A/N: This follows the drabble "Compromised", also to be found on my profile. This will make much more sense if you've read that. It's only 300 words. :) Enjoy!
There were some things that Arthur Pendragon had always known. They formed the basis of his worldview and the foundation of his convictions.
First, he knew that Camelot was the last, true bastion of light in a dark world seduced by the temptations of magic.
Second, he knew how important Camelot's strict rules for the regulation of magic were. Without a structure to guide them, too many sorcerers fell to the lure of easy power.
Third, he knew that his father was not a fool. Neither was Arthur.
And this third fact was why Arthur was pacing in his room, furious and impressed despite himself. He was furious that Uther had so cavalierly dismissed his old manservant without even consulting Arthur about it. He was impressed because properly controlled, there was no end to the advantages of having a sorcerer as his bodyguard.
Arthur wasn't fooled for a second about the place the boy – Merlin, hadn't it been? – would actually fill. Uther hadn't been impressed by his servile attitude and respect for authority. Merlin probably didn't even know what those words meant, judging from his unrepentant attitude after being released from the stocks.
No, Uther wanted the power that had so casually stopped a magically thrown and guided dagger from piercing his only son's chest. He had wanted the power that had shrugged off a spell powerful enough to put the entire throne room to sleep. He wanted the boy who could do so much with so little training to guard his son.
As if Arthur were a child unable to recognize danger when he saw it!
He couldn't get out of having Merlin assigned as his manservant and bodyguard – his father had made that perfectly clear! – but he could lay down the law to Merlin.
The door opened swiftly, not a minute later. At least the guards assigned to the royal wing weren't the same slouches who should have spotted something going wrong in the throne room.
"Have Merlin brought here at once," Arthur ordered, tone icy. The guard bowed and disappeared, shutting the door behind him.
Arthur breathed deeply, preparing himself. This was the one flaw in his father's plan. One Uther didn't seem to notice, or deemed easily fixed by Arthur himself.
Merlin might be terrified of Uther, but he had already made his opinion of Arthur perfectly clear. And it hadn't changed, even after Merlin knew who he was.
When the knock sounded on his door, Arthur was already in position, standing in front of the lit fireplace, face impassive as he stared into the flames.
"Enter," he called in a voice pitched to carry just to the doorway, and no further.
The door opened and then shut behind the raven-haired idiot from a couple days ago – and his golden-eyed rescuer of this very night. Arthur only just managed to keep from tensing. Leaving his back open to a known threat went against every instinct he had, but he couldn't move.
Not yet. He had to establish his dominance here. Merlin might have magic, but Arthur was the one who held true power. He let the silence stretch, hearing the shuffling that meant the younger man was attempting not to fidget behind him.
"…Sire? Did you need anything tonight? I'd gotten the impression I wasn't to begin my duties as your manservant until tomorrow."
Arthur scoffed, threw a scornful glance at Merlin over his shoulder, and then paced to the table, barely five feet from where the sorcerer had halted upon entering his chambers. "Are you really that much of an idiot?" he demanded. He rolled over the protest rising from the younger man, leaning backwards, letting the table take part of his weight. He cocked his head in a mock curious fashion. "I already knew you weren't all that clever. You challenged me a couple days ago, after all. But failing to register yourself as a sorcerer? And then using magic in plain view of the king?" Arthur laughed derisively. "Come now, Merlin, isn't it? Are you really asking me to believe that you missed what my father actually wants you to do? It's the only reason you're still alive, after all."
For a long moment, there was silence, and Arthur fought not to twitch, or to move from his position – all the work he was putting into appearing completely at his ease would be ruined if he moved. The fact that he was openly deriding a known – and powerful– sorcerer could not intrude upon his purpose here. Merlin had obviously come from somewhere that didn't restrict magic as Camelot did. From somewhere that had been blinded by the temptations of magic. He needed to be guided onto the proper path, and that wouldn't work so long as he believed he could scorn Arthur and ignore Camelot's laws and get away with it.
Arthur watched as Merlin stared at the ground, hands twitching sporadically, expression hidden by his messy bangs. It was a long time before he spoke, but the prince let the silence hang.
"I'm to do what I did tonight, Sire." Arthur let a small smirk play over his face, knowing Merlin could see it if he looked up. That was more like it. His plan was working; Merlin was finally getting it. Seemed his father was right, once again. Arthur had been able to take care of Merlin's attitude on his own. "Save the idiot who couldn't be bothered to move himself out of the path of a dagger."
Arthur forgot he was trying to teach Merlin his place and lunged fully upright, furious. Merlin's stance had morphed while Arthur had been congratulating himself. The younger man now stood defiantly, shoulders thrown back, head up, anger sparking in his eyes.
"After all, there's nothing much a sword can do against magic, is there?"
Arthur, expression thunderous, slowly advanced on Merlin, whose own expression faltered. He stumbled back a few steps under Arthur's advance before setting his jaw and standing his ground.
"Was that a threat?" Arthur growled, hand clenching on his sword hilt. Merlin's jaw worked and he swallowed hard a couple times. Apparently, he hadn't been prepared for such an explosive response. Well, Arthur was going to make sure Merlin understood his place before he left this room.
"…just a fact, Sire," the raven-haired sorcerer said, much more quietly. Most of the fire had dropped out of his stance, though he refused to lower his eyes as any properly submissive servant should do.
Arthur narrowed his eyes and deliberately stepped closer to Merlin, invading his personal space. "Let's get something very clear, right now, Merlin." He grabbed Merlin's elbow, preventing the younger man from retreating again, pulling him just that little bit closer. Blue glared right into blue, barely inches between them. "Your position is already precarious. You haven't even been here a week and you've already broken Camelot's most important law." His hand tightened around Merlin's elbow in warning. "Do you really want to chance the pyre a second time tonight?"
Merlin swallowed hard and shook his head, eyes widening ever so slightly. Arthur held his gaze for a long moment and then nodded and released him, stepping back.
"Good." He turned away. "You may leave. Make sure you're not late tomorrow."
It wasn't until several long moments after the door had shut that Arthur let out his nerves in a full body shudder. He sank down into his chair and ran a hand through his hair.
Why did he get the feeling that none of his actions this evening had had the impact intended?
Gaius sighed as he ladled Merlin's breakfast out into a bowl. The boy had come back from his meeting with Arthur last night furious, and the elderly physician had no great hopes of Uther's son being in any better a mood.
Really, this was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Merlin, aside from Uther actually ordering his death.
Gaius had told the boy to register himself. He should have done it right after he delivered those tonics for him that first morning. But no, he'd gotten into an argument with Arthur, been thrown in the dungeon, then the stocks, then gotten in an argument with Arthur again which resulted in a mace fight of all things, across the market…
It was really no wonder his mother was so worried about him. Gaius was exhausted, and he hadn't even been Merlin's guardian for more than a week. How had Hunith managed nearly two decades?
Actually, now that Gaius thought about it, he wasn't sure that Merlin ever had registered himself with Geoffrey. Merlin seemed to regard his magic as simply a part of him, so much that he didn't even think of it most of the time. His reactions were automatic, as Gaius's own fall, the spilled water and Arthur's rescue all indicated. None had been prefaced with a spell, all the result of Merlin's reactions, not any premeditated use of a carefully learned spell…
At that moment, Merlin stumbled down the stairs, hair sticking up every which way and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Gaius eyed him thoughtfully, trying to gauge if the rampant anger of last night was gone or simply buried.
Since Merlin was saving his grumblings for the evils of early mornings, Gaius felt safe enough in his assumption that Merlin had at least set aside whatever it was Arthur had done to infuriate him so much. Gaius directed Merlin to the table, turning to gather their porridge.
"I understand you haven't had much time to think since you arrived, but you will have to make time today to speak with the Court Genealogist again. He'll need to record your abilities along with your status as a sorcerer, since you'll be serving so close to the royal family."
The silence behind him was really not encouraging at all. Gaius sighed, and turned around, expression stern.
"Merlin, you have registered by now, haven't you?"
He got a sheepish grin in response. "Well…" Merlin hedged, ducking his head. "I didn't really have a chance last night, did I? And everyone knows now, so what's the point?"
Gaius waited until Merlin looked up and met his gaze to answer.
"It matters, Merlin. It matters because Uther will show you no mercy. If he discovers you have continued to flout his laws he will have you killed. As far as he is concerned, sparing your life and giving you a job is all the mercy he needs to give, and he was never required to give even that. You cannot afford to break any of Camelot's laws, Merlin. Especially those concerning magic." The physician placed Merlin's breakfast in front of the boy, and sat down across from him, sighing heavily. "You'll do that first thing today, Merlin. It's imperative you are registered before the king thinks to check the records."
Merlin, who had been poking at his porridge with a dubious look, jerked his head upright sharply. "But…I'm supposed to start as Arthur's…servant, bodyguard…person. This morning." He made a face, obviously remembering something unpleasant. "He's going to be in even more of a bad mood if I'm late."
Gaius shook his head. "Better to face the prince's anger than the king's executioner, Merlin. I'll make your excuses to Arthur. Now, finish your breakfast and go."
Merlin ate a few spoonfuls of the porridge and then paused. He used the spoon to point at Gaius. "You said I have to tell the Court Genealogist about my abilities as well as that I'm a sorcerer. Why does he need to know what I can do?" The raven-haired youth spread his arms wide. "I mean, that's why I'm here! I don't know what I can do!"
Gaius paused. That was a valid concern, and it raised another one for the old man. "True. And you should not give too much away about your abilities, either."
"My abilities? Why? They're nothing special."
Gaius shot an exasperated look at his new ward. "Merlin, I told you the first morning you were here. Stopping time, moving objects with a glance, all without a single spoken spell! You were born with your talents, and I have never heard of anyone else like that. You are special. Your magic is unique. And, sadly," he sighed, excitement over the possibilities of all Merlin could do vanishing in the cold glare of harsh reality, "that is a danger to you as long as Uther is king."
Merlin sat back, looking uneasy. "More so than normal for sorcerers?"
"Yes, Merlin. More so than normal." Gaius rubbed at his temples, feeling a headache start. "Uther despises magic, but he knows its uses. It's why magic is simply very strictly regulated, not outright banned. But he also distrusts it, and any changes in what the king knows of magic and its variations has always made him feel threatened. And when he feels threatened, the people that introduced those changes tend to die."
Merlin paled dramatically. Gaius fixed the boy with a hard look. "That is why you must keep the extent of your abilities a secret. Most sorcerers could not have done what you did last night. Not without a spell."
Merlin didn't look comforted. "So, why am I still alive if even that was new?"
"Because you saved Arthur's life, and Uther has likely passed it off as an instinctive reaction on your part. A novice's frantic reach at something he can't truly wield as of yet. I will certainly encourage him to think of it that way."
Merlin nodded, still pale and looking as if he wanted nothing more than to run right back to Ealdor. Gaius couldn't blame him. It was rather overwhelming. He sighed, and levered himself to his feet, gathering their forgotten breakfast dishes.
"Go along, Merlin. I don't imagine either one of us has much of an appetite anymore. Just be careful."
Merlin made a face as he stood. "I'm not sure I'm ever going to be hungry again," he muttered, chancing a slight smile at Gaius, some of the color returning to his cheeks. The young always had recovered from shocks quicker than anyone else. Gaius was grateful for that, especially now.
The physician smiled back at Merlin. That humor would serve him well. He'd need it, working for Arthur. "Oh, I'm sure you'll be plenty hungry after a day spent following Arthur around. The prince, after all," he said, "has never been known to sit idle."
Merlin squared his shoulders, his entire posture and expression radiating determination. "Well, I'm not going to let him walk all over me, like everyone else seems content to do." A thought seemed to occur to him, and he suddenly grinned at Gaius. A cheeky, mischievous, utterly delighted grin. "It's not very good for his character, after all, if no one ever says no to him."
But the boy was already on his way out the door, pounding footsteps echoing as he pelted down the stairs and into the main corridors of the castle. "I'll be careful, I promise, Gaius! I have to go or I'll be late, though!"
"Merlin! What did I just tell you about going to the Court Genealogist!?"
Merlin's receding footsteps paused, then an echoing call of "Oops! Thanks for the reminder, Gaius!" reached his ears.
He really had no idea how Hunith had handled Merlin so well.
Arthur moved along at a steady pace, trying very hard not to advertise his annoyance to the entire castle by stalking towards the library. He'd almost been ready to order Merlin thrown in the stocks again when Gaius's message had reached him. Arthur felt a little bit embarrassed that he hadn't thought of Merlin's non-existent records himself. There really hadn't been time last night for any sort of official updating of the records, and it wasn't like it was a simple process. Arthur had sat through the registry of a couple of loyal sorcerers. There were literally dozens of questions and specifics that had to be answered.
But really, it did not take more than an hour at the very most! Merlin was overdue by at least two. It wasn't like there was all that much the idiot could do, surely.
"-make any sense! If I'm supposed to protect him, why can't I practice?"
Arthur paused outside the library doors and took a deep breath. Yes, Merlin was here. At least he hadn't wandered off and gotten lost on the relatively simple journey from here to Arthur's chambers, or decided to completely ignore the order to show up, but that didn't excuse his excessive tardiness.
"I'm aware this must be confusing for you, Merlin."
Arthur chose that moment to walk in. "Of course, you'd know all about insane, wouldn't you, Merlin?"
Merlin squawked in surprise and jerked his head around to stare at Arthur with wide blue eyes. Arthur glared right back.
Choosing to ignore the breach in protocol – but only this once – Arthur crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. "Would you care to explain what abilities you have that are taking two hours to explain to our Court Genealogist?"
Merlin drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. Arthur recognized the posture he had adopted last night, and tensed ever so slightly. He really didn't want to have to put Merlin in the stocks right now. It'd just mean more time spent later educating Merlin in his new duties, when they'd already lost most of the morning. But if the idiot pulled the same stunt he had last night, Arthur wouldn't have a choice.
"Isn't it better, Sire, for me to know Camelot's laws regarding magic, so I don't break any more of them on accident?"
Momentarily thrown by Merlin's sudden adoption of a respectful tone and Arthur's proper title, it took a moment for the golden-haired prince to decide on the appropriate response.
"You've been studying the laws on magic for the past two hours?" he clarified, dubious. "How…studious of you, Merlin."
The grin that Merlin gave him was utterly suspect, and not only because of the badly hidden glee in his expression either. This was the boy that thought he could challenge Arthur, after all.
He was going to ignore the fact that Merlin probably could best him if he used magic.
"Well, it took a while to explain why exactly I can't do much. It's not like there was anyone to teach me back home, and I didn't even know that spells existed! There are really a lot of questions for this registration thing, you know. And then we got all that sorted out and I was about to leave, but then it occurred to me that I don't really know what the laws about magic are, and your father already doesn't like me, so I really shouldn't break any of them on accident. So I thought, 'Who better to ask about the laws than the Court Genealogist?' and asked for a list and really, some of these laws make no sense whatsoever. I mean, how can any of the magic users here protect Camelot if they can't ever practice? And really, how stupid is that? Doesn't it defeat the purpose of having loyal sorcerers? I mean, you'd think the disloyal sorcerers get to practice all they want and practice makes you better at things, so shouldn't we get to do it as well? Well, I mean we as in people like me, cause it's not like you could say any of those magic words I didn't know existed and light a fire or something, but you probably knew what I meant anyway. Right?"
Geoffrey was studiously not looking at either of the young men in front of his desk, the faintest hint of a grin showing on his face as he reordered his stack of papers, Merlin was looking hopefully expectant and Arthur really had no clue just which part of that long rambling monologue to answer first. So he bypassed all of it.
"That nice, Merlin," he said condescendingly. "Now, if you're quite finished lazing around, I have other things you should be doing."
Merlin's expectant look fell, replaced by disappointment. "But…you didn't answer my question."
Arthur sighed, restraining the urge to rub at the headache beginning in his temples. He had a feeling this insubordination was going to be a running theme with Merlin. "What question? I was under the impression you were spewing nonsense to get out of learning your new duties and to excuse your excessive tardiness." He glared at the still seated boy. "I know exactly how many questions you had to answer this morning, Merlin. You should have been done long before now."
Merlin stood, expression starting to slide back towards the one he had worn in Arthur's chambers last night. Arthur tensed for a confrontation.
"I was asking, Sire," Merlin began, sarcasm weighing heavily on the title, "about your opinion on the restriction of the learning and practice of magical abilities in Camelot. If the only time a sorcerer is allowed to use their talents is in the defense of the kingdom or the royal family, how can you be sure they can actually do anything worthwhile during an attack?"
"Magic corrupts, Merlin. You're young enough and untrained, so it's highly unlikely you've felt the temptations yet. But you will. That's why my father established these laws. They're as much for your own protection as the normal citizens."
Merlin's eyes flashed with anger, and Arthur could have sworn they flickered with gold momentarily, but Merlin was speaking before he could decide what he had actually seen. "Aside from the fact that the only temptation I've ever felt from my magic is to use it to finish chores faster and maybe to clout insufferable prats upside the head with a bucket, and that it doesn't corrupt people – they do that on their own - that's my point." The younger man crossed his own arms, frowning fiercely. "How is any protection done if no one knows what they're doing?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "You knew what you were doing last night."
"No, I didn't."
Arthur blinked, startled. "What?"
Merlin met his gaze without shame. "You said it yourself. I'm untrained. I didn't know what I was doing. I just reacted." His blue gaze slid down and to the left, his shoulders shrugged. "Gaius called it a novice's desperate grab at what he can't truly wield as of yet." Blue eyes slid back up to meet his. "I told you. I didn't even know spoken spells existed until I got here and Gaius told me. All I know about my magic and what it can do I've learned on my own, and it's not very much at all."
"So…wait," Arthur held up a hand. "How did you stop the dagger then?"
Merlin shrugged. "I've had magic longer than I can remember. Moving things around is simple for me. All I did was reach for it." His face twisted in concentration and memory. "I think I somehow shielded myself from the sleep spell?" he continued, more question than statement. "I mean, it put Gaius to sleep – and he actually knows what he's doing! – but I stayed awake, so I think I did something, but I couldn't tell you what." He shrugged. "Like Gaius said, a novice's grab. Whatever I did, it meant I was awake to do what I did know how to do." The contemplation disappeared, replaced by an unexpectedly sharp gaze. "So, what about it? How am I supposed to do what the king wants me to if I can't learn how?"
Arthur didn't know quite what to think about that, because Merlin was making quite a bit of sense. They didn't give knights a sword and then tell them never to practice with it and then expect them to know how to use it in a battle. But his father's laws on magic were there for very good and specific reasons. He was going to need an iron-clad argument if he was going to grant Merlin an exception.
"I'll look into it," Arthur conceded with a regal nod. "Now, you're already late. Morris is going to show you what you need to know to be my manservant. He's waiting for you in kitchens."
"But – practicing –"
"I said I'd look into it." Arthur grabbed Merlin's arm and used it to push the younger man towards the door. "You have other duties to learn how to do, that don't require the breaking or bending of some of Camelot's most important laws."
"I survived for years without your help, Merlin. I'll manage a few more days," Arthur gritted out. "Do I have to have the guards escort you to the kitchens? I've already told you what you're doing today. Do it."
Merlin glared at him for a few more seconds, before his gaze skipped behind Arthur and his shoulders slumped. Without a word, he left the library. Arthur grumbled under his breath for a second before turning back to Geoffrey.
"I have some records I'd like you to find for me, Geoffrey."
"Of course, Sire," the old recorder conceded. "How far back would you like me to search?"
Arthur blinked. "I haven't even told you which records I want to review."
"Merlin did have some valid arguments," was his only answer.
Arthur sighed and conceded that point. "The past ten years, and any records you can find on the sorcerers that have attacked since the laws were put in place."
"Of course, Sire," the Court Genealogist repeated.
Arthur nodded, and left, already planning how to present Merlin's proposal to his father. There was one other person's opinion he needed.
"Gaius? I'd like to ask you some questions."
The old physician started, having been absorbed in his work. He looked up to see the prince standing just inside his doorway.
"Sire, of course," he said, and gestured at the workbench. "Please, sit. What did you need to know?" He ran an expert eye over the prince. "You're not hurt, are you?"
A small smile. "No, Gaius, nothing of the sort. I need your opinion on a matter of magic."
"Oh?" This was new. Arthur had never been very curious about magic, content to let his father tell him all he needed to know about the subject. It was an attitude Gaius had never been able to correct.
The golden-haired young man sat and leaned his arms on his knees. "I need you to tell me about Merlin's abilities, first of all. And then I want you to tell me, honestly, what you think of the law regarding when a sorcerer may use his magic."
"Of course," Gaius replied, slightly wary. "But may I ask why the curiosity? Geoffrey should have all of Merlin's records updated by now, and I know you have heard your father and I discuss the laws on magic before now."
"Geoffrey is compiling some records for me, and I'd rather hear about Merlin's abilities from another magic user. That discussion was several years ago, and I understood less than half the conversation. I was twelve," Arthur replied, eyes serious. "Merlin brought something to my attention I think needs addressing. I want to know your opinion based on the events of last night."
Gaius studied the young man before him for a long moment, and then nodded. "This may take some time, Sire," he said, moving to take a seat of his own.
Arthur shifted to a more comfortable position and smiled. "I have the time, Gaius."
The physician smiled back. "Very well, Sire. Now, let me think where to start…"