The night was young and magic clung to the air like heavy dew at the summer solstice. Merlin Hunithson stood at the side of the ballroom and considered the lighting. It was perfect. Naturally. Or rather, magically. Neither the former director nor the new, Morgana LeFay, would allow bad lighting at the spring gala. The library was ancient, yes, but thoroughly dependent on happy, softly-lit donors for its operations and acquisitions. Especially its acquisitions, Merlin thought. He frowned.
As if she read his mind (and Merlin thought that impossible, but really, who knew?), Morgana’s eyes swept the ballroom to find him. They narrowed. She pointedly looked in the direction of a recently arrived group of local elites.
“Time to work,” he muttered, straightening his tie and bracing himself. He’d much rather be upstairs. Or downstairs, he thought. Really, any other floor than this blasted ballroom. It took up most of level four in the seven-story behemoth that was the Camelot Library and Archive of Arcane and Magical Artefacts. “Bloody waste of space.” He considered the soaring ceilings, the elaborate mosaic and carved moldings that would reflect, were it brighter, on the meticulously polished parquet floor. To his left, Belle Époque-styled ironworks marked passage to the solarium, where the organic archivists maintained all manner of common and rare plants. At least something of value lived on the fourth floor, then. He pictured the ballroom filled with towering shelves, overflowing with grimoires and scrolls, and smiled a bit as he walked toward the guests. A sad necessity, he thought. We must bow and scrape, that these rich toffs may deign to give us conveniently tax-deductible table scraps.
“This young man can tell us, I’m sure,” the oldest guest in the group said as Merlin neared. He tried to look helpful. The man’s watch seemed to blink at him.
“How many books are in the library?” a woman asked. She was probably pushing sixty, but incredibly preserved, thin and shiny, the way very rich people are able to be. Her voice was kind, though, and Merlin took a deep breath before answering.
“Five hundred twenty-eight thousand six hundred seven books. That is, copies, rather. Slightly fewer titles, but just slightly, if that is the question. But then there are three hundred thousand one hundred twenty-four scrolls, currently, and probably,” he took another breath, “two hundred fifty or so written artefacts we don’t classify in either category. And then of course the thousands of non-written realia. And the archive has nearly, erm, two million four hundred twenty-eight thousand six hundred seventy-two documents, letters, and the like, so—”
“Fascinating!” The man boomed. He slapped Merlin on the shoulder. “Thank you for sharing!” He turned so that he blocked Merlin from the rest of the group and began to discuss the building architecture.
“Well done,” a voice whispered in his ear. Merlin failed to repress a grin. He turned. Gwaine stood behind him, sartorial and sleek. He somehow looked like an overgrown puppy and a debonair satyr all at once, and Merlin shook his head. If he weren’t such an effective librarian, specifically in collection development, Merlin would probably think he had only been hired for his looks.
“Nice suit,” Merlin observed.
“You like it? I thought perhaps the oxblood was a bit overdone, but you know I like to make a bold statement.” He nodded a bit at a passing pair of young women, who giggled, and then at a trio of older women, who sighed.
“Indeed. Well, I’m glad someone is enjoying this ridiculous event.”
“Oh, come off it, Merlin. You love an opportunity to show off the library. Even your social bumbling manages to extend your mystique, your ‘oh-I’m-an-awkward-academic-even-if-I-am-gorgeous’ appeal.”
“Never mind. You just go to the buffet table and leave the hobnobbing to me. Not sure why you—”
“LeFay directed me to!”
“Well, she doesn’t know you yet.” Gwaine paused for a moment as he turned, smile quirking at the corner of his mouth as his eyes caught someone at the corner of the ballroom, and then darting back to Merlin. “I think someone is touching the Gorlias Tree…” his voice faded into the crowd as he stepped away.
The Gorlias Tree grew from a deep basin in the corner of the ballroom. It was old: older than the five hundred year-old building, but only added during one of the previous renovations—that in the eighteenth century, in fact, which had emphasized expanding the natural specimens. Its fruit seemed to glow, especially on summer nights. It didn’t actually glow. That effect was produced by a viscous film that protected the fruit from would-be thieves (whose skin burned when met with Gorlias Goo, as Merlin called it). The seeds had hallucinogenic effects when consumed, which were particularly valued by seers and warlocks; the quantity could be manipulated to aid scrying or produce terrible illusions.
Regardless, the fruit was dangerous and valuable, and not there to be played with by some rich arsehole who didn’t know a thing about magic in the first place.
The crowd seemed to part as Merlin crossed the room. Indeed, a man stood at the base of the Gorlias Tree. He looked up at its lower branches, head cocked to the side. Everything in his posture exuded arrogance and elitism, just as Merlin predicted. As Merlin approached, the man reached toward the base of the tree.
“Don’t touch that,” Merlin snapped.
The man straightened. He turned to Merlin, a frown crossing his face. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t touch the Gorlias Tree, if you please.” Merlin took in the man’s golden hair, perfectly styled, his midnight suit that brought out the sky blue of his eyes. He felt inexplicably angrier.
The man’s eyes narrowed—in a rather similar manner to Morgana’s, Merlin absently thought—and he cocked his head the other direction. He reached down again.
“I said, don’t touch the tree.”
“I heard you.” The man was looking intently at the base. Had he not responded, Merlin would think he had ignored him completely.
“Look, I know you rich prats are used to doing as you like at any time and just, to hell with the rest of us, but this is the Gorlias Tree. It’s much more valuable than you and, for that matter, anything you own despite your, your—”
“My?” The man’s eyebrow lifted a fraction.
“Your bloody garish, ostentatious affluence—”
The man scoffed and mumbled, “You’re kidding me,” just loud enough to be heard.
“And I won’t have you buggering it up, so step away before I call the guard or—”
“Take you down myself!”
“Brother!” A voice, unnervingly posh and close, cut to Merlin’s gut.
“Morgana,” the man said, bowing his head lightly. He pulled his hand back. “Your guests are a sloppy lot, despite their… What was it? Oh yes, their bloody garish, ostentatious opulence—or affluence? Affluence.” In his hand was an empty champagne flute, slightly soiled from its time in the basin. He turned to Merlin. “What were you saying?”
Merlin felt his mouth open and close a few times, felt his face flush with heat. And then the man turned to Morgana to speak, the second such dismissal he’d received in a quarter hour. The music swelled around him as if he could be swallowed by the waltz. He felt it, the delicate string melody attempting to charm him. He looked at Morgana, her amethyst gown a weapon and a tool, her brother, cool as ice in the soft, warm glow of the ballroom. Around them, couples swirled to the steady one-two-three of the music. Merlin clenched his jaw and listened and thought he would rather be anywhere else. Anywhere.
“Schubert,” the man said, turning to him. His eyes briefly seemed to take in Merlin’s suit, his old but polished shoes, his hair that was probably a mess again. And then dismiss him as Morgana asked another question about someone named Leon. Merlin walked away.
* * * * *
“Arthur, you aren’t paying attention to me,” Mogana complained.
“Hmm?” Arthur watched the man exit to the solarium, his shoulders braced as if going to war.
“Arthur. Really now. You just got here, you can’t already be shutting down. Now that you’re on the board, you have to prove you’re worth it. I won’t have Camelot be accused of nepotism. You are my appointee; now show me that wasn’t a mistake.”
“It wasn’t, Morgana. Obviously,” he drawled in a bored voice. “Now, who was your rude friend?”
“Friend?” Morgana looked around, somewhat bewildered, until Arthur lifted the soiled glass. “Oh, Merlin. He’s the—well, you better make nice with him if you want to get on—he’s the head librarian.”
“I thought Geoffrey was head librarian.”
“Geoffrey is head archivist.”
“Merlin is something of a legend, it seems. He has magic, apparently, and a preternatural ability to use it without appearing to, without seeming to try , and also, well, they say he’s uncommonly smart, with an eidetic memory, and—”
“Oh, come on.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s a genius and magic and everything he touches turns to gold.”
“Don’t be sarcastic, Arthur, it doesn’t suit you. But yes. Despite my natural aversion to anything that may make me appear weaker than another, I must tell you, they say he’s the best at everything: acquisitions, preservation, casting…”
“Better than Gwaine?”
“Better than Lancelot.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You’ll see, brother. You’ll see.” She lifted an eyebrow, supercilious, and turned to walk away.
Arthur looked at the glass in his hand. It was impressive, the amount of disdain he’d seen in Merlin’s eyes. He thought Arthur was touching the Gorlias Tree, as if Arthur hadn’t knows the significance of the plant. He clearly hadn’t known who Arthur was. He had just despised him anyway. How much more would he dislike him once he knew the new chairwoman had installed her half-brother on the library board of directors? It was a coup for the Pendragon family, a sign of unity that would resonate across the Five Kingdoms. Arthur’s seat was traditionally neutral, and served as the deciding vote in many controversial decisions. Now the Pendragons and their allies could have control over the management of the bulk of the world’s magical artefacts and texts. Moreover, they would control access to vast informational resources. It was heady, knowing the power they controlled. Arthur looked up at the shimmering Gorlias fruit. They had a responsibility they could not shirk. They must manage this power well. He placed the glass on the tray of a passing server and took two fresh flutes. “Merlin,” he said aloud, trying to feel less annoyed. He squared his shoulders, and went to explore the solarium.