It is an old place, rundown, musty, wood boards creaking under the invisible weight of a house that’s seen many occupants in too many years. There’s mould on the walls, rats in the cellar, and when it rains, the upper levels are as good as useless in the flood of water that eddies down the spiraled stairs.
But the gate is strong metal, secure and sturdy, and something about being on the other side of them when they swing shut with a groan makes this feel like home.
Chester King breathes out a pleased sigh, and the air smokes around his pursed lips.
“It will have to do for now, I’m afraid,” the man beside him says, looked less happy. “But the funds will come soon, and I shall be able to arrange for more hands to help with the groundskeeping.”
Chester King nods, and repeats: “It will do for now.”
“Harry,” Chester King calls, and the boy comes running from somewhere in the dark of the house. Unbidden, two younger boys follow after him, skidding to a halt at King’s disapproving glare.
Lord Mark Seawoll peers at the three boys down the long length of his nose.
“Harry Hart? The runaway from Saffron Hill?”
Harry frowns, turning a questioning look towards Chester, who merely tilts his head in an encouraging nod. Like we’d practiced, the man mouths, and Harry obediently sketches a bow.
“Sir.” His voice ends on a squeak.
Lord Mark comes to learn the other orphans’ names; Percival, Gareth. His lips quirk a wry smile.
“Building your very own Round Table, Chester?”
“I’d prefer to think of them as the King’s men, sir.” Chester King returns a smile that is sharper, whiter. “Completely at your disposal, of course.”
“Not for a while yet. None of them look past their 6th birthday.”
“I’m six this year, sir.” Harry offers helpfully, not noticing how the men’s smiles thin.
“Patience is a virtue,” Chester King says, just as the dinner bell rings and the boys are dismissed into the care of their matron who stands impatiently next to the stairs.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, King.”
“As long as I have the necessary resources, Lord Mark. I cannot run this training school with only Sister Elaine and the cook.”
Lord Mark nods tersely, then fishes out a notebook and scribbles down two names.
“When you’ve attained the requisite number of boys, contact Monmouth and Malory. They’ll be able to get you what you need.”
Chester King ushers his benefactor out the orphanage door with a gentle hand. “And you will get what you need, Lord Mark. You have my word.”
There had been a startling change in the last years since Lord Mark had visited the orphanage. Chester King had, true to his word, made the most of the extra hands employed to him, and the house and its grounds had been spruced up into something less of a gothic horror, and taking on a more respectable veneer.
The gate, however, still creaks with spikes, and the forest behind the house looms as dark as ever.
The boys are lined up for his inspection once he enters the house. He is pleased with the obvious growth, in numbers or otherwise.
“You have been busy, Chester,” he tells his friend, who stands at the head of the line with all the airs of an Etonian headmaster. Lord Mark’s skin prickles at the sight, at the surging of some long unbidden memory.
“It’s been a busy few years, Seawoll.” Chester King smiles, then proceeds to march him down the row of boys, as he learns their names and ages and callsigns.
The ones that had been adopted before they were christened by family or state, had been charmingly named after Arthurian Knights - all in keeping with King’s little fantasy, as he’d been well aware. Percival and Gareth he remembers from before, now taller and lankier, still awkward in their pre-pubescence. There is also Tristan, now, and Lucius. And further down the line, is Merlin.
He can feel his own incredulity in the glance he gives the boy, but the child holds his head up proudly, eyes straight ahead and unflinching, back held straighter than any ten-year-old’s had the right to be.
“Terribly bright, this one,” Chester faux-whispers, loud enough for all to hear. “We’ve had to keep a very close eye on him.”
There is Harry, next, whom Chester favours with a smile, a first since the introductions had begun; no longer seven now but thirteen, smooth-cheeked and doe-eyed and returns Chester’s smile with a brilliant one of his own. Galahad is his designated callsign, and Seawoll finds himself unsurprised.
They round up with the last two boys, James and Lee, or Lancelot and Gawain as they will soon be known, and belying the difference in character between James’ cheeky swagger and Lee’s observant intensity, he notes with muted interest how the teens’ hands seek out each other’s as Chester makes the final pass.
“There’s been progress,” he announces his verdict, as he and Chester King take a walk through the gardens, heading towards the first of the training posts scattered behind the house.
“Your sources have been invaluable,” King affirms, running through the curriculum set out likewise by the academic tutors and the field instructors.
“I must remind you, Chester, that this is only a trial. And therefore, it is a lot of money going into a project that is as unofficial and experimental as this.”
Chester King gestures for him to take a seat at the deck. They watch as the boys file out for artillery practice under the barked instructions of the ex-colonel Paul Malory.
“You’ll be wanting results soon.”
Yes, he thinks. “Yes,” he says. “Or at least field tests. Something to prove that our efforts are producing rewards.”
“My efforts,” Chester King corrects, smoothly and without malice.
“Yours, mine,” he hears the distant crack of gunfire, sees the small bursts of debris as bullets rain on and around the target boards. “Some would be inclined to say, it’s the boys’ efforts entirely.”
They watch as the boys reload their guns as the orders come thick and furious. Someone isn’t fast enough. There sounds out a crack of a different kind, followed by a cry. At this distance, he cannot make out which boy it is.
Chester King watches the indistinct figure of the colonel as he grabs the boy (Tristan, he knows) and hurls him to one side. The field is quiet except for the sounds of the baton striking home.
“I’ll have dossiers on your table by the time each of the boys are sixteen.” He says. Seawoll’s face registers hesitation; a long term investment made even longer now, so he adds: “But the files will be submitted should any of them be ready for field testing before that.
“Or, if there are any operations of a - specific kind.”
It is his tone of voice that makes Seawoll wonder how privy Chester King truly is to their inner sanctum; one more thing he needs to discuss with Carlton, when he returns to London.
“We will keep you informed.” He says, leaving it at that, and continues watching in silence as the boy’s corporal punishment is meted out in full.
The manila envelope arrives perhaps several months too early for his liking, but he had made his offer to Lord Seawoll back then, confident in the abilities of the boys he had handpicked from all across the Kingdom; confident in himself too, he supposes.
"You called for me, Arthur?" Harry asks, popping his head round the open door.
"Come in, Harry," Chester King says, not unkindly. "How are you?"
"Good. Fine." Harry pushes a hand through his hair. "Is this about my request?"
"And which might that be?"
"I'd already asked Mr Fisher-" Harry starts, then frowns. "About the few of us going out to the town, for my fifteenth."
"Next Friday?" He asks the boy, knowing full well the date that was on Harry's birth record as well as imprinted on the classified document in his hand.
"Or Saturday?" Harry answers question for question
He hums, drawing out the moment. Then says: "Take it this weekend. I have a better present for you come Friday."
His Galahad's eyes widen, quickening in realisation. "You mean, my first-?"
"Yes." He pushes the folder across the table. "But there are some things we'll need to work out first."
The boy scans the letter and his countenance darkens quickly.
"You said I had more time."
He had said that, both he and the boy recall, but this is not the first time he's had to go back on them.
"And now you have less time," he tells his charge. "I'll have Lionel arrange a session for you by the end of the week."
Harry Hart is silent when he leaves the room, and Chester King feels something oddly approaching relief.
The rest of the boys are a-chatter before Harry's first mission, and even more hungry for news when he returns. Even if he hadn't paused outside their dormitory and stooped his ear against the thin wood, King would likely have been able to hear every word of the conversation from his office down the hall.
"Who called you up? Was it Six?"
"Was it an assassination?"
"Did you actually kill somebody?"
"Nah, his clothes look too clean - crackin' suit though, hey Harry?"
"You shouldn't have had to." That last voice, soft and somber and entirely characteristic of their young tech prodigy. "You're not sixteen, Sister Elaine said it's not legal otherwise -"
There is a sharp smack, a thump of a body hitting the ground, and Harry's furious voice: "Grow up, Merlin. Do you think anything we do here is legal?"
Chester King opens the door, then. It startles the boys badly, most of them freezing in their place. Merlin's still crouched on the ground, nose dribbling blood. Harry slowly lowers his fist. He ignores the evidence of altercation; proceeds straight to debrief.
"Congratulations on a job well done, Galahad. Your performance might have singlehandedly saved the entire school."
He hardly needs to exaggerate; Five had been that impressed. Harry's stance shifts, straightens, and the shroud almost completely lifts from his eyes.
"Thank you, sir," he hears Harry say as he exits the room, leaving the boys with his quicksilver boost of morale and Harry to bask in the glow of those parting words.
His boys pass with flying colours in the intervening years - or would have, if they had been in legitimate agencies, military units, government forces.
Instead, each phonecall is shorter, briefer, more curt now save Seawoll's droll "well done, King".
Harry's first had been a revelation for the other boys, had sent them all clamouring for the same pride of achievement. The unsavoury aspects had been discarded in favour of the positives; the rescue of a fellow MI-5 officer, the convincing distraction, the thrill of the kill. The Section Head had even offered to take him out to tea.
Then, Percival comes back from his training stint with the 23rd with not a credit to his marksmanship; merely a Thank You letter and a new pair of boots.
Lancelot is reprimanded for turning his pistol on a fellow officer; never mind that he had to disarm the officer for pointing that very same barrel in his face half a minute earlier.
Gawain's team had missed him at the rendezvous point and he makes it back to his base by sheer luck at evasion alone.
Merlin's infiltration of the GCHQ mainframe is nearly broadcasted and prosecuted, and only several frantic calls to Seawoll had gotten his boy released after spending a night in a room with a light shone into his face.
"You did well," Lord Mark tells the boy as they uncuff his hands, "but you might not want to get caught again next time."
"Nothing we do here is legal," Merlin parrots back at Chester King once he's safely ensconced in the waiting car. Tom the cook-turned-driver smiles sympathetically in the rearview mirror.
The man leans down next to the boy. "You will need to take Harry's warnings more seriously in the future."
"Nothing legal, nothing legitimate - we might as well not exist." Merlin replies, and it is all he offers on the rest of the ride home.
It is something that Chester King also ponders, even once they've reached their home.
He has a feeling Merlin is not the only one who might see it that way.
Lord Seawoll thumbs through the growing pile of dossiers from Chester's boys - it is not out of spite that he still refuses to call them the King's Men, he tells himself, but merely personal, aesthetic, affront.
Epithets aside, there is no denying the frankly startling results coming out from the field testings of Chester King's agents.
Lancelot - he reads, noting the boy's unnatural talent with all manner of explosives and firearms. Percival's long-range target scores that easily rivaled any SAS sniper. Gawain's penchant for languages and impersonation. Lucius and Gareth's skill with surveillance and tracking. Merlin, of course, having snuck past GCHQ's best anti-hacking systems just last week. Galahad, Chester King's poster boy, with his shy smile and deadly charms.
A force to be reckoned with, he'd said to himself once, in the privacy of his office. None of them had yet reached the ripe old age of twenty.
Can they be trusted, Carlton had said to him once, in the privacy of the boardroom, once the other members had left.
Trusted to be loyal?
No, trusted to be stopped.
An older colleague had once told them, if you awaken the beast, make sure you have a strong enough cage to hold him in.
If we buy Chester King's loyalty, we buy them all.
How long, until Chester King becomes loyal to Chester King alone?
The threat had gone unspoken - there was no need for words here.
Their gaze lifted to the portrait of the monarch, high above the doorway.
Long live the King.
Chester King wakes to a quiet house, the moon a slivered crescent outside his window, a bough creaking gently as its leaves shake in an autumnal rustle. The night is serene in the way only the countryside can sound, all chitinous and woody and wind.
It makes the hair on the back of his neck stand.
He puts on his coat, and shoes. When he is halfway up the stairs, he's met by a pair of wide green eyes.
"Arthur, I-" Lee starts, looking confused at his own sudden wariness.
"Ssh." He says, and, "good boy. Get the others."
He rouses Sister, telling her to gather the groundskeep and the cook and hide in the cellar. He leaves them with the usual reminders: don't make a sound, don't come out until all the noise has died down.
His boys are all suited and booted when he makes it to their dorm; crouched and wary, some scanning the windows, others collecting the firearms.
"The perimeter alarms have been taken down," Lucius updates, returning from the surveillance room where he and Merlin had headed to, first thing on waking.
Chester King has to smile at that; it would seem only a little unfair if the security forces proved to be this complacent this early on.
"Just like the drill run, boys." He tells them, and the boys nod as one, Galahad leading them out.
Merlin is calibrating the trackers and life sign scanners as he takes his seat next to him.
"All good, sir," Merlin says. "Shall I activate the -"
"Steady on, Merlin." He watches the monitors, the dark and silent woods. Watches until shadows slip from the trees and track across the expanse of land towards the house, wary and exposed and lulled by the successful disarming of the tripwires.
"By all means, my boy."
The lawn lights up in blinding white, and the surrounding field roars with the furious burst of gunfire.
He picks up the phone on the second ring.
"I assume you've heard?"
Lord Seawoll grimaces at the voice. "I have."
"Might I suggest another proposition, other than elimination?"
"By all means." He closes his eyes, and can still see the pale shock on Carlton's face when the regiment's feed had dissolved into screams and static.
"You've seen what my boys can do. Would be a shame to lose all that talent just because you fear your ineptness to control it."
He feels a jaw muscle twitch. "I suppose it would only boost your ego to hear that we fear our inability to control you, King."
"Kind of you, to be so honest." He can hear the smirk. "So let's leave the operational running to the experts, and discuss where you come in."
"Are you seriously intending to coerce the British government into this?"
"I prefer to see it as securing common interests." Chester King leans back with the phone at his ear, and stubs out his cigarette on the ashtray. "Our survival, for yours."
"We let you live, and you work for us?" Seawoll offers half-heartedly.
Chester King swallows a smile. "You let us work for you, and we'll let you live. We are not so impractical as to disregard a consistent source of income, Lord Mark. Of course, should there be more profitable bargains that come knocking..."
"What you speak of amounts to treason."
"Perhaps," the man hums as he lights up anew, "we'll leave that decision to the King, shall we?"