A/N: SUPER sorry for the delay. I've had this spinning around in my mind for a while, but I never quite found the words to say it, and then, of course, testing had to steal my attention. But here we are. It wasn't my intention to write this much, but I think it was only fair to have a long update after all this waiting. Plus, the story demanded this much detail. I hope you enjoy it since I'm really proud of how it turned out.

Big shout-out to my Beta, FlyingSilverDreams, who is graduating this Saturday! I'm so grateful for everything you do, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for you. Best of luck, and please feel free to bother me at any time next year. (Seriously. It's going to be super boring.)

Alright, enough of the personal stuff. On with the show!

Chapter 27

Uther's death was a tragedy. All the lords and ladies across the land mourned his death, migrating to Camelot in a sorrowful pack, ready to offer their condolences to the new king.

Yes, Uther's death left much to discuss, namely the fate of Arthur's reign.

Well . . . everyone but the lords of Cyfle. They were fighting a great war, defending the realm from the most dangerous enemy while the rest of the nobility in the land sat atop their thrones, laughing and getting fat. They didn't have an opening in their funeral schedule for another few months, anyway.

And to think that no one said thank you . . .

For this, and many other reasons buried in court gossip, King Jacob Valentino of Cyfle and King Uther Pendragon despised each other. It all stems from a grievance during the Great War against magic, but the rest of the details remain unclear to all who weren't there to see it.

Because of their dispute, a rumor of King Jacob's reaction spread like wildfire. Per many sources, Jacob laughed for a long time when a squire delivered the message. The merriment was a welcome change in the gloomy battle-worn camp, and his lifted spirits won Cyfle the war.

But all his most trusted advisors would deny this claim until the end of time.

There were reputations to maintain, after all.

Despite their fathers' dispute, Nicholas and Arthur carried a respect for one another, almost calling them friends. For this reason, Nicholas wanted to pay his respects to the new king once they returned to the capitol, but reconstruction kept him away. Duty comes before everything, and Arthur understood that.

However busy he and his father was, Nicholas regretted not going. In their absence, Queen Sophia and her nephew, Duke Carlos, went to pay their respects. The king sent his nephew with the queen to keep him out of the way. Carlos was not known to be a very good leader and an even worse warrior, but to appease his wife's family, Jacob allowed him to take part in the war.

Yes, Carlos had a lot of fun warming up the throne for his father.

Oh, the stories Ronald told of the trip . . .

Negotiations for peace and the honoring of the dead also kept Nicholas away from Arthur's coronation. The prince had a lot of humanitarian work to do, making it his duty to personally oversee the reconstruction and meet with the families of fallen soldiers. Even his father was impressed, a rare occurrence these days.

Finally, after three long months, things settled down in the kingdom. It still wasn't at 100%, but the land was functioning well enough without the royal intervention. The prince was back to training instead of patrolling.

It was Arthur's nameday tourney that finally brought him to Camelot.

Even though he still felt battle weary, Nicholas was excited. So much had changed since he last visited. The only hints to the state of the kingdom came through court gossip, which was always over-inflated. He couldn't wait to see for himself how successful the kingdom was.

The road to Camelot took a fortnight to travel. Ronald, his king's guard and beloved cousin, made the journey entertaining with his extensive pranks. Nicholas almost wished Carlos was here just so he could see what special pranks Ronald had planned. No one hated Carlos more than Ronald as he grew up with him, and he was a disgrace to their side of the family.

Anyone who couldn't take a joke was a disgrace in Ronald's eyes.

The prince often took the night's watch to pursue his number one love: knowledge. The war was more about an application of all the grooming he'd received from his father over the years, but he longed to read about far-off places and the legends associated with them. He was right in the middle of the Enchanted Forest's history.

That one was particularly long, and it was sadly incomplete as well.

An old habit he'd developed since he was a child was to brush up on the history of the place he was visiting. One of the reasons he got away with having his nose in a book was that it made him an excellent diplomat as he was already familiar to the customs of the land. His father may not like it, but he couldn't deny the results.

Camelot was the heart of magic for many years which made its history far more interesting to study than any other kingdom. Uther's reign saw many wars fought in persecuting magical folks, but everyone knew magic still lingered within its shadows. However, this only intensified the magical attacks.

It's no wonder that Arthur was always so tense when the subject came up.

Huh . . . this is interesting. Arthur once had a manservant named Merlin . . .

Nicholas thought back to his years in the kingdom, searching for someone with that name.

Ah, yes. He briefly remembered a young brunette following the young Pendragon. Boy, Arthur really was a prat back then.

What did happen to him? Nicholas remembered how close the two were, despite Arthur ordering the poor boy to do five chores at once. Will he be seeing the servant again, or had something happened to severe the ties permanently?

(~)

Out of all the capitols in the land, Camelot was always Nicholas' favorite. Even at such an early hour, the city was a swirl of life and color, the air filled with sweet scents from the bakery with lively music finishing the scene. It's no wonder the city is the center of trade.

He smiled as they trotted into the city, glancing back at the equally amazed faces of his companions. Despite his longing for fresh food and a warm bed, he stopped to give the rest of his rations to the poor children. He wasn't one to waste food, especially after the war, and he would receive new rations from the castle once he returned, anyway.

Besides, the smile on their faces made the stigma from the nobles worth it.

"Welcome back to Camelot, Prince Nicholas."

He stood and turned, a smile making its way to his face.

"Gaius!" he exclaimed, rushing over to hug the old man. "Always a pleasant sight, old friend."

Gaius lightly patted his back, always surprised at how affectionate the boy was. He stepped back out of courtesy, but he was secretly glad that at least one person was always eager to see him. "Likewise, Your Highness. I look forward to seeing you in the tourney. The king is very excited to beat you as well."

The prince laughed. "Where is that airhead, anyway? Hiding from me already? I haven't even taken my first swing yet."

He walked back to his horse to gather his satchel before his horse and other belongings were whisked away by the servants. His knights had already done the same and were waiting for his command. Nicholas dismissed them, and they went off to the tavern with a warning to keep Ronald from gambling all his money away.

"Attending to business, I'm afraid. He's making sure all the preparations are underway for the tournament tomorrow," Gaius explained, leading the prince inside.

"Life of a king. It sounds more difficult than one would expect. How is he holding up?"

"As well as can be expected, I suppose. He is a young king, after all. He missed you at the ceremonies," Gaius shrugged.

"I really wanted to come, especially for the coronation, but duty calls. I am impressed though. He hasn't run the kingdom to ruin yet, so that's a start," the prince replied, greeting a few nobles on the way.

Gaius laughed, "If you say so, Your Highness." He stopped in front of a large oak door.

"Here is your room. The feast will begin at sundown. If you need anything, your servant, Meep, will help you."

A scrawny young boy stepped forward, bowing respectfully.

"I'll leave you to it. I'll be in the usual place if you need me," Gaius said, bowing before making his leave.

"So, your name is Meep? What an unusual name . . ."

"Yes, m'lord. My mother did not favor me," the boy replied, squirming under his gaze.

Nicholas laughed before clasping the boy on the back. "Relax, Meep. I'm not some ruthless lord who will make you run across town for the exactly right shade of red on the curtains. Now, shall we?"

(~)

After a long rest and a large dent into the "welcome basket" on his desk, Nicholas finally made his way to the feast. Normally, he would have sneaked to the yard for some last-minute training, but he was still weary from the long journey. Besides, his shoulder was acting up again, an old battle wound that never fully healed. Best not to use all his energy beforethe tournament even started.

Unfortunately, he had to wear "normal" clothing which meant no armor. The armor normally made him appear bulkier than he was, and its weight was an added comfort after many months spent at war.

He wore a simple cotton shirt underneath a lovely green silken coat with matching breeches and shiny leather shoes. Gold embroidery decorated the rich fabric, matching the colors of his house. All this was underneath a green cloak with his sigil that billowed as he walked. A simple golden crown with dazzling emeralds to match his eyes completed the outfit, making him the picture of a perfect prince.

He deviated from his path to admire the paintings on the wall, much to Meep's dismay. He knew he was torturing the poor boy by being late, but he couldn't help it. There was so much history on the wall, from great kings of the past to incredible battles woven into the tapestries.

Once he finally made it to the hall, the feast was in full swing with an abundance of laughter and wine. He could easily pick out his friends as Ronald had already reached drunken levels, torturing the poor noble ladies nearby and bullying the snobby men who disapproved.

Nicholas shook his head and stepped into the hall just as his name was announced. He nodded in greeting at the tables he passed by, even offering a smile to ones containing some of the most entertaining folk. He stopped in front of the head table, bowing before the king.

"Always a pleasure, Prince Nicholas," Arthur greeted just as the feast returned to its previous rowdiness.

"Likewise, Your Majesty. Ready to be beaten tomorrow?"

Arthur laughed, "I should ask the same of you."

The two exchanged similar pleasantries, catching up as much as they could in the presence of others.

"Please excuse me, Arthur. I better go check on Ronald before he gets anymore drunk."

Arthur laughed once again. "That would be for the best. We should meet again after the feast. We have much to discuss."

Nicholas excused himself from the table and made his way over to his friends. His glare was enough to make Ronald straighten up, and his king's guard gestured to the seat next to him.

(~)

The rest of the feast went smoothly, everyone getting progressively drunker and fatter. The prince almost felt sorry for Camelot's treasury as the amount consumed was unimaginable.

A pair of latecomers interrupted the festive atmosphere, a couple of such noble rank as to warrant an official announcement.

What was more surprising was that the announcement came from the king himself.

"Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, the last Starling has been missing for many years. I am happy to announce that the Starling family lives on, and we have him in our attendance for the tournament. Please welcome, Lord Richard Starling and his wife, Lady Katherine."

Whispers mingled with the thunderous applause, court gossip already making its way around. From what he could gather, Lord Starling made quite a scene in the training yard, denying his identity as he was "escorted" inside.

He heard quite a lot of opinions about his wife as well. Some turned their nose at the woman, stating that she was not from any noble blood as far as they were concerned. Others . . . had far more vulgar opinions enough to make Nicholas' skin crawl.

He studied the woman as she walked by, trying to guess her story from the one look. She was beautiful; there was no denying that. If she wasn't a noble, she sure carried herself like one. Her eyes mystified him, alternating between shades of green and brown.

He sensed that out of the two, she was the braver one. She kept her lord husband in line, yet there was something else there. A deep attraction between the two. Probably a hidden reason as to their coupling.

There was something else about her that baffled the prince. She seemed . . . familiar. He couldn't really explain it. He's never seen her before today, yet he feels as if he's always known her.

As if he was meant to know her.

Nicholas shook himself out of it, sensing that the woman was uncomfortable already with all the stares in their direction. As honored guests, they sat at the head table with Arthur.

He watched the interaction between the king and the couple, trying to gauge their personalities. Lord Starling was obviously the joker among the two, making even Arthur turn red with merriment.

It seemed that the king, too, shared similar thoughts to the noblemen of the court as he seemed to take a particular liking to Lady Katherine. Granted, Arthur valued loyalty above all else, so he would never act on his feelings, but Nicholas would definitely tease his friend about it later.

(~)

"For heaven's sake, Ronald! Stop fighting me!"

The prince was trying, unsuccessfully, to get the very drunk and very heavy knight back to the tavern (words that did not make any sense in any land). It seems the Starlings passed the torch to Cyfle as the defiant man made quite a scene. All the nobles glared at them, whispering amongst themselves to begin the twisting of the court grapevine. Nicholas gulped and attempted to maintain his princely decorum, hoping for a better ending than . . .

Uther's Last Nameday.

His father was still receiving complaints for Ronald's behavior, and each complaint added another layer to the already complicated story.

If it wasn't the drinking, it was the gambling, and that day, Ronald overindulged in both.

But that was a story for another time.

It was also generally frowned upon for a prince of all people to walk around the town during the evening hours, but he was a slight exception. Ronald was family, after all, no matter if they weren't bound by blood.

He was still King Octavius' son, sharing his name and even a small claim to the throne.

So, it was only fitting that Nicholas escort his cousin.

Or rather, drag his cousin.

"But Nicky, I want to hang around the beautiful lady . . . I think she has a crush on me . . ." he slurred, ending in a giggle. (And yes, he even slurred the emphasis on "beautiful.")

He winced, recalling the scolding he just received. Out of all the women in attendance that night, Ronald happened to fancy the riskiest one: the daughter of Cyfle's rebellious northern warden. The two balanced on a very thin layer of peace, and this little endeavor could cost Cyfle another war.

Thankfully, Nicholas was quick-witted, sweettalking the thunderous Duke to not demand satisfaction for this offense. A simple case of ale from the royal stash seemed to do the trick. Whether the Duke wanted to admit it, he and Ronald had a lot in common.

"Tomorrow. Let's sober you up, shall we? I promised to bring you back in one piece."

(~)

After a great effort, Nicholas left the tavern. The wine slowly took hold of his friend until he was nothing more than a snoring and farting mess, a sweet, drunken angel.

Cyfle's Head of the King's Guard and second-best swordsman, ladies and gentlemen.

The nobles grew bored of the show and retired to their beds long ago, leaving the streets empty save for a few patrols. The prince quickened his pace, an eerie feeling escorting him the entire way. In his haste, he didn't notice the figure rushing down the stairs.

Armor clattered to the ground, the helmet falling at his feet with the shield close behind. The rest fell on the other person, who was groaning in either pain or frustration.

"I am so sorry, Sir. Here let me . . . Meep? Is that you?"

The young boy quickly stood, wincing as the remaining armor fell to the floor. "My apologies, m'lord. I should've seen where I was goin'." He continued pleading for forgiveness until he realized Nick wasn't paying attention.

"Nonsense, Meep. It is my fault. Is this my armor?" he asked, gathering it into one pile.

"Yes, m'lord. I wanted to make sure it was ready for the tournament . . . It's all ruined now. Allow me to—"

"Go to bed. You're no use to me half-asleep in the morning. That's an order."

The boy silently took the armor from him and bowed respectfully before heading back inside.

Nicholas smiled and shook his head. He remembered his many years as a squire under his uncle and the long hours making sure everything was up to standard. His princely status didn't matter in his uncle's court; he was treated with the respect he deserved. A royal tradition that he both loathed and respected.

Another figure darted down the steps but on the opposite end. Nicholas was ready to scold the boy again until he caught a glimpse of his cloak.

Blue.

Not a Starling blue. More on the gray side.

And he was tall with a large build.

Almost as if he were a knight . . .

The noble thing to do would be to head inside and pretend he saw nothing. Despite their holier-than-thou appearance, not all nobles followed the moral code, often dabbling in the sinful arts while the rest slept.

But he didn't think this particular figure was sneaking off to try his luck in the tavern.

So, he followed him.

Later, he would claim it was a concern for the safety of the guests or thinking it was Ronald sleepwalking again. He would say he saw nothing and retired to his room, exhausted from his long travels. He could have hallucinated.

But not even he could make up what he saw that night.

The figure journeyed further into the town, the contrast between the lavish castle increasing the more they went into the lower town. He entered a small house, the blacksmith's from the looks of things.

If Nick could remember correctly, the blacksmith died many years ago. Actually, he was executed. By King Uther on charges of treason. Something about conspiring with a sorcerer specializing in alchemy.

But that wasn't the end of the shop. He had two children, a boy who became a knight of Camelot. Elyan was his name. And a daughter named—

"You're late."

Nicholas flinched, ducking out of sight until he realized the voice came from inside the house. He slowly made his way to a window, pealing back the makeshift curtain to get a glimpse of the inside.

"My apologies. I got caught into one of the Count's stories again. It was difficult to get away."

Arthur?

Nick's eyes widened, and he stepped closer to get a better look. The room looked untouched for the most part, dust and cobwebs beginning to coat the room. It was simplistic but clearly a woman's home. The path to the door remained clean, dusty footprints almost visible in the dim light.

And the grand source of light? A clearly new addition to the room: a beautiful mirror proudly displayed on the wall.

Except it wasn't Arthur's face in the reflection.

Nicholas instantly felt cold, a wave of evil washing over him. He knew who this was. There are many legends in the books about him, how he changed his face, the immense power he held. No one more famous than the current face, the great—

"Tsk, tsk. I expected more from you, Dearie. This connection is weak, and I haven't got much time."

"Right. Let's get down to business. Now, did you do as you promised? Is he really here?"

The prince inched out of sight, fearing they were talking about him.

"But of course! I always hold up my end of the bargain. Now, you have to do yours."

"Why can't I know what he looks like? And why do I have to babysit the writer and his—"

"So many questions! Where's the fun in knowing all the answers? Be patient, King Arthur. You will get your revenge, I guarantee it. Just do this one small, teensy favor for me…"

Sensing the conversation was reaching its end, Nicholas took that as his cue. He crept away from the blacksmith's shop, doing his best to remain quiet and unseen. Once he reached a pillar separating the city in two, he ran as fast as he could, climbing up the stairs of the castle before stopping to catch his breath once he was inside the doors.

(~)

The walk back to his room was a blur, millions of thoughts racing through his head. He perked up to greet anyone who passed by him, playing the part of the prince before returning to his trance.

Once he reached his room, he carefully locked the door, checking multiple times to make sure it was secured.

He pulled off his cloak, nearly tearing the fabric at the clasp before tossing the garment aside. He continued to undress until there was nothing left on but his breeches, his golden crown the last to fall with a loud clang.

He breathed heavily, beads of sweat coursing their way down his face as he leaned over a basin of water.

Breathe. Focus on catching your breath, and your mind will return to you.

After a long while, Nicholas moved again, splashing water on his face. The cool liquid awakened his senses, pulling him from his trance back to reality.

He began pacing the room, beads of water dripping onto the floor. He took it one step at a time, sorting his thoughts into chronological order.

Arthur Pendragon. King of Camelot. The Once and Future King. One of the Greatest Warriors in all the Realm. His friend.

And a traitor.

He couldn't believe it. The man who pledged life and limb to his people so readily betrayed that trust for some ill-conceived quest for revenge.

Who was so important that the Great Arthur would betray his vows for?

It can't be . . . her . . . since no one's seen a trace of her in years. Besides, Arthur specifically said "he."

And what did the Dark One mean when he requested Arthur to "babysit"? Obviously, Lord and Lady Starling are involved, but what could he want with them? They seemed completely harmless so far, but everyone seems that way until proven otherwise.

Nicholas crashed onto the bed, sinking into the warm, soft crimson sheets. A small thump brought him out of his thoughts again, and he reached over, pulling his bag onto the bed.

His bag . . .

The message!

He shuffled through it frantically, calming once again when he found it.

It felt heavier in his hands as he continued to stare at it, fiddling with the latch on the box.

He was supposed to honor his father's wishes and deliver the message to the king of Camelot. He was supposed to do his job as a diplomat and negotiate the terms of the deal. That was his main goal with this visit.

But he couldn't bring himself to trust Arthur.

He reached for the quill on the table and some parchment in his bag, scribbling a quick letter to his father. He will send one of his guards back to Cyfle before dawn to deliver it.

He needed to stay in Camelot, tournament or no tournament. There was something evil lurking in the city, and he didn't like how it was taking control of the king.

Tomorrow, he will revisit the histories of Camelot and the Enchanted Forest. He needed to find out the identity of Arthur's nemesis and the origins of the Starling pair. Most importantly, he needed to find out just what the Dark One was planning to do with them before it was too late.

But first, he had a tournament to win and an image to protect.

No matter the cost, he must keep his cover.

Even if it means losing a dear friend.