Roughly once a week, down in the tavern, Gwaine would organise a sort of games night for the knights. It mostly involved a lot of ale and a bit of gambling, and it was generally accepted that training wouldn’t start too early the next day. Anyone was welcome, and people usually split off into their own small groups of friends unless there was a particularly tense game to cheer on.
Roughly once a month, Arthur would attend. He noticed that they all tended to gather round whenever he played. It made it less fun, made it harder to pretend just for an hour or so that he was one of them and forget that he was the king. Some of them would never let him forget that. Gwaine and Merlin, on the other hand, never seemed to be able to remember it.
“Call that a bet?” Gwaine bellowed, slapping down twice the number of coins Arthur had just put forward. “Double or nothing!”
Arthur didn’t like putting down huge amounts. If he won (which admittedly didn’t seem to happen very often) then he’d feel bad taking a lot of silver from his men. Or worse, from his servant. Although of course that never happened. Still, Gwaine was almost as unfeasibly lucky as Merlin, and nobody else appeared to want to join in this round. So…
“I’ll triple it,” he told Gwaine, and slammed down the rest of his money. The knights, crowded around, cheered and laughed. Gwaine frowned, and checked his purse. There was, as Arthur well knew, plenty to cover it. “Oh, and Leon?” The tall knight looked at him questioningly. “We’ll borrow your dice for this one I think.”
“What?” Gwaine looked dismayed and Arthur thought his suspicions about Gwaine’s ‘lucky’ dice and his winning ways were probably correct. “Why?”
“I wouldn’t want to be accused of cheating.”
Gwaine muttered something under his breath, and reluctantly took the dice. It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t win it all back off one of the others later, Arthur knew.
“Eight!” Gwaine cried, raising his arms triumphantly. “Hah!”
“That’s Hah your highness,” Leon reminded him, but Gwaine just shrugged.
“All equal in the tavern.”
“True,” Arthur agreed. “Though this is my last round tonight if I lose.” He glanced across at Merlin, who was eyeing the large pile of silver speculatively. Merlin would have been playing him next, and he always, without fail, managed to win against Arthur. He was never quite as ridiculously lucky against anyone else, Arthur had noticed, unless his opponent had a considerable amount of wealth or winnings already.
Merlin seemed to realise he was being watched, and straightened up, smiling far, far too innocently.
Arthur rolled the dice.
He was not entirely surprised when he rolled a ten. Nor was he surprised when his luck vanished in the next game and Merlin took all his winnings, beaming happily as he did so. Arthur caught his eye as he pocketed the money, and raised an eyebrow at him.
How did Merlin manage to look so completely and utterly guileless when he had just robbed Arthur blind with that wretched magic that Arthur wasn’t supposed to know about? It wasn’t fair. But then it was never going to be fair.
Arthur stayed in the tavern for a while, drinking with his men and watching Gwaine cheat numerous people out of their silver. Merlin didn’t seem inclined to gamble any further, his thin coat weighed down by his heavy winnings. He wasn’t drinking much either, Arthur noticed, and had stepped back from Gwaine’s noisy central crowd of gamblers, talking quietly to Percival instead.
He wondered what Merlin did with all the money. He certainly didn’t seem to buy anything for himself, his clothes were as ragged as ever. Perhaps he was saving it, or perhaps he came here and lost it all on other nights when Arthur wasn’t around. That didn’t seem very likely, not given Merlin’s particular skills. Probably he sent some back to his mother, perhaps gave some to Gaius for his keep? Still, he’d won a lot that night, and last month and the months before…
Arthur glanced over at him again. Merlin was no longer with Percival and it took a moment for Arthur to spot him slipping out through the back door.
There were other less pleasant possibilities, of course. Merlin was servant to the king. What if he was being blackmailed, paying some sort of protection money, something like that? Arthur needed to know. He told himself that, as he drained his cup and got to his feet. It wasn’t sheer curiosity at all.
Being the king, of course, he didn’t have the luxury of slipping away quietly like his servant. Everyone wanted to say goodnight, some thought they should leave too. Eventually he was outside, supposedly heading for his bed. Only Leon and Percival had accompanied him, and they left once he was safely in his chambers.
Merlin wasn’t there.
Arthur hadn’t expected him to be, but going back had been the only way to give the others the slip. Now they thought him safely in bed, Arthur could move through the castle without being noticed. A heavy cloak was disguise enough, and soon he was walking through the shadows, past the tavern, hearing Gwaine’s drunken voice from within.
Merlin could have gone anywhere, it had been too long since he left. Arthur was half-tempted to leave it, to just ask him later. But then, as he knew, Merlin’s version of the truth could be a matter of interpretation. Or an outright lie if it suited him.
Quietly, Arthur walked down into the lower town. Leon would probably have a fit if he knew. But Arthur had his sword, it wasn’t as if he was defenceless. Or as if he wasn’t the finest swordsman in his kingdom. The shadows held little fear from him.
He didn’t go far, down the main street and along a side alley that led back up to the castle. He was almost back at the gates when he saw someone up ahead. They were flitting through the shadows, ducking into a doorway, crouching down and then hurrying away. It was Merlin, of course, Arthur knew that tall, gangly frame too well. A few doors along and he did it again.
Arthur paused, and waited until Merlin was out of sight. Then he went to one of the doorways and crouched down. It was difficult to see, but he felt around and found a couple of coins half-pushed under the door. There was the same thing at the next house Merlin had visited. He knew that second house. The woman had recently been widowed and left with three children to raise. Arthur stared at the closed door. He could hear the woman softly crying inside. He had a feeling there would be other households just as needy.
Having found his answer, Arthur hurried back up to the castle before anyone noticed he was gone.
Later, Merlin’s skin was cold when he climbed in beside Arthur. Arthur didn’t ask where he’d been, just drew him close, burying his face in his lover’s neck and snuggling in, trying to warm him. He didn’t think he’d ever loved Merlin more.
Next time, Arthur thought, he’d take more silver, make a larger bet. It was only fair.