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Desire Is Your Masquerade

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Sometimes Morgana dreams about it: Lancelot hands Gwen roses in lovers’ crimson, full-blown and thornless; she smiles at him as she binds her favor around his arm, and her hands linger when he smiles back; in the gardens at twilight they walk hand in hand; they kiss by the lake, in flower-strewn meadows, in an alcove of Camelot’s library, on the field of battle, in Gwen’s own chambers; they are found out and banished, imprisoned, executed.

Then she wakes and the fragments of the dream slip away, not yet real.

It doesn’t take a seer to know that Gwen’s gentle brightness, her beauty, her goodness would draw anyone, and Arthur is…well…Arthur. He’s a good prince, but he hasn’t quite managed to become a good man yet, and how, Morgana wants to know, would anyone remember her vows to someone with Arthur’s childish temper while Lancelot is handing her his sword and his heart and his sacred honor?

And if he isn’t giving her all of those yet, Morgana thinks when next they’re gathered, he will. It’s only a matter of time, and she smiles vaguely at one of Elyan’s stories as she watches the way the sunlight falls over Lancelot’s hands, unease simmering beneath her skin.

Sometimes she dreams other things, even more unreal, where—

No. She could have her choice of any man in court, and she knows it, but Lancelot is not of the court. He doesn’t crave wealth or power or fame or a royal bride; he wants to do the right thing. He’ll be Arthur’s greatest knight someday, she knows, she knows, for his courage and compassion and the sense of justice that goes deep as his bones.

Gwen chose Arthur, though, and Morgana knows better than to think Gwen wants him only for Ygraine’s crown. It’s the Pendragon blood, she thinks: it makes people burn so bright you’ll follow them anywhere. Gaius stayed with her father, after all, loyal to him through the Purge and everything after.

But...Camelot has enemies, still, even though it has survived Morgause and Cenred’s war. Uther’s failing health is all but an invitation to every remaining sorcerer or sorceress with a grudge to try to aid him on to death personally, to every neighboring king or lord to start testing borders. If—when—he dies, that will be another invitation, as people test Arthur’s youth. If Gwen can be shown unfaithful, whether she’d so much as touched one finger to the startling-sweet curve of Lancelot’s smile or only wanted to, it will be a blow clear through to the heart of the kingdom.

She watches, silent and pensive, as the new knights train under Arthur to learn his ways and style and command. Gwen and Merlin at her side cheer them all almost indiscriminately, but their enthusiasm can’t quite distract her from her thoughts, nor can her critical study of the seed of Camelot’s future, the knights of that odd round table.

Gwaine’s work is showy, a little too daring, but she thinks absently that he’d be fun to try her sword against if Uther Pendragon’s daughter weren’t even further forbidden than his ward to fight. Elyan is reliable, steady, competent—no doubt he’s a great man to have at your back, but his skills are subtle and run too close to the bone for entertainment. Percival, she thinks, would be an interesting challenge: his strength is impressive, and his reach, but she had trained to rely on motion, on speed and flexibility, on being elsewhere.

Lancelot she knows would defeat her, but she watches him anyway: the quicksilver flash of his sword, and the shift of his hands on the hilt; the swing of his strikes and the fluid, graceful motion that supports them. When he takes off his helmet at the end of the session his hair stands up in little spikes, shining with sweat, and his face is flushed with heat and exertion.

The knights leave to shed their armor and Morgana says to Merlin, “I need to speak with you.”

Gwen looks from one of them to the other and says, “I’ll just go and, um, do that…thing.” Morgana wonders what her face looks like, what shadows Gwen sees to send her off so quickly.

“The dreams aren’t back, are they?” Merlin asks, and Morgana starts guiltily before she realizes Merlin means the other dreams, the real ones, that between the two of them they figured out how to suppress once they became too indistinct and vague, in the war-torn now, to be more useful than they were horrifying.

“No. No, nothing like that. It’s—” She hesitates, not sure how to say it. “Well, yes, actually.” It’s only a small lie, after all, and this way he’ll listen. “Not the kind I used to have. They’re more controlled, quieter. I can sleep through them.”

Merlin looks expectantly at her. There’s confidence beneath his worry—he thinks they can fix it, whatever it is, the way he saved Arthur from Sophia, the way they solved all the other things she’d told him about.

“Gwen’s going to betray Arthur,” Morgana whispers, and Merlin’s face goes blank, then incredulous.

“That’s completely ridiculous,” he says, looking at her like she’s said Uther was going to allow magic again, like she’s gone completely mad.

“I mean, she’s going to fall in love with someone else,” says Morgana.

Merlin’s expression doesn’t change. “Gwen doesn’t know how to betray anyone.” He says it like he’d say water runs downhill, and it’s true, she knows it’s true because if anyone raised in Uther’s Camelot is pure and good and true it’s Gwen, but…

“I don’t think she can help it,” Morgana says, and thinks of the rich deep red of roses in Lancelot’s hands, the sunlight off his sword. “I think it hurts her more than she can bear, but there’s nothing she can do that will make it better, so it tears her in half and poisons Arthur and—the other.” Somehow she’s reluctant to tell Merlin who the other is. It’s laughable: Lancelot doesn’t need her protection. “It ruins everything. I think there are people who will hate her for it, or blame her for everything that happens, but Merlin”—she’s gripping his arm, desperate to make him see—“it isn’t her fault. It isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just horrible, and it needs to be stopped.”

“So if someone shows up in love with Gwen we’ll find him a nice lady in a country castle somewhere far away instead,” Merlin says. He’s laughing at her, she can see it in his eyes.

Morgana shakes her head. “Instead of Gwen? Would you wed a nice lady in a country castle with no conversation who does nothing but her weaving and embroidery, and maybe tends an herb garden for tonics, and thinks nothing and does nothing and doesn’t care for everyone?”

But the suggestion lingers, as absurd as it is, and Merlin’s utter rejection of her fears lingers as well. That night she doesn’t say the spells that keep the nightmares from her. She’s sure she’ll wake screaming, smelling smoke or blood or despair too vague to help anyone, and Gwen has her own chambers and her own lady’s maid now, and Hilda is nowhere near as comforting as Gwen. But—if she lets the real dreams in, maybe she’ll be able to help. Maybe she can even convince Merlin to help.

She has a restless night, half-waking over and over again out of reluctance to know for sure. It’s in the soft, cold stillness of the deepest part of the night, not long before dawn, that the vision finally comes, sinking through her dreams like a stone thrown into a lake. There is Lancelot, and hands too pale to be Gwen’s unfastening his shirt, lingering tenderly on his skin; then there’s one lightning-sharp flash of them tangled together in bed with her legs wrapped around him, her head arched back, and Morgana recognizes the woman’s face as her own.

The shock of it wakes her, gasping silently, before she can see any more.

Hilda is still sleeping on her cot, breathing deep and even, and Morgana sits up, curls up against her pillows with her arms wrapped around her knees, and thinks. If Lancelot bedded her, an unwed lady of royal birth, his own honor would compel him to offer her marriage, even if nobody else knew of it. If he had his own vows to think of as well as Gwen’s, the two of them might never slide into their disastrous passion. If, if, if.

She would ask Merlin or Gwen to advise her, if it were anything else. But Merlin laughed at her before and Gwen—she can’t ask Gwen. One by one she crosses everyone she knows off in her mind. Arthur will be involved; Uther is ill and half-mad; Gaius she doesn’t trust; Leon is off at Cenred’s border; Percival, Elyan, and Gwaine are still nearly strangers.

Her hands had gripped—would grip—Lancelot’s shoulders, holding him as if she’d fly away entirely without an anchor. The play of muscles beneath his skin burns against her eyelids, the flex of his arms and the rhythm of his hips, as beneath him she shudders and moans and opens for him, burning and unafraid—

Morgana thinks of Gwen, who doesn’t deserve her fate, and Arthur, who probably doesn’t either, and makes up her mind.

The day after next is one of Arthur’s fortnightly council meetings, the ones he never misses and so gives the knights the afternoon off from their training. Morgana dresses carefully in a silver-white dress nearly perfect for this plan: it makes her look both innocent and regal, it has very simple fastenings, and it’s cut so low that it looks as if one good deep breath would bare her breasts to the world.

She’s worried, and she’s not sure why. She had a vision; she knows this will work.

“I had a question,” she says when Lancelot opens his door, looking surprised to see her.

“Come in,” he says, a little hesitant but thoroughly polite in spite of it. His eyes remain carefully on her face, so carefully she knows he remembers the dress.

His room is very small, with no chair or proper table. He looks around rather helplessly, and she says quickly, “I don’t mind standing.” If he suggests moving to some other room she doesn’t have a hope. “I was wondering”—and bless the size of the room, anyway, because it’s perfectly natural to be standing so close she can reach out and touch him as soon as she thinks of an excuse—“whether you had any advice on combining sorcery with military tactics.”

“Me?” he asks.

“You’ve traveled outside Camelot,” she says reasonably. “Don’t other kings and lords use all the resources at hand?” It’s a stupid question, really, coming from her—if any sorcerer will be supporting Camelot’s armies it will be Merlin, and Lancelot is no more a strategist than she is—but she rests her fingertips on Lancelot’s arm as if she’s proving a point. “Or don’t they?”

He looks from her hand back to her face, his eyes catching in passing on her neckline. Morgana smiles her best temptress’s smile. She’s shaking inside, but she’s spent years in court and knows how to pretend she’s calm. “I don’t—” he says. “They didn’t confide in me.”

“Oh,” she says. He’s wearing the shirt he was in her vision—good—and she lifts her hand to toy idly with the laces. Not so idly. He swallows, hard, and she looks up at him through her eyelashes. Coyness is not her specialty, never has been, and she wishes he’d hurry up and talk about this.

“Lady Morgana, I—are you—”

Her stomach flips. She feels almost sick with nerves and anticipation, uncertainty and hope. Lancelot lifts a hand to touch her cheek and she can’t help leaning into the touch.

“Are you sure you want this?” he manages, and she leans up to kiss him. His mouth is careful, almost respectful, and she knows how this will go: they’ll pull off each other’s clothes, and she’ll lie down beneath him, and it’ll be done. Camelot will be safe.

She tries to breathe calmly but her heart’s racing, so quick and hard she can hear it beating in her ears; she can’t catch her breath after all, just holds on to him. He traces the seam of her lips with his tongue and she parts them, opens herself as the room goes hot and dark around her. Her eyes are closed but they don’t need to be open, except they do—she wants to see what she’s doing.

Morgana pulls away to unlace his shirt properly, not bothering to resist the urge to kiss his throat as she does so. Even through her gown and her shift she can feel the heat of his hands as he traces them over her back, finding but not unfastening the hooks down her bodice.

When she turns so he can unfasten them he startles her by first pressing a kiss to the nape of her neck. She stops breathing for a second, completely, as her whole body tenses with surprise and a spark runs down her spine, and then she uncurls her fingers and reminds herself that she has a job to do.

Her dress swishes faintly as it falls to the ground, and she steps out of it dressed in only her thinnest shift, so fine it’s nearly transparent. Lancelot is staring when she turns around, and she hesitates for a moment between letting him look and not giving him a chance to have second thoughts. He decides for her, trailing his fingers down the edge of her neckline and then lower, moving in lazy circles across her breasts. She gasps when he reaches her nipple—something else unexpected, something she hadn’t dared—

She gathers herself together and brings her hands to his chest, tracing the hard lines of muscle beneath hair and startling-warm skin. She can feel his heartbeat, almost as fast as her own, trapped and urgent beneath her palms; when she looks down she can see his cock straining at the front of his breeches. Good.

“My lady,” Lancelot says roughly, and she makes herself meet his eyes—they’re passion-dark but he’s frowning slightly, and she thinks no, no, faint and despairing—and smiles encouragement at him. She hopes it’s encouragingly. She isn’t sure. They’re both half-naked in his chambers and he’s going to make her leave.

Gwen, Morgana reminds herself. Arthur. Camelot. She tries again to push down her worries and says, “Please don’t stop.” Her voice is lower than she was expecting, and she swallows, dry-mouthed.

He guides her to the bed and says, “Sit down,” and she does, not sure what he wants but willing to do whatever he says as long as she doesn’t have to leave. He kneels in front of her and kisses her, and she kisses back, hard and desperate, sliding almost off the edge of the mattress as she leans into him, running through other plans in her mind, ways to seduce him if this doesn’t work—or should she just accept it? If she fails does that mean nothing can be done?

When he breaks the kiss she can’t keep from making a soft, pained sound, pure vulnerability, and she wonders if that’s why this isn’t working, because she wasn’t as ruthless or as competent as she needed to be. “I’ll stop if you want me to,” he says, and Morgana has just enough time to think What? before his hands are stroking up the insides of her thighs—she’d parted them, hadn’t even noticed, and she’s sitting there with her shift crumpled up nearly to her waist, realizing she’s trembling and trying to calm down.

He presses his fingers against her and she jerks against them at the touch, can’t help it—she’s ready, she’s aching and wet and wanting—but this isn’t about her, it’s not—

She whimpers again when Lancelot takes his hand away, but he smiles up at her and then leans forward and puts his mouth between her legs. She’s startled silent, curling her hands in the sheet as heat breaks over her in waves, the little motions of his tongue echoing through her, and the hell with Camelot, she thinks, she wants this, and then she stops thinking.

He’s careful here, too, but it’s twisting inside her, heat and pleasure and wanting, and she grips the sheet even tighter so she doesn’t try to control him—she can’t help the way her hips are shifting against his mouth, desperate for this, for more, but she’s not demanding, she’s—

“Relax,” Lancelot says, and the word vibrates against her clit, under her skin, running through her until it shakes the knot of sensation loose and she comes, gasping and half-stunned with it.

He sits back on his heels, wiping his face with the back of his hand, and she yanks her shift off so quickly she hears a seam rip and says, “Come here,” the please there on the tip of her tongue but not needed after all, because he moves like he’d never been trying to talk her out of this.

Both of them are clumsy with the lacing on his breeches, but finally the breeches are down and his cock springs free. Morgana wants to touch it, smear the precome shining at the head with her fingers and slide it over his skin—or hers—wants to take him apart with her mouth like he did her, but she doesn’t dare, she remembers barely in time with a thousand possibilities burning in her mind, because she needs him to need to wed her.

She does say “Please” when she pulls him down to the bed with her, afraid he’ll change his mind at the last minute, but he kisses her and she tastes salt, licks herself off his lips. He touches her breasts, her stomach, her hips, and she smooths her hands down his back and pulls him to her, rubbing against his cock and shivering as heat runs through her again. It’s not real, she’s not sure how it can be real, what she’s done that’s let her have this when she’s not at all the kind of woman Lancelot deserves, why he didn’t tell her to leave, why he’s giving this to her, so tenderly.

When he pushes into her she’s too distracted by the stretch and the rightness of it to remember to cry out as if in pain. It’s smooth and slow, her body opening around him—he’s being careful, too careful, really—so she pushes her hips up, wraps her legs around his, and he sinks deep, sending pleasure flaring through her out to her fingertips. He’s hot and solid and perfect, and after a breathless moment he starts moving, careful as ever but each stroke building the want inside her back up.

It’s—it’s more than she was expecting, so much more—the texture and heat of his skin against hers, the slip-side of their bodies together. She pulls him closer but it’s too close, she wants to have everything, to see him as well as everything else, and she presses a kiss to the side of his throat and then eases away, tries not to hold on so tight she’ll say everything without words. Now that she’s not clinging she can explore his body, learn it so she knows what to do next time, if there is a next time.

He loses his breath on a laugh when she touches his sides, but when she rubs her thumbs over his nipples his perfect rhythm falters and he rocks harder into her. She takes it, arches against him and shudders at the brush of his chest hair against her breasts. Need is an itch under her skin, blazing and immediate, and she’s lost in it.

“Please,” Morgana says again, not even knowing what she’s asking for, and he slides his hand between them, strokes over her clit, around where they’re joined, and back up, and she shakes apart, clenching around him, holding onto him as if she’ll die if she lets go.

He’s still hard when she’s done, feeling as if she’s been melted, her whole body tingling with pleasure, but when she smiles dreamily up at him he only manages a few more ragged thrusts before he’s coming too.

There’s silence for a moment or two. Then Lancelot brushes a lock of hair out of her face and says, softly, “I apologize. I will wed you, of course, my lady.”

Morgana had expected—no, had told herself—to feel a rush of triumph at that cool promise. She doesn’t. She kisses him so he can’t see her expression.