syllic: ([merlin] whyever pass up a crest icon)
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Arthur had never stopped to think that fastenings, when done the wrong way around, might not be as logical to navigate as fastenings done up in the direction that they were meant to be handled were. He stared at the lacings on Merlin’s breeches for a long, long moment, and finally reached clumsy hands towards them more out of an unwillingness to admit that he didn’t know what he was doing than as the result of having formulated any coherent plan of action.

He was just thinking of how terribly this rankled, and of how he would make his own Merlin, unsuspecting or not, pay for it endlessly when he returned, when Merlin reached a steady hand towards his and stopped him. He undid his own breeches swiftly, and then asked, almost shyly,

“Arthur, are you really all—”

“Fine!” Arthur cut him off.

He was, needless to say, not fine at all, and he was almost certain Merlin knew that. He felt adrift and unsettled and deeply unhappy, because something was so clearly wrong, and yet he could do nothing about it. He could not rely on any of the usual tactics that he normally employed when battling a problem: he could not identify an evil to do away with, or an enemy to defeat. Trusting Morgana, however, was not something new to him, and if she said that she would help him then he was content to let her do what she could, even if he could do little more than wait while she worked.

For now, anyway.

In that instant he remembered that it was not his right, not here, to speak to Merlin as he willed (though now that he was on the losing end of the bargain he wondered if it was ever anyone’s right to speak to anyone as he had been taught to speak to servants), and he looked up, trying to remember how one apologised.

Merlin seemed unfazed by his sharp tone, however, almost as if he’d expected it, and Arthur supposed that just because circumstances were different, that didn’t mean that his personality necessarily was. He suspected he’d be a bad-tempered servant regardless of where he was, especially if he had not been trained to it—when you and I were brought to court, Morgana had said, as if it were an event and not a fact of their lives.

As Arthur watched, Merlin pulled his tunic over his head, and unwrapped the lacings of his undergarments from his waist. At this point he did look to Arthur, and Arthur took his cue to drag the heavy basin of water towards the centre of the room, where linens were draped over chairs in preparation for Merlin’s bath.

Merlin smiled at him with soft eyes, and Arthur remembered that Merlin could have probably moved the tub with none of the effort that it had taken Arthur to do so.

Perhaps he had just managed to apologise inadvertently, after all.

Merlin held one hand over the water, palm down, and in the next instant steam rose from the basin as if the cooks had just poured in four brass kettles’ worth of boiling water. Arthur watched, half frightened and half fascinated, but as Merlin stepped forward he gathered his wits about him and moved forward to help him lower himself into the tub, as Merlin always did for him.

As he placed his hands around Merlin’s hips Merlin jerked his head sharply to look at Arthur over his shoulder, clearly not expecting it, and Arthur blushed fiercely.

How in all the bedeviled world was he supposed to manage this without missteping?

(And why should he, some petulant part of him wondered? Surely he could feign illness and remain in Gaius’ rooms until Morgana found a solution. Would anyone ask after him, or would they take his excuse as truth? Then his thoughts jerked in a new direction: who else apart from Morgana was able to tell a lie from a truth in this place, and would they think to examine him for signs of subterfuge?)

Suddenly he felt a burst of panic, unwanted and unfamiliar, unfurl in his chest. He’d never last long enough without being discovered for Morgana to help him, and if others were not as willing to believe him as she had been, he may well not be allowed life long enough to find a solution of his own.

He might never get back to a world that made sense.

He was reminding himself to breathe evenly when Merlin lowered his eyes away from Arthur’s as he slid the rest of the way into the tub, a small smile curving his lips. When he looked at Arthur again his eyes showed no signs of anything being amiss: they were warm and trusting.

Oh bloody hell, Arthur spared some panic to think, because what if in this Camelot, where Merlin was probably accustomed to getting what he wanted (as well he should be), what he wanted was Arthur? He was looking at Arthur now the way Arthur had seen visiting noblemen look at the castle’s kitchenmaids (well, all right, not quite like that, but Arthur could not find anything more familiar to compare the look to). Though in his own court Arthur did his best to ensure that all men knew that the king and prince of Camelot did not stand for that sort of thing, sometimes it was inevitable, trying to stop the course of something they saw as their right. Not all courts had been as ruled by grief as Camelot had been since Arthur’s mother’s death, and to demand propriety, which was the exception and not the rule, could give great insult. Sometimes it was not a battle worth fighting.

Arthur had therefore not known what it was to give a maid a look and expect her to do as she was bid without words, though sometimes he fancied that a scullery maid or a handmaiden was looking at him expectantly, as if they wished he might do just that. Morgana had told him many times that that sort of wishful thinking was best left to children and dullards—then she would pause and make an Oh sort of face, as if she were just remembering that Arthur was one or both—but that hadn’t entirely dissuaded Arthur from his impression.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked now, and Arthur realised he must have been standing by the tub, arms by his sides and a faraway look on his face as he let his mind wander, for a long time.

“Sorry,” he said, the word feeling odd in his mouth, and he distracted himself from his uncertainty by busying himself with fluffing the linens. Whatever this Merlin might want—and heavens, what if the Arthur that this Merlin knew had already done things that made Merlin believe Arthur wanted things, too?

Not that Arthur could see any version of him letting his eyes linger on the dip of Merlin’s collarbones, or on the soft, pink corners of his mouth when he smiled.

Well. Whatever this Merlin might want, Arthur was certain that he would no more do anything Arthur didn’t want than his own Merlin would; whatever else he might complain about, Arthur was absolutely certain of Merlin’s good heart. He had no cause to worry—not about this, anyway.

“Arthur,” Merlin repeated, and as Arthur looked at him, he continued, hesitantly, “About what happened in the woods today…”

For a moment Arthur thought that Merlin might be about to say, What are we supposed to do now? revealing his status as co-conspirator as he had so many times in the past. But Merlin only looked at him expectantly, not in a way that suggested We’ve been exiled to another Camelot by sorcery, what the hell do we do? but rather in a way that said, Let’s talk about our feelings, and that was a look Arthur knew to avoid in any world.

“Yes?” he asked, hoping Merlin would elaborate, but this only served to make Merlin pinch his face unhappily. Eventually he closed his eyes and leaned his head and arms against the rims of the basin.

“How is your training with Gawain going?” he asked, at length, and Arthur floundered for a moment before accepting the respite for what it probably was and answering,

“Well, thank you.” He tried to tack on a Prince Merlin—physically attempted to force himself to it, trying to shape his lips around the words—but could not.

He pressed his lips against a panicked laugh.

“Gareth says that he thinks soon his brother will be as skilled with a sword as Gareth is with water, thanks to you,” said Merlin, with a small smile, and Arthur mustered up an uncomfortable upward tilt of his mouth in return.

“He needs to learn to shield his left side better, and to parry more quickly when his sword locks,” he said, because those were the things that Gawain had had trouble with when Arthur had trained with him as a young man, many years ago.

Merlin grinned. “Well, I suspect the former comes from having Gareth always at his flank,” he said, and Arthur smiled in agreement. That had always been the problem in their own training, too.

He wondered what Gareth did “with water” here, but decided the wisest thing (the best thing for his sanity, at least) was probably not to ask.

“I enjoy training with Gawain,” he offered finally, because Merlin seemed to be waiting for something, and Merlin looked pleased but still expectant. It was at that moment that Arthur finally realised that Merlin wasn’t doing much other than sitting there, and he looked around, then took up the washcloth he found with an uncertain hand.

Well, it wasn’t as if he’d never washed anyone before.

All right, he never had bathed anyone before, but surely it couldn’t be that difficult. He had been bathed often enough himself, and he’d berated Merlin endlessly until he’d gotten it just right, so he’d just … do what he liked. It’d be like training Merlin by showing him, something Arthur did often enough with his knights.

He fumbled for the soap—pressed with flowers, soft and waxy in his hand and better than what Arthur had at home—and scrubbed the washcloth against it. Merlin helpfully leaned his head forward, exposing his neck and back, and Arthur moved the washcloth against his skin in even circles, trying to focus on the movement and not on what was happening.

Some part of him felt he could not bear the humiliation, but in the end it was anticlimactic: it wasn’t as if there was anyone else there other than he and Merlin, who Arthur knew could keep a confidence. It wasn’t as if Merlin were spurring him to complete some terrible and mortifying task, either—he simply raised his arms and stood when necessary, and it would have been not unlike brushing down a well loved horse if there hadn’t been an odd sense of tension in the air, no doubt brought on by Arthur’s uncertainty.

After he’d bathed, Merlin dressed in a soft blue tunic, also finer than the sorts of things Arthur owned. (Arthur wondered if it was possible to spin cloth using magic.) Merlin did not ask for Arthur’s assistance, and he walked to the basin and placed his hand over the water until it steamed again.

“Go ahead,” he said to Arthur, and Arthur bristled at the impropriety of it—a servant, even if, by some vagary of fate, he was the servant, washing himself in his master’s rooms. Evidently this Camelot was nowhere near as civilised as Uther’s, but Arthur felt grotty from sweating nervously all day, and so he washed quickly and efficiently as Merlin prattled about the room.

“Sir Boniface is visiting,” he said as he adjusted the materials on the writing desk, and Arthur wrinkled his face unwillingly, thinking of Sir Boniface at home, who always had food caught in his beard.

Merlin laughed.

“I know. I have no idea why mother insists on continuing to host him at court when he visits, particularly now. I know it’s midwinter soon, but surely we could have found some excuse to avoid the unpleasantness of his presence? He could have been shipped off to another nobleman, I’m certain.”

Arthur grunted.

His counterpart must not have been very communicative, and Merlin must be adept at reading him, because he raised expressive eyebrows at Arthur and said, “I know,” again.

When Arthur was dressed, the two of them walked down to the hall together, but Merlin stopped every few paces to knock on a door and ask after someone’s health, or to talk to some maid passing in the corridor, asking how her day had gone. Arthur tapped his foot impatiently more than once, and Merlin shot him a disapproving look each time, but Arthur felt vindicated when they finally arrived in the hall to find everyone else already sitting down. Merlin had a good heart, yes, but not a king’s heart: he could not distinguish between those who truly needed his help and those who would abuse his generosity, and he could not make the necessary judgment not to help someone when it would harm others to do so.

That made the two of them different.

As they found their places, Merlin next to his mother and Arthur standing behind him, hovering somewhere between him and a smiling Gwen, who looked the same as ever except for her scarlet dress, Arthur felt an odd surge of protectiveness rise in him. Courts were vicious places, as he well knew, and he could not imagine that Merlin—the Merlin he knew or this Merlin, who, much like Gwen, seemed the same except for the title tacked on in front of his name, which no-one seemed to use, anyway—could ever fare well in that sort of environment.

Arthur only became more convinced of this impression as dinner wore on. Merlin’s (he supposed they were Merlin’s, anyway) knights teased him as if they were all friends sitting at a local tavern, rather than men sitting in the presence of their queen and (perhaps more importantly) in front of Boniface, who was a foreigner, not from court.

Arthur was surprised by Hunith’s indulgent smiles, but Sir Boniface’s increasing cheek as he observed the dynamics of the table was everything but surprising. He clearly had no love of Merlin or Hunith, and, seeing that others were allowed to speak to them informally, and perhaps not understanding that that might be a privilege accorded only to their friends, he began to do the same.

The more he drank, the more careless he seemed to grow, until even the usually good-natured Gwen was frowning unhappily at him, but clearly unwilling to say anything.

“Camelot is very fortunate indeed,” Sir Boniface was blustering with half a bite of rabbit hanging from his mouth, face turned towards the knight on his right but voice loud enough to be heard by everyone at the table, “To have such splendid fortified walls, particularly when they give the impression of protecting …. more than they do.”

The Sir Boniface that Arthur knew had few wits to serve him, and this one seemed no different. But though the insult might be clumsy (perhaps clumsy enough not to be entirely understandable), it was nonetheless inexcusable that he’d be willing to voice such a thing at the queen’s own table, while enjoying her hospitality.

Merlin’s hand tightened on his spoon, but he said nothing, clearly too polite to insult a guest, or perhaps not sure how to reply. At the sight of Merlin’s wince, Arthur, who had had enough of it all five dishes ago, darted forward to pour more wine into Boniface’s cup, taking the opportunity to say,

“Actually, Sir Boniface, I think you’ll find that the walls were originally built low—though of course I can see how they must seem splendid to anyone not from Camelot—precisely to give the impression that there was not very much to protect behind them. This was before Camelot developed any form of real defence, or before it rose to its full power. The men who built the walls were unwilling to tempt fate, and their strategy proved fairly sound. With time, however, it was thought that more height should perhaps be added to the walls, but by then the city was so prosperous that fortifying it further seemed futile, as it lived alongside so many other kingdoms in peace. And actually,” he said, reaching down to squeeze the junction of Boniface’s neck and shoulder as painfully as he could as he straightened up from pouring the wine, “I think you’ll find that the walls are really only the first line of defence for a city whose riches are really rather vast.”

There was some truth to this early history of the walls, at least in Arthur’s own Camelot, though obviously nothing could be as clear-cut as Arthur had made the more recent history sound. It was hardly as if Camelot had not had to be fortified many times in the last century, and sometimes Arthur thought there were no walls high or strong enough to protect their people. The subtleties of that were well beyond Sir Boniface, however: he was left to grimace pitifully (but silently; Arthur would give him that) at Arthur’s unyielding grip on his neck.

Arthur looked around the table and, at the sight of Gwen’s red dress, felt himself jolted back unceremoniously to the present, where his current status might well mean the whip for laying a hand on a nobleman.

No-one was even looking up, however; they seemed to think it was perfectly normal that a servant should address his betters, and Hunith was actually smiling at him, a small twinkle in her eye as she bent her head to cut her meat.

This was a mad court, Arthur concluded, where no-one knew anything of propriety. And—if the amount of times Arthur had spilled food and drink tonight were any indication—where servants were valued regardless of their skill. Not even Merlin in the early days had exhibited the sort of ham-handedness that Arthur had shown again and again in this single sitting, but everyone seemed not only to find Arthur’s clumsiness unremarkable, but to expect it.

Arthur wondered if his counterpart were somehow dim-witted, if he were perhaps kept on at court out of pity, because of Merlin’s good will. The extremely exasperated look Gaius was shooting him suggested otherwise, though; it was not the patient look of someone dealing with a man who knew no better. In fact, his eyebrows seemed to be distinctly trying to remind Arthur of some past conversation during which he had told him not to act like such a fool, now that he saw Arthur clearly disregarding his advice.

Arthur finally released his hold on Sir Boniface, whose face was red and whose breathing was uneven by that point, and returned to stand by the wall. Another servant—Nelda, Arthur thought her name was—grinned at him as she took some plates back to the kitchen, and Arthur smiled back.

Arthur’s impulsiveness appeared to have the unintended side effect of making the knights think twice about their own foolishness. For the rest of the meal, they were less riotous, more respectful. Gareth and the knight on Merlin’s left seemed to physically draw nearer to him, as if closing ranks. Arthur simultaneously approved and disapproved: it was good that they would show loyalty, but bad that they chose to do so in such a way that suggested Merlin needed protection.

Arthur could not see Merlin thinking long about this sort of thing, though. He seemed to forget Sir Boniface’s insult immediately, and he soon went back to smiling in his usual generous, hapless way. Arthur suppressed a snort, and when Merlin looked at him, he tried to communicate disapproval in a way that was appropriate to a servant.

(He thought briefly that that was perhaps not possible, but then he thought of the dozens of times that Merlin had checked him with some subtle downturn of his lips, and reconsidered.)

Merlin seemed, if anything, amused by Arthur’s frown: he raised a glass to him, either in thanks or in mockery, and turned to practically shout some humorous story at his mother in a decidedly undignified way.

By the time dinner was over, Arthur was wondering if he might be able to surreptitiously educate Merlin in how to run an ordered court, while he was here. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention to himself, but surely this havoc could not be allowed to continue, not if Hunith and Merlin were to be respected enough to rule. That thought alone—that Merlin ruled anybody—still seemed more amusing than anything, at least until Arthur thought of the desolation his Camelot had suffered in the last three years. Protecting people was hardly a laughing matter.

He walked Merlin back to his rooms, occasionally reaching a hand out to steady him. This Merlin could no more hold his drink than the man who had more than once collapsed in Arthur’s bed after a feast, never learning his lesson despite the fact that Arthur unceremoniously tipped him over onto the floor every time.

“You should learn your lesson, already, Arthur,” said Merlin, echoing Arthur’s own thoughts, and Arthur raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. At least he hoped it was a sardonic eyebrow: the expressions he gave more thought to were not always a success, or so Morgana and Merlin told him.

“About what?” he prompted, when Merlin promptly seemed to forget he had said anything at all.

Merlin paused in the corridor, turning to look at him, and said,

“I do not need protecting, from Boniface or from anyone else.”

Something seemed to come over him as he said this: he stood up straighter, and his voice seemed more sonorous, somehow—Arthur wondered if it was magic, or simply some kingly bearing in Merlin that seemed like magic only because Arthur had never had occasion to see it before.

Arthur began to apologise, but in the next moment Merlin laughed, putting his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and saying, intimately,

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, of course.”

Arthur tensed, and Merlin immediately retreated, though perhaps it would not have been noticeable to anyone else. His hand remained on Arthur’s shoulder, warm and reassuring, but his body drew back subtly and something in his face shuttered.

Arthur felt unexpectedly unhappy at this turn of events.

“You should show more sense,” he said finally, and his voice sounded gruff.

Merlin laughed again.

“So you always tell me,” he said, turning to walk towards his chambers again.

“I’m serious,” Arthur insisted, and Merlin turned his head, fixing him with an intense look, and said,

“When aren’t you?”

“Sir Boniface,” Arthur began, hoping against hope that the circumstances were the same: if they weren’t, perhaps he’d complain of his head wound again. “Sir Boniface is a terrible vassal, Merlin, and that’s why you keep him from court. He barely feeds his people, and yet he is your first defence against attacks from the north. He has an over-inflated sense of his own importance, and the last thing he needs is for someone to give him the impression that the authority of the court is flexible! What’s worse, he has no natural heir, and so we’re subject to his whimsy in picking one. Why in the world would you not check him when he was asking for it?”

“You know perfectly well why not, Arthur,” Merlin answered as they reached the door to his chambers. “What does it cost us, giving the man one last impression that he is a nobleman of consequence, when he will return home to find his lands under new lordship?”

“New lordship?” asked Arthur, not certain what Merlin meant.

“Oh, yes,” he said distractedly as he headed towards one of his chests. “I didn’t tell you. Mother and I settled on Andhun. He was instructed to move his household in after we called Boniface to court—though I still wish mother had sent him to someone else for the duration.”

Arthur goggled, probably quite stupidly. This was just what he and his father had talked about doing with Boniface, more than once. They spoke about it the way one might speak about owning a winged horse, though: it was a nice idea, but very unlikely to come about. They could hardly risk conflict with Boniface, or with the kingdom’s other lords, if they began to fear that the king might strip them of their lands at any moment. Fear and greed often motivated vassals to act preemptively to protect what was theirs, and he and Uther had always feared that would be the case if they moved against Boniface.

“He’ll fight you,” he said, not sure what else to say.

“He’ll try,” Merlin replied, and he seemed aloof and powerful, quite unlike Arthur had ever seen him. “Who will fight with him? The people he has starved and abused for two decades? I don’t think so. His fellow nobles? None have any love for him. But if for some reason they wish to speak for him, they know they can do so at council.”

Council. Council, which Uther had disbanded the year that Arthur had taken over the running of the guard.

“And what if he decides to rise against you, maybe with Hengist’s help?”

“Then that is his choice,” said Merlin, coldly, “But he would do well not to consider it. We are not taking his personal riches—we are relocating him to the small manor west of his lands. We intend to pay him a generous annuity to compensate for some of the loss of his land, which we take from him because he has not provided for his people, which was a requisite for holding it. And if despite this fair treatment, when he has done nothing to merit it, he chooses to bite the hand that has fed him many times in the past, then he can rest assured that we will reach out and strike him before he can strike us.”

Arthur found himself drawing unconsciously back towards the wall. He supposed it was the implicit threat of magic, unknown and terrifying, that did it, but some small part of him found Merlin terrifying now, for his own sake, magic aside. He did not know this Merlin, this Merlin who said strike him and clearly meant kill him, though Arthur supposed he might not do the deed himself. What did Merlin know about death? What did Merlin know about seeing life fade from a man’s eyes, and knowing you were responsible for it?

Nothing, Arthur thought viciously. He knows nothing, and he has no right to speak of it as if he does.

Then he thought of Edwin, and the Druid assassins, and of the way he had accepted those and other victories without explanations because probing more deeply did not appear necessary.

(Because he hadn’t wanted to probe, more like.)

“Arthur?” Merlin asked curiously, and Arthur found he had inched across the room, back almost pressed against the wall, to sit on a low wooden chest.

He waved a hand dismissively, and Merlin seemed to read head wound in the gesture, thankfully. He nonetheless walked over, and crouched in front of where Arthur sat, reaching out one hand towards both of his.

“You look after me,” he said, and it sounded so ridiculous, put that way, that Arthur huffed a laugh.

Merlin grinned.

“You do,” he said, and then his voice turned serious. “You have always striven to protect me, Arthur.”

He paused, and turned his face to the right.

“I have always known that. Mother has always known that. In fact, I’m not sure there is anyone in this court who does not know that. You have never failed us—not when it has been Sir Boniface being vicious at a table, without knowing that he has no power over us, or when it has been war at our door. You have never failed us, and as I told you—after your father, and before then—we will not fail you.”

Arthur cocked his head consideringly, somewhat unsure of the concept: to have the knowledge that someone would not fail you, rather than the weight of not failing others on your shoulders, all the time. That changed things—even if that person was Merlin.

Merlin seemed to remember suddenly that this might be the sort of thing that might make Arthur uncomfortable, because he stood up briskly and walked to a sconce in the wall, brushing one hand over a sleeve as if to wipe something from it.

Arthur wasn’t sure what to feel. On the one hand, he was getting a picture of what people might expect of the Arthur they knew in this place, and it was not an entirely flattering one. Clearly he was loyal, as everyone’s lack of surprise at Arthur addressing Sir Boniface had shown. And yet Merlin had hinted that something had changed after Arthur’s father’s death, that Arthur had required some guarantee of loyalty in return from Merlin. Arthur could not think of anything that would make him ask for such a thing, that would make him admit weakness in such a way. But then again, he had never lost a father.

He was clearly not a good servant, and yet Merlin (and others in the court, it seemed) valued him beyond that—Merlin had made a place for him in the castle and in his household, perhaps despite others’ misgivings. Furthermore, this court did not seem to have the stiff and familiar hierarchy of Arthur’s own, and so servitude did not seem to carry the same negative weight that Arthur had always been told it did.

Arthur got the rather strange sense that he was valued here, which was not something he had ever felt before. He was loved in his Camelot, yes, and admired—but this sense of having some inherent worth, independent of status, was not something he had previously known.

“Thank you,” he said finally, not because it necessarily made sense in light of what they had been saying, but because it seemed to be what the situation called for, in an odd way.

Merlin turned his head from his perusal of the light and smiled at him.

There was something soft and sleepy about his features (and something fond, always fond), but he was still fully dressed—he was making no move to get into bed. Arthur wondered if there was something else that needed to be said.

Then he remembered it was his job to assist Merlin in doing these things, here, and he started forward, ready to brave the inside-out logic of the breeches’ lacings one more.






Arthur’s good will towards Merlin lasted precisely until midday the next day.

Merlin woke up, and Arthur brought him his meal. He had to navigate his way to the heart of the kitchens, which he had never really had to do before, but he met Nelda on the way there, and she chattered happily as she walked, clearly assuming he was walking in the same direction. He followed her and nodded at what he hoped were the appropriate places.

She appeared to be Gwen’s handmaiden, and Arthur smiled at the thought—Gwen, with that proud tilt of her chin and her powerful voice, now noble in name and not only in bearing.

When they arrived in the kitchens, Arthur marvelled that up until that moment he had entirely missed the opportunity that going to the kitchens actually presented. When he got there, he was given a choice: a choice about what to take to Merlin, and he gleefully called for meats and fruit and even two slices of cake to be placed on his laden tray.

He almost dropped the tray twice on the way back up to Merlin’s chambers, but he was too busy savouring the wonder of being able to ask the cook to serve him “A slightly fatter slice of that spice cake, please,” to feel too frustrated with his own clumsiness.

He was built for swords, anyway, not trays.

As he walked, he suddenly thought about the dozens of unsatisfying meals that Merlin had brought him over the past two years, and frowned. Merlin had had the choice of bringing him cake, and he had brought him dried fruit that had seen better days?

He had worked himself up to quite a state of righteous indignation by the time he opened to the door to Merlin’s rooms, and he was getting ready to tell Merlin all about it, too, prince or no. Then he remembered Sighard, his father’s steward, with his dour face and tight fist, and reconsidered. Sighard had always had a particular dislike of Merlin, too, which Merlin always suffered with patience and respect for his betters.

He had seen no sign of Sighard in this court, but— well, perhaps Merlin did not really have a choice of cakes at home.

He served Merlin his breakfast with surprising good cheer, inexplicably heartened by the fact that he didn’t seem to spill any of the water during his second attempt at serving a meal.

He dealt with two merchants at Merlin’s bidding, and though it still felt extremely odd to be taking orders from Merlin, he felt confident that Morgana would find a solution soon, and that he would be able to go home and make Merlin’s life hell (in a measured way, because this Merlin had not been all that bad to him) soon.

It was just the kind of day in which things worked out in one’s favour. He felt it.

When it began to near midday, Merlin departed for his training with the castle sorcerers. He asked if Arthur wanted to go with him, but Arthur felt that for all his ability to deal with this world, in which everything that Arthur knew to be up was down, he was not ready to see a group of people practicing magic openly, under the direction of the prince. Merlin seemed to think this refusal was normal, and as he headed off, Arthur stared out the window pensively, not really sure there was anything he needed to be doing. He thought about taking a nap in his pallet—there were upsides to this servant business, he supposed, now that he was in his rooms at midday with nothing clamouring for his attention—or about going to see Morgana. In the end, however, the impropriety of sleeping in the middle of the day and the fear of seeing defeat in Morgana’s eyes drove him to take a walk, and he wandered around the castle grounds, taking in small details that he hadn’t been able to for many years.

He was nearing the east field behind the wall when he heard the clanging of metal, and he reached for a sword that was not there as he hurried towards the sound. He peered carefully around the corner, but it was quickly clear that there was no threat to be seen: only a neatly ordered line of men, wearing Camelot’s red livery (with a dragon entwined around a Druid symbol; his father would have a fit) and practicing together.

Tristan was at the head of the line, calling the movements, and Gawain and Bors were there, too, along with a series of men Arthur didn’t recognise. He walked out onto the field and Tristan caught sight of him.

“Oy, Arthur. Want to join us?”

Arthur did: he longed for the feel of a sword under his hands, and when Tristan cocked his head towards a small store of weapons set up on a low platform, Arthur hefted a heavy sword and joined the line.

It was strange to follow rather than to lead, but it was heady to feel in control again. He wondered what it said about him that he only felt in control when he had a weapon at hand, but then he lost himself in the smooth rhythm of blow and parry and retreat, and did not think on it any longer. When Tristan paired them up—he and Bors trained together—Arthur took pleasure in delivering the sound lashing that he knew he could. Bors looked a bit surprised by his vehemence, but he was good-natured about it, and by the end of the match the rest of the small group was watching the two of them, cheering one or the other on. When Arthur forced Bors’ sword from his hand and Bors was forced to raise his hands placatingly, Arthur wiped the sweat from his brow and smiled happily up at the weak winter sun.

Tristan laughed his booming laugh, and said, “Pendragon, when will you come out from under the prince’s skirts and join us already? We’ve been after you for years, and we’ve made no secret of it: what more would you have us do to win your favour, your highness?”

He said the last with a mocking grin.

Arthur’s mouth tightened as the men around him laughed, and a man Arthur did not know called out,

“Leave it be, Tristan. There are things wound together than cannot be unwound.”

A few of the men laughed again, but more gently, and most looked serious, as if the man had delivered some profound truth.

Arthur said nothing. He reasoned that he did not know why his counterpart might have resisted joining the knights—perhaps he was not of noble blood, but if they were courting him then that could hardly be a problem. The obvious explanation was that Merlin would not allow it, because he wanted to keep Arthur close—“under his skirts”, as Tristan had so charmingly put it. That seemed likeliest, but Arthur could not know for sure, and even if he did know for certain, something inside him would simply not speak out against his ruler, whoever that ruler might be.

That he had been taught from very early on.

Merlin was the prince here, and whatever reasons he had for things were not to be questioned.

He excused himself with a laugh that probably sounded strained, and he walked back to the castle with a familiar rush of anger sounding in his ears. By the time he reached the door he was nearly ready to kick it down in pursuit of Merlin, who clearly needed to be taught a thing or to about the sort of man Arthur was.

He was stomping down the corridor towards Merlin’s chambers, intent on waiting for him there—he was not too cowardly to seek him and the other sorcerers in the courtyard; he was not—when he ran into Gwen, almost mowing her down in his haste.

“I’m sorry!” he said, backing away quickly from where he’d placed his hands on the wall beside her head, hemming her in. “My lady,” he added belatedly, still too unaccountably amused by the title to do anything but accompany it with a smile.

“Arthur,” she said cheerfully, and then, taking a closer look at him, “Arthur? Is something the matter?”

He wondered what it was about the Arthur in this Camelot, that everyone seemed to be able to read him like an open book. What sort of man wore his feelings and convictions on his face like that? Then he remembered that Gwen had read his face, and not the other Arthur’s, and he flinched at the implications of what that might mean for him at home.

That—like an alarming number of things he had discovered here so far—was too discomfiting to think about, so he shook his head, focusing on Gwen again.

“I was just training with the knights,” he said, diplomatically, leaving off the petulant And why don’t I do that full time, I ask you? Why?

She smiled and said, “Ah, yes. Tristan’s still trying to win you over, is he?”

She seemed amused by it all, and that was somehow too much for Arthur. Was it some kind of joke to these people, that he was so fully under Merlin’s control, compliant enough that he did not even wield a sword in defence of his city, as any man worth anything should?

“Yes,” he answered tightly, and if she was surprised by the anger in his voice, she did not show it. Arthur was also getting the feeling that his counterpart was rather mercurial in his moods—why people would put up with such a thing, he did not know.

“Well, it’s good to be so pursued, is it not?” she said, still amused, and something in Arthur snapped.

“Perhaps he would not have to pursue me like some sort of damsel if Merlin did not keep me locked up in his rooms,” he gritted out, unwilling to think about how little that sort of behaviour might help to counteract the impression that he was tied up in Merlin’s breech-strings.

Guinevere’s face changed so quickly that it was almost comical. Her laughing features closed abruptly, settling into firm lines of disapproval and something stronger and more unfavourable.

“You should not be so ungrateful, Arthur,” she said, and Arthur sobered, too.

If nothing else, it was clear to him that he owed Merlin a debt of kindness in this place (though he was not entirely clear what it might be), and he was not the sort of man who would not honour that. But it rankled even more, somehow, knowing that he was honour-bound to keep his life as it was.

But it is not your life, he remembered. It didn’t make as much of a difference as he thought it might.

“I know Merlin has always made a place for me by his side,” he began, trying to remember that Merlin was the prince, and that being close to the prince was an honour in any kingdom. Had he and his father not told Merlin the same thing many times?

“He has,” said Gwen cautiously, almost as if she were urging him to continue the thought himself.

“And I am grateful for that, Guinevere—” her face hardened again, and he amended— “Gwen.”

She nodded.

“But … surely Merlin knows that I can serve him best as a knight, Gwen. I have no—” he had to stop here to shove the word out— “magic, and so I cannot help him in that way. But I am quick with a sword; I am better than most of the knights Tristan trains, and if Merlin would allow me to, I could serve him much better there than I can at the table. I do not seem to have much skill at serving him there—I know you know that much.”

She laughed a little, kindly. Then her brow furrowed, and she asked,

“What do you mean, ‘allow you’?”

“Well,” he began, a little awkwardly, because he did not know the history or the dynamics of it, “I mean that of course anyone must have the prince’s leave to carry out what work he or she wishes to perform in the castle, and though I am happy to serve Merlin, and very grateful for the privilege,” (he wasn’t, but she seemed to approve of that) “I wish I could serve by doing what I do best, which is protecting this city.”

“But—” She stopped, clearly confused. “I thought you chose to serve Merlin, rather than to train with the knights? I thought you said he’d given you a choice, that he’d encouraged you to take up Tristan’s offer of training? After … your father,” she said delicately. “I thought that was partly what this thing with Gawain was all about—I mean, yes, he was falling behind, and Tristan asked you to train him individually, but I thought it was partly about Merlin trying to entice you to join Tristan’s men?”

She stopped again, and looked down, and Arthur could see a familiar look on her face: she was berating herself silently for letting a little too much slip.

He tried to work through what she had said to him, and he swayed a little on his feet. He did not know what to make of this revelation—that he would choose to serve in Merlin’s chamber rather than on the guard. He didn’t think it sounded plausible, not even for another version (for lack of a better word) of him.

I chose this?” he asked, dubiously. “That doesn’t seem to be—”

“But it is,” interrupted a voice from behind him.

He spun around to see Morgana standing behind him in the corridor, widening her eyes at him significantly. He remembered her warning not to let the truth become known to anyone, and he winced a little at the disapproval in her eyes.

She walked up to them, greeting Gwen with a smile and a hand on her forearm.

“Good morning, Gwen.”

“Morning, Morgana!” she answered cheerfully.

With this exchange of peasantries completed, Morgana turned back to Arthur, and said,

“You know you chose this for yourself, Arthur. It surprised everyone—Merlin most of all, I think. But you once said to me that this city had many knights in her service, and that you could do the most good by protecting its most valuable warrior. You know that Merlin can turn back three or four times as many men as all the knights together. And while he can protect himself, he does not have eyes in the back of his head, despite some misguided attempts to acquire them.”

Gwen laughed, and Arthur, imagining what that might have been like, snorted in spite of himself.

“You chose a less ordinary life in order to make sure the city retained its most extraordinary asset.”

There was a firmness in her voice which would have helped to placate Arthur even if her words hadn’t. It made sense: he had sacrificed some degree of his independence, but she was right to point out that he was doing something worthy. The knights, with their light-hearted teasing, which he realised now that he thought about it had held no hint of malice, seemed to know that, too.

He nodded at her, ready to accept her explanation, but she seemed to be trying to communicate something else to him, something that he clearly was not understanding. When his face continued to show curiosity, she spoke again.

“That is not the real reason why you chose to be in Merlin’s service rather than in Tristan’s, of course,” she said, and both he and Gwen perked up a little, both eager to hear this extended explanation, if for different reasons. “Merlin has been good to you from the very first, Arthur,” she said, and Arthur nodded in what he hoped was a grateful manner, though he wished people would stop saying that. “He has never treated you as a servant, and he has never treated you as anything less than an equal.”

In a flash, Arthur saw all the times that he had taken pains to remind Merlin precisely that he was a servant: the times that he had asked him to perform pointless and menial tasks partly to demean him, the times that he had stressed the boundaries of personal and social space between them. Merlin might be unbelievably clumsy, and he might be a bit of an idiot at times, but he had always been a loyal idiot—a devoted one, even, if Arthur was really fair—and Arthur had not always rewarded that with the same loyalty that Merlin clearly showed the Arthur of this Camelot.

“When we were left alone here, after father, Merlin would have had a dozen reasons to treat you differently, to show you your place as he never had before. Many were expecting it. But he did the opposite: he tried to keep you on a course that you had wanted, one that you thought was no longer open to you. He reminded you of how Tristan valued you, and of how there was always a place for you with the knights, if you wished it.”’

Arthur swallowed.

“You chose not to join them because you wanted to protect him and the queen,” she said, and then she looked at him shrewdly, something in her eyes saying, Pay attention. “But you told me that the real reason why you chose to stay with him was because a brother never leaves a brother. I still believe that was one of the wisest things you have ever said to me, and one of the most perceptive.”

She didn’t say anything else about them being twinned or wound together or whatever else it was that others seemed to keep repeating to him here, but it was implied. And for the first time in two days, Arthur wondered if maybe he was missing something by not listening carefully when people tried to explain.








Onwards to Part Three.

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