Percy was, rather surprisingly, feeling quite content. Or at least he had been until precisely thirty seconds ago when a dusty and travel-stained Prince Arthur had led his equally grimy horse into the building, followed as ever by Merlin whose own horse looked as though it had been recently enjoying a mud bath (or three). It was late afternoon and Percy was in the stables, training having long since finished for the day. Some of the Knights had gone to spar in the training grounds, others to enjoy a more boisterous evening in the taverns of the lower town. But Percy had politely declined the offer to join them and it was for that reason that he now found himself crouched uncomfortably in the end stall which housed his warhorse Brutus (named by his father), an incriminating bag clutched in his hand. Percy had had many of his assumptions challenged since coming to Camelot but he was still fairly certain that sneaking down to the stables to feed his horse carrots (neatly sliced) that he had filched from the kitchens was not something a Knight of Camelot ought to be found doing. On second thoughts being found hiding in a stable with straw in his hair would probably not look very good either. He briefly considered abandoning the carrots and announcing himself to the Prince when the sound of his own name stopped him short.
"...that Percy is just as eligible as Sir Lars." It was Merlin's voice. By shuffling around slightly Percy could just about see him through a gap in the partition wall (he tried not to think about all the things his father would say if he could see him now). From his slightly restricted view he could see Merlin was as filthy as the Prince. Percy heard the jingle of metal and soft clop of hooves as the two men tied their horses loosely to the wall. Stepping back Merlin stretched, yawning hugely. He seemed to be waiting for the Prince to stop fiddling about with the reins and answer him. After what seemed an agonizingly long time to Percy, Prince Arthur came back into view.
"Yes, but Sir Lars is the more senior Knight." Leather creaked as the Prince unbuckled the girth, letting it swing down so Merlin could drag the saddle off and hang it over the nearest stable door. It looked like a well practiced routine. Merlin's only response was to roll his eyes as he dumped the saddle and picked up a brush, throwing it to the Prince. It was proof of how much Percy had learnt in the past week that this rather casual treatment of the future King no longer had the power to shock him — or at least, he amended, not entirely. When he had woken the morning after the fateful banquet he had briefly wondered if the whole drunken evening had been some kind of bizarre dream. It seemed too much to hope that the Prince had invited him on a hunt and learnt his name all in one night. But then he had spotted Merlin crossing the castle courtyard with buckets of water, looking quite as bad as he felt, but nonetheless managing a friendly (if rather pained) grin and it had seemed like the most natural thing in the world to smile back and offer to help. And then he had arrived at the training grounds to be personally greeted by the Prince," who, it transpired, would not be calling him Perrin anymore. This had made a few of the other Knights stare, but Sir Edwin had merely nodded approvingly, especially when he saw Percy fall into conversation with Merlin as the Knights walked back from the field for the midday meal.
All in all it had been the most enjoyable week Percy had spent at the castle since he arrived. Not that he had completely forgotten the looming horror of his father's impending visit, but for once it had taken second place to satisfyingly long and tiring days training, riding and hunting. He had, until now, almost forgotten the problem of the coming tournament. Fortunately it seemed Merlin had not.
"What's that got to do with anything? Percy has beaten Lars twice this week, and once last week." The creak of leather and jingle of metal had now been replaced by the rhythmic strokes of the brush as Merlin and the Prince rubbed down their respective mounts.
"Merlin, it's not just about who beats who on the training ground. The tournament requires a certain kind of Knight, someone who can take the pressure of fighting in front of so many people, who's prepared to put the extra hours into their training and who has the experience." He spoke as if giving his final, unassailable, view on the subject. There was a pause.
"So, someone like Percy, then?" There was a soft thump as Merlin ducked whatever it was the Prince had thrown at him.
"Is there any possibility at all that you're going to shut up about this?"
"Not until you give him a chance."
"It may have escaped your notice, Merlin, but I am not running the Brethren of Christian Charity here; I do not just 'give people chances'."
"You gave me a chance."
"No I didn't."
"Yes you did."
"No I didn't, I had you foisted on me by my father if you recall."
"Well, there you go then — look how well that turned out!"
In the rather eloquent silence that followed this astonishing claim Percy peered through the gap once more to see Prince Arthur wearing the expression of a man for whom there were, quite simply, no words. Taking advantage of his temporary inability to speak, Merlin ploughed on,
"You said yourself that he's one of the most promising of the new recruits." Percy glowed. "And you heard what Sir Edwin said about his father — he sounds even worse than yours." The Prince had recovered enough by this point to glare at his manservant. Percy noted that it had about as much effect as it usually did.
Merlin adopted a slightly wheedling tone. "Come on, Arthur. You did spend four months calling him Perrin, that's enough to earn him a whole season of tournaments." When the Prince didn't immediately refuse, merely rolling his eyes as he turned to unload the saddlebags propped against the stable wall, Merlin looked a little more hopeful. "I promise I will be the perfect manservant for the whole tournament..."
"I expect you to be that anyway," the Prince responded irritably, his voice a little muffled as he crouched low in the shadow of the door, pulling papers and weapons from the leather bags.
"You won't even know I'm there!"
"Humph," was the only response to that.
"Well... I'll clean your chambers from top to bottom! I'll even clean under the bed."
"For goodness' sake Merlin, I..." there was a pause as the Prince suddenly straightened, "hang on, do you mean you don't clean under—"
"Look, that's not really important," Merlin broke in rather hastily. "The point is..." the Prince was still staring at him suspiciously, "the point is he's just as eligible as anyone else and he deserves the chance and he would be really grateful and anyway..." Merlin looked as though he were casting around for the clinching argument, "...and anyway you owe me!" The Prince raised his eyebrows, temporarily diverted from the contemplation of the horrors awaiting him under his bed.
"Er... go on with what?" Merlin looked confused.
"Amaze me with why I, the Crown Prince of Camelot, owe you, Merlin the Idiot."
"Well..." Apparently Merlin had not anticipated this line of questioning; Percy hoped he had something good. "Because..." the Prince waited, smirking, and suddenly Merlin seemed to get a burst of inspiration. Gesturing rather forcefully towards the Prince with the stable brush he announced, completely randomly as far as Percy could tell, "You owe me because the stocks are really REALLY uncomfortable!"
Prince Arthur's eyebrows rose even higher, Merlin looked defensive, "Well they are! And might I remind you it was entirely your fault I was there in the first place." At the Prince's (quite frankly sceptical) expression, Merlin glared. "I still have bruises you know. And..." he paused, with the air of someone about to play their trump card, "...some of them are potato shaped."
Prince Arthur snorted, immediately trying to turn it into a stern clearing of the throat, but it was too late, the amusement was clear in his face as he took in his manservant's indignant expression. There was a brief silence before, "...The perfect manservant I think you said?"
Merlin pulled a face. "Well... within reason."
"Oh no," the Prince grinned at Merlin, shaking his head. Merlin began to look a little worried. "You can't go changing your mind now. I think..." he stretched the word out, clearly enjoying himself now, "I think you said I wouldn't even know you were there."
Merlin looked as though he was regretting saying anything at all, particularly when the Prince swept him with an appraising look, lingering on his muddy clothing and grimy face.
"Hmmm. We might have to do something about those clothes. Perfect Manservants don't dress like village idiots as a rule." He tipped his head consideringly, "Luckily for you I still have that ceremonial uniform you liked so much." Percy began to wonder, a little worriedly, if Merlin might actually throw the brush at the Prince's head. "Actually I might even have a book somewhere. You know, to guide you in your efforts." He pretended to think for a moment. "I think it's called The Arte of Servyce, I'm sure there's a chapter in there somewhere on serving royalty, it should give you a whole new appreciation of your privileged position."
At this point Percy's earlier premonition came true and Prince Arthur narrowly avoided getting smacked in the face with a stable brush. The Prince appeared less surprised than Percy however and merely smirked at his disobedient servant. "Tssk. I'm surprised at you Merlin! That's hardly the behaviour of a Perfect Manservant now is it?"
"I hate you."
"And there was me thinking that you lived to serve."
As Merlin glared, Prince Arthur's smirk grew even wider. "So, do we have an agreement? I give Percy his chance to impress his father and in return I get exemplary service and spotlessly clean chambers. And that includes under the bed."
Merlin looked like he wanted to argue but the Prince raised his eyebrows challengingly and Merlin finally gave in, with somewhat bad grace. "Alright, fine. But only for the tournament." He frowned, arms folded. "And I am not wearing the hat."
"We can negotiate the hat. And I don't want to hear anymore about stocks or bruises that may or may not have existed — is that cle—" he broke off suddenly, "Oh for... I don't need to see them, Merlin. Fine, I believe you. You have truly suffered. Now will you just..." There was some rustling then, Percy peered through the gap to see Merlin grinning unrepentantly and Prince Arthur piling the saddlebags into his arms with the air of a man who knows what it is to suffer and sees no reprieve coming anytime soon.
There was the rustling of straw, then, and the creak of a door, and then the Prince and his manservant were gone, their footsteps fading away into the darkening evening — leaving Percy alone with his thoughts and the unwelcome discovery that Brutus had long since finished off the bag of carrots in his hand and had made an impressive start on his coat.