Title: Diplomatic immunity
Warnings: not fluffy. AU
Time period: 4 years after Season 1, episode 12. Episode 13 did not happen.
Spoilers: none other than Season 1
Summary: Merlin has come to Camelot to act as an envoy between the magic users and the new High King, Arthur Pendragon. Four years ago, Nimueh had twisted the truth, making Arthur think Merlin was in league with her. That Arthur is unhappy to see him again is an understatement.
Notes: Sequel to "Conversations with a sorceress"
Disclaimer: Merlin and the characters do not belong to me. They are the property of Shine and BBC. This is not for profit.
The castle hadn't changed much, at least from a distance. Framed in green-leafed glory, gleaming in the bright summer air, its white limestone walls were a luminous mixture of carved turrets and curved lines, of soaring walls and sparkling roofs. Even the red flags whipping lightly in the wind added a touch of vivid color to the scene.
It looked beautiful, an example of all that was good and just in the world.
Sad how easily appearances could deceive.
His throat rough with longing, Merlin stood there, looking at the bitter remnants of boyish dreams. Remembered the first time he'd seen the castle all those years ago, his hopes high that Camelot would be the place where he could finally fit in. Remembered picnics and hunts in these woods with friends and amused knights trailing the prince, remembered Arthur's sarcastic digs at Merlin's clumsy efforts at manservanting. Remembered giving back jest for jest and laughing together, warmth and acceptance in the mocking words and traded insults.
Remembered the last time he'd seen Arthur. The look of betrayal in his eyes, the way Arthur's friendship had turned into hatred so easily. The way the sword dipped toward Merlin's head and the absolute certainty that Arthur would have killed him if Nimueh hadn't interfered.
Remembered how one word could change everything.
Even after four years, a thousand lifetimes past, it still hurt to know how much Arthur could despise him for what he was, for what he could not change. Sorcerer or clumsy idiot, he was still Merlin.
But it hadn't been enough.
He stood there, staring out into the distance, half-lost in memories. By the time his horse had grown impatient for more than just grass and started to push at him with a soft nose, the light was mostly gone, Camelot already shadowed. Above his head, there was a shiver of leaves in the evening wind.
Merlin adjusted his cloak and pulled himself up into the saddle, nudged his horse down the slope toward the castle.
The past was the past. It was time to push aside what had gone on before and focus on his mission. And try not to grieve for what could not be.
Deceptive, how distance could mask the color of soot and the smell of death.
The guards hadn't stopped his approach. Merlin supposed the rich clothes he wore and the glint of gold at his wrists and throat gave them the mistaken idea that he was nobility, a misstep on their part that he wasn't willing to correct. They certainly didn't recognize the bumbling manservant of four years ago.
Merlin had a moment of pity for them. Arthur would not be pleased that he could get past his security forces so easily and they would likely be punished in some way. In the past, in times of peace, they might have been fined or put in the stocks, or if the king had been in a foul mood, flogged but never more than that.
Now, he wasn't so sure. More recent tales of Uther's ruthlessness had reached even the Isle of the Blessed and his son was often seen standing beside him. It would seem that Arthur had changed in the years since Merlin had last talked with him and not for the better.
But it was no matter. Besides, the guards would not have stood against him anyway. His powers had grown stronger and now it was unbearably easy to confuse people into forgetfulness. Even the great Arthur Pendragon himself would not have stood against him – if Merlin so wished it.
Of course, that kind of magic had consequences and he preferred to stay away from the darker arts. Better to use persuasion to get what he wanted. It tended to last longer, too.
He just hoped that Arthur would accept the situation. The thought of using magic against him – well, it did not bear thinking, not even after all these years.
The courtyard was deserted when he arrived. There was a hint of ash in the air and the lingering odour of charred meat; in the far corner the decaying remnants of a burnt pyre, a few days old, was a soiled stain on the cobblestones. High above, the strains of music and forced laughter echoed, sweeping down through the balustrades and curved arches, over walls once beautiful but now fouled with soot. There was lute song and the lilt of flutes coming from an open window but under it all, Merlin could still hear the silent screams of the murdered dead and pleas for a mercy that would never come.
He shook himself free of it. He needed to focus on his mission and he could not change the past, only the future – he hoped.
Apparently, the coronation feast was still going on. Merlin nodded to himself. It would make things that much easier. Arthur, or rather newly crowned King Arthur, would have royal guests and emissaries from lands near and far. One more would not be noticed.
He slipped easily into the crowd. Courtiers and lesser kings, ladies and fools, were all dressed in the colors of their station, peacocks in the candlelight, a bright cacophony of color. There were armored knights milling about, too, and guards, suspiciously relaxed, but with eyes roving the crowd for potential threats.
Merlin ignored them all. He had eyes for one man and one man only.
At the far end of the room, Arthur Pendragon, newly made High King of Camelot, was sitting alone on a resplendent throne of gold and intricately embroidered red velvet. He, too, was clothed in red, the lines of his outfit chased in bullion and garnets, a cloak lined in white fur tossed carelessly aside. He wore the official crown of Camelot and it looked heavy and uncomfortable but Arthur didn't seem to be aware of the burden. Indeed, he sat there, listening with a slight frown to a well-dressed noble whispering into his ear.
In the four years since he'd last seen Arthur, he'd dreamed of this moment, of welcome arms and apologies. Of acceptance and the rekindling of friendship. But as he looked closer at the man who had once been his destiny, he hardly recognized him.
Still golden-haired, still broad-shouldered and strikingly handsome, there was a hardness about his mouth and in the lines on his face. His eyes were hooded but, even as he appeared to be nodding to some story, he scanned the crowd constantly, searching. He looked dangerous, a wolf. No young bully looking for easy prey but an unyielding warrior king.
Merlin's heart was beating hard and fast and for a moment, he couldn't breathe. This was so much more difficult than he'd imagined. They should have sent someone else, Nimueh maybe or perhaps someone Arthur didn't know, Taliesin or one of the Druids. This wasn't going to work. There was too much between them, too much history, too many memories, too much…
With the beginnings of misery, he turned away, tears pricking his eyes, and looked to find a way to leave before he was noticed.
But one part of his life had not changed; he'd often thought that the gods were mocking him - balancing his enormous power with a gift of two left feet. Clumsy clod that he was, he tripped slightly, straight into the arms of Arthur's old manservant, Morris.
The other man started to bow, mumbling something about being sorry and forgiving his clumsiness and to please not tell his master. But as he was going through the litany of apologies, Morris glanced up, blanching when he recognized him. "Merlin?"
There was nothing to do but nod. The gods were indeed having a good laugh at his expense. Morris had always been grateful to Merlin for his actions that day in Camelot when he'd rescued the man from Arthur's torment; they'd struck up a friendship then and there, and over the year or so Merlin had been in service, they'd often compare notes, having good laughs about the nobility and their peculiar ways. So of course, he'd stumble over one of the few people left in Camelot who would recognize him.
Keeping his back to Arthur, he said softly, "Yes, I've returned to court."
Morris sent another glance toward the knot of hangers-on around the king and leaned in, began brushing at Merlin's tunics, looking for all the world as if he were cleaning off something he'd spilled. "You have to leave before he realizes you're here. Said that if you ever set foot in Camelot, you would be executed. That you were a traitor." He looked anxious, almost distraught. "It's too dangerous."
"Don't worry." Catching Morris's hand, he sent him a reassuring smile and then let him go. "Arthur won't hurt me. He can't."
The manservant only grew more agitated. "He changed after you left. He's not the same man. He's…"
"Morris, it will be all right. Trust me." Merlin clapped one hand on his shoulder, trying to calm the man down. "I want to thank you for being my friend while I was here. It made things a lot easier."
"It made things a lot harder when you left." Morris sent a furtive glance toward Arthur. "He interrogated anyone who had befriended you. Started arguing a lot with the knights. He had a huge fight with the Lady Morgana and she left. Gwen, too. Even the court physician, Gaius, left after a few months. Claimed he was retiring but I didn't believe him. Something wasn't right." He shook his head, puzzled. "What happened? Why did you leave?"
"Not my choice." Merlin shuddered at the memory of Arthur's eyes, so cold, so betrayed, so filled with rage that he was willing to kill without a single thought. He pushed aside the horror of it, trying to find some measure of calm. He'd need it soon enough. "It was never really my choice to leave."
"Well, you…" Morris stopped suddenly, bowing again as he hissed out, "He's looking this way. I better go." And he turned, pushing himself through a crowd of people and out the side door before Merlin could thank him.
He'd forgotten what it was like to be a servant and dependent on the will of your master. Not that he would have let Arthur get away with it. But there was something in Morris's voice that didn't sit well with him, nagged at him, filled him with unease. At least now, the courage that had brought him here returned in full measure.
Now it wasn't enough that Merlin had a mission for his people. He wanted to find the man to whom he'd pledged his service all those years ago and bring him back, find the man hidden beneath the wolf's mask: the endearing prat, the jokester, the compassionate prince, his friend, Arthur Pendragon.
He'd managed to avoid Arthur's eyes long enough. Now that the pledges of fealty by the nobles of the realm had been completed - all the pomp and ritual of endless privilege that had once angered Merlin and now just saddened him, the envoys from other nearby kingdoms were beginning to line up, to produce gifts and promises to the new king.
Merlin had seen something similar in the year he'd been with Arthur. Uther Pendragon had kept a strong control over his restless nobles, bringing them to Camelot after the harvest for tax payments and discussion of problems within and outside the kingdom. It was a way of measuring their loyalty and dispersing favors among those who had pleased him over the previous year.
Arthur was merely continuing the tradition.
But now that there was a new king, the diplomats probably saw an opportunity to change treaties, perhaps make new alliances and break old ones. Like strutting peacocks, clad in brilliantly colored tunics and fur, woven gold and vivid jewels glittering in the candlelight, they wove a net around the king, crowding him with requests. Their voices were loud, insistent. As they jostled and pushed their way forward, elbowing into what they must have considered their proper position in the hierarchy of kingdoms, Merlin could only see that Arthur was getting angrier by the moment.
In the days when they were still friends, he'd have been able to find some way to ease Arthur's spirit, make him smile – a clumsy stumble here, a glass of wine spilled down Merlin's shirt there, a quick grin to lighten the moment, even wearing that dreadful hat now and again.
Now he could only do what he must and be an envoy for his people.
In the center of that long, beautiful room, he stood - alone, tall and silent, waiting for Arthur to see him there. His blue cloak pushed back in neat folds, his tunic rich linen, the glint of a gold torc at his neck and bands of chased enamel and gold at his wrists. He'd argued against such finery but Taliesin had reminded him that he was representing them at a court which understood power, even the power of outward appearances. So there he stood, in clothes too rich for Merlin of Ealdor but befitting the emissary for the combined forces of the Druids and sorcerers of the Old Religion.
Their eyes met.
Arthur had been speaking but abruptly he stilled, staring at him with an unreadable expression, ignoring everything and everyone around him. Merlin could feel the weight of that stony regard, taste the beginnings of frost, of lightning in the air. It was the breathless moment before battle.
Merlin wanted so much to hear words of forgiveness and welcome, to see Arthur grinning and calling him an idiot, to know that they'd found each other again. Begged the gods for it. Instead, what he got was fury.
Standing up suddenly, Arthur shoved aside all the hangers-on and diplomatic couriers that had plagued him and looked around wildly for his sword. Finding none but ceremonial trash, he grabbed one of the knight's blades and began striding down toward him, murder in his eyes.
Merlin bowed low, and then straightened. "Your Majesty, King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot, greetings. I have come before you to request an audience to discuss a treaty between your people and mine." Even to his ears, he sounded cool and calm, reciting the practiced words with ease. Unlike Merlin the bumbler, Merlin the inept, Merlin the worst manservant Arthur ever had.
But he might as well have been spouting nonsense for all Arthur paid attention. The king just kept coming, his court scattering out of his way as he shoved past them. His knights were a knot of red cloaks and drawn steel behind him.
By the time Arthur reached him, Merlin was already moving, slowing down time and avoiding Arthur's first swing with ease. When time began flowing again, he was standing off to one side. Watching Arthur twist around, looking for him, the new king frowning as if he wanted to tear him apart, Merlin said carefully, neutrally, "Sire, do you really want to do this in front of the whole court?"
Arthur was in no mood to be reasoned with and he tried again, his sword slicing through the space Merlin's chest would have been had he remained still.
It was easy enough to evade the steel blade. Merlin used time and his gifts to move elsewhere, away from Arthur's ferocious attempts to skewer him. He had hoped to avoid making the king look too much the fool but it was hard. Arthur could be incredibly idiotic when he was this angry.
When Merlin reappeared at the far side of the room, however, the rest of the crowd seemed to fly apart. There were urgent cries and loud panic echoing throughout the room as a chaotic stream of nobility and diplomats and servants began a mad scramble to get away from the fighting.
He really couldn't blame them. Arthur was being irrational, even for him.
Or perhaps they were afraid of Merlin. After all, in the past, sorcerers at the Pendragon court were known for killing innocents or wreaking havoc on Camelot in their lust for revenge and it was understandably worrisome to have one suddenly pop up in the middle of a crowd.
They couldn't know that he was here to change all that – if Arthur would just listen.
Still, watching him swinging a sword around like that was strangely comforting in a very odd, life-threatening sort of way. Merlin had seen him do it often enough when they were together - Arthur trying to protect his people, his kingdom, in the only way he knew how.
But Merlin could not be caught up in the past much as he wanted to, or underestimate him either, if he hoped to keep his head. Arthur was a formidable warrior and very, very dangerous.
It also didn't escape Merlin's notice that the knights were circling the room, trying to come up behind him. Ridiculous, of course. He'd been around court long enough to learn strategies and battle tactics and he'd learned even more from Taliesin and the others at the Isle. Arthur's picked fighting force would have no chance against him in a battle, not anymore. He ignored them and focused on the king.
Backing up carefully, watching as the last of the innocents scurried out the doors, he said, "Arthur, remember Anhora? You weren't able to touch him, much as you tried."
"Shut up!" Arthur had finally stopped swinging that blasted sword around and was glaring fury at him. "Sorcerer."
"Yes, I have magic. We covered that already." He was calm. He was. The way Arthur had said it had been a dagger thrust to his chest and the prat's eyes had flashed grim satisfaction when Merlin flinched at the vehemence in his voice but he would not let the prince get control of the situation. This was too important. "Do you think we might talk?"
"Sorcerers are not to be trusted." Again, Arthur was spouting his father's poison. Merlin had heard it often enough at court and no one had ever dared challenge it, at least in public. Until now.
Trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice and failing miserably, he snapped, "Arthur, even you aren't that thick-headed. Stop being an idiot and talk to me."
"You can't address me like that."
Oh, gods, the echo of past conversations were threatening to gut him. But if he could connect with Arthur even for a moment, there might be some hope for them yet. "Apparently I can. Yes, I know I was always the idiot and you're a prat but just for today, just today, could we both be reasonable?"
Arthur sent him a narrowed glare that was both furious and strangely comforting. At least Arthur lowered his sword.
"I am always reasonable with those who deserve it." Straightening up, his face hardened into stone, his voice turning formal and cold. "However, I don't see why I should listen to a sorcerer whose word cannot be trusted. Someone who lied to me from the very beginning."
"Arthur…." Mouth suddenly dry with regret, Merlin stumbled to a stop. He had heard the ache in Arthur's voice, hidden under hatred's malice, behind the rage and promise of blooded steel.
He swallowed hard, trying to control his emotions before they overwhelmed him again. The sense that he would fail at his mission was almost too much. They should never have sent him, never sent such a useless fool to try and bring magic back to Camelot. He wasn't able to do this, not with Arthur standing there, looking furious and utterly alone.
Merlin wanted to comfort his old friend, not cause him more pain. Sadness and such a wellspring of devotion for this man caught at his throat. Raising his hands in supplication, he begged, "Arthur, please."
For a brief instant, he thought he had gotten through. There was the slightest of softening in Arthur's eyes, a hint of their old warmth. But then his face paled and he stepped back, looking for all the world as if he'd been slapped. Bringing up the sword, holding it steady, he pointed straight at Merlin. "Enough! I am High King. You will not speak to me that way. You have no right."
"I am not your enemy." Merlin said softly, finally.
Arthur sent him a look of pure loathing. "All sorcerers are my enemies. To know the heart of one is to know them all."
So be it. He would drown in grief later.
"Your Majesty, my apologies." Sending a glance back toward the knights now beginning to crowd around him, he drew back, schooled his face into impassivity. "Apparently, I have overstepped my bounds. I humbly ask that you allow me to present a formal request to open discussions for a peace treaty between your people and mine."
Arthur stared at him for a moment, distaste crabbing his mouth, a thunderous frown cutting into his skin. As he lowered the sword, leaning on it as if thinking seriously about Merlin's request, Arthur's gaze shifted away, seemed to focus on the area next to his right boot.
Merlin could not see his face but Arthur's hand clutched the pommel of the sword with white-knuckled tension, the bones and sinews pulled tight and stark in the candlelight.
Silence filled the room. Even the knights were waiting patiently to hear his decision.
A moment later, Arthur raised his head, his face cold stone, looking so like his father that Merlin took a step back, shivering in the sudden chill.
Voice flat and unyielding, the newly-made High King of Camelot, Arthur Pendragon said, "Arrest him. Take him to the dungeons until I decide what to do with him."
Merlin didn't even protest as the guards clustered around him, allowed them to herd him toward the exit. And as they hustled him out the door, he turned for a moment to look back at his old friend.
Arthur was standing there, still as stone, watching him with implacable eyes.