Chapter 1: Introductions
Arthur Pendragon, Assistant Director of the Pendragon Institute, swung through the door of his office and strode down the hall towards the staff lounge. As he walked he took note of a label that was not quite straight, on the wall by the fifteenth-century tapestry it described, and made a mental note to say something to one of the technicians.
Before reaching the door marked "Staff Only" he passed several museum visitors and was conscious of the glances they cast in his direction. He was used to it. Casually but stylishly dressed from his Brooks Brothers shirt to his Italian loafers, his blond hair simply but impeccably cut, his undeniably handsome face lightly tanned, Arthur drew the eye. Even on weekends, clad in baggy sweat pants and a t-shirt, he often found himself on the receiving end of avid female stares--and a wealth of male stares as well.
Most of the senior staff were already assembled in the lounge, yawning as they poured out cups of morning tea or jammed crumpets and slices of bread into the toaster oven. Lance, the armor and weapons specialist, was holding forth on the subject of helmets to anyone who would listen, and Arthur's stepsister Morgana, senior curator, was sitting on the sofa glaring at her buttered toast. Gwen from Textile and Tapestry Conservation was rummaging in the mini-fridge with the air of someone who knew that what she was looking for wasn't there.
"Arthur," she said in greeting as he walked through the door. "Welcome back--how was London?"
"Damp," he replied, gratefully accepting the cup of tea she handed to him. "Did I miss anything? I was only away two weeks."
The Pendragon Institute, a museum devoted to medieval and Renaissance art, had been founded in New York City by Uther Pendragon, Senior (deceased), only a few blocks away from the monumental structure that was the Metropolitan Museum. The billionaire British expatriate, a devotee of medieval manuscript illumination, had staffed the Institute with European scholars and (in the jolly spirit of nepotism) family members, a tradition that continued into the twenty-first century. Uther Junior, Arthur's father, was the current Director, shuttling back and forth between New York and London. His stepdaughter Morgana LeFay, an Oxford-educated art historian, was senior curator. And although at least fifty percent of the Institute's employees were now American, most senior staff members--including Gwen and Lance--belonged to what Morgana liked to call The Motley Crew of Expat Brits.
"You didn't miss much," Gwen said cheerfully, handing over a plate of toast. "Just your dad's senior staff meeting. We're considering bidding on a thirteenth-century sculpture at auction in September. Oh, and the new conservator's arrived. You know, the one Uther interviewed last month. He introduced him at the meeting."
"Yeah," Lance murmured from the other end of the sofa. "A real prize, this one is. Read medieval art history at Cambridge. Conservation degrees from the Courtauld Institute. He's the only person I've met who's qualified to work in both Objects Conservation and Paper Conservation--one of my mates at the Victoria and Albert says everyone knows he's got magic in his fingers."
"That's why we courted him, Lance," Morgana said patiently. "The Metropolitan Museum wanted him too."
"We offered more money," she added smugly, tossing the remnants of her toast into the rubbish can.
"I'd forgotten he was coming," muttered Arthur, rubbing his eyes and silently cursing his jet lag. "I didn't have anything to do with that job appointment. Too busy with fund raising."
"Will's known him for years," Gwen called from the depths of the supply closet, where she had unearthed a tin of biscuits. "I think they were childhood friends."
"Great," said Arthur, yawning hugely. "I'll go downstairs and meet him later. Why isn't he here, anyway?"
"He's a bit shy," Morgana murmered. "Or maybe it's your reputation that's frightened him off."
Arthur looked highly affronted but everyone else smirked. The Assistant Director was notorious for his amorous exploits, most of which involved other members of the international museum community. Even in New York, where Arthur spent at least half of his time, there were scholars, curators, conservation experts, and installation technicians--most of them women but a number of them men--who turned bright red at the memories evoked whenever his name was mentioned.
He was also well known for his good-natured but very thorough bullying of junior staff, something Morgana had taken him to task over any number of times. However it was not to this tendency that Morgana had been referring.
"Oh come off it, Morgs," he said under his breath to his stepsister. "You know I never lay a hand on anyone at the Institute. It's bad policy--why ask for trouble?"
"Well you'll certainly keep your paws off this one if you know what's good for you," she replied snappishly. "He's adorable, but we practically had to fight a war to get him, and if anything goes wrong here he can always go skipping off to the Met, or the Pierpont Morgan, or back to London--I hear the National Gallery made him an offer. Gaius thinks the world of him, by the way," she concluded, nodding at the elderly, silver-haired Head of the Conservation Department who had just made his appearance, a mug of jet-black, noxious looking coffee in hand.
"I don't know why everyone thinks I'm so oversexed," Arthur complained in a whisper as he stood up to leave. "I'll introduce myself to this boy wonder--Emrys, isn't it?--before lunch. And before I forget, aren't we due for a check of the alarm system?"
Less than two hours later, Arthur left his office once more, this time heading for the stairs to the basement, where two Conservation workrooms--one for Objects Conservation, the other for Paper Conservation--were located. (Textile Conservation was on the top floor.) Gaius, who was Head of the Conservation Department, oversaw the work in all three areas, but he himself was a paper conservator and spent much of his time in the adjoining makeshift "lab," stirring up nasty-smelling pots of animal glue, synthetic adhesives, or other concoctions no one wanted to go near.
As he headed down the steps, Arthur tried to remember what he had been told about the new conservation specialist.
"He's a dear," Gwen had said earlier in the staff lounge. "And don't you go frightening him, he's just a kid."
She had nudged him in the ribs with her elbow as she spoke, and they both laughed. They had been to school together, had enjoyed a brief, passionate fling at university, and then, amazingly enough, had settled into a comfortable platonic friendship. To Arthur she was like the sister he had always wanted but never had. Wait...ooops! He had Morgana, didn't he? But she was a stepsister, and their relationship, while genuinely affectionate, was complicated by their intense rivalry and Morgana's notoriously high-handed temper.
The Paper Conservation workroom was all white and as spotless as a laboratory. Lights could be carefully regulated, and were UV filtered to prevent damage to the art. Gaius wasn't in; and the sole occupant was perched on a stool at one of the long worktables, bent over what appeared to be a single page of manuscript. He didn't raise his head as Arthur came in, so the Assistant Director walked silently over to the table and took a close look at him.
The new conservator was very young. He looked younger than his age, which Arthur vaguely remembered to be twenty-four. A university baby-genius, then, because nobody ever landed a job like this until they were approaching thirty at the least. He was slender to the point of thinness, with black hair cut in a style reminiscent of the early Beatles or a Vulcan from Star Trek, a pale ivory complexion, and well-shaped, long-fingered hands that were just then fiddling with a fine-tipped rabbit's fur brush. A pair of horn rimmed glasses was perched on his nose, and his mouth--full lipped and pink, Arthur noticed--was set in a scowl.
Arthur came a little closer and his shadow fell over the object of the conservator's scrutiny.
"You're in my light," the young conservator said abruptly without taking his eyes off his work.
Arthur cleared his throat.
The young man glanced up and his scowl vanished.
"Sorry," he said in an apologetic tone. "I thought you were Will...he's calling for me at noon. May I help you?"
He removed the horn rimmed spectacles and his eyes, a very clear and limpid blue, met Arthur's. For a split second the Assistant Director found himself at a loss for words, before he cleared his throat a second time and gave what he referred to as his official welcoming smile.
"Arthur Pendragon, Assistant Director," he said cordially. "It's good to meet you; I missed the formal introductions at the last staff meeting, I'm afraid. I was in London."
The young man nodded politely but did not smile. "Merlin Emrys," he said coolly. Arthur noted the pleasing tenor register of the conservator's voice, the touch of Northern Irish accent, and the nervousness with which he was now gripping the brush in his left hand.
"I hope you've found the place to your liking," he murmured, gesturing around the room. Merlin Emrys nodded again but said nothing, and Arthur began to wonder whether he was indeed shy or simply ill-mannered.
"Well, let me know if there's anything you need," he said finally. "I know the storage rooms are a bit of a labyrinth. When I first came here, a friend took great pleasure in misdirecting me and I got lost on the way to the ceramics room."
A corner of the conservator's mouth twitched, as though he had been about to smile and then thought better of it. "I'd never have a friend who'd be such an ass."
Arthur snorted because the "friend" in question had been Morgana, but he did not enlighten the new member of staff.
"I suppose they've all told you I'm an ogre," he said stiffly, gesturing in the general direction of upstairs. "But I'm not, really, and if you have a problem of any sort you can come to me about it."
It was then that he realized that the young man's eyes were dancing with mischief.
"I've heard it said that you're a rough, tough, save-the-world kind of man," Merlin Emrys replied, and this time Arthur could see that he was stifling a grin. "But your staff seem to like you."
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"Dr LeFay said I could tell you that contrary to appearances, you're actually quite good at what you do."
Arthur was torn between the desire to strangle Morgana or aim a (gentle) blow at one of the young conservator's prominent ears. As he could do neither, he decided that it was time to assert his authority over this impudent pup.
"When you've finished with that thing--" he said sharply, gesturing at the page on the worktable, "there's something I'd like you to look at. We've an early sixteenth-century frontispiece from a Bruges manuscript, colors and gilding on prepared vellum. Some of the pigment's flaking badly and needs to be stabilized."
The conservator met the Assistant Director's sky-blue eyes with a level stare, as if acknowledging a challenge. "That shouldn't be a problem, Mr Pendragon."
This time it was the corner of Arthur's mouth that twitched. "We're pretty much on a first-name basis around here," he said, matching the chilliness of his voice to the conservator's. "So Arthur will do. I'll be seeing you around then, Merlin." He put a drawling emphasis on the first syllable of the name and almost laughed to hear the arrogance in his own voice.
Merlin stood up and, to Arthur's surprise, he smiled as he extended his hand. The smile lit up his narrow, boyish face, calling attention to elegantly sculpted high cheekbones. Arthur took the proffered hand and shook it. The young man's grip was firm, his hand warm and dry, and Arthur was shocked at the sudden spark of sexual interest he experienced at the touch.
As he made his exit he nearly bumped into Will from Objects Conservation, who was just coming in.
Will passed the Assistant Director with a politely neutral half-smile, but when Arthur vanished through the door, he turned and stuck out his tongue like a disapproving four-year-old.
"What was he doing here?"
"Erm, wanted to talk about some project or another he needs done. And introduced himself; I hadn't met him before."
"So they've got you skivvying for the prince, then."
"Arthur bloody Pendragon. Uther's little boy."
"Oh...right. It didn't register...I've been slaving over this text-on-parchment all morning...not too alert to anything else," Merlin mumbled, tapping the side of his head with a fist. "I could use a cup of tea, or better yet, an espresso."
Will was still staring at the space Arthur had occupied a moment earlier.
"Bloody predator," he muttered.
"Oh, he's famous for it," Will said scathingly under his breath.
Merlin gave him a look of utter confusion.
"Well, it's almost lunch hour, isn't it?" Will said in a more cheerful voice, pointing at the door. "Come on then, we can go to the local Starbucks and I'll fill you in about his highness on the way."