It was just three weeks before Merlin's eleventh Christmas when he was introduced to the thirteen-year old Arthur Pendragon, Prince of Camelot and eventual heir to the throne of all Albion. As far as early Christmas presents go, it was a tremendous disappointment.
Merlin's mum was thrilled with the opportunities her new position as royal governess would offer. She seemed particularly excited on Merlin's behalf, but was rather vague about the details whenever questioned. Merlin himself was not convinced it was a smart idea to move into the official residence of the king who was in charge of prosecuting all magic users. Nor was he looking forward to living near the prince. His mum had spent a lot of time and energy making sure Merlin knew how to behave respectfully and deferentially, and he wanted nothing to do with it.
"It's like you want me to go around actually licking his boots, Mum!" he had whined, after she had made him practice the proper forms of royal address for what felt like the thousandth time.
His mum, who sometimes seemed to have an actual heart of stone, just raised her eyebrows at him before going back to chopping onions for their dinner. "Screw this up, Merlin, and you'll be lucky if all you have to do is lick his boots. Now, why don't you make a salad while telling me all of the king's and prince's formal titles."
Merlin sighed the sigh of the long-suffering. No, he really didn't want to move into the palace. Not at all. He tried again.
“Isn't the prince too old for a governess? I thought governesses were for babies?”
“You know the prince lost his mother in childbirth, the poor little lamb. And his father doesn't have much time to spend with his children. The princess manages on her own, but the prince is young enough that the king prefers him to have someone to be responsible for his day-to-day affairs. The governess provides companionship, too, a surrogate mother of sorts.”
Merlin hoped all of the mothering the prince needed would take place while Merlin was at school. He preferred to share his mum as little as possible.
The day they moved to the palace, Mum made him wear his nicest clothes. All he had was a worn collared shirt with a tie he didn't know how to tie. Mum tried to teach him how to do it, and he tried very stubbornly not to learn, as a protest against the whole ridiculous affair.
They drove their clunker of a car through some service roads around to the back of Camelot Palace. The service roads afforded no view of the front of the palace, but from the back it was large and imposing, sculpted white stone walls rising up from extensive flower beds, dozens of windows staring down at them. There were no flowers now, though, and the bushes were little more than piles of bare sticks, huddling together for warmth.
They got out of the car, and a man dressed in a valet’s uniform took Mum's keys and drove the car away. Merlin's mum strode confidently in through a wooden door marked "Service and Deliveries"; Merlin supposed she must have been here before. Even at the service entrance Merlin felt woefully out-of-place. The doors seemed twice as large as the regular kind, the floor was tiled to within an inch of its life, and the bottom half of the walls was covered with wooden paneling, leaving room for a large assortment of gold-framed portraits up above.
Right inside the door was a security checkpoint. Merlin's mum produced a packet of papers for the palace guards to look at, and then they were checked with a metal detector. Mum went through without issue, but when Merlin stepped through, he felt a strange tingle. An obnoxious buzz rang through the hallway, accompanied by a series of red and blue flashing lights. Merlin's heart thumped with sudden adrenaline. He was confident he wasn't carrying anything metal. So why did he set off the alarm? Just a mistake, right?
The hallway flooded with more guards. They poured in faster than Merlin could register. The two who had been in charge of the scanner had each grabbed him by an arm and dragged him into a windowless room just a few paces away. He noticed the guns hanging at their waists and the strength of the arms that were pulling him along. He could hear his mum protesting outside the room, but they would not let her in. One of the guards took a metal detector wand and passed it over his body. It remained silent.
The guards looked confused that they hadn't found anything. One patted Merlin all over, but he wasn't carrying anything. Were they going to do a strip search next? Merlin hoped that the stories he'd heard about body cavity searches were just rumors. Oh, God . . . they wouldn't really do that, right?
The room suddenly felt about twenty degrees too hot. His heart started doing strange fluttery things in his chest. Merlin was just about to panic when he heard a loud voice calling out in the hall, "Why are you detaining Mr Emrys? He and his mother have already presented their papers. They are on the king's pre-approved entry list. What is the holdup?"
One of the guards answered, "He set off the new detector, sir. We were just following procedure. The captain has been adamant that we detain everyone who sets it off."
The owner of the loud voice sounded exasperated. "You know this detector is highly experimental and prone to false readings. That is why we have the pre-approved list. In the future, make sure you check it. Now let the boy out. We have an appointment with his Highness."
"Yes, sir. Right away." The guard hesitated, sounding neither convinced or pleased, but came in to the room where Merlin was trying not to think about full body cavity searches.
The guard squinted at Merlin. "You heard the man. Off with you." Merlin scuttled past the gun-toting men into the cool hallway. He desperately hoped he wouldn't have to go through that process every time he came into his new home, but had the sinking feeling that he would. Maybe next time he could tell them he was on the pre-approved list and the guards would be intelligent enough to check it.
While Merlin was catching his breath, trying very hard not to feel like a mouse in a lion's cage, an elderly man in a navy suit came up to him. Mum hurried over, looking pleased to see the man, and reached out to give him a hug.
The old man looked equally pleased to see Mum. "Hunith, my dear, it's been too long!" It was the same voice that had rescued him from the detention room, though considerably warmer and less authoritative now.
"Uncle Gaius! I'm so glad to see you! Thank you so much for getting me this opportunity!" And she reached out to kiss him on the cheek.
Merlin was startled, as he'd never seen his mum kiss anybody but him before, and certainly not some old guy with ratty grey hair. But before he had time to dwell on this, Mum pushed him forwards to hug Uncle Gaius as well. Merlin did his best to grin and bear it, though he wasn't keen on hugging strangers or old men, even if they did happen to be some sort of family relation.
"Ah, Merlin, you've grown so much since I last saw you"—honestly, did adults never think of anything original to say?—"and I welcome this chance to get to know you. I told your mother years ago that I'd love the chance to tutor you, but we haven't been in the same city long enough to make it work. After the New Year we should be able to fit some weekly lessons into your schedule."
Huh, that was strange. Merlin was already enrolled in the city's general school, the free one for all the unlucky sods who hadn't been born with nine-figure trust funds. He wondered what kind of lessons Gaius could possibly mean. Probably more ways to properly lick the royal boots.
Gaius stepped back a bit and said, "Well, if you both will follow me, I'll take you to meet the prince. He's waiting in his personal sitting room. Both the governess's suite and the prince's suite connect to the sitting room. You'll be right there next to him, which should make everything very convenient. He's old enough to be pretty self-sufficient these days, but it's not good for him to remain holed up in his rooms alone the way he does. Ever since the Collins incident, the king rarely lets him leave the palace."
Merlin had no idea what "the Collins incident" could be, but his mother nodded along as if she understood everything. Merlin decided to ask Mum about it later, though it could be challenging to get information out of her. She was a stellar secret-keeper. He appreciated this for her ability to keep his own secrets, but it sure was annoying anytime he wanted to learn about someone else.
They walked along corridors and up stairwells that were progressively fancier the farther they went. There was an impressive array of Christmas decorations, with evergreen wreaths, pine trees, berry-laden garlands, and fairy lights twinkling everywhere. Merlin started to feel more and more intimidated as they went along. He was also hopelessly lost. It would be impossible to make it back to the service door without help. Before school tomorrow, he'd have to find his way through the maze and out to the bus stop. He wasn't looking forward to it.
By the time they reached the wing of the palace that was reserved for members of the royal family and their immediate staff, Merlin had begun to feel very small. He was surrounded by opulence on a scale of which he had never imagined. Merlin wondered if the king wanted it that way in order to intimidate his guests. A sudden wave of rebellion coursed up through him at that thought. He decided then and there that he was not going to be intimidated by all this fancy royalty business. If this was going to be where he had to live, then he would darn well treat it like any other home.
The introduction took place in the prince's private sitting room. Gaius, who worked for the King Himself and was responsible for getting Mum this new job, led them into the room. Merlin trailed behind, nervously eyeing the two steely-eyed guards who stood outside the doorway.
It's not that Merlin was hiding behind his mother's skirts like a baby. Nor was he going back on his newly-made resolution to not be intimidated. It's just that the room was impressively big, and yes, okay, his old self (of five minutes ago) might have been a little bit intimidated. But this brave new Merlin was merely curious, he told himself. Standing back from the front lines, so to speak, gave him a bit more time to take in details before being called into action. It was just logical.
Merlin stared at the sitting room in a cross between awe and annoyance. It looked like Santa Claus had decided to spew his holiday cheer everywhere. Each possible surface was covered with a sparkly bauble or twinkling light. A fire burned within a slate fireplace, a solitary Christmas stocking hanging from the sculpted wood mantel. Various couches and armchairs were scattered around, including a white sofa positioned perfectly for gazing into the fire. There was a Christmas tree that nearly reached to the moulding on the elevated ceiling. The tree dripped with red and gold ornaments and was topped with a sparkling angel. The windows were extensive and trimmed with even more lights. What sort of room would have that many windows? And how on earth did they manage to get that large of a tree to fit through the door?
Merlin grudgingly decided that the room looked like it had fallen out of one of his mother's Christmas catalogues, the ones that came in the mail. Each year Mum would look at them longingly and mutter ‘maybe next year’. This made Merlin dislike the room on principle. Rooms like this made Merlin's mum sad, and Merlin's mum should never be sad.
The only thing that didn't look like it had jumped out of a holiday catalogue was a long, convoluted train track that criss-crossed its way across the floor en route to wrapping around some of the furniture. Merlin wondered where the train was that ran on those tracks. It was probably amazing.
Gaius's voice cut through his contemplation. "Your Highness, I would like to present to you your new governess, and my niece, Miss Hunith Emrys. Hunith, this is His Royal Highness, Prince Arthur Pendragon of Camelot."
Merlin turned a little to peek out from where he was not-hiding behind his mother. He examined the person he decided was responsible for this newest upheaval in his life. His mum was honest-to-goodness curtsying before a tall, golden-haired boy. The boy was dressed in a grey suit with a red-and-gold striped tie. Merlin's first thought was that those clothes looked horribly uncomfortable. How would you ever be able to go out and ride a bike or look for frogs wearing something like that? Why on earth would you wear something like that at home? Gaius could be excused, as he was technically working. But the prince was in the privacy of his own rooms, and Merlin doubted he had dressed up just for them.
Merlin's attention was yanked away from thoughts of royal outfits when the prince blurted out, "And who's this?" He reached out to grab Merlin's wrist and pulled him out from behind his mum. Merlin, surprised by the sudden movement and painfully strong hand grasp, jerked forwards unsteadily, tripped over his feet, and fell to the floor.
Merlin shouted in surprise. "Ow! What'd you do that for?"
"Merlin!" his mum hissed. "Be polite!"
"Tell him to be polite! That hurt!" Merlin was angry and had no desire to hide it.
Mum whispered at him with the venom of a spitting snake. "Merlin! You can't tell the Prince of Camelot to be polite!"
"Why not? You tell me to be polite all the time." But whatever answer Merlin thought he might get was never to be heard.
"You're an elf!" the not-polite prince said, interrupting their agitated whispers.
"What!?" Both Merlin and his mom looked up in surprise. And then Merlin added petulantly, "I'm not an elf!"
The prince bounced on the balls of his feet, which made the tie on his suit flap around.
"You're an elf! Look at your ears! Elf ears for sure. Are you lost? I'm not an expert, but I'm pretty sure the North Pole's up that way somewhere." The prince waved his hand vaguely towards a garland-bedecked window. "I imagine if you get started and just keep going that direction, you'll get back to Santa's workshop eventually."
Merlin's hands flew up to his ears, which were turning redder by the second.
"I'm not an elf! You're a . . . a . . .”—Merlin struggled to find the worst insult he could—". . . a turniphead!"
"Merlin!” His mother yanked him backwards. Her fingernails dug painfully into the scruff of his neck.
The prince turned red in the face, but a dangerous glint appeared in his eyes.
"You can't speak to me that way!" he said, in what Merlin would later come to regard as his most spoiled pompous prat voice. "Don't you know who I am? I'm the prince!"
Merlin's mum apparently knew who he was, because she dug her fingernails even more deeply into Merlin's poor neck. She tried to put her other hand over his mouth, to silence him—or possibly suffocate him—but Merlin wasn't having any of it. He squirmed away like the slippery eel he was and turned back to the turniphead.
"Well, you can't be a prince! Princes are supposed to be kind . . . and good . . . and . . . they're supposed to care about other people! You're not like that at all!"
To his horror, Merlin almost burst into tears. But Mum finally got a hold of him and thrust him behind her. Words spewed out of her mouth at an alarming rate, things like "I'm so sorry, your Highness" and "I don't know what's gotten into him; he's usually so polite". Merlin didn't pay much attention. He steamed inside at the injustice of it all. If he'd ever made fun of someone's ears, his mum would have smacked his bum, hard. Repeatedly. With a spatula.
Uncle Gaius had watched all this with a quirk in his eyebrow and his lips pressed together. If he didn't know better, Merlin would have thought him on the verge of laughter. Once it seemed there would be no more outbursts, as the (obviously fake) prince gaped wordlessly, Gaius said, "While this has been a most interesting introduction, I'm sure Miss Emrys is ready to see her new home. And you, your Highness, have schoolwork to do. I will check on you once I've finished showing your new governess around.”