Word Count: 1,742
Notes: Nothing (unfortunately) to do with the Rosemary Sutcliffe novel of the same name, although I recommend it highly, as it’s another take on Arthurian legend, but I’m stealing the title because it fitted. This started as fluff, but it isn’t, really :) Bittersweet, I think, instead. A coda for ‘The Gates of Avalon’.
Summary: Sophia was an aberration, but that’s not to say that Uther’s wrong. One day, Merlin may have to learn to share.
Merlin’s changing the sheets on the bed when Arthur finds him. The feather bed is being pounded into shape. Merlin’s giving it his all, jerkin removed, sleeves rolled up. Thin pale arms are beating, beating, at the recalcitrant piece of furniture. Arthur wants to quip, what has the bed ever done to Merlin? But the words die in this throat, as being too prophetic, too cruel. Arthur thinks before he speaks, for the most part, unlike some servants he could mention. And this is one of those times.
He stands there, instead, watching him. He leans on the bedpost and watches the dust in the air as it circles lazily in the sunlight. It’s pretty, Arthur supposes – he’s never really taken the time to pay attention before. Or rather, that’s not true, he’s always known it’s there, beauty in the most unexpected of places, but other things have taken precedence. Other things always will. He wonders if Merlin understands that.
Merlin’s ignoring him, and since Arthur’s not stupid, he can recognise a petty tactic when he sees one. And although he’s the Prince, and really, Merlin should never ignore him, no servant should, he’s not worried about it. They’re not like that with one another, Arthur knows that. He hopes Merlin knows that too. Arthur doesn’t treat Merlin like anyone else. Merlin’s position is unique, but he’s not overly grateful, or scared of it, or using it, like another might be. But that’s one of the things Arthur likes about him.
Absently, it occurs to him that Merlin probably thinks of his position as body servant in a completely different way to Arthur. He’s not used to the Court, to Courtly ways, so he might not realise certain realities. Certain evident truths. It might even be, although Arthur winces at the thought, that he might have to inform Merlin about something of his own future, with all its expectations. In all fairness, Merlin deserves to know what the least kitchen-hand probably takes for granted.
For example, Arthur wonders if Merlin thought he was doing something special when he watched over Arthur as he slept, as he recovered from the blow to the head, when Merlin had stopped him from eloping. Maybe Merlin didn’t realise it, but Arthur has had people watch him sleep all his life. First his wet nurse, then his nanny, then his tutors. He’s barely had a night when he wasn’t watched, not until he became a man, or close enough. Then, and only then, did he have the authority to tell them all to get the hell out. Solitude is a luxury, but Arthur is pretty sure that Merlin doesn’t understand that.
He moves again, away from the bedpost, towards the window. It’s annoying but Arthur’s pretty sure he’s going to break, and speak first. He’s not sure he should, but Merlin, the silly fool, can out-stubborn a donkey. He’s not even sure he should indulge him like this, but again – things are different when it comes to Merlin.
“I was ensorcelled, you know that,” he says, at last, to his reflection in the glass, to the shadowy figure reflected behind him.
Arthur waits. He stares out into the courtyard where a bit of desultory sword practice is going on. It looks like Cerdic needs some more work on his feinting. Behind him, the thumping noises are redoubled, and Arthur tilts his head a little, allowing himself a smile where Merlin can’t see it. At least the bed will be damn comfortable tonight.
“Look, I could say I’m sorry, but you know that’s not how these things work,” he tries again.
“And exactly how should these things work, sire?”
Oh yes, he had thought that would get to Merlin. Arthur turns round then, and his breath catches in his throat. All the exercise has brought a flush to Merlin’s cheek, his shirt is hanging off his shoulders, and his blue eyes are flashing with anger… It’s a good look on him.
“She – Sophia – it wasn’t my fault, and you know it.”
“And what about all the lying? That wasn’t my fault either, but I’m getting good at it, you know. Maybe you should be worried.”
Arthur can’t help it, he laughs. He knows it’s a mistake as soon as he does so, but the idea is so ridiculous. Merlin can just about lie to Uther, that’s all, not to Arthur, not to his Prince. Arthur frowns. Well, he can try it, and see how far he gets. But Merlin is glaring daggers now. On reflection however, Arthur finds he prefers Merlin angry with him, rather than ignoring him, so things could be worse.
“Look,” he says, feeling his way, “This wasn’t my choice, but even if magic hadn’t been involved, at some point I’ll still be expected to…”
He looks into Merlin’s guileless blue eyes. Really, it’s a miracle the boy’s got this far through life, Merlin doesn’t have the sense he was born with. Or any idea of the political realities.
“You know one day I’ll marry, don’t you?” he finally says, bluntly.
Merlin blinks and looks away, and Arthur’s heart flips in his chest. Dammit. He ploughs on. It has to be faced.
“It will be a political match, of course. My father will most probably arrange it, with advice from the other lords, although he’ll consult Geoffrey, to ensure that the bloodlines are sufficient. Not too close in sanguinity, not too plebeian. Politically, the marriage will have to offer the Kingdom a significant advantage. Probably a military alliance, perhaps trading rights. If I’m lucky she’ll not be too ugly, and she’ll give me an heir quickly. If I’m unlucky, she won’t.”
Arthur pauses and watches Merlin. He’s smoothing the corner of a pillow case down with his fingers. His nails are a little bitten. He must remember to have a word with him about that. Terrible habit.
“Father was lucky – he made a love match. But he didn’t know that when Princess Igraine was brought in state from her Cornish home. It’s only because he made a love match that I’ve been allowed to remain unbetrothed this long. Father doesn’t have many romantic notions, but I truly believe this is one.”
Although that’s mainly because Father expects him to fall in love with Morgana. Arthur really doesn’t want to remind Merlin of that.
“And…” Merlin’s voice is faint, but gets stronger as he continues. “What about me?”
What about Merlin? Arthur looks at him, wondering if he even wants Merlin to be politically aware. He’s not sure, but he thinks it might spoil something. He’s groping in the gloom, and it’s just a glimmer in the darkness, but he wants Merlin as he is now, ridiculous fringe flopping into his eyes, ears sticking out, dust all over him. Not cynical, bitter and twisted.
Regardless of his own finery, and the dustiness of Merlin, Arthur reaches out and yanks him towards him. Merlin resists a little, but only a little. He’s like a furnace, right now, his heat plasters itself all down Arthur’s body, bony limbs poking out, not graceful, or poised at all. Thank goodness. Arthur bends his head a little, his lips just brushing the soft skin of Merlin’s neck, just by the juncture of his shoulder. He’s gratified by a shiver.
“You, Merlin, are my body servant. If you can avoid being poisoned, executed…” He punctuates each instance with a small kiss, a small shake. “Or otherwise killed. Then you will remain with me for the rest of my life. The rest of my reign. And the body servant of a King is expected to sleep in the same chamber as his master, to be with him always, because he’s there to do and be anything that is required of him. At any time.”
Merlin smells of earthy things, a hint of horses, the liniment that Gaius brews, a tinge of fresh sweat. It’s delicious. Arthur urgently wants to bite down, to mark, to claim him for his own, but he doesn’t. He’s not that kind of a man, he doesn’t intend to be that kind of a King.
“Merlin? Will that satisfy you? Is that enough?”
And that’s the crux of it. Will Merlin understand? Arthur’s not even sure it’s fair of him to be asking. It’s not like they’ve known each other long (forever), or promised each other anything (everything).
“And where will this mythical Queen of yours be?” asks Merlin, at last, and there’s the sarcasm.
Arthur leans back a little so he can look Merlin in the eye. “You’ve never seen the State Chambers, have you? They were shut up when my Mother died. They’re in the South Wing.”
“That’s a long way.”
They stare at each other. They’re too close, really, and Merlin’s eyes are blurring, a hint of gold hidden in the blue. Arthur can feel every single point of contact between their bodies, he wants to throw Merlin down onto the overly plumped bed, he wants to drag him closer, and closer still. He holds himself taut, instead. The consummate Prince. Trained for control, for power. Father would be pleased with him.
Arthur continues at last, slowly, feeling the weight of each word. “I’ll not pretend, Merlin. When the time comes, you’ll be expected to prepare things for her. You’ll draw me a bath, and shave me, and send me off primped and perfumed. You’ll probably carry the lantern that lights the way.”
“But you’ll come back,” says Merlin, quick as a flash.
“I’ll always come back.”
He doesn’t think he lies. He doesn’t. He wishes he were certain.
Merlin smiles then, tips his head a little to one side, as though offering his throat, that hint of vulnerability that drives Arthur wild.
“Well.” Merlin’s voice is ruminative, brittle. “That’s not so bad. I suppose. For the rest of your life, eh? It’s almost as though we share a destiny.”
Arthur chuckles lightly, because he thinks Merlin’s made a joke, although he’s not sure he understands. But it doesn’t matter. He’s told him. He’s spelled out the politics of it all, of their lives, and Merlin hasn’t run away. Merlin’s even smiling, although it’s a funny twisted thing. Arthur has a pang then, a sudden feeling that he’s missed the point somewhere along the way.
“My Prince,” says Merlin, kissing him, “Don’t worry. I’m used to being the lantern that lights the way.”