Merlin still had the first djinni bottle he'd ever made: a horizontal model, lying belly down as if it ought to harbour a miniature ship. It was blue and shaped like a whale, with clumsy fins and an expression of perpetual surprise, but it was good enough for an eight-year-old, he supposed. The glasswork was nothing special but the spells would hold a level four spirit, and Gaius had pronounced it exceptional.
The strength of the bottle had been tested, too, although Gaius knew nothing about that. Merlin had been twelve at the time and the crush on his teacher had been intense - at least he'd thought so, and been slightly disappointed when the manifestation had turned out to be a mere level three. The bottle had contained it easily.
Merlin had a unique gift when it came to djinni. He was good with the spellwork for the bottles, but he could also sense the strength level of a djinni without running the usual tests, and whatever kind of manifestation it was, he never failed to trap it.
"My trade never flourished until you came along, Merlin," Gaius said. "Our reputation for excellence is all thanks to you."
That wasn't true, of course - Gaius was a skilled glassblower who could weave an intricate spell - but Merlin was grateful for the old man's generosity in teaching him a trade and making him a partner. They had a shop by the marketplace where they sold their merchandise, with a hot shop at the back where they crafted it.
That name never ceased to amuse Will, Merlin's old friend. "A hot shop! Sounds like you're selling more than just glassware, Merlin!"
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Hot shop only means a workshop with a furnace."
Will nudged him with an elbow. "Sooo… where do you keep it, then?"
"The racy stuff. The hot stuff. Under the counter?"
For Will's birthday last year, Merlin had made him a cock-and-balls sculpture of pink glass. "Gives a whole new meaning to 'blowing glass'."
Will had laughed so hard he cried.
Today was market day. Merlin loved it when the marketplace filled with stalls, vendors shouted out their ware and people milled around. He set up a table outside the shop, with colourful glassware he knew would draw customers. Some came only to look at the display but many were tempted into the relative darkness of the shop, where row upon row of containers glittered mysteriously.
Children loved the animal-shaped bottles, and parents sometimes gave in and bought them one with or without djinni protection.
Today, Merlin watched a boy fall in love with a lion.
"Isn't this lion great, dad? Look, it's got charging ports! One in each paw! Can I have it, dad, please? Pleeease?"
The father looked unconvinced, and the boy launched a persuasion campaign: "Maybe we can put a manifestation of my laziness in there? Then I can use it to charge my nightlight!"
The corners of dad's mouth twitched. "Your unwillingness to do chores only manifests itself as an untidy room and stacks of dirty dishes. But you may have the bottle."
Merlin grinned and sold them the golden lion. "Good choice. It will hold a spirit up to level five."
It was a perfectly ordinary market day until sunset.
Just as Merlin was closing up shop for the night, a man strode across the square with urgency in his step. The hood of his cloak was pulled up and his face lay in shadow, but Merlin knew who this must be.
His heart began to pound. "My lord. How may I serve you?"
The prince threw a glance over his shoulder. "I have need of a glass-merchant."
Sleep wouldn't come that night. Merlin sat up in bed, shook his pillow and lay down again, scooting over to find a cool spot on the sheets.
The prince seemed to have left an afterimage, something semi-transparent that floated on top of everything else in Merlin's mind and vision, as if the prince himself had turned into a manifestation.
That was what the prince had wanted: a bottle to contain a strong manifestation. After careful consideration he had bought a green, elephant-shaped container. Merlin would have lied if he said he wasn't curious. It would have been bad manners to ask what kind of manifestation it was, but he couldn't imagine a spirit powerful enough to shatter the sturdy elephant bottle.
As it turned out, he was wrong.
Just as he was closing the shutters the next evening, the prince returned. Merlin ushered him inside and asked how he could help.
An aura of nervous energy surrounded the prince, who was pale and grim. He tipped out the tinkling contents of a small cloth bag on the counter and folded his arms. "It broke."
Merlin drew a breath. "I can see that." He poked at the shards with a finger and pulled his hand back, hissing. The edges were sharp and hot, sizzling with magical energy. It would take more than an ordinary djinni to do that.
"This manifestation of yours," he said cautiously, "what level is it?"
"I haven't tested it, but it's strong. Perhaps a level seven."
Merlin shook his head. "Our glass is spelled to contain anything up to and including a level ten." He paused and looked at the prince, who was fidgeting. "This is something else."
The prince stilled. "There's no such thing."
Of course there was, and the prince had to know it. In the silence that followed, one of the green shards on the counter broke into two with a ping, sending up a thread of smoke.
Merlin looked from the shard to the prince and raised an eyebrow. "I say there is."
The prince glared. "What's your name?"
"Tell me, Merlin, why should I believe a single word you say?"
From the look of him, the prince hadn't slept much last night, either. There were shadows under his eyes and a sadness to his mouth. It didn't make him less handsome.
"Because," said Merlin slowly, "you already knew that. And because I'm the only one who can trap it for you."
"Yes, and you knew that too, or you wouldn't have come here."
The prince narrowed his eyes. "Perhaps."
They looked at one another until the prince said: "So, what do you need?"
"I need to come to the castle and see for myself."
The spirit was a Heartbreak, tiny but powerful. The better the host had been suppressing it, the smaller the spirit, and the smaller the spirit, the stronger it became. Merlin eyed the prince with curiosity. "Is it yours?"
The prince looked down at his hands. "Yes."
"I'm not surprised the bottle broke. I've never encountered a manifestation this strong before."
"Can you contain it?"
Merlin felt a shiver of nerves, but it didn't do to show it. He nodded. "But I will need to extract some ingredients from your memories first. For the spell."
They sat cross-legged in the centre of the floor and Merlin reached for the prince's hands. They lay warm and firm in his own. "There are three elements to bind a negative spirit. Your happiest memory, a hope for the future, and the thing you want most in all the world. Can you do that?"
Merlin had heard the prince described as valiant and brave. What they were about to do was invasive and personal - a different kind of battlefield, requiring a different kind of courage.
The prince seemed to have that kind, too. He took a deep breath, met Merlin's eyes and nodded.
Merlin nodded back in confirmation. "Then I'll begin.
The magic rushed through him, scalded his veins and set his mind aglow with a curious kind of light that was part pain and part joy. It didn't seem to hurt the prince, who sat with his eyes closed, quietly letting Merlin do what he needed to do.
Never in a million years would Merlin have guessed at the loneliness and pain he'd find. Never in a million years would he have guessed that all the prince's hopes and dreams were connected with love and belonging.
When the extraction was finished, Merlin found his face wet with tears. He dropped the prince's hands and wiped his cheeks.
The prince looked stricken. "I'm sorry - did I do anything wrong?"
"It's just the magic," Merlin lied. "Sometimes it affects me like this." He got to his feet and looked down at the prince, who stayed cross-legged on the floor. He wanted to help him, heal him, any way he could. "Please, Arthur - sire - " The name had just slipped out, not disrespectful but too familiar too soon. "The best way to diminish a spirit's power is to deprive it of the things that fuel it. You should… it might help to talk to someone."
The prince looked up then, his eyes shadowed with pain. "I'm afraid that won't be possible. But thank you all the same."
"I'll return tomorrow with the vessel."
Merlin held the bottle up to the light and looked at the spirit caught neatly inside it. The glass buzzed and vibrated, warm to the touch, but it felt safe. He handed it to Arthur.
"Will it hold?"
"For now, at least. And if it should break, you know where to find me."
There was another unique thing about Merlin and djinni, one that only Merlin and his mother knew about. With other people - normal people, Merlin thought - only negative emotions would manifest themselves as djinni. With Merlin, any strong emotion could turn into a spirit. Happiness. Love.
The first time there was a manifestation, he was twelve and had a crush on his teacher. That was when he had tested the strength of the first bottle he'd made.
It had happened a few times after that, too. On one or two occasions, the manifestation had even taken animal shape. Once, when there was news of Merlin's father returning from his sea travels, Merlin was so happy that a puppy spirit sprang to life. He felt terrible about trapping it in a bottle, but he couldn't go to school with a semi-transparent puppy bouncing and yapping around his feet. He didn't want to explain.
This time, it was scarier.
After his second visit to the palace, Merlin woke up at dawn to a ghostly dragon hovering over his bed. He lay still for a moment and watched it, feeling its power radiate like heat, rippling the air.
He had suspected this would happen, dreaded it, since he'd done the extraction. How could he not fall for Arthur, after what he'd seen? This manifestation was an Infatuation, very strong. It couldn't be allowed to transform into Love. That would be too painful, too embarrassing. Too futile.
Merlin had never felt anything remotely like this. Since the moment they'd met, he had thought of Arthur every waking minute. The bitter-sweetness added an extra, jagged edge, because he'd probably never see Arthur again. They didn't exactly move in the same social circles, and Merlin had done his job too well for Arthur to need the services of a glass-merchant any time soon.
Being good at his job was a curse sometimes.
Light was seeping in around the curtains and Merlin sat up in bed. He had to work quickly now, if he wanted to hide the dragon.
He pulled on his clothes and ran along the quiet morning streets to the shop. No ordinary bottle would hold this manifestation for very long. What he needed was a container with off-the-chart protection levels.
Trapping his own manifestations was always harder than trapping other people's, but at long last the dragon lay coiled up in a large bottle of clear, uncoloured glass with a strength never seen in the shop, or any other shop that Merlin knew of. As an extra safety measure, an intricate web of spells held the stopper in place.
It was a full week before Arthur came back to the shop, again at the end of the day, just as the sun was setting. He wore a black, hooded cloak and his face was ashen.
"In need of a glass-merchant?" Merlin had planned to say if the prince ever came back, and lean casually against the counter, but the look in Arthur's eyes frightened him and he blurted: "Did it break?"
Arthur shook his head. "It didn't - not yet - but it's making a racket. I've locked it up inside five travel trunks but it keeps bouncing around, day and night. I can't sleep. I need your help."
The blue bottle spun and danced on top of the table where Merlin had placed it. Inside, the spirit was clearly furious, spitting tiny white sparks that pinged off the glass walls. It was only a matter of time before the bottle would break.
"It's gaining strength."
Arthur sat down on the floor. "I know." He looked so exhausted Merlin's heart clenched in his chest. "Is there anything you can do?"
Merlin chewed his bottom lip. "Have you thought about what I said - you know, about talking to someone…?"
Arthur closed his eyes. "There's really no one I can talk to."
Merlin leaned closer to the bottle and peered at the spirit. There was something strange about its power, how it seemed to accumulate, how the intensity of its glow shifted and moved like the flicker of a flame.
Behind him, Arthur said: "Unless…"
Merlin turned around. "Unless what?"
Arthur opened his eyes. "Unless I could talk to you." He seemed a little embarrassed by his own words; a slow blush crept upwards from his neck. "After all, you've already been inside my mind. You've seen the mess there. Would you…? I'd pay you well for your time, of course."
"Of course," said Merlin, stunned. He was a mere glass-merchant - how had he moved so fast from djinni trapper to the prince's confidant? "Yes. Yes, of course you can talk to me." He pointed to the bottle. "I think I just figured something out about this manifestation."
A spark ignited in Arthur's eyes. "Yes?"
"It's not a single spirit. It's a cluster. It has the appearance of a Heartbreak - the strongest one may be a Heartbreak - but it's made up of several different manifestations. That's why it's so powerful. I'm thinking that…" He pinched his lip and leaned closer to the bottle. Now that he knew what to look for he could identify at least four separate spirits, possibly five.
"We have to let it out."
Arthur flinched. "Is that necessary?"
"I think so. We need to separate them, put them in separate containers. That will lessen their power and they'll stop making so much noise. You'll be able to sleep again, at least."
Arthur took a deep breath. "Well, if that's what it takes."
"I need more vessels. I'll be back tomorrow night."
Anyone who came to consult a glass-merchant the next day was met by a locked door and a CLOSED sign, but the hot shop at the back was buzzing with activity as the furnace was fired up and Gaius and Merlin set to work. Merlin would do the spells but he needed the old man's glass-blowing skills.
Late in the afternoon they had finished four bottles and a spare: a red monkey, a blue dolphin, a yellow squirrel, a black toucan and a new green elephant like the first one Arthur had picked, the one that broke. They were all adorned with fine brushstrokes of gold and all of them had spellwork to hold a level twelve spirit.
Luckily, Gaius hadn't asked where Merlin had learned to do that kind of spells, or why.
"Arthur is a good man," said Gaius as Merlin was wrapping up the bottles. "I hope you can help him."
Merlin nearly dropped the elephant. "You know Arthur?"
Gaius had his back turned and Merlin couldn't see his expression. "I used to. When Arthur was a boy."
Merlin opened his mouth again, but this was not the time for questions. He had to leave for the castle.
Four djinni bottles were lined up on the table, each containing a very cross spirit. Merlin was out of breath, Arthur was shaking, and they had both sweated through their clothes.
"We did it."
Merlin gave Arthur a smile. "You did well. You were very brave."
For a moment he wondered whether he ought to add "my lord", but Arthur didn't seem to notice.
Instead he asked: "What happens now?"
It was a bit daunting, the way Arthur seemed to trust Merlin completely - after all, this was his first time handling a spirit cluster. But he didn't want to show any insecurity. As Arthur's guide he had to know the way. If he didn't, he had to find it.
"The only way I know to diminish their power is to talk about them."
"I know," said Merlin. "But we have to try."
Arthur closed his eyes. "I'm not looking forward to this."
Neither was Merlin - or perhaps he was, a little. Not that he wanted to see Arthur in pain, but he wanted to help.
"First things first." Arthur opened his eyes and gave Merlin a shaky but knee-weakening smile. "I want to put on a clean tunic and then we should have supper."
Much as Merlin would have loved to see Arthur remove his clothes, he used a quick spell to clean and dry their tunics.
The meal was probably a humble one by palace standards, but Merlin's eyes still goggled at the silver serving dishes and the fact that if he wanted more of anything, he only had to ask. He noted, too, that Arthur treated his servants with kindness.
When Arthur pushed his plate aside, the table was quickly cleared and they were alone again.
"Where do you want to begin?" Merlin asked.
Arthur rubbed his forehead. "I don't want to do this at all." He sighed. "But since I have to… let's start with the Grief."
Arthur's mother had died when he was twelve. No one knew what had ailed her; she had simply seemed to fade away. Half deranged with grief, the king had left his two children to their own devices, to handle their own grief as best they could.
"It doesn't go away," Arthur said to Merlin. "It does get better, and you think you've locked it up safely, but then something triggers a memory and the door is wide open again."
Merlin nodded. "And it hurts almost as much as it did then, when it was fresh."
Arthur looked at him. "Did you lose someone too?"
On one of his sea journeys Merlin's father had disappeared and never returned.
They sat for a moment without speaking. Outside the open window, a light rain came whispering through the trees.
"You know," said Arthur slowly, "in a strange way I don't want the Grief to go. Like if it does, I'll forget my mother."
Merlin hesitated, then reached out and touched Arthur's shoulder gently. "You won't. They're part of us - your mother, my father - literally, physically, and in our memories and dreams. We won't forget them."
Arthur smiled with sadness in his eyes. "I pushed it away for the longest time because it was too painful. It's not until recently that I've…" He looked down, embarrassed. "That I've actually cried over my mother."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," said Merlin softly. "Not that you pushed it away, and not that you can cry now."
"I used to feel like I would drown," Arthur murmured, "if I gave in and cried. Like I'd never be able to stop. But now, somehow, I'd like the grief to stay."
He reached out and picked up the bottle, the toucan with its golden beak and gold-tipped wings, and looked at the spirit trapped inside. Its visual form stayed the same, but Merlin sensed a change. It hadn't weakened, exactly, but its nature had changed.
Arthur seemed to sense it too. He smiled and put the bottle back on the table. "You may stay," he said to the spirit. "I know how to handle you now."
It was three in the morning when Merlin staggered home. He went straight to bed but sleep wouldn't come.
He sighed and looked up at the ceiling. The only light in the room was the ghostly glow of the dragon in its bottle on the shelf.
Merlin wasn't sure it had helped Arthur to talk about his grief - it felt like he'd had that one under control already. But even if it hadn't, it had helped Merlin. He had never talked to anyone about his own grief before, and hadn't said very much to Arthur either, but it had been a relief to say anything at all. To hear that someone else had the same kind of feelings and the same doubts.
When Merlin slept at last, he dreamed about a vast, tranquil sea, rippled only by the faintest of breezes. There, on board a ship with slack, lazy sails, his father stood shading his eyes with his hand, looking for land. He was smiling.
The dragon was gaining strength and size.
Its pale, scaly skin was pressed up against the glass and it seemed to have grown more solid, from pale semi-transparency to milky, opaque white. Only the outline was still fuzzy.
Merlin adjusted the spells and left for work.
When Merlin examined Arthur's Heartbreak he noticed something curious.
"The spirit has some sort of... split?" he said. "I don't know how to explain it, but it's like two parts merged into one. Could there be two sources?"
They were sitting on the floor in Arthur's chambers with only a small lamp burning on the desk, powered by the Grief in its toucan bottle.
Arthur nodded slowly and began his story.
Three years after the queen's death, Arthur's sister Morgana disappeared, leaving a note saying she couldn't stay at the castle. She had to find her own way.
It was a blow for Arthur. He was hurt that she would leave him behind, hurt that he wasn't more important to her, hurt that she would leave him alone with their ever more tyrannical father.
Since his wife's death, king Uther had become a hard man. He may have grieved for his daughter but outwardly her disappearance only made him furious. He refused to send out a search party. He forbade Arthur to look for her or even speak of her. She was no longer a daughter of his. He had no daughter.
Arthur, at fifteen, defied his father for the first time, but in secret. With the help of a few loyal palace guards he searched for Morgana, but found no trace.
Sometimes he thought it would have been easier if she'd been kidnapped. It was so much harder to find someone who didn't want to be found.
Arthur missed his sister desperately. He felt lonely in the palace with only his moody, unpredictable father for company, and Uther turned on the only child he had left. Arthur was a disappointment, weak and ill-qualified to become king, a milksop of a man who would never learn to run a country the way it should be run. He was too soft with prisoners. His belief in peace and unity was a ridiculous flaw of inexperienced, idealistic youth. Reality would hit soon enough. He should to be sent out to war or he'd never be a man.
"I'd been trained for combat since I was a child," said Arthur in a low voice. "I'd won every competition I ever entered, and now I excelled in the battles he sent me to. But nothing I ever did was good enough. He criticized my every move, told me how weak I was, how bad and ineffective my strategies were, how I was a disgrace for the kingdom." He rubbed a spot on the floor with his fingertip. "It's hard to live with."
Arthur looked up. "The fact that your own father hates you."
The raw pain in his eyes made Merlin draw a breath. "I really don't think that's true."
"You don't know him. You haven't seen him when he lashes out. You haven't heard the things he says to me."
"Have there been any other manifestations in the palace? Apart from yours, I mean."
"If so, they've been well hidden."
"Your father could be tormented by spirits, too. It's no excuse for his behaviour, but it sounds to me like he's in pain and tries to make you as miserable as he is, because he thinks it will make him feel better."
Arthur lay down on his back and covered his face with his hands. "I need to face the truth. I can never make him love me. I'll have to separate my life from his and live the best way I know how. I want to be a very different kind of king from my father."
"If he lets you."
Arthur sat up and barked a laugh. "Well, when I'm the king it's because he's dead, so he can't stop me. I'll discard his laws and make better ones. I know our neighbours are receiving refugees from Camelot. If anything is a disgrace, that is. I'd be ashamed to lead a country that drove people from their homes. I'll change all that for the better. And I'll find Morgana." He turned to Merlin with a curious mix of surprise and relief on his face. "I actually feel better just from saying that."
Merlin pointed to the blue dolphin bottle. "Look at the Heartbreak. It's fading. You've done good work today."
"We've done good work," Arthur corrected. "I'm hungry," he added. "Let's eat."
Arthur seemed to enjoy sharing his suppers with Merlin, and Merlin enjoyed it too. During the meals the mood was lighter, which was good for getting to know each other but terrible for Merlin's infatuation.
He loved the food as well. He got to try things he'd never had before, or even knew existed. Quail eggs. Salmon roe. Sweet chestnut purée. He didn't like everything, but developed a passion for oysters. His reaction to each new thing was a source of amusement to Arthur, but gradually the amusement changed into something else.
Encouraged, Merlin put on a bit of a show. Closing his eyes, moaning around his mouthful of food... When he looked up again he found Arthur's eyes fixed on him with an intensity that sent an electric shiver down his body.
The dragon was increasing in size, moving in its bottle in an impossible, slithering knot. Only the spells held the glass together. The creature was solid now, giving off a blue glow that made Merlin afraid to look at it.
"I did something unforgivable, Merlin. Something that can never be put right."
The Guilt was a strong manifestation, more powerful than the Heartbreak it had hidden behind.
"I have nightmares." Arthur was pacing, gnawing on a thumbnail. He wouldn't look at Merlin. "When I wake up, the smell is still there in my nose."
Arthur stopped, stared out of the window and shook his head. "Blood. Burning." He chewed his lip. "I hear it, too. The blasters. The screams."
"Did you kill anyone?"
Arthur laughed, a short joyless laugh that sent a chill down Merlin's spine. "We killed all of them. Every last one." He covered his face with his hands. "Oh, god. It went so wrong."
Arthur resumed his pacing. "They were Draoí."
The Draoí were powerful magic users and kept to themselves. They rarely bothered anyone, never settled down anywhere but wandered all over the country, disregarding borders and boundaries. Many felt threatened by their mere existence; many didn't want them on their land. Ever since Merlin was a child, he had gone to visit nearby Draoí camps. They always welcomed him quietly and allowed him to sit with them under the stars.
"Why were they killed?" He couldn't bring himself to say "why did you kill them?"
Arthur turned away. "An order from my father. He hates them. I should have refused but I wanted to prove myself, prove I could lead men in battle. I couldn't. They all went mad with bloodlust."
Merlin had no reply. It was true: this couldn't be put right.
Arthur started as if woken from a dream. A nightmare. "I don't want to talk about this any more. Not tonight."
Merlin only nodded. He didn't want to hear any more, either.
For four nights in a row they talked about the Draoí.
On the third night, Arthur said: "What I did was unforgivable, but I want to go and see them and ask their forgiveness all the same. Is that selfish of me, Merlin?"
Arthur smiled a little. "I know. But anything they'll do to me, I have deserved."
On the fourth night, Arthur said: "Once I'm king - if the Draoí don't kill me - I'll offer them land to settle down. If they don't want it, they can name their wish and I'll do my best to fulfill it."
It was a terrible thing Arthur had done, but he wanted to atone for it. And once that decision was made and the words uttered, the Guilt in its vessel weakened.
Merlin stopped dead in the doorway. The dragon in its bottle on the shelf above his bed lit up the entire room. It had changed colour. Each golden scale was clearly defined, a jagged ridge ran along its back and the feet had sharp talons. The eyes were closed, as if it was sleeping, dreaming, moving in its sleep.
The transformation from Infatuation to Love was nearly complete.
Merlin stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind him. Why had he allowed himself to fall in love with Arthur? How could he have been so stupid?
For every minute he spent with Arthur, he loved him more, and every time he left the castle he died a little, because the time when he had to leave for good was getting closer. The thought of not seeing Arthur every day, not seeing Arthur at all, almost made him panic. It was unimaginable.
At supper last night, after generous sampling of the wine cellars, Merlin had told Arthur about the pink glass cock he had made for Will. Arthur had thrown his head back and laughed, and Merlin had stared at his throat, mesmerised. He wanted to lean forward and follow the arc of it with his tongue. He wanted to hear Arthur laugh again and again: this was the real Arthur, Arthur as he should be.
Merlin was royally screwed.
He took the bottle from the shelf and studied the dragon closely. It was a magnificent creature.
This is something else altogether, he had said about Arthur's glass-breakingly strong manifestation. So was this - something else altogether. He had never heard of a manifestation taking on solid form.
Some day soon, the magical bonds wouldn't hold. What would happen then?
They were ready for the last bottle. Merlin held it up in front of them.
"It's clearly an Anxiety, but I can't see what it's about." He turned to Arthur, lifting an eyebrow. "So what is it you're afraid of? Spiders, maybe? Or plumed serpents? People who laugh like braying pegasi?"
Arthur stared at him, almost with pity. "Merlin, your mind is a weird place. Pegasi?"
Merlin shrugged, grinning. "Fine. What, then?"
Arthur took a breath. "It's an Anxiety, not a Phobia. I'm not sure how to define it. It's about… about living up to expectations."
"What kind of expectations?"
Arthur let out an exasperated sigh. "Let's see. I'm supposed to - " He counted on his fingers. " - be king in the not too distant future, be a leader, set a good example. I'm expected to negotiate trade agreements with our neighbours, hold council, keep the fragile peace and, if that isn't possible, lead my country to victory in war…" He caught his breath. "And I want to do all that, Merlin. I really do. I want to be the best king I can be, fair and just and wise - and don't you dare laugh."
Merlin didn't laugh. There was nothing funny about what Arthur was saying.
Arthur continued more calmly: "This is important to me. I want there to be lasting peace. I want to rule with kindness. I want to surround myself with good people who I can rely on for advice. But what if I don't have it in me, Merlin?" He got up from the floor and began to pace, as always when he was getting upset. "What if my father is right, and 'to the best of my ability' just isn't good enough?"
Before Merlin had ever met the prince he had imagined him to be a snobbish, pompous upper-class arse. Instead he had found someone who was bullied by his father and worried about his duty towards his people to the point where his anxiety tormented him.
Merlin caught Arthur's gaze. "Well, I can tell you this. If you had been convinced you'd be the greatest king on earth, or if you hadn't cared or just bragged about it or taken your position for granted, then I'd have said you'd be a rotten king. But you're not and you don't and you won't. You care about people, Arthur. I see it in the way you treat me and the way you treat your servants. You want to ask forgiveness for the wrong you did. You care about what kind of king you will become and you're willing to listen to advice, and that, in my view, could never lead to failure. If that's the kind of king you want to be, if that's what you'll work towards, then your people will be loyal to you, and they will love you."
Arthur had stopped pacing. A log fell in the fireplace and shadows moved softly in the corners of the room. The look of gratitude and relief in Arthur's eyes made Merlin swallow a lump in his throat.
"Do you really mean that, Merlin? Is that your honest opinion?"
"Yes. Yes, it is."
There was the beginning of a smile on Arthur's face. "If you believe that, then maybe I can believe it, too. Thank you, Merlin." A pause. "Thank you for all your help. For everything."
Merlin's eyes stung and his face went hot. This was it, then. They had reached the beginning of the end.
"I didn't do anything," he murmured. "I only got some bottles made."
Arthur's smile broadened. "You trapped the manifestation. You identified the cluster and helped me separate it, and then you listened. I think that's plenty."
Merlin swallowed and forced himself to smile in return.
"Will you stay and have supper with me one last time?"
One last time. Then it would be over.
Merlin nodded. "Thank you."
While they ate, Merlin looked at Arthur and thought their sessions had truly done him good. He looked so different from the first time they'd met. He'd been pinched and tense, exhausted, and his eyes shadowed with pain. Now his back was straight, his shoulders relaxed, and his eyes steady and calm. It was easy to picture him on the throne, or meeting his people on horseback.
They had no more business to take care of and they were free to talk about anything they wanted, but there was a wistful quality to the meal.
They talked all night. Merlin didn't want to leave and Arthur seemed reluctant to let him go.
Towards morning, when dawn was already creeping in, there was a lull in the conversation. Arthur got up and stretched, walked over to the window and opened it. Sweet, fresh air and birdsong floated into the room.
Merlin knew it was time to leave, but first there was something he had to do. Arthur had been brave for days and days. Now it was Merlin's turn.
He got up and went over to the cedar chest where his cloak lay in a heap. "There's something I want to show you."
He threw the cloak aside and uncovered the object it had been hiding.
The vessel had expanded to accommodate the red-gold dragon that was still moving slowly in its weird, giant knot, coiling and curling in and around itself. Merlin took a deep breath and carried it over to the table, where he sat it down.
Arthur stared at it. "What is that?"
Merlin swallowed. "A manifestation."
"Of what?" Arthur lifted the bottle carefully, turning it over in his hands. "It's warm."
"You've shown me who you are," said Merlin, barely above a whisper. "I thought maybe it's time for me to do the same."
Arthur tore his eyes away from the dragon. "What do you mean?"
"For other people, only negative emotions manifest themselves as spirits. With me, positive emotions can do that as well. This is an Infatuation. Or, it was."
Arthur cradled the bottle in his hands. "Was? What is it now? I've never seen anything like it. What strength is it?"
Merlin's heart was hammering, his blood pounding in his ears. "It's strong. Well above fifteen. And I think it's... Love."
At that moment, the first rays from the rising sun filled the window with light and gave Arthur a ragged, lopsided halo. He was always handsome, but with the dragon in his hands and his hair outlined with gold he was breathtaking.
The dragon turned a slow, slithering somersault and Arthur quickly put the bottle down on the table, hissing and shaking his hands. "It's hot."
Merlin bit his lip. He was scared now, but he had started this and had to see it through to the end.
"I know this is inappropriate," he began falteringly, "and believe me, I know it's insane, but I have to say it before I leave."
Arthur didn't seem to know whether to look at Merlin or the dragon. "Yes?"
"This manifestation…? It's about you."
That, at least, made Arthur's eyes snap up to Merlin's. Either it was the sunrise tingeing his skin red, or his own colour was rising.
"Infatuation?" he said slowly. "Love?"
Merlin couldn't get another word out. He had laid himself bare and could only wait for the reaction. Arthur would probably throw him out, or even worse - laugh at him. And it was laughable. A glass-merchant in love with the prince! Who did he think he was? The man had ideas above his station. Put him in the stocks.
But Arthur didn't laugh. Without letting go of Merlin's gaze he took a step forward until there was only a foot of air between them. Merlin's heartbeat was so loud he could barely hear what Arthur was saying: "There's been something on my mind for the past few days, Merlin. Something I didn't know how to say to you, or ask you."
"What?" It came out in a hoarse little croak.
"I couldn't bear the thought of you not coming here any more. Of not seeing you. I wanted to ask you to stay but I couldn't think of a good excuse."
Something between a snort and a giggle escaped Merlin and he found his voice again. "You don't need an excuse, or even a good reason. You're the prince. You could just order me to stay."
Arthur smiled, a little sadly. "I wanted you to stay because you wanted to. I'm so ridiculously addicted to you, Merlin, even if I don't have a dragon to show for it."
Enough of a preamble, Merlin thought. I have to kiss him. I'm going to kiss him now, stocks be damned.
A loud, creaking sound made them both jump. The bottle on the table was straining against the net of spells holding it together, shaking and rattling, until it broke with a sharp crack and a tinkling of shards as they fell onto the wood. Merlin and Arthur stared at the dragon as it uncoiled itself, shook out its glowing wings and took flight, writhing snakelike through the window to freedom.
They both ran to the window and leaned out, watching the huge, winged shape head straight for the sunrise. It was the same golden red as the clouds on the horizon.
There was a hush in the room and they looked at each other, breathing hard.
"What happened?" Arthur said, dazed. "What does it mean?"
Merlin shook his head. "I have no idea."
"The manifestation is gone. Does that mean the love is gone, too?"
Merlin found he could grin. "I should be so lucky. Or you should be."
Arthur laughed, looking relieved. He threw one last glance at the glorious sunrise and turned to Merlin. "Right. Let's continue where we left off when we were interrupted. I think I was about to kiss you. Would that be agreeable to you…?"
Merlin couldn't stop smiling. He closed his eyes and lifted his face invitingly. There was only one possible answer to Arthur's question. "Yes, my lord."