The next morning found Arthur up and dressed early, without Merlin’s ‘help’. He had sent word that Merlin was to help Gaius with the morning rounds, and then report to Arthur when he was finished. Merlin’s history showed that he had appalling timing of saying precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time, so it was best to keep him safely out of the way.
Timing was key for Arthur’s plan; he had to approach his father when he was in a good mood, which meant before the council meeting, but still alone, which meant after breakfast with Morgana. Luckily, he was well versed in the art of distracting and annoying his…sister (it was getting easier to think, even if he still couldn’t put it to words out loud quite yet), so he had no doubt that getting Morgana out of the room would not be a problem.
Uther and Morgana were already seated when he entered. They greeted him politely as they helped themselves to the generous array of platters. Uther had decreed that breakfast was just to be the three of them; not even servants were allowed to linger. Arthur supposed that it was his father’s way of attempting to spend time with his children, even as they grew farther and farther apart each day.
Morgana was being somewhat more stubborn than usual that morning; usually Arthur could get her to flounce out of the room in a huff with a couple of well placed barbs. Luckily, Uther himself, unknowing, provided a solution.
“Alright! Enough you two; one would think you are either siblings in truth, or an old married couple, the way you bicker on so.” He scolded, which earned him equal glares of disgust from his progeny. “Arthur, Morgana, I am ordering you two out of the castle for the day. Go on a picnic, go for a swim in the lake, I do not care; just make sure you get the fidgets out of your system and can return and behave like the young adults and heirs of Camelot that you are.”
Arthur bit his tongue, hard; he couldn’t have planned for a better segue way than that! He nodded stiffly at Morgana. “I’ll meet you at the stables in ten minutes?”
She narrowed her eyes, wondering what his game was, but agreed. “I’ll have Gwen pack a basket while I change into riding clothes.”
“If you see Merlin, tell him to saddle the horses, would you? Make sure he brings out Zephyr for you; I noticed Star was favoring that left rear hock again, and I want Bram to check it out before she goes out again.”
She inclined her head in agreement and in a brief bow to the king before exiting. King and prince watched her go.
“Father, I’m worried about Morgana.”
Uther frowned at him, already distracted by the notes for the upcoming council meeting. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, what is to be her place here in Camelot?” Arthur pressed. “She is your ward, to be sure, and adopted family, but she has no true status or power except by your clemency. She is not a princess, so there is no hope of securing an alliance through marriage, and while she can read and write exceptionally well, she has no real skills to become the castle chatelaine. What is to be her place when you are gone?”
Uther’s mouth dropped open in outrage, and Arthur hastily added, “Not that I am looking forward to your demise, father, but it is something that I have to consider as Crown Prince. Morgana has a home here in Camelot for as long as she wishes; but you know her. She is ambitious. She cannot simply sit around and knit or sew or whatever it is that the noblewomen do around here for the rest of her life. She barely tolerates such things now.”
The king’s mouth closed slowly, even as his frown darkened. “I assume that, since you have been considering this matter for some time, that you have a solution to suggest.”
“Yes. Adopt Morgana as your daughter in truth. Make her a princess of Camelot.” Arthur said earnestly. “She is already like a sister to me, and a daughter to you to everyone except the eyes of the law. Give her the status and power that she deserves, and it will cement her loyalty to you, and to Camelot.”
“She is my ward; she is already loyal to me.” Uther snapped.
“Is she?” Arthur countered, bracing himself slightly. “You know how passionate she is. I understand your reasons for the execution of those with magic, but Morgana is a woman. She gets emotional; she doesn’t see, doesn’t truly understand. Making her a princess will subject her to the laws and standards that we as Pendragons must uphold. She will have to learn to rule with her head, not her heart, as you have taught me.”
“You are crown prince of Camelot. I will not have her usurp your throne.”
And there lay the true heart of the matter. Morgana was her father’s daughter, ambitious and cunning to the core, and Uther knew it—and feared it, were she to ever know the truth.
“Then draw up a contract. Give her the status of a princess and all that comes with it, but also state very clearly that she will not inherit Camelot. If, however, she is married off, the lands of Cornwall will be part of her dowry and inheritance, to be kept in her name. Not her husband’s. And,” he added, “if she ever raises sword or hand against her homeland-or allies with someone else to do so—she will be immediately stripped of her status and exiled, and Cornwall will come under Camelot’s banner.”
Uther nodded slowly, his frown slowly clearing. “What else?”
Arthur blinked. “Sire..?”
“You clearly have been thinking about this for some time. What other plans do you have for Morgana?”
The prince hesitated. He had thought up another idea, but wasn’t sure the parties involved would go for it. Oh, well, he thought. In for a penny…
“Have Morgana apprentice with Gaius as a healer.” He stated. “As loyally faithful as Gaius is, he is getting on in years, and deserves the right to retire gracefully as the cherished member of the court that he is. He needs an assistant to help and eventually succeed him. Merlin is complete rubbish at it, plus he has other duties to me now. Have Morgana, and possibly her hand maiden as well, learn the healing arts. It will give her a purpose, security, and it is a good skill to have.”
And apprenticing under Gauis would give the court physician and Morgana a chance to refine skills not directly related to the healing arts, which could only benefit everyone. A Morgana in control of her powers was much less dangerous than the distant, cold, sardonically bitter Morgana of late. If Kilgarrah was correct, and Morgause and Morgana were truly half-sisters, then the combination of blood and magic could cement Morgana’s loyalty to her true, acknowledged kin rather than to unknown brother, father, king and court. Hopefully these steps would circumvent some of those ties and at least level the playing field. Arthur refused to lose his sister to the lure and seduction of magic and power that Morgause represented.
Uther studied his son for a long moment, so long that Arthur nearly squirmed under the assessing gaze. “Already you begin to think like a king. You have done well, Arthur. I will take your proposals to the council.”
Arthur stood, sensing the dismissal, and bowed. “That is all I ask, sire. Thank you.” He turned and left, feeling his father’s gaze on his back as he walked away. Phase one was complete. Now on to phase two…
As he strode to his chambers to retrieve his cloak, he suddenly slowed his pace, playing on another hunch. He knew his father; when Uther had made up his mind about something, he went forward with it—informing his council of advisors was more of a formality than anything. And that assessing glint in his steel blue-green eyes-eyes that were so much like both of his children-told Arthur that his instincts had been correct. Uther had been swayed by his son’s arguments for Morgana’s promotion, and also saw in the solution a way to save face without ever revealing his infidelity, as well as bind his temperamental daughter closer to him with the bribery of power and influence without actually giving her either one.
When he reached the courtyard, he found Merlin, Morgana, and Gwen waiting with their horses, chatting idly. Before Merlin could speak—because of course Merlin would be the first to say something about Arthur’s dawdling—one of Uther’s personal servants appeared.
“Lady Morgana, I’m sorry to intrude, but his majesty the king has requested your presence in the council chambers.” He said with a brief and very correct bow.
Arthur spared a moment to hide his sudden smile and a brief spurt of admiration at the man’s manners and style. The smile widened to a smirk as he pictured Merlin delivering the same message. Well, considering that it was to Morgana rather than to Arthur himself, there was a chance that he’d still be polite, but likely only because of the scolding he’d get from Gwen later and the sharp slicing of Morgana’s tongue if she felt slighted. Still, it might have been amusing to watch.
Morgana frowned. “Now? We were just about to ride out, on Uther’s orders from not even thirty minutes ago!” She protested.
“Yes, my lady. His majesty was very explicit about his directions. He has some news of great importance that he wishes to share with you which will not wait. Please, my lady.”
Huffing, she handed her reins to a nearby guard and turned to Merlin and Arthur with a smirk. “I suppose we shall have to do this another day, although I was so looking forward to beating you to the lake—not that either of you are much competition as it is.”
“Hey!” Both Arthur and Merlin protested indignantly, causing her smirk to widen.
“Bryn, please make sure Zephyr is at least exercised on a long line; I may still wish to ride out later, and would like her limber and loose if and when I do.” She called over her shoulder at the stable hand, who nodded before leading her mare and Gwen’s gelding away.
Merlin and Arthur watched her stride away, graceful and sleek as a predator, Gwen trailing respectfully in her wake, before turning to look at each other.
“Well,” Merlin began. “So much for that idea. Guess I better put these two away as well—“
“You’ll do no such thing,” Arthur interrupted loftily. “We’ve already got the supplies, might as well go for a hunt.” He turned to the guard holding the reins of his mount.“Inform my father that I’ve gone on a hunting trip, and may not return until tomorrow evening.” He swung up into his saddle before the man had disappeared into the castle, and nudged his horse into a sudden canter, laughing to himself as he heard Merlin swear and scramble to catch up. After the revelations of the past few days, it was nice to be a few steps ahead of his erstwhile servant for once.
He had planned to speak with Morgana first, and then to Merlin, but had quickly realized that this was the better path. While he knew about both of their talents, and suspected that Merlin knew the truth about Morgana’s dreams, Morgana herself was still in the dark about the raven-haired boy. The knowledge that she was not the only one who had been hiding in plain sight would either comfort her…or enrage her, once the truth was revealed.
If the truth was revealed.
Even as he laughed and crouched over his mare’s withers to urge her to a faster speed, that thought niggled in the back of his mind. Morgana had always been proud, even as a child. Imagined slights and insults to her person or status had been met either with hot rage or ice cold disdain and dismissal. Either you were with her or you were against her; there was no shades of grey in Morgana’s world of black and white, for all that she herself stood in the mottled shadows. So for Merlin and Arthur to reveal that Merlin had knowingly possessed magic, yet had left her in the dark to face her fears alone, would be a harsh and unforgivable blow to her pride and heart. There was a chance that the potential for an ally to stand shoulder to shoulder with would override the feeling of betrayal and anger, but Arthur was suddenly not willing to take that chance. Not yet.
The prince tightened up on the reins, standing up slightly in his saddle as his mare obediently slowed their mad pace, although she shook her head and jiggled at the bit, asking for permission to run again as Merlin thundered up on his bay gelding. He laughed, running a soothing hand down her neck. “Save your energy for the run back, my pretty jewel.”
Merlin snorted, a bit breathlessly, his eyes bright and his hair tousled by the wind. “You two are a right pair. Spoiled as a pampered princess, that one. Only fitting that you named her Amira. Who would’ve guessed that the high and mighty Prince of Camelot would be so doting over a horse?”
The hand that had been stroking Amira’s neck swung out and neatly clipped the back of Merlin’s head. “Shut up, Merlin. Amira’s saved my life more than once; what have you done besides cower behind trees and under bushes at the first hint of danger?” Arthur goaded deliberately, watching the other man’s lips tighten and his eyes flash, but he said nothing, only nudged his horse a bit harder than usual to move ahead of the prince.
He didn’t see Arthur’s shoulders slump slightly as he squeezed his eyes shut for a brief moment before following in the servant’s wake. A part of the prince wanted to continue poking and prodding and goading until the other man confessed, wanted to have the shroud of secrets and magic and half-truths hanging over their friendship dissipate once and for all. His eyes narrowed slightly, as anger began a slow burn in his veins.
“Well, Merlin? You’ve claimed that you have saved my life multiple times, yet you’ve never exactly elaborated on when or how. Now’s your chance. Tell me all about the times you saved me.” Arthur taunted, pulling his mare up in front of Merlin so that he had to stop and face the prince. “After all, we’ve been through some adventures, you and I. And yet somehow, you always manage to come through them relatively unscathed, which is impossible—unless you’re a sorcerer.”
Merlin froze as the word breached the air between them. Arthur held his own breath, waiting, hoping, dreading…