“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to”
Arthur Penn & Merlin Emrys
New York City, USA
“And you’re sure about this?” Merlin asked once more, looking at Arthur over the brim of his steaming cup of tea before he took a delicate sip. They were seated at their favorite table at Lacy Tea and Arthur had just invited him to spend the summer with him in England with his family.
“I’d love it if you came, Merls,” Arthur reassured, a hand reaching out to softly clasp at the darker-haired man’s hands when he set his cup of tea down. “You weren’t even planning on teaching this summer, so what’s the problem? Do you think you won’t be able to handle the English summer?” he teased good-naturedly with a small chuckle.
Letting out a chuckle of his own, Merlin shook his head, “No, no, it’s just that I know you’ll be busy with your best-man duties. I don’t want to distract you, y’know?”
It had been about a week ago that Arthur had ended a phone call with a wide smile, returning to his position beside Merlin on their couch where they’d been watching a historical drama about Queen Anne. Arthur, a European History professor at Columbia, made a sport out of watching period movies and pointing out inaccuracies, something that Merlin found endearingly hilarious. As he cradled himself once more into the warmth of Arthur’s body, Merlin moved to press play again when Arthur stopped him.
“That was my mate Lance,” he stated with a small smile on his face when Merlin turned to look at him, “He’s going to get married this summer and he wants me to be his best man.”
Merlin had beamed. “That’s amazing, Arthur! This is Lance, you’re childhood friend right? The one that you grew up with?” he asked, having heard countless stories of all the adventures that Arthur had as a young boy with his friend.
“That’s the one,” Arthur nodded, chuckling, “I can’t believe he’s getting married!”
They had chuckled a bit and Arthur had relayed a story of his youth with Lancelot, one about them both falling into a lake that was near Arthur’s grandmother’s house, and they’d both thought they were going to die. “We got all existential and made promises that if one of us survived we’d let the other’s parents adopt us so they’d still have a son!” Arthur described, and they’d laughed together, eventually returning to the movie.
Since then, Merlin hadn’t put much of any thought towards the wedding. He certainly hadn’t thought if he was somehow involved in Arthur’s trip back home for his best friend’s nuptials.
“Why would you be a distraction, babe?” Arthur countered, slathering some jam and clotted cream onto a scone that was still warm from the over, “Lance’s wedding will only take up the first week in England, and then we can spend the rest of the summer just enjoying ourselves. Don’t you want to see where I grew up? I can show you all my favorite haunts, babe.”
Arching a brow playfully and a wry smile forming on his peony-pink lips Merlin asked, “Are you gonna take me to the castle where you lost your virginity?”
Letting out a small laugh, Arthur nodded eagerly, “We can even stage a reenactment on the parapets”, earning him a small kick to the shin from Merlin under the table. Making a contorted face in exaggerated pain, he continued, “Don’t you have a friend from uni over in London?”
“Elena, my best friend from my Georgetown days,” he nodded, “She’s been trying to get me to visit London for ages.”
It was true, Elena had been Merlin’s best friend when he was getting his Bachelor's degree in International Politics at Georgetown, an international student who was from London. They’d always made an effort to keep in touch regularly throughout the years since they had graduated. She would always eagerly tell him about all the places in London that she wanted to take him to, how she missed him and would make pleading sounds as she told him that she needed him to come and visit her already.
“All the more reason, Merlin. You’re going to love it, really!” Arthur said enthusiastically, “I’ll be your personal guide, show you all the best things that the U.K. has to offer, babe.”
“You’re really sure about this, Arthur?” Merlin asked again. He could sense Arthur’s eagerness about the trip, it was palpable in the air between them, and the idea of spending a summer abroad with Arthur certainly was exciting. He’d spent little less than a year teaching at the University of Leicester but back then he hadn’t cared too much for traveling about and soaking up all the experiences that he could, too focused on work. He knew it would be fascinating to visit this time with leisure in mind, especially with Arthur as his guide through it all.
And yet, something about the idea of the trip made Merlin feel slightly apprehensive. He couldn’t help but think of the deeper implications of it all. The question was popping up quite spontaneously, but knowing Arthur, he was sure that he’d put much more thought into it than his casual visage was letting on. They’d been together for almost two years and he was inviting him to attend his best friend’s wedding in his hometown, no less.
“Of course, baby,” Arthur insisted, meeting Merlin’s eyes with an earnest and open expression on his face. “You know that I’d love for you to be there with me.”
Did this mean what Merlin thought it did?
These thoughts buzzed in his head and his eyes pulled away from his boyfriend to instead gaze out the window of Fenway. They always sat by this same window, it was their favorite spot in the whole tea shop, sun-dappled in the shade of a nearby tree. It was a clear view out to the passerby of Greenwich Village, people with small dogs on leashes walking by as if it was a runway for the city’s most fashionable breeds. A year ago everyone couldn’t get over Italian greyhounds and their horse-like prance and slender build, but it seemed the dog of the season was the miniature American shepherd with its fluffy coat and eagerly wagging tail. Maybe I should get a dog, Merlin thought , A dog would be nice…, he pondered, knowing well that she was getting lost in thought over the question.
His gaze drifted downwards for a moment, looking at the stray leaves that lay at the bottom of his cup of amber-colored Assam tea. He wished he could pull some sort of divine answer or vision of the future from the leaves pooled there. Really, Merlin had never been one for romance, never one to hopefully await a fairytale ending. At 28 he was already being pressured by his busybody relatives to marry, something he found ludicrous, only, even more, when his uncles and aunts would relay tales of how, at his age, they’d already had children who were toddlers. They had been perpetually trying to set him up with whatever child of whatever acquaintance they vaguely knew but despite their efforts, Merlin spent the better part of his twenties single and focused on earning his degree, getting through grad school, finishing his dissertation and jump-starting his career in academia. This invitation though, it sparked something in Merlin, a long-dormant and vestigial romantic inkling that had his mind thrumming with thoughts of “ He wants to take me to his hometown. He wants me to meet his family. ”
The long-forgotten romantic in him was awakening and he knew deep down that there was only one real answer to Arthur’s question.
“I’ll have to check with my dean to see when I’m needed back, but...let’s do this!” he declared, smiling wide at Arthur whose face broke out into a wide grin.
He leaned across their table and kissed Merlin, pulling away with a smile, “You’re going to love it, Merlin! You’ll meet my grandmother and Lance and all my other friends too and…”
At a nearby table, huddled discreetly behind a three-tiered stand ladened with pastries and mini Bakewell tarts, was a girl who was growing increasingly excited by the conversation she was overhearing. She suspected that it might be him but yes, she knew now that it had to be him. It was Arthur Pendragon!
Even though it was years back when she was fifteen that she had last seen him, Isobel Kernall would never forget when Arthur Pendragon had strolled past their table at the Prose Lounge✽ and flashed that devastatingly disarming grin at her sister Elizabeth.
“Is that one of the Faithley brothers?” their mother had asked, eyes widening slightly.
“No, mum, that’s Arthur Pendragon. He’s a cousin of the Faithleys,” Elizabeth had replied, eyeing her mother and how she gazed, completely rapt, at the retreating figure of the handsome bloke who was walking towards the hip new bar that had been added to the Lounge after renovations earlier in the year.
Their mother gasped, “Wait, you mean he’s Uther Pendragon’s son? My God, when did he shoot up like that? He’s so tall! He’s so handsome!” she exclaimed, a wide smile overtaking her face.
“He’s studying at Oxford with Lancelot,” Elizabeth stated as she sipped from her pomegranate and guava almond lassi. The Prose Lounge, one of London’s finest hidden establishments, had recently revamped its menu with a series of dishes inspired by a series of Britain’s “ closest cultures in spirit ” which included India, South Africa, and Egypt. Upon hearing the news of that, Elizabeth had rolled her eyes, “just say 'the lands we horrifically colonized and plundered ’, is that so difficult?”.
Her pomegranate lassi, topped with a sprinkle of Marcona almonds, was quite delicious though.
“Dual major in History and Law,” Elizabeth added, already knowing what her mother was going to ask when her lips parted to speak.
Mrs. Kernall turned to look at her eldest daughter, her eyes gleaming, “Why don’t you go talk to him?”
“Why should I? You always hate all the boys I go out with,” Elizabeth scoffed, shaking her head at her mother.
“My God, stupid girl! I’m trying to protect you from fortune hunters! This one, you’d be lucky for him to even look at you, Ellie! You should go, go and snatch him up!”
Isobel couldn’t believe her mother was encouraging her older sister to go and snatch up this boy. She looked curiously at Arthur who was now laughing with some friends at the bar. Even from afar he stood out in high relief. Arthur was tall and looked fit, had perfectly tousled golden hair, chiseled boyband star features, and impossibly thick eyelashes and beautifully full lips. He looks like that Keating cutie from Boyzone , Isobel thought, he was the cutest and dreamiest guy she had ever seen in her life.
“Why don’t you go over there and invite him to your fundraiser on Saturday, Lizzie?” their mother insisted, gaze turning hungry as she stared in Arthur’s direction.
“Stop it, mummy,” Elizabeth sighed gruffly, turning to shoot her mother a sharp glower as she stood up, “I know what I’m doing,” she added.
As it turned out, Elizabeth did not know what she was doing. Arthur never showed up at her fundraiser event on Saturday, much to their mother’s eternal disappointment. And to top it all off, just that following autumn Arthur had come out as gay.
Regardless, that afternoon left such an unwavering mark on a young Isobel’s mind that even nearing ten years later and on the other side of the Atlantic, she still recognized that head of artfully tousled flaxen hair that looked like it was spun from gold.
“Claire, let me get a picture of you with your Eton mess!” Isobel declared with a faux giggle, taking out her phone from her bag. She pointed it in the direction of her best friend but she instead trained the focus of the camera on Arthur and his date that sat by the window. She snapped the picture, making sure to actually take one of Claire as well, beaming brightly at her friend as she sent the first picture to her sister, who now lived in Atherton in California. Her phone pinged with an income text message less than a minute later.
Lizzie Bear: FUCK FUCK FUCK THAT’S ARTHUR PENDRAGON
Isobel Kernall: I know, dude, I know
Lizzie Bear: WHERE ARE U?
Isobel Kernall: Fenway @NYC
Lizzie Bear: Who’s the guy that he’s with?
Isobel Kernall: BF, I think
Lizzie Bear: Do you see a ring?
Isobel Kernall: No, no ring
Lizzie Bear: Spy for me, Issy
Isobel Kernall: You owe me for this!
And like that, just minutes later, before Merlin himself knew for certain what his plans for that summer would be, the details of his conversation with Arthur had already started to spread far and wide. The gossip spread around the world like a virus set loose amongst the closely guarded upper crust of the Anglophonic world.
After Isobel Kernall (Masters in Architecture student at Parsons) texted her sister Elizabeth “Lizzie” Kernall (who recently had to “settle” for getting engaged to Welsh super angel investor Hugh Merle) in California, Lizzie called her best friend Hortensia Rackham (youngest daughter of Australian casino and hotel magnate Sir Art Rackham) in Melbourne and breathlessly filled her in on the gossip. Rosie immediately texted eight of her friends in a group chat after the phone call, a group chat which included Hillary Leighton (granddaughter of eccentric art patron Ed Leighton) in Victoria, British Columbia. Hillary’s cousin Caroline Leighton (who now resides in Switzerland with her husband Mikkel, the British-Afrikaner heir to the Gamhert family luxury goods conglomerate) had studied law at Oxford with Arthur Pendragon and she simply had to send a series of rapid-fire voice messages to Gracie Triffyn (the Triffyn Media Corporation heiress) in Toronto. Grace, whose office in The Exchange Tower was just across from Leonie Young (of the Young Finance Group Youngs), simply had to interrupt her conference call to share this juicy tidbit.
Leonie, in turn, skyped her boyfriend Bran Fendigaid, who was holidaying at the Royal Mansour in Marrakech with his grandmother Mrs. Branwen Fandigaid (no introduction needed, of course) and her goddaughter Beverley Annwyn (Miss Rhodesia 1974, now the ex-wife to English-South African mining magnate Aaron Annwyn). Beverley made a phone call to Iseult Berould (granddaughter to famed philanthropist Norman Berould) in London, knowing well that Iseult would have a direct line to Vivian Gododdin (second cousin to Arthur) who spent every summer at her family’s vast parkland compound in the Canadian countryside. And so, this exotic strain of gossip spread rapidly through all the leviathanic networks of the English-speaking world’s jet-set, everywhere from Auckland to Boston to Adelaide, and in just some few hours most everyone in this exclusive circle knew that Arthur Pendragon was returning to England for Lancelot’s wedding and was bringing a boyfriend with him.
And, bloody hell, this was big news!
✽ One of the most secretive social clubs in London with membership practically harder to obtain than a knighthood