Harlequin's Slash Fic

The Lusty Month of May

Title: The Lusty Month of May
Author: Harlequin
Beta: asifidletyou
Artist: the awesome sequanne

Universe: Merlin
Characters featured:
pairings: Merlin/Arthur, Jack/almost everyone, Hunith/Leon
friendships: Arthur+Gwen, Arthur+Hunith

Category, Word count: Story; 23,238 words
Rating: NC17

Summary: Jack (Giacomo Casanova, as played by David Tennant) is a colourful magical creature who arrives in Camelot at Beltane. Almost everyone falls under his sway – but Arthur remains immune to his charms, because he already feels true love for Merlin. Jack so distracts everyone else with pleasure that ordinary life grounds to a halt. At first this seems a bit tiresome though harmless – but as food supplies and goodwill dwindle, it starts to feel as if Camelot is dangerously under siege. Arthur finds that Gwen is also immune to Jack, though for different reasons; they team up to try to break Jack’s enchantment.

Notes:
♦ Written for LiveJournal’s paperlegends Merlin Big Bang Challenge 2010.
♦ Dedicated to my darling sequanne, who planted the seed – and what a wondrous seed it was! (I hope you like what it grew into, hon…) She wanted this week’s guest star to be David Tennant, perhaps in Casanova mode.
♦ This fic is set after the first season, and ignores / reworks / retells the second (much as I love it). Title and lyrics are borrowed from the musical Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
♦ The fic and art is currently hosted together on a separate website. Visit it to see the pretties!

Warnings:
♦ Here be anachronisms! But there is a story–related reason for them.
♦ Given the premise of a magical being arriving at Beltane and distracting everyone with pleasure, you’ll understand that there is plenty of gratuitous sex and orgies going on. However, we only witness most of it from a safe distance.
♦ The older characters (Hunith, Uther, Gaius) also participate in Beltane, though again we only witness this from afar.

The Lusty Month of May

one

Arthur sat before the fire in his rooms, contemplating the lick of flames. He was warm, perhaps a little too warm, but it felt good: a healthy warmth, as distinct from the alternating fever and ice that had patterned his recent illness clearer than had the sun and moon. Still, a fire in May was the kind of luxury accorded to a convalescent, and he was at last well enough to begin to be restless and on occasion resentful. ‘It’s the first day of May, isn’t it?’ he asked his companion. ‘It’s Beltane. Perhaps we can safely dispense with the fire.’

‘Of course, Arthur,’ Hunith smoothly responded from the other side of the fireplace. ‘Although I think Merlin should still make sure it’s set each day. The weather might turn again, and you’d risk a relapse if you caught a chill.’

Arthur smiled at her. ‘Oh, I think have little to fear now. But what about you? Do you feel you’re past the point of relapses? You seem so much better.’

‘I am, thank you.’ She looked up from her sewing, and smiled. ‘I’ve asked Merlin to escort me back to Ealdor soon, if you give him leave.’

‘Yes, of course.’ Arthur found himself adding, ‘Though I shall miss your company.’

‘Thank you, Arthur.’

‘I don’t suppose you shall miss all this mending you’ve been doing, though. Going home will seem quite the holiday.’

‘Oh, this?’ Hunith lifted what appeared to be a blue tunic. ‘The mending is all done now. This is new.’ She considered him, and then the tunic. ‘It’s the colour of your eyes, Arthur. I thought Merlin might admire you in it.’

Arthur promptly felt himself flush, and he turned to stare earnestly at the fire, leaning a little closer to it, wondering if the heat would excuse his sudden high colour. ‘Oh! I don’t expect he’ll even notice, except to complain about having one more thing to launder.’

‘Nonsense.’

Her brisk good–humoured response hung between them for a moment, while Arthur thought hard about how much Hunith knew or suspected, and how on earth he could have given himself away. But then, she was a mother, and Merlin’s mother at that, and while Arthur felt it probable that he sentimentalised the bond between mother and son, it was reasonable to assume Hunith possessed more insight into everything relating to Merlin than anyone else could. Which meant that perhaps he could ask her… ‘Hunith. Lately, I’ve noticed – Well, since my illness, I’ve thought that –’ He sighed, and decided to be blunt. ‘Has Merlin seemed to you to be –’

Unhappy, he’d been going to say. But then Merlin himself put in an appearance along with two armfuls of Arthur’s armour, which were dropped with great clattering on the table.

‘Merlin…’ Hunith softly admonished.

‘Sorry.’ Merlin shrugged off his coat and headed over towards them, Arthur’s gauntlets in hand. He folded down to sit on Hunith’s footstool with his usual haphazard grace – she made way for him just in time, shifting her toes to perch on the corner left available by Merlin’s narrow rear. ‘You can’t have been training the knights in sword–fighting this morning,’ Merlin complained to Arthur as he placed the right gauntlet in its customary place on his knees and began polishing it.

‘No?’ Arthur couldn’t even raise his gaze beyond Merlin’s hands, given his aborted conversation of moments before with Hunith. ‘Then what was I doing?’

‘Dunno. Mud–wrestling, maybe?’

He snorted at such nonsense, and was about to retort – but Hunith said, concerned, ‘Arthur, it’s too soon for such exertions. I hope you didn’t participate.’

‘He was rolling around with them down there in the mud,’ Merlin muttered, ‘judging by the state of his armour.’

‘I did little more than put in an appearance, Hunith,’ Arthur assured her, loftily ignoring his manservant. ‘We have three new candidates for knighthood, and I was keen to form my own judgement of their merits.’

‘He was missing the whole grappling–in–the–mud part of training,’ Merlin was grumbling in a continuous undercurrent, ‘and it looks to me like they all bested him. He’s probably been missing that, too, getting tumbled by every passing knight and squire – Ow!’

There were many satisfactions involved in cuffing Merlin upside the head, and one was the amusing peaks and troughs formed by his thick hair. ‘Don’t talk like that in the presence of a lady. Especially not your mother.’

‘Talk like what?!’ Merlin protested. ‘As if the Pendragon pride can’t cope with a bit of irony, and – Oh…’ He went bright red. ‘Oh, but I didn’t mean –’

The last thing Arthur wanted was Merlin’s description of all the things he hadn’t meant. ‘Get up,’ he ordered, favouring his left shoulder as he bent to pick up his own footstool, before placing it between his chair and Hunith’s, though a little further back from the fire. ‘I really can’t think how you’d explain inconveniencing your mother like that. Sit here, and be quiet.’

Merlin scowled at him in mingled disbelief and confusion, but settled where he was sent readily enough, and bent his head over the gauntlet again, hands busy polishing.

Arthur could just see him thinking, though; he could hear the wheels turning. ‘I’m sure you were taught manners in Ealdor,’ Arthur continued stiffly. ‘I’m embarrassed to realise that Camelot has been such a bad influence on you.’

‘Arthur…’ Hunith quietly said. Enough was enough.

‘I’m sorry, Hunith, but –’

‘Arthur,’ came a different voice again. The king.

Hunith was on her feet and curtseying low with a murmured, ‘Your majesty.’ Merlin just seemed to melt away, apparently finding something useful to do over beyond the wardrobe and chest of drawers.

‘Father,’ Arthur acknowledged. He was going to stand, too, but Uther lifted a hand to prevent him getting further than the edge of his chair. ‘Is all well, sire?’

‘Apparently so, Arthur, if you are recovered enough to be disciplining your unruliest of servants…’ The king was amused.

Arthur grimaced in what he hoped Uther would interpret as fellow feeling. ‘Unruly, perhaps. But never truly derelict in his duty to me, sire.’

‘Still, I am sure you’ve been glad of the extra care you’ve had lately.’ And Uther actually inclined his head in Hunith’s direction, with a painful kind of politeness that may have been born of nothing more than the fact the king couldn’t recall her name. ‘You seem recovered as well,’ he said to her directly. ‘I am pleased to see it.’

‘Thank you, sire.’ She curtsied again, with all the simple grace that Merlin lacked.

‘Please. Sit.’

‘Sire,’ she said, before obeying him, and tactfully lowering her head over her sewing.

Arthur was staggered that Uther still continued: ‘Your care of my son has been appreciated. Gaius has often praised your nursing and your hard work.’

‘You are too kind, sire.’ And then Hunith wouldn’t leave well enough alone, either: ‘I am sure you can have no complaints about how well Merlin looks after the prince.’

A moment’s silence stretched. Arthur hardly dared look, but he glimpsed a roll of Uther’s eyes. Despite which, the king said, ‘Merlin has been loyal – very loyal. There is nothing we value more highly.’

‘Thank you, sire,’ she responded. And the two of them were at last done.

A stiff conversation ensued between father and son in which Uther tried to express his concern for Arthur’s health and Arthur tried to robustly assure him that all was well. And then the king swept out again, leaving relief and confusion in his wake.

Arthur found himself jumping up and going to Merlin, reaching to smooth down the stubborn black hair, while grumbling, ‘Really, Merlin, your hair has a mind of its own, we should get you a decent haircut, I can’t imagine what your mother must think of us, you’re worse groomed now than when you arrived…’

All of which Merlin shrugged off with an irritable, ‘What are you doing? Leave it be.’

And when Arthur saw Hunith watching them from under her brow, he flushed again, and retreated in good order to his chair before the fire. Well, he reflected, at least Merlin himself remained oblivious.

Hunith came to his rescue – or perhaps Merlin’s, all things considered. ‘Merlin, did you collect the plants that Gaius asked for…?’

Apparently not, for Merlin let drop a choice expletive – sullenly apologised before Arthur had done more than open his mouth to chide him again – dropped the half–cleaned gauntlet with a clatter, neglected to properly excuse himself from the prince’s presence, and left – all within a moment.

‘And a welcome peace returns,’ Arthur observed with a curt sarcasm which fooled neither Hunith nor himself.

The two of them were silent while Arthur pondered what to say, wondered how much she knew. But at last he had to ask her. Because he had to know. And who else, with the possible exception of Gaius, could possibly answer him?

‘I don’t need to be told what’s wrong,’ Arthur eventually said in a ghastly stilted tone. He sounded nothing like himself. ‘In fact, I don’t want to know what’s happened. What I do want to know is whether he’s going to cheer up any time soon.’

Hunith rested her hands in the summer blue material on her lap, and considered the crown prince of Camelot.

‘He hasn’t smiled in such a long while.’

‘Merlin has been through a lot,’ Hunith mildly observed.

Arthur did not roll his eyes. ‘So have we all.’

‘I know,’ she said very simply.

He sighed, assuming he’d receive no clearer answer than that.

But eventually Hunith continued, ‘I know that you and Merlin care a great deal about each other.’

Arthur risked a glance at her, and realised at once that there was no honour to be had any more in dissembling. ‘I assure you,’ he said stiffly, sounding all too much like Uther, ‘that nothing improper has ever occurred between us. I trust that nothing ever will.’

Hunith remained calm and unruffled. ‘If there is love, Arthur, and a respect for each other’s dignity, then nothing between you can be improper.’

And Arthur was surprised. Gratified. Nevertheless… Nothing was ever going to happen. What Hunith didn’t seem to realise was that Merlin didn’t feel the same way, or at least not to the extent that he would choose to act upon it even if he were aware of it… The whole thing was hopeless. Foolish. Yes, a fool’s idle dream.

Arthur only wished… He only wished that Merlin might smile at him again, and look upon him without pain or confusion or distraction clouding those blue eyes. He only wished that Merlin might feel some measure of happiness again.

two

Merlin hadn’t minded so much about being sent out for Stiðe plants – until he’d realised Gaius was talking about nettles. Stinging nettles. Which were apparently of great use in staunching bleeding and alleviating pain – the latter of which seemed deeply ironic to Merlin right now, cos despite following all the precautions Gaius had airily passed on, Merlin’s hands and forearms were now covered in red itchy blotches. He was also to collect any feverfew he saw – and as always he was expected to go grubbing around any likely spot for mandragora roots, a pursuit which rarely turned up anything even when he was in a position to use a searching spell.

So Merlin was crouched in a forest glade with his fingers pushed into the earth and his magic sending out exploratory threads curling through the soil, when something strange passed by in a swift blur of enchantment. Merlin looked up, trying to see it clearly, but even slowing down time didn’t give him more than an impression of colour, speed, power. Attraction. He sought after it, closing his eyes for a moment to concentrate. Whatever it was was timeless, intriguing – perhaps a little dangerous in an alluring sort of way…

Next thing he knew, Merlin had opened his eyes to discover a long lanky lovely man standing over him, gorgeous in shabby colourful clothes, grinning down at him with an echoing sense of intrigue. ‘Look at you,’ the man said, plucking a scrap of purple from the air and holding it out towards Merlin, offering it to him. ‘Such a beautiful young warlock, with eyes deep as oceans…’

‘Oh, I’m not…’

‘Beautiful? I don’t believe you.’

Merlin chuckled, lowered his gaze bashfully, and he reached instinctively for the purple – perhaps it was a flower, yes, a violet – and only at the last moment did he think, Don’t take it, you idiot!

But it was already too late, and as Merlin twirled the violet in his fingers he could feel his heart surrendering and other parts of himself stirring into fullness, and even as he grasped for the most effective of counter spells – Arthur… Arthur! – Merlin found his gaze travelling back up the long lean body of this gorgeous creature, and by the time he reached that cheeky grin, his own was matching it and he had no resistance left at all.

‘What’s your name, then?’

‘Merlin,’ he replied, and he could feel a blush staining his cheeks. ‘What’s yours?’ he was bold enough to ask.

‘Oh, I’m known by many names…’

‘Me, too!’

‘I’m sure you are, my beauty.’

‘But I only know two so far. And you can call me… anything you want.’

‘Merlin… you can call me Jack.’

Jack…’ he murmured, thinking it the most delicious name he’d ever heard.

The creature nodded at Merlin’s other hand, which was still pushed into the forest floor. ‘What are you doing down there, Merlin?’

‘Trying to find mandragora roots.’

‘Any luck?’

‘Not with the mandragora…’ He tried an enticing lift of his eyebrows, as he’d seen the knights offer to the wenches they desired.

Jack laughed in delight. ‘May I help?’

‘Please…’

It became a game, then, rather than a chore, and a sensual one at that, as they each crawled around amidst fresh grasses and flowers, thrusting their hands into the ground, sending out tendrils of magic which found each other in the darkness and entwined in ways Merlin was beginning to long for – the two of them all the while chuckling like seasoned men, giggling like untried youths. And Jack’s eyes were as deep and fertile as the rich earth itself, and they glinted at Merlin like dappled sunlight and fresh spring leaves, and Jack himself was intoxication incarnate.

After a while they found themselves in a particularly beautiful glade, and they lay on their backs beside each other on a bed of years of fallen leaves, gazing up into the endless blue sky. ‘You seemed so sad,’ Jack murmured.

‘Oh, I… Not so long ago, I almost lost my mother. And my friend.’

‘But you did not?’

‘I sacrificed a powerful sorceress instead, and they were saved.’

‘Oooooh…!’ Jack seemed impressed. ‘You’re not one to cross, are you?’

Merlin grinned at him. ‘You can see me, can’t you? You can see the real me. That’s wonderful! No one else sees me, not even Gaius, and he knows more about me than anyone.’

Jack rolled up onto his side, propped his head on a hand so he could look at Merlin. ‘I do see you, yes… and you’re so very beautiful, my own sweet warlock.’

Merlin giggled. ‘Stop that…’ Then he babbled, ‘By which I mean, never stop. Tell me that every day for the rest of my life. Please.’

‘Tempting. Very tempting.’ But then Jack asked, ‘What else happened to make you so sad?’

‘Oh… Oh, everything had seemed so good and so right. Even when things were confusing, it seemed clear. Straightforward. You know? I mean, right and wrong. Who could be trusted and who couldn’t. But then… there were deals made. Or I thought there were. Bargains struck in ways I didn’t understand, and –’

‘The truth became twisted. Complicated.’

‘Exactly! There were things I thought I knew. Turns out I was wrong. Or I only knew the start, and not the whole of it.’

‘And now you need to… find your footing again.’

‘Yes.’ Merlin also turned onto his side, curving into his new friend. ‘I knew you’d understand, Jack.’

‘Of course I do,’ the man soothed. And he wistfully hummed a snatch of a happy tune under his breath.

‘You’d tell me the truth, if I asked you what you want from me.’

‘All I ask from you, my beauty… is that you love me.’

A happy giggle bubbled out of him. ‘I think I already do!’

‘My sweet young man…’ Jack murmured, and they smiled at each other for a lovely long while.

‘Where are you from?’ Merlin eventually asked, wanting to know everything about this wonderful creature.

‘Oh, everywhere… What about you? Where do you live?’

‘Camelot.’

‘Camelot! Am I in Albion? That’s a fine kingdom.’

‘A fine kingdom, with the finest prince.’

Jack was considering him, intrigued. ‘Take me there with you…?’

‘Take you home with me?’ Merlin grinned, unable to believe his own luck. ‘In a heartbeat.’

‘Oh, we don’t have to be quite that precipitous. Let’s walk, my dear…’

They wandered towards Camelot together, delightedly involved with each other whether conversing or silent, and Jack was so happy that his quiet humming grew and put out shoots which grew some more until at last he burst into a song about May, ‘It’s May, the lusty month of May, that lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray…’ Which was nothing if not inspirational, so after a while Merlin dared to hold Jack’s hand in his own, and it felt like all his fondest dreams coming true when Jack’s fingers curled around him, and they walked along with palm caressing palm.

three

Gaius happened to be crossing the courtyard that evening, heading back towards the tower containing his rooms, when Merlin finally put in an appearance. It did not help Gaius’s mood that Merlin seemed to have picked up an engrossing new companion along the way, a man in his late twenties, perhaps, though there was something about him that echoed Gaius’s long experience in the world and something else again that seemed as fresh and untried as Merlin had been when he’d first come to Camelot. The man was attired in travel–worn boots and slim britches of earthy brown, frayed layers of ivy green and violet purple tunics, with a long midnight blue coat surmounting the rest; a brooch of silver and enamel adorned his coat collar; and his rich brown hair was oddly coiffed with his fringe a frozen cascade leaping out over his forehead: he was a stranger certainly, a foreigner probably, and seemed to have been years on the road. He strolled across the courtyard at Merlin’s side with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, but every now and then his elbow would jostle Merlin’s as if by accident, and Merlin’s grin would brighten and then brighten some more… and if it weren’t such an unlikely thought, Gaius would conclude that Merlin had become besotted.

‘Merlin!’ Gaius exclaimed when the two younger men drew close. ‘Where have you been?’ Then, when it seemed they would walk past him without even noticing, Gaius cried, ‘Merlin!’

‘Oh… Gaius…’ Merlin blinked, and managed to drag his gaze away from the other man. ‘Um… Here you are!’ and he carelessly held the basket he carried out towards Gaius, already looking back at his new companion. ‘As requested…’

‘This is not as I requested!’ Gaius grumbled as he took it. Even a cursory glance over the contents of the basket was enough to convince him that most of the gathered plants had no medicinal value whatsoever, although apparently most of it sat upon a decently sized bed of nettles. ‘Merlin, if you’d only – Oh, Merlin, your hands!’ Gaius cried, dismayed to see the reddened blotches of nettle stings. ‘Didn’t I tell you to take care? What’s gotten into you? Well, come up to my rooms, and I’ll apply a salve to help them heal…’

‘I’m fine, Gaius,’ Merlin murmured, grinning again at his new friend. And it was true that he seemed oblivious to the discomfort.

‘Take me to see the king,’ the man asked.

‘All right,’ Merlin readily agreed, already heading off towards the flight of steps that led to the public rooms and royal apartments.

Gaius protested, ‘Merlin!’

Merlin ignored him – but the stranger paused, drew a hand out of a pocket, and dropped a small purple flower into the basket cradled in Gaius’s arms. ‘Viola riviniana,’ the man announced, his grin full of knowledge. And he winked as Gaius gaped at him, before turning to follow an impatient Merlin up the stairs and into the castle.

Gaius stared down at the flower lying there in the basket: whatever the man had called it, the bloom was just a common wood violet or dog violet. Pretty enough, but of no real use. Except perhaps as a distraction… What business did this man have with the king, and why on earth was Merlin simply leading him up there…?

A moment later Gaius was following as quickly as he might. The whole court was beginning to gather in all their finery, ready to celebrate the feast of Beltane. Gaius pushed his way past a few clusters of men and women, each dazedly staring down at a violet lying on their palms or held in their fingers. As he headed for the Great Hall, they all seemed to follow after him – until at last he burst in, out of breath, to see the stranger striding up the centre of the long room, tossing handfuls of violets to either side. The gathering nobility were catching them, some of them grasping more than one flower – and after a moment their attention fixed upon the man, and they seemed as besotted with him as Merlin had. Merlin, who was standing by the main doors, watching while this man he’d brought to Camelot seemed to gather favour to himself as inevitably as water flowed downhill.

‘Sire!’ Gaius cried out as the man approached Uther, sitting in his throne on the dais. But Gaius was old, and the room was so very long, and his breathless cry could not carry. The stranger was already kneeling before the king, offering a flower to him with bowed head, miming the profoundest respect. ‘Sire!’ Gaius cried again.

And Uther glanced up at him for the barest moment, before returning his thoughtful frown to the man before him – and reaching for the proffered violet.

‘Uther, no…’ Gaius whispered.

But it was already too late. The king took the flower, wrapped his gloved hand around it and held it against his chest – before standing and stepping down to the hall floor to reach his other hand to the man, to raise him to his feet. ‘Your name?’ Uther tersely asked.

‘Giacomo, your majesty.’

Sir Giacomo,’ Uther dubbed him. ‘Come, sit with me.’ And he offered the empty throne to his right. Arthur’s throne.

‘Oh, I couldn’t,’ Giacomo murmured with a grin as he stepped up onto the dais, leading the king. ‘Let me sit at your feet, sire, and I’ll be perfectly happy.’

‘Anything,’ said Uther, as Giacomo folded down onto the king’s footstool, and Uther himself perched on the edge of his throne as if needing to stay as close to Giacomo as possible. ‘Ask for anything, and if it will make you happy, I will grant it.’

‘Your kindness is legendary, sire, and now I see why…’

The court were gathering closer, their attention fixed upon the stranger, and their passions – always running high on this day – apparently in full flow. Some seemed so resigned to missing out on Giacomo himself, or perhaps simply so impatient, that they were already turning to the person nearest them and seeking kisses, caresses. Merlin just stood there by the doors alone, Gaius was relieved to see, though his gaze remained riveted on his new friend.

Gaius peered down into his basket, and looked hard at the little purple flower sitting atop the other plants. It really seemed like nothing more harmless or useful than the commonest violet. Gaius reached down, carefully shifting the stalk of another plant so as to examine the violet more closely without touching it. There seemed nothing strange about it. He couldn’t even sense the usually unmistakeable whiff of magic about it.

He glanced up for a moment to see Giacomo sitting there with Uther and the whole court of Camelot in his sway, Giacomo himself looking confident and pleased. The last of the evening’s sunlight poured in through the windows, glinting on Giacomo’s silver brooch, which Gaius now realised represented a violet with enamel of purple and green and gold. ‘Viola riviniana,’ the man intoned as he met Gaius’s puzzled gaze…

And, distracted, Gaius felt his fingertips brush against the delicate velvety petals… ‘Oh, no,’ he had time to murmur before the effects took hold. He was even aware of the transformation as it happened.

‘It’s May, oh it’s May…’

A moment later Gaius was doing nothing more than staring at the most beautiful creature in the whole damned world sitting down the far end of the hall, and Gaius felt truly alive for the first time in years… he wanted only to be closer to the wise wonderful Giacomo, he wanted only to touch, to converse, to exchange a smile, to share their learning, and everything would be perfect

‘…that darling month when everyone throws self–control away…’

Gaius happily reflected that this was going to be the best Beltane ever.

four

Arthur was unfit for a Beltane feast in so many ways just now, and had already decided that he’d just stay in his room for the evening.

‘Would you like me to keep you company, sire?’ Hunith asked as she broke off a sewing thread; she’d finished setting the first sleeve into the blue tunic she was making.

Yes, he thought. If he couldn’t have Merlin’s company… And it was true that he liked Hunith for her own sake. ‘No, of course not. I’m sure you’d enjoy attending the feast, wouldn’t you?’

‘I would, sire, yes.’ Hunith had a sweet smile. ‘I’ve only ever celebrated Beltane in Ealdor, and I’ve never yet seen the full court gathered.’

‘Then you must go.’ Arthur tried to match her smile. Tried to assure himself that he wasn’t interested in ruining Merlin’s chances of romance by sending his mother to keep an eye on him. ‘Look, Hunith. If Merlin finds…’

‘Arthur,’ she gently interrupted him, ‘Merlin is still so young in some ways. You don’t need to worry. When he is ready, I am sure your patience won’t go unrewarded.’

He could feel himself flush again – talking about such things at all, let alone with the mother of the object involved, the mother of the man involved – but he resolutely did not even blink let alone turn aside. ‘You mustn’t think that –’

She simply walked over to him, and pressed a kiss to the top of his head, let a hand slide comfort down his uninjured shoulder. ‘There’s no need to fret, Arthur.’

And she was a mother, so he thought that it must be so.

Arthur’s supper was at last brought up on a tray by a serving girl who was obviously already well into the Beltane spirit: she was all giggles and carelessness and provocative glances, and she had a purple flower pinned to her apron in just the right place to draw attention to her womanly charms. And Arthur wasn’t immune to such things, of course, but neither was he interested right now, so he dismissed her, sending her back to the celebrations, and he concentrated on his supper, such as it was.

There was no breakfast waiting for him when he woke, no hot water steaming in his bath. No Merlin. The castle seemed to slumber quietly around Arthur despite the fact that the morning was already well advanced. None of which was overly surprising for the second day of May, of course. What bothered Arthur, though, as he stood by the window contemplating the courtyard, was that he couldn’t even see any guards on duty. Camelot seemed to be making itself available for any passing stranger to lay claim to.

Arthur fetched fresh linens from the press and a clean tunic from the wardrobe, quickly washed himself with the water left in the ewer, dressed, and headed downstairs.

For now he didn’t get further than the next floor down, however, arrested by a sight that seemed excessive even for Beltane. The doors of the best suite of guest rooms were standing wide open, and a rather alarming number of naked bodies were strewn about generally and piled upon the bed, with a general air of post–orgiastic languor. Most seemed to be slumbering, but a few were very lazily kissing as enough would never quite be enough. Arthur didn’t really want to stare – in fact, he really didn’t – but it was all a bit too much to quite comprehend…

Just as he was about to turn and head off to… uh… Arthur frowned for a moment as he searched through his recent memories. Ah, yes. Just as he was about to go investigate the lamentable lack of guards, a head popped up from amidst the fleshy wreckage on the bed. A lean handsome head with a cheeky grin, bright eyes and brown hair rather fetchingly arranged either despite or because the man had spent the night with women and possibly even men running their fingers through it… ‘Hello! You must be Prince Arthur…’

‘Um… Yes. Good morning.’

‘It is indeed!’ the man responded, sounding very pleased with himself. As well he might.

He clambered out of the bed, thoroughly naked and unashamed. He was a bit shorter than Merlin, and his shoulders weren’t quite as impressive, but he had a similar sort of wiry strength, and his skin was almost as pale, though his colouring was otherwise all browns, while Merlin’s hair was black and his eyes were really the most alluring blue once one had made the mistake of looking into them properly, and Arthur had dared to imagine Merlin as being even better endowed than – than –

Arthur cleared his throat, and dragged his attention back to more seemly matters. The stranger had drawn a woman’s purple silk scarf out of the pile of people on the bed, and now fastened it around his nethers, slung low on his narrow hips, in a welcome gesture of politeness. As he walked towards where Arthur still stood in the corridor, the light from the windows silhouetted him for a moment, and Arthur thought he glimpsed a faded wreath of ivy charmingly askew on the man’s head – but then Arthur blinked, and his eyes must have cleared, for it was gone again.

The man was prowling around Arthur now, apparently intrigued. ‘Ooh, yes… I can see why Merlin spoke of you as being so very fine…’

‘Merlin?!’ What had Merlin to do with this sybarite? Arthur tried to recover, and put on a stern face. ‘Merlin, yes. My most – The most useless of manservants.’

This was greeted with a chuckle. ‘Merlin, yes… Like that, is it, my prince?’

Right. Well. Offence was always the safest form of defence. ‘Look. Who are you, and what are you doing here? Are you a guest of the court?’

The man reached up a hand and seemed to pluck something from the air, a torn scrap of the purple silk scarf, perhaps. He offered it to Arthur –

– and Arthur took it – a dark delicate flower, not a scrap of silk – and he looked down at it, uninterested. Unmoved.

Observing this carefully, the man chuckled in delight. ‘Oh yes, my prince, like that indeed!’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Interesting. Very interesting… You alone in all of Camelot…’

‘What, am I the only one sober? I’ve been recovering from an injury. I’m sorry I couldn’t attend the feast last night…’ Arthur contemplated the stranger again, inevitably feeling irritable and wary because really he didn’t have a clue what was going on. ‘Look. I don’t mean any offence, but did the king say you could stay here?’

‘Of course.’ The man bowed, though with a devil–may–care attitude. ‘Sir Giacomo at your service…’ He straightened up and offered Arthur a cheeky grin. ‘But you can call me Jack.’

‘Sir Giacomo. Thank you. I’m Arthur Pendragon.’

‘Oh, I know, my golden–haired prince…’ Giacomo was now busily hauling on britches, boots, and a loose dark green tunic which left his collarbones exposed, all the while singing under his breath, ‘It’s time to do a wretched thing or two…’ then winding the purple scarf jauntily round his throat, ‘and try to make each precious day one you’ll always rue!’ When he was done, Giacomo suggested, ‘Let’s go visit Merlin and Gaius.’

Arthur pushed the flower into his pocket, and shrugged. This wasn’t a plan with which he was going to argue.

Of course Merlin and Gaius were only just stirring, but they greeted their visitors with great enthusiasm. It was all, ‘Come in, come in!’ and ‘Oh please do take a seat!’ and ‘Would you like a drink? Let me get you something…’ – which was fine until Giacomo was in and settled with a tankard of well–watered ale in hand, and Arthur was standing stranded by the door watching him in increasing disbelief. What was it about this only mildly prepossessing man? Then Giacomo grinned at him with wide mouth and merry eyes, and Arthur thought, well, all right, maybe he could see something of why someone might find him attractive. Damn him!

‘Merlin,’ said Giacomo, without looking away from Arthur.

‘Yes, Jack?’ Merlin eagerly replied.

‘I think the prince could do with his breakfast.’

‘Oh! Arthur, there you are, yes – breakfast…’ Merlin ran his hands back through his hair as if genuinely flummoxed by the whole situation, but then he began dashing around catching up odd bits of fruit and bread and cheese from locations scattered throughout Gaius’s workshop, and by the time Arthur had slowly paced over to the table to sit beside Gaius and opposite Giacomo, Merlin joined them with a platter of mostly edible–looking food dressed with a sprig of rosemary. ‘Will that do?’ he asked anxiously.

‘Yes,’ said Arthur, warily picking the freshest of the apples. ‘I’m sure it’s fine.’

But of course Merlin was standing there awaiting Giacomo’s approval – which was conveyed with a wink that made Merlin wriggle in an alarmingly delicious way. Arthur realised his mistake in choosing his place at the table when Merlin slid in beside Giacomo, and they started jostling elbows and giggling.

Gaius did nothing more than benignly watch this atrociously improper flirtation, so Arthur asked rather pointedly, ‘Where’s Hunith?’ But there was no reply, except for a happy grin from Giacomo, so Arthur decided he probably didn’t want to know the answer.

Giacomo idly picked up the sprig of herb that Merlin had thrown onto the platter. Little white flowers peeked out from between the spiky leaves. ‘There’s rosemary,’ he intoned; ‘that’s for remembrance.

Merlin’s long pale fingers plucked it away, and tucked it behind Giacomo’s ear. ‘That’s so you’ll never forget us.’

‘Why should I forget you?’ Giacomo asked. ‘If I never leave, I’ll never even have the chance.’

‘You’ll stay here? Forever?’ Merlin was the one who spoke, but Gaius appeared just as eager.

‘I’ve been looking for a place to stay for so very long… I’ve been looking for a home.’

‘You’ve found one, then,’ Merlin asserted.

‘Yes, of course you must stay, if you can,’ Gaius chimed in.

But then Giacomo looked to Arthur with a query writ large, and the other two followed suit, their pleading faces almost comical.

‘Well,’ said Arthur stiffly, ‘we’ll see. I shall speak with my father about the matter as soon as I can.’ And they all relaxed and looked happy as if that was as good as a royal invitation, and the sort that could not be refused, when really Arthur had every intention of emphasising his qualms when he spoke to the king, and asking him some hard questions as well.

Giacomo took a swig of the ale. ‘One thing you might do for us, Arthur…’ Giacomo began oh–so–easily, ‘when you have an explorer or two to command… is send them off to warmer climes in search of coffee beans… Coffea arabica,’ he added with a nod to Gaius. ‘It makes for an essential element of breakfast, of that there’s no doubt.’

‘Coffee beans,’ echoed Merlin in wonder.

‘Warmer climes,’ said Gaius. They were hanging on this man’s every word. ‘You must have been a great traveller, Giacomo.’

‘I have been, yes, and I am. And yet one hungers for a place where one can finally be still, and revel in what is rather than what might be just over the next hill…’

‘Camelot,’ said Merlin. ‘Perfect for that kind of thing.’

‘I haven’t wanted to leave for decades,’ added Gaius – which Arthur knew was an untruth, for Gaius had often spoken yearningly of travelling to the continent and beyond, and Uther had always forbidden it.

‘We’ll see,’ said Arthur – and Giacomo nodded quietly at him, as if acknowledging that Arthur had reservations.

At which moment Hunith walked in, looking tall and happy and… well–contented. ‘Good morning, everyone,’ she said, with a secret and yet irrepressible smile.

‘Hello, beautiful,’ said Giacomo, totally meaning it, and grinning wider than ever.

‘Good morning, Hunith,’ said Gaius fondly, looking pleased. ‘And what a very happy morning it is.’

Arthur met Merlin’s wide–eyed gaze and they shared a smirk that was equal parts hysteria and horror. If one’s parent was going to celebrate Beltane, it wasn’t too much to expect them to be discreet about it, was it…? To just flat out lie if they had to? God, this was so weird, and yet it was also undeniably… stirring. The thought of Hunith, wonderful affectionate straight–talking Hunith, and – and –

‘Come and sit down,’ Giacomo was saying, getting up from his seat, ‘you beautiful creature.’

But Arthur could recognise a good exit strategy when he saw one. ‘No, have my seat,’ he offered, rising. ‘Merlin,’ he said firmly, walking towards the door, ‘come along. I need your assistance this morning. Well. This afternoon.’

‘Yes, sire,’ and Merlin was following him with alacrity.

They managed to reach the second turn of the stairwell before collapsing against each other with spluttering giggles. ‘Oh my,’ Arthur managed.

‘Oh my…’ Merlin weakly echoed.

But what could they say, when they both loved Hunith so much, and when they both held her honour so dear? ‘She’s a fine woman,’ Arthur eventually tried as they emerged into the courtyard. ‘I’m happy for her, if she’s happy.’

‘She certainly seemed happy!’ Merlin observed as if still finding it all a bit too funny and a bit too weird.

Merlin sobered up quickly enough when they ran into one of Camelot’s newest knights, Sir Leon, with his arms full of flowers. ‘Ah, Merlin. Have you seen your mother?’

‘Maybe,’ said Merlin, squinting up at the man who was barely even a few years older than himself or Arthur.

Leon drew himself up to a truly alarming height, and displayed his best noble expression. ‘Hunith is the finest, the best woman I’ve ever met. She is a true lady, and it will be my curse and my blessing that no one else will ever measure up to the standards she has set.’

‘Right…’ Merlin sounded sceptical – nevertheless he continued, ‘She’s up in Gaius’s rooms.’

‘Thank you!’ Leon called as he dashed off in the direction whence Merlin and Arthur had just come. ‘Thank you, Merlin!’

‘Beltane,’ Arthur muttered as he walked on towards the guardhouse. ‘Spring. The birds and the bees in full flow. What else can you expect?’ He sighed, and looked about him at the deserted open areas of the castle and its surrounds. It seemed that pretty much everyone was still abed, for one reason or another. ‘I guess it’s just a particularly captivating spring.’

‘It’s not only the season, though,’ said Merlin, with his eyes all aglow. ‘It’s Jack. He’s brought everyone to life.’

‘Yes…’ Arthur agreed. ‘He does seem very good at setting a bad example.’

And they spent the rest of the walk comfortably bickering about whether it was a good example or a bad one, and whether you could be a good bad example or not, though they seemed to agree that you could be a bad good one, and… and Arthur was as happy as he ever was these days.

five

Morgana had insisted on wearing purple for the rather belated midday meal, and it wasn’t difficult to work out why: she was the first lady of the court, and the king had a guest he wanted to impress; a guest who seemed inexplicably fond of violets. And flirting. Violets and flirting. He even wore a brooch fashioned in the likeness of the flower and leaves of a violet; Gwen had noticed that it seemed to always be pinned to his coat or his tunic, at his throat or over his heart.

Gwen insisted on attending her mistress during the meal, and watched her, confused and concerned, as Morgana tried to remain aloof and failed utterly. Morgana had always been a passionate woman with an eye for a likely man, but Gwen had never seen her captivated before. Indeed, Gwen had never seen her surrender a cool inviolable sense of self – not since she’d become more woman than girl at the age of twelve, and announced to Arthur that she was going to marry him – in reaction to which Arthur, a couple of years younger than her and still very much a boy, had expressed nothing but a creeping sense of horror.

Right now Morgana was merely toying with her meal – which was nothing more than cuts of meat, a loaf of bread and some fruit left over from the previous night’s feast, it was true, but it was still better than what most people in Camelot would find on their tables that day. Morgana was pricking the rounded flesh of a pear with the point of her knife, and asking Sir Giacomo if he had a wife back home. ‘Surely you must… a man like you…’

‘A man like me, my lady?’

‘So very irresistible as you are…’

Gwen managed not to roll her eyes. It was a wonder Uther allowed such familiarity from his ward, but he was watching with fond indulgence, apparently only pleased that this stranger was pleased.

‘Alas, my sweet lady, it is the sadness of my life: no home, and no wife.’

‘Have you never loved, then?’

‘Oh, I have loved indeed.’

A soft snort of disbelief betrayed Gwen’s response, but luckily no one seemed to notice but for Giacomo himself, who nodded tactfully in her direction.

‘I have loved many,’ he continued in quietly honest tones as if answering Gwen as well as Morgana, ‘that is so. But there was one above all, for whom my love was true. If she’d been mine, I’d have had no other.’

‘What happened?’

‘She loved me, too. She loved me. But not enough.’

‘How can that be, when everyone loves you?’

‘Not everyone,’ Giacomo said, with a softly amused glance at Gwen. ‘Anyway… no creature has power over true love. It is the strongest force there is. I could neither command it in others nor deny it in myself.’

Morgana was enthralled. ‘Did she give you that brooch?’

Giacomo looked down at the enamelled jewel, and brushed a careful fingertip over it. ‘No. No, this is mine alone.’

‘What happened to her?’

‘She married another,’ Giacomo concluded with a very continental shrug, though sitting back in his chair and slumping somewhat dejectedly.

‘Well, then…’ Morgana began, with an obvious sense of daring and hope. ‘You are also free to marry…’

At last Uther made his presence felt. ‘You’ll forgive my ward, Sir Giacomo. We meet with few such eligible bachelors in Camelot.’

‘I can’t think why,’ Giacomo protested, ‘when there is such delicious fruit ripe for plucking.’

Morgana grinned at this outrageousness with a glint of her clever knowing humour; Gwen felt relieved, even when Morgana commented, ‘You’ll have to let me marry one day, sire. Why not a nobleman from Venezia?’

Uther cast her a dry look, and pointedly turned to Giacomo. ‘Is it true that your city is built in a lagoon? That instead of streets, there are canals?’

‘It is true, my king.’

‘Then… do the buildings float upon the water?’

‘Oh, it is not quite that miraculous, sire. There are islands… soft silty islands, and men clever enough to know how to build upon them.’

‘Gaius told me of it; I never quite believed him. He wanted to visit it. He wanted to visit so many places in Greece and the Italian Republics.’

‘He would have loved it, I’m sure. So much learning to be had, so much history. So many interesting people to talk with, so much beauty, so much time… A time for every frivolous whim, proper or im…

Uther sat back, contemplative, almost as if he were capable of regretting that he’d kept Gaius closely bound to Camelot.

‘So much beauty…’ Giacomo was continuing, leaning towards Morgana now with his chin propped on his hand. ‘The lagoon is such a pretty colour, this astonishing grey–green. Almost as beautiful as your eyes, my lady.’

Morgana laughed at such flattery. But she was loving it, too… or maybe loving the man who delivered it with such nonchalant charming directness.

six

A meadow all long green grass and a scattered rainbow of flowers, and kind sunlight beaming down from an endless blue sky. Arthur ran through it effortlessly, eagerly, because he could hear snatches of song, and he knew somehow that it was Merlin, Merlin singing and smiling, Merlin waiting for him, and – He’d better damn well wait, Arthur thought, catching glimpses of the man, but seeming to draw no closer, and – Was that Sir Giacomo with Merlin, the stranger looking fine in his long dark blue coat – Damn the man! – and – Arthur sped up – Could he possibly be…?

Arthur woke abruptly – oddly shocked to find himself in his own room, in his own bed. And just to add to the strangeness, Merlin was there already, sitting in Arthur’s chair with his feet up on the table, twirling one of those accursed violets in his fingers and singing under his breath. ‘It’s here, it’s here, that shocking time of year…’

‘Merlin.’

‘…when tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.’

‘Merlin!’

‘Oh! Morning, Arthur.’

When his manservant did nothing more than roll his head against the back of the chair just far enough that he could greet Arthur with an airy smile, the prince got up. ‘Where’s my bath?’

‘Oh… there’s no hot water to be had. Sorry.’ Not that Merlin sounded very sorry.

Arthur glared at him. ‘Where’s your sense of initiative, then?’

Merlin just shrugged. ‘Doesn’t seem to be much of that around either.’

‘D’you know what I had for supper last night?’ Arthur demanded.

‘Yes!’ Merlin was grinning, like he was so very proud of himself for being able to answer this one at least. ‘Yes, I do. Apple cake. Spiced apple cake.’

One slice of stale apple cake – which I don’t even like when it’s fresh!’ Arthur was at the wardrobe by now, and opened it up to discover the very last straw. ‘No fresh tunics!’

‘Mmm,’ Merlin agreed. He seemed rather more interested in that stupid little flower, which he was brushing along his full lower lip as if fascinated by the soft delicate fleshy feel of it…

Arthur strode over there, and had to force himself not to slap the thing out of Merlin’s hands. ‘Where are my clean tunics?’

Another shrug – and then a delightfully cheeky smile accompanied by an even more delightful glow to those amazing cheekbones. ‘Um… Arthur… I think the laundry maids are all… otherwise engaged just now.’

Are they indeed?’ he asked heavily and rhetorically.

‘I could go and check,’ Merlin responded, suddenly sitting up with a great sly eagerness.

Arthur stared at him. Merlin’s innocence about these matters had never been going to last for much longer… but Arthur would have given almost anything for it to have been Arthur himself who’d awoken the man. Almost anything he had to give… No, he told himself sternly, be honest. I would have given anything.

And then he remembered what he’d recently witnessed in the best guest bedroom, and he imagined how he’d have felt if he’d spied Merlin in the midst of all those recumbent bodies…

‘I’ll go,’ Arthur tersely announced, hauling on his tunic from the day before. ‘You wait here.’

‘But, Arthur –’

‘Wait there,’ he ground out angrily as he stalked towards the doors.

And Merlin didn’t argue further, but settled down again and put his feet back on the table, lifted the violet to his face to absently trail its petals down his long sweet jaw. ‘Come back soon, then,’ he said with a wistfulness that almost had Arthur turning around and trying to make amends, trying to provoke a smile, trying to claim a kiss –

Arthur groaned a little as he strode down the corridor. He’d chalk it all up to spring, except that he’d been feeling like this all damned winter long.

Once Arthur reached the laundry, though, instead of an orgy of laundry maids all he found was the large room quiet with the morning sun pouring in from the high windows, and Guinevere hand–washing what appeared to be – Arthur assumed, without wanting to inspect them too closely – Morgana’s linens. She was frowning pensively, which Arthur found almost a relief. ‘Good morning, Guinevere,’ he tried.

She started, and offered him a little bob of a curtsey while her hands remained busy. ‘Good morning, sire.’

‘Are you the only one about? What’s happened to the laundry staff?’

A look cast from under discreetly lowered brows. ‘There seems to be…’ She paused for a moment, apparently having second thoughts; she probably didn’t want to get anyone in trouble for neglecting their duties. ‘The Beltane holiday seems to be lasting a little longer than usual, sire.’

‘Yes, you could say that. Or a particularly captivating spring, was my theory.’

‘Captivating,’ she echoed, looking at him more directly while wringing out something small that was all white silk and fine lace.

Arthur averted his gaze. ‘Do you find it so? Spring, I mean. Captivating.’

‘Not especially, sire.’

‘Well, I suspect that makes two of us. In all of Camelot. What’s wrong with us, do you think?’

‘Wrong with us? No, it’s…’ She put the white slip of a thing on a pile of other clean damp unmentionables, and turned to face Arthur, drying her hands on her apron. ‘There is something wrong, Arthur, but not with us. There’s something going on that shouldn’t be.’

It took all of Arthur’s massive self–control not to blush or smirk, and then he tried to address her gently rather than stiffly: ‘Well, Guinevere, I realise that things occur during Beltane that can seem a bit –’

She rolled her eyes at him. ‘I’m not naive, Arthur. Have you visited the town at all? I fear you’ll find enough there to trouble you.’

‘Due to this extended holiday…?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sire.’

‘It has been difficult to keep the guard roster ticking over, it’s true, and I understand that Sir Dinadan has temporarily suspended training for the knights. Which does not please me, but everyone seems to be in love, or rather the worse for wine, or pursuing wenches… or indeed being pursued.’

She grimaced, and reached for a scrap of lilac cloth embroidered with pale blue; plunged it into the soapy water. ‘I suspect you won’t find the results to be quite so charming as all that, sire.’

Arthur took a moment, and began grimly imagining the possibilities. ‘Thank you, Guinevere,’ he at last said with a simple formality. ‘I appreciate your advice.’

A startled look flashed at him from bright eyes as he turned away. There had been times when Guinevere had surprised him; he valued those moments. What Arthur valued even more were the moments in which he managed to surprise her.

He headed down into the town, and was unimpressed with what he found. No one appeared to be doing anything useful at all: they were drinking or lazing about, making out or simply lying around together in the sunshine in various states of undress. Every now and then Arthur passed an open door and heard panting or moaning sounds, often from more than one or two voices.

Arthur headed for the baker’s, hoping that he might find some fresh bread available, but the front room was deserted and the shelves were bare of anything but crumbs. Arthur sighed, and walked through to the back rooms, wondering if the stalwart baker and his lovely wife might be able to explain what was going on. He found… He found Giacomo there, naked and wedged between either half of this couple whom Arthur had previously considered to be one of the few examples he knew of a truly happy marriage. He stared for a moment, struggling to take in this sight that made his own wistful fancies seem so… bland. The baker with his rear perched on a bench, leaning back against the table, thrusting up into Giacomo’s rear, while the baker’s wife straddled the man’s hips, kneeling on the bench and lifting herself then plunging down onto him with a delighted little cry, and even Arthur could appreciate the way her beautiful ample bosom bounced with each move. And Giacomo’s warm brown eyes gazing at Arthur from the midst of this, glazed with pleasure, his smile crooked – his hand reaching towards Arthur, inviting him in, wanting him to participate…

Arthur turned away and started heading back towards the castle, unwillingly uncomfortably stirred. And then he was alarmed to see a couple of otherwise respectable townsfolk scavenging for food in a heap of refuse. It seemed that no one was eating much, but when they did they had to make do with whatever was available. They stared at him in dull confusion when he cried out in dismay, and asked, ‘Have you no pride?’ They only turned away again and continued their search. ‘Is there really no wholesome food to be had…?’ Apparently not. Arthur thought darkly of the warning or threat that the Romans used to quell opposition in those they ruled: You’re only three meals away from returning to barbarism.

He walked up beside the castle, determined to circle the four walls – and was confused and alarmed to find, once he’d turned the next corner, that ivy was growing up one of the towers. It was already halfway up the height of it, and he was sure it hadn’t even been there a week ago. It really should be cleared away for the sake of immediate security – there were reasons why the outer walls were so smooth – let alone for the sake of the long–term preservation of the castle itself.

Arthur completed his circumnavigation and then went to find the king. He soon discovered Uther alone in the council chambers, sitting on his throne bareheaded and dressed in little more than tunic, britches and boots – which was unlike him. He wasn’t even wearing gloves let alone his usual formal layers of tunic, chainmail and cape. Added to which he was contemplating a bunch of flowers, which he held cradled in both hands. The flowers were a profusion of red and gold, and wrapped in matching ribbons; the Pendragon colours.

‘I don’t suppose I want to know who they’re for,’ Arthur observed rather warily.

‘They were for me,’ Uther happily responded, sparing his son little more than a glance.

‘I was right: I didn’t want to know.’

‘They were from Sir Giacomo,’ Uther announced. ‘He really is the finest sort of gentleman…’

Arthur let out a strangled kind of protest, remembering again all–too–vividly just what that fine gentleman had been up to not so long ago. Perhaps was still up to… Arthur cleared his throat. ‘Sire… I am concerned about – well, about a great many things. The guard roster, the knights’ training, the state of the castle, food supplies generally, the laundering of –’

Uther waved a hand that managed to be both dismissive and encouraging at the same time. ‘Arthur, no king in Albion has such a fine crown prince. I am sure you can address your concerns quite capably.’

‘Oh!’ Arthur took a moment to savour such a rare and precious compliment. ‘Thank you, sire. But I suspect at present that the kingdom needs its king.’

‘I am content to leave it in your hands for now.’

‘But I am…’ Arthur grimaced, but forced himself to be honest. Camelot required it. ‘I’m afraid that I’m still recovering from my injury and the resulting illness, sire. I have to admit that… well, I am quite exhausted, despite having done little more today than walked into town and then around the castle walls.’

‘Leave me now, Arthur,’ the king commanded. ‘Do what you can or what you will. I have… other rather pressing concerns at the moment.’

Which really left Arthur with little choice. ‘Yes, sire,’ he murmured before retreating.

He slowly headed back up to his room, and collapsed into his chair, relieved to find that Hunith was there in her by–now–familiar place, calmly mending a tunic. A pale green tunic that Arthur didn’t recognise. He gestured towards it. ‘One of Leon’s, I suppose,’ he offered, wanting to feel worldly wise in some small way.

‘No, sire,’ Hunith said, casting him a small secret smile. ‘One of Jack’s.’

Arthur groaned.

seven

Gwen wasn’t overly surprised when Arthur turned up in the laundry again the next morning, at the same sort of time, with an armful of rumpled tunics. ‘Good morning, Guinevere.’

‘Good morning, sire.’

He cut directly to the chase, of course. ‘I’d very much appreciate it if you would wash these for me.’

She dared to cast him a droll look. ‘I’d appreciate it even more, sire, if you didn’t ask. You must know I’m not allowed to refuse a direct request.’

‘Oh.’

‘I’m sorry, but I have so much to do to ensure that the Lady Morgana is adequately cared for. Under the present circumstances.’

‘Of course. I understand.’ It was obvious that Arthur wasn’t used to being resisted – or not by anyone but Merlin, perhaps – but he took it with a good enough grace.

‘I could explain how to wash them yourself, sire, if you’d be so good as to indulge me.’

He drew in a breath, considered the tubs, soap and gear that surrounded them, and apparently decided to treat this as a challenge. ‘Well. How difficult can it be?’

‘Thank you, sire. I already have more water on to heat; you can use that.’ She got him started, and they worked side by side, with Arthur watching her actions and adapting his own to suit. He was a fast learner, and as she might have guessed obviously took pride in his physical skills.

Gwen had finished her wash and was arranging Morgana’s more private garments on the rack near the fireplace, when two giggling laundry maids burst in. Their arms were around each other’s waist, and they were spinning around with their long skirts forming bell–shapes, twirling each other about, and kissing in between panting laughing breaths. They looked delightfully happy, and Arthur seemed intrigued – but when he noticed Gwen blushing, he looked about, picked up a pair of laundry tongs, and brandished them at the girls as if he held a sword. ‘Get ye gone!’ he cried heroically, threatening them with a mock stab. ‘Hie thee to a room!’ This provoked more giggles, but the girls fled hand–in–hand, and once Arthur himself was done chuckling then peace returned to the laundry.

Until he cried out in great exasperation, ‘Oh, not you, too!’

Gwen turned, startled – and he answered her querying look with a hand flung towards the violet she was contemplating. ‘Sir Giacomo gave it to me, sire.’

‘Well, I gathered that. He’s given every person in Camelot one, man and woman, as far as I can gather. No offence, Guinevere, but I’m getting rather tired of tripping over people mooning around over those darned flowers.’

‘Yes, sire. I understand.’

‘I thought – I thought you were free of his influence.’

‘I am, sire. I do not like him. He can be interesting enough when he is honest, but I don’t find him appealing.’

Arthur was watching her sceptically. ‘Why not? Why should you be immune to his charms?’

‘He does not have a good heart, sire.’

And Arthur immediately grinned, as if vastly amused. ‘Ah. Though who in this world does?’

He’d asked it teasingly, but as was her wont she answered him seriously – blurting out despite herself, ‘You do, sire.’

‘Oh!’

She quickly continued, hoping to cover herself, ‘And Merlin.’

‘Merlin!’ he cried, surprised.

‘Lancelot,’ she added. ‘Lancelot had a good heart, sire.’

Arthur merely glowered at this, looking troubled.

Gwen was getting more and more nervous, but couldn’t seem to stop herself babbling. ‘Gaius!’ she blurted, finally reaching the end of a regrettably short list. She would have mentioned her father, too, of course, but then poor Arthur would have felt too confused and compromised to continue conversing.

Even so, Arthur was staring at her in astonishment.

‘I know that Gaius has things on his conscience that trouble him,’ Gwen said. ‘But he is loyal and clever, he will do anything he can to help people, and he can feel the purest kind of love. He has,’ she concluded stoutly, ‘an excellent heart.’

Arthur stared a moment longer. And then suddenly burst into laughter. ‘Is Gaius aware that he’s made such a delightful conquest?’

To which Gwen blushed again.

So Arthur batted away the topic with another chuckle and a dismissive wave of his hand, and they continued working.

Eventually Gwen said, ‘I think that this unseasonable Beltane has something to do with Sir Giacomo.’

‘Surely not,’ Arthur argued, although there was something about his tone that indicated he was willing to discuss the matter rather than not listen at all.

‘He arrived that very day, and he does seem to encourage… a life devoted to nothing but pleasure.’ Gwen dared to glance at Arthur, and saw that he was flushed, though it may have been due to the fact he was elbows–deep in hot water. ‘He flirts with everyone!’

‘Yes, but even if one man could hold the entire royal household in thrall, how could he also sway the rest of the castle inhabitants and the whole town below?’

‘It’s something to do with the violets. They cast a kind of enchantment over anyone who takes them. Well, almost anyone.’

Arthur frowned. ‘But they’re only flowers, and quite common ones at that.’

Gwen held out her violet towards him, so he could see it without quitting work on his tunics. ‘Sir Giacomo gave me this three days ago, sire. Look at it. It’s as fresh now as it was when he handed it to me.’

Arthur straightened up, dried his hands, and searched about in his pockets. Eventually he produced a violet – and it was the same, fresh and uncrushed. ‘He gave me this at Beltane, and it’s been stuffed in my britches pocket ever since.’

‘I don’t know if you’ll have noticed, sire, but the one thing that is being taken care of are the flowers around the castle. The vases are always full, and the water is always sweet. It’s as if it’s some kind of magic.’

‘Not a very dangerous kind, then.’

‘Whether or not it’s magic, Arthur, it’s dangerous if people are so enthralled that the flowers are the only thing they care about.’

Three meals from barbarism,’ the prince muttered.

‘Exactly, sire.’ She took a breath, proud to have made her point. Proud that Arthur had listened to her. ‘I think we need to start finding out more about Sir Giacomo.’

eight

That evening Arthur went down the kitchens and asked one of the cooks – in fact, the only person there – to prepare a proper meal for the king and his ward. ‘In fact, make enough for at least seven,’ Arthur added. When the cook continued to seem more interested in the contents of a bottle of wine, Arthur reissued his request as an order, lamentably delivered at sword–point.

The cook lay there propped in the furthest corner of the kitchen, staring at him blearily – until after a moment he sparked up.

Arthur turned and was unsurprised to see Giacomo wandering in, hands in his pockets and long blue coat trailing. ‘What do you want?’ the prince curtly demanded.

‘Oh, don’t mind me,’ Giacomo replied oh–so–casually. He nodded at the cook. ‘Hadn’t you better do what the prince asks…?’

And the cook jumped up and set about his task with alacrity, while Giacomo propped his rear against a worktable with his feet crossed at the ankles. Arthur sat on the table across from him, with his feet on a stool and his sword at hand. The two of them considered each other while the cook busily chopped vegetables.

Arthur took the man in, from his spiky brown hair, down his shabby old colourful garments that must have once been magnificent, to his worn old boots that looked like they had become a part of him. Gwen had suggested they needed to know more about this man, and Arthur did indeed have a pressing question to ask: ‘How d’you get your hair to do that?’

Giacomo laughed. ‘Product. Well… you’d call it a potion, I suppose. I could give Gaius a few tips, if you like.’

‘Oh, it’s not for me.’

‘Of course not,’ Giacomo responded agreeably.

‘Are you really from Venezia?’

‘Yes. It’s my home. Though I can’t go back. Ever.’

‘Why not?’

Giacomo shrugged his most continental shrug. ‘A misunderstanding.’ He sighed. ‘To be exiled forever is the saddest thing, my prince.’

‘For your lifetime, you mean. Though I suppose that must feel like forever, under the circumstances.’

‘No, I’m not exaggerating, my piquant prince – for I am eternal.’

Arthur frowned at him. ‘Eternal? You don’t look old.’

‘But I am. I am very very old, and I’m always twenty–seven. I exist in all times and all places – hence the anachronisms.’

‘The what?’

‘Never mind.’

‘And your name. Is that your real name?’

‘Real enough. Giacomo Casanova. But I have many other names as well.’

‘Such as…?’

Giacomo grinned. ‘Ask Gaius. He’ll be able to tell you.’

‘Right,’ said Arthur shortly.

Then there were light footsteps, and Guinevere’s look of delight as she caught the scent of an actual meal being prepared. Arthur smiled to see her. She asked him, ‘Is this your doing? It must be!’

‘I merely provided a little motivation.’

Giacomo snorted a laugh, and stood up. Bowed elaborately to Arthur: ‘I’ll see you later, my brave and noble future king.’

‘Not if I see you first,’ Arthur darkly responded, wanting to name him rascal and knave.

To which Giacomo simply laughed again. He bowed just as flamboyantly to Guinevere, and kissed her hand. ‘My beautiful and wise future queen…’

‘Oh!’ Guinevere retrieved her hand. ‘Flattery has to at least be credible if it’s to be believed, you know. And it has to be believed to have any kind of effect.’

Which only provoked more laughter as Giacomo swept out of the kitchen. As the man walked through the last beams of the setting sun pouring in from the hallway, Arthur again thought he glimpsed a faded wreath rakishly crowning Giacomo’s head. But then it was gone, and Arthur put it down to dust motes in the sunbeams, and maybe something to do with product.

‘I’m glad you’re here, Guinevere,’ Arthur said, getting up to organise trays, crockery and cutlery. The cook was finishing off the grilled chops and vegetables, while Guinevere poured pitchers of wine and water. ‘Can you take this up for my father, Morgana and yourself?’

‘Of course, sire. Thank you.’

‘Don’t forget to have some yourself, will you? If ever there was a time you earned your supper, it’s been these past few days.’

‘And this tray, sire?’

‘I’ll take it up. I thought… Hunith, Gaius and – and Merlin.’

Guinevere smiled at him with sweet approval. ‘And don’t forget to have some yourself, Arthur.’

‘I will,’ he promised. ‘I mean, I won’t. Forget, that is.’ He cleared his throat as they parted ways at the door. ‘Goodnight, Guinevere.’

‘Goodnight, Arthur.’

As it happened, Merlin wasn’t in Gaius’s rooms, so Arthur left a goodly portion of the food there for Hunith and Gaius, and took the rest to his own rooms, thinking that Merlin might be making some kind of desultory attempt at performing his duties.

What he found when he finally reached his room was Giacomo sitting in what Arthur now thought of as Hunith’s chair – with Merlin sitting perched upon his lap. Which looked ridiculous, of course – long gangly Merlin sitting coquettishly on a smaller man’s lap was never going to look very appealing. Yet Arthur’s heart cracked apart with envy. Especially when he heard what Merlin was asking for.

‘You should let me kiss you, Jack. We’re friends, aren’t we…? If I’m no good at it, you can teach me… But I’ll try to be good for you. I want to please you, Jack.’

Giacomo was grinning up at him with a wicked kind of delight, his hands resting on Merlin’s waist and thigh. ‘How utterly tempting you are, my dear.’

‘Good! That’s good,’ Merlin babbled. ‘Cos didn’t you say the other day you can resist anything but that?’

‘It’s true, I’m afraid.’

Arthur had put the supper tray down on the table, and now sank to his chair. The rascal and the wannabe seemed too caught up in each other to even be aware of him.

‘I know you must have kissed loads of people before me,’ Merlin was saying. ‘Like maybe even… a hundred.’

Giacomo chuckled quietly, and echoed, ‘Maybe.’

‘But I’m a quick learner, I promise.’

‘I’m sure you are, my sweet wild thing. But what if I kissed you, and then I kissed someone else… Wouldn’t you be jealous?’

‘No…’ said Merlin apparently with a complete lack of guile. Then he tilted his head and pouted a little. ‘Maybe…’

‘Well, then. I’m not brave enough to make an enemy out of you, Merlin my dear.’

‘I would never be your enemy!’ Merlin protested –

– even as Arthur exclaimed, ‘Merlin? His capacity for sulking can be a tad tiresome, it’s true, but I’m sure you’re man enough to handle it.’

‘Man enough…’ Merlin echoed, trailing a provocative fingertip down Giacomo’s breastbone.

‘Oh, my brave prince – you really should be grateful you have this one at your side rather than facing you. He’s going to be quite something.’ An appreciative innuendo–laden chuckle. ‘He already is quite something…’

‘Man enough…’

Arthur was really far too tired to handle this. Tired and dispirited. ‘Would you two kindly take this elsewhere?’

‘Oh, no… no,’ said Giacomo. ‘That would be missing the whole point.’

‘You’ve had your fun at my expense. What other point could there be?’

‘Merlin.’

‘Yes, Jack?’

‘Why don’t you go sit on Arthur’s lap instead? I’m sure he’d let you kiss him.’

‘Oh!’ Merlin glanced at Arthur, and then suddenly turned bashful. Nevertheless, he promptly did as Giacomo suggested, and with a giggle headed over to settle his scrawny butt on Arthur’s knees.

Arthur stiffly announced to Giacomo, ‘You know, I can do well enough for myself without accepting your rejects.’

‘Tosh,’ the man retorted. ‘You love him, and in time he’ll love you. He won’t remember me. I’ll be nothing more than a springtime flirtation. He’ll remember what’s real. He’ll remember you, my prince.’

And there was indeed something real about Merlin’s happy gaze, something direct in those oceanic blue eyes that spoke only to Arthur. ‘Will you let me kiss you?’ Merlin asked in a hushed whisper. ‘Arthur. Will you let me…?’

‘Yes,’ Arthur roughly replied –

And Merlin leaned in closer and closer, murmuring ‘Arthur’ again, and Arthur wrapped him up in both arms, wrapped up that long slim frame curled impossibly on his lap, gathered him up and kissed him wholeheartedly, not caring any more that he was being selfish and greedy, because Merlin whimpered into his mouth, murmuring ‘that’s good, that’s so very good, Arthur’, and nothing else could possibly matter, except for Merlin asking ‘am I good, too?’ and Arthur replying ‘yes, oh god yes – those lips of yours, Merlin…’ and Merlin chuckling ‘what, these ones here?’ – ‘they look as pretty as they taste… I mean…’‘I know what you mean, Arthur… more, kiss me more…’

And at some stage Giacomo must have tactfully withdrawn, but that didn’t matter, nothing mattered but for Arthur and Merlin and the kisses they shared for hours and hours of the quiet night.

The next morning, having made sure that the king was still safely abed, Arthur received a delegation in the council chambers. About twenty concerned subjects approached him, all looking rather in need of a bath and the laundry, and maybe some decent food. However, it bode well that they had organised themselves to do something other than laze around or make out, and Arthur hoped this would prove to be the beginning of the end of this excessively long Beltane. ‘How can I help you?’ he asked.

The leading man stepped forward, cap in hand, and announced, ‘We’re starting to run out of wine, sire.’

‘Thank the gods for that,’ Arthur muttered.

‘Beg your pardon, sire?’

‘Never mind. What is it you wanted to ask?’

‘We thought… if you could send to a nearby kingdom for more. Caerleon sure does produce a nice drop, sire, and they always have plenty available for trade.’

‘Trade, yes,’ Arthur responded heavily. ‘And even if I did think this was a good idea, what would you suggest we trade, given that no one in Camelot seems to be doing any kind of work whatsoever at the moment?’

‘Ah.’ The man was nervously turning his cap in his hands. ‘We rather hoped… there would be enough funds in the treasury, sire.’

Did you,’ Arthur responded flatly. ‘Perhaps there isn’t quite as much as you suppose. In any case, it is being saved towards a rainy day – which I suspect is fast on its way.’

‘Sire –’

‘No. Your petition is denied. If you want more wine, you must work for it: either you must make it or you must earn it.’

The whole party seemed to sag. ‘But, sire…’ the leader protested weakly.

‘I’ve heard enough. Go about your business, and consider your priorities. Carefully.’

They all trailed out, apparently too dispirited to even do him a courtesy.

‘Right,’ said Arthur to himself. It was time he started doing something about all this. He stood, and headed up to Morgana’s rooms, noting on the way that Guinevere had been right: the castle generally was starting to look rather dusty and uncared for, but there were vases of flowers everywhere, more than usual and all fresh and bright. In fact, they were distracting in their pretty lushness, and it was oh–so–easy to be drawn in by them and look at nothing else.

Arthur tore his gaze away from a mesmerising golden lily, and headed up the twisting stairs, tapped quietly at Morgana’s door. As he’d hoped, Guinevere answered, and smiled when she saw him. ‘Good morning, Arthur,’ she murmured happily, keeping the door only just ajar so that they could talk privately.

‘Good morning, Guinevere.’

‘That’s a nice clean tunic you’re wearing today.’

Arthur looked down at it, knowing he hadn’t done a perfect job with laundering it, but pleased with himself anyway. ‘Thank you!’

She laughed at him, but in a nice way. ‘What can I do for you, sire?’

‘Can you spare an hour or so? At your convenience, of course, and only when Morgana doesn’t need you. But I thought we could ask Gaius for some information about this Giacomo Casanova person.’

‘Of course, sire. Can I meet you in Gaius’s rooms in about half an hour?’

‘Perfect.’

Guinevere took a breath, thought again, then said it anyway: ‘I’m afraid you’ll find that Gaius is as smitten by Sir Giacomo as anyone else.’

Arthur sighed. He hadn’t really thought about it, but it wasn’t so unexpected, was it? Gaius was as human as any of them. ‘Well, that doesn’t change what we do, just how we handle things.’

‘You won’t try to make him feel foolish, will you?’

‘Of course not.’

Guinevere smiled at him. ‘Then I’ll see you soon, sire.’

‘Yes.’ Arthur took a step or two away, but then found himself turning back and bowing low to her. ‘My lady…’

She laughed and bobbed a curtsey at him – ‘My lord’ – and then the door was closed, and she was gone.

The gathering ended up including Merlin, Hunith and Leon as well as Gaius, Arthur and Guinevere. And it seemed that Giacomo was everyone’s favourite topic right now, so Arthur hardly had to even mention his name to get everyone talking about him. After letting the others babble on for a while, Arthur interposed, ‘It does make you wonder how he does it, though…’

‘What…?’ was the overly interested response.

‘How he gets his hair to stick up like that!’

Everyone laughed at him, but then Gaius was saying very earnestly, ‘Sire, Jack was telling me about fudge hair putty and bumble styling wax and other such arcane matters. I’m sure I could concoct a potion for you without too much trouble.’

‘It’s not for me,’ Arthur protested.

‘Oh, right…’ was the general response, along with much laughter.

‘I thought maybe Morgana would appreciate it.’

‘Oh, for sure…

‘Gaius,’ said Arthur, cutting to the chase while he had them in the palm of his hand. ‘I’m afraid that Jack has been using enchantments on us. I think he’s trying to make us all fall in love with him.’

‘Nah,’ said Merlin. ‘He doesn’t have to try anything. He’s just gorgeous, is all.’

‘Thank you, Merlin,’ Arthur responded, in tones that were probably a tad too sarcastic – but this was hardly a reassuring response from the man Arthur had spent half the year loving and half the night kissing. ‘Gaius, Jack told me that his full name is Giacomo Casanova, but he also said that he’s eternal, and that he has many names. He said I should ask you what they are.’

‘Oh!’ Gaius seemed startled – and intrigued. ‘Oh… How wonderful! Oh well actually, if he’s eternal… I think he might be Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility and ecstasy.’

‘A god?’ Arthur echoed, his heart sinking. How was he supposed to send a god on his way?

‘Yes. The Romans called him Bacchus, but it’s essentially the same person… well, creature. I mean, god! Let me find my books,’ the old man muttered, heading eagerly across the room to a particular shelf. ‘Leon, help me reach this down, would you? No, the one next to it… Thank you.’ Gaius came back to the table, and Merlin crowded up beside him, staring eagerly over his shoulder at the heavy volume Gaius placed there. ‘Now, I wonder where –’

Merlin held his hand just over the book, muttered something, and then confidently opened it up at a particular page.

‘Show–off,’ Gaius muttered. ‘Yes, that’s what I was thinking of,’ Gaius said a little louder, ‘as luck would have it,’ he added rather pointedly. ‘Yes, and in Gaul it seems he’s known as Belenos.’

‘That’s him!’ Merlin exclaimed – and they all crowded round to see an illustration of Giacomo with his cheeky grin and his layers of travel–worn clothes, his cocky stance with his hands stuffed into his pockets.

Lower down on the page were colourful representations of violets and a strand of ivy creeping up the margin. ‘It’s those damnable flowers,’ Arthur said. ‘Gaius, what does the book say about the violets? It was when he gave you each a violet that you first fell for him.’

The others, but for Guinevere, turned to look at Arthur with varying expressions of scepticism and confusion. Merlin, however, belatedly reached into his tunic and produced a little bloom of purple from where it had been placed against his skin over his heart. They all considered it, puzzled.

‘Don’t you remember?’ Arthur persisted. ‘It was the first thing Giacomo – or Dionysus, or whoever the hell he is – did when he arrived. He gave us each a violet. And you all fell under his spell. Here,’ he added, pulling his own out of his britches pocket. ‘He gave me one, too.’

‘Pardon me, sire,’ Leon tentatively offered, ‘but you don’t seem to be under any enchantment.’

‘Well, no, I – There are a couple of us, I’m not entirely sure why, who seem immune.’ He carefully didn’t look at Guinevere, not wanting anyone to turn against her if they were going to start forming sides.

‘I know why you’re immune, Arthur,’ Hunith announced with calm certainty.

Arthur could feel himself go bright red, because he knew what she was thinking and he suspected she was right. ‘Gaius, please. Is there anything in there about the flowers?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid there is. When he leaves, as leave he must, the violets will fade and with them the remembrance of the pleasures he brought…’ When Gaius looked up at them all, he was damp–eyed and heart–stricken.

‘But he said he wanted to stay!’ Merlin cried out. ‘He wanted to make a home here with us!’

‘Apparently he can’t.’

‘But if he leaves…’ Merlin brokenly continued. ‘Are you saying we won’t remember anything?’

‘It’s probably just as well,’ Arthur said with stout sympathy. Yet he saw Leon and Hunith glance at each other with some regret, and Arthur knew there would be losses as well as gains.

‘I have to say it’s a damned shame,’ Gaius declared. ‘I haven’t had a night like that in decades.’

‘Gaius!’ Merlin was shocked.

‘The memories would have kept me warm for a long while yet… What?’ he asked Merlin. ‘Do you think love is only for the young?’

‘And the young–at–heart,’ Guinevere said fondly, shifting in to slip her arm around Gaius’s waist. He hugged her shoulders, obviously taking comfort from her generosity.

Merlin just wouldn’t leave it be. ‘Are you telling us you spent the night with Jack?’

Gaius pursed his lips.

Hunith chided, ‘Merlin, don’t be so nosy. Nor so righteous.’

Arthur cleared his throat. ‘Gaius, you said as leave he must. Does that mean Giacomo will at some stage leave Camelot of his own accord?’

‘Yes, sire.’

‘When?’

‘That I can’t tell you. You’ll understand that the stories are necessarily vague, due to the effects on people’s memories.’

‘And when he does leave, he’ll go somewhere else, and it will start all over again.’

‘Yes…’ This was accompanied by four wistful sighs.

Arthur was starting to get angry. ‘Don’t you understand how destructive he is? Have you looked around you at how we’re living? My people are already starting to look gaunt for lack of proper care. What if he doesn’t leave until next Beltane? There won’t be a kingdom any more. My land will be barren and my people will be dead or turned barbarous.’

The others were all staring at him, shocked. But still it was only Guinevere who was looking genuinely concerned. Gaius carefully offered, ‘Unfortunately, I don’t think Jack will stay with us a full year, sire. The author laments of him moving on too soon, too soon.’

‘Well, you would think that, wouldn’t you? If you were besotted with him.’

‘Arthur,’ Guinevere murmured. She’d come around the table to him, placed her hand on his arm. ‘Arthur, I think we’ve found out all we can for now. Shall we leave our friends to their own devices? I thought we might take a stroll in the orchard.’

Arthur’s brow sprang up in surprise, but he quickly realised this was either a plausible cover for their anti–Jack–related activities or a practical suggestion that involved the picking of fruit for another makeshift midday meal. ‘Certainly, Guinevere. The orchard sounds delightful.’ And so they left, tactfully ignoring the fact that Leon had slid onto the bench beside Hunith and was kissing her with heartbreaking wistfulness, while the others had each found something else to be getting on with.

‘It’s the brooch,’ Guinevere announced as she and Arthur wound their way down the tower staircase.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘If it’s the violets that enchant people, then Jack’s power must be in the brooch he wears.’

‘Oh.’ Arthur scrunched up his face in thought. ‘What brooch?’

She rolled her eyes at him, though in a beautifully good–humoured way. ‘Jack has an enamelled silver brooch representing a violet. He always has it pinned to his collar or his tunic.’

‘Can’t say that I’ve noticed,’ Arthur said as they emerged into the sunlight of the courtyard. ‘But I’ll happily take your word for it. D’you think that’s connected to the source of his power?’

‘Maybe. It might be an amulet or talisman. If we destroy it, we might at least break the spell.’

‘You’re brilliant!’ he cried, and he grinned when he saw Guinevere blush in response. ‘Now, how do we get at it, if he wears it all the time?’

‘I have a plan, sire. Let me see what I can do.’

‘You won’t be in any danger, Guinevere?’

‘No… I don’t think so.’

‘Good. You must take care of yourself as well as you do Morgana.’

‘I will, sire. And you, Arthur – is your wound healing?’

‘It gets a little better every day.’

‘I’m glad. Then you go and rest, sire, and leave this to me.’

‘Thank you, Guinevere.’ He smiled as she dipped a respectful curtsey at him, and then watched as she crossed the courtyard, head down and intent on her mission. Arthur could see now why Morgana called her maidservant a friend, the truest friend she’d ever had. Guinevere really was… quite astonishing.

nine

Gwen waited anxiously for her mistress to return from an early supper with the king and their guest. Not that Gwen thought any of them would be eating much, but after rummaging through the kitchen cellars and asking Hunith for some assistance with cooking, Gwen had at least ensured there’d be three different vegetable dishes on the table. She couldn’t bear to be there herself this time, because she felt guilty at manipulating Morgana like this, not to mention putting her in danger, and Gwen herself was useless at dissembling.

But at last Morgana’s laugh could be heard in the corridor outside – along with Jack’s filthy chuckle. Gwen swiftly stepped behind the screen by the wardrobe, hoping he wouldn’t come in, and not wanting to be seen if he did. Then she changed her mind and strode out into the middle of the room, thinking that if he did come in, she’d have to try to send him on his way. Even if Morgana wanted… Even if…

Gwen sighed with relief when the door opened, and Morgana slipped inside alone. ‘There you are!’ Morgana exclaimed when she finally spied Gwen. ‘Why didn’t you light any candles?’

‘I’m sorry, my lady.’

‘No, don’t apologise…’ Morgana was close now, and Gwen saw the moonlight glinting off the brooch, which was pinned to Morgana’s blue velvet dress.

‘My lady!’

‘Yes, I won it from him, as you asked – though I have to say, he didn’t put up much of a fight. He seemed delighted that I would want to wear it… Are you sure it means as much to him as you think?’

‘Yes, my lady,’ Gwen replied, carefully unpinning it, then examining it in the cool light from the window.

‘The clasp doesn’t look like it’s broken,’ Morgana observed, peering over her shoulder.

‘No, not broken, not yet. But it’s very loose. I wouldn’t want it to fall without him noticing. Much better if you let me fix it now, and I’ll polish it up properly as well, and then that will be a nice surprise for him.’

‘If you say so, Gwen…’ Morgana’s arms slipped around her waist from behind, and her mistress held Gwen close, swaying slightly. ‘You are such a sweetheart, you know, always thinking of everyone but yourself.’

‘I think of you before all else, my lady,’ Gwen said very simply, for it was the truth.

‘If only that were so,’ Morgana murmured, resting her forehead for a moment against Gwen’s hair. ‘Well,’ she said after a moment, stepping away, and already reaching up to unpin her own tresses. ‘There’s no need to stay tonight, Gwen. I can manage on my own for once.’

‘If you’re sure, my lady.’

‘I’m sure.’

And though she sounded so sad, Gwen curtseyed, and left for her own home.

Gwen had already lit her father’s forge that afternoon, so it was the work of a moment to put the brooch into a crucible, and use the tongs to place it in the hottest part of the fire. A few minutes later she was slowly tipping the molten material into the water of the largest slack tub, taking care not to let the drops re–gather. When they were cold, she risked a walk through town, casting a pellet of blackened silver or enamel in each refuse heap she passed. Once she was done, she dusted off her hands, and headed back towards the castle.

The problem was that for all her efforts she seemed to have caused no effect. There was no sign of life returning to normal. Indeed, she passed aural if not visual evidence of several couplings and… well, triplings or more, whatever you might call it – and while she understood that if one suddenly became unenchanted in the middle of… of an enjoyable activity, one wouldn’t necessarily want to stop right away, still… she thought there would at least be some stirrings and mutterings of common sense.

While crossing the cold, empty courtyard of the castle, Gwen had the unnerving feeling that she was being watched, but when she looked around, she could see nothing. A random selection of windows were open to greater or lesser extent, but no one appeared at them, nor showed behind the closed ones. There wasn’t a hint of movement at any of the entrances nor in the portico – unless perhaps there was a rat snuffling for cast–off food. Gwen shuddered. That was probably all that had bothered her. The castle was beginning to surrender to chaos, and she would now have to go and tell Arthur that she had failed to break the enchantment.

She sighed, gathered her skirts, and pattered up the stairs.

♦ ♦ ♦

High on one of the turrets behind her, Jack uncurled from the back of a gargoyle, and scowled down at the humble innocent maidservant with the unimaginable future of golden crowns and true friendships and misaligned loves.

Jack cared nothing for all that, not any more. Having found yet another possible home, he would be hounded away again, he would be exiled for the hundredth, the thousandth, the trillionth time. Why did it always come to this? Why, when he brought love and pleasure to a place in which only one person had a pure heart, only one person knew true love…? He was always welcomed with open arms, sure, but when they were done with him, they cast him out like so much used strumpet…

He stalked down to the edge of the roof, and then dropped lightly to the flagstones so far below, landing on his feet with a catlike pounce. So… he may as well make the most of the place while he could. Jack strode off to find some willing soft wet flesh in which to bury his discontent, and then perhaps some willing hard hot flesh after that to hollow the hurt out of him.

♦ ♦ ♦

When Gwen reached Arthur’s door, she heard voices murmuring inside, something about their tone indicating confidential matters. She put her ear to the thin wood for a moment, not wanting to overhear things she shouldn’t, but only to judge whether she could intrude or not. ‘…why you think I’m immune to Giacomo’s enchantment,’ Arthur was saying.

‘Yes, Arthur,’ came Hunith’s calm reassurance. ‘Would you like to talk to me about it? I realise that it must remain a secret, but you’re safe enough with me, and we will all forget about what has happened soon enough.’

I won’t forget,’ Arthur muttered.

‘You won’t need to. You won’t do anything of which you need be ashamed.’

‘Oh, Hunith,’ he said, voice aching with sympathy. ‘Neither will you, nor have you, I’m sure.’

‘You’re either humouring me or being kind.’

‘No. Not at all. You chose well,’ Arthur said, a little more gruffly as if despite himself he was blushing. ‘You chose very well. Leon is one of the best of us, and I’m sure he feels that all the luck of the matter is on his side. No one could wish for a lovelier woman to introduce him to –’

‘Arthur.’

‘Yes, Hunith?’

‘You might actually find it less embarrassing to talk about Merlin.’

‘Yes, Hunith.’ There was a long silence. Gwen didn’t stir. She could hear the fire crackling, and even the rhythmic brush of thread and fabric as Hunith patched or re–stitched another tunic. Eventually Arthur said, in halting tones, ‘I love him. You know that. I –’

‘It’s true love, Arthur. That’s what protects you from Jack.’

‘Yes. It’s true love. And – And, Hunith, I promised you nothing would ever come of it, but I have to confess that I kissed him, for hours I kissed him, only last night –’

‘I’m glad, Arthur.’

‘– and I was sure it was me he wanted, Hunith. At the time, it was so real. He said my name, I looked into his eyes and he saw me and said my name – and yet this morning he’s telling me how gorgeous that blasted Jack is…’

‘What he feels for Jack isn’t real, Arthur. You know that.’

‘But if he only kissed me because he was under the influence of this spell…’

‘All this might have finally hurried him along, but it was always going to be you, Arthur. When he’s ready, it will be you. If I know anyone, I know Merlin, and he belongs at your side.’

‘Well,’ said Arthur uncomfortably, ‘and I want him at my side – for all my life, if such a thing is possible. But I have a duty to my people to marry and father a child, an heir. So Merlin would have a lot to put up with, if he ever did love me.’

‘He does, Arthur, or he will.’

‘Which makes rather a nonsense of me being jealous of Giacomo – when the damned creature, or god, or whatever the hell he is, refuses to kiss Merlin even when he asks, but just spouts some rubbish about not daring to make an enemy of him… I mean, Merlin, for god’s sake…’

Hunith was laughing under her breath at this grumpy diatribe. ‘Do you feel better now, sire?’

‘Yes,’ he said, still grumpily. ‘Yes, I do. After all, we should fear Merlin and the Power of His Deadly Pout.’ Then Arthur laughed as well. ‘I love him. God, but it does feel good to say that out loud, you’re right. I’m such an idiot. I love him. I love Merlin!’

And Gwen drew away, smiling, touched to her core, because the crown prince of Camelot was an even better man than she had dared to hope, and she had no fears at all any more for the future of his kingdom.

♦ ♦ ♦

It was dark with the curtains drawn close against the moonlight, but of course that didn’t prevent Jack from seeing all–too–clearly Merlin padding towards him on bare feet and wearing nothing but britches and a threadbare loose tunic – and Merlin himself seemed to have preternatural vision, for he walked right up to Jack and solemnly watched for a while as Jack continued pounding into a willing arse. ‘Do that to me,’ Merlin said.

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘I know what you are, my dangerous young warlock.’

‘And I know what you are. You can have nothing to fear from me.’

‘You’re not mine to take.’

‘I am if I give myself to you.’

‘Go away.’

‘Jack –’

‘Go away.’

‘No, Jack – Please, I –’

‘GO AWAY!’

And with Jack’s raw command echoing round the room at last Merlin left with an easy loping grace. Jack stared after him imagining how it might have been – and he spent, helplessly. Collapsed beside his oblivious partner. Well, he wasn’t done yet. There were more ways than one to secure a place in this, his new home, and damn all the legends to hell.

♦ ♦ ♦

Arthur stared into the flames, torn in two, but he knew what he must do for everyone’s sake. ‘Hunith, your health was such that you were ready to go home before Beltane. I think you should take Merlin and return to Ealdor.’

‘We couldn’t do that, sire.’

‘You’ll be safe there, and you won’t need to scavenge for food – or not to the extent that you might here. You’ll be able to lead – a straightforward life. I think… I think we’ll be able to send Giacomo on his way soon enough, but still – I’d rather think of you both being safe, and at home.’

‘Merlin belongs with you, Arthur. You can’t change that by trying to send him away.’

‘Well, I belong in Camelot, and that’s not such a great place to be right now.’

‘Nevertheless,’ Hunith said with finality, as if she would hear no more of it.

‘I could… send Sir Leon to accompany you.’

‘I think I’m above such bribery in my circumstances, sire.’

‘Sorry. I’m sorry.’ Arthur sighed. ‘Look, it’s not only that I want to send him away from Jack. And myself. It’s not only that –’

‘Arthur.’ Hunith put down her sewing, and stared down at her hands which she cupped together in her lap as if for comfort. ‘Arthur, you obviously care for Merlin’s safety, and you obviously love him dearly. You’ve shared a secret with me, and so I want to share one with you.’

‘Hunith, there’s no need –’

‘But there is a need. You misjudge him, you underestimate him. Jack is right to consider Merlin an enemy that even a god would be wary of provoking.’

Arthur looked at her, wondering if the enchantment had made her a bit mad.

But she continued with heartfelt sincerity: ‘If I am betraying him, if I am betraying my son, the one creature in the world that I care for more than all the rest together, then at least I won’t have to live with the remembrance of it. I am a coward, Arthur. I thought you should know – ever since you came to Ealdor to help us and it was so clear to me how you felt – but I wasn’t brave enough. I left the decision to Merlin, and he chose discretion. That was possibly the last thing I expected from him.’

‘Hunith –’

‘He has magic, Arthur,’ she said, looking at him directly, all fear and honesty and courage. ‘More than that: he was born with it, it’s an intrinsic part of him. He is magic.’

Arthur stared at her, head full of Merlin, hapless helpless blundering Merlin… ‘No…’

‘It’s true. He’s been keeping it secret all his life, or trying to, but it’s as much a part of him as his skin and bones.’

Clumsy Merlin, whose messes were never quite as disastrous as feared. Useless Merlin, who was always inexplicably in the right place at the right time. Clueless Merlin, who somehow always seemed to know what was going on. Lucky Merlin, who’d shrug off the weirdest occurrences with a laugh as if he couldn’t believe it either.

‘It’s one of the reasons you belong together, Arthur. His purpose is to serve you, as yours is to serve your kingdom. His magic as a warlock, and your leadership as a warrior king, united in the service of your people.’

Unexpectedly heroic Merlin, who somehow seemed to save the day even when Arthur himself was out of action.

‘Do you understand, Arthur?’

‘Understand…?’ Self–sacrificing Merlin, who had thrown himself on Uther’s mercy when Guinevere had been accused of sorcery. ‘Hunith… why did you send him here? My father –’

‘It’s just as dangerous for a warlock in Cendred’s kingdom.’

‘No, you don’t understand. My father’s hatred of magic is so personal, and runs so deep… There’s no reasoning with him on the subject. There’s no appeal on the grounds of harmless motivations or beneficial results. Magic is evil, and that’s all he knows on the matter. And you send Merlin here…’

Hunith was looking at him calmly. ‘And what of you, sire? Do you hate magic, too?’

Arthur swallowed, hard, but he couldn’t dislodge the panic in his throat. His fear for… His grief for… By all the gods… He managed to say in horribly stilted tones, ‘I – don’t – hate – Merlin.’

‘He is a good person, sire. He’s still the friend you know. The man you love. He hasn’t changed at all. It’s just that you know him better now.’

‘Hunith –’

‘Arthur, please… for my sake, if not for his… don’t let any harm come to him because I’ve told you this. Don’t let this be a mistake.’

‘Of course not. You can trust me.’

‘Thank you, sire.’ They sat there in silence for long moments as they both tried to comprehend what had passed between them. Finally Hunith put her sewing aside, and gathered herself, rose to her feet. ‘I’ll bid you goodnight, sire.’

‘Hunith,’ Arthur offered calmly, ‘I find that Guinevere is an excellent judge of character. And she tells me that Merlin has a good heart. Please don’t fear for him on my account.’

‘I’m sure she said that you have a good heart, too, Arthur.’

‘Of course that’s the rock upon which my reassurance founders.’

Hunith smiled at him fondly. ‘Goodnight, Arthur.’

‘Goodnight, Hunith. Sleep well. You have chosen wisely yet again.’

And she came over to press a kiss to the top of his head before leaving.

ten

The king called a gathering in the great hall the next morning, and even though Arthur was almost the last to arrive, he was dismayed to see how few others were attending. He stood before the dais with his arms crossed, surveying the remnants of Camelot’s court and royal household, while trying not to betray how he was cradling his left arm due to his shoulder aching.

Looking far brighter than Arthur felt, there was Sir Leon, of course, along with a couple of the older knights. Then a mere handful of nobles, all definitely the worse for wear. Gaius and Geoffrey stood by the windows, having a good stab at being solemn and dignified though Arthur could well believe they hadn’t reached their beds the previous night. Hunith and Merlin were behind them, tactfully remaining in the background. Poor Hunith also looked as if she’d had a sleepless night, perhaps fretting over what she’d told Arthur about her son.

While they all waited on the king, Arthur stared at Merlin, trying to re–imagine him as a powerful warlock, but it was particularly difficult to do when his manservant appeared more guileless and gormless than ever. He seemed paler than usual, too, and Arthur found it hard to quell an urge to wrap the man up and kiss the colour back into his gaunt cheeks… He remembered tasting those pretty lips, he remembered encompassing those long limbs curled up in his lap, in his arms, the truth and clarity in the depth of those blue eyes, he remembered…

Morgana strode in, with Guinevere at her heels. Guinevere discreetly kept her head down, but when Arthur managed to catch her eye, she shook her head; apparently she hadn’t succeeded in her task. She smiled at him, though, a moment later. Guinevere smiled at him with a fond warmth, and Arthur wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, unless perhaps she knew more about what was happening this morning than he did.

But then at last Uther swept in, more casually and colourfully dressed than usual, but still regal in his crown and his long red cape. Giacomo was right behind him. Arthur’s heart sank. Giacomo was as bright and sharp as ever, but there was something fierce about him that morning. Something intent. Something more commanding about his bearing. And his clothes… Arthur frowned. Even though it looked as if his clothes were much the same as ever in style, with his usual layers of colour, today the roughly woven cotton looked more like raw silk and the ragged frayed edges appeared more like lace. It was… a disconcerting effect.

Uther was standing tall on the dais before his throne now, not more than a few feet from Arthur. He beckoned Giacomo closer, and then took his hand, lifted it before him, as if presenting the man to the court. ‘I have the most excellent news to share with you all today,’ the king said in a voice that would carry the length of the great hall. He left a deft pause, and then continued, ‘I am delighted to be able to announce… that Lord Giacomo has agreed to be my consort.’

Oh my god –

There was some mild consternation evident in the muttering and shifting behind Arthur, but then applause broke out – starting with the punctiliously diplomatic Sir Leon, he thought – and Arthur joined in. Well, he wasn’t going to publicly dispute with his father on such an occasion. Arthur looked about him, and saw mostly wistful yearning, grieving envy – perhaps also some relief, for everyone was enamoured of this creature, and this way at least they were sure he’d stay in Camelot, even if he’d become rather less available for orgies now… The most ardent reaction was from Morgana, whose eyes were afire as she stared at Giacomo. Arthur wondered if she’d had serious hopes of marrying him herself.

‘You will refer to him as the prince consort,’ Uther was instructing, ‘and you will address him as my lord. I know you will want to congratulate me on my own personal good fortune, but I must also congratulate Camelot on such a fine addition to an already illustrious court.’

Oh my god – Merlin –

More applause, and even some muted cheering. Arthur finally turned his gaze to Giacomo – who returned it fiercely, defiantly. They stared at each other, neither backing down, until Uther smoothly and perhaps deliberately broke their gaze by escorting Giacomo to sit on Morgana’s throne. Well. At least Arthur’s place at Uther’s right hand hadn’t been usurped – yet – but he was damned if he was going to let this creature charm his way into honours he in no way deserved. Arthur stared at Giacomo sitting there with his back tall and his bearing regal, and he didn’t even need a crown, for Arthur glimpsed once more the ancient wreath of ivy set about with dark violets and entwined with purple and green ribbons, for once sitting centred and firm on that ridiculously spiky hair.

‘Arthur,’ murmured Uther, standing beside him now, not touching but close enough to bend his head and talk in confidence. ‘You are still my heir, Arthur. You are still the crown prince.’

‘I know, father.’

‘But you’ll have to get used to me having a partner. You’ll have to get used to sharing me.’

Arthur managed not to snort at the notion that he would grieve over sharing a parent who could only have been more distracted and neglectful if he’d actually gone to live in a separate kingdom.

‘You may think it strange,’ Uther continued, turning away a little further so that Arthur could no longer see his face – ‘that I have chosen a man to be my life partner.’

Oh my god – Merlin – as my consort.

A soft huff was all he allowed himself now. ‘Actually, father, you may be surprised by how little I mind that.’ Underneath it all, his heart had been hammering with the possibilities.

‘You have yet to offer me your congratulations.’

‘I do congratulate you, father, and I wish you every personal happiness. However –’

‘However…?’ Uther swung round again to meet his son’s gaze with angry embers in his own.

‘I think you could have made a better choice.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ the king seethed.

‘Father, listen to me. Haven’t you noticed the chaos that began when Giacomo arrived? You cannot attribute it to the Beltane festival, nor its aftermath – not any more, for it has gone on for far too long now.’

‘Arthur –’

‘Haven’t you noticed how vulnerable Camelot is to invasion, with the knights so lazy and distracted? This is his doing.’

‘I won’t hear another word.’

‘Father, take whomsoever you want as a partner. You’ve been alone for too long, it’s true. But make sure it’s someone who has Camelot’s interests at heart.’

‘No, that’s good advice,’ came the light tones of Lord Giacomo – Uther heard it as tactful and sensitive, of course, while Arthur knew it as sarcastic and meddlesome. ‘You’re of age now, Arthur. Perhaps it’s time to find you a wife, your future queen – and you can start merrily begetting.’

Uther was entirely appeased by this. Delighted, even. He confided with a small smile, ‘I would like to know your fine sons and daughters, Arthur – I would like to know my grandchildren, before I die.’

‘When the time comes, father, I will make the best marriage I can for Camelot’s sake. But for my sake,’ he added, ‘I hope that my wife and I can be the best of friends.’

Uther clapped him on the back, and beamed proudly. ‘Do you see, Jack? He is the finest son I could ever have wished for.’

‘I do see indeed,’ Giacomo responded with a mocking leer that Uther seemed blind to. ‘It’s mad, oh it’s May, depraved in every way…’

‘You’ll excuse me,’ the king said to his consort. ‘Stay here and amuse Arthur, but I need to speak with Geoffrey about what form our handfasting ceremony might take.’

‘…those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks, everyone makes divine mistakes – the lusty month of May!’

Arthur steadily and stonily returned Giacomo’s rather insinuating gaze, even while part of him was happily bouncing around crying: Oh my god – Merlin – as my handfasted partner.

‘You’re not enjoying this, are you, my fine young prince?’

‘Not especially, no.’

‘You don’t much like the thought of me and your father, uh…’ Giacomo conveyed the next words with a few graphic hand gestures. ‘Except, of course, for how it might apply to you and that delightful manservant of yours… How’s it going to be? You’ll take a wife in one ceremony, and a consort in another? What will you do when she also wants a second love, mmm…? What will you do when he does?’

‘Merlin would never –’ Arthur bit off the words, but it was already too late: Giacomo was grinning like he’d scored hugely. ‘That’s nothing you didn’t already know,’ Arthur pointed out.

‘Oh, for sure… but it’s so much fun provoking you into revealing all your secrets. Like this conspiracy you have going with Gwen… Got quite the thing for servants, don’t you, my sweet blue–eyed prince?’

Arthur did not deign to respond.

‘For most people in your position, it would be about the pure wanting to mix it with the impure… but that’s not how it works for you, is it?’

‘Shut up.’

‘Our dear little Gwen has the purest heart in this whole damned kingdom. Did you know that? That’s why she didn’t fall under my enchantment.’

Arthur considered this. It didn’t matter where the information came from, if it were true.

That’s got you interested, hasn’t it?’

‘In essentials, it’s nothing I didn’t already know.’

‘So what was all that about, destroying my beautiful brooch…? Did you think you’d destroy me as well? Or my strength?’ Giacomo laughed, nastily. ‘You should have seen your face when I walked in before. You thought you’d beaten me.’

‘Actually, I knew I hadn’t.’

‘It wasn’t a bad plan, as plans go. But the brooch was only a trinket. One of my lovers made it for me. Amazing person – but in the end, she was nothing more than a talented silversmith. You had the right idea, but you failed.’

‘I’m glad,’ said Arthur with stiff diplomacy, as Uther returned looking utterly besotted, ‘because now you can make amends by making my father happy.’

‘Amends for what?’ Uther asked.

‘For not coming to Camelot years ago,’ Giacomo smoothly replied.

Arthur nodded courteously to his father, and retreated while he could.

He slowly wound his way through the deserted castle, returning to his rooms, alone. Tired. Not defeated, but at a loss as to what to do next. Something would come to him, he was sure. Guinevere would suggest another plan. Perhaps Gaius or Merlin, though they were under Giacomo’s enchantment, could be persuaded to reveal a chink in the creature’s armour. Though now that Giacomo was under the explicit, personal protection of the king, Arthur would have to be very sure of his chances for success in any scheme, or risk being imprisoned for trying to harm the king’s favourite. And that would not only severely curtail his own actions but leave Guinevere and Morgana unprotected and Camelot on the edge of ruin.

Arthur finally reached his rooms, closed the door behind him, and gave way to a sigh. Ran his hands back through his hair, though even that simple movement re–awoke the stab in his shoulder. He should sit up, the afternoon had barely even begun – sitting in his chair rather than trying to organise a training session for the knights was indulgence enough. But Hunith wasn’t here to talk with, and the bed did look so very inviting… Could he forgive himself if he lay down for an hour? No one else would know or care.

‘Arthur…’

He started, but then relaxed again as he belatedly recognised Merlin’s voice, as he saw Merlin emerge from the shadows on the far side of the bed curtains. ‘Merlin. What do you want?’ He wondered if he should be alarmed. If Hunith was right, then there would be something forever unknowable about Merlin now, something forever dangerous. Arthur’s heart clenched in grief for his clumsy yet harmless, unexpected yet trustworthy friend.

‘Arthur… Arthur, I need – I’m sorry.’ Merlin was slowly pacing closer. Barefoot. In a loose tunic and soft britches. He might almost have worn nothing at all. ‘I need to – I need you to love me.’

‘Do you?’ Arthur said bleakly. He wondered for a moment if Hunith had told Merlin of Arthur’s secret, just as she’d told Arthur of Merlin’s. It might make life so much easier… And yet. Well. Merlin wasn’t ready yet. He’d had enough to cope with, growing up with magic, Arthur supposed, without learning about love as well. He wasn’t ready.

‘I’m ready now,’ Merlin said, in uncanny answer to Arthur’s thoughts. ‘I didn’t think I was, but I am – it’s time now. It’s the season for it. Because of Beltane and spring and Jack – most of all Jack.’

‘Please,’ Arthur protested. ‘I don’t want to hear about –’

‘But even more than that, it was you kissing me, Arthur, and suddenly it’s here, and I need you to love me, and it has to be you –’

‘No, I –’

‘Something in me is changing, like… like the frond of a new fern uncurling, and suddenly it’s time, the season has come, and –’

‘No,’ said Arthur again, but Merlin was right there now, standing right in front of Arthur, and he was lifting hands to Arthur’s face, cupping it, those pretty lips full and needy and now pressed to his, moving, and they were kissing, mouthing hungrily – Arthur’s hands were slipping round Merlin’s waist like they’d found home – the two of them were gathering each other up, swaying together, kissing and holding – I’m sorry, Arthur silently offered to Hunith, to his own conscience, to Merlin himself if this was wrong –

‘Arthur,’ Merlin was muttering, those plump lips pressing kisses to Arthur’s cheek, his throat, his collarbones – ‘Arthur, don’t be sorry. I need – I need this –’

‘Yes,’ Arthur said in reply. ‘Yes, whatever you need –’ his hands slipping under the hem of Merlin’s tunic now to touch warm flesh, Merlin really unnaturally warm –

Arthur pulled away a little to consider him again, and yes Merlin looked a bit feverish but that might have been the lust, and yes he was even kind of glowing but that might have been the afternoon sunlight pouring in and making everything golden, and really what did Arthur know, he’d never, he’d never, and even now maybe he shouldn’t –

‘Don’t doubt yourself, Arthur. It has to be you, that’s what I’ve realised. This is you and me, and that’s the way it is, the two of us united.’

‘United,’ Arthur echoed, though the word was muffled as Merlin lifted Arthur’s tunic off over his head – and his shoulder twinged as he raised his arms, but he ignored that because Merlin was undressing Arthur just as he’d done a hundred times before and yet this was nothing like any of those times, this was real… oh god… Arthur ran his hands up Merlin’s ribs, and lifted his tunic off, too – and they were pressing close again, belly to belly and chest to chest, mouth to mouth kissing, their arms snug around each other – laughing into the kisses, it was just such a relief, such a delight, to finally be doing this…

And then Merlin was tugging him towards the bed which looked a thousand times more enticing than it ever had before, and within moments they were both stretching out naked on the sheets, all the covers pushed away – time for one last snagged breath to mark the moment as they dared to look at each other – both eager, god, and Merlin so utterly desirable, surprisingly virile, so perfect though nothing about him was what anyone had ever envisaged for Arthur –

Then they were in each other’s arms again, kissing and kissing, their bodies meeting pressing meshing – their cocks, god their cocks – and Merlin so hot, he was glowing, he was burning up – ‘Are you all right?’ Arthur asked. ‘Merlin. Are you sure –?’

‘Arthur – god, yes – Arthur – there’s something you need to know –’

‘I know. I know already. You’re magic. But is this – is this right? You look like you’re going to –’

‘Oh god, Arthur, and you still – love me, I need you to love me –’

‘Yes. Yes, of course. I just –’

‘Don’t worry. It’ll be all right. It’ll be perfect.’

And they were ready, or maybe they just knew that for one reason and another they’d never last – Arthur had always promised himself he’d be so patient, so careful, but that all vanished like a paper deed thrown on the flames – they had both lived without this for so long, and after the last few days neither would have much stamina – and anyway Merlin was bright with heat, he needed to quench this now –

‘Please,’ said Merlin, turning in Arthur’s arms to lie on his front, propped up on his elbows so he could still plead with those endless blue eyes. ‘Please, Arthur,’ as he presented his neat pale buttocks for his prince to plunder.

And Arthur contemplated what was so freely offered, what he’d desired and imagined for so long now – but something within him knew better. ‘Does it have to be that way?’ he asked, also leaning up on an elbow, to better survey what was his. He let a respectful hand shape itself to those lovely curves.

‘I don’t mind,’ Merlin babbled, ‘I think we have to join, and I don’t care if you hurt me, I just need –’

‘I know,’ said Arthur. ‘I know. But I think it has to be the other way round.’

Merlin stared at him, part of him obviously not daring to presume – and another part of him crying YES.

Arthur swallowed. He’d only dared to dream of this in the dead of night. To be possessed – the body of a king, the embodiment of his kingdom, and he would give dominion of it all to this man he’d thought he knew, he’d known he loved, but who was so much more powerful and dangerous and unfathomable than he could ever have imagined –

But that was exactly what Merlin needed, what his magic demanded, what the new season within him required in order to fulfil its promise.

‘Come here,’ Arthur said, lying back – opening his arms and his thighs as Merlin shifted over, as Merlin lay on him and offered kisses – grateful hungry loving kisses.

‘Arthur…’ he was murmuring, ‘Arthur…’

‘Yes, Merlin. Yes.’

‘I’ll hurt you.’

‘I want you to,’ he replied – and again, fiercely, ‘I want you to’ – because nothing worthwhile in his life had ever come to him without pain.

They fumbled, of course, they were clumsy and ignorant but they were also brave and honest, and soon enough Merlin was pushing hard into Arthur, as gently as he could he was pushing hard and bulky into Arthur, and Arthur was arching up under him, taking him in, digging his heels into Merlin’s narrow buttocks, grunting with the effort with the implacable joy of it.

‘Merlin,’ he managed. ‘Merlin.’

‘Yes, Arthur. Yes.’

They paused for a moment once Merlin was fully embedded within him. They paused and they considered each other, both so vulnerable, so loving, so careful with each other’s feelings and yet so generous with their own.

And then Merlin moved, almost despite himself – he withdrew and thrust back again once – and it began. Ribbons and then rivers of light flowed around them, binding them, lifting them – the light rose and glowed, surrounding them – ‘Come with me, Arthur,’ Merlin cried out – ‘Oh, soon. Oh, man, that’s good. Come with me!’ – and his hands held Arthur’s hips firm as he thrust deep into him again and again, his cock hard and hot within Arthur – and the magic, the warmth and the substance of it, ran around Arthur, caressed him, perfect touches textures rippling over him then rasping, and the incandescence of it a sphere that enclosed them – the light growing and growing so bright, a visual echo of the pleasure, until – Arthur shouted out as the seed dashed from him, the joy rolling through him like ocean waves, as deep and true and endless as what he saw in Merlin’s eyes, afire with precious gold – Merlin was buried within him, then with one long shout one long thrust, the joy the same for him both physical and emotional, everything reverberating between them – ‘Arthur!’ Merlin cried ‘Arthur!’ – and they were two made one, and nothing in this world nor in any other could ever change that.

They stayed there for long still beautiful moments. But once Merlin had caught his breath, he lifted his head, and he frowned.

‘Merlin?’ Arthur whispered. ‘What’s wrong?’

Merlin hushed him, and stared down at Arthur’s left shoulder, a picture of puzzled concentration. Then the last glowings of magic within Arthur seemed to gather themselves, and work their way to where the Questing Beast had wounded him – and with a deliciously painful tingling the magic wrenched him apart where he’d healed askew and then knitted him back together again.

Arthur may have shouted once before he blacked out.

When he woke again, Merlin was lying beside him, watching him. Arthur smiled at his lover before turning his attention within, flexing his shoulder, carefully stretching it. There was no pain. No pain at all. Not in his shoulder, anyway.

Arthur turned instead to Merlin, and lifted a weary hand to run fingertips down that long beautiful face, pale with exhaustion. ‘Are you all right?’

‘God yes.’ Merlin was thoughtful, though. Introspective. ‘Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it was too soon after all. But I was so sure.’

‘Did we not do it properly?’

That swiftly brought Merlin’s attention back to Arthur again, as he guffawed. Grinned wickedly. He was so silly and so wonderful all at once; he made Arthur’s heart sing. ‘Arthur. How can that not have been properly and thoroughly and everything else it was meant to be?’

‘I don’t know.’ Arthur essayed a shrug. ‘We could try again. Just in case.’ Because he was sore and tired, and more alive than he’d ever been, and he wanted more.

‘Aren’t you hurting?’ Even as they shifted closer, wound arms around each other, found the right configuration. ‘I should have been gentler. I can be gentler.’

Arthur said, ‘Don’t you dare.’

When they woke early that evening, they kissed as if by sweet instinct – but then a bashful Merlin smiled, and shifted out of Arthur’s arms, clambered clumsily out of Arthur’s bed, started dressing. ‘Are you all right?’ Arthur asked again.

At which Merlin blushed a little and shrugged, looking young and adrift and hapless, while only an hour or two before he’d been certain and direct, finding his strength as a man and claiming his powers as a warlock. That had ebbed away again now… though perhaps not entirely. Perhaps there was a part of Merlin where the change he’d striven for had taken hold.

Arthur got up from his bed, too, and quickly dressed. He could move so much freer now that his shoulder no longer troubled him, although there was no denying that other parts of him felt delightfully used. ‘Merlin, I need you to help me with something.’

An enquiring look in reply.

‘Come with me while I pay a visit to Lord Giacomo.’

‘Jack?’ Merlin had brightened at the very notion, obviously prey to the enchantment once more. ‘I’d love to visit Jack.’

Arthur trusted – hoped – that enough of the real connection he’d established with Merlin had remained. ‘Yes. Come on.’ And they walked up through the royal apartments hand–in–hand, while Arthur talked around the edges of what he needed Merlin to do.

As Arthur had surmised, they found Giacomo in the rooms that hadn’t been occupied in over twenty–one years: the suite across the hallway from the king’s rooms, that Arthur’s mother had used. Arthur knocked at the door, but then walked in without waiting to be invited.

Giacomo was standing alone by one of the large windows, surveying the town of Camelot and the lands beyond. He was tall, regal, confident. Yet as he turned and looked at Arthur and Merlin, united now in a small yet unbreakable way, the light within him dwindled a little. ‘Well, well. I wondered what all those surges were about. I should have known. Well played, my prince.’

Arthur didn’t respond, but only turned to Merlin, gently lifting a hand to his chin to bring his head around and meet his gaze directly. ‘I love you, Merlin.’ And the connection between them was such that the genuine emotion reached Merlin despite Giacomo’s enchantment. ‘Is it possible that in time you could come to love me, too?’

‘Yes,’ Merlin replied, simply and honestly.

‘Then do what I asked.’

And Merlin turned back to consider Giacomo. A moment later he’d let go of Arthur’s hand, and was walking steadily towards the creature – who watched him warily, but made no move to prevent what he seemed to feel was inevitable.

When Merlin reached Giacomo, he stopped, barely a murmur away. And then he leaned in, lifted his hands to cup Giacomo’s handsome face, and kissed the man on the mouth. A brief flash of fear from Giacomo, but then desire overrode all else, and he surrendered, his eyes drifting closed as he gave himself to the kiss, to those beautiful lips of Merlin’s… Arthur watched carefully, feeling a horrid stab of hurt and revulsion – but it was what they needed to do – and –

And Merlin – besotted with Giacomo but loving Arthur – did not forget the point of this offensive. Continuing the kiss, his hands pushed up, his fingers running through Giacomo’s hair, making the man shiver as he caressed his nape – reaching up further to Giacomo’s unadorned head… and when Merlin broke the kiss and stepped back, he held the ivy wreath in his hands.

Giacomo’s eyes snapped open, and he drew in a panicked breath – ‘No… No!

‘Merlin,’ said Arthur calmly, cutting through the sudden inexplicable turmoil that buffeted through the air. ‘Destroy that charm. Use your magic. This creature is devastating my kingdom, and good people are being hurt.’

‘Yes,’ said Merlin. Gold flashed in his eyes, and the wreath burst into flame – a strange flame which shrivelled and then reduced to ashes the ancient ivy, the frayed ribbon, the faded violets, but which did not seem to harm Merlin himself.

After a brief aborted attempt to snatch back the wreath – already too late – Giacomo had simply stood there watching its destruction. And now – as Merlin lifted his hands towards the window, letting the wind catch the tiny blackened remnants of it and swirl them away into the clear blue sky before it died away into a breeze, a whisper – Giacomo seemed to shrink from a god into a man. He was still attractive, but no longer irresistible. He was still charismatic, but no longer powerful.

He was bitter. ‘You righteous prat! You’ve reduced me to living out this mortal life.’

Arthur didn’t feel at all sympathetic. ‘It could have been a lot worse, and it would have been if you’d done any more serious harm to my people.’

Merlin was frowning, and his hands clutched helplessly at his temples, as if struggling to wake up while also clinging uselessly to a dream. ‘Dionysus,’ he said while he could. ‘You’ll come back. You’ll return to your immortal life once this life is over.’

Giacomo didn’t look impressed.

Arthur added, ‘Maybe you won’t create so much mischief next time.’

‘Oh, spare me the moral of the story.’

Arthur stood back, and indicated the door – Giacomo glared at them both, and strode out. His long midnight blue coat flapped tawdry round his ankles, and he was gone.

‘Merlin? Are you all right?’ Arthur went over to the man, who was shaking his head in confusion, and Arthur’s heart grieved when Merlin shied away from his offered caress. ‘It’s all right, don’t fret.’

‘Um… Have I been asleep? Arthur, I don’t – I had the strangest dreams…’ He cast a doubting look at Arthur, as if he suspected that some of it might have been real. ‘It feels like I’ve been asleep for… What day is it?’

‘Don’t worry about that now,’ said Arthur. ‘You’re safe again. Come on. Let’s go check on the others.’

Guinevere appeared on the stairs to Morgana’s rooms just as they reached the griffin statue. ‘Arthur! What happened? Did you break the spell?’

‘Yes! Well.’ Arthur shrugged. ‘Merlin helped me.’

‘I did?’ Merlin asked, rubbing again at his temples as if he just couldn’t quite wake up.

‘Of course you did,’ Guinevere said warmly.

‘What spell?’

‘Is Morgana all right?’ Arthur asked.

‘Yes, she… she thinks she’s been asleep these past few days.’

‘Merlin, too. Well, we knew they wouldn’t remember anything.’

‘Remember what?’ Merlin asked in bleary confusion.

‘Oh, and Gaius said about the flowers…’ Guinevere and Arthur each produced the violets from their pockets, and saw that they’d faded and withered, as if they’d been picked on the first day of May and not been watered since. They smiled at each other happily over this proof that all was now well.

‘What…?’ said Merlin.

‘I want to check on my father,’ Arthur continued. ‘Do you know where he is?’

Guinevere tried but didn’t quite manage to suppress a flash of amusement. ‘I think you’ll find him with Geoffrey in the archives. The king was here with Morgana not so long ago, talking about, um… a certain ceremony.’

‘What ceremony?’ Merlin was starting to get a bit peeved.

‘I think the less recalled of some things the better,’ Arthur briskly observed. ‘It certainly seems like a bad dream to me now.’ Though Merlin’s beautiful scowling face and the angry glow in his eyes prompted other memories. ‘Not all of it… was completely awful, though.’

‘I’m glad,’ said Guinevere with a fond smile for both of them.

‘What?’ Merlin said again. ‘Gwen, what d’you –?’

At which Arthur felt a pressing need to get on with the remains of the evening. ‘Come along, Merlin, quit dawdling round with your friends. We’ve work to do.’

‘Ah…’ Merlin groaned. ‘D’you see now, that I understand.’

eleven

Arthur escorted Hunith down the stairs from Gaius’s rooms, and they paused by the window at the turn in the staircase, watching for a moment as Merlin finished securing the saddlebags and various goods and provisions to the horse Arthur had lent her for the journey home to Ealdor. He was also lending her Sir Leon, who was waiting there in his light armour by his own horse, poring over a map and asking Merlin for a last bit of guidance.

‘I understand that you don’t want to spare Merlin,’ Hunith said smoothly, ‘but I am too humble a soul to deserve the company of a knight of Camelot.’

‘Tosh,’ said Arthur. ‘You’d deserve the crown prince himself, if he could be spared.’

‘You are very kind, sire.’ She looked at him with a slight narrowing of her eyes. ‘Why do I feel there’s something you’re not telling me? Will there be dangers on the road?’

‘Oh! No, I’m sure you’ll be safe. With Leon at your side, you’ll certainly be safe from harm. I thought I’d send him along… just in case.’

‘In case of what?’

He shrugged. ‘Anything,’ he replied with a bright smile.

She considered him a moment more, and then let it go. ‘You do look very fine in that tunic, Arthur, if I may say so.’

‘Thank you. I owe all the effect of it to the judgement and skill of the seamstress.’

‘That material is like a piece of the summer sky. I’ll be glad to think of you being admired. And what have you done with your hair…?’

‘Oh, it’s due to some potion that Gaius concocted from an old receipt he found.’

‘You look marvellous.’ As Arthur took her arm for the last flight of stairs, Hunith murmured, ‘Regarding the matter we spoke of…’

‘Ah. Yes.’ She meant Arthur’s secret, of course. Not Merlin’s. It was perhaps as well for her that she had forgotten betraying her son – though Arthur felt, under all the circumstances, she had really done them both an enormous favour. ‘Of course.’

‘You are patient and true, Arthur. It does you much credit. I’m sure you will win your just reward.’

‘Thank you, Hunith.’

‘Next Beltane, perhaps…’

Arthur shuddered. ‘I certainly hope it will be a happier celebration than this year’s.’

‘Next Beltane,’ she continued firmly. ‘It will be exactly twenty–one years since Merlin was conceived. That will be your time.’

‘I am content to wait.’

They were strolling across the courtyard now, with Hunith still leaning on Arthur’s arm. ‘You are the very best of men, Arthur Pendragon,’ she declared once they’d reached the others. And she pushed up to press a kiss to his cheek.

‘Thank you, Hunith. Your good opinion means the world to me.’

Leon seemed to have half–caught an idea from the aether, from his forgotten memories, from wherever such wonderful inspiration came from… Arthur winked at him to reinforce the notion.

Once Hunith and Merlin had said their farewells and hugged, then Arthur and Merlin watched Leon and Hunith ride off, and they slowly followed as far as the battlements, so that they could see them ride into the surrounding forest – already so deep in conversation that Hunith forgot to turn back for a last wave from her son.

Arthur and Merlin stood there a little longer in the spring sunshine, watching the bustle in the town below, and breathing in the intoxicating air. Arthur felt supremely at ease, and everything around him seemed almost back to rights – with one exception. Merlin was nervous around him. Skittish. And it behoved Arthur to lay any fears to rest. ‘Something’s troubling you, isn’t it, Merlin?’

‘No. Yes.’ Merlin sighed. ‘Perhaps.’

‘Well?’

‘It’s just – I wasn’t asleep the entire time, was I? During the… siege or enchantment or whatever it was.’

Arthur shrugged easily, like none of this was any big deal. ‘What do you think you remember?’

Merlin scrunched his face up in a grimace, and squinted at him – and Arthur kicked himself for finding the man so endearing. ‘Did I say or… or do anything that… disturbed you, Arthur?’

‘No. Not at all.’ Arthur wondered if Merlin was more worried about the love, the sex or the magic.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Absolutely.’

Merlin didn’t seem reassured. Perhaps he was actually disappointed to think that he hadn’t unwittingly spilled all his secrets.

‘Look, Merlin…’ Arthur sighed. What could he say? He thought the issue of magic must remain off the table, but surely he could lay some groundwork for the rest. ‘Merlin. Did you ever have… a sense that you’d found someone who would be important to you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Someone who might… be bound to you for the rest of your life?’

‘Yes.’

Arthur took his turn grimacing at Merlin. This was going alarmingly well. ‘I don’t mean –’

‘Don’t you?’

‘Maybe,’ he allowed. ‘In time, Merlin. Not yet.’

‘Yes, sire… I mean, no, sire.’ And Merlin actually laughed, though from the sound of it mostly in relief. ‘Arthur. I meant what I said.’

‘Which bit?’

‘I’ll be happy to serve you till my dying day.’

‘Then,’ said Arthur briskly, ‘let’s hope that’s a long way off. Come along.’ He turned to lead the way back into the castle; Merlin followed him with alacrity. ‘There’s a week’s worth of work to do today. Starting with the fact that I have a horrible dearth of clean tunics to wear…’

Merlin groaned… and all was oh–so–very right again in Camelot.

♦ ♦ ♦

Posted in: Merlin, Slash fic

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