When he was small—six, seven years old, small enough to hide underneath beds and behind tapestries, young enough that his father’s summons were an invitation to play hide-and-seek instead of a command—when he was small, the queen’s chambers were his refuge.
Arthur did not remember his mother. He had been told no stories, there were no pictures, they only ever said her name in a whisper Ygraine so Arthur understood that she was a secret. Her old rooms were locked up, but bars on doors are no stop to a small child in a castle riddled with hidden passageways.
They smelled like her. Like dust and mildew, too, but also perfume, like dried flowers, like the scent that wafted behind the great ladies who came to court to visit and swept around the ballroom in their giant dresses. Ygraine’s rooms smelled like flowers and dust, and Arthur understood even before he was big enough to hold a sword that they had to be protected. He understood the importance of secrets.
When he was eight years old he'd hidden in his mother’s rooms for two straight days. He’d imagined that she was there with him, imagined that she said it’s okay to hide here, Arthur, imagined she said I can protect you, wished she was there to say I’ll always love you. When he was young and foolish he believed the secret of his mother’s memory would shield him from his father’s wrath.
But Gaius found him on the end of the second day, when the sun had died and his filched food had all been eaten and he’d exhausted all of the games that he’d invented for himself to play. The door creaked open and Gaius appeared, and Arthur wrapped himself up in the thick comforter of his mother’s bed.
“I don't want to go back out,” he'd said, blankets pulled up tight to his chin.
“Your father will be angry with you if you don't.”
“Father's always angry,” Arthur had whispered. His father’s moods were seldom subtle.
Two weeks before, Arthur’s swordmaster had stood by his side in an audience with the king and proudly reported on Arthur's progress. Uther had stared at Arthur for long, silent minutes, and then left without saying a word.
At eight years old Arthur had started to become useful, started to become recognizably an heir, he’d been given a sword and a trainer and realized that one day, one day, some day he could become a threat to his father. The heavy mahogany throne where his father lived was too big for Arthur now, but he was growing more and more every day.
He did not want to be king. He wanted his mother.
Father was always angry, now. When Arthur was around.
He and Guinevere were not equals. They never had been. And nothing in their marriage was fair, or equitable; nothing was easy.
Arthur didn't know if Gwen would recognize that he was ceding her the upper ground when he asked if he could meet her in her quarters after the feast drew to a close, instead of requesting her presence in his rooms, but he needed to make the gesture.
Gwen had gained status and riches and renown when she became his wife. But he knew how she looked at Lancelot (so well, he understood that longing), and he knew how all of her former peers regarded her now. Envy and hatred couldn’t be warded away with fancy new dresses.
They had not consummated their marriage on their wedding night. Had not lain with each other as husband and wife, had not known each other, had not begun the sharing of their bodies that would lead to the creation of an heir. The heir that all of Camelot seemed to be praying for. Arthur wondered if his parents had felt that same pressure. If they, too, had thought that a child would solve all of their problems, secure their future, comfort them.
He and Guinevere were not strangers to each other, no—they'd kissed and touched, over the previous years, in the precious seconds that they’d stolen when the future had been their only enemy. He'd caressed her neck, her hands, her wrists, the gentle curves of her back and waist through her homemade corsets and the hand-me-down dresses she used to borrow from Morgana.
Their wedding had been rushed and ceremonial and he'd left immediately afterward to get back to the front line of a battle his brand new kingship could scarcely afford to fight and came very close to losing.
But he was back, now. And he was worn from weeks of constant campaigning, and heavy from the unwatered dinner wine, and waiting at the door to his mother’s quarters. He was bigger, now, no longer afraid of shadows and cobwebs, no longer brave enough to seek comfort in faint perfumes.
He knocked and moments later Gwen opened the door. Her nightgown was only loosely tied and it left her right shoulder uncovered. Her collarbone, the swell of her breast—he could see the bones in her shoulder shift as she opened the door wide to invite him in. It was skin of hers that he'd never seen before. Smooth, unblemished. His guilt warred with his desire to taste her.
“Thank you for inviting me,” he said with a nod, clasping his hands in front of him.
“You are my husband, now,” she said dryly. “I could hardly refuse you.”
He stiffened. “I—I do not mean to intrude, Guinevere, if I—”
“Gwen. Just because I am your wife does not mean that I am no longer your friend.”
Every woman he'd ever loved had left him, every woman he'd ever wanted had betrayed him or bespelled him, every woman who'd wanted his hand had wanted his country even more. Except for one. He had to keep reminding himself that Guinevere—Gwen—was different.
“Of course,” he conceded. “I didn't—I didn't mean...”
“Arthur,” she whispered, pulling him into her room. Her nightgown didn't move but he watched the slide of it across her shoulder as if it was damaged armor, watched it and her and his reactions for signs of weakness. He didn't know if he was waiting for an opening or to offer her a shield but either way he realized that he felt like he was going into battle. Unarmed. And on unfamiliar ground.
She'd changed the rooms. Gotten rid of the layers of lace, cleaned the webs from the corners and the dirt from the floors. It was cleaner now. Sharper and emptier and brighter. There were flowers in vases on the tables and above the mantle. The fireplace was lit. The windows were open. She was bringing life into the rooms. That is what they are for, he chided himself. They're living quarters, not a memorial. He was not angry, that she had removed the decorations his mother had chosen and altered the placement of the items within her former quarters, he was just—he hoped that these rooms could still be a haven for their secrets. He was ready to protect them, still. He knew they both had truths of their own they were unwilling to share. And some that the entire country seemed ready to echo.
“Camelot needs an heir,” he whispered. She nodded. He licked his lips, tasted rich wine, and continued. “There will be questions,” he added stiffly, “if the child does not in some ways resemble me.”
She glared and tried to push him out the door. He pressed his back against it and let her rage. She had a blacksmith’s muscles and a fighter’s heart, her blows were all intentional. They all hurt. He recognized it as a defense, not an attack, and waited her out . “How dare you,” she hissed, and he closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the dark mahogany wood of the door. He knew how Gwen looked at Lancelot. He’d been watching her throughout dinner. Anything to keep his own eyes away from Merlin.
“I am not trying to make this harder than it needs to be,” he said. “I am only saying Camelot’s future rests on us. On what we do now.” On the joining of their bodies, the product of his seed, the continuance of the line of Pendragon kings who had ruled the country for generations. He did not want to begrudge Gwen the same secret pleasure he kept for himself but the country came before her. It had to.
“Please,” he whispered, and she stared at him for long, silent moments (he remembered his father sitting on his throne, the weight of his first sword heavy in his hand, the realization that he had become a threat) and then she kissed him with as much force as she had hit him. He barred the door and she closed the curtains and they lit the candles together.
They could not be equals, but they would always be partners.
There were new blankets on the bed. Soft and light and layered. Bright summer shades. Guinevere looked beautiful amongst them, spread out beneath him, her body eager and a challenge, an invitation and a dare. Her flesh was soft and rounded, her strength masked with curves, her modesty like a veil that he carefully brushed away one kiss and whisper at a time.
She was nothing at all like Merlin.
He did not yet know if that was a blessing or a curse.
“There's a secret passageway,” he told her in the morning, slipping his shirt above his head and shifting his gaze from the sweat-slick skin of her shoulder to the concerned tightness of her lips.
“Yes, I know. They connect the queen’s chambers to your sleeping quarters in the east wing.”
“There’s another one.” The first set of tunnels was an open secret. They connected the monarchs’ rooms so that they could conduct their relations in some semblance of privacy. They also served as an extra escape route should the castle ever be besieged. “There's a panel, in the linen closet, that can be removed. It lets out in a hallway on the third floor.” It had been the perfect size for an frightened six-year-old boy. Arthur was pretty sure that Lancelot, if he crawled, could probably fit.
He waited, but she said nothing. He wanted to ask her to wait, to wait to lie with Lancelot until she was sure that her body carried Arthur’s heir. Their heir. Camelot’s future. But he had already asked her for enough. There were some things he could not yet bear to say aloud.
“I’ll take my leave,” he said, wedging his boots back on while staring at the cleaned tiles underneath his feet.
Gwen wrapped herself in a clean, crisp white sheet and walked him to the door. He was more eager to leave than he had been to enter. He hoped she could not tell. She smelled like flowers.
"Give Merlin my love," she said, as she closed the door behind him.