“Arthur,” Merlin hissed. “What are you doing?”
Arthur, who was down on one knee, had the gall to roll his eyes. “I’m asking you to marry me, idiot,” he said. “I would have thought that much was obvious.”
“Yes, but why ?”
“Because,” Arthur said slowly, as if Merlin really were as thick as he was sometimes accused of being. “My father has decreed that I must marry, and I want you to be my consort. That’s usually how this sort of thing works.”
Merlin opened his mouth to ask yet another question, then closed it again. He could tell from the look on Arthur’s face that he had made up his mind to go ahead with this, whatever this was. His mouth was set in a determined line, his gaze unflinching where it met Merlin’s own. He didn’t seem enchanted, but since the only other explanation was that the prince had suddenly and inexplicably lost his mind, Merlin supposed that he must be.
“All right,” he said finally, deciding that, under the circumstances, discretion was probably the better part of valour. “In that case, I suppose I have to say yes.”
As Merlin had anticipated, Gaius was most concerned to hear that the prince had been enchanted once again. At least, Merlin assumed that he was concerned. It would have been easier to tell if he weren’t so busy laughing.
“Merlin, there’s not a single enchantment I know of that could induce someone to ask you to marry them,” the old physician said, when at last the fit of mirth had subsided. “Fall in love—yes. Lust after—unfortunately, yes. But simply to ask for your hand in marriage, without any of the accompanying symptoms? I must confess, I find it highly unlikely.”
“Well, why else would he have proposed to me, then?” Merlin demanded, throwing his hands in the air. “He was completely serious, Gaius, you should have seen him. It wasn’t just some kind of practical joke. Could he have been dosed with some sort of potion that would cause him to lose his wits?”
“Perhaps.” Gaius shrugged. “I suppose I will have to do some research. But maybe you should ask him why he did it.”
“I did. He said it was because he wanted me to be his consort.”
The corner of Gaius’ mouth twitched a little. “Well, then,” he said. “It seems like you have your answer. And what did you say to him?”
“I said yes,” Merlin said, in a small voice. “I thought he was enchanted!”
“Ah.” For a moment, Gaius just studied him, those great, bushy eyebrows drawn together above his nose. “Am I to take that to mean you would have refused him, had you known that he was being serious?”
“Well, obviously.” Merlin goggled at his mentor. “I mean—would that even be legal?”
“It would certainly be unprecedented,” Gaius mused, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “But there’s nothing in the law that would prevent it, per se.”
“But—but—what about the succession? Doesn’t Arthur need to father an heir?”
“Not every king of Camelot has had an heir of the body,” Gaius said. “That much, at least, there is considerable precedent for. Should you wish it, and should Uther not contest the match, then I’m sure accommodations could be made.”
Accommodations. Merlin attempted to picture it. Would Arthur choose a knight to succeed him, or would he want to foster a child? A knight would be loyal to the Crown and could protect the kingdom in battle, but a fosterling would be younger and more malleable, and thus more open to new ideas. And if they found a child who had magic…
But he was being ridiculous. There was no way he could marry Arthur.
“And if I don’t wish it?”
“Well, then.” Gaius looked at him soberly. “I suppose you’d better tell him the truth, hadn’t you?”
Telling Arthur the truth, however, turned out to be easier said than done.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, when he was helping the prince undress for bed that evening. “About this morning.”
“Oh, right,” Arthur said. He unbuckled his sword belt and chucked it on the bed, then padded over to the dresser and began rummaging through its contents. “There was something I’ve been meaning to give you, actually.”
“You—there is?” Momentarily sidetracked, Merlin stared at him. “What is it?”
“It’s—well.” Arthur found what he was looking for and turned, holding the object clutched in both hands. If Merlin hadn’t known him so well as he did, he might have thought Arthur Pendragon was, in a word, nervous .
“I realise this might be a little out of the blue,” the prince said, in that oddly formal way he had whenever he tried to talk about things like feelings . “But—that is, I thought you should have it. Considering you’re about to become part of the family and all.”
‘It’ was a small metal disc, heavily embossed and featuring the image of a bird in flight on one side. From the way Arthur handed it to him, Merlin could tell that it carried a great deal of emotional significance for him, although he couldn’t say that he’d ever seen the thing before.
“What is it?” he asked, running his fingertips over the delicate engraving. “It’s beautiful.”
“It was my mother’s,” Arthur said softly. “It’s one of the only things I have of hers.”
Merlin nearly dropped the seal in shock. “I can’t take this,” he said. “Arthur—”
“I want you to have it,” Arthur said, pressing the seal firmly into Merlin’s hand. “Consider it—a courting gift.”
“A courting gift,” Merlin repeated, nonplussed, and Arthur flushed.
“That’s what I said,” he said tightly, turning away and beginning to tug at his laces. “Honestly, Merlin, you don’t have to make a big deal about it. Although a thank you would be nice,” he added, proving once again that he could be a prat even in his sweetest moments.
“Thank you,” Merlin said, still staring at the seal where it lay in his palm.
Needless to say, he didn’t manage to tell Arthur the truth that night.
“There has to be magic involved, Gaius,” Merlin said, slumping onto a stool in the infirmary the following afternoon. “Not only did he give me his mother’s seal, but he actually said thank you when I brought him his breakfast tray this morning. And he hasn’t thrown anything at me once since the moment we got engaged. Please tell me you found some kind of antidote, so I can get things back to normal.”
“I already looked,” the physician said, shaking his head. “And I couldn’t find any spell that would produce this precise effect, let alone a way to reverse it. Have you considered the possibility that Arthur really is in love with you? The two of you do share a destiny, after all.”
“Arthur is not in love with me,” Merlin said emphatically, ignoring the brief tightening in his gut that the idea invoked. “He is bewitched, or bespelled, or he got hit on the head one too many times at practice, that’s all.”
“Hmm,” Gaius said, but didn’t add anything more. Merlin waited, growing impatient, until finally he couldn’t help it.
“Well?” he demanded. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Do?” Gaius peered at him with a severe expression, as if Merlin were the one who was talking nonsense. “I’ve told you already, Merlin. You can’t keep stringing Arthur along. It isn’t fair to him, and it’s obviously upsetting you. Just tell him you don’t want to marry him.”
“It’s not that simple!” Merlin wailed. “I keep trying to tell him, but then he’ll go and do something so nice, and I just feel so awful I can’t bring myself to do it."
Gaius patted his shoulder. “There, there, Merlin,” he said. “Would that all of us had your problems.”
Which wasn’t, as far as Merlin was concerned, very helpful at all.
The trouble was, now that Arthur had put the idea into his head, Merlin couldn’t seem to stop thinking about it. Or, more specifically, him. It wasn’t that he hadn’t noticed that Arthur was attractive—that much was obvious to anyone with eyes—but it was never something he had allowed himself to dwell on, knowing full well that as Arthur’s manservant, it would be all too easy for Merlin to overstep all the boundaries of propriety if he permitted his thoughts to stray too far from his duties in Arthur’s presence. Now, however, there was no such problem, and it seemed as if all of Merlin’s long-repressed fantasies had decided to flood into his head at once.
“Really, Merlin,” Arthur said in exasperation when Merlin fumbled one too many times as he knelt to lace up his boots. “All you have to do is thread the ties into the correct holes. It’s not as if it’s even that difficult.”
“Yes, sire,” Merlin said, wondering if it were possible for human beings to spontaneously combust. “Not difficult at all.”
It was the night of the Yule feast when Merlin finally snapped. Arthur had been tormenting him all evening, his fingers sliding along Merlin’s wrist when he took the wine, his gaze somehow contriving to follow Merlin as he made a circuit of the room, despite the fact that whenever Merlin chanced to glance his way Arthur was looking conspicuously in the opposite direction. As it was, it was a miracle he managed to wait until they reached Arthur’s rooms before giving in and kissing him.
The kiss itself was not unlike the feeling that magic gave him, a kind of all-over tingling sensation that was at once intoxicating and terrifying. He groped for Arthur’s tunic and hung on, partly to keep himself upright and partly because he wanted desperately to be closer. Arthur kissed him as if whole kingdoms depended on it, both hands cupping Merlin’s jaw, pressing him up against the wall until their bodies were flush together. Merlin pushed back, rolling his hips, and the kiss turned abruptly filthy, Arthur’s tongue snaking into his mouth, his hands rucking up Merlin’s shirt and running along his ribs in a possessive gesture.
“I was going to wait until after the wedding,” the prince breathed into Merlin’s ear, and this time Merlin knew he was joking by the self-satisfied smirk that was spreading across his face. “But, I suppose, if you insist…”
“Shut up, sire, ” Merlin said, rolling his eyes and dragging Arthur’s mouth back down to his. “Or I’ll tell them the wedding’s off on account of your being a prat.”
“I’m going to have to marry Arthur,” Merlin said to Gaius over breakfast the next morning, still feeling a little dazed. He could feel the echo of Arthur’s touch all over him, his lips, his breath, the shape of his hands. “I just—I can’t seem to call it off. Every time I open my mouth to do it, I look at his face, and I just…can’t.”
“Hmm,” Gaius said, and kept eating his porridge. “Well, I suppose we all have our crosses to bear.”