He was due back at the factory at ten the next morning. Each sleepless hour was a taunt and a curse. The mental din took on a musical quality, a mocking hurdy-gurdy, playing over and over, Ealdor, Ealdor, Ealdor: the place where Merlin lived, worked, ate and slept, the place where ambitions always died unrealised, the place where those men lucky (or unlucky) enough to leave never came back.
To that perverted lullaby he fell asleep.
He was awoken at dawn by an altogether different sound.
There was a car in the lane. The deep purr of its engine, the scrape and crunch of its tyres over the gravel were rare, unsettling noises. Merlin leapt from his bed as his heart leapt into his throat. He’d kept his insolent mouth shut for months now. No more talk of how things could be changed, no more suggestion that this was not enough. He was certain, certain as the endurance of Ealdor’s factory machines they weren’t coming for him. Or were they?
By the time he reached the top of the stairs, the hammering on the front door was shaking the floorboards. Halfway down and his mother was already there, opening the door before he could protest, fight, run. He might have laughed at the futility of the notion were it not for the crippling fear turning the bones in his legs to dust.
A single uniformed soldier, wearing the red, dragon-crested jacket and grey trousers of Camelot troops, stood stiffly on the doorstep.
Merlin was only wearing his pants.
It was curious that the soldier had knocked, hadn’t barged his way in. Clinging to the banister, Merlin inched his way down the last of the stairs. His mother, Hunith, was leaning against the windowsill. She’d knocked the bowl they kept the keys in onto the floor. She didn’t seem to notice. Her wide, frightened eyes were fixed on her misfit of a son.
The soldier was tall, broad-shouldered and handsome. They didn’t make them like that here.
“Merlin Fowler?” the soldier said.
“This is for you.”
He held out an envelope: large, crisp and cream-coloured, gilded in the corner with Camelot’s dragon crest. Merlin took it, hand shaking.
The soldier departed without another word.
Hunith dropped to her knees. Sobbing, she clutched at Merlin’s bare leg and said, “My darling boy. What have you done?”
When Uther was done, he failed to extend even a cursory morning salutation. This should have been a forewarning, though nothing could have adequately prepared Arthur for what was to follow. He noticed the envelope on the table between them—too late to be ashamed at his lack of observation. Uther was reaching into his pocket and from the jangling sound Arthur knew what was coming before he could protest, fight, run,. He might have laughed at the futility of the notion, were it not for the dread tightly squeezing his chest. Uther dropped the keys on top of the envelope.
“Leon will drive you over to take a look at the place. You can pick out your own furnishings. I firmly believe the boy will be to your liking.” He looked away; his top lip flinched. “You’ve got three weeks to get your affairs in order, though I’ve arranged for you to meet him beforehand, in a fortnight.”
Curling his fingers around the keys, Arthur implored weakly, “I thought we agreed I was to get another year.”
“We agreed nothing of the sort. It was never going to be easy, finding a suitable match for a man with your genotype and preferences. This boy is a rarity—Genotype Class A and fertile. Then there was your Compatibility Rating—a resounding 98%.” At this revelation, Uther’s expression changed from disdain to animated delight. Such was the affecting power of his new and improved, mechanised and prized Department of Compatibility. “Consider yourself lucky. It wasn’t so long ago you’d have been married to a woman, whether it suited you or not.”
That was it then. Uther was happy. At twenty-two, Arthur was at last to become his lauded poster-child.
It had never been enough—Arthur had never been enough—just being his child.
Up to now, Merlin had thought Hunith content, if not happy. He wasn’t sure how that would change once he was gone. She wouldn’t cry, not in front of him. He knew that much. She always shed her tears in the bleak black of night when she thought Merlin was sleeping.
Merlin swallowed back the lump in his throat. “It’s time, mum. I have to go.”
“I know, darling, I know. Remember what I told you?”
“Yes, I remember.” The name and address of a dear friend from a long time ago, when the borders were open, when Camelot scientists were working their way across the counties gathering data. The contact might be useless. Everything had changed since then.
The soldier gave them a full half a minute before he said, “We have to leave now.”
Merlin bent to pick up the case. The soldier closed an iron fist around Merlin’s wrist. “No belongings.”
“Please,” Merlin implored, his eyes darting in his mother’s direction. It was better coming from him, less risky.
The soldier’s mouth lifted at the corners. “All right,” he said, beckoning Merlin to follow with a tilt of his head.
There was no one but Hunith to send Merlin off. Not like the girls going to the Blooms, where the villagers would come out and line the road, littering it with wild flowers and soaking it with their tears. Merlin had volunteered to leave the Eastern Counties for his own benefit; the girls were chosen, to serve their country, to help their fellow countrymen. Like Merlin, they never came back.
The soldier opened the rear door and stood to attention: shoulders back, stance rigid, unforgiving. Merlin paused, took one last look at his mother and committed her warm, sad smile to memory before climbing in. He’d never spent a single night away from home, not once in his eighteen and a half years. This was a quick, clean break, and the pain was sharp and blinding. It was the sun in his eyes that made him look away, not his tears.
A few miles from Ealdor, the driver stopped the car. The soldier got out and opened Merlin’s door. Merlin recoiled instinctively but the soldier only said, “The suitcase.”
Merlin handed it over. Protest was pointless. The soldier carried the case to the verge and flung it over the hedge. There was wheat beyond, ripe for harvest. The combine would have it shredded inside a week, along with Merlin’s case and its contents. Merlin was glad for the most part to see it go. He was only sorry for the pie, neatly wrapped in waxed paper, that his mother had tucked between his blue jumper and a pair of new pyjamas. The letter from the Department of Compatibility had clearly stated no personal possessions were permitted. Hunith knew it; that didn’t mean she could bear to let her boy leave her empty-handed.
They’d been in the car some time, bumping along a pitted track to the driver’s curses, before they reached a tarmac road. Merlin had seen one once, in the distance, back in the days when he used to spend part of his summer holidays picking hops. It snaked along the rise of a distant hill, a black viper on its way to greener pastures. Ever since then, he’d dreamed of finding out where it went.
The ride was smooth on the road and the back seat comfortable. Merlin relaxed into the plush leather and stared out of the window, watching the landscape slowly change from verdant field and pasture to acres of scrubby wasteland scarred with swathes of stone and gravel. Far behind a wire fence there were houses too, rows upon rows of them, with tiny front gardens that were overgrown with weeds. Broken windows stared back at Merlin like haunted eyes. Their inhabitants had long departed—lost to the war.
The City of Camelot was encircled by a wall. Merlin didn’t notice it at first, sweeping out along the horizon. His attention was seized by the towers beyond, shining glass and silver metal, worshipping arms to the heavens shooting up into the cloudless sky. The wall was high, topped with spikes. As it loomed, taking over the skyline, the car slowed, finally stopping at a guarded gate. They were waved on through and that, for the time being, was all Merlin saw of Camelot.
They descended through a tunnel and emerged into a holding area, a large and uninviting expanse of strip-lights and grey, where a flurry of white coats brusquely ushered other young men and women from vehicles similar to the one in which Merlin was sitting. There was a tap on the window and Merlin’s stomach coiled into a knot of dread as the passenger door was opened.
More than an hour must have passed with Merlin sitting neglected in the examination room. There was no clock, nothing on the walls except a plain plaque embossed with Albion’s motto: Compatibility-Stability-Peace. He was shivering, his stomach rumbling despite his growing apprehension. The smug-faced orderly, George, had long since disappeared with Merlin’s clothes in a cloth sack labelled Incinerator. Thus, Merlin was abandoned, sitting completely naked on a paper-covered examination bench, legs dangling over the side, with no idea what fate was in store for him—
The door swung open and a middle-aged woman in a white coat rushed in. Startled, Merlin jumped—and clamped his hands over his privates.
“Merlin Fowler?” she exclaimed.
“Y-yes,” he stammered, teeth chattering.
“This won’t do at all. Not one bit,” she said, her whole body stiffening. Merlin sensed panic, not revulsion. She leaned out into the corridor and shouted, “George! George! Get Mr Fowler a robe and slippers. At once!”
The woman was flustered, her round face florid as she closed the door and approached Merlin. “I’m so sorry, you poor dear. I’m Dr Hargreaves. You can call me Alice.” She held out her hand, glanced down at Merlin’s situation, and quickly withdrew it again.
There was a knock. George lumbered in, proffering a long, thick burgundy robe and velvety slippers. Merlin was hastily clad and, with Alice’s arm at his back, was ushered from the examination room, speechless and confused.
The gleaming corridor was empty, the doors that flanked its length closed and not a sound from behind any of them. They returned to the lift that had brought Merlin up from underground, only instead of the stern, stony silence that had brought him as far as the second floor, Alice said cheerily, “Top floor for you.”
The rooms on the twentieth floor were luxuriously appointed, opulent beyond anything Merlin had ever seen, even on television. He was seated on a soft, low couch at a small table and served hot tea and a fragrant sandwich from a silver platter before Alice politely asked if she had his permission to begin her examination.
In the space of minutes, Merlin had quite literally been transported to the top of the world.
He was measured and weighed, his heart rate and blood pressure taken, and blood drawn. Alice considered the numbers. She looked at Merlin with her head to one side and said seriously, “I didn’t realise there was a problem with the food supply in the Eastern Counties.”
“There isn’t. We get enough.”
“But your weight—”
“I eat like a horse. My mum says I have hollow legs.”
Alice smiled fondly. “You’ll grow into your body. You’re still young.”
“Do you think I’ll grow into my ears?” Merlin laughed, just as everyone else did, as his heart skipped a beat.
Not Alice. She didn’t laugh. She said, “He’s going to adore you. Smile like that and he won’t have a choice in the matter.”
She must have had a charmed life.
Merlin was returned to the couch. While Alice pored over her notes there was a continual in-and-out from a variety of other personnel, each as polite and deferent as the last. Some quietly conferred with Alice, some made deliveries and some cleared things away. Amidst this activity, Alice and Merlin talked and talked, until his anxiety gradually eased.
At last, she said, “I’m curious. You’re young enough to have been selected for transfer to Camelot when you were a baby. Do you know why you were missed?”
The medical officer at the factory, the one who had endorsed his application, had explained it to Merlin. In turn, he started to explain to Alice, “I was preemie. Six weeks before full term, my mother said.”
Merlin didn’t need to finish. Alice concurred and replied, “Ah. Yes. When you were born the hospitals in the farming counties didn’t always have the facilities to ensure early babies thrived. The war had only just ended and resources were scarce. They must have assumed, quite incorrectly, that you’d be deficient.”
Deficient. An ugly word, a condemnation. Merlin had lived with it, endured it—and the subsequent irony—for as long as he could remember.
“And yet,” Alice continued, “the last school records we have for you are from four years ago, when you were fourteen.”
“They ran out of things to teach me.”
“In theory, that’s not possible.” Alice smirked. “So what happened after your teachers got tired of you?”
“I was shoved here and there for a bit. They didn’t know what to do with me. I was rubbish at picking and sorting and too young to operate the machinery. In the end, I ended up in the machine shop at the factory, in the office for a while then out on the floor, servicing, maintaining and fixing the machines. I have a knack, apparently.”
“I see. That would explain your hearing loss. It’s minimal. I’ll make a note that if it hasn’t improved in six months you’ll need some remediation. Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?”
Merlin assumed she was talking about his health, about the medical. His one and only question had nothing to do with that. It was the obvious question, really, but he knew better than to ask out of turn. The letter from the Department was explicit; there would be no contact and no information regarding his intended until the wedding day.
In Camelot We Trust—the first lesson every child learned at school.
Biting his lip in case his tongue betrayed him, Merlin shook his head and stared into his lap.
“Merlin? Really? You don’t want to ask me about who it is you’re to marry?”
Was she daring him to ask? Was she testing his obedience?
“Of course,” he said quietly, lifting his chin, uncertain. “But it’s not allowed.”
“Not ordinarily. However, in your case some of the usual protocols have been adjusted.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re going to be marrying someone very … high-profile. Someone you will have no doubt seen on television, on the news probably.”
Alice’s excitement was palpable. She reached across from her chair and took Merlin’s hands in hers. “Arthur Pendragon, the High Commissioner’s son.”
Merlin did watch the news on the television and on occasion he caught a glimpse of the small-sheet newspapers, Ealdor’s other prime source of news—though more often gossip. If a fraction of what was in those news reports was true...
Merlin felt a tiny bit sick, but he only had himself to blame. It was too late for regrets. This was what he got for not being entirely truthful on the Personality Profile Questionnaire.
Morgause stood abruptly, toppling her chair. Her anger thrummed out through her clenched fist, rattling the china teacup and saucer on the table between them. Morgana rescued the cup and took another sip. She was imbibing insipid beer. In the Lower Town it was safer to drink than the water. Arthur wished there was a way he could smuggle in tea for her, to provide her with a modicum of comfort in this hell-hole.
“When?” Morgause said, through gritted teeth.
“I meet him in four days; the ceremony is a week after that.”
“When does he arrive in Camelot?”
Arthur knew what Morgause was thinking. He’d anticipated this would be her response—eradicate the problem before it became a problem. In that regard she was a lot like Uther, though he’d never say it out loud. Sometimes he wondered if she had a heart. Then he’d catch her looking at Morgana and remember why she was like she was, and what a disservice it was to ever compare her to his father.
“It’s too late,” Arthur said, “he’s already in Camelot. I tried to get here sooner but I’m being watched, more so now than ever.”
He hated to lie. He could have stolen here a week earlier, shown Morgause the letter, let her people find and intercept the car carrying his betrothed. Random acts of pro-magic rebellion—terrorism—were few and far between these days but had not been wiped out altogether. There were still a number of active rebel factions not associated with the highly secretive Movement opposed to Uther’s post-war regime that could be blamed. However, the boy inside that car was an innocent and too many of those had died already. Arthur had no mind to resort to such tactics, not yet.
Morgause paced, her heavy boots grinding the threadbare carpet beneath her feet. This building used to be a grand hotel, years ago, filled with wealthy paying guests. Nowadays the part-time residents were of a different stripe, though no less exclusive. Their currency was loyalty and promises, which didn’t cover the cost of food, let alone maintaining the tired and tarnished furnishings.
“You can’t marry him, Arthur,” Morgause said. “You’re destined for another. Your future, our future, the future of Albion depends upon it.” She stopped pacing and stared at him, eyes feral. “You know people on the inside. You’ll have to take care of it.”
“You would ask me to have him killed, in Confinement? I think that would raise suspicions, don’t you?”
Morgana reached out for Morgause, who came to her, fingers winding through the long, black tresses of Morgana’s hair. “He’s right,” Morgana said anxiously. “If Uther finds out he won’t flinch at having Arthur executed, only son or not.”
“Then what else?” Morgause’s voice rose with her frustration, as pulses of her magic shook the chandelier above them. One day it was going to fall. The ceiling was riddled with cracks. Arthur vowed to himself that before then he would have them out of here, close to him, where they belonged.
“I don’t know what to do,” Arthur admitted wearily. “All I know is that we have eleven more days before I’m expected to start behaving like a married man. I won’t get any special allowances. If anything my father will expect…” Arthur dropped his head into his hands, scrubbing at his hair as if he could erase the image from his mind.
He didn’t need to say it. He and his husband would be expected to be a model couple, a shining example to the nation of how government-controlled matrimony and procreation were the only way to increase the population and ensure lasting security and peace. Staying out all night wasting his money at seedy nightclubs and getting into scrapes—a carefully constructed ruse for the gossip-mongers and Uther’s spies—would have to stop.
How was he going to orchestrate a coup from an armchair by the fire?
There again, it wasn’t unheard of for men and women like him, upper-class Fertiles, society’s most elite, to continue to live as Libertines after marriage. In certain over-privileged and arrogant circles, his husband’s newly-acquired rank and wealth would be considered ample compensation for any indiscretion on Arthur’s part.
“No good moping, sweetling,” Morgause said, sliding Arthur a wine glass across the table. The rim was chipped and the crystal dull from age. She filled his before she filled her own and chinked the tops together. “We’ll think of something.”
“No assassination attempts. I don’t want any of you near the Citadel. Things have been quiet long enough the security has become complacent and I don’t want to lose that advantage.” Arthur knocked back the sweet liquor, Solana, in one swift gulp, slammed the glass back onto the table and shuddered involuntarily. The bitter aftertaste was its most innocuous property. Arthur wouldn’t risk more than a couple of glasses—not if he wanted to get home alive and in one piece.
Morgana poured his refill and said, “I know you, Arthur. You’re going to marry this boy because you’re good and noble and you want to help everyone, and maybe we can work around that. But if the Department of Compatibility are as good as they say they are, what are the chances you’re going to fall for him?”
“Nil,” he said too quickly. He knew nothing about the boy, except a column full of figures that marked them as an ideal match. If there was anything more than luck on the Department of Compatibility’s side, Arthur might, whether he liked the idea or not, fall in love with the spouse they’d found him in their extensive database and remain happily married until the end of his days.
It sounded good, in theory—it had supposedly worked for generations—except when a secret army of druids and seers, and your clairvoyant half-sister, said you were destined for an indomitable union with a warlock, a man with magic, and this union was Albion’s only hope in restoring the balance his father had destroyed.
The problem was, since the war, in the aftermath of The Great Purge, the few covert magic-users still alive were elusive, virtually impossible to find even with Morgause and Morgana at the helm of the search. Despite years of looking for him with all the means at their disposal, both magic and non-magic, the warlock had not been found.
They commiserated with the remainder of the Solana and Morgause’s tales of the days before the war. She’d scarcely been more than a child when the conflict began. Still, she remembered well enough when sorcery was as much-needed a part of society as electricity and oil. Morgana and Arthur listened, side-by-side and worlds apart.
When it was time for him to leave her eyes filled with tears. If she shed them, it wouldn’t be until after he left.
With a heavy heart, Arthur said, “I can’t risk coming back here for a while.”
They held each other close. Morgana whispered, “I miss you, baby brother. I miss your stupid face.”
“You’ll see it again,” Arthur said, though he had no idea when that might be.