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The low buzz of the early evening was now becoming a din. Just arrived in Camelot, Alric hovered on the fringes of the Great Hall, taking in the festivities. The hall was done up in swags of greenery and dotted with candlelight; the scent of cinnamon and cloves perfumed the air. Laughter and gaiety swelled, the music and conversation growing louder as Camelot’s finest celebrated their victory over the great dragon.

Where was Merlin, Alric wondered for the umpteenth time that night. He’d been honoured when the castle steward assigned him to Merlin for training, since they were both from Ealdor, but it was damn difficult to keep track of the fellow. Never knew where to find him; he was always sneaking about. Alric was rather in awe of Merlin after hearing stories of him and Prince Arthur saving the village from bandits. To hear the villagers tell, Merlin was almost royalty himself. So when Alric’s uncle invited him to come live in Camelot, Alric had jumped at the opportunity.

Merlin had been quite helpful the first day, giving him instruction in the workings of the castle (always suck up to the kitchen servants), but then Prince Arthur had bellowed at him – something about mud on his favourite boots – and Merlin disappeared. Alric was left to wander the castle and he took that opportunity to spy on the prettiest maids as they scurried down the endless hallways.

The festival was Alric’s first chance to show Merlin and the rest of the servants he could do his job. Merlin’s advice had been short and to the point: keep the nobles’ goblets filled, avoid their eyes, and for god’s sake, don’t let Lady Twistle get a hand on you, because the next thing you know, she’ll be groping your nether regions in full view of everyone.

Somehow Alric managed to avoid Lady Twistle and pour wine for his assigned guests without spilling it on someone’s best gown. He looked for Merlin to show him how well he was doing, but he was nowhere to be found. Alric had seen Prince Arthur whispering to Merlin earlier, Merlin’s head bent low to the Prince seated at the high table – perhaps he’d been pulled away for an errand.

“Hullo. Doing alright?” Lady Morgana’s servant, Gwen, a sweet and pretty girl, appeared at Alric’s elbow.

“Yes, very well, thank you.” Alric let his attention wander to Gwen’s curls and shapely figure. He’d asked Merlin about her after they first met. Was she spoken for? Merlin just laughed. It’s complicated, he said. All right, that was as clear as mud. He smiled at her, his gaze pulled to her cleavage as if by gravity.

“Umm, Sir Leon?” Gwen gestured to the knight, who was waving at Alric from the table. “He’s calling for you?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Alric refocused on his duties. It wouldn’t do to get too distracted on his first big night. Maybe he’d get a chance to talk to Gwen in the kitchen later.

He hurried to pour wine for Sir Leon, who called for more sweetmeats. As Alric rounded the corner towards the kitchen stairs at a fast clip, he almost ran into Merlin emerging from a dark alcove.

Strange.

Merlin’s face was pink and his eyes were glittery under mussed-up hair. He was pulling his tunic back into place when Alric stopped short in front of him.

“Oh!” Merlin said, surprised.

“There you are!” Alric replied. “I was wondering where you’d gone off to.”

Merlin turned even pinker. Alric craned his neck to see into the alcove. It was obvious what Merlin had been up to. The question was, with whom? “Shouldn’t you be attending to Prince Arthur?” Alric asked, shocked at Merlin’s neglect of his duties.

“Umm.” Merlin’s mouth – swollen and redder than usual – fell open. For once, he was speechless.
Great. Merlin was going to get the sack on Alric’s first night of duty and Alric would be on his way back to Ealdor in the morning, in shame.

“It’s not a problem, believe me,” Merlin said in a rush. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got things in hand.”

There was a snort from the alcove – and not a feminine-sounding one either. Alric frowned.

Merlin grabbed his arm and manhandled Alric back toward the great hall while Alric blubbered, “Wha...what are you doing?”

“I hear Lord Underwood calling for you. Don’t you hear him? I’m sure he needs another venison steak, he’s very fond of that, you know, the cook makes it especially for him when he visits...” Merlin prattled on, pulling Alric by the arm.

Alric might be from the country, but he wasn’t stupid. Merlin was hiding something, or rather, some one. Besides, he needed to get those sweetmeats. “Wait a minute. I’m supposed to get more sweetmeats for Sir Leon. The kitchen’s back that way.” Alric jerked his arm out of Merlin’s grasp and stalked down the hallway towards the kitchen, leaving Merlin to gape at him, yelling, “Wait!”

As Alric approached the alcove, he was shocked to see Prince Arthur emerge, in a state similar to Merlin’s, but with regal bearing intact. “Merlin. Is this your new charge?” The Prince behaved as if nothing were amiss, rounding up Alric with an arm around his shoulder. “I trust Merlin is showing you the ropes. Not that he knows a whit about being a good servant.” The Prince scowled at Merlin, but there was an amused glint in his eye. “I wouldn’t model myself after him.” The Prince’s fond expression belied his stern words. “Why don’t you just run along to the kitchen. There’s a good boy.” He gave Alric a shove and slid his arm around Merlin’s waist, leading him back to the alcove. “Merlin has duties to attend to,” he said with a wink.

Merlin smirked and rolled his eyes, but he leaned into Arthur’s embrace, clearly at ease. Alric shook his head at the strange ways of Camelot and escaped as quickly as possible to the kitchen.