This Camelot was the first Camelot that was not on Earth, yet still in the mortal realm.
It spun in the dark, suspended between stars. Surrounding it was a buzzing array of smaller crafts, no more bound by gravity than the city-station itself or the ship Xanadu currently travelled on.
This far from the ground Xanadu was farthest from the Lake than she had ever been. Perhaps it was just as well that she was far from sisters, brothers and family all -- she was here to meet Merlin and there were none of her kin who liked him, not even her. Respected him, yes, but liked him, no.
He was Merlin, demonspawn. He was Merlin, a feral thing in the form of man. He was Merlin and kind only ever by mistake.
But he was Merlin and for the sake of Jason and his demon, she must speak to him.
When she boarded the station, she expected she knew not what but not this. It took a lot to surprise an immortal, much more to surprise the world's second best magician, but a man millennia dead, staring at her through the viewport? That would do it, every time. But perhaps it was not so surprising, knowing as she did that Horsewoman was aboard -- and where Horsewoman went Al Jabr was often not far behind, unless it was the other way around.
Then Al Jabr -- for it was him, his soul as bright and full of science as a lightbulb in the dark, as it always had been -- spoke and oh, in this life, he was a woman, despite everything.
"Madame Xanadu," said the woman who was not Al Jabr but the Arthur of this Camelot, like her forefather was the Arthur of Al-Wadi, the Camelot they had all seen too late.
Xanadu nodded in reply and soon Ystin was there to guide her where she needed to go.
"The resemblance is uncanny," Ystin said. Xanadu wondered of he loved this Arthur the way he loved the others or if he knew her to be Al Jabr reborn and loved her like he had the long-dead engineer. It had driven a nail between them, when Ystin had learned what Horsewoman had done, at the very end of Al Jabr's first incarnation.
"It is rare for a soul to be the Arthur of two Camelots," she said.
"The Once and Future King, " Ystin said with an odd kind of smile.
One Arthur had been brother to Xanadu, but Ystin had known more Camelots than she had. Some immortals reckoned time by the rises and falls of Camelot. Ystin and Xanadu were among them, Merlin was not.
Xanadu didn't know how Ystin managed not to get lost in the maze of corridors of the ship, but then, Ystin had been here longer than she had. Since Little Spring, Xanadu had been in Camelot before Ystin only once -- and look where that had left Jason and Etrigan. They passed a viewport, and far beneath it, down below upon the earthly waters of the Mediterranean, there was Themyscira.
"Exoristos is here with you?" Xanadu asked. Since the business with the black diamond had been resolved, the answer to that question had been yes more often than not, but Xanadu would rather know up front what the situation was.
"Yes," Ystin said, but did not elaborate.
Xanadu did not pry. Even immortals deserved their privacy. She did not ask about Vanguard – Ystin would no more part with his horse than Horsewoman with one of hers.
They arrived at a room of healing. It was empty, save for a child sitting on a bed, back to the door, feet swinging wildly in the empty air.
Xanadu had no time for games. "Where is Merlin?"
The child turned around and waved.
"You are not," Xanadu said. He could not be. He was a child; Merlin had not yet aged thus. Last she had met him, oh, five Camelots before this one, he had still been the grown man the Demon Knights had left on Avalon, lo these many millennia ago. "You are a child."
"I am both, Nimue," the boy said. There were few alive who remembered she name she'd borne before 'Madame Xanadu'. Even were it not so, he had spoken in the language of Avalon. He had learned it from Arthur or else when he was dead or else had stolen it from her sisters, but the boy was Merlin, greatest sorcerer of an age.
"You must resolve the matter with Jason and Etrigan at once," Xanadu said. "Restore them to what they were before this half-life. They will take the return of the primordial form of their bond much kinder than they ever have before."
"Sir Ystin of the two Camelots, Once and Future Knight," said the boy who was Merlin, gravitas hanging too heavy on his too small frame, "I do believe there is a Round Table waiting for you." He scrunched up his face. "Or maybe it's a sphere. Nevertheless, your place is with the people of the sword."
"My place is at your side," Ystin said. There was something commendable about the Shining Knight's loyalty, but there was also something wretched about it. It was loyalty to Merlin and that was not the sort of story that ended well. She wondered if he still had visions of the Grail. All these years and she'd never thought to ask.
"You may have drunk from the Holy Grail, but you are no mage. Such discussions of magic will bore you, I fear." Merlin kicked at the air. "It's going to bore me."
Once Ystin had left, Merlin's shoulders dropped. "I cannot do what you ask, Madame Xanadu."
"You are Merlin. It is never 'cannot' with you, but always 'will not'. You will do this. I have never asked anything of you. I ask now." She would not beg. She had her pride, if nothing else.
"You misunderstand," Merlin said. "I am not merely a child. I am just slightly under seven years old."
"No." Seven years old was a significant age for magicians -- perhaps the most significant. It was when they became burdened with a soul and the magic that came with it. If Merlin was not yet seven, he had not yet any magic left. The lack of a soul would not burden him over much; she did not believe he had ever had one.
Xanadu sat on the bed next to him. With her hand and with magic she reached out to him. He did not reach back; his physical stayed sitting on the edge of the bed, his feet swinging, and his magical self might as well not exist for all the reaction she got.
"No," she repeated. "You cannot be."
"It is my way," Merlin said, "to always be what I cannot." The insufferable smugness of Merlin was nonsensical when coming from a boy not yet seven years of age, but no less insufferable.
"If you are not a mage, then what good are you?"
"You are the greatest magician of this age. You tell me."