“Cover for me,” Arthur had imperiously demanded that morning, as he always did when he needed to get away—to carouse, to hunt, to be alone for a precious few hours.
“Fine,” Merlin had assented with an impertinent roll of his eyes, “provided that godsforsaken feathered monstrosity you call a hat stays in its box at least a month. I almost poked out one of Gwen’s eyes last time you made me wear the ruddy thing.” If anyone could manage to blind someone with something so benign as a feather, it would be Merlin.
Still the hat looked rather fetching on him. It made Arthur smile, anyway. But needs must, he supposed. “Done,” he’d said, feeling vaguely put out. He would have to pull out the summer livery early. He wondered what Merlin thought about tassels and lace.
He’d left in good spirits.
Now, as dusk settled over Camelot, Arthur crouched next to Merlin’s bedside, staring numbly at the bloodied bandages crisscrossing the boy’s back and knew his father had seen through their mutual deception: this punishment was not for an absentminded servant, but rather a disobedient prince. “Know your place,” Arthur heard in each ragged breath, “for the whims of a prince do not supersede the will of the king.”
Tears prickled in Arthur’s eyes. “You got the raw end of the deal,” he whispered hoarsely. “How about we strike another? I’ll burn the hat if you ask me to. But you have to ask me. You have to wake up.” Bringing Merlin’s hand to his lips, Arthur pressed a desperate kiss to clammy skin and no longer wondered why the people of Camelot did not love their king.