Title: Till That Hour
Summary: AU. Camelot's new queen unexpectedly finds comfort in the company of a servant.
Characters: Morgana, Merlin, Morgause, Gwaine, Gwen, Arthur, Gaius
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin. If I did, I'd have much better internet access.
A/N: I don't really know where this story came from, but it popped into my head and I wrote it down until it took shape. Please let me know what you think. It'll be a two-parter.
I did not know I loved him till that hour. – Sara Teasdale
She stands at the window, swathed in purple silks, watching the town below as it settles in for the night. A pair of servants walks home through the streets, their cloak hoods up against the chill. They're off to retire for the night, to sleep off the day's work, whereas she can't remember the last time she had a full night's sleep, because of the nightmares, because of the crown that hangs over one post of her bed.
Her palms resting on the window sill, she lets out a long, soft sigh. There was a time she would've been jealous, jealous of the fact that every single person in this kingdom gets to go home, hold someone, and sleep through the night. Now, there are a thousand matters of state that weigh on her every day, matters that seem to only multiply by night. Now, there's barely a stirring in her as she watches doors close and lights twinkle out. Now, she wonders if she can feel anything anymore.
Her thoughts are disturbed when the door opens and a gawky, dark-haired servant stumbles in. He's new, Gaius's apprentice and some sort of relative, and she's seen him a few times before. The old physician sends him up each night with a sleeping draught, and sure enough, tonight he has it grasped in one hand like a treasure. A useless treasure, because the nightmares still come. And when it's not nightmares, it's simply worry that keeps her awake, worry for her kingdom, for her kin.
The servant stares at her with a lopsided smile. A bit unnerved by his open gaze, she gestures to the desk, a mess of papers and maps and figures, and says, "Just put it on the desk there."
"Right. Sure," he nods, hastening to follow her orders.
The tiny bottle is nearly swallowed by the stacks of papers. But then, instead of departing, he just stays there, one foot on the rug and one on the stone floor, a ridiculously oversized jacket hanging on his lanky frame.
She licks her lips, wondering what he wants. Servants don't do that. They complete their tasks and scurry out of her sight as quickly as they can. She takes a moment to study him, her eyes raking over the dark, messy hair, the angular cheeks, the sinewy frame. Gaius has mentioned him more than once. He has a bird's name. Peregrine, maybe. She lifts a questioning brow.
"I just, is there anything else you need?" he asks quietly. His voice is clear, soft and strong. Then, hesitantly, he adds, "My Queen."
She shakes her head, takes a seat at the desk again, picks up a quill. She studies a report, makes a few marks. Still he hovers. She can feel his eyes on her, searching and uncomfortable.
Without looking up, she makes another note and queries, "Yes?"
Nervously, he scratches at the back of his neck. "Merlin."
"Uh, my name, it's Merlin."
Finally she does look up, straight into blue eyes so earnest they nearly steal her breath. After a steadying breath, she says, "Do you want thanks for delivering my sleeping draught? A reward, perhaps, for the job you are paid to do?"
She means it to be scathing, but she is tired and instead it comes out as bitter, broken.
"No," he shakes his head, a slight smile remaining on his lips. "I wanted to say thank you."
Her fingers tighten around the quill. "Why?"
The smile fades. "Because . . . I never belonged anywhere, until I came here." A flush rises to his cheeks, but he turns away before she can respond. "Let me tend the fire for you."
"There's no need," she assures him.
But he's already at the fireplace, stacking wood and stoking the embers. He looks back at her. "It's freezing in here. You need a fire."
As he says it, she suddenly becomes aware of the chilling cold in the room. She wonders how long the fire's been dying. Probably since supper, when Gwen had delivered her evening meal and tended to it before departing for the night.
When the servant – Merlin – finishes his work, the flames blaze brightly, throwing an orange glow over his face, and she can feel the warmth suffusing the room. He stands, brushes off his trousers, and crosses the room to leave.
Just before he opens the door, something unfamiliar causes her to call out, "Thank you. . . . Merlin."
He smiles again, the smile brightening his entire demeanor, and gives her a short bow. "Good night, My Queen."
She returns to work, and promptly puts all thought of him from her mind.
She sits at the head of the banquet table, a silken smile on her rosy lips. The bejeweled crown upon her dark hair glitters in the low candlelight. She looks out upon the crowd, the nobles and knights who have chosen to remain loyal to Camelot, to support her rule. The festivities are subdued, but the turnout has encouraged her. Perhaps more citizens are open to the prospect of magic returning to the kingdom than her father had tried to lead her to believe.
Still, she hears the whispers. They do not fully trust her yet, even the ones who are hopeful about her stance on sorcery. They call her cold, the Ice Queen. Yet she cannot find it in herself to perform for them, not when she has played the loving ward for so long, not when there are a thousand matters weighing on her mind. If she had thought ruling a kingdom was going to be simple, she was wrong. But she has her sister beside her, and she is determined to show them that she will not fail, will not falter, even if that means they will not get the queen they expect.
Gwaine, sitting to her left, leans over to say, "They're expecting a speech."
Though recently – reluctantly – knighted, he refuses to be addressed as 'Sir.' Neither does he use proper titles for anyone else. It would bother her more if he weren't a superb fighter and a loyal leader of the guard.
"Let them expect it," she says in return. "I've already given them a feast. I do not wish to give them a speech as well."
On her right, Morgause frowns. "You shouldn't be so aloof. They need a public figure to latch on to, to give them hope that this turnover in power is no cause for alarm. You can't keep hiding."
"I address them as often as I need to, sister. They know that I'm busy keeping this kingdom and their homes safe."
"Still . . ." the blonde muses, and she doesn't like the look that's suddenly come into her sister's eyes. Morgause takes a sip of wine and says, "Perhaps it's time you marry."
Gwaine lets out a bark of a laugh at that notion.
"First of all," she says warningly, "I will decide when I shall marry, if I ever shall." She rounds on Gwaine. "And second of all, what is so funny about that?"
Shaking with stifled laughter, he manages to choke out, "Nothing, nothing at all. But you have to admit, you're sort of a daunting prospect for any man."
Morgause rolls her eyes subtly. "If you play this correctly, you may very well be able to make an advantageous alliance. A marriage with the right family could solidify your rule."
"It could also ruin my rule," she protests. "A husband would only try to overtake me. I will not marry, at least not soon."
She lifts a hand for more wine.
"Very well," her sister replies. "But think about it. I know you believe everything's going to be perfect because you've lifted the ban on magic, Morgana, but there is still much work to be done, and you're going to need help."
Lips tight, she nods. "I know. Give me time. I will find allies. I promise you."
The wine bearer leans over to refill her goblet. He's so close to her that the sleeve of his jacket brushes against her arm. She turns to reprimand the servant but stops, her mouth open and the words lost on her tongue, when she recognizes that unruly hair, that lopsided grin.
Merlin, bowing slightly, hands the goblet directly to her. Their fingers brush as she takes it, causing a soft jolt to course through her veins.
"My Queen," he says with a dip of his head before turning and resuming his place among the servants, beside Gwen.
Gwaine narrows his eyes suspiciously, his gaze flicking between Merlin and her. He lets out a soft grunt that could mean one of many things, none of them good. And she downs half the wine in one gulp.
The tip of her quill scratches across the parchment, and her hand trembles ever so slightly as she crosses a t, but still she doesn't lift her eyes as he walks through the door.
She has no idea why, but he's here again, like he's been every night for the past fortnight. It's not simply delivering sleeping draughts anymore. Just like that night with the fireplace, Merlin always seems to find a new chore to do, and always in the unspoken name of her comfort. He's cleaned her rug, scrubbed the floors, washed down all the windows, brought her extra pillows, all the while insisting that clean chambers lead to good health and good health leads to a calm mind.
Sometimes it's even a little something extra, like the flowers he'd brought her a few days before, a bright bundle of purple and white blossoms that still stand in a vase at the edge of the desk. She'd had them on the dining table in the next room, but decided she didn't like seeing them only at mealtimes or when passing through.
Her sister thinks she's simply encouraged a bootlicker who wants to get ahead by any means, but her sister hasn't seen the warmth in his eyes, or the way he goes about his tasks as if the only thing on his mind is the task itself.
Tonight, after glimpsing her uneaten supper, he's brought her a new meal and a jug of fresh wine. Instead of setting down his burden on the dining table, he carries it on through to the bedroom, where she sits hunched over her desk. Her gaze flicks up as he sets the tray on the window sill, but then he crosses to her. She starts as he leans over to sweep the papers into a pile and shuffles them into one corner, but watches silently as he replaces the documents with the supper tray.
When she looks up, he's got a goofy, expectant grin on his face. She sits back in the chair, studying his face. People walk on tiptoe around her, even those she is closest to, and it baffles her how open and cheerful and unafraid he is all the time.
"You're bold," she muses.
He simply smiles wider and says, "You need to eat. You'll make yourself sick if you keep working through the night and never eat."
"And who are you, to advise me?"
He shrugs and pours her a goblet of wine. "I'm your physician's apprentice, and I recommend proper meals at regular intervals. And believe me, I will stand here until you finish every last bite. Well, at least half. It's chicken today, though. Delicious."
Her sister would have his head for his insolence, but she can't stifle the smirk that plays over her lips. She pours a second goblet of wine and holds it out to him.
"Well," she says, "if you're going to be so incorrigible, you better have some wine."
His courage seems to evaporate with her words, but then, uncertainly, he reaches out for the goblet and settles himself uncomfortably at the edge of a chair. She watches him, amused, as he takes one sip and leaps out of the chair again.
"Thank you," he stammers. "The wine is, uh, it's fantastic."
And even though she's sure every bone in that skinny body of his rebels against the command, he follows it anyway. Because she is his queen, even if he seems to frequently forget that fact.
She takes a sip of wine. "If you insist on . . . doing the things you do, then I think you owe me a few answers."
"I'm just a servant," he protests. "You don't want to know anything about me."
"But you see, I do."
He's silent for a moment, running his thumb along the edge of the goblet rim. "What do you want to know?"
"Whatever you wish to tell."
Merlin sighs and takes a gulp of wine, as if to fortify himself. Then he says, "I grew up in Ealdor, in Cenred's kingdom. I've . . . been moving things with my mind before I could even talk. My mother sent me here when we heard news that a new ruler was in power, one who favored magic. Back home, I never fit in. And I could never tell anyone. I grew up thinking it was bad to be different."
When he stops, she softly prompts, "And now?"
"And now, I'm finally learning that I don't have to be ashamed of who I am."
"No, you don't," she agrees.
She takes a bite of her supper and suddenly remembers how hungry she is.
After another moment, he asks, "What about you? When did you find out about your magic?" She looks up sharply, but then he adds, "I imagine that must've been difficult, growing up as King Uther's ward, knowing his views on magic."
She reaches for her wine goblet. Yes, difficult. And painful and bewildering and terrifying. She sometimes thinks her heart's been irrevocably scarred by the things she's seen under her father's rule, by their arguments, by his atrocities. The turmoil within her has become so constant that she's simply accepted it as a part of herself, accepted that her heart may never be whole again. And yet, there's something about him, maybe the taut passion in his eyes, that makes her feel . . . safe, almost.
"I've suffered from nightmares since before I can remember," she tells him. "But I was twelve years old when the things I saw at night started to come to pass during the day. I dreamed of my father dying in battle. My nurse tried to comfort me, told me it was only a dream. But then he went to battle, on Uther's command, and never returned. My nurse never spoke a word about what had happened, and I knew better than to ask, because before my father was cold in his grave, I was packed up and sent off to Camelot to become Uther's lovely ward. And, as naïve as I was, it was many years before I truly accepted that I had the gift, and even longer before I learned to control it."
"How'd you do it?"
There's no hatred in his eyes, no mistrust, nothing that she's used to when she speaks of magic, and that emboldens her. "My half-sister," she says.
A smile tugging at his lips, he nods and says, "Having someone else know what you are, and accept you for that, and not only that but actually help you and guide you . . . There's nothing like that feeling."
She swallows thickly. Her sister means the world to her. She can still remember the first time Morgause had taught her a spell, the way the warmth had flowed through her, tingling her fingertips, filling up the cavity in her chest.
"No, nothing," she agrees in a whisper.
Merlin's eyes, a stunning shade of blue, meet hers, and the intensity of his gaze sends a tremor through her. Abruptly, he stands and sets his goblet on the desk.
His eyes are downcast when he says, "Thank you for the wine, My Queen."
He leaves quickly, and she pretends that he is still merely a servant.
The green silk of her gown swishes around her ankles as she sweeps imperiously down the corridor. This afternoon, she is followed by only Gwen, instead of the usual half dozen handmaidens, and for that she is thankful. It is seemingly random moments like this, striding down a hallway, that she remembers how grateful she is for the younger woman's friendship. She had been her first friend when she came to Camelot as a wild, rage-filled twelve-year-old, she had been the only one able to calm her after the nightmares, and to this day she remains one of her closest confidantes. Gwen is like the calm to Morgause's tempest, and she sometimes doesn't know what she'd do without her, especially now that she is queen.
She rounds a corner only to stumble ever so slightly when she spots Merlin, carrying a basket of fresh laundry in his arms, walking towards them from the opposite end of the passageway.
He smiles brightly as he comes closer, and she's once again glad that the rest of her handmaidens are not here. As surprising as it is, that grin of his seems to have an effect on more than just her. Two of her handmaidens have an awful habit of swooning around the more handsome male servants, and Merlin sends all of them into a twitter.
She catches that thought midway. She did not just think of Merlin – awkward, gangly Merlin – as handsome.
Luckily, she is distracted as he stops, inclines his head respectfully, and says, "My Queen."
What audacity, she thinks, even as she fights a smile.
Gwen spares him a wide, amused grin, and he greets her quietly, but still she says nothing. Because there are eyes and ears everywhere in this castle, and it would not do for a queen to be observed allowing the attentions of a servant. Instead, she waltzes by him without even a glance to acknowledge his existence.
It is only when they have nearly reached her chambers that Gwen speaks up. "Are you all right, milady?"
"Fine," she smiles. "Why wouldn't I be?"
And then the queen of Camelot notices that her fingers are trembling uncontrollably.
Her attention is caught by Merlin as he carries a warming pan across the room to warm up the sheets of her bed.
"Gwen will do that," she dismisses.
He shoots her one of those disarming smiles of his. "You sent Gwen home hours ago."
Setting down her quill, she twists to look out the window, only to find the sky black with night, a quarter moon poking through the purplish clouds.
"It's late," he continues gently. "You need to sleep."
She frowns and returns to her work. "Not until I figure out how to stop at least half a dozen kingdoms from declaring war on Camelot."
"You think you're going to figure that out in a night?"
She raises her eyes to glare at him, but he simply chuckles and walks toward her. His irreverence is beginning to irk rather than simply intrigue, but she does not know how to counter it. If he acted that way anywhere but in the privacy of her chambers, she could teach him a lesson and put him in the stocks. But he is the model servant, going about his tasks for the physician and barely even raising an eye to her, even as a private smirk plays across his lips.
And so the queen of Camelot is rendered speechless as he strolls to her side of the desk, places his forearms on the tabletop, and leans over to peruse the papers. He points to a map, his fingertip over his old land.
"No, see," he begins, suddenly serious, "Cenred already has wealth and power, and he knows the citadel is impregnable. He won't attack."
"How do you know?" she demands. "His men have been spotted near our border."
"Just harmless scouts, probably. He likes to keep informed. He won't attack because he knows he can't take the castle alone, but he's too proud to enlist another king's help. You don't need to worry about Cenred."
She twists her lips thoughtfully. "Okay, what about Mercia?"
His finger slides to the kingdom in question. "Ah, now Bayard is in a tough spot right about now. He had a peace treaty with Uther, but we all know they only barely tolerated each other. Mercia is much more sympathetic to magic. A lot of Camelot's refugees flooded into their lands after the Purge. Right now, he's waiting for you to prove what sort of ruler you'll be, if you'll follow through with your promises or if you'll revert to your father's ways –"
"I am not my father."
Merlin, almost absently, holds up a palm in defense. "What you need to do is reach out to him, show him that Camelot is changing, and that a lasting accord between your two kingdoms would be beneficial for both."
She lets out a soft hum. "What of Lord Godwin?"
"Yes," he says with a frown, "he's going to be your biggest problem. He was one of Uther's oldest friends; he probably takes less than kindly to your little overthrow."
"Excuse me? My 'little overthrow'?"
Merlin ignores her. She rolls her eyes.
"However, his kingdom is small, his army smaller. If you reach out, especially to those kingdoms tolerant of magic, win them to your side, he'll have no choice but to accept you as the new monarch. He could hardly risk attacking Camelot once you've made a point of forging alliances."
She stares at him wonderingly. He looks up, catches her gaze, and straightens, a blush on his cheeks.
"How is it that you, a servant, know so much?" she queries. "How is it that you can be so confident in your advice to me when my own council hems and haws its way through meetings?"
His shoulder twitches in a nervous shrug. "Servants hear a lot. And I believe you will be a great queen." He moves away to busy himself with stoking the fire. "Will you go to sleep now?"
But she is not quite finished with the matter. She rises from her chair, crosses her arms, watches him work. "And my council does not?"
"I didn't mean that. I only meant . . ." He pauses in the midst of gathering another log for the flames. "Perhaps you need to believe it yourself."
"I think you should free Arthur."
Her hands pause in mid-air as she turns the page of a report. Thunder rumbles; rain lashes at the windowpanes. She raises a challenging eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
To his credit, he isn't even pretending to do work at the moment, having abandoned his current chore of scrubbing the floor. He's sitting on the floor, cross-legged, the bucket beside him and the sponge in his hand. "He's your brother."
"He is his father's son."
"You don't know that."
"He'll try to free our father. I can't have that."
"No, you can't. But he won't, as long as you tell him the truth. Once you repair your relationship, he will be your greatest ally."
"Why are you asking me this?"
"Because you are brother and sister –"
"Half-brother and –sister."
"And you have need of his military expertise and fighting prowess. He could be a valuable advisor. The two of you could be the greatest leaders Camelot has ever seen."
"You're suggesting I share power with him?"
"You don't have to make him co-regent or anything. But he is a prince. At the very least, he could fill a seat on your council."
Frowning, she leans back in her chair and fixes him with a direct look. "Why are you really asking me to do this?"
Her tone makes it clear that if any lies fall from his lips, there will be punishment.
He stands, brushes off his trousers, and walks over in front of the desk. "Because you are winning people over, but your progress is slow. A lot of citizens still don't trust you. But they do put their faith in Arthur. And if he were by your side, supporting you, you'd truly command the entirety of Camelot."
She pauses in midsentence as he stumbles through the door of the council chambers. Arthur shoots him a warning glare, and he sinks back against the wall and sidles up beside Gwen.
"I apologize for my servant's interruption," Arthur says. "I promise it won't happen again."
"Your servant?" she repeats, straightening and fixing her half-brother with a look.
"Yes," he nods. "Since Merlin here was basically responsible for . . ." He stops when he catches her glower, then amends, "Well, I needed one. He'll have to do."
"Fine. But teach him the meaning of punctuality."
She flicks her gaze over in time to catch the tiny smirk that plays on Merlin's lips, but Gwen nudges him in the shoulder and he quickly sobers.
Gaius clears his throat and prompts, "About the repairs to the town, Your Majesty . . ."
She nods. "Yes, where were we? The extent of the damage?"
Gwaine, arms crossed, says, "Most of the damage is concentrated in the lower town. Collapsed roofs, flooding, water damage. The townspeople can't handle it on their own."
Her eyes rove over the maps that litter the table, even as her mind wanders.
"We need to send repair crews to each section of town," Arthur suggests. "Win their loyalty by proving that we care."
She can feel Merlin's gaze on her, penetrating through her, as he waits for her judgment, waits to see what sort of ruler she will truly be. She doesn't know why, but his opinion somehow means more to her than that of anyone else in this room.
"Your Highness?" Gaius urges.
Snapping from her thoughts, she looks up and shakes her head to clear it. The members of the council are regarding her curiously.
"Yes, what?" she demands quietly.
"We were discussing how you want to go about the repairs to town."
It takes a moment to return to the conversation, but when she does, she says, "Yes, of course. Arthur will oversee the repairs. We will visit the lower town in the morning to survey the damage." She waves a hand. "The council's dismissed."
She looks down as they file out, but Merlin lingers, his gaze boring through her armor, before disappearing after Gwen. When she looks up again, Morgause is standing across the table, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised in scrutiny.
"What happened?" she demands gently. "Where'd you go?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You were barely paying attention. I know you trust the council members, but you have to give them a reason for their loyalty. You must act a queen every single second."
"Morgause . . . I know. I was just a little preoccupied, that's all."
Morgause purses her lips. "It's that servant, isn't it? He's distracting you too much. Just take him to your bed and be done with it, sister."
She shakes her head in confusion. "What?"
"You're the queen; he's a servant. Order him if you have to. Though, by the way he looks at you, you won't have much trouble persuading him." Morgause sends her one last wicked smile and sweeps from the room.
When he's finished putting new sheets on her bed (even though she'd protested that that was Gwen's job and she'd done it only the day before), he leans against a post, crosses his arms, and stares straight at her. All her determination withers beneath his gaze.
She sets down her quill and looks up. She can tell just by the look on his face that he has something to say. She doesn't like to think about why she started listening to him in the first place.
"What is it?" she asks.
"You should let Sir Leon out of the dungeons as well."
A short, surprised laugh escapes her throat. "Leon tried to lead a revolt against me. Why would I do that?" He doesn't answer right away, and she stands and saunters toward him. "But you knew that. So the only question that remains is: why is a servant so insistent on freeing knights who want to end my reign?"
Still he holds her stare, those cobalt eyes of his piercing her. He says, "Sir Leon is one of Arthur's best and most trusted knights. Now that he knows you and Arthur are working together, he will no longer fight against you. And he has influence. Win him to your side and you will win a host of other knights as well." He pauses to shoot her a cheeky smile. "A good sovereign knows when to fight with swords and when to fight with something else entirely, My Queen."
He drops his eyes when he addresses her, and she hates that she can't tell what runs through his mind. She's lived at court her entire life, knows the games people play, and yet she finds this servant unreadable.
With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, she replies, "A good sovereign knows when to listen to her own advice instead of some silly servant boy's."
Even so, Leon appears beside Arthur on the training field the very next morning, and she pretends not to notice the smirk on Merlin's face after Gaius tells him the news.
She takes a deep breath as the evening breeze ruffles her hair. The parapets have always been her favorite part about Camelot's castle. When she was a girl, new ward to an intolerant king, she'd come up here after their arguments, to kick at the stones and wear herself down until her temper cooled. Or she and Arthur would race up the staircases, and he'd pout when she'd beat him.
Tonight, she's retreated here in order to clear her mind, so often tangled and disordered with matters of state. It's hard to believe that, mere months ago, she was still an unsatisfied ward, good for only looking pretty, thinking that everything would be different once she was queen. And by retreating to her hideout, she's also managed to escape from a certain pair of hauntingly blue eyes, eyes that see deeper to her truth than she is comfortable with.
The clanking of armor from down below in the square catches her attention, and she looks down to see her half-brother and a few of his knights marching their way across the courtyard, squires in tow, Arthur's new manservant among them. Swallowing thickly, she grasps the stone wall in order to control the trembling in her hands. She silently curses the way he can affect her so deeply.
Her sister is right. He's somehow wormed his way into her stone-cold heart, and now she's driven to distraction by his mere presence, a most unqueenly position. Something must be done about it, to be sure.
But as she casts her gaze down upon the small band of men, she's struck by a sudden, disabling thought. All of the knights down there – Arthur, Leon, Percival, Yvain, Galahad – all of them are able to walk free because of one man, one servant who has somehow captured her ear. Perhaps that is not all he's captured. Perhaps that is not all he means to capture still.
He's been insisting that all these pardons are ultimately in favor of her goal, to restore magic to the kingdom and ensure her sovereignty by gaining the trust of the people. But there he walks, with five of the men he's freed, all five of whom were previously sworn to her father, the father who denied her and made the past twelve years of her life a misery.
After she's done all the hard work for them, barely anything stands in their way if they are indeed planning to stage a coup. She's practically invited her own dethronement, and all because of her reluctant trust in a silly boy with ears much too large for his good and a smile much too charming.
She lets out a heavy sigh.
Then again, this would not be the first time she's been played for a fool by someone she cares for. The only thing to do now is give him an opportunity to prove his loyalty.
When he arrives that night, she's ready for him, having shed her elaborate court gown for a simple, silken nightgown. She turns from her post at the window as he enters, a smile lighting up his face. He strolls through to the bedroom and stops to take stock, his gaze roaming over her desk, free of all papers and reports. He looks over his shoulder at the dining table in the other room, at the empty supper plates.
"Well," he says, hands on his hips in bewilderment, "you've eaten supper without coercion and you're not spending the entire night bent over your papers? If I didn't know better, I'd say you were starting to listen to me."
She fights the urge to roll her eyes. As if he doesn't know exactly how much she listens to him, a queen relying on a servant boy.
"Perhaps I am," she tells him quietly.
He grins. "I'm just a servant."
"Perhaps I listen to you too much."
His grin falters, but then he catches sight of the fireplace, the flames mere dancing embers now, and swiftly crosses the room to pile more logs on. "I don't think so," he says from his knees on the hearth. "If you did, you would've have let your fire die down. The nights are growing colder. Camelot can't have its queen getting sick."
Regarding him studiously, trying to ignore the blood pulsing through her veins at the sight of his cheekbones in the firelight, she says, "I don't need a fire, not tonight."
His movements slow as he places a log, but he doesn't reply.
With a deep breath, she saunters toward him. "Tonight, you'll keep me warm."
Merlin's body tenses. Deliberately, he rises from his position on the floor and swivels to face her. Something that's not quite anger darkens his expression and furrows his brow. The sight makes her take an involuntary step backward. She's never seen him like this.
He shakes his head.
She's lived her whole life getting everything she's wanted without even needing to ask. Here she stands, a queen in name and in blood, and defied by a servant, a boy who lives his life unnoticed, a boy to whom no high-born girl would give a second glance, a boy barely old enough to grow a beard.
She narrows her eyes. "I am your queen."
His shoulders heave with the deep, calming breath that he takes, but his voice is steady as he says, "I don't follow queens who treat their subjects as pawns."
In his eyes, those gloriously blue eyes of his, is everything else he wants to say: I served you faithfully. I was loyal. I believed in you when the entire kingdom was threatening to fall to pieces around you.
She feels almost guilty, just for a split second, but she holds onto enough of her icy composure to say, "There are countless men who would kill to be in your position at this moment."
"Indeed?" he queries coldly. "They would kill to be stripped of their will? To be believed incapable of any emotion deeper than base desire? To have everything within them, all their hopes and goals and destinies, reduced to a lustful tumble?" His lips have curled into something eerily resembling a sneer as he delivers the final blow. "You may be beautiful, but you do men no kindness to assume that each and every one of us would sacrifice the world to worship you. We have more on our minds than protecting your deluded sense of self-worth."
All this time he hasn't raised his voice at all, and maybe it's this more than the bitterness, the aching sadness, in his gaze that makes it easier for her to build up the walls that have come tumbling down since he first came around, since he first made her think about someone other than herself.
She takes a defiant step toward him and lifts her chin. His eyes rake over the pale curve of her neck before he looks adamantly at the ground, as if ashamed of his dwindling willpower. But even his slip gives her no pleasure, instead serves to enliven her ire.
Another step forward. "And what are you protecting, Merlin? Your honor? Your reputation? You are a servant; I am your mistress."
His jaw jumps at her tone, but holds his head high again, though his nostrils flare as he struggles to control his breathing. They are two statues of stony, immovable pride, and just for a moment, she considers that marble cannot be broken down by more marble. Only fire, warmth, can melt its frozen core.
His voice, already faint, cracks as he asks, "Is this an order?"
Yet another step. Close enough now to feel the rage radiating from his taut body, close enough to feel his warm breath on her cheek.
"And if it were?" she asks silkily.
He lets out a breath, his chest heaving. "Do your worst," he breathes. "Put me in the stocks. Put me on the pyre. Put me on the block. But this is one order I will not follow."
He spins abruptly and strides away. Only when he is at the door does he turn back to say, "You may be comfortable ordering everyone around according to your desires, but I am not your plaything, to be used and thrown out like one of last year's gowns, like the leftovers from yesterday's meal."
He disappears, and she is left alone, her mouth open disconcertedly as she marvels over how an inconsequential slip of a servant can stir such shame in her once-frozen heart.