May the acquired territories become fertile grounds for new opportunities and revenues, and hope that these acquisitions satisfy even the most voracious of entrepreneurs” he added, and only a few detected the subtle hints of disdain in his voice. Everyone raised their glasses higher before the emperor and drank as Emhyr did. That signaled the start of the meal. Between chewing and the clinking of forks and knives, it was the guests turn to praise the emperor- and did it so lavishly- for his victories over the saboteurs, and for the innumerable feats he has done, making the nation of Nilfgaard greater than any of his predecessors, including Fergus var Emreis, has ever achieved. Emhyr accepted the compliments with a nod.
He glanced at Sarah across from him and to the left. She stood out amongst his guests in that red rose dress. He watched her closely bringing a piece of meat into her mouth, chewing slowly, her eyes closing in bliss before swallowing and taking in another morsel.
He found it rather hypnotic.
A cardinal dining amongst crows.
In the midst of feasting, and to everyone’s surprise, Emhyr stood up once more and raised his glass- to her.
“To Rose Red” he announced, “my heartfelt thanks for accepting my invitation.”
The guests turned their attention to Sarah while raising their own glass- out of courtesy. Then the murmurs started again: Who is this raven-haired stranger that the emperor invited? An unknown noblewoman of significant importance only the emperor knows? Sarah graciously accepted Emhyr’s acknowledgement with a graceful bow, replacing her earlier shock with a lovely smile. Emhyr returned it with a smile of his own before sitting back.
The wealthiest and influential were seated close to the Emperor at the head of the inverted U. Only four people were allowed to sit beside him: Evertsen and his niece Heleen were seated on the right while Morvran Voorhis and his female companion – one of his sisters- on the emperor’s left. Sarah, her station still inconclusive, found herself seated further down between two noblemen a few years older than her. Both are sons of wealthy merchants who were overly flirtatious and competed for her attention. She was being served cranberry marinated deer by fair haired Cedric, son of a wine distributor in the Federation. The other, chestnut-haired Reiner, heir to several gambling establishments, filled her glass with Fiorano. They were conversing in Nilfgaardian. Sarah was already proficient with the language, thanks to her frequent trips to the library.
“You look stunning, Lady Rose” Cedric smiled, showing even white teeth. “That gown is such a refreshing change from the usual Nilfgaardian black.”
Ida’s advice floated in her head. As a courtier for the night, you must play the part to the hilt and have fun with it. Keep conversations brief and classy. No one likes a chatterbox.
“That’s the point” she simply replied with a coquettish smile.
Reiner leaned over, a little too close for her taste. “May I ask where do you hail from, Lady Rose? Toussaint? Perhaps Winneburg?”
“That’s my little secret” she replied over the rim of her glass.
“Shall we wager? “Cedric gave Sarah a wink: a gesture which must’ve charmed many impressionable ladies. “Whoever guessed correctly wins a kiss.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, puts down her wineglass, inclined her head demurely in a seductive manner while her inner voice laughed at her over-the-top performance. “You’re welcome to try, though I’m not obliged.”
“You are such a tease, Lady Rose”
“That’s the point” she repeated with another smile.
Peter Evertsen listened to one of the Trade Guild members near him while observing Emhyr from the corner of his eye. The emperor looked furious, he had a white knuckled grip on his glass and his gaze was directed at the two boys… or that red guest of his.
Sarah is genuinely happy and enjoying herself. So much so that she momentarily forgot her mission. She spared Emhyr a glance. Emhyr looked away and was striking a conversation with General Voorhis and his sister.
A sigh escaped her. The emperor looked magnificent!
“Milady is curious about General Voorhis, I see.”
Sarah reluctantly tore her gaze away and was looking at Reiner.
“Are you acquainted with him, Lady Rose?”
Cedric scoffed. “Look at him cozying up to His Imperial Majesty. No doubt assured of his position in the empire.”
“And that is?”
“You don’t know, Lady Rose? General Voorhis is of pure noble blood- a prince- on both spear and distaff side, very powerful, and very influential bloodlines. Don’t let his politeness beguile you. He’s shrewd, cunning, and he can be just as ruthless as our emperor. A natural choice for a successor since his Imperial majesty has no heir.”
Reiner leaned over and whispered. “Rumors are rife that the emperor’s own daughter renounced her title and the throne. That means the Emperor must choose a successor from the line of noble lords. Majority agrees that Morvran Voorhis is the prime choice.”
“Truly?” Sarah cocked one eyebrow.
Cedric nodded “You are looking at the heir presumptive, milady.”
She knew Morvran was high up in the nobility ladder, just not aware he was that high.
Sarah resumed eating and raised her eyes. She saw Emhyr looking at her with a sour expression.
Cedric stealthily inched closer to Sarah, lips puckering for a kiss. Sarah noticed Reiner’s narrow stare directed behind her. Remembering their wager, Sarah reacted with agility she did not know she possessed, and lifted her own wineglass, positioning it as a shield against her cheek. She turned to see Cedric kiss the wineglass. She and Reiner burst out laughing.
A sound of glass breaking accompanied by gasps from the guests. Even the music abruptly stopped.
Everyone at the table turned their attention to the emperor.
Emhyr looks down at the spilled wine and the shards of broken glass- one was lodge deep into his palm. Emhyr jaw clenched as he pulled the shard, making the guests collectively wince, and blood immediately tricked from his hand to join the wine stain on the white table cover.
“My apologies noble guests” Emhyr shook a table napkin and pressed it on his wound. “Please don’t stop on my account. Resume your meals!” He got up and motioned for the bards to continue their music while Mererid attended to the emperor. Both men left the table, but not before the chamberlain ordered the waitstaff to get someone to clean the mess.
Only a few resumed eating while the rest conversed amongst themselves in hushed tones. Must be a defective glass. Someone is going to be punished for it! Ugh! Can they get here fast? I can’t enjoy the meal until that blood is gone!
Sarah’s face was writ with concern. Any other day, she would’ve rushed to his side and bandaged the wound. She'd have no qualms ripping the hem of her dress to staunch the bleeding. But she was a courtier tonight: a special guest of the emperor. To act out of character would raise suspicions – more suspicions, she corrected. The memory of Emhyr injured and feverish in her rickety hut in the middle of the forest reminded her of her long-lost role in his life as his personal physician. And with that reminder came the sadness.
She wasn’t here just to dine and party. She was here to say goodbye.
Peter was trying to calm Heleen down, who couldn’t take her eyes away from the bloodstain. Someone finally came with rags and a bottle of cleaning solution that smelled of white vinegar- and began scrubbing the blood after removing the broken pieces of wine glass. Despite the cleaning, a faint residue remained.
Peter tossed his white table napkin on the stain, hiding it from view before he resumed eating.
An hour after the meal, the guests were much more relaxed and animated. Some danced on the ballroom floor, other formed small groups conversing amongst each other, trading gossip mixed with facts. Something for the spies – dressed as waiters- to segregate and study. They weaved through the groups with wine-laden trays. The more alcohol the nobles imbibed, the looser their tongues get. A few got too inebriated that guards had to escort them outside to sober up, or to empty their guts in the nearby bushes. And to those who couldn’t make it… that’s what the large, and empty, decorative pots were for.
Emhyr sat on the throne – a lesser version of the one in the throneroom, accompanied by the chief advisor who remained standing, hand on top of the backrest. Evertsen was swirling his wine while Emhyr merely held his, in a silver goblet this time instead of glass. There was another chair, smaller and less ornate on the emperors’ left. A place for the empress or empress-consort, and sometimes his companion for the evening.
Evertsen watched Heleen on the ballroom floor dancing with one of the young nobles. A white swan gliding amidst black ganders.
“How is your hand?” he asked without looking.
Soft black leather gloves hid the injury. Emhyr could still feel his palm throbbing. The wine dulled the pain.
“I was informed by the baron that you appointed an advisor. Is he in here somewhere?”
“Baron Sven is missing”
“No, the new advisor.”
Emhyr scoffed. “You know you got the gender wrong and you, of all people, know who’s who in this banquet.”
“Not everyone, majesty.” He pointed with his wineglass at the oddity, presently flocked by curious nobles. “Who is she?”
“You’re not going senile, Peter.”
He chuckled. “Yes, yes. ‘Rose Red’. Is she the neophyte advisor?”
“No” Emhyr let his irritation show. “Sarah is neither a neophyte nor is she here” which was, in a way, true. The woman in red wasn’t the Sarah he knew. And Emhyr, though perfected the art of deceit, wouldn’t allow himself even the slightest chance to slip-up. Evertsen is sharp and is one of the few who can pick up behavioral cues.
Emhyr decided to steer the attention away from Sarah. “Your niece exceeded my expectations, Peter. I can see your hand in her… presentation.”
“The emperor is as perceptive as ever; I’m pleased he is pleased-”
“-and expecting further developments” Emhyr added for him. Peter turned to look at Emhyr sipping his wine.
“Any father or father figure whose daughter shares the bed of the emperor expects something. A warming of ties for starters.”
Emhyr’s grip on the goblet tightened, making his healing wound scream at the applied pressure. Sometimes he wished Evertsen could learn to be disingenuous on occasions.
“You are getting ahead of yourself, old friend. I’ve not invited her to my chambers. Now, why is that?” Emhyr inclined his head and gave Evertsen a burning stare.
“Out of respect for my family” he answered, not showing any fear.
“And it is that respect why I do not give Heleen the same courtesy as I do with my chamber companions. I wouldn’t want to give you or her false hopes.”
Peter bowed. “Thank you, sire for showing my niece the proper courtesies” he was careful not to let his frustration show, even if Emhyr is well aware of the feelings this audience brought out in him.
“I truly do respect you, Peter. But our personal interests comes second, even third, over the empires’. I trust your will continue your unwavering service to me, or if not to me, to Nilfgaard.”
Peter took a deep breath, and drained the rest of his wine. That also meant that he needs to use his influence over the Guild to keep them in line. It brought him small comfort that Emhyr relied on him- greatly- on matters of the Trade Corporation.
“I shall continue to dutifully serve you and the empire… Your Imperial Majesty.”
Emhyr swirled the wine in his goblet before emptying its’ contents. “My thanks for affirming your loyalties, and for procuring Sangreal from Anrietta.”
“A pleasure, Majesty.”
Emhyr sighed and leaned back, observing the guests.
Peter noticed where the emperor was looking most of the time. Where his attention lays, his mood softens. The chief advisor found the object of Emhyr's fascination, and his face darkened.