Of all the many things Merlin had ever worried about getting arrested for, despoiling the king's ward hadn't been one of them.
"There's really been a misunderstanding," he said.
"Has there," Arthur said, coldly. "So you weren't alone with Morgana in her bedchamber in the middle of the night—"
"I wasn't doing any despoiling!" Merlin said.
"Then what were you doing?" Arthur said, glaring.
"Er," Merlin said, because they'd been trying to learn scrying together, which wasn't exactly something he was rushing to tell anyone.
Arthur's eyes got even wider, and Merlin stared at him helplessly. "Oh my god, you were despoiling her!" Arthur said. "She let you—you!"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Merlin said indignantly. "Because she wouldn't let you? I'm really surprised."
"What? As if I wanted her!" Arthur said.
Merlin rolled his eyes.
"Arthur!" Morgana called. "Get out of my way," she snapped, and shoved one of the guards. "I don't believe you!" she said. "Why haven't you let him out yet?"
"He has insulted your honor—" Arthur said.
"The only one insulting my honor is you, with this ridiculous fuss you're making," Morgana said. "You know that Gaius treats me for troubled nights. He's grown reluctant to make my medicine stronger, so sometimes I can't sleep. Merlin has been kind enough to come and play cards with me, when I don't want to be alone. There's nothing more outrageous going on than that."
"You should not be alone with a man in your rooms, and you know it," Arthur snapped.
"Oh, what utter nonsense," Morgana said. "I am perfectly capable of defending myself if Merlin went suddenly mad one night and tried to make an assault on my virtue." And then, because Merlin was surrounded by people who couldn't leave well enough alone, she added, with a glint in her eye, "Unless I wanted him to succeed."
Arthur went red again and glared. "He's a servant!"
"And still more of a gentleman than you," Morgana said sweetly. "Also, he's taller. I suppose that's why you've locked him up? Feeling outmatched?"
"Feeling—" Arthur's voice went up so high it cracked in his throat. "By him? Just because you're evidently fond of slumming—"
"Excuse me," Merlin said. "But can I please be let out of the dungeon now before the two of you kill each other? I'm sure I'll get blamed for it if someone finds your bodies and I'm the only one here, even if I'm in the cell."
"You aren't going anywhere!" Arthur said. "The honor of the king's ward is the honor of Camelot."
"It's my honor and mine to defend, not yours!" Morgana said.
"But I didn't do anything to her honor!" Merlin said.
"Don't say another word, Merlin, I refuse to even defend myself against such accusations," Morgana said.
"Yes, but, I'm the one in the dungeon," Merlin said.
"You might as well save your breath," Arthur said, still glaring at her. "I wouldn't believe anything you said anyway."
"I'm queer!" Merlin said.
"You could have told me," Gwen said. "I wouldn't have—you know. Been odd about it or anything."
"No, of course not," Merlin said unhappily. They were serving together in the banquet hall, and Arthur was about two feet away, very definitely in earshot distance, so it wasn't really a good time for explaining that actually, he had lied through his teeth to get out of the dungeons without being executed for either the crime he hadn't committed or the one he had.
She leaned over and said, pointing across the room, "Actually, Sir Lamorak is, too."
"He is?" Merlin said, blinking.
Gwen nodded. "And you can't say he's not good-looking. You know. If you fancied that sort of thing."
Merlin looked at Sir Lamorak, who was blond and had knightly broad shoulders and sort of a pouty mouth, and he supposed he could see the appeal—if he'd fancied that sort of thing.
"Merlin!" Arthur said. "If you're finished gossiping, allow me to point out that my cup has run dry. Again."
"Oh, right, sorry," Merlin said, jumping.
"And I trust," Arthur added later, while Merlin was turning down his bed, "that there will be no pursuit of that utterly inappropriate suggestion Guinevere made earlier."
"Which one was that?" Merlin said, haphazardly plumping up the pillows.
"Lamorak!" Arthur snapped.
"What?" Merlin said, and stared. "You've got to be joking, you can't imagine I'd be despoiling his honor."
"He's a knight, he wouldn't lower himself so," Arthur said.
"Well, in that case," Merlin said, "it would hardly hurt my trying."
"You'd be making a spectacle of yourself," Arthur said.
"You think I make a spectacle of myself walking across the yard," Merlin said.
"Well, you do," Arthur said. "In this case you'd just be making more of one. I can't have my servant looking ridiculous."
"Wait a minute," Merlin said. "Are you trying to say you get approval over anyone that I'd like to—"
Arthur said, "I'm saying that you will confine your attentions to those appropriate to your rank and station."
"That's ridiculous!" Merlin said. "It's not like I'd be looking to marry him."
Arthur actually blushed. "I don't care what you'd want to do to him!" he snapped. "Don't even think of—of—making up to him."
Merlin opened his mouth and then realized that he was arguing about flirting with Lamorak, which he wasn't going to do anyway. "Fine," he said, coolly. "Any other unreasonable orders for me today, Sire?"
As it happened, Merlin didn't have any worries about making up to Lamorak, because after drill the next morning, Lamorak caught him in the armory while Merlin was cleaning Arthur's vambraces. He leaned towards him over the table. "Merlin," he said, smiling, "I don't suppose you're free tonight, after dinner? My squire is having some trouble with a dent in my hauberk." He paused and added, "It's in my quarters."
Merlin stared at Lamorak, consumed with the realization that if the castle gossip chain had gotten news to the knights already, then everyone knew. None of the girls were going to even look at him again.
Fresh off that dismal understanding, it abruptly occurred to him that Lamorak was actually offering to have sex with him, that very night. And probably he meant real sex, not just snogging in a corner for a couple of minutes. With no courting or flowers. Or worrying about possible consequences. And Lamorak might not be his type, exactly, but he wasn't repulsive or anything. Even attractive, in a bit of a meaty way. In fact, he was looking more attractive every second Merlin thought about—
He jumped as Arthur's chain mail, dripping mud, landed in a loud jangling heap on the table in front of him. "Half the links are tarnishing," Arthur snapped. "I want every last one cleaned and polished by first light tomorrow, Merlin, is that clear?"
Merlin stared at him open-mouthed in outrage, because he'd just cleaned and oiled the mail three days ago, and he'd done it with magic so he knew bloody well it had been done perfectly, and also Arthur hadn't been muddy after drill, so what had he even done, dropped it in the dirt outside on purpose?
Arthur whirled and stalked out without waiting for an answer. Merlin glared after him, then looked at Lamorak, whose eyebrows were raised. "So," Merlin said, wondering if he could suggest another day—
"No, never mind, my mistake," Lamorak said, and grinned at Merlin cheerfully in a way that made Merlin even more regretful, and then he added, "I didn't know it was like that," and winked before he left, leaving Merlin staring after him.
"Well," Merlin said, marching into Arthur's room to dump the brilliantly-gleaming re-cleaned chainmail on the table in front of him, along with his cold supper, "I hope you're happy. Now Lamorak thinks you're queer, too."
"What?" Arthur said, standing up from his chair.
"Natural mistake," Merlin said, "what with you acting like a jealous prat instead of just a regular one."
"I am not jealous over you," Arthur snapped.
Merlin didn't see any why that should get Arthur off being tormented. "It's a little hard to work out any other reason why you'd be shoving your nose so hard into who I shag. You can't even complain I made an ass out of myself; he asked me."
Arthur went red and speechless.
Merlin realized afterwards that he also didn't know when to leave well enough alone, because he ignored the warning signs and added, "You know, if I'm that irresistible—"
And then Arthur was shoving him up against the wall, furious and flushed crimson and pinning him there. "What?" Arthur snarled at him. "If you're that irresistible, what?" and Merlin stared at him and realized that Arthur was jealous, and also Arthur was spectacularly beautiful, and this was going to be brilliant.
And for about five minutes, it was absolutely brilliant—Arthur's mouth tasted like wine, and his skin was warm and soft and golden, and oh God his muscles. Merlin had never really thought of muscles that way before, but they were so incredibly firm, and he could grip on really tight and Arthur just gasped. And if their clothes came off a little quicker than they should have, nobody was complaining. Arthur was kissing him almost brutally, and they were rubbing up against each other, and it was spectacular, and then they rolled over and Merlin was on top of Arthur and between his legs, and then Arthur was heaving him off and almost lunging out of the bed.
"No," Arthur said, panting. "No. I—I can't—" He gulped, and his face looked so utterly stricken that Merlin forgot the ten things he'd meant to say, mostly variations on you complete tosser and can we get back to that.
He sat up out of the tangle of bedclothes and said helplessly, "We don't—we don't have to, I thought you—" and wondered for one horrible moment if he'd done something to make Arthur, without even knowing—
"No," Arthur said, looking away. He was going for his wardrobe, fumbling for clothing. "This is my weakness, not yours. I should never—" He stopped, leaning against the frame, and bowed his head. "I had no right to interfere," he said, formally. "Accept my apology."
"What are you on about?" Merlin said. "You don't think I'd rather have Lamorak than you."
"Lamorak can do as he likes," Arthur said. "I can't. Camelot cannot afford for me to indulge myself. So I'm not going to," he added, with the same kind of determination that usually went along with I'm going to win this tournament or I'm going to kill this rampaging beast.
"You indulge yourself all the time!" Merlin said, voice rising as it dawned on him that Arthur really was being a complete tosser, and also he wasn't going to come back to bed. "What about that stupid week-long hunting trip to Malvern—or the time last month you got drunk and—"
"That doesn't—shut up," Arthur said. "Those things don't matter. Some things do. It's my duty to the kingdom to make a good marriage, and no powerful king is going to want to marry his daughter to me if I have a reputation for—" He waved a hand.
"Why not?" Merlin said. "What's any of this got to do with getting married?"
"Most kings like to have some bloody descendants!" Arthur said. "They're not going to be interested if I can't produce an heir, and if it gets around that I'm—that I—"
"It's not like it means you can't, with girls," Merlin said. "At least he'd know everything was working."
Arthur went pink with indignation. "Obviously everything's working!"
"You're in battles a lot, he couldn't be sure of it," Merlin said.
"Yes he could!" Arthur said. "And—wait a minute, you and Morgana were—"
"What? No!" Merlin said. "With other girls. None of them king's wards."
"But you said—"
"I was lying to get out of the dungeons!" Merlin said. "Also, you really are an ass! You threw me in the dungeons because you were jealous!"
Arthur flushed, and then he said flatly, "Well, from now on, you may do as you like." He paused and then he added, as if it had been torn out of him, "Don't let me know of it."
Merlin stalked back to his tiny, cold attic room with murder in his heart, or at least a good ducking in a pig trough. Lying down in his tiny, cold, empty bed didn't improve his mood. No, it wasn't enough for Arthur to throw him in dungeons and order him away from people and wreck his chances and behave like an utter tease for absolutely no good reason, Arthur had to make him feel guilty for having it on with anyone else ever again.
He glowered over his breakfast and told himself that he was going to flirt with everyone in sight that whole day. He meant it, until he was working with the other servants and squires at drill, setting up the targets, and Sir Lewethes's squire Wesley leaned over and murmured, "You fancy a round at the Black Boar, later?"
Arthur was coming over, presumably to make some irritable remark over how the targets obviously should have been three inches over to one side. Merlin saw him flinch with the massive effort to not have Wesley thrown to wild dogs or beaten with sticks, and the, "Yeah, absolutely," turned into, "Sorry, thanks, I'm—I'm busy," without any actual conscious decision.
Wesley shrugged without offense, Arthur cleared his throat and delivered his stupid remark to the air over Merlin's head, and Merlin numbly finished setting up the targets, full of horror. He wasn't going to be feeling guilty, he was going to be celibate.
He had to do something about this, obviously. "Gaius," he asked that evening, "are there any spells that affect, um, emotions? There was an old woman near Ealdor who sold love potions and things—"
"Most likely a mere charlatan," Gaius said "You cannot make someone act against their inclinations for long. Most such love potions are temporary things, when they work at all. Not," he added, "that they cannot be most destructive, regardless. I hope I need not explain to you," he said very sternly, "that there is no difference between the use of such an artifice and violence."
"No!" Merlin said. "No, you absolutely don't." Gaius was still looking doubtful. "I swear, Gaius, I don't want to make someone fall in love with me." What he wanted was to make Arthur fall out of love. Or whatever it was that Arthur was doing at him that was making it impossible for Merlin to get decently laid. It was pretty clear to him that magic was called for, whatever Gaius would say, because nothing natural could possibly fix this mess.
He dug through the spellbook and found something he thought would work: it said it was guaranteed to cool a too-ardent humour. Merlin went into the lower village and bought a pair of pigeons and took them out into the forest; after making sure there was no one around, he put them down in a pen. The male pigeon promptly started chasing the female around, bobbing his head wildly as she bobbed away from him with just as much energy, and Merlin cast the spell.
The male pigeon stopped, bobbed his head uncertainly a few more times, and then wandered away from the female pigeon and started pecking the ground. Merlin heaved a sigh of relief. All right. He'd just cast the spell on Arthur, Arthur would stop being ridiculous, and then Merlin could go back to making eyes at anyone he wanted. Well, anyone else he wanted.
He put together all the ingredients for the spell, laid them out carefully in his room on the bed, took a deep breath—and then stopped and stared down at them. Then he put them all away and threw himself face down on the bed and hated Arthur with a passion.
The really maddening part was Arthur kept looking at him. Merlin would be putting a plate of food in front of him, and he'd notice Arthur staring with this sort of glitteringly hungry expression, and Merlin was pretty sure that it wasn't inspired by the chicken stew. Except if Merlin leaned a little closer encouragingly, Arthur would just push back his chair and look away, because apparently Merlin was temptation too great to bear and yet would ruin him to shag.
Arthur even started getting dressed by himself. Merlin hadn't planned on missing the glorious task of getting Arthur out of bed and into his princely gear every morning, but after a couple of weeks he was so annoyed he cast a spell to wake up before dawn, lurked in the hallway until the sun came up, and then went in while Arthur was just barely stirring.
It hadn't occurred to Merlin just how bad an idea that was until he was inside with Arthur lying sprawled and tousled and asleep in only his shift. It had come mostly unlaced during the night and was open nearly to the waist. Merlin stood by the side clutching the bedcurtain with his mouth gone dry. Arthur stirred and looked up at him and smiled drowsily, and then they were both staring at each other, utterly frozen, and Arthur was right there, in the big warm bed, just—just asking to be—he was naked under that thing, and no one was expecting him anywhere for an hour at least—
Arthur said in a stiff, unnatural voice, "Go get my breakfast," and when Merlin almost reached for him anyway, he said, "Now!" so desperately that Merlin shut his eyes and made himself turn away and walk out.
"I won't require you until after matins from now on," Arthur said, never lifting his eyes up from his plate, when Merlin came back and set it before him. He was already dressed.
Merlin felt something cold and really angry tighten in his chest. He bit out, "Why don't you just hire yourself another servant?"
Arthur's hand stopped, spoon in mid-air. "If you want to leave my service, you need only say so," he said, after a moment, his voice rigidly controlled.
Merlin opened his mouth to say it, to tell Arthur to go soak his stupid, priggish, stubborn, irrational head, and also to hire someone really ugly next time, and then he said bitterly, "Will my lord be going hunting today?"
"I just—I don't know what to do. And if this keeps up, he's never going to be king, because I'll murder him. And kill myself," Merlin added, morosely.
The dragon tilted its head and looked at him consideringly.
Merlin didn't really have much hope that it was going to give him any useful advice, but he had to talk to someone or he was going to go mad, and he knew exactly what it would do to Arthur if he found out Merlin had confided in anyone else in Camelot.
"Well?" he said. "Nothing about this in our destiny?"
"It is your destiny to be by Arthur's side," the dragon said. "I am afraid I cannot tell you whether that extends to his sleeping hours."
Merlin paused and then he looked up and stared. "Are you—making a joke?"
The dragon did something that looked suspiciously like smirking, and flew up to the ceiling.
Merlin stalked out of the cellars, muttering, and nearly ran into Gwen. "Oh," she said, "Merlin, you've been called for, you're to go to the king's chambers."
"What?" Merlin said, staring at her. "The king's sending for me?"
She bit her lip. "I wouldn't worry," she said. "I'm sure it's nothing. Maybe it's to do with Lord Tunaine and his retinue arriving? We've all been getting extra work. Or maybe he has a message for Gaius he wants you to take!"
Merlin rehearsed the vanishing spell under his breath as he went upstairs, just in case, but the guards at the door waved him in, and no one jumped out yelling, "Sorcerer!" or anything. It was just Uther and Arthur together in the sitting room.
"Since his father's funeral," Uther was saying, "the new Lord Tunaine has been—" He paused to look at Merlin up and down, critically. "You're quite sure you rely on his confidence," he said to Arthur.
Arthur didn't look at Merlin. "I wouldn't have said so if I didn't, father. Merlin can be trusted."
"Very well, I suppose he will do. He's young enough, at least." Arthur looked confused, but Uther went on, "As I was saying—I have learned from a loyal man in his court that Tunaine has been entertaining visitors from the King of Sussex."
"He's a traitor?" Arthur said, his eyes narrowing.
"No," Uther said, "not yet. But we cannot wait until he actually commits the act; a war to subdue his earldom would both weaken our army and deplete our grain reserves so far that Sussex might well gain all the benefit of his treason regardless."
"You want to impress him with the certainty of his destruction, then," Arthur said.
Uther shook his head. "He is too stupid to be threatened," he said contemptuously. "No, we must trick him into loyalty temporarily, while I find a knight among his men who can command their respect and have him take the earldom quietly from within."
Arthur nodded. "What do you want me to do?"
"I intend," Uther said, "to suggest to him—privately—that I look upon him as the next heir to Camelot, in line after you. He is younger than you, and not himself a soldier; he can hope for you to be killed in battle."
"Surely that won't content him," Arthur said. "He must assume you'll arrange my marriage soon."
Uther waved a hand and said, "Yes, so you must give him reason to believe that there will be no competition, even should that occur."
Merlin stared, and looked at Arthur, who was staring back at him in dawning horror. "Father," Arthur said, "you don't—do you—"
"I realize this is hardly pleasant, but it must be done," Uther said, and gestured at Merlin. "Take your servant, and arrange to be caught with him in coitus by one of Tunaine's servants, in the next day or two. He must already know before I broach the subject of the succession with him."
Arthur opened his mouth and shut it three times before he managed to get out, "Father—I—perhaps—I'll—a different servant—"
"It is bad enough we must confide a matter of this importance to any servant at all, much less a second one," Uther said. He eyed Merlin. "Even if you could make this less unpleasant by substitution. Just go and get it over with."
Arthur stared at him.
"It'll only be this once," Arthur said as they walked back to his chambers. He was walking fast to stay ahead of Merlin in the corridors.
"Right," Merlin said.
"I want you to find out where his servants are gathering," Arthur added. "Where they'll be reliably."
"Right," Merlin said.
"And then we'll—" Arthur said.
"Right," Merlin said.
"Shut up," Arthur snapped.
Tunaine's servants were pretty much poking their noses into everything, from the attics to the stables; Merlin ran into one of them just stepping into Gaius's quarters, and chased another away from the armory not half an hour later.
"Look, as far as I can tell, we can just pick a spot that doesn't have a lock on the door, and they'll be there within an hour," Merlin said.
"I'm not doing this for an hour!" Arthur said.
Merlin threw up his hands. "Then you figure out where we're going. They're not giving me a convenient schedule."
Arthur shut his mouth and stared at the ground and then said flatly, "Fine. We'll do it in the summer garden pavilion this afternoon. It has a good prospect on the training grounds, one of them will probably come by to try and spy on drill."
Merlin didn't get a lot done the rest of the morning. He kept trying to decide if it was going to be better or worse to have had Arthur once, to remember, and getting distracted by thinking about just what might happen during the once.
He went to Arthur's room at ten minutes of one, shortly before drill, and silently Arthur led the way down to the summer garden gates and out to the deserted pavilion. Merlin followed him inside, wondering how this was even going to work if Arthur was this grim about it; he obviously wasn't ready to, and then Arthur was turning around and kissing him, ferociously, and they were tumbling to the couch in a tangled heap.
"Merlin," Arthur gasped, against his mouth, and dragged Merlin's tunic and shift off over his head, while Merlin grappled desperately with Arthur's belt. It was amazing, it was—oh god, he hadn't ever wanted anything as much as this, pulling Arthur's leg up over his hip and just feeling the hard length of him pressing close, and Arthur let his head fall back against the arm of the sofa and panted up at the roof of the pavilion with his mouth soft and red and shocked open, and his eyes unbelievably blue.
"Arthur," Merlin said, dropping kisses all over his throat, his collarbone, his shoulders—god, Arthur's shoulders. "Arthur, what, what do you, tell me—"
"Do it," Arthur said, through gritted teeth. "Do it."
"Do—" Merlin said, raising his head, confused.
"Oh damn you," Arthur said, and his voice cracked. "Take me. Damn you, Merlin—just—" He squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face aside, color blazing into his cheeks, and Merlin wondered dizzily if it was possible to expire from wanting someone.
That didn't actually help with knowing what the hell he was doing, but he tentatively slid his fingers between Arthur's legs, and Arthur shuddered wildly against him, and when Merlin pushed his fingers inside, Arthur made a noise like—like—But he was too dry to move in, so Merlin pulled out and looked at his fingers doubtfully—he thought about licking, and then he decided not.
"Merlin, you bloody useless sodding wretch, if you don't—" Arthur panted.
"Just give me a minute!" Merlin said, and bent down and pretended to be rummaging in their clothes while he whispered a summoning spell quick for the jar of muscle salve he used on Arthur.
"What are you—oh," Arthur said, his voice breaking as Merlin slid his fingers in properly this time, all the way in, slicked up, and Arthur's face looked so utterly shocked that Merlin had to shut his eyes and swallow really hard and hold his hips completely still, because otherwise—
He moved his fingers, and Arthur almost bucked him right off the couch—Merlin had to grab on to his shoulders to hang on. That was going to have to be a sign, because otherwise there wasn't going to be anything to do anything more with, and he slid his fingers out, lined up and pushed in, and Arthur—Arthur—yielded. Arthur yielded, went utterly open for him, and Merlin pressed straight in all the way with Arthur's eyes still wide and stunned.
Merlin said, equally astonished, "Oh, you're, I'm," and Arthur said, "So do something!" and shoved back against him.
Merlin tried, but he was pretty desperately occupied in trying not to just come right away, and also it was a couch, not a bed, and there wasn't much room to maneuver, and also he wasn't really the most athletic person in the world—
"Bloody hell!" Arthur yelled, and rolled them off onto the floor, shoved Merlin flat and worked himself back on, oh God, and—"If you dare come," Arthur panted, "if you even think of it, before I'm done—"
"Stop talking about it!" Merlin said frantically, and then in self-preservation grabbed for Arthur's cock and stroked him up and down, hard and slick and perfect, and Arthur moaned and came in his hand after about three pulls. "Oh yes," Merlin said, and shut his eyes and let go deep in Arthur's body.
"I didn't say—that I was done!" Arthur said, still shuddering over him, and then he tipped forward and crumpled to the ground next to Merlin, gasping.
"It doesn't matter," Merlin said, after a little while.
"We'll see how you feel about that after a stay in the stocks."
"Stop being a prat," Merlin said. "I mean, it doesn't matter, it's all to-do over again."
"What?" Arthur said.
"No one came in!" Merlin said.
Arthur pushed himself up and looked around for the spies that weren't there. Then he flopped back down again. "I don't understand," he groaned. "It's the perfect place, why wouldn't any of them come?"
They lay there breathing hard for a while, and then Merlin said, "We could try the library."
"Right," Arthur said.
They didn't get caught in the library.
They also didn't get caught in the hayloft, the solarium, the wine cellar, the armory, Gaius's laboratory, or the guest bedroom three doors away from Tunaine's suite.
At that point, they fell asleep in the bed, and were only roused up by the evening bell ringing. "It's an hour to dinner!" Arthur said, bolting straight up, wild-eyed. He shoved Merlin's shoulder with his foot. "Get up."
Merlin feebly dragged his head up from the blanket—he'd ended up with his head at the foot of the bed, and hadn't had the strength to turn around—and stared at him. Then he let his head sink down again.
"Merlin!" Arthur said.
"G'dressed yourself," Merlin groaned into the blanket.
"I can't, you idiot," Arthur said. "I need a bath before I can possibly be seen in public."
Merlin rolled away from the next kick and pulled the blanket over his head.
"Get up, or I'll sack you," Arthur said.
"Go ahead," Merlin said. "At least I'll be able to get some rest. I think you broke me."
Arthur muttered several unkind remarks, which Merlin could ignore a lot more easily after having spent the last three rounds or so hearing Arthur moan variations on yes, that, more and oh god merlin and please merlin now. After all, he really did pick things up quickly.
The bed squeaked as Arthur got out, then there was a loud, heavy thump, and half the bedclothes dragged out from under him. Merlin pulled his head out from under the blanket. Arthur was collapsed on the rug next to the bed, clutching a fistful of sheets. "I can't stand," Arthur said, in betrayed tones.
"Come back to bed," Merlin pleaded.
"I have to—be there," Arthur said, and dragged himself up the bed post. He clung to it wavering for a bit longer, and then in a heroic staggering rush made it seven steps over to the chair with most of his clothes on it.
Merlin groaned and forced himself to roll off the bed. His legs also didn't really want to work. He crawled over to his shirt and put it back on, and wriggled into his pants on the floor before pulling himself up. "I'll go—flag someone down, to bring up a bath to your room," he said, by which he meant, "I'm going to pretend I did that and then use magic instead."
"Tell them to hurry," Arthur said.
The bath was waiting in Arthur's room, steaming hot, and Arthur made a beeline straight for it, shedding the wrecked clothes. "Oh God," he groaned, sinking in. Merlin slumped down into one of the chairs and pillowed his head on his arms on the table, watching him. Arthur could bathe himself.
Then Arthur raised his head and beckoned his hand impatiently. "Well? Get in. You're going to have to go down too," he added, after Merlin had unwarily got undressed and climbed in.
"Oh no," Merlin said. "You want me to stand through a banquet? I'm going to end up in a heap on the floor after ten minutes."
"Shut up and wash me," Arthur said, letting his head tip back against the edge of the tub. Merlin glared at him and got the soap.
They didn't get caught there, either, but to be fair, the door was closed.
Arthur's hair was still damp and curling at the back of his neck during the banquet. Merlin kept staring at it. Arthur was also shifting oddly in his seat every once in a while. At some point between the third and fourth courses, Merlin realized it was because he was sore, and the rest of the dinner passed for him in a faint luminescent haze.
At the reception afterwards, Arthur had to make small talk with Lord Tunaine, who was a spotty-looking nineteen year old who hadn't grown into his teeth yet and smirked a lot. Merlin eyed him darkly. Granted, he was indirectly responsible for Merlin having nine separate life-altering sexual experiences in a single day, but he was also obviously a wretched little toad who was going to try and make problems for Arthur and even a war. Merlin was feeling opposed to anyone doing anything that might distract Arthur from staying at home and fulfilling his real destiny in life, which was pretty obviously to have as much sex with Merlin as humanly possible.
"I trust you're enjoying your stay," Arthur said to Tunaine, with an undercurrent of you're a filthy little traitor and I hope you die that Merlin thought was pretty obvious.
Tunaine seemed to miss it entirely, since he just smirked and said, "Oh, very much. Your hospitality is greatly to be admired. I am most honored."
"As is Camelot," Arthur said, radiating I would very much like to run you through repeatedly you vile treacherous weasel.
Merlin hadn't had anything but water all night, but he was still rapidly losing the ability to stand even if Arthur wasn't, with his ridiculously muscled thighs that had gotten to sit through dinner. Just in time, Arthur decided he had mentally slaughtered Tunaine thoroughly enough and stalked out of the dining hall. Merlin followed him gratefully. For some version of followed.
"My God, the idea of that cretinous sack of dog filth on the throne of Camelot," Arthur said, furiously. "I wonder my father can stand it long enough to lie to him. And straighten up, you look like you're drunk," he added to Merlin.
Merlin wobbled into him across the hall instead. Arthur muttered under his breath and grabbed his arm and mostly towed him the rest of the way to his bedchamber. "Just turn down the bed and bank the fire and go to sleep," Arthur said, shucking his crown and his jerkin in a corner, and sitting down to pull off his own boots.
Merlin got as far as the bed, and fell face down on it.
"You are not sleeping here!" Arthur said.
Merlin woke up with his boots and trousers off and one of Arthur's arms flung over him and Arthur's nose mashed into his shoulder, and something lower down poking Merlin in the side pretty emphatically. Arthur woke up a moment later and lifted his head and stared at him. His hair looked like a drunken haystack.
Merlin caught his wrist as Arthur started trying to disentangle. "We've still got to get caught today, right?"
"Yes," Arthur said, shortly.
"We could—practice?" Merlin suggested.
Arthur's expression revealed an internal struggle that lasted about half of a second, and then he said, "Fine," and shoved Merlin down and started kissing him. Things were going really well, and their shifts had come off and so had most of the bedcovers, and Arthur was saying, "Show me how," in this low rough voice while he sort of slid lightly back and forth over Merlin's body, his cock bumping against Merlin's, and trailing over his belly and his thighs, and Arthur had Merlin's hands pinned down by the wrists, which was amazing in this really strange way that made Merlin's stomach squirm, and then the door slammed open and Morgana barged into the room saying, "Arthur, wake up this instant, that pig Tunaine has—" and pulled up shocked at the bedside.
Arthur jerked his head up with an utterly horrified expression, and Merlin said, "Ulp," and Morgana stared at them with her mouth open. Probably thanks to years of battle-honed reflexes, Arthur recovered first, and he lunged for the bedcurtains and yanked them shut.
"I don't believe you," he yelled at her. "Do you understand the idea of knocking?"
"You don't believe me?" Morgana said, on the other side of the curtains. "I don't believe you! You go on and on about my honor, and what you really mean is you want to be the one getting despoiled! Merlin! Is he making you?"
Merlin opened his mouth.
"We're under orders!" Arthur said.
"Oh, right, from Uther, I suppose," Morgana said contemptuously. She grabbed the curtains from the other side and jerked them open again.
"Morgana!" Arthur said, and pulled a pile of curtain into his lap. Merlin snatched a pillow.
"Oh please, like there's anything to be impressed by," Morgana said.
"Well, in that case," Arthur sat back on his heels, outraged, and shoved the curtains aside. And, well, Merlin had to admit it actually was pretty impressive, not just the, er, cock, but the whole—muscles and golden skin and Arthur being all flushed and a bit sweaty from the—well.
Morgana was blushing horribly, but she raised her chin and said, "I am not going to let you abuse Merlin like this—"
"I'm really not—" Merlin tried.
"I am not abusing Merlin!" Arthur said.
"I suppose you courted him, then?" Morgana said. "By throwing him into the dungeon for spending an evening in my bedchamber?"
"I'm sorry I made the wrong assumption at the time, I hadn't realized I was so much more appealing a bedpartner than you," Arthur said.
"As an alternative to the dungeons, maybe!" Morgana snapped.
Merlin lay down and covered his face with the pillow.
After ten minutes of furious argument—both Morgana and Arthur seemed to have forgotten he was naked after the first thirty seconds—Morgana swept out, announcing, "The only reason I'm not going straight to Uther about this is because Merlin swears he wants it to go on. And if you mistreat him, I will tell," she added, and slammed the door behind her.
"Can you believe that harpy!" Arthur said furiously. "As though I were—were forcing you." Then he paused, and said, "I—before, there, that—that wasn't—"
"What? No!" Merlin said. "No, that was brilliant. We could get back to that any time—"
But Arthur was getting out of the bed. Merlin sadly watched his extremely nice backside going across the room to the wardrobe. "We're not going to get caught in here," Arthur said.
Merlin looked at the door Morgana had just left by.
"She doesn't count!" Arthur said, and yanked his trousers on. "Now come on. We're going to find out where Tunaine's servants are. You can't have done it properly yesterday."
"Look, I'm telling you, they were poking around everywhere," Merlin said, reluctantly climbing out of the warm bed. "I don't understand how they can't have found us."
"Oh, we put a stop to that, sire," Gwen said, when they ran into her in the hallway, carrying a basket of linens to Morgana's room.
"Er," Arthur said. "You?"
"Well, not me, as in me personally, of course," Gwen said. "I mean all of us, the servants. We noticed they were snooping about, so we've divided up shifts now for each of them, and we've been sticking with them, making sure they don't go anywhere they aren't supposed to be. Mine tried to sneak out and watch the knights drilling yesterday, but I stopped him," she added, rather proudly. Then hesitated. "Yes, sire?"
"No," Arthur said, "no, I was just—coughing."
"Well, anyway, they've mostly given up by now," Gwen said. "They're staying in their quarters in the attic. But we have a couple of the scullery maids on watch in case they try and slip out."
"That's—very commendable," Arthur said. "Well done." Gwen beamed at him before going on down the hallway.
"Er," Merlin said, going after Arthur, who was heading downstairs. "Shouldn't you tell them to stop?"
"And what are Tunaine's people going to think when the servants start letting them run around the castle again?" Arthur said.
"Well, how are we supposed to get caught, then?" Merlin said, as they came out into the courtyard. "Unless you want to have a snog here in front of everyone."
Arthur glared at him. "We're going to find out what Tunaine's servants' quarters look out onto," he said, "and then we'll go there."
Merlin looked up at the windows of the servants' quarters. "You would mean those quarters looking out onto here, then."
Arthur looked up. Then he looked around. Two drovers were standing discussing the price of hay, half a dozen maids were crossing going to other work, one of the swordsmiths was pounding a bent blade straight, and three knights were practicing a new move.
He looked at Merlin. Merlin looked at the drovers' cart. It was full of hay and looked fairly soft. Arthur followed his gaze, puzzled.
"No!" Arthur said.
They retreated to Arthur's room to consider the options.
"We are not snogging in front of the whole castle," Arthur said. "My father didn't tell me to convince the entire kingdom. And it wouldn't be even remotely believable."
"I don't see how those can both be true," Merlin said, following him into the room, "but I suppose that's because I'm not a trained prince."
"Shut up," Arthur said. He threw himself into a chair angrily and immediately got an arrested look on his face and shifted his weight, wincing a little. Then he glared at Merlin. "Stop gaping at me like that, you look like a lackwit."
"Sorry," Merlin said, a little squeakily, and then cleared his throat. "There is someone the servants can't have penned up."
"Who?" Arthur muttered.
"Lord Tunaine," Merlin said.
Arthur stared at him in horror. "No! I am not getting caught by that—that—smirking jackal. I'd rather eat horse dung."
Merlin folded his arms. "Well, I'm out of ideas."
"Thank God for that, at least," Arthur said. "I'll work something out."
"I'll just be waiting here, then," Merlin said, and sat down across the table from him.
Tunaine was spending the day out hunting, which in his case seemed to involve walking around noisily in a velvet cloak and eating sweetmeats while ordering the Camelot gamesmen to shoot arrows at mostly imaginary deer and pheasants.
"This could end really badly," Merlin said, crouching as small as he possibly could behind their cover of brush.
"This was your idea," Arthur said.
"My idea didn't involve taking an arrow someplace sensitive!" Merlin said.
"We're going to need to separate him from the rest of the company," Arthur said. "At least he isn't going to hit anything he aims at."
He led them around to get ahead of the slow-moving party, and then whistled softly until the lead hound pricked up its ears and came to him, wagging its tail eagerly. Arthur petted the dog and through magic dog language or something convinced it to go running off into the underbrush yelping wildly, at which point the rest of the hounds took off after it and the gamesmen started shouting and running after them.
"Wait!" Lord Tunaine belatedly yelled, finding himself deserted, too late to halt the chase. He picked his way a few inches into the forest and thought better of it, turning away with a sour, irritated expression to start walking back to Camelot, trailing a cloud of bright green threads of velvet off his badly snagged cloak.
Arthur smirked and made some incomprehensible hand signals at Merlin, then rolled his eyes and grabbed him by the collar and tugged him back down the small deer track. "Come on," he said, jerking his tunic off over his head as they went. "We have to get ahead of him."
"I think we could have planned this better," Merlin said, as they burst panting into a clearing along the way and Arthur dragged him down to the ground.
"Be quiet and get your trousers off," Arthur said, and threw his swordbelt aside and dropped his crumpled pile of already-removed clothing. He shoved his own pants and boots off into a heap and rolled Merlin onto his back before Merlin had managed to get his own past the knee.
"I was wondering if," Merlin said, biting Arthur's ear several minutes later, "it wouldn't be as good," and slid his greased hand down again.
"Merlin," Arthur groaned, "you idiot, why wouldn't it be? There. There."
"He's not here, don't come yet," Merlin hissed, and slid his fingers down to cup Arthur instead.
"Bastard," Arthur said, meaning who exactly wasn't entirely clear, and then, as some crashing-through-the-forest noises finally became audible, proceeded to heave Merlin up and into his lap in a pointlessly showy maneuver that Merlin was going to complain at him about extensively as soon as he'd relearned the arts of breathing and speech. "Now."
"Nghn," Merlin said, and wrapped his hand back around them both. Arthur shuddered and then hissed, "Say my name!"
"What?" Merlin said, distracted by the spectacular feeling of Arthur's thighs trembling underneath him with their weight.
"So he knows it's me!" Arthur said.
"You're joking," Merlin said, stroking them together.
"Yes," Arthur said, "yes, and no, do it!"
Merlin gritted his teeth and then said loudly, "Oh, Arthur," while vengefully jerking harder, so Arthur's eyes went all glazed and his head started to droop helplessly. "Yes, Arthur, like that, Arthur," and Arthur was trying to fire him a deadly look but it wasn't working, and then his head tipped back and he was coming in Merlin's hand as Lord Tunaine came stumbling into the clearing.
"What do you mean by," Tunaine squeaked, and then, "Prince Arthur?"
There was some malicious combination of glee and leering in his voice. Merlin felt all of Arthur's muscles go hard and clenched with anger. "Lord Tunaine," Arthur gritted out. "If you don't mind."
"Oh, no, not at all," Tunaine said, sidling around the clearing. "I'll just—leave you to it," insinuatingly, and Merlin shifted himself to press closer to Arthur, hiding them as much as he could with his body until Tunaine disappeared down the path.
Arthur was breathing hard, his eyes fixed somewhere behind Merlin's back and color angry and red on his cheekbones. His hands were gripped hard and to the verge of painful on Merlin's hips. Merlin curled his hand around Arthur's neck and just rested it there, hating Tunaine so much; that he'd seen Arthur—who was so proud, always, and it made Merlin ill that Tunaine had seen him like this, that he'd been any part of this—
Merlin said, "I'm sorry—Arthur, I'm sorry," and didn't kiss him, but pulled Arthur's head against his shoulder. Arthur stayed stiff and mostly unyielding a moment, and then rested against him and shut his eyes, brush of eyelashes soft on Merlin's skin, and Arthur's hands eased open and spread wide on his back, holding him in.
After a little while, Arthur said, "You didn't—" half-offering, without raising his head.
"Not here," Merlin said. Arthur nodded, and then they got up and cleaned off a little and put their clothes back on, silently.
"I could turn him into a frog," Merlin said, accidentally out loud, as they were walking back. "If I were a sorcerer, I mean," he added hurriedly. "I'd like to, that is."
"If ever," Arthur said, low, "ever, there were an excuse for sorcery, it would be to turn that pustulent boil into the filthy pox-ridden swine he is."
Arthur took them into the castle through a back door, and Merlin gave a quick mental jerk and there was a bath waiting in the room when they came in. Arthur didn't even ask, just went directly for it, throwing his clothes into a heap in the far corner of the room. Merlin hesitated a moment, then took off his own clothes. Arthur didn't say anything, but he made room when Merlin climbed in with him.
Merlin dressed Arthur for dinner slowly and carefully as if he were putting him in armor for battle, Arthur holding tall and straight under his hands as he put on the layers of silk and wool, adjusted every fold and crease, rubbed the gold stitching a little brighter, and lined up the fastenings of the cloak. Arthur didn't move while Merlin stepped back and studied him, then came in again to take away a small stray thread, and smooth out the hem of the tunic.
Afterwards, Arthur looked at him: flicked a few strands of hair away from Merlin's face and untucked one edge of his collar where it had gotten stuck under his overtunic, then nodded and swept from the room trailing the swirl of his cloak.
Tunaine made one sly insinuating remark after another while Arthur's hand clenched to bloodlessness around his goblet, and his face grew harder and harder each time Tunaine flicked a sidelong leering glance at Merlin. Merlin stared at the banner on the other side of the hall as hard as he could and tried not to listen, which didn't work very well when Tunaine was saying things like, "I have to commend your hiring, by the way. It's so hard to get good... servicing these days. I've had real trouble."
"Have you," Arthur said, very very mildly, looking at his table knife, and Merlin hurriedly stepped forward and topped off his untouched cup a little more, letting his hand brush Arthur's arm, out of Tunaine's sight. Which helped for a moment: Arthur's hand stopped edging towards the knife and went for the cup. Then Tunaine ran his eyes up and down Merlin, and Arthur's face darkened all over again.
He was glittering with anger by the time they escaped, so visible the servants in the corridors all backed hastily to the walls and ducked their heads as he passed. He stalked into his bedchamber and stood there panting a moment while Merlin closed the door behind them; Arthur's fists were clenched by his sides.
Merlin looked at the furious line of his back, ramrod-straight, and didn't say anything, just started straightening up the room a little, brushing away dust from the furniture, lining up the small chests in the corner.
After a few moments, Arthur started shrugging his clothing off, in short angry movements. Merlin said quietly, "Let me," and went over and started to take it off him, folding each piece as he set it aside. Arthur went gradually quieter as Merlin worked, the rise and fall of his chest slowing. A slow flush crept up his neck from his collarbone as Merlin's fingers touched him, loosening the tunic, and Merlin couldn't help but trail his fingers against the back of Arthur's neck again, deliberately, as he raised it away.
Arthur swallowed, his throat working. Merlin knelt in front of him to undo his trouser lacings, and Arthur said abruptly, "Who else—have you—"
"There was Jenny Mason, in Ealdor," Merlin said absently, picking out the knots.
"What other men," Arthur said.
Merlin paused and looked up; Arthur had his gaze fixed across the room. "I—hadn't got around to it just yet."
Arthur swallowed again. "Oh."
Merlin eventually finished undressing him, and Arthur stepped back from him. Merlin groped for something else to do, to say, and blurted, "I'll get you a hot brick," and went to take one out of the fire.
Arthur went to stand by the window, staring out, in just his shift. His thighs were heavy with muscle, and the firelight picked out the golden hairs dusting his skin. Merlin slid the wrapped brick into the bed, and turned back the covers. Arthur lay down, and Merlin went to bank the fire for the night, and moved around the room to snuff the candles, one by one, until there was nothing but the thin slant of moonlight coming in.
"Wait," Arthur said, as he went to the door. Merlin turned to look at him. Arthur was staring up at the canopy of the bed. He didn't say anything else.
After a moment, Merlin lay the bar across the door. Arthur drew in one breath, sharp and urgent. Merlin went to him.
He stirred awake slowly. Arthur was propped over him, not quite watching him sleep; his look was far away and hollow. Merlin reached up and skated a knuckle along Arthur's jaw, roughened a little with stubble, and Arthur shut his eyes under the stroke. "My father will speak to Tunaine today," he said, rigidly still. "He'll be leaving tomorrow morning."
Merlin swallowed and let his hand drop.
Arthur didn't move a moment, and then he said, harshly, "Once. Once more, for us," and then he was cupping Merlin's head up to meet his mouth, dragging Merlin's leg up around his waist, moving in urgently, and Merlin dug his hands into Arthur's hair and met him. It was messy and suddenly awkward, both of them changing their mind about what they wanted most and trying to do three things at once, backing away to catch their breath and start it all over.
They were struggling all the time not to let it end, and when Arthur groaned and finally broke shuddering, he clenched his teeth and stayed pressed deep, flinching with every desperate jerk Merlin couldn't help. Until they could move together again, and Merlin gripped his shoulders and said desperately, "Harder, harder—I don't mind, Arthur," because if only it hurt he could hold off just a little longer, and then suddenly he couldn't anymore, and Arthur thrust once more, then again.
And then it was done, and Arthur slid to his back next to Merlin, shoulder to shoulder with him, his head fallen back into the pillows and his face tight almost as if he'd been in pain. Merlin caught his breath a little more. Then he slowly pushed onto his side, pressed his forehead to Arthur's bare sweat-slick shoulder and kissed him there again, and then got out of the bed.
"I'll get your bath drawn," he said, pulling his clothes on, and didn't look at Arthur again before he left, because he was full of a hundred arguments, a thousand of them, and Merlin couldn't do that to Arthur even though he was being an utterly wrong-headed idiot. Merlin knew that wouldn't matter; once Arthur had his teeth set in his duty, he'd hold on no matter how hard you beat at him, but that wouldn't keep it from hurting him.
They didn't really say a word to each other all the rest of the day past what was necessary, Arthur gone ridiculously formal and saying please and if you would as though Merlin had suddenly become a courtier or something, and Merlin keeping his eyes on the floor because he didn't trust himself.
Tunaine wasn't quite as horrible at dinner, mostly because his little eyes—Arthur was right, he really did look piggish—were now narrowed with speculation and what he probably thought was cunning. Merlin saw Uther glance at Arthur and give him a slight nod. It wasn't a lot better, but at least Tunaine stuck to small talk about crops and the weather instead of leering remarks.
Arthur hesitated in the corridor as they left, and said to Merlin abruptly, over his shoulder, "I won't require you tonight."
Merlin opened his mouth and then shut it again and said, "Yes, sire," and stood in the corridor with his hands curled tight as Arthur walked away from him, staying there until the last corner of his cloak vanished away up the staircase. He swallowed, and then jerked horribly as a hand came down on his shoulder.
"They call you Merlin, I think?" Tunaine said, all smirk and sour breath. "Come with me, servant."
Merlin wanted to hit him in the face, but if Tunaine had some kind of suspicion—he followed Tunaine upstairs, and then as they reached the landing of the guest hallway, Tunaine turned and said with a hiss, "Stay here," then went into the hallway and dismissed his own waiting guards to their chambers.
He came back and beckoned Merlin into his rooms, then sat down in his armchair before the fire. He took an apple from his bowl. "So tell me," Tunaine said, taking his belt-knife out to pare it, "how long has the Prince been... enjoying your favors?"
"Ages," Merlin said, coolly, already working out the details of how he was going to thoroughly disabuse Tunaine of the notion that he was anywhere in Arthur's league or that anyone who'd got in two lengths' distance of Arthur would have anything to do with him.
"Excellent," Tunaine said. "You know, Merlin, you seem like a clever fellow. Eye out for the main chance."
"Oh yeah, that's me," Merlin said, folding his arms. "Always."
Tunaine nodded thoughtfully. "I wonder if you know," he said, "that I am in the succession. King Uther believes a young lord is necessary as heir—a long reign is a stable reign—" obviously parroting whatever Uther had said to him. Merlin was wondering what sort of idiot he had to be to think that being third in line made him more appealing than Arthur, and then Tunaine leaned forward and said significantly, "So if for instance, someone should... clear the way for me. I would be extremely grateful."
Merlin stared at him.
Tunaine sat back in his chair with a satisfied expression, flipped open a small casket on the table and picked out a handful of gold coins and tossed them on the table, pushing them in Merlin's direction. "I think this has been a profitable discussion, Merlin, don't you?"
Merlin looked at the table: seventeen coins, what Tunaine thought Arthur's life was worth, and said, "Does anyone know we've spoken?"
"Not even my own guards," Tunaine said.
"Good," Merlin said.
Merlin jerked awake with his ears ringing. "Ow!" He looked up at Gaius protestingly. "What was that for!"
"I've just been sent for. It seems Lord Tunaine was ensorcelled last night," Gaius said. "You wouldn't know anything about this, would you?"
"What, me?" Merlin said, and then hastily yelped, "He wanted to murder Arthur!" as Gaius loomed.
"How exactly do you know that?" Gaius said.
"He tried to bribe me to do it," Merlin said.
Gaius drew a deep breath, and then let it out, gustily. "And you decided enchanting him was the best way to manage the situation?"
Merlin swallowed. "Uther—Uther told Arthur that Camelot can't afford to go to war with him right now."
"Well, get dressed and come along," Gaius said, after a silent moment. "The least you can do is assist me in dealing with your handiwork. And if Uther should even hint that this creates a difficulty for the realm—"
"He won't," Merlin said. Gaius left him to dress, and Merlin sat on the edge of his bed a moment and shut his eyes, took a deep breath and stood up to put on his clothes.
Uther was already in Tunaine's room, with several of Tunaine's knights. "Surely this cannot be anything but sorcery," Uther said.
"No, sire, I am afraid not," Gaius said, looking down at Tunaine.
"Father, you sent for me," Arthur said, coming in, and stopped and stared.
Tunaine made an unhappy oinking noise, and tried to butt Merlin's leg with his snout. The green velvet cloak was still tied around his neck, although it had gotten trodden on and stained.
"Can you do anything for him, Gaius?" Uther said.
"I am afraid I would not even know where to begin, your majesty," Gaius said. "I will do some research, but I cannot promise a quick solution, if one can be found at all."
Uther nodded, and said to the knights, "Sir Finthias, I think you must take charge of the earldom in Lord Tunaine's—indisposition. We will keep him here while Gaius seeks a cure."
"We will have to be careful to separate him from any other livestock, sire," Gaius said, from his crouched inspection. "I am afraid he, er, appears to be afflicted with the pox."
Arthur had been staring at Tunaine-the-pig. At that, he lifted his head and looked across the room at Merlin. Clammy hands gripped tight behind his back, Merlin swallowed and stared back at him, and then looked at the table with the seventeen coins still on it.
Arthur followed his look, and frowned. "Father," he said slowly, and indicated the money. "It looks as though he had been—trying to pay someone." He looked at Merlin.
Uther glanced over at the pile, and his eyes narrowed. "So it does. Who, and for what, is the question." He looked at Tunaine and then at his knights. "I trust," he said coldly, "that both of you can swear by your honor you had no knowledge of it, if your lord was deliberately consorting with a sorcerer?"
Tunaine's knights so swore, very enthusiastically, and Sir Finthias added, "Sire, he did—I would not wish to speak out of turn, but he did dismiss his guard last night, before going to his rest. Not his usual habit, my lord."
"I see," Uther said. "Well, Gaius, you will do your best to reverse this spell, and if he is restored, Lord Tunaine can surely answer these questions for us." He threw an unfriendly look down at Tunaine, who made a low anxious grunting noise and tried to squeeze under the bed. "In the meantime—have a pen made for him in the stables."
Uther swept out, and Tunaine's knights after him. Gaius pushed himself up from the floor, looked from Arthur to Merlin and back, and said, "I'll have to go see about getting him moved, I suppose," and left.
Arthur stood looking at Tunaine a moment longer. Then he walked to the table and stirred the coins with a finger. "Underpaying a sorcerer might be a hazardous proposition."
"I don't think he had enough to pay for what he wanted," Merlin said.
"He's a wealthy man," Arthur said, flipping open the casket on the table, with the heap of gold and several rings resting atop it.
"Maybe there wasn't enough in the world," Merlin said, his eyes fixed on Arthur's face as he studied the gold.
"Perhaps," Arthur said after a moment, tipping the casket shut. "I wonder what he asked for."
Merlin swallowed and said, "Had your father already let him know he was in the succession?"
Arthur paused and looked at him. "Yes."
Neither of them spoke, and then Arthur said, "I've got drill in an hour."
"I'll get your armor ready," Merlin said, and they walked out of the room together.
"It can hardly be a great surprise that a man who would consider one sort of treason would commit yet another," Uther told Arthur that night after dinner, drawing him to one side of the hall. "We must make every effort to track down the sorcerer Tunaine was attempting to hire, but I confess, there is a most poetic justice in the price he has paid."
"Yes, Father," Arthur said, his hands clasped behind his back.
"Finthias is a well-respected knight, and I expect this will teach him to be more cautious than his master, if he needed the lesson," Uther said. "I have let him know already that if he manages the earldom well, he may expect to have it his in law as well as in fact, after a year has gone by."
Arthur nodded. "With your permission, I would like to take a company of our knights and escort him back, then run a patrol along the borders of the earldom," he said. "It would be just as well to let Sussex know we are watching."
"An excellent thought," Uther said. "Oh," he added, turning back, "and while I think of it, take that servant of yours along."
Arthur paused and said, "—what?"
"We may as well preserve the fiction," Uther said.
"We may as—" Arthur said, his voice rising.
"Control yourself," Uther said, cutting him off. "I realize it may be a blow to a young man's pride, but it will continue to be useful. I have three lords pressing for your betrothal to their daughters, and for the moment, need of an excuse to hold them off: we benefit from their competition."
Arthur stared at him.
Uther waved an impatient hand. "He is already regularly in your company; only have him spend the night in your chamber or your tent occasionally, and the rumor will manage itself."
"And when you actually do want to arrange my betrothal?" Arthur said.
Uther rolled his eyes. "Then the rumor will be as easily dispelled by having you caught with a scullery maid." He walked away.
Arthur stood there with a betrayed expression on his face, then turned and caught sight of Merlin. His eyes narrowed, and he stalked over. "If I find out you had anything to do with this," he hissed, low.
"I didn't," Merlin said, struggling not to smirk.
"This is going to go on forever!" Arthur said. "If he can get a political advantage out of it, he'll probably still be dragging out the negotiations when I'm thirty."
"Yeah, that's, sounds really terrible," Merlin said blandly.
Arthur glared at Merlin. "Shut up."
Merlin grinned at him. "Are you ready to go upstairs, sire?" The court was still in full swing, courtiers and noblemen talking; the knights were gathered at the other end of the hall, drinking and laughing.
"I could—go turn down the bed," he added helpfully.
Arthur tried to keep glaring, but a slow flush was creeping over his cheekbones. He cleared his throat and straightened. "Yes, fine," he said. "I suppose you'd better."
= End =
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