Disclaimer: Nope, still don't own Merlin.
A/N: And now it's time for the newest installment in the Sesquipedalian series... Sorry it's been so long, but I did warn you that new additions to this story would be kind of sporadic. :) I'm currently very busy with work and - I'm really excited about this one - my literature and creative writing graduate program I'm doing right now online, so it's a rare moment I have to write something, but I made time today because this was positively screaming to be written! This was what I randomly chose, and since it's kind of a math term, it was hard to come up with something to go along with it. But I'm quite pleased with what came out of it. I'm kind of a sucker for stories where people underestimate Merlin and then learn that they are sorely mistaken, because, well, it makes for some great H/C. :D Also, I'm not entirely sure of my math skills, even though I do have a math major for a boyfriend, so I was intentionally vague with the tax stuff. Ah well. Ce la vie.
This takes place about mid-season one, so Arthur and Merlin are still learning about each other.
:) Thanks for all the great reviews for that last installment! Hope you enjoy this one just as much! Please review, and enjoy!
Chapter Thirty: Zenzizenzizenzic
The eighth power of a number
Prince Arthur of Camelot was in his chambers, slumped at his dining table and pouring over a sizeable stack of boring parchment papers. The side of his face was cupped in his right hand, propped up by his elbow which was in turn propped on the heavy wood of the table. His light blue eyes skimmed the contents of the documents slowly, and he blinked owlishly as his mind began to wander – again – from his assigned task: he was meant to be reviewing the tax records for his father, who thought it would help to prepare him for when he was king, or some such rot. Arthur hated numbers and sums; he could do sums, but he really had no desire to spend an afternoon – particularly a bright and sunny afternoon such as this – holed away in his dim chambers looking at taxes while the sun taunted him with its warm beams reaching through the open window. A bird was perched on the sill. Arthur thought that it was mocking him with its freedom, so he got up and shooed it away. He found he missed its chipper tune as soon as it flew away, however, and he returned to his workspace feeling even more despondent than before.
He had just pulled his chair out from the table when a thought occurred to him. He hadn't seen his servant since right after lunch, when Arthur had dismissed him to "do whatever great idiots like yourself do this time of day" because Arthur had important matters of state to attend to that Merlin's simple peasant brain simply couldn't comprehend. The dark-haired young servant had looked annoyingly pleased with this order and had scampered off in the direction of the physician's quarters, spouting something about getting caught up on some reading in his spare time. Arthur thought this odd, because he had never thought to ask Merlin if he could read; he had just assumed that because the servant had come from a poor family in an equally poor village, he had been out working the fields all day with no chance to learn how to read. But still, Arthur had let him go without a fuss, because he really had needed to get this work done for his father and having Merlin hovering over his shoulder with his ever-running mouth blathering on about nothing at all would not do him any favors if he wished to finish the tax reports by nightfall.
Now, however, Arthur decided that it would be great fun to fetch Merlin from his day off and drag him back to work, if only to have a bit of company. Otherwise, Arthur feared his brain just might decide to stop working altogether. The impulse to take the pile of parchment and toss it out the window in a blaze of exasperation was already too strong as it was.
So Arthur strode out of his rooms and veered down the hall toward Gaius's chambers, where he knew, more likely than not, the servant would be.
Merlin was shut up in his room when Arthur came to find him, and Gaius, who had been puttering around with several sprigs of green and yellow plants and something that looked suspiciously like a vial of some ungodly substance one might find in a chamber pot, had quickly told the prince that he himself would get Merlin; the boy's room was far too messy to be looked upon by that of a prince such as himself. Arthur's feather's stroked slightly at the praise, he let the matter go, for he really had no desire to see Merlin's rubbish bin of a room.
Merlin emerged from the room a moment later, face falling the tiniest bit when he saw who had come calling.
"Arthur," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"I just came by for a friendly visit," Arthur snapped sarcastically. "Are you well?"
Either Merlin was employing a rather subtle kind of sarcasm in his response to his master, or he really was as thick as he looked. "Actually, I'm quite well; thanks for asking. Will that be all, because I—"
"I've decided that your services are required once more," Arthur announced regally. Merlin's shoulders slumped.
"Already? But it's hardly dinner time, and you said that I could have the afternoon off—"
"And now I'm saying otherwise," Arthur retorted loftily. "I am the prince, you know. I have that power."
"To what, break your promises?" Merlin said a bit waspishly, but Arthur detected a hint of humor in his eyes.
"Merlin!" Gaius chided.
"Come along, Merlin. You can help me with these taxes," Arthur half-joked. "Unless you'd prefer to spend the rest of the evening getting reacquainted with the stocks?"
"It's hardly reacquainting since I was there just yesterday," Merlin replied breezily, and though Arthur pretended to be irritated at Merlin's belligerence, he was really very glad for the distraction as Merlin finally decided to do as he was told and followed him from the room.
Arthur settled back down at the table, his distraction now present and accounted for, and he reached for the stack of papers once more. His fingers bumped into the long, thin fingers of his servant as he did so, however, and he jerked his eyes up to meet Merlin's. "What," he began peevishly, "do you think you are doing, Merlin?"
Merlin blinked. "Um… doing what you asked… for once?"
Arthur almost snorted in laughter at Merlin's little joke but instead frowned reproachfully. "You know I didn't really mean for you to help me review the taxes, Merlin," he drawled, amused, as he grabbed the parchment and shook it out from beneath Merlin's hand. He noticed for the first time that Merlin had sat himself down in a chair on the other side of the table. "Get up, make yourself useful. Clean something."
It was Merlin's turn to frown, it would seem, but Arthur didn't see much amusement in the servant's face. "I can help, Arthur. I'm not as daft as you think I am." He chuckled dryly. "Besides, I straightened up in here this morning. Even you aren't so much of a pig that you mess it up that quickly." The lame attempt at humor was pointedly ignored by Arthur.
"Oh, come off it, will you Merlin?" the prince said, somewhat irritably. He'd wanted the kind of distraction that Merlin usually provided – banter and jokes and rambling that would keep him from going mad from these reports. Not whatever facsimile of his manservant seemed to have manifested in front of him. Merlin was rarely this ill-humored. If Arthur didn't know any better, he might say that Merlin seemed offended, which was stupid, because Merlin took any and every insult thrown his way by the prince and let them slide right off of him. "We both know that your idea of clean is substandard at the best, and even if you can read, we both know taxes and sums are far beyond your abilities. So stop trying to be such a little girl about things and make yourself useful with something you actually can do."
Arthur realized too late that his frustrations with his father and the taxes had perhaps gotten to him a little more than he realized, as true hurt flared in Merlin's eyes for the fraction of a second before something more solidified – was that anger? – took its place. "Merlin," Arthur started to placate, lifting his hands up as if surrendering. "All I meant was—"
He started slightly as Merlin deftly reached over and snatched the tax reports from in front of Arthur and started flipping through them, determination in his eyes as he skimmed the numbers in a manner that was far more focused to anything he was used to with Merlin.
Arthur was too surprised to do anything for the time being, and he was also a little curious to see just what Merlin thought he could do with the pages, so he placed his hands on the table, folded neatly before him and leaned forward slightly in his seat to watch Merlin.
After a moment, Merlin's eyes snapped up to meet Arthur's, a mixture of emotions brewing in a sea of bright blue. He flipped the page he was looking at so that it was facing Arthur and with his finger pointed to a column of sums. "I think you'll find that these housing taxes are doubled nearly four times what they're meant to be, sire," Merlin said choppily. "Either your father has decided to rob the townsfolk blind or someone isn't very good with sums." He stood up. "If that will be all," he said, and it wasn't a question. Just as well, because he didn't seem to be looking for an answer as he spun around and walked out of the door before Arthur had a chance to speak.
Arthur found himself waffling between going after Merlin or giving the figures another run through, but he finally decided that if Merlin was going to get his feelings hurt like a swooning damsel over nothing, that was his business. Scoffing, Arthur slowly turned his gaze back to the parchment, studying the numbers that Merlin had pointed out to him. His eyes widened as he re-examined what he had been so quick to brush off on his first sweep of the numbers. Merlin had been right. The total of taxes his father had written up to impose upon the villagers was far, far greater than it should be. Trying his best to ignore the tiny flicker of guilt trying to make itself known from the corner of his mind, Arthur stood to bring the documents to his father, knowing he had to report this drastic mistake as soon as possible – before the tax collectors had the opportunity to take their business to the lower town.
Arthur stood before his father, who was looking at the page Arthur had just showed to him and smiling.
"Very well done, Arthur," King Uther said warmly. "Well done, indeed."
Arthur's eyebrows drew together in confusion. "Father?"
"I must admit, I was beginning to despair that you were never going to grasp this part of ruling," his father said, "and I was seriously considering placing you with a tutor once more in order to have your knowledge of numbers freshened a bit. But you caught this mistake – small on parchment, perhaps, but devastating when applied to real life – and I believe that my efforts to help you succeed with the financial part of being king have come through. Splendid work, Arthur."
"So… you put the mistake there purposely?" Arthur ventured. "It was a… test?"
"Indeed, son, a test which, I am very pleased to say, you passed."
That guilt was really trying to make itself known now, and Arthur turned away, not at all feeling as pleased with himself as he should have, but turned back to face his father once more. "What would have happened if I hadn't passed, Father?"
"Like I said – I would be re-appointing your old tutors. I know you are dreadfully old for a tutor, but you have to get the sums right, Arthur. This is very important."
Arthur thought about how Master Zekeiah, the man who had been ancient when he had taught Arthur ten years ago, and who was still alive and well, ridiculously old, today, and the way that the man had pounded facts and figures into the prince's head until Arthur thought his mind would snap. He certainly wouldn't have wanted to suffer through that again.
As Arthur slowly left the throne room with his father's misplaced praise echoing in his mind, he veered not for his own chambers but for the west tower that he knew from past searches for a particular wayward servant was where Merlin liked to be best when he wanted to think or get away from something.
Merlin was indeed at the top of the west tower, leaning against the stone and looking out at the vast expanse of the kingdom and its wildest, closest neighbor, the Darkling Woods. Merlin had a sad look on his face, and Arthur was just about to say something to get his attention when he spoke.
"All my life, I've been looked down upon," Merlin said, and his voice didn't sound angry anymore. He just sounded resigned. "I'm the idiot, the klutz, and normally, I don't mind." He laughed a bit bitterly. "But the one time I'm actually asked to do something significant – not that scrubbing your dirty socks isn't terribly important, sire –" (Arthur snorted and even though Arthur could only see Merlin's back from this angle, he had a feeling that his servant was smiling, just a bit.) "—it's only to find out that it was just a joke because Merlin is an idiot and the underworld might just freeze over before he can actually do something intelligent, like sums or reading."
Merlin finally turned to meet his master's gaze and Arthur saw that Merlin was truly not angry anymore. He was hurt, though, and Arthur found that he disliked Merlin feeling hurt almost as much as his being angry. "How was I supposed to know you could so much as count?" Arthur burst out, upset at himself but not accustomed to admitting that he was wrong about something. "You come from a poor peasant village; most commoners don't know how to read or write, let alone do sums."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "You should have known because I told you I could do it, you prat."
"You lie all the time," Arthur shot back easily. "How was I to know that this was to be any different?"
Merlin looked torn between continuing to make his point and engaging once more in the banter that master and servant had long since adopted as norm. Finally, he said, in a much lighter tone, "I have never lied to you a day in my life!"
Arthur grinned and argued, "What about that time you told me that you were a sorcerer so that Guinevere wouldn't be arrested? That was a rather big lie."
For the tiniest second, Merlin seemed to stiffen, but then he shrugged and said, "I believe you'll find that friendship is a foreign concept to you, Arthur. Friends often take drastic measures to help one another. Even lie on occasion."
Arthur hummed slightly, then turned back to Merlin, serious. "Merlin, I… Well, I…"
"All's forgiven, turnip brain," Merlin acknowledged Arthur's pathetic excuse for an apology.
"Yes, well, that was a rather dismal error in the tax reports. If the castle idiot could have spotted it, what does that say about you?"
"I was tired," Arthur said. "Distracted." Merlin didn't look impressed. "The sun was in my eyes."
"You were sitting with your back to the sun."
"That doesn't make the sun any less brighter, Merlin."
"Yes, well, it doesn't make you any more brighter, either, Arthur."
"Yes?" Merlin said innocently, and Arthur was pleased to see that the sparkle was back in his eyes.
"You really are an idiot most of the time, especially if you think you can get away with speaking to your prince in such a way… but, I have to ask. Where did you learn to read and do sums?"
"Oh," Merlin said, smiling brightly now. "There was an old woman in our village who had spent her life traveling and writing her adventures. She would read us her stories and when I told her I wanted to be able to read them myself someday, she offered to teach me. Apparently, she was impressed with my ability to learn quickly, so she taught me how to do sums, too. She used to be the wife of a tax collector before he died."
"Ah," Arthur said slowly. "Well, that was nice of her, but she was obviously just lying to you about your learning ability, because we both know you're complete rubbish at learning new things."
"Only if you're the one trying to teach me," Merlin grinned. "A rubbish teacher yields rubbish students, or so I've heard."
And, while Arthur was still trying to ponder just how he was going to get back at Merlin for his rudeness, Merlin had darted off of the balcony and through the doorway, down the stairs and out of sight.
When Arthur returned to his room a bit later, however, his steaming dinner was on the table and Merlin was sitting on the floor, polishing Arthur's hauberk, which didn't seem to be getting any cleaner despite how many times Merlin wiped it with the rag in his hands.
Even so, Arthur turned to Merlin before he helped himself to his meal and said, "Thank you," and he could tell by the way Merlin smiled that the servant knew that Arthur wasn't just talking about dinner. Arthur wasn't very surprised that Merlin picked up on the double meaning of his thanks, though, for It seemed that Arthur wasn't the only one who was able to put two and two together after all.
Next Word: bubkes, which means "nothing". Should be fun. :)
I'll try to write the next one and post it as soon as possible! In the meantime, please review! ;) Thanks again!