"I don't know," Morgana says slowly, "I think the green's a little young for me now, don't you? I mean, I've worn it before, and Uther was perfectly fine with it, so I think perhaps one of the new ones." Gwen doesn't answer immediately, and she turns to see what's taking so long.
Gwen is leaning against the wall, eyelids fluttering as she fights to keep them open.
"Gwen? Are you all right?"
"Fine," Gwen says, straightening and looking guilty. "I'm perfectly fine, my lady, I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
Morgana frowns. "Gwen, you were falling asleep."
"I'm very s—"
"It's my coming-of-age ball, not a war." She crosses the room and touches Gwen's hand: lightly, gently. "You know it's more important to me that you be happy as well than that all the flowers in the halls are arranged at the best angle, or whatever it is you were doing, don't you?"
Gwen visibly fights back a yawn. Morgana curses herself for not having noticed sooner—she knows exhaustion from those occasional, dreadful nights broken by horrors; she should have seen its marks on Gwen. "Stephen was trying to insist the flowers be red, and he kept trying to go through and change things."
"I hope Arthur sacks him," Morgana says. "I can't imagine why he hasn't yet."
"Maybe he's waiting for him to quit," Gwen says. This time her yawn refuses to be suppressed, and it spoils her hopeful tone. "And then he tried to have the cooks replace the savory with a—I mean, Stephen did, not Arthur."
"With a what?" Morgana asks, morbidly curious.
"An elk with gilded horns."
Morgana blinks. "Why?"
"I don't know." Gwen rubs her eyes—a quick, almost furtive motion, as if she is dashing away tears. They are puffy with weariness, and Morgana feels another pang of guilt.
"Just—just lie down and rest for a bit, Gwen. I can dress myself if you lace my corset first."
"The ball is in less than an hour, my lady," Gwen protests. "I need to be there."
"I'll tell Uther you're ill if he asks why you're not, but I doubt he'll notice. I'll be fine, Gwen. I'm an adult, remember? That's the whole point. I can feed myself, and it'll serve Stephen right to have to fetch everything for me as well as Arthur." Actually, Morgana thinks, that is an excellent plan.
Gwen sighs and pulls herself away from the wall. "If you insist, my lady."
"Unless you want to come?" Maybe Gwen does; maybe if Morgana refuses to let her fetch and carry through a half-drunk crowd of rude nobility she is depriving Gwen of an eagerly-awaited delight. "It won't be anything new, though."
"I suppose if you don't need me," says Gwen, looking incredibly tempted. "But I don't want to just—"
"Gwen, really, you should sleep if you're this tired. I'll be fine." She tugs on her chemise to make sure it doesn't bunch oddly when Gwen puts the corset on. "Really."
Gwen picks up the corset and tugs it around Morgana's waist. Her hands are warm when she smoothes out the tiny wrinkles that have formed at its edges, gentle but strong as she tightens the laces. Morgana wraps her hands around the bedpost as an anchor and exhales.
"What color are the flowers?" she asks Gwen.
"Blue and white, mostly," Gwen says. "Some pink."
It's an excuse not to wear the girlishly modest green dress, though almost any combination of colors would have been. She has looked demure and sweet for every festivity so far since she came to Camelot; it is past time to impress people. "I think the dark red gown, then."
She gets it from the wardrobe and Gwen automatically reaches out for it.
"Ah," Morgana says warningly. "Remember, you're resting."
"Let me just help with the fastenings, my lady," Gwen says. "You've never done them before."
Morgana pulls the gown over her head herself; it feels cool and liquid as water. Gwen comes over to do the row of tiny hooks up the back, and Morgana has to admit, if only silently, that she would probably not have been able to fasten the lower ones herself. "Now sleep," she says.
"What if—" Gwen begins, but Morgana knows she is capable of coming up with an endless series of What if?s if nobody stops her—that Gwen will empty herself out like a pitcher of water in a midsummer drought—and turns and presses her fingers to Gwen's lips as she says, "Ssh."
Gwen's eyes widen, and Morgana realizes, belatedly, that Gwen's lips are soft under her hand, and that her skin tingles with heat where it touches Gwen's. She draws her hand back and watches Gwen carefully, curiously, as the realization that if Gwen tries to protest again she will kiss her to silence her blossoms in her mind, bright and sweet and wild.
Gwen says nothing. She continues staring, some of the sleepy resignation gone from her face. Her cheeks are flushed and her breathing is unsteady.
"You can stay here," Morgana says, out of motives almost entirely pure. "If you're worried about helping me out of the lacings again."
"I couldn't possibly." Gwen glances at Morgana's cloud-soft mattresses and white-veiled bed with hardly-disguised longing. "Really, my lady, I—"
"I won't be using it," Morgana says in her most reasonable voice. "And it isn't as if you haven't slept there before when I—you know."
Gwen looks torn. "But you were there."
"It's not disrespectful if I tell you to do it, Gwen." It is unbelievably frustrating, sometimes, how unwilling Gwen is to accept the things Morgana wants to give her: sweetmeats, amusing and pretty trinkets from the marketplace, a length of pale-yellow cloth that made Morgana look ill and would have been charming on Gwen. A good night's rest. The life of peace and happiness and comfort she deserves for the loveliness of her nature.
Morgana has always felt that if the superior in rank is willing for someone else to be, technically, insubordinate, that it's absurd for the other to protest out of respect. Then again, Gwen might have been as humble and generous and unassuming if she'd been born a king's daughter.
Gwen sits carefully on the edge of the bed; her body tries to melt into the mattresses, but she resists. "I should do your hair, at least, my lady, so…" she begins, but by that time Morgana, effervescent with her new revelation, has put a hand to Gwen's cheek and tilted her face up, and Gwen's protest fades in surprise.
Morgana gives Gwen time to object, or to be worried, dismayed, anything—it is very Gwen to give herself utterly, but it is not at all Gwen to be taken, in any way, and Morgana knows she would not sit mutely in a consent she does not feel—but Gwen's surprise fades in its turn, and as she begins to smile (shyly, wonderingly, wearily) joy breaks like the dawn over Morgana and seems to illuminate the room. "I can do my own hair," Morgana says, smiling back, and then she does kiss Gwen, as she's wanted to for—how long is it now? she isn't even sure.
It is a gentle kiss, because Gwen is tired, but they linger in it anyway, and Gwen sinks her hands into Morgana's still-damp hair, pulling it down to fall like a rose-scented curtain around them both.
"I'll sleep," Gwen says when they draw apart. "I promise."
"Good," says Morgana. She looks behind her in the mirror as she sorts through her jewelry, searching for the gold mesh snood spangled with pearls. Gwen is curled up atop the blankets, her head resting not on a pillow but on her arm. Her eyes are already closed, and her breathing is slow and even. Morgana sighs and shakes her head.
She finds the snood; she finds a glittering swoop of a necklace with garnet drops scattered among curls of gold. Twisted roughly up, as is the best she can do, her hair looks clumsy, but that same rough tangle becomes almost elegant when trapped in a glittering cage.
Gwen would have made her look better, but she is satisfied with her appearance nonetheless. As an afterthought, as she turns towards the door, she stops to take one of the white violets from the posy Gwen brought her that morning and tucks it into the hairband.
The ball is as tedious as she'd expected.
Uther's eyes almost pop out of his skull when she curtsies to him, but then three young lords nearly trip over each other trying to get to her side first, and she can actually see the moment when he changes from being scandalized at his almost-daughter's visible cleavage to realizing that she is now another asset to Camelot's treasuries, a prize to dangle with treaties in the hopes that he will never have to give it away.
Arthur's brilliant Pendragon scarlet looks just faintly off against the deep crimson of her gown, and he sulks—not that he would ever admit he was sulking—as much about that as about the fact that nobody can fail to remember, now, that he's younger than she by nearly a year.
The young and not-so-young lords are predictably impressed by the gown, or rather the strategic lack of gown. Their conversation, never sparkling, has become virtually nonexistent.
It is a relief to leave and to return to her chambers; her limbs ache and boredom grinds on her nerves. Gwen wakes when the door opens, looking better-rested, and unfastens the gown by the light of a single candle with a surety and grace Morgana envies. When the lacings of the corset loosen, Morgana breathes a sigh of relief that she can breathe fully now, that her breasts are no longer pressed up and in in what is an admittedly striking look but is not comfortable.
Gwen takes the violet from Morgana's hair and smiles, holding it carefully, as if it is more precious than any of the jewels her lady wears. She leaves it on Morgana's dressing-table, fair and fine amid the colored brilliance of precious metal and gems.
Gwen unfastens the necklace and pulls off the snood, then finds a hairbrush without being asked; she combs through Morgana's tangled hair with her fingers first, then with the brush, until it feels like silk as it falls against Morgana's back and Morgana feels as if she should be purring.
"Thank you," Morgana says at last, her voice low. In the near-dark with Gwen warm behind her it feels as if it should be a caress on the ears, and when Gwen murmurs "My lady" by her ear in near-meaningless reply it feels like one, trickling down her spine like fire and ice.
Morgana blows out the candle. "Come back to bed, Gwen."