„Uther just told me," Morgana said without preamble after entering Arthur's room, "that he means to marry her."
Arthur gave her a look. "Not you, too. What's the matter, Morgana, upset you won't be the queen of the castle anymore?"
"That was ridiculous even for you," she said flatly. "And don't tell me you think it's normal for Uther to marry a woman he has known for only a few days, because I know that's not true, and isn't there something in the knight's code about not lying?"
He had been watching the courtyard from his window when she entered, playing with his dagger, as he often did when undecided about something, but now he put it away, and she saw the levity drain from his face.
"I think he's happy, Morgana," Arthur said seriously. "Not just for one moment, or even for five minutes, but happy all the time. I think he's never been happy before as long as I can remember." He didn't look at her but at some point at the wall when he added: "This – this must have been what he was like. Before. Before I was born."
It stung, and that was unexpected. At first, Morgana didn't know whether she felt hurt on her own behalf, or Arthur's, or even Uther's. Because it was true. Since Catrina's arrival, or shortly thereafter, Uther radiated bliss. Before her anger and disappointment with him had become a numbing pain that poisoned every hour she spent in his presence, she had made him laugh on occasion, or smile, and for all her teasing, she knew he was proud of Arthur a lot of the time. But the glaring contrast to the way Uther behaved now illustrated more than anything he could say that neither of them apparently had been enough to make him happy.
When Ygraine died and Arthur was born, Morgana was not yet two years old, and of course not at court. She had no memory of Uther and Ygraine together. But she remembered her father wistfully talking of how things used to be when Ygraine had still lived, a golden age forever out of reach now that the queen was gone.
"Everything could change," Arthur said, and sounded hopeful and uncertain at the same time. "Change back."
She must have made some disbelieving noise, for her looked at her again and gave her his most insufferable smirk. "Who knows, maybe she'll teach you how to catch a man."
Arthur being an obnoxious idiot was so familiar that she replied without even having to think about it. "Not that I've ever seen one in Camelot."
Later, she thought he'd done it deliberately; just as she knew how to provoke him, he knew how to annoy her, and the familiarity of it had a comforting reassurance that some things would not change after all. Maybe she gave him too much credit, though. Why should he think she needed reassurance? More likely, he was being a prat for the hell of it. Still, she spent a good hour exchanging insults with Arthur, and when she left, she felt somewhat better, though still not convinced Uther's sudden courtship of the Lady Catrina was a good thing.
Going by everything Morgana had observed so far, Catrina herself was unobjectionable, beautiful, but not so spectacularly so that it would strike one as artificial, with a soothing voice and no other voiced objective than making Uther happy.
Clearly, something had to be wrong about her.
Morgana remembered Sophia, and the way Arthur had acted around her, which resembled Uther's current behaviour. But none of her nightmares about Sophia killing Arthur had come to pass, and at any rate, none of her dreams had ever featured Catrina. Still, the memory of Sophia nagged at her and wouldn't let go. Under the pretence of choosing one of her dresses that could be altered for Catrina to wear at the wedding, Morgana tried to draw her into a conversation that would reveal more than the pleasant façade she had been presented with so far.
"It must have been terrible for you," she said while Gwen took out gown after gown and held it up for the Lady Catrina's inspection, "losing all your family, and everyone you ever cared for."
"Except for Jonas," Catrina replied with a sad smile, referring to her servant, who lurked outside of Morgana's chamber. "And yes, it was."
"When I lost my father," Morgana said, "I thought my world had ended." Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw that Gwen gave her a surprised look, presumably not at the words but at Morgana's willingness to talk about this with a complete stranger. But she had to make Catrina believe in her willingness to share confidences if she wanted to learn something about the woman, and so she pressed on: "I suppose you could say I was lucky, becoming the King's ward."
"Ah yes," Catrina said, dropped the sad smile, or any kind of smile altogether, and Morgana felt a flash of triumph that lasted until Catrina continued to speak: "It seems we are indeed in a similar position there, my dear… in regards to Uther. And I would indeed say you were lucky. He does pay for all these fetching gowns, does he not? And those nice jewels?"
Just quite what Catrina was insinuating, Morgana wasn't sure. The other woman's tone was curiously lacking malice, otherwise she'd have suspected something quite disturbing. But the matter-of-fact tone argued against it. Trying to keep a hold on her temper, she replied:
"As the only heiress of the house of Gorlois, I provide for myself. The King merely manages my estates."
"And in a profitable way, too, by the looks of it," Catrina said approvingly. "I think this dress will do very nicely, don't you?" she finished, pointing at a splendid creation Gwen was currently presenting. "Thanks ever so much. I'm sure we'll get along splendidly. Now excuse me, dearest, but it is the time for my afternoon nap. I do want to look rested on the happiest day of my life!"
Dress flung over her arm in a curiously artless fashion, as if she was holding a sack of meat, she rushed out of the room, leaving Gwen and Morgana staring after her in bemusement.
"What do you make of her, Gwen?" Morgana asked at last.
"I should think," Gwen said carefully, "there are easier ways to get rich than to marry the King."
"So you think she's marrying him for –" Morgana gestured at the gowns that hung and were lying everywhere in the room. It did make sense, of a sort. Not that it augured well for Arthur's fantastical idea that Uther's current state of bliss would remain long term and somehow result in a better Camelot. "Well, I suppose it's one way to keep from starvation. She did lose everything. But it doesn't explain why Uther is so bedazzled with her. Women have flung themselves at him before."
Gwen was busy picking up the various dresses that hadn't found favour with Katrina, so Morgana couldn't see her expression, but she sounded carefully neutral as she said: "Love can be a surprise. To anyone. Not that the King is anyone. But. You know."
""No, I don't," Morgana said. "As opposed to everyone else in this castle, I don't think Uther behaving like a foolish boy half his age is an occasion to celebrate. But I suppose we'll just have to wait and see."
They didn't have to wait long. Only a few hours after the wedding, Catrina accused Merlin of stealing her seal, the only remaining family heirloom, and Uther ordered his arrest at once. Morgana found out when a couple of guards entered her room apologetically and searched for Merlin. It brought back uneasy memories of the time she had been hiding Mordred, and she went cold, before rage got her moving again. At once, she sought out Uther, only to be told implacably that Arthur's manservant was no more immune to the laws of Camelot than anyone else. Morgana glared at him, remembered Gwen's arrest more than a year ago, remembered Tom, and bit her tongue, as difficult as it was. Then she asked Catrina whether she could speak to her alone.
"I know Merlin," she said as soon as they were both out of Uther's earshot. "Surely, there was a mistake. Some confusion. He wouldn't steal your heirloom, my lady."
"Your majesty," Catrina corrected, with a new hauteur. "And I'm afraid not. You know, I've been learning the most interesting things about the servants here. Is it true that your maid was accused of practising magic, and her father died for helping a magic user?"
"They were both innocent," Morgana said icily.
"You know this for certain?" Catrina asked, looking far too interested. It occurred to Morgana that it would cost the new Queen just one word to revive that old accusation against Gwen. After all, it had never been discovered who had healed Gwen's father. Nimueh definitely did not.
"Yes," she said, cursing herself for fretting about some vague sense of unease and annoyance when she should have seen how truly dangerous anyone with a genuine influence on Uther could be. "I do."
"Mmm," Catrina said speculatively. "You do, don't you? Well, that's good to know. I have no reason to doubt you. Don't tell the King, but who cares about magic when there's a darling family heirloom missing, and a thief to be caught?"
She couldn't be clearer. No more fuss about the accusation against Merlin, or it would be Gwen's turn.
Morgana liked Merlin. She truly did. But she loved Gwen, and she had learned to her cost that Uther only listened to her when it was too late. So there was no contest.
"No one," she said coldly, and withdrew.
It didn't surprise Morgana that the guards failed to find Merlin, and she had a good idea who had helped him to escape. Cornering Arthur and taunting him into admit it would have been fun if she didn't feel so humiliated about having been successfully blackmailed into inaction. There had to be something she could do, she thought, and wondered whether she should simply take Gwen and leave Camelot, genuinely leave. But where would she go? She doubted she could find the druids again. Maybe they wouldn't even want her, given what happened the last time. Her father had left her more than enough estate, she had not boasted about this, but all his manors were occupied by Uther's vassals, who would consider it their duty to report her whereabouts to their liege lord.
Though maybe Uther wouldn't care anymore if she left, Morgana thought, with a mixture of anger and something that felt suspiciously like disappointment again. Maybe he'd finally be ready to let her go, now that he had a woman at his side who, going by her first action as Queen, was exactly the kind of spiteful creature he deserved. She could try to find out, at the very least.
"Gwen," she said to her maid when Gwen returned from her latest attempt at sounding out Gaius for news about Merlin, "have you ever thought about leaving Camelot?"
To her surprise, Gwen reacted with an impassioned and immediate outburst. "Oh, you mustn't allow her to drive you away!"
"You mustn't," Gwen repeated firmly. "Not with the kind of damage she can do. The people need all the help they get, if such an unjust woman is their Queen!"
An unjust queen fits a tyrant king, Morgana thought, but didn't say anything out loud. In truth, she hadn't thought about the wider effect Catrina's new status could have.
"Well, I can't be of any help here," she said doubtfully. "Uther listens to me less than ever."
"Arthur listens," Gwen said, and bit her lips, looking on the floor. Given how many years she had been in Morgana's service, had been Morgana's friend, it was amazing that she still had these moments of embarrassment at having offered a frank opinion. In other circumstances, Morgana would have been charmed, but right now, things were too serious.
"Given that he was the one who got the order to arrest Merlin to begin with," Morgana said, "I doubt Arthur has any illusions left about what kind of woman Catrina is. He can be dense, but not that dense. He can figure out the repercussions without me spelling them out to him."
Even as she spoke, she knew already she wouldn't leave. It had been a dream, again, an idle fancy of liberty, as illusionary as all her hopes were these days.
"He could use a friend, though," Gwen said quietly.
It was Gwen who told Morgana about the new taxes, and Gwen who blazed in later to inform her that Arthur had stopped the guards from extracting them.
"He's with the king now," Gwen said, eyes dancing with excitement and hope, and her enthusiasm was so great that Morgana found herself swept away with it, right in front of the council chamber, where she heard raised voices. She expected to be barred from entering by the guards, before realizing that part of the court was already present, with more and more entering. The full implication left her breathless. Arthur never argued with his father in public. Never. He rarely disagreed with him when a third party was present at all, even if it was Morgana, though very rarely, it had happened. But never during anything that could be called a public occasion. Their arguments were invariably private. In public, Arthur either supported Uther, or he did what Morgana did as well and simply left to act behind Uther's back.
For all that Morgana liked to tease him about being such a good boy, such a perfect tool for his father, she knew Uther relied on that loyalty, and not just emotionally. It was Arthur who selected, trained and commanded knights and guards alike, had done for years now. Nobody would know before it was put to the test, but Morgana was willing to bet that if push came to shove, at least half of Camelot's defense force would side with the prince who was part of their every day lives rather than the king whom they saw only on state occasions. It was just that the idea of Arthur ever going from private disagreement to public before now had been utterly unthinkable.
If he was ready to defy Uther in public about the taxes, then it might need only one more push, and he'd be ready to confront his father on other issues as well.
Morgana saw Arthur leave the council chamber, back very straight, and bit her tongue. She couldn't afford mistakes now. This was a once in a lifetime chance. If she followed him and ragged on Uther and his new Queen in sympathy, Arthur might respond by defending his father again. Not simply because the instinct to spar was so deeply ingrained in both of them, but because Arthur had an overdeveloped protective instinct, and he knew very well what she thought of Uther's politics. No, a well-meant attempt to express her solidarity might backfire and get him on Uther's side again.
On the other hand, Catrina and Uther, left unchecked, could complete their work very soon, and push him away completely.
She wouldn't protest about the taxes, Morgana decided. Not to the King and Queen, and not to Arthur. If Uther took any measures to punish his son now, she wouldn't protest, either, and Uther would; Morgana knew him too well to expect either wise. No matter how harsh the punishment, she would not do anything to help until Arthur's eyes were finally open, for good, and he was ready to take his father's place in Camelot.
Unbidden, the memory of Arthur freeing her after her night in the dungeon came to her, and the look at his face when he had found her with Mordred; the way he had given in when she had asked him to save Mordred for her sake. They always had been there for each other when it counted, no matter how much they irritated each other the rest of the time.
It's not betrayal, Morgana silently told the boy who had shared what remained of her childhood, and hated the bitter taste of guilt in her mouth. Never that. I'm doing this for your own good. You'll see. I hope you will. And so will everyone else, if what I hope comes to pass.
"Are you sick?" Arthur asked Morgana when he found her staring silently out of the window where the guards carried out Catrina's – the troll's remains, along with the body of her servant Jonas. In other circumstances, Uther would have had the heads of magic users who had acted against the king put on pikes, but right now he had been too embarrassed to give orders regarding the bodies, so Arthur had ordered them to be buried outside of the city bounds.
"Now that she's not stinking up the place anymore?" Morgana asked back, in an attempt at levity to disguise what she actually felt. "Not likely."
"Because you haven't said I told you so yet. Seriously, Morgana, where is the gloating? You said it wasn't normal that Father wanted to marry her after only a few days. You were right. The only one who beat you to it was Merlin, and he had a shot already, so come on, gloat away."
She turned away from the window and looked at him. For someone who had been recently poisoned and returned from the almost dead, not to mention disinherited in front of the entire court and replaced by a troll, Arthur was in perversely high spirits. He grinned at her. She didn't know whether she wanted to hug him, slap him or confess she had been praying for him to solve the problem by locking his father in the deepest dungeon he could find. Trust Arthur to take poison on the vague chance it would make his father cry instead. Trust Merlin to suggest that.
"Everything will go back to normal now, will it?" she said, and didn't try to disguise the bitterness in that statement. "Did he even apologize for what he's done?"
"All new laws introduced will be revoked," Arthur said, his grin fading away.
"So he didn't. I knew it," Morgana said disgustedly. A part of her was dimly aware her disgust wasn't just directed at Uther, but that wasn't something she cared to examine.
"It's not about apologies. He was under a spell. He's not anymore."
"You believed it, though," Morgana said. "That he disinherited you because you weren't tough enough. You thought he'd throw you away not because of her, but because he wanted to."
Now it was Arthur who stared out of the window, arms crossed.
"Yes," he said, nothing more, and that told her a lot. Suddenly she desperately wanted him to be obnoxious again, even pull her hair. She wanted the past back, or a future where change finally had taken place, for good or ill. Anything but this present which suffocated her in a sense of failure, without knowing quite whom she was failing, others or herself.
Without planning to, she found herself putting a hand on Arthur's back. "He thinks the world of you," she said softly. "You're his ideal heir. More's the pity."