LeFay Estate, Westchester, New York
It had been four years since Hunith Emrys had remarried and become Hunith LeFay, but half of the time Merlin still felt ill-at-ease in the trappings of their new world. Even though his stepsister Morgana had taken him firmly in hand and dressed him in the latest men's couture for the occasion, no amount of tailored designer formal wear would hide the fact that he was Merlin Emrys, nineteen-year-old uni student prone to overenthusiasm and the tendency to pick the least appropriate subject for polite dinner conversations. This latter tendency was possibly why people didn't believe him when he claimed to be an empath.
Take, for example, right now. Merlin was talking to Lord Godwyn, Gorlois LeFay's business partner and eighteen-year-old Elena's doting father.
"Elena has the most beautiful complexion and dark brown hair," Merlin remarked.
Godwyn smiled, looking in the direction of the refreshment table, where Elena was talking to a hopeful suitor and, stumbling over nothing, promptly spilling a plate of hors d’oeuvres all over the young man's pristine suit.
"It's so interesting considering you and your wife have fair skin and blond hair," Merlin said.
Godwyn whipped around to face him. "I beg your pardon."
Oh god. What did Merlin say now, he could hear Morgana's sharp, crystalline thought from across the ballroom.
"I'm just remarking on the interesting twists and turns that genetic expression takes across generations," Merlin said, just as Morgana materialized in a swirl of emerald and gold at his shoulder. Some days, he could've sworn his stepsister was a teleport or someone whose mutation was to move at a very, very fast, elegant clip. She looked resplendent in the black-haired and green-eyed form that she used most often in public.
"Uncle Godwyn!" Morgana interrupted smoothly before Godwyn could turn an even more alarming shade of red. "We haven't seen you since last Christmas. How is Aunt Miriam doing?"
Godwyn visibly collected himself. "Morgana. Miriam is feeling under the weather. She sent her regards to you and your father. And the lovely Hunith, of course."
Nothing for the mentally afflicted stepson? Merlin gulped down his champagne and tamped down the urge to make cheeky remarks, now that Morgana had smoothed over the awkward situation.
Morgana smiled the smile of a consummate hostess. "Actually, Uncle Godwyn, Father mentioned earlier that he had something he wanted to discuss with you. He was talking to Senator Aredian last I saw him."
"He did, did he?" His gaze automatically searched for Elena, who was currently on the dance floor stepping none too gently on her dance partner's toes. The previous suitor, sans suit and waistcoat, was sulking off at the sides.
"I'd tell Elena where you've gone," Morgana said soothingly. And help keep watch of her was implied. Giving the appearance of a trustworthy, responsible adult must be a secondary mutation of hers, Merlin thought.
"Yes, well," Godwyn apparently could not find fault in Morgana's suggestion. "If you'll excuse me."
Merlin lifted his empty champagne glass and gave the man an idiotic parting grin.
"And you wonder why they all think you are touched in the head," Morgana said once Godwyn was out of earshot.
"At least they no longer think I'm a 'power-hungry opportunist' angling for a position in your father's company." Or having designs on his stepsister, the heiress of aforementioned multi-million dollar company.
Morgana let out a noise that would be called a snort in lesser humans. "You would rate having a mental affliction over being ambitious." He could sense her warm amusement even without reading her mind.
Merlin hummed his agreement, snatching a fresh champagne flute from a passing server. Mentally glancing over the dance floor, he winced. "I think Elena's latest dance partner might have broken an ankle."
Anhora's office, Licorne Bank
Anhora Evans stared at the gaudy blue gem set on his desk and looked up at the young man who had placed it there. Even at first glance he had recognized the Sigan Jewel, last seen in the possession of Uther Pendragon two years ago for an insurance appraisal.
He tapped a finger on the blotter next to the heart-shaped jewel. "Either this is a very convincing fake, or you have come into possession of this jewel through less than legal means. Either way, we're not—"
"Not that kind of bank?" The man smoothly interrupted. In his tasteful grey three-piece suit, he wouldn't have looked out of place in a fashion spread, if not for the cold glint in his clear blue eyes.
Arthur Eisenhardt—if that was indeed his real name—gave his left suit sleeve a slight tug and made a show of taking off his expensive watch. On the inside of his wrist, formerly hidden under the watchband, was a series of tattooed numbers—0001.
"Did you know? I was Facility X's youngest and first test subject," Eisenhardt said conversationally. "The research team was quite overjoyed by what my mutation could accomplish. They told me I was one of the strongest mutants in history."
Meanwhile, Anhora's hand slowly inched toward the panic button concealed under his desk drawer. His left arm jerked upward and smacked himself on the forehead. He found his wrist anchored to the arm of his chair by his...watch?
Eisenhardt pursed his pink lips and made a small disappointed noise. "Do not touch that alarm."
Anhora twisted his body violently to reach the button with his right hand, but Eisenhardt caught his wrist and slammed it down on the desk. He shouted at the sharp, bright pain in his hand. Eisenhardt had stuck the sword-shaped letter opener—It was in the drawer; he knew he kept it in the drawer—deep into his palm without him noticing the movement.
"I want Pendragon. Uther Pendragon," Eisenhardt said in exact tones, breath warm at the side of his face.
"We don't keep track of our clients' movements!" Anhora protested. 'We're not—"
"Not that kind of bank, I know," Eisenhardt said. Incongruously, he stepped back and stood up straight from across the desk. He picked up a silver unicorn figurine—the horn wasn't sharp enough to gouge a hole, but he wasn't willing to test it—and set it back down without comment.
Eisenhardt smiled at a picture frame holding the photograph of his granddaughter Anna Marie, and Anhora felt cold sweat breaking on his brow.
"I think she'd prefer her grandfather in one piece, don't you?" A warning twist of the letter opener accompanied the words.
Anhora closed his eyes and broke.
"Miami," he gasped, bleeding sluggishly on his desk planner. "Uther Pendragon is in Miami."
He moaned when the letter opener flew out of his hand.
"Thank you," Eisenhardt said with a smile.
On board of Northumbria V, Miami
Merlin had to admit that there were definite perks to being the stepson of Gorlois LeFay, and by extension, part of the world of riches and glitz. One current perk was enjoying a beautiful orange Miami sunset while the yacht he stood on sailed across the water. What do you know, those sunset postcards weren't photoshopped after all. This impromptu yacht party was in celebration of Peregrin—Pellinor—Lancelot's-friend-whatshisname being hired by a famous law firm, and Merlin was dressed in his signature feral red scarf and the brown leather jacket he picked up at a Renaissance Faire.
Considering that Lancelot Eldred, the yacht's owner, belonged to the same social circles as the LeFays, he surprisingly had a lot in common with Merlin. Lancelot had been adopted by the Eldreds at the age of four, and while he felt love and gratitude for his elderly parents, a small part of him had never stopped feeling like an impostor. If being too nice and self-effacing was a mutation, then Lancelot was most definitely a mutant.
"Northumbria V," Merlin pronounced the name of the boat. "What would a three-person family need five yachts for, anyway?"
Morgana gave a small hum in reply. She was used to Merlin's random bouts of railing against the excesses of high society. He didn't mention her hundred pairs of designer shoes, and she didn't point out his hypocritical amassment of the latest computer and gaming technology; it was a satisfactory arrangement for both of them.
"Why would anyone need five bathrooms on a boat?" Merlin continued on this vein.
"Oh I don't know, for the dozens of guests they have on board, perhaps," Morgana said dryly.
"And an outdoor shower!" Merlin said with the heartfelt conviction of the slightly inebriated. He paused. "Actually, a fresh water outdoor shower sounds wonderful. Wasteful, but wonderful."
Normally, Morgana would mock him for his verbal flailing, but he could feel her good cheer bleeding over, probably from the not-too-horrid company and the steady flow of cocktails provided at the bar. A pair of oversized white sunglasses were perched on her head.
"You look lovely as a redhead," Merlin said.
She gave him a small, pleased smile. "Why thank you, Merlin."
"You're usually a redhead when you're relaxed. Funny, because I wouldn't think of the color red as relaxing. It should be..." He peered at his beer bottle, eyebrows scrunched. "Blue."
She blinked, hair darkening to auburn.
Tendrils of panic crept around the edges of her thought. What does he mean? Does he know that I—, but the line of thought was cut off when a woman with pretty curls came by, a cocktail glass in hand.
"Hi, I hope I'm not intruding."
Morgana recovered first and gave her a smile. "Not at all. You're Elyan's sister—Guinevere, right?" She added, for Merlin's benefit, "Elyan is Percival and Lancelot's friend from law school."
Merlin nodded, peeling the corners of the beer label.
"Guinevere Smith, but please call me Gwen," Gwen said with a friendly smile. "The boys looked like they were seconds away from playing drunken truth or dare, so I opted for a strategic retreat."
Morgana and Merlin laughed. Well, Morgana chuckled and Merlin giggled. Gwen raised an eyebrow. It's criminal how people always thought he was drunker than he actually was.
"I'm Merlin," he said cheerfully. "This is my stepsister, Morgana. And this is only my second beer, I swear."
"Which is two too many for Merlin," Morgana smoothly interjected. Considering that he weighs less than a hundred twenty pounds, soaking wet.
Merlin ignored the unspoken jibe on his weight. "So Gwen, your brother and those drunken louts over there are lawyers," he said, gesturing with his empty beer bottle. "Morgana is a high-powered executive, and I'm a uni student probably destined to be an eternal academic. What do you do?"
"I work for the government," Gwen said simply.
Merlin carefully placed the fingers of his free hand against his temple. "I don't detect an obsession for numbers or unusual cruelty, so not the IRS."
Gwen laughed breathily. "What?"
"No Scully vibes, so not the FBI..." Merlin continued playfully.
"Merlin here is an empath," Morgana explained. Her hair was back to a brilliant shade of red.
Gwen looked equal parts impressed and entertained.
Merlin suddenly paused, fingers pressed into his temple.
"Well, go on," Morgana said.
He straightened up against the railing. "There's someone in the water."
On board of Caspartina, Miami
So far, Arthur didn't have reason to doubt Anhora's information. His lead had brought him to this yacht in Miami, where Pendragon was supposed to be wining and dining Senator Aredian, for reasons Arthur could not fathom yet.
As he padded silently around the yacht, he saw no hide or hair of a crew except for a man wearing a captain's hat. Pendragon was nowhere in sight, and, if the senator was ever on board, he had been long gone ever since. Arthur bit back a snarl of frustration. Either both Anhora and his lead had told him the exact same lie—unlikely—or he was too late to catch Pendragon unaware. The yacht's metal railings hummed, sharpening his other senses and helping him to calm.
Women's voices lazily floated from the stern ahead. There were two of them, and Arthur recognized the dispassionate voice as belonging to Uther's current right-hand woman. He had no inkling of her mutation, but he had exhausted all his leads and he needed answers.
Stepping forward in sight, he identified the woman sitting to the left as Morgause and threw a boot knife at her face. At the same time, he caught hold of an ice bucket with his metal-sense and knocked the second woman on the side of her head.
She slumped to the side in her yellow sundress. No superstrength mutation there. Morgause, on the other hand, had transformed wholly into a crystalline, translucent form. She had a martini glass cradled in her left hand and the blade of Arthur's knife gripped in her right.
Morgause spared a disdainful glance at the unconscious young woman. "I've told Uther that Sophia has abysmal reaction time."
When she didn't make any move to get up, Arthur approached her warily.
"Uther Pendragon. You know where he is."
Morgause tightened her grip on Arthur's knife, and he could feel the metal creak and bend. Her form must be as strong as diamond.
"Young Arthur Pendragon," she pronounced. Arthur didn't flinch. "Of course, you go by Arthur Eisenhardt now. You seek revenge on Uther for the sake of faint memories you no longer even remember."
And suddenly Arthur was falling in blinding bright light and he saw
"Just one more shot, Arthur. This shouldn't give you adverse reactions like last week's—"
—hands holding him down—
"You're not trying hard enough; you only dodged eight blades out of eleven—"
—Gaius bandaging his wounds, keeping his silence about Edwin's creative 'training'—
"You had hemophilia as a child, Arthur. Did you never wonder how you were cured?—"
—Nimueh's red lips curving as she flipped a silver coin in the air—
Arthur reflexively tried to catch the falling coin with his powers but of course there was
"—nothing we can do about his sickness, Ygraine. He was never meant to live."
—a soft hand caressed his hair over and over as she sang snatches from a lullaby—
"Arthur, my sweet, darling boy. I would give my life so you could live the rest of yours."
—wispy blond hair escaping from under a white sheet. A single pale hand lying cold and stiff—
Arthur sobbed, clutching his head in both hands.
"I find it strange that you're seeking revenge on Uther for something that ultimately benefits you."
With a roar of rage, Arthur rose up from the floor and ordered the metal railings forward, catching Morgause neatly by her arms and neck.
To his surprise, instead of transforming into her diamond form, she looked sharply to her left at Sophia—
The slumped over young woman suddenly stood up and threw a small whirlwind at him.
He didn't have the chance to be surprised before he was tossed off the boat and swallowed into dark waters.
On board of Northumbria V, Miami
"There's someone in the water!" Merlin repeated, louder, his gaze focused ahead.
"Where?" Morgana asked sharply, hair flickering to dark brown.
Gwen was silent, on alert. For all she knew, Merlin's powers included enhanced underwater sight.
"There, right there!" Merlin pointed 40 meters ahead, where the stern of a yacht could be seen as it sailed further to the right. A horrible creaking sound rent the night air.
"My God," Merlin breathed, eyes bright with wonder. The yacht ahead warped, listing noticeably to one side.
"What is he thinking? He'll drown," Merlin muttered.
"Who?" Morgana asked. "Is there trouble on that yacht? Merlin! What are you doing?"
Merlin took off his shoes and placed them next to his folded jacket on the ground. "That blond guy trailing behind the yacht? He's going to run out of steam sooner or later and realize he's treading water."
Gwen and Morgana gasped as they saw a blond head broke surface above the moonlit waters.
"I vote for sooner so I don't have to swim that far." He ripped off his scarf and dropped it on the pile. "Morgana, go tell Lancelot to change direction closer to that yacht."
She nodded and turned around to walk briskly to the crowd inside.
"Ow!" Merlin winced, the heel of his palm pressed to his temple.
"Are you okay?" Gwen asked, hand on his elbow.
Merlin grimaced. "There's a telepath on that yacht. They just knocked out the guy in the water. Wish me luck." Taking a deep breath, he climbed up and dived into the waters below.
He silently thanked his mum for insisting he take swimming lessons as a child, even during the two years they were living in the landlocked state of Ohio.
With powerful arm strokes, he glided through the water, heading straight to where he could still sense the man's—Arthur's—mind, dampened, but still calling to him like a bright point in the dark waters.
Arthur, I'm coming.
After what felt like long, unending minutes, he reached the spot where he saw Arthur last. Taking a deep lungful of air, Merlin dived down to the sinking body below.
He reached the shadowed outline and hooked an arm around Arthur's chest. I've got you now, Arthur. Together, they broke surface. Mission accomplished, Merlin gave Arthur's mind a gentle nudge to consciousness.
"We're here!" Merlin shouted. Northumbria V had steered closer to the spot, with Lancelot at the helm.
He felt Arthur's body shake against his chest as he coughed out water. Good, because Merlin wasn't sure how he'd go about hauling an unconscious mass twice his body weight up to board the yacht.
"Who are you?" Arthur had pushed away, keeping an arm's length from Merlin.
"Merlin; I'm an empath." He had the urge to offer his hand, but figured it would be silly considering they were both treading water. "I felt you lose consciousness when that telepath knocked you out."
The look in Arthur's blue eyes called bullshit. You were in my head.
Merlin didn't respond to Arthur's suspicious thought.
"Everything will be alright, my friend. You're not alone."