by Liss Webster
When Gwen sees Arthur in the chapel, her instinct is to back away, because ever since the horrible awkwardness of Lancelot, the intimacy that had grown between her and Arthur seemed to have utterly evaporated, and now they are merely prince and servant. But – of course! – while backing away she knocks a gold salver to the floor, and Arthur jerks round at the clatter, only relaxing slightly when he sees who it is.
"Guinevere," he says, like he always says, and Gwen thinks 'oh, so you're finally talking to me now, are you?' and that's ridiculous, of course, because events may have pushed them together in the past but she is just a servant, and he may have been attracted to her for a while but she can't expect anything more, it was just that it seemed… Arthur's looking at her, and Gwen gets the feeling he's said something else.
"Morgana wanted a prayer book," she blurts out, grabbing one from the table and crouching down to rescue the salver.
Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Of course she did," he says. "Because Morgana has always been so devout. Were you looking for me?"
He looks cocky and Gwen has to remind herself (not for the first time) that he's a prince and she can't, say, stamp on his foot. Or something. She holds up the book. "Prayer book," she says firmly. And it's true. Mostly. Morgana had asked for something boring to help her sleep, and repetitive Latin seemed as good as anything. "And she'll be wondering where I am," she continues (still firmly – firm, she thinks, is the best way to cope with Prince Arthur).
"Wait," says Arthur, unexpectedly, holding out his hand as if to stop her (and Gwen remembers how he did that once), then letting it drop. He looks away.
"Sire?" she asks, a little tentatively. She is not Arthur's equal, or his confidante. She is not his friend or his advisor, and it is only sometimes, when she is alone and quiet with the memory of how he once looked at her, that she thinks maybe she could be those things.
"You have heard that my father has altered the succession," he says distantly. "Should he die first, the Lady Catrina will become Queen."
"He's wrong," says Gwen immediately, unhesitatingly, unthinkingly, then stops, eyes wide, because contradicting the King is not something that people like her are supposed to do.
"It's not that I…" begins Arthur, then trails off and rubs his hand against the back of his neck, and for a second Gwen thinks he looks like a child, confused that a rug has been pulled from under his feet and not sure how it came to pass. "The succession is his right. It is…a gift." He looks up at Gwen. "Do you understand?" She nods, wordless.
"But it was always mine. To be king of Camelot is something that I have always strived for. Camelot is my home, my duty." He doesn't look at her. "My love."
It's chilly in the chapel, the sun slanting weakly through stained glass windows, and Gwen thinks briefly, 'I remember when Gerald and his sons wrought the iron for that window and filled them with glass,' and 'Camelot is mine too.' Arthur sits, leaning forwards, his arms resting on the seat in front of his, while the sickly sun burnishes the gold of his hair.
"Without it, I'm nothing."
Gwen kneels beside him, a thoughtless gesture done in haste, the prayer book still clutched to her. "That's rubbish," she says, and Arthur turns to her, startled.
"Prince or not, you're still the same man you were! You can still be a good man without titles, Arthur, and the people of Camelot will need the love of more than just their king! Anyway," she continues, matter-of-factly, "I think Merlin thinks there's something odd about Lady Catrina."
Arthur scoffs. "Merlin's an idiot!" He waves a dismissive hand. "He said she was a troll! I mean, I don't like her, but…" He tails off. Gwen looks at him, eyes wide. He looks at her.
"Um," she says.
"Right," says Arthur slowly. "A troll. Do you suppose there's a chance he might actually have been speaking literally?"
"Yes," says Arthur. "Right." He stands up, and looks annoyed. "Honestly, you'd think Merlin might have made more of an effort to tell me! My father's marrying a troll and he just…" He catches Gwen's eye. "I'm sure he did his best," he says, and Gwen nods.
"I'm sure he did," she agrees.
Arthur strides towards the chapel door, and as he reaches it, he pauses, and turns to face her, and the sun falls bright and strong over him, a shower of ruby and emerald, sapphire and gold.
"I've been a self-pitying idiot," he says, and Gwen thinks it's not fair he can say things so bluntly true about himself, because it makes treating him like a spoiled prince so much harder.
"I wouldn't say that," she lies, and Arthur raises an eyebrow.
"You amaze me, Guinevere," he says drily. "I could have sworn you did." He looks down for a second, his hand resting on the end of his sword, then raises his head and pins her with a steady blue gaze. "You are always truthful with me, Guinevere," he says. "And I always appreciate it."
She bobs a curtsey, and he leaves her with jewelled shadows and a prayer book, and a smile on her face that grows wider as he calls back, "Not the part about me snoring like a pig, though!"
She still has the book and the smile as she climbs the steps to Morgana's chamber, and Gwen knows, somehow, however unlikely or impossible it seems, that she and Arthur have a future.