It’s a perfectly wretched day in Camelot when Uther Pendragon announces Arthur’s betrothal, which is surprising to all but shocking primarily to Arthur, who was under the impression he would have at least a figurehead sort of say in who he’d eventually marry.
“Well?” Arthur demands, furious. “Who is it to be? Someone with the pox or someone who is simple? Does she drink?”
The king rolls his eyes. “Your spouse is none of these things.”
“Then why hadn’t I been informed previously I was even to have a spouse?” Arthur bursts out, sending all of the servants scattering to the furthest perimeter of the room, which is unlikely to help them in the event he discovers his intended is wall-eyed after all.
“It merely slipped my mind, Arthur, my God, son,” Pendragon says, sighing. “I’m sure you’ll come to enjoy one another or at least develop some kind of tolerance in time.”
Outside the gleaming, stained-glass windows, rain continues to streak downward, slicking most of the village into a living, moving pile of mud.
“Perfect,” Arthur snarled. “Auspicious,” he added, and turned to stalk out of the room, coat flaring behind him.
He doesn’t feel much better about it later that night when his fiancee arrives, either, and from his vantage point, hidden in the clearstory looking down into the receiving hall, all he sees is a large band of people more or less entirely covered in mud.
“I’ll never manage an heir at this rate,” Arthur muttered to himself. He felt his cock pre-emptively soften at the thought of this farce.
“Your highness,” one of the more wretched looking members of the group said, “may I present to you, Prince Bernard.”
“What!” Arthur said, to himself and very loudly.
Below, the man at the center of the group pulled down the cowl of his traveling robes, and Arthur only had time to take in his pale, smooth skin and dark hair, the very vibrant blue of his eyes before his dick had gone traitorous and interested.
“Don’t get too excited,” he told it. “I don’t think effort is going to be enough to get a son out of that one.”
They’re formally introduced at the grand feast, and they’re barely past, “I’m honored to meet you, Bernard of Forsythe,” and “It is fine to make your acquaintance, Arthur of Camelot,” and the mutually unspoken, “What the fucking fuck are we to do about this fuckery?” when noblemen and women from both their lands start lavishing praises and congratulations upon them.
The frozen look of mortification on Bernard’s face more or less mirror’s Arthur’s as he says, soft and from the corner of his mouth so as not to inspire panic or anything in the great hall, “How long have you known about this?”
Arthur raised his cup to a group of embarrassingly drunk clerks in a far corner. “Oh, I imagine as long as you have.”
“Fantastic,” Bernard pronounced, dredging up a smile for Morgana and Gwen, who were huddled in a far corner gossiping, obviously, Arthur thought with great loathing. “We’re obviously bollocksed.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Arthur said, and he did.
Morning was only slightly more dignified than his blurry memories of the evening before — at some point, Morgana and Gwen had approached them and asked, extremely seriously, had they decided which one would be the wife, which had of course inspired another round of imbibing which may or may not have led to Bernard sniveling into a tablecloth that he wasn’t even supposed to be here and he had wanted to train to be a brewer — and improved only by the fact that when Arthur forced his eyes to open, the first thing he saw were Bernard’s lashes, dark against the delicate white of his cheeks.
Chastity was something only maidens in stories apparently could aspire to, Arthur decided, since somebody (not either of them) had obviously made the executive decision to dump the pair of them into Arthur’s bed at the end of the night.
Bernard made a whimpering noise and turned his face deeper into the down mattress, and Arthur had a startling moment where he considered that perhaps being trapped into inescapable matrimony against his will with Bernard might not be so terrible after all. It was very affecting.
From outside the heavy brocade curtains that swept the light from his bed, his manservant called out, “Sire — just to ascertain, you haven’t despoiled one another, have you?”
“I take it back,” Arthur decided out loud. “I pray for death.”
Bernard opened his eyes blearily. “Yes, enough for two, please,” he begged, and pulled a pillow over his face miserably.
Pendragon had pulled Arthur aside and informed him he would be spending a week gaining better knowledge of his intended while the wedding arrangements were finalized, during which time Arthur was to be charming and extremely solicitous.
“I am always charming and extremely solicitous,” Arthur complained.
“Lying is a sin, Arthur,” his father reminded him, and went off to find Bernard, who seemed to have taken to hiding in small, dark corners of the castle as frequently as possible.
“Do you fight?” Arthur asked Bernard later, when they’d been corralled into the rose garden together in order to find love in each other’s arms. It was going rather slowly.
Bernard looked horrified. “No,” he said.
Arthur frowned. “Hm. Joust?”
“That’s fighting while riding horses,” Bernard told him, looking at Arthur as if he were slow. “Which is yet another pursuit I do not pursue. What about you? Do you read?”
“Well,” Arthur said, “I can read.”
Bernard looked pensive. “Right. So I imagine the adultery will begin shortly after our wedding ceremony ends, then.”
“Probably,” Arthur agreed glumly.
Out of nowhere, Bernard frowned and asked, “Did you by any chance tell Lady Morgana last night that I’d be the wife in this relationship?”
Choking, Arthur asked, “Dear God — what?”
“She and Gwen have been sneaking me poultices and flasks of elderberry wine,” Bernard said, shuddering. “Something about dampening the hideousness associated with our wedding night.”
“Excuse me,” Arthur said, rising from his seat on the grass and dusting off his leggings. “I have a ward to murder.”
Gwen refused to let Arthur kill Morgana, despite his reminding her he was the crown prince of Camelot and he could kill anybody he liked.
“That’s entirely true,” she agreed with him, and then promptly contradicted herself by saying, “But you may not murder Lady Morgana today or tomorrow or any other day.” She pointed back toward the hallway and said, “Now go on — you should be spending this time getting to know Bernard better.”
“He’s very sweet!” Morgana called out from one of the interior rooms of her suite. “I think he’s extremely dear and obviously far too good for you.”
Arthur gave Gwen a look.
“No,” she repeated, and directed him gently back toward the door.
Bernard had fled from the gardens by the time Arthur made his way back there, and instead he saw the slight, sickly looking manservant Bernard had brought and then failed to command in any way. As far as Arthur knew, the boy had been cowering in one of the guest quarters the entire visit.
“Where is your prince?” Arthur asked.
“Er,” the boy said. “He’s gone with your father to explore Camelot’s library, I think.”
“Typical,” Arthur sighed. He frowned at the servant and asked, “Tell me, does your prince engage in any sport? Test his mettle in any way that doesn’t require the assistance of a candle and a knife to sharpen his quill?”
The servant looked like he might perish of terror at any moment. “Sire?” he squeaked.
“Nevermind,” Arthur sighed. “Vanish from my sight, peon.”
At that night’s feast, Arthur gorged himself on dolphin and peacock and eyed the various serving girls around the room, trying to remember which of them was the sluttiest and or had the lowest standards for commitment and tried very hard not to watch the way Gwen was lighting up at all of Prince Bernard’s jokes and his attention.
“My, Arthur, you’re not even married yet and you’re already cuckolded,” Morgana laughed in his ear.
He glowered at her, and said through a mouthful of pheasant, “Sod off.”
“Your job,” Morgana said. “Not mine.”
They ended up in bed again together, slightly less hung over the next morning, and Arthur thought with some degree of sadness it was tragic that he hated Bernard and was fiercely against this marriage because the way the prince blinked awake, sleepy slow and unguarded, really was as sweet as Morgana had said.
“This cannot be proper protocol,” Bernard croaked.
“What, to put us into bed together?” Arthur asked. “I haven’t the slightest idea. The last time anybody managed to get married in the court she was already enormous with child.”
Bernard snorted a laugh. “I can see Camelot is truly the paragon of virtue it claims.”
“We also have an extremely high rate of venereal disease,” Arthur said.
“It’s probably un-princely of you to defame your kingdom so,” Bernard chided him, and Arthur couldn’t help but brush some of Bernard’s dark hair away from his fine brow and say:
“It will be your kingdom, too, soon.”
That morning may have been a turning point, because the subsequent afternoon and evening are much improved from previous days. Bernard condescends to watch Arthur practice with his sword, and an injury which initially had promise to be embarrassing became an opportunity for Arthur to allow Bernard to undress him and see to his wounds with surprising tenderness. Bernard had clean fingernails and strong hands, and Arthur realized, watching the other prince wind gauze around his elbow. They took lunch out of doors, underneath a pair of weeping willows with interlocking branches, and Bernard recited to him the Beowulf poem, with liberal substitution of actual prose with made up poetry for the bits (read: vast tracts) he had not managed to commit to memory.
“I cannot express to you how disheartened I am to know I am betrothed to someone foolish enough to memorize poetry,” Arthur teases.
“I have an enormous amount of spare time,” Bernard answered, grinning, all reckless and wild and not at all like a prince should look when contemplating the serious business of political marriage. “I promise I shall try to forget it as quickly as possible once we are leg-shackled.”
“Excellent,” Arthur said. “I look forward to your intellectual deterioration.”
Bernard laughed. “Soon we’ll be communicating only in grunts,” he said, and then turned bright red with realization.
“That’s only if we’re doing it right,” Arthur said, unable to wipe the grin off of his face.
Bernard’s face took on a sudden look of distress.
It was actually nauseating how quickly Arthur found himself wishing he knew whom to murder with his bare hands in order to remove that look from Bernard’s face, and he found himself engaged in a truly embarrassing amount of handholding as he demanded, “What?” at his unwillingly bethrothed.
“It’s only that I’m not sure I’ll be any good at it,” Bernard said, wide-eyed and guileless. “I’ve never had any real practical experience.” ‘
Arthur tried extremely hard not to come in his pants.
“I’m a good teacher,” he said hoarsely.
Bernard narrowed his eyes skeptically.
“No, you look like you’d be a terrible teacher and start shouting at your pupil almost immediately,” he decided, which was entirely true in almost every circumstance but this one.
“I shall grade you extremely leniently,” Arthur promised and leaned in until he could feel Bernard’s breath soft and wet against his own mouth to whisper, “Lesson one.”
Bernard’s breath hitched. “Yes?”
And grinning, Arthur murmured, “Always letting me have my way,” and closed the last distance between them to capture Bernard’s lips in a kiss.
They had been well on their way to lesson three, “Ignore your bedamned instinct to contradict me at every turn,” when Bernard’s feeble wisp of a manservant had more or less tripped over them and made it extremely awkward for Arthur to continue unlacing Bernard’s pants.
“You’ll be hanged at dawn,” Arthur growled at the boy.
“Dear God, no!” Bernard argued, eyes darting toward the boy nervously as he said more or less in Arthur’s direction, “Sire — that’s hardly necessary for a simple mistake.”
Arthur continued to glower at the servant, who continued to make wheezing noises of distress until Bernard sighed and pressed an embarrassed kiss to Arthur’s jaw and whispered, soft and in his ear, “Your highness, consider it a favor to me.”
Bernard smelled like grass and sweet wine and lush, deep kisses, very good overall, so Arthur allowed himself this small and extremely princely capitulation and said with great dignity, “Fine. But you’ll consider this your morning gift as well.”
“Like hell,” Bernard informed him. “I want at least three castles for whatever you’re going to do to me as part of lesson five.”
Arthur considered this, bared his teeth at the servant (who wisely fled), and turned back to Bernard, who was flushed and whose mouth was swollen from Arthur’s possession. He knew very clearly at that moment he would give Bernard as many castles as he liked.
“You’re going to be trouble,” he whispered, pulling Bernard closer to review lesson two. “I can tell.”
Arthur had finally decided to be mollified by all the liberties Bernard had allowed and accept that this tragedy of a marriage was doomed to occur; to celebrate, he was at the village smith’s commissioning some sort of nuptial gift.
“Maybe a shackle,” Arthur mused.
Gwen’s father looked unconvinced. “I thought you were happy about this marriage, Sire?”
“Who told you that?” Arthur demanded, fighting off an immediate need to blush, and before he could begin protesting how much he found Bernard vile and impossible and how he was an utter prat and wouldn’t their years together — years! — be terrible beyond words? Perhaps the rule of thumb applied to husbands as well as wives, Arthur was about to muse, when Gwen’s father interrupted him, saying:
“Your majesty, how about something simple like a bracelet?”
“Bernard is not a woman,” Arthur told him acidly.
“We noticed, Sire,” the smith said, smiling. “Trust me.”
And before Arthur could fight his dark blush and say something appropriately snotty, Gwen came rushing down the walk, shouting, “Prince Arthur! Prince Arthur! You must come immediately — Bernard is — !”
Whatever else Gwen said was lost to Arthur as he ran mounted his horse and felt the wind roar around his face, his blood roar in his ears.
When Arthur reached the castle again, there was chaos.
All of Bernard’s men were huddled in a far corner of the great room and Uther is at his throne, furious and white-knuckled where he gripped the arms of his chair. He said, “You’ve come just in time, son.”
But all Arthur saw was Bernard was on his knees before the throne, and when Arthur drew nearer, pulling Bernard to his feet again, he saw a dark bruise spiderwebbing across his cheek and a split lip. He flinched away from Arthur’s fingers at the corner of his mouth — Bernard tasted like the soul cakes from breakfast and belonging and no one, no one, had a right to hurt that which was rightfully Arthur’s, Arthur thought – and there was fearfulness gleaming in his blue eyes.
Arthur couldn’t decide what made him more furious, that someone had hurt Bernard or that he was frightened.
“Father, what is the meaning of this?” he asked, trying to pitch his voice low to stem fury and panic and a churning something that was grinding through his guts. Bernard had been sluggish to rise at his touch and wouldn’t meet his gaze, and for some strange reason, his tragedy of a manservant was standing alongside Uther, looking irate and somewhat sheepish.
“That boy is a fraud,” Uther said.
“You really must be lenient with him,” the blond servant said suddenly, still sounding every bit as irritating as before but much less deferential. “I’m sure he was just overcome — but he most certainly took our little prank too far.”
Uther pinned him with a furious look.
“I’ll just amuse myself with my own silence now,” the blond offered.
Arthur looked at the servant and looked at Bernard again, and said, “I don’t understand.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Arthur,” Uther roared. “*He*” — he pointed at the servant ” — is your prince and he — ” he pointed at Bernard, who was looking away now, out a window, eyes longing ” — is a servant and the Forsythe clearly have an extremely intolerable sense of humor.”
The ser — the prince looked mildly distressed. “You see, I didn’t mean to mislead you all,” he explained. “However your reputation throughout the lands has always been terribly fierce, Arthur and I just couldn’t run the risk of — ”
Arthur ignored him, and his hands closed more tightly around the dark-haired boys’ wrists. Of course, how could he have ignored the obvious signs? He was too thin, his hands too rough from work; and that laugh, unvarnished and without any polish, was not the laugh of a prince, but it had stirred something in Arthur’s chest that had tasted luxurious and sweet on his tongue, that had burned a fire down in his stomach.
“You are not Bernard,” he said, voice barely a whisper, ignoring the prince and reaching to tip his boy’s chin up, to try to catch his eyes. There had to be some truth there, underneath the stolen identities, and Arthur knew enough about servants to know this hadn’t been his deception — he just hoped all the rest of it had been truth. “Who are you?”
And when, finally, the boy met Arthur’s eyes, the smile he offered was sad.
“I’m Merlin,” he said, regretful. “My name is Merlin.”
Camelot’s court accepted the entire debacle as the most amusing prank of the year, and the feast that night was merry as lords and ladies who’d fallen all over themselves to win Ber — Merlin’s favor grew coquettish before his now-revealed servant. Uther was on his third flagon of willowbark cordial and roared at anyone who neared him something about how at least a greater disaster had been prevented. Morgana and Gwen regarded Prince Bernard with extreme loathing, and Arthur wished — vividly — that he, too, could bury himself in ameliorates and sleep until winter.
The palace guards had taken Merlin in short order, thrown him deep underground in the freezing dungeons and Arthur had just watched, wordless. He’d had arguments running under his tongue, protestations itching his palms, but all he knew for certain was that Merlin was not his prince, and all he’d ever known his entire life was his place in Camelot, his duty.
Arthur had never expected to marry for love or even fondness, he repeated to himself and tried not to look at Prince Bernard, whose golden hair shimmered now that it was clean, and whose features were very fine now that they weren’t covered in ashes and muck.
“I hope you will forgive me my deception, my prince,” Bernard said to him, lashes dark and shadowing his high cheekbones.
“There is no need to apologize,” Arthur forced himself to grind out. “The fault is my own, for having such a terrifying reputation you felt the need to carry out such an intrigue.”
Bernard laughed, and it shined as brightly at his hair: practiced.
“I hope, my lord, we shall amuse our guests with this story for many years to come,” he cooed, and his fingers traced over Arthur’s where they clutched at the brocade tablecloth, shaking the beautiful horn goblets and stoneware plates, the gleaming knife he and Bernard shared.
“Yes, naturally, this will just become another story we tell,” Arthur said, and called for the serving wench, any serving wench — if Gaius would give him no herbs, he would take wine instead.
As such Arthur was well and truly shitfaced by the time he staggered down the extremely long and difficult-to-navigate — he didn’t remember their being so difficult to navigate before — steps to the dungeon. Several guards tried to help him, but reconsidered wisely when Arthur waved his sword at them to remind them all he was extremely competent and mind you the crown prince of Camelot.
“You’re not going to savage the prisoner, are you?” one of the guards asked nervously.
Arthur balked. “What!” he squawked.
“It is only that he is actually extremely kind,” another guard added.
Arthur waved his sword some more. “Have I ever savaged a prisoner?” he demanded to know.
The guards continued to look unconvinced and extremely worried, which was irritating enough that Arthur banished them all the top of the stair where he said that they weren’t to come down even if they heard the worst noises of savaging they’d ever known, and they’d all paled in tandem.
It was only then there was a sigh from inside the actual cell, and Merlin’s long-suffering voice as he said, “My lord, that was cruel.”
“They besmirched my honor,” Arthur said sullenly, and sheathed his sword again after only two tries. Merlin was sitting in a huddle of straw, settled in the singular beam of moonlight that spilled into the cell, looking thin and cold and sad, but serene in all these things. “You lied to me,” Arthur remembered suddenly, and the hurt that burned through him was a surprise. He’d forgotten the court could do that, anymore.
Merlin only stared down at his white fingers, gleaming in the moon. “I did not want to — but Prince Bernard said I — ”
“I don’t want to speak of Prince Bernard,” Arthur snapped, pulling off his belt, setting away his sword. He felt heavy suddenly, weighted down, and he was glad he’d imbibed so heavily at the feast now, to have that excuse for why he did what he did next.
Merlin looked extremely alarmed when Arthur kicked out the wooden bars of the cell and ducked inside, yelping, “Your majesty! What are you — ” which Arthur found extremely trying when combined with his already-aching head. He felt like he’d been in dim, slow-suffering pain since this afternoon and really he wasn’t convinced that willowbark cordial would do in his case.
“Oh, my God,” Merlin wailed as Arthur drew closer, pushing himself further away and pressing against the cell wall, “Look, your majesty, I recognize that I’ve angered you extremely and that this entire thing has been a sham but can we agree that I am probably to be executed anyway and that there’s no reason for you to be unduly physical about your irritation prior to my — ”
And Arthur was forced to cut him off with a kiss, dropping to his knees, and putting his mouth over Merlin’s, lips parted in invitation, and the feel of the other boy washed over him, a physical caress of comfort, and Arthur wondered if on top of the crime of dressing above his station, was Merlin a sorcerer, too.
“I hate Bernard,” Arthur admitted in a whisper when he pulled away. “He’s a horrible prat.”
Merlin smiled at him, sweet, unafraid. “He’s royalty, my lord.”
Arthur glowered at him. “For that, I am docking a castle.”
Merlin laughed, but it wasn’t entirely happy, and Arthur knew that Merlin knew and that they both knew that this was impossible, couldn’t be, and that only made Arthur’s head hurt again, so he made the executive decision to put it away. He drew his ermine-lined cloak around the both of them — he’d thought about having another commissioned for Bernard when Bernard was Merlin, so Arthur could run his fingers along the fringe and know Merlin was warm with Arthur’s regard — and kissed Merlin again, let Merlin tangle his calloused fingers into Arthur’s hair until they slept, swept away by dreams.
The wedding the next day was enormous and mortifying and extremely lavish. Merlin would have hated the waste of it all, but Arthur had left him, asleep and still curled small underneath his cloak in the dungeon that morning and endured the extremely-disappointed looks on the faces of the guards, who obviously were under the impression Arthur had spent the better part of the night viciously raping his prisoner.
It felt like all the coffers of Camelot had been overturned for the occasion, and Uther had dispatched Gwen and a number of horrified-looking manservants to scrub Arthur and dress him in his finest clothes. Despite their best efforts to make him presentable, he still smelled like straw and Merlin, and he more or less dragged through the breakfast feast, through the subsequent jugglers and minstrels, through most of the ceremony before the actual ceremony.
It was only when he found himself kneeling before priest that the utter stupidity of it all crashed down like a wave.
“Do you, Arthur, son of Pendragon, prince of the kingdom of Camelot, accept this man to be your lawfully wedded spouse?” the priest asked.
“Oh, what the fuck am I doing?” Arthur answered.
The priest looked put out. “Your majesty!” he cried just the same time Bernard demanded to know, “What on Earth?”
Arthur turned to Bernard, who was making an awful, snivelly rat face of distress.
“I absolutely loathe you,” he told Bernard honestly, “and would rather be drawn and quartered than find myself leg-shackled to you for all eternity.”
“Oh,” he heard Uther say in the background, ripping up a marriage contract, “thank God.”
Bernard’s lower lip fluttered. “But! You were so charming!”
“Not to you,” Arthur clarified, got to his feet, and brushed off his knees. “Now,” he told the priest, “if you’ll excuse me, I have some near-adultery to commit.”
“I must say I’m still deeply saddened that I am only to have two castles,” Merlin said, in one of those low breaths that never traveled further than the distance that existed between them in their bed, the fire roaring and keeping winter well at bay.
“That,” Arthur said, his mouth trailing over the ring he’d slipped onto Merlin’s finger — warm from skin now, a warm rose-gold over which Arthur had made hushed and meaningful promises — trailed over Merlin’s palm, dear, “is because of your smart mouth.”
Arthur, entranced with just the thing, decided to catch it in another kiss, sliding his hand down Merlin’s side in easy ownership.
“That’s no reason to become a miser,” Merlin told him. “I imagine you have dozens of castles.”
Arthur had exactly 24. He reflected with a growing sense of despair he would build Merlin another if he wished, and said, “It’s only expected for not having any regard for my station in life.”
Merlin laughed at him, and Arthur didn’t try to mask the curl of delight that wound in his stomach at the sound.
“No,” Merlin agreed, catching Arthur’s face in his hands and smiling at him as bright as an ocean of stars, until Arthur felt shy, suddenly, to be so loved, “after all, it is well known that it is not your station for which I have great regard.”
Oh, sod it, Arthur thought, maybe I will give him that other castle, Arthur thought, and pinned Merlin to the bed once more.