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A Council of Queens

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Camelot is a different place without its king, even more than a year after his passing. Mithian visited once when she was a child, and twice as a woman, and the difference between Arthur and Uther is not nearly so striking as the difference between Arthur and Guinevere. While the city loved its prince, its golden king, and would have followed him blindly anywhere, it prospers under its queen, and Mithian is glad to see the flashes of magic from the corners of her eyes, brought into the light and flourishing.

The proof of magic’s new welcome in Camelot stands at his queen’s shoulder when Mithian rides into the courtyard. Guinevere looks well, if tired—Mithian knows that bone-deep exhaustion, the kind that comes with being a queen too young and alone. It’s Merlin who seems to have shouldered the burden of their shared grief, his shoulders bent under the weight of new finery and his smile not quite lighting up his eyes.

“Welcome, Queen Mithian,” says Guinevere the moment Mithian dismounts, descending the last few stairs to come and greet her. “We were sad to hear of your father’s passing.”

Mithian does her best to smile. It’s what a queen does, in the face of it all. “He never quite recovered from what Morgana did. Thank you for your letter, when it happened. I know you were still …” Sometimes it’s best to trail off delicately, and she fancies that Guinevere looks grateful for it when she does.

“Of course. Would you like to settle in your rooms? You’re the last, I’m afraid, Lady Vivian arrived this morning. We’ll wait until tomorrow to start our talks, though.”

Mithian smiles ruefully. “We would have been earlier, but there was a bridge washed out.”

“On my land?” Guinevere sounds dismayed.

Mithian shakes her head. “On mine, I’m afraid to say. But that’s to discuss at another moment, we shouldn’t all stand here in the courtyard.” She looks beyond Guinevere’s shoulder to Merlin, who looks less worn this close, or perhaps merely hides it better. “It’s good to see you again as well, Merlin. Or ought I call you ‘my lord,’ now that you’re the Court Sorcerer?”

His barely concealed horror makes him seem more the man she’s met before. “Merlin is fine, your Majesty. I ought to go back to my duties, I just wanted to say hello.” He turns to Guinevere. “Gwen?”

“Go on, Merlin. I’ll see you at dinner.” She gives him a quick handclasp and a warm look, and the two are enough to make Mithian glad that they have each other, when they both lost a man so important to them. “Now, Mithian, shall we go to your rooms?” Mithian walks with her, letting the servants take care of her bags and lead her guard to where they’ll be staying. She tries not to let her pathetic gratitude show when they walk past the rooms she stayed in with Morgana, but Guinevere’s smile shows that she knows.

Mithian takes the kindness even though it stings.

*

The dinner Guinevere serves that night is lavish, and Mithian makes sure to show up perfectly on time to see everyone else. Queen Annis is there when she arrives, talking to Merlin. She’s made him smile, which makes Mithian inclined to like her even though they’ve never spoken before. Annis had no use for princesses learning to take their father’s kingdoms over, the last time they were in the same room.

Annis and Guinevere both stand to greet Mithian when she enters, and Merlin gives her a better smile than the one he managed in the afternoon, though that isn’t saying terribly much. Mithian settles in the seat Guinevere indicates and speaks to her about how lovely her room is for a moment. It’s an inane conversation, but there isn’t much to be done about that. The politics won’t start until tomorrow, but the promise of what they’re here to do hangs heavy over their heads.

Princesses Vivian and Elena arrive together, arm in arm. It’s been years since Mithian saw either of them, both of their lands on the other side of Odin’s and Bayard’s, making visiting difficult. Both of them are so altered she would hardly recognize them if they weren’t the last two members of their company expected. Elena has grown from a clumsy, madcap girl into a poised woman, if still an awkward one. She looks nervous, probably because her father has entrusted her with this diplomatic mission, but her smile is friendly and wide. Vivian is quiet and brittle and avoids speaking to Guinevere more than she must, and Mithian isn’t sure how much of it is that her father is ill and how much is that Guinevere used to be a servant, or why Merlin’s mouth twists when he sees her.

The table seems acres long and too small to fit them all at once. Mithian does her best, but she’s tired, and she knows Guinevere must feel the gap at her right hand, knows there is history at the table she doesn’t yet know.

Out in the hall, their knights all get along well, and Mithian makes a point of smiling at those few of Camelot’s that she recognizes. They all look tired as well. The whole of Albion looks tired, these days, but that is why there are five queens sitting at this table. Mithian lets that thought bolster her, and turns to Vivian at her side and asks a question about her gown. Vivian answers, haltingly and then when Mithian encourages her with her old spirit and sharpness, beginning a long story about just what trials she had to go through to find a lace-maker who could do as she asked before finding one who used magic to do it.

By the end, the whole table is smiling, and Elena teases Merlin about being pressed into service as a dressmaker for queens, and Annis gives Mithian a sharp nod as they all excuse themselves to retire, as if she’s done something right.

*

“Odin is testing our borders,” Guinevere says the next morning, and looks around the table. “All of our borders. He had a treaty with Arthur, but he won’t hold to it now that I’m ruling the kingdom. And Mithian, now that Nemeth is yours …”

“He’s been eyeing my lands for years,” says Annis, all frankness. “And he knows he’ll have two more young queens in a few years,” she adds, nodding at Elena and Vivian.

“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” Mithian looks around at them all: Annis leaning back in her chair with her face unnervingly still, Elena’s hands twisting underneath the table, Vivian’s jaw set, Guinevere nodding along with what they say. “We’re here to make sure Odin and those like him won’t take our kingdoms from us.”

“Arthur spoke sometimes of a united Albion.” Guinevere keeps her voice and her shoulders steady when she mentions Arthur, but none of the rest of them can quite manage it, from Vivian’s stiffening to Annis’s soft smile. “Of treating with his allies and bringing the lands of his enemies under Camelot’s protection. I don’t want to be some sort of High Queen, though. I only want peace, and I hope you want the same.”

“We’ll have a council of queens instead,” says Elena, with half a smile. “The men have had quite enough time to run things, I would say.”

Annis snorts. “That’s all well and good, starry-eyed idealism, but I’d like to know how you think this will work in the end.”

And so the negotiations begin.

*

After lunch, they take a break, after one too many arguments about whose soldiers help others, how consistent their laws need to be with each other, and a hundred other details of alliances that they need to discuss. Mithian is sure she’s still red with humiliation from explaining too many times that Nemeth never quite recovered from Morgana and Odin’s attack, that they won’t be able to aid the others as much as they might hope for another year. Vivian lost her temper once but seemed to gain Annis’s respect from it, and Mithian is sure she is not the only one who ended the morning with a headache.

She runs into Elena in the stables and thinks about excusing herself, but Elena smiles at her and Mithian isn’t impolite enough to leave. “I suppose if it were easy we wouldn’t need to have such a large meeting about it at all,” Elena offers, and then her face drops. “I think we all expected to be having it with Arthur someday.”

“Is Annis the only woman at that table he was never engaged to?”

“He and Vivian weren’t quite engaged.” Elena’s brows knit together. “She doesn’t like to talk about it. She was in love with him for a long time, and then he died and she—wasn’t.”

Mithian can’t say she knows what it means, but it might begin to explain part of what’s worn on Vivian so across the years. She looks more exhausted than a few months of her father’s illness could make her. Love for Arthur could not have helped, especially not when he was killed. “Wasn’t?” she asks, even if it isn’t any of her business.

“In love anymore. He died, and it stopped. That’s what she says, that it was like waking from a dream and finding the world had moved on without her. One minute she loved him, and the next she didn’t, and then word came he’d been killed in battle.”

“Do they think it was magic?”

She doesn’t quite understand the look on Elena’s face. “Camelot always did seem to attract it, even when it was banned.” A smile twitches up a corner of her mouth. “Just look at Merlin, after all.”

“He does well, from what I hear. He and Guinevere both.”

Elena shifts, restless. “Would you like to come for a ride with me? I was going to go out. It’s … I suppose it’s stupid. There was a spot in the woods where Arthur and I went, when he was trying to want to marry me.”

Mithian feels her own mouth quirk. “Funny, I could say the same. You wanted to visit it?”

“We can visit yours while we’re at it, if you would like.”

“It’s a silly way to mourn someone, I suppose. Revisiting our disappointments.”

Elena shrugs. “We don’t have to.”

“No, let’s.” Mithian makes herself grin. “We can see if he took us to the same place.”

It turns out he didn’t, which makes both of them smile, and the two of them speak of anything but Arthur and alliances until Mithian realizes they’re going to be late for dinner if they stay out too much longer. Elena offers a race back and Mithian doesn’t try very hard to catch her, glad enough to arrive back in Camelot’s stables breathless and pink-cheeked and ready for another night of diplomacy.

*

In the mornings, they hammer out their alliance step by tentative step. Vivian is cold with Guinevere but laps up every word Annis speaks. Annis treats them all with weary amusement, as if they’re a gaggle of children playing at being queens, but she fights for her people and the alliance both with single-minded viciousness. Elena is all sweet good nature, coaxing giggles from Vivian and words from Guinevere and jokes from Annis. Merlin, when he comes, is serious and intent and watches Guinevere from the corner of his eye like he’s half-afraid she’ll disappear.

Mithian wonders what all of them observe about her, because she would be an idiot if she thought she were the only one watching. She wonders if they know how tired she is, how her second night in Camelot she went to the corridor filled with stained glass where she tried to get away from Morgana and stood there for a long time.

In the afternoons, Guinevere sees to the running of her own kingdom, which can’t stop while she builds her alliance, and leaves the rest of them to themselves. Mithian writes letters to her advisors and then usually goes for a ride, often with Elena. She doesn’t know what the others do, but it’s only a few days before she cherishes the quiet rides. Elena is funny, and friendly, and doesn’t talk about Arthur after that first day. Mithian follows her example and they talk about other things instead, silly and huge both, and sit next to one another when they can at dinner, leaning across each other to talk to the others.

As the days pass, even as negotiations grow difficult, it’s easier to work together. The shadow of Arthur leaves them enough to let them breathe—the throne of Camelot is truly Guinevere’s now, and no one could possibly contest that. Mithian never allowed herself to be bitter, but the last of the sourness from her short-lived betrothal to Arthur dissolves as the days pass, and she feels lighter for it.

She thinks her father would be proud of her, and that’s a warm feeling, but not as warm as knowing that she is building an alliance that Albion will remember for generations, that a group of queens and princesses are forging something that will unite Albion in the years to come. It won’t be one ruler the land will bow to, but all of them, keeping each other in check, and the dream of it is more than Mithian was ever raised to expect.

*

Mithian finds Guinevere on the battlements one night when she can’t sleep, when they’ve been negotiating for a week and coming closer to something that will help them all. “I never apologized to you,” she says after a few minutes of companionable silence.

Guinevere looks startled. “For what?”

“Almost marrying your husband. Resenting you for having his heart, when he broke our betrothal.” She pauses. “Almost getting him killed.”

To her surprise, Guinevere merely smiles at that. “I married him in the end. It’s hard to be angry at anyone else for almost doing it, especially when I know it was an alliance, even if it would have been one with fondness. And as for the last … there are very few people of Arthur’s acquaintance who never endangered his life. If it had been your fault he died in the end, perhaps I would be angry with you, but as it is, I do not blame you.”

“You’re generous.”

“If I started being angry, I would never stop. I would rather build something.”

Mithian stays only a few minutes longer, without an answer, but she sits next to Guinevere at the council table the next day, Elena on her other side, and squares her shoulders and tries harder to think of what Nemeth can bring their alliance.

Annis gives her an approving look, and Elena a smile, and Vivian rolls her eyes and informs her that her fertile fields are all well and good but there’s no shame in asking for help in working them. They are building something, piece by piece, something that she thinks will go even farther than Arthur’s dreams.

*

Sometimes Annis speaks to all of them as though she is leading a school for queens around their council table, but she takes to Vivian especially, and Vivian seems to flourish under her tutelage. She loses some of her sharpness, the haunted look around her eyes that comes with a story Mithian still doesn’t quite dare ask for, and all of them are glad of it. She even joins Elena and Mithian on one of their afternoon rides, though she complains the whole time about getting her dress dirty.

“I don’t remember much of Camelot from my last visit,” she says when they stop in a clearing, dismounted and with her skirts hitched up while she looks for some specific flower she wants to wear in her hair at dinner. It’s the least like a noblewoman Mithian has seen her look. “I only remember hating it, and then Arthur, and going home and deciding to learn all the statecraft I could to be a good queen for him. Funny. The interest in diplomacy lasted longer than the love did.”

Mithian doesn’t know what to say to that, but it seems Elena does, going over to Vivian and putting an arm around her, murmuring something in her ear that seems to comfort her. Mithian turns away and looks for flowers in Vivian’s place, and ends up picking a whole bouquet of them, not that she has anywhere to put them, this far from the palace.

She gives half to Elena and half to Vivian, when they separate. “For what it’s worth,” she says, “you’re very good at statecraft.”

Vivian gives her a tiny smile and plucks out one of the flowers to put in her hair.

*

It’s too weeks on before Mithian sits back from her copy of the treaty they’re working on, eyes aching from staring at the print all day, their session extended long into the afternoon, and says “I think we’ve done it.”

“Do you?” Annis asks, eyebrows arched.

“It’s been down to the fine details for hours, two days, even, and there are only so many fine details to go over,” says Elena. “Is this something we can all live with, then?”

“I will sign it,” says Vivian.

Guinevere looks around and waits for Annis’s nod before she nods herself. “We’ll sign it before witnesses tomorrow, so that all of you can return to looking after your own kingdoms. It has been an honor making this alliance with all of you.”

Annis smiles grimly. “Odin and his ilk won’t know what hit them.”

Merlin, hovering at a corner of the room like he forgets he isn’t a servant any longer, compounds that by pouring all of them a goblet of wine. Mithian smiles her thanks at him and raises hers, watching everyone else do the same. “To our alliance, and to a united Albion,” she says, and hears it echo back at her from all around the table like a promise.

*

There isn’t enough time for a ride before that night’s dinner, but Mithian and Elena go for a walk instead, through some of Camelot’s lesser-used gardens. They talk of nothing in particular except what they’ll do when they’re home, with many promises to write each other, and visit when they can.

Elena stops them before they can go around a corner, just as Mithian hears the sound of soft conversation. They pause together before peering around, and find Guinevere and Merlin sitting on a bench, murmuring to each other about something with their heads bent together. At something she says, Merlin smiles and takes her hand, kisses her palm, and she gives him a look filled with affection that makes Mithian’s heart ache.

Before the two of them can realize they’re being watched, Mithian and Elena back away together, until they’re well out of earshot, but it’s difficult to think of anything to say after that. “Guinevere is lucky,” Mithian manages at last. “It isn’t many who find love like that once, let alone twice. Though I cannot think of anyone more worthy.”

Elena’s hand slips into hers, fingers slotting together and holding on tight. “I think we can all find it, if we look,” says Elena, and doesn’t let go until they have to go inside.

*

It seems the whole of Camelot’s castle comes to witness the signing of the treaty. Servants peer into the great hall, and it is packed with knights and lords and ladies and Gaius, who is more bent these days but no less sharp.

Guinevere signs first, with a wide smile for her people. Annis comes next, and then Mithian, and Vivian and Elena after, and there it is, the future for all of them.

She thinks it’s Merlin who begins the shout, but it isn’t long before the word “Albion!” rings from every corner of the room, loud enough to deafen, loud enough to make it happen.