All in all Percy thought the tournament had not been entirely disastrous thus far. True, he had only just completed the hand to hand combat trials, and true, his father had only been at Court for seventeen hours (not that Percy was counting) but the Family Honour was, as yet, still intact. Lord Wyldon, Percy's father, had arrived late the previous night. A page had been dispatched to inform Percy of his arrival, although really, Percy felt his father's clarion tones had been a perfectly adequate announcement on their own. He had hurried to the staircase overlooking the entrance hall to see one welcome sight at least. His sister Isolda stood grinning up at him, looking as much of a hoyden as she ever did with her skirts and cloak liberally spattered with mud, her hair having long since escaped whatever careful arrangement her maid had managed that morning. Unfortunately she was, of course, accompanied by their father, whose eyes were busy raking the hall as if assessing the value of the furnishings. Percy had noted, with a kind of fascinated horror, that his father had piled most of his bags into the arms of the Castle Steward — an exalted individual whom Percy had always found rather terrifying. In hindsight, however, he realized he should just have been grateful King Uther had not chosen that moment to pass through his front hall, or he might well have ended up with the sodden cloaks and hats. As it was the slightly stunned looking Steward had carried the bags to their rooms without a murmur (Percy wondered if he would ever have that kind of effect on people. He rather doubted it). He noticed that Isolda was still clutching her own slightly bulky bag which, Percy suspected from the odd clunk it made when she set it down in her chamber, contained the promised Honeymead — successfully 'liberated' from Lord Wyldon's own stores.
In return for what was really an impressive bit of looting Percy had made sure to introduce her to the Lady Morgana the following morning. The next time he had seen Isolda she was at the centre of a laughing group of noblewomen led by the Lady Morgana (attended as ever by Guinevere) who were making their way to the practice butts in the Archery Field. The grin Isolda had thrown at him as she passed went someway towards consoling Percy for the loss of her moral support when dealing with their father — not to mention the well-timed questions about the family's Noble Lineage she was wont to helpfully throw in when he launched into yet another of his interminable speeches about Duty and Responsibility. Still, his father had seemed pleased (or at least the speech had been slightly less interminable) after the combat trials that morning in which Percy had, after six matches, come in at a far from disastrous third place. So, on the whole, Percy thought the dreaded arrival had proceeded remarkably smoothly. Unless you counted the offended dignity of the Castle Steward who looked rather affronted at being told to 'stop hovering in the doorway and take himself off' once he had done them the unheard-of honour of carrying their luggage.
Of course there was still the jousting that afternoon. Apparently the jousting was new this year — which Percy felt someone might have mentioned to him earlier. But generally Percy found he preferred not to think about the jousting. In fact Percy would have liked to forget that part of the tournament entirely. Unfortunately he suspected his horse, Brutus, actually had forgotten that part despite the many lengthy conversations they'd had (well, that Percy had had, Brutus being a less than active participant) about a charger's job being to, well... charge, and how his father really would sell him this time if he didn't gallop in the right direction.
But that was this afternoon and right now Percy was enjoying a few minutes rest in the weak winter sun outside the Armoury as he checked his equipment for what could well have been the tenth time that day. Away from the crowds and the busy squires and looks and speculation he could let himself relax. Whatever did or didn't happen that afternoon, right then, with the sun on his face and the smell of leather and steel all around him, he could almost feel content...
Except for that.
Percy couldn't believe that he had almost forgotten the very reason he was here, wearing his father's coat of arms and preparing to joust for the title of Champion in a royal tournament. Apparently Merlin had had a similar lapse of memory because the next thing Percy heard was not the low tones of the Perfect Manservant but the rather less refined bellow of "What?" echoing across the courtyard.
There was a pause, during which Percy didn't need to be watching to know that Prince Arthur was giving his manservant A Look. Nor did he need to be watching to suspect that Merlin was (probably) pulling a face.
"Er... I mean... yes Sire?" There were footsteps then and the sound of the Prince's drawling voice and Merlin's now-quieter replies.
Percy winced. He wondered if Merlin was bowing again. He hoped not. Percy thought he had never seen anything as unnerving as Merlin bowing. When he had witnessed the alarming spectacle at first hand, earlier that morning, Percy had wondered, for just a second, if the Prince had not found it a little unnerving too. But then Prince Arthur probably didn't feel as guilty about the whole situation as Percy did. When the Prince had strode up to him the week before, looking at his most commanding and blithely unaware that Merlin was a few paces behind grinning and giving Percy the thumbs up (which somewhat ruined the whole effect), Percy had found himself in the unexpected dilemma of whether or not to admit he had been eavesdropping on the Prince and Merlin's private conversation. Which, when he'd thought about it, he'd realised could only end with the slightly ludicrous suggestion that Merlin not have to be the Perfect Manservant (which of course he should be anyway) and possibly some information about carrots and coat-eating warhorses that Percy would prefer not to share.
Unfortunately, while his brain was doing the mental acrobatics required to work this through Prince Arthur was giving a long and impressive speech about how he had been assessing the Knights for some time (as was his ancient duty as Crown Prince) and how he had weighed up each individual's strengths and weaknesses (over many weeks) and how after much deliberation (just one of his many responsibilities) he had decided that Percy should be one of the lucky competitors. He had just finished the part about Percy bringing glory and renown to the name of Camelot (or something) when Percy realised that he could not now, under any circumstances whatsoever, reveal his knowledge of a conversation which might suggest the Prince's decision had more to do with potato shaped bruises than with the ancient Duties and Responsibilities of his Royal House. So Percy could only bow and hope he looked suitably overcome (he might have overdone that a little) and vow to somehow make it up to Merlin — who to his credit had looked as pleased as if it was him who had been given the chance to compete.
It was at this point in his musings that Merlin himself came into view, hands clutching the Prince's shield and sword at an angle perilously close to the sharp cobblestones of the courtyard floor. It was as good a time as any to start making himself useful, Percy thought, as he put his armour aside and jogged over to help, managing to catch the hilt of the sword before Merlin impaled his own foot. Merlin smiled gratefully and hoisted the shield a little higher.
"Thanks." He brushed sweaty hair out of his eyes with a now free hand and matched his pace to Percy's, smiling cheerfully. "So… how does it feel to be in third place? Have you practiced your heroic pose for the prize giving tomorrow? I think Arthur has several if you need any tips."
Percy felt a smile tugging at his lips which he manfully resisted because this was the Crown Prince they were talking about after all. "I imagine Prince Arthur has more use for his than I would. Sir Kay said he rarely loses a tournament."
"Yes, so everyone's always telling me." Merlin looked a little depressed at this and the shield slipped a little and gave an impressive scraping sound as he dragged it across stone and through some unfortunately placed horse droppings.
"Er..." Percy looked meaningfully at the shield.
"Oh. Right." Merlin hoisted it up again. Percy decided not to mention the mess now coating the bottom. Merlin gave a great gusty sigh and now that Percy really thought about it, he did look quite tired.
"You seem to be... er... working rather hard today?" Hmmmm. That had definitely sounded less insulting in Percy's head. But Merlin only quirked an eyebrow at him, amused, before suddenly adopting the pious expression of a particularly devoted religious hermit.
"My service is my life, Sir Percival," he intoned earnestly. Percy blinked. "As a humble commoner it is all I have to offer my liege lord as proof of my unfailing loyalty and devotion to his wellbeing."
There was a long moment in which Percy just stared at Merlin. Then Merlin grinned and Percy realised that it was Merlin after all. "That was... a little creepy." Again Percy thought he should learn to engage his brain before he opened his mouth but Merlin looked thrilled.
"Do you think so? I tried it on Gaius last night and he just asked me if I was sickening for something and made me drink one of his disgusting 'remedies'."
Percy felt like saying 'I'm not surprised' but thought on reflection that that would sound even worse than his 'work' comment, so he settled for, "Well it was... um... very effective."
If possible, Merlin looked even more pleased, before adding confidingly, "I haven't had chance to try it on Arthur yet."
Percy was about to ask if this had anything at all to do with The Arte of Servyce when he remembered, belatedly, that he was not supposed to know anything about any private conversations in stables so instead he managed, "Why are you...?" Actually he couldn't think of a way to finish that sentence at all. Luckily Merlin seemed to understand the rather vague wave of his hand that accompanied his words.
"Because," Merlin announced grandly, dumping the Prince's shield on the table in front of the steward responsible for checking and repairing the competitors' equipment (who was now staring in horror at the prominent scrape and brown muck adorning the bottom). "I am resolved to be the Perfect Manservant for the duration of this tournament!"
Percy couldn't help but notice the expressions of the steward and various other servants grouped around the table which could, at best, be described as 'somewhat sceptical'. The steward, who was now clutching the royal shield as though he were about to start weeping all over it and was actually removing the muck with his own handkerchief, had bypassed 'sceptical' completely for 'slightly unhinged laughter' — at which point Percy decided to pull Merlin away from the table and start walking quickly back towards the castle.
"After all," Merlin continued, seemingly unaware of the burning glare now being directed at the back of his head, "Arthur is the Crown Prince and I am very privileged to be in his service." Percy felt the conversation was starting to veer towards the unnerving once again.
"But nothing Percy," and here Merlin gave a little sanctimonious shake of his head which was somehow even worse than the bowing. "I take my duties as Manservant very seriously."
There was, Percy reminded himself, nothing at all remarkable in these words. Really.
"Merlin!" They had reached the courtyard again and there was the Prince looking irritated. "What are you doing? Hurry up, my horses are waiting."
Merlin turned back to Percy and heaved a long-suffering sigh.
"The trials of the Perfect Manservant are manifold Sir Percival — but I must persevere," and with that he was gone, trotting obediently behind the Prince as he stalked away towards the stable block.
Percy, left standing in the middle of the courtyard with his mouth hanging open in what he suspected was a most unflattering way, watched them turn the corner out of sight and wondered how he could feel so nervous when his father was nowhere to be seen.
An hour and a half later and Percy was wondering why he had ever thought this tournament was such a good idea as he watched Prince Arthur trip over his manservant for what must have been the eighth or ninth time in the past hour.
"For pity's sake Merlin will you stop following me around."
"But you told me to! You said I should attend you immediately once I'd finished cleaning your chambers and mucked out your horses and collected your boots and—" The Prince stopped at this and Merlin walked into the back of him again — possibly taking the total into double figures. Percy thought the Prince might be gritting his teeth.
"I didn't tell you to trail around after me like a bloody lost puppy."
"But Sire..." Percy wondered briefly how Merlin managed to make those two small words sound so wounded, "I'm supposed to stay behind you. I asked the Castle Steward and he said it's royal protocol."
Prince Arthur looked as though he had a few things to say to that but by now several passers-by were staring openly and Merlin was managing to make wounded innocence into an art form so he settled for grabbing Merlin by the arm and dragging him along. "Well since you so clearly have nothing better to do, I suggest you go and see to my armour. Again!" the Prince finished triumphantly.
But apparently even this could not faze a Perfect Manservant.
"Sire, if my work has been unsatisfactory in any way..." Merlin looked completely devastated at the thought. One or two onlookers were now casting reproachful glances at the Prince who looked a little taken aback at Merlin's tone.
"Of course it... I mean I didn't..." He stopped suddenly and glared at his manservant, who was staring at him with huge, sad eyes. "Oh shut up Merlin." He gave him an irritated shove in the direction of the armoury, ignoring his small audience who were now looking scandalised at the Prince's rather callous treatment of his servant. Percy suspected they might have been even more scandalised if they could see the grin Merlin cast at his master before he gave an elaborate bow and disappeared through the doorway to the armoury, passing a surprised looking Sir Owain (who got a bow as well just for good measure).
"What on earth's wrong with Merlin?" Sir Owain asked in apparent bewilderment.
"There is nothing whatsoever wrong with Merlin," the Prince said crossly, still glowering at the armoury door. Unfortunately Sir Owain didn't seem to notice his less than encouraging tone.
"But I've never seen him..." It was at this point that Sir Owain caught the Prince's eye and seemed to think better of whatever he had been about to say. "Er... here... before." He finished a little feebly.
The Prince was looking at Sir Owain suspiciously and Percy was wondering if he was about to point out that Merlin was in fact there most days when...
Percy jumped violently and nearly dropped the helm he was holding. A page was standing at the entrance to the stable yard looking at him curiously and Percy realised, with horror, that he had been quite shamelessly gawping over the wall at the main courtyard. He flushed and tried to remember what he supposed to be doing.
"Er... I was just..." The page stared at him. "I mean..." He stepped away from the incriminating wall. "Did you need to speak to me?"
"Yes sir." The page sounded bored. "I am to inform you that you have fifteen minutes before the Jousting begins." He cast a somewhat disparaging eye over Percy's charger Brutus (who appeared to be asleep). "Will you be requiring anything?"
A new horse at this late stage seemed a tall order so Percy settled for shaking his head, whilst surreptitiously prodding Brutus with his foot. Brutus woke, snorted, shook his head and resumed eating. The page appeared distinctly unimpressed.
"Very well then, sir. Please report to the competitor's enclosure when you are ready." With a final glance at Brutus — who had no respect for his master's dignity whatsoever and was blowing noisily into his feed bucket — the page turned smartly and disappeared under the archway back towards the main arena.
Pushing worrying thoughts of Princes and Perfect Manservants aside until later, Percy turned back to the stables. It was only the work of a few seconds to retrieve his gloves and shield. Retrieving Brutus took a little longer but they made it, finally, to the enclosure with a few minutes to spare. The sun was weaker now, a cold wind whipping round the castle walls and rippling the heavy canvas of the tents that stood around the tiltyard. From where he stood Percy could see his father in the stands, Isolda next to him. His fellow competitors exchanged nods as they checked buckles or hefted lances, their horses stamping, their breath like smoke in the cold air. Sir Kay was already mounted, his charger pawing the hard ground and shaking his head, eager to be moving. Everywhere he looked Knights were mounting, adjusting their grip on their lances, laughing as their horses put in showy half rears.
Unable to put off the moment any longer, Percy looked at Brutus. Brutus stared balefully back at him, as if unable to believe his owner had dragged him from his warm comfortable stable to stand in a muddy field. He risked another glance at his father and his heart sank. Lord Wyldon was glaring down at them as though already mentally drafting Brutus's Bill of Sale.
"He'll get rid of you, you know," Percy told his horse. Brutus shook his head and sneezed. "There's no use you shaking your head at me, he will! And your new owner will keep you outside all the time — and don't think he'll bring you carrots because he won't." Brutus snorted. "In fact I bet he'll keep you for pulling his cart and only feed you rotten apples and damp hay."
It was at this point Percy realised Sir Meurig was looking at him as though he were mentally unstable. He decided that he was, in fact, doomed and would likely go down in history as the only Knight to be unseated in a joust whilst completely stationary.
He mounted gloomily, firmly dragging Brutus's head up from the grass — because if he was going to be humiliated Brutus could at least do him the courtesy of not eating all the way through it.
It felt like several days, though it could not have been more than half an hour, before Percy was announced. He dug his heels hopefully into Brutus's side and Brutus consented to amble towards the correct end of the tiltyard. His opponent — who would, Percy thought, have to be Sir Meurig — nodded at him from the far end of the field, barely managing to hold his black gelding.
Percy found himself wondering if it would be painful. And not just like being referred to as Perrin for four months had been painful, but actually in a broken bones and gushing blood kind of way.
There was a long still moment as the King stood, raising his hand ready to signal the start of the match and Percy closed his eyes, praying to any gods he had ever heard of, and then opened them — to find himself looking straight at Merlin, crouched in the shadow of the royal stand.
Several things then happened at once. Merlin smiled straight at him, the King's hand dropped, and a large rat streaked out of nowhere towards Brutus — who, it transpired, could gallop after all and apparently was not overly fond of large and really quite aggressive rats snapping at his heels.
Twenty minutes later, as Brutus raced past the startled steward for the third time, Percy lifted his lance and pushed his visor back, and reflected that Brutus really really didn't like rats. At all. As he leaned across to shake Sir Edwin's hand he glanced across the tiltyard towards Merlin's hiding place. The dark shadow lurking there appeared to give him a pleased thumbs up before promptly dropping down out of sight as Prince Arthur strode past. Percy spared a thought for the Prince's armour, no doubt still lying on a bench somewhere, and wondered at the fact he felt no surprise at all.
In a fair world his day would have ended with Brutus galloping triumphantly (if a little wildly) out of the tiltyard. In reality of course Percy had had to endure several lengthy anecdotes about his father's own Glorious Jousting Career (during which time Brutus had tried to wander off twice and both times Percy had dragged him back because really, if he had to listen to this then so did his horse) and now he was standing in the great hall, fidgeting in his court robes and trying to prevent his father talking to anyone who was not deaf or able to trace their family back at least eight generations.
He was also wondering where Merlin was. He couldn't help but notice that Prince Arthur seemed to have developed a twitch, and whilst he was loath to assume it had anything whatsoever to do with Merlin he couldn't entirely deny the possibility. Leaving his father safely in the company of Lady Cedwyn (who was both slightly deaf and could claim descent from an ancient Mercian Prince) Percy edged away, scanning the crowd for a familiar dark head. He spotted Merlin at last, carrying a fresh goblet of wine and weaving his way through the throng to where the Prince was stood talking to Gaius and several visiting nobles that Percy didn't know. Circling a group of somewhat inebriated Knights Percy arrived in time to see Merlin proffer the cup to Prince Arthur with a deep bow — and what Percy could only describe as a flourish. The Prince snatched the goblet out of his hand with a glare that had been known to terrify even the most experienced of Knights, earning him a rather shocked look from the visiting nobles. But Merlin merely gave another, perfect, bow (causing several members of the King's council who had been conversing nearby to break off mid-sentence and stare) and took the correct two steps back, inclining his head respectfully when the Prince resumed speaking. In fact, Percy noted some minutes later, Merlin seemed to be inclining his head respectfully whenever the Prince said anything at all — something Prince Arthur had evidently decided to pretend was not happening. All his best efforts were thwarted however when Gaius, who had been watching with some concern, was finally compelled to ask Merlin if his old neck strain was troubling him again.
"Oh no sir." Gaius looked rather taken aback at being called 'sir' by the boy who had been living in his spare room for the past two years. "I merely wished to convey my proper respect for the Prince."
Gaius looked to have been rendered temporarily speechless by this announcement. The two visitors however were nodding approvingly. "Your manservant's dedication is most commendable Your Highness," said the older of the two with a friendly nod at the Prince. Merlin immediately adopted an expression of extreme humility and fixed his eyes on the floor, by all appearances quite overcome.
Prince Arthur, whose own expression suggested that 'commendable' was quite far down the list of words he would use to describe Merlin at that moment, took several long seconds to realise he was expected to make some kind of reply. Percy suspected this might have had something to do with Merlin deciding to exchange staring at the floor for staring worshipfully (and really quite unnervingly) at the Prince instead. Prince Arthur cleared his throat several times before managing, somewhat grudgingly, "Yes... he is... er... very helpful."
"I do long to be helpful to you Sire," piped up Merlin with the air of one whose entire life was devoted to such noble aims.
Suspecting that Prince Arthur was on the verge of committing the unpardonable social crime of murdering his manservant at a royal function Percy decided to intervene, casting around desperately for a suitable diversion.
"Oh look — I think the food is arriving at last," — which, as diversions went, he knew was a little feeble but it was still infinitely better than commenting on the floral arrangements in the hall (which had been Plan B).
At the mention of food Merlin brightened considerably, instantly abandoning his worship of the Prince (which was beginning to border on disturbing) to crane his neck over the crowd to where a line of maidservants and pages were carrying trays and jugs into the hall. The food smelled delicious and Percy suddenly realised how long it had been since he had last eaten. It seemed he was not as hungry as Merlin however, who was now standing on tip-toe to better see the laden trays being circulated around the guests. Unfortunately his sudden lapse in Perfect Manservantship had not gone unnoticed. Prince Arthur was now watching him, the beginnings of what Percy thought might be a smirk on his face. Distracted as he was by the platters of chicken drumsticks coming ever closer Merlin took some moments to notice the Prince's scrutiny. It was only when he cleared his throat rather pointedly that Merlin finally turned, adopting what he clearly hoped was a winning expression.
"Well I suppose you won't be needing me for a while..."
Prince Arthur raised his eyebrows, very slowly. "Oh no Merlin, far be it for me to deprive you of your chance to be helpful."
Merlin's face fell. "But—"
"No really Merlin, I insist." The Prince's voice was smooth as silk. "After all, I wouldn't want anyone to think you had been a less than perfect manservant." Prince Arthur smirked at Merlin, who seemed to be trying to decide if glaring at his royal master would fatally damage his chances of ever sampling the pigeon pie the maid was currently offering to Gaius. Percy suspected the pigeon pie won out (marginally) when Merlin settled for glaring at the flagstones instead, one hand outstretched to hold the plate which the Prince seemed to take great enjoyment in piling high with delicacies.
As the Prince and his fellow guests ate their way through several trays of food Percy found himself hard pressed to decide which was worse — the somewhat reproachful looks the two visitors were now casting in the Prince's direction or the way Merlin was standing at the Prince's elbow, staring at the plate in his hand as if he was about to start salivating all over it.
There was, Percy thought, only one thing that could make this in any way worse (well two if you counted Brutus bursting into the hall and eating all the decorative foliage) but fortunately Percy knew this particular problem was busy outlining eight generations of illustrious ancestry.
"Percy my boy!"
Or maybe he wasn't.
With a sense of dread that had nothing to do with the way Merlin's eyes were fixed longingly on the chicken drumstick in Prince Arthur's hand, Percy turned to see the massive figure of his father striding towards him, scattering guests and servants.
"Father." He thought that might have come out a little strangled so he tried again. "Father, I was just coming to find—"
"A lot of damned useless people here tonight!" Lord Wyldon announced in what Percy thought was an unnecessarily loud voice as he pushed past a particularly affronted looking Baron and his wife.
"Father, I really don't think that—"
"So this is the Prince, is it?" Lord Wyldon boomed, coming to a stop at their group. Prince Arthur was looking rather startled, the chicken drumstick halfway to his mouth.
"Er... yes. That is..." Percy took a fortifying breath and turned to the Prince (who, to Merlin's horror, quickly discarded the drumstick on the floor). "Prince Arthur, may I present my father Lord Wyldon of Eyrie's Cove. Father this is—"
"I can see who it is!" Percy wondered if it was possible to actually die of embarrassment as his father surveyed the group before him, apparently unimpressed with what he saw.
Prince Arthur was the first to recover. "Lord Wyldon." he managed a formal nod, "Welcome to Court. I, er, trust your visit here has been—"
"Enjoyable?" Lord Wyldon barked. Percy felt his heart sink somewhere in the region of his boots, "It's been tolerable I suppose. Our rooms are shockingly drafty. Shockingly drafty!" Prince Arthur looked rather taken aback at this forthright opinion; Merlin looked as though Christmas had just arrived at the castle five weeks early.
"Oh, I am sorry to hear that, did you ask the—"
"Servants?" Lord Wyldon made a dismissive noise. "Useless! The lot of them. I haven't seen a single one in my chamber all day." Percy tried to look appropriately shocked (and not at all envious) that the castle servants were able to hide from his father so effectively.
"Well, I will certainly speak to the steward, he—"
"I have already met your steward." Lord Wyldon's tone suggested it had not been a mutually rewarding experience. "Remarkably high in the instep for a servant — I wonder you let your staff get so above themselves."
"I really don't think—"
"That I know my business?" Lord Wyldon boomed, puffing out his chest impressively.
"I—" was all the Prince was able to get out that time.
"I assure you I know it very well." Lord Wyldon's strident tones alerted the last few guests in the vicinity that hadn't already been eavesdropping. "A disobedient and disrespectful servant is like a canker in the household. You must guard against it at all costs!" He looked sternly at the Prince, taking his stunned silence for acquiescence. "I'm glad to see that you are in agreement."
It was then that Merlin made a small noise that could, possibly, have been a snort.
"And who are you?" barked Percy's father, his gaze swivelling round.
"I'm Prince Arthur's manservant my lord." Percy had never been so relieved to see a humble and obedient Merlin.
Lord Wyldon looked him up and down. "Then I hope you realize your good fortune, boy, to be manservant to a Prince!"
There was the smallest of pauses before Merlin answered, "Oh yes my lord." Merlin's voice was impossibly earnest. Percy released a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding, allowing himself to relax, just a little. "The Prince tells me so every day."
Oh god, thought Percy.
"Quite so!" said Lord Wyldon, happily oblivious to the look the Prince was now directing at his errant manservant. "Be sure you do not forget it—"
"I don't think I can my lord" said Merlin.
"—and cultivate a sense of humility at all times."
Merlin nodded fervently. Lord Wyldon puffed out his chest a little more. Percy recognised the beginnings of A Speech.
"A good servant must never forget what they owe to their master! Remember that, boy, and never assume you are in any way deserving of your place."
"I've never thought I deserved it my lo—"
"—Quite right too!" said Lord Wyldon in a clarion tone. He surveyed his somewhat shell-shocked audience impressively, before fixing Prince Arthur with a stern eye. "If I might offer you the benefit of my advice, Your Highness," he began, in a tone that suggested he was going to offer it whether the Prince wanted it or not. "You would do well to remember—"
But they were never to know what he thought the Prince would do well to remember. As Lord Wyldon's gaze swept the group once more, apparently impervious to their less than enthralled response, there was a sudden splash and exclamation.
"Merlin — you idiot! Look what you've done!" And Percy turned to see Prince Arthur, holding his wine goblet and staring at the now sodden sleeve of his doublet.
"But I didn't even touch—" Merlin's indignant voice was effectively cut off when the Prince cuffed him lightly round the head.
"Don't make it worse for yourself! Now go and wait outside, I will deal with you in a moment."
For one horrible second Percy thought Merlin was actually going to argue, He opened his mouth, then just as suddenly shut it again when the Prince glared at him, "Oh alright." (Which Percy thought a little rude, even for Merlin). But before the Prince could issue a suitable reprimand Merlin added, "Shall I take your plate with me then, Sire?"
"What?" The Prince impatiently waved away three maidservants who had rushed to help him, armed with numerous cloths.
"Your plate. You know, in case you get hungry while you're sacking me." The Prince stared at him for a moment in apparent disbelief (which wasn't surprising considering how much he had already eaten) and Merlin instantly lowered his gaze to the plate in his hand, looking more tragic than Percy had ever seen him as he stared at the remnants of the Prince's dinner. Faced with such obvious repentance Percy was rather shocked when Prince Arthur actually rolled his eyes before summoning one of the hovering maids with an irritable jerk of his head.
"Have the kitchens send some more bread to my chambers."
"Are you sure you're not hungrier than that Sire?" Merlin was looking soulfully at the Prince as if his health was his only concern in the world. Prince Arthur, who looked distinctly unimpressed by this show of devotion, got as far as "No, I most certainly am n—" before Lord Wyldon interrupted with a pompous "If I may Your Highness—" and the Prince seemed to rapidly rethink his decision.
"Oh very well." He turned hastily to the Page. "Have the kitchens send up some of the meat as well—"
"—and some of the pastries," put in Merlin.
"—and some of the pas—" the Prince stopped suddenly and glared at his manservant who immediately hung his head.
"I'll await your judgement upstairs then Sire," Merlin said meekly.
And with that he was gone, leaving Percy wondering when the evening had gone so horribly wrong. The Prince endured a further minute and a half of Lord Wyldon's views on the Ingratitude of the Lower Classes before he excused himself regretfully, promising to follow Lord Wyldon's advice to the letter (which caused Lord Wyldon to look on the Prince with something like approval, but failed to make Percy feel any better) and then he too left, making his way through the crowd with the air of a man weighed down by the responsibilities of his station.
Left behind with his father, a strangely amused looking Gaius and two slightly dazed noble visitors, Percy found himself wondering if any tournament could be worth this. After all, he had been the one that had dragged Merlin into all this, after all. He looked at Gaius and wondered how he could look so supremely unconcerned when Merlin was probably being dismissed. Now. At this very moment. Suddenly Percy made up his mind. Taking the unprecedented step of interrupting his father, Percy said as firmly as he could,
"If you will excuse me. I have something I must attend to." He barely had chance to register that his father had, for the first time in his life, been rendered speechless with shock before he was walking swiftly towards the door.
As soon as he was clear of the hall he broke into a run, taking the stairs two at a time and desperately trying to remember the way to the Prince's chambers. In all his months at Camelot he had not, naturally, had reason to visit the royal family's private rooms but he knew roughly where to look. When he reached the top of the final staircase he was gasping for breath and the noise and warmth of the hall seemed a long way away from the dark and chilly corridors stretching away from him. Before his nerve could give out completely he strode towards the Prince's rooms, guessing their location from the faint flicker of firelight visible beneath the door. As he walked he sifted through every possible argument he could use, resolving, if necessary, to admit to the whole embarrassing eavesdropping incident (although he thought he might not mention the carrots). Finally he arrived at the heavy wooden door, his heart hammering in his chest. Screwing up his courage he knocked sharply, barely even waiting for the Prince to finish saying 'enter' before he burst in, his clever speeches instantly forgotten.
"Sire, please don't sack Merlin, he didn't mean..." He stopped. The Prince was regarding him quizzically from where he was sprawled in a chair by the fire. But Percy was more shocked by the sight of Merlin, curled up comfortably in a chair by the table, one hand suspended above a truly enormous plate of food. Percy stared. He realized his mouth was hanging open and hastily closed it.
"Er..." It seemed he had misjudged the situation somewhat. "He's... not sacked?" The Prince raised an eyebrow.
"It would seem not," he drawled. He flicked an irritated glance at Merlin who, having ascertained that no crisis was imminent, had resumed eating as noisily as possible.
"What?" Merlin asked through a mouthful of food.
The Prince, who had got the full benefit of this, looked faintly revolted. "I realize silence is a strange and unnatural state for you Merlin, but I would have thought even you could manage to make less noise when you're eating and not more."
"I," announced Merlin as he reached for another slice of bread, "am very hungry." The Prince's only response to this was a snort. Merlin looked indignant. "I am! Look at me, I'm shrivelled up with hunger." He gestured expansively towards himself with one hand while continuing to pile cheese on his bread with the other.
"And yet your tongue is unaffected I see." Merlin chose to ignore this in favour of cramming what looked like half the loaf into his mouth at once.
Stranded three steps into the room, Percy thought he might be gaping again. "But..." The Prince stopped tutting disapprovingly at Merlin and looked at Percy instead. "You said Merlin was the worst manservant you had ever had!" Merlin paused mid-chew to glare at his master but Percy wasn't finished. "My father said you should dismiss him immediately and you nodded." He thought that might have come out a little more accusingly than he had intended. "Er... Sire" he added, moderating his tone somewhat.
"Percy." Prince Arthur replied, in the condescending tone of one who often finds himself having to explain the most obvious of points to his subordinates. "Your father is a guest here at Court. As such it would have been extremely rude of me to challenge his opinions in front of his fellow nobles. As Crown Prince and one of the hosts of this tournament I must set an example and put my private feelings aside in the interests of—"
"He was scared of your father," put in Merlin helpfully.
"Yes thank you Merlin — I would hardly expect you to grasp the finer points of diplomacy and etiquette." The Prince scowled at his manservant, who merely grinned back unrepentantly and helped himself to a chicken leg as his master continued. "Did you get any use whatsoever out of that book I gave you?"
"Yes," replied Merlin indistinctly, his mouth full. The Prince raised his eyebrows in apparent disbelief.
"And that would be what exactly?" Percy winced at the sarcasm in his voice.
Merlin finished chewing and gave an enormous swallow before he replied. "Gaius's worktable had a wonky leg."
For a moment the Prince just stared at him. Then, with a shake of his head that suggested he was erasing the whole painful conversation from his mind, he turned back, his eyes coming to rest on Percy, who still hadn't moved. "Oh for goodness sake stop hovering in the doorway, Percy, and sit down." He indicated a chair at the table opposite Merlin who waved cheerfully at him with the chicken leg. Still feeling as though he had somehow wandered into the wrong conversation, Percy sat.
"And you are the worst manservant I've ever had," the Prince added with an irritable look at the state of his table, now strewn with crumbs.
"Am not," Merlin replied.
The Prince looked pointedly at the mess. Merlin looked vaguely surprised to find anything had escaped his plate and promptly swept it all off the table onto the floor — which Percy suspected was not quite what the Prince had had in mind. But aside from an exasperated sigh Prince Arthur nobly forbore to comment and for a while there was silence in the room, broken only by the sound of Merlin chewing and the crackle of the fire. Percy found himself slumping a little in his chair — the warmth and quiet of the room after the bustle and anxiety of the day were seeping into his bones, making him relaxed and unguarded.
The strangely comfortable silence was broken at last by the Prince, "So..." Percy dragged his gaze away from the swirling flames to find Prince Arthur regarding him thoughtfully, "Does your father always... er..."
"Finish people's sentences?" Percy said without thinking. There was a sudden snort from Merlin. Percy clapped a hand over his mouth in horror, wondering if this meant he was actually going to turn into his father and deciding simultaneously that he was never ever going to tell Isolda about this.
The Prince's mouth quirked in amusement. "Yes, something like that."
Percy finally took his hand away, relieved to see that the Prince seemed to be amused by the slip and not horribly traumatised by the reminder. He smiled, tentatively, back. "I'm afraid so, Sire," he replied, sighing. "My nurse once told me he even did it at his own wedding." He paused reflectively for a moment, "She said no-one ever knew if he married my mother, himself, or old Father Eldridge the priest."
Lost as he was in his own recollection it took Percy several seconds to realise that the strange noise he had heard from Prince Arthur was actually choked laughter. Merlin, who had apparently never recovered from Percy's earlier comment, had dropped his head onto the table and appeared to be crying with mirth and Percy suddenly found himself smiling in response — because, really, this whole day had been too ridiculous and he supposed, when he came to think about it, that the story did sum up his father rather well.
By the time the Prince had got a grip of himself and Merlin had managed to start breathing again (albeit with the odd hiccup) Percy was feeling significantly better, as if all the tension in him had finally dissipated. They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes and then Merlin gave an enormous yawn, hiccupped twice and pushed his (now empty) plate away.
"Quite finished are we Merlin?" The Prince asked, his voice edged with sarcasm. "You don't want the crockery as well?" Merlin pretended to consider it.
"No thank you," he said judiciously. "Although," he added with a slightly mournful look at the Prince, "I could probably have found room for some pastries."
"You're lucky I fed you at all," his master retorted.
"You have to feed me," Merlin replied imperturbably, "A nobleman has to feed his loyal and hardworking servants."
"I shall be sure to keep that in mind," replied the Prince, "In case I ever find any." Percy hoped it was a trick of the firelight then, that Merlin appeared to actually stick out his tongue at the future King, but he rather suspected it wasn't. With one final glare at his incorrigible servant Prince Arthur stood up and Percy automatically rose with him, too well trained not to recognize that the Prince wished to retire. Merlin wasn't quite so quick off the mark. With a groan he dragged himself to his feet, massaging his stomach.
"Do you need me to..?" he waved his hand vaguely.
Prince Arthur raised an eyebrow. "As flattered as I am by your obvious dedication to my wellbeing Merlin, I think I've had quite enough of your exemplary service for one day."
"Oh good," Merlin replied, because he was, well, Merlin. "I'll go to bed then."
It seemed the Prince could not even be bothered to feign outrage at this. "Don't forget I expect you early tomorrow."
Merlin seemed to brighten up a little at this, which Percy foolishly thought a positive sign. "Of course Sire." He suddenly swept a rather alarming bow. "Another day of Perfect Manservantship awaits."
Percy noticed that Prince Arthur appeared to be suffering a painful internal struggle.
"Perhaps you needn't... er... bow quite so much tomorrow. I mean," he hurried on, "Gaius seemed so concerned about you earlier."
Merlin's eyes widened, "But Sire! People might think I'm not treating you with the respect due to your exalted stat—"
"Percy," interrupted the Prince loudly, "I imagine your father would greatly enjoy a very detailed tour of the castle before he leaves?"
He looked meaningfully at Merlin, who blanched. "Er... now you come to mention it, I think my neck has been twinging a bit—"
"Yes, I thought it might be."
"—So, er, it might be better for me to rest it after all."
"I'm so glad we understand each other Merlin." With that the Prince graciously stood aside to let them pass, smirking at Merlin as he did so. Percy, walking behind Merlin, turned at the door and nodded very correctly at the Prince.
"Goodnight then Your Highness, and thank you for your hospitality."
"Farewell my liege!" declared Merlin from somewhere behind him. It was at this point Percy abandoned his dignity entirely and dragged the other boy from the room before Prince Arthur's patience finally snapped and he killed his irrepressible manservant with the dinner tray.
It was only a few minutes later that Percy let himself into his chamber, having bid goodnight to Merlin at the east staircase. As he gratefully removed his heavy court robes and laid them carefully aside he found himself thinking about Perfect Manservants and Not-So-Perfect Manservants and he wondered if he could even tell the difference anymore. He had a fairly good idea of what his father would say, were Percy to suggest such a fanciful notion to him, but Percy thought that perhaps he didn't much care about what his father thought for once. More comfortable now in just his breeches and shirt, he crossed to the window, the fire warm at his back, and surveyed the castle battlements and the city beyond, picking out the pinpricks of light that showed the night was far from over — even for those with no claim to noble blood and no tournament to concern them. It was, he thought with faint surprise, home, and the cold stone keep of his childhood had never felt so far away as it did then as he stood watching the quiet city, his breath misting on the glass in front of him. This new life was still strange to him, it was nothing like he had expected and imagined and certainly nothing like his father had told him it would be — but he thought that it might, on recent evidence, turn out to be better than any of that. Tomorrow, he knew, he had his father to placate, a stubborn warhorse to bargain with and a tournament to complete, but right now he had nothing to do and nothing required of him and he was content to lean his head against the cool glass, remembering warmth and comfortable silences as he watched the night go by.