"Gweneviere tells me that tonight is the servant's annual feast."
Merlin hummed distractedly as he tried to wipe the smudge of dirt from the links of Arthur's chainmail. It was a stubborn smudge, Merlin had no idea what it was and hoped to god it wasn't rust, Arthur would kill him.
He heard Arthur sigh gustily from his lazy slouch at his desk. "You don't have to beg Merlin; you can have the night off."
Merlin blinked up from his work shaking his to the change in focus. "What?" surely he had misheard.
Arthur rolled his eyes, standing up and stretching from his seat. "You have the night off to do whatever it is that servants do when they're not serving, now…" the King waved arms at the exit, "go."
Merlin blinked again. A Night-off. Logically he knew what the words meant, but it was akin to reading a description of a beast in a book, you can believe yourself fully prepared but when faced with the real thing all you can do is stop and stare.
Apparently his lack of meaningful reaction was not what the King wanted, "Out Merlin!" he growled.
Next thing Merlin knew he was blinking in shock on the other side of Arthur's door he turned to see Arthur closing the door, "And under no circumstances are you to come back in this chamber until at least high sun tomorrow!"
And then the door was closed. Merlin blinked, again, at the wooden planks inches from his face. And shrugged his shoulder, he wasn't going to scoff at a night off.
For a moment he contemplated just going to bed, giving in to his body's demands for a full night's sleep, but that felt like such a waste. Merlin never even contemplated attending the feast. It had gotten passed the stage of the servants hating him a few years ago, mostly. But he had been the prince's manservant, now the King's, and as low born as servants may be even they had their hierarchy. It was the equivalent of ARTHUR attending a squire's party. It made everyone uncomfortable and nervous.
It hadn't been so bad when Gwen had dragged him along. He would tag along behind her, add witty rejoinders to her conversation, making Gwen smile which would make everyone else relax, basically trying to come across as harmless and humble as possible. Merlin would drag her onto the dance floor for a few rounds then they would pilfer a bottle of wine and escape to the gardens for the rest of the night.
But now Gwen was Queen, she couldn't really do things like that with her husband's servant and – Merlin smirked at the closed door as he started moving away – if the King's actions spoke for anything the Queen would be a bit busy tonight.
When he returned back to his chambers he was still at a loss as to his plans, moreover he had trouble deciding what he would like to do most.
"Merlin!" Gaius exclaimed with a smile. "You're home early."
"Arthur gave me the night off," Merlin shrugged levering himself down into the table bench. Perhaps he would just stay in with Gaius tonight, talk until the candle burnt out about the old days when magic was free, perhaps play a little chess, fetch some food from the kitchens…
"Well you have fun."
Merlin blinked up from his planning to see Gaius in his outdoor robes on ready to go. "Wait, where are you going?"
"I have a long standing appointment to allow Geoffrey to beat me at chess," Gaius mused wryly, giving Merlin a pat to the shoulder on his way past. "Don't stay out too late!" the physician called over his shoulder before the door swung shut behind him.
"Hey Elsa," Merlin mumbled, leaning against the door to the kitchens. It was always open, to allow ladened servants to pass through with hands full and to allow the free flow of air into the stuffy space.
"Merlin darlin'" Elsa, the second cook smiled warmly. "Their highness's food has already gone up love."
"Nah, I know. Arthur gave me the night off," Merlin shrugged, pushing off the door frame.
"Eh, wonders never cease! It's 'mazin' what marriage can do for a man eh?"
"Yeah…" Merlin looked a little helplessly around the abandoned kitchen, all the others no doubt at the party. "You need any help?"
"No love, you go off, have fun. Find one o' them knight friends of yours."
Merlin thought of Gwaine and his ready laughs and sent Elsa a small smile. "OK, will do. Night Elsa."
"Gwaine!" Merlin called joyfully rounding the corner of the courtyard, "I was just looking for you. Arthur's given me the night off, I can take you up on that drink now!"
Gwaine winced slightly glancing over his shoulder before looking back to Merlin. "Ah, can't tonight mate, lads night with the Knights."
Merlin tried not to let his disappointment show on his face. "Oh…"
Gwaine scratched the back of his head, and now Merlin had made Gwaine feel uncomfortable, great, he needed to go now. "I would invite you but… you know, it's a Knights thing…"
"No, hey, not a problem. I'll be the one laughing tomorrow when Arthur is beating you all across the training ground." Merlin hoped his grin didn't look as wooden as it felt on his face.
Gwaine gave a short laugh. "But me and you, tomorrow yeah? We'll paint the town red."
Merlin didn't mention that tomorrow night he would likely be working, catching up with all the chores he wouldn't get done tonight. But Gwaine looked so guilty that Merlin found the reassuring "Sure" leave his lips before he could stop it.
Gwaine grinned, and gave him a pat to the shoulder before departing. Merlin heard the cacophony of shouts and catcalls that signalled Gwaine had met up with the knights around the corner, their hum of excited conversation getting further away until there was just silence.
Merlin took a quick glance around the street, realising that he was now standing alone on the cobbles and beat a hasty retreat.
It was times like this that he missed people the most; Balinor, Will, Lancelot... Freya. And he hated it because his loneliness tainted his grief for them - He missed the idea of them more than the people themselves. The idea that someone could love him most out of all the wondrous things in the world. That he would be the first thing they thought of in the morning and their last thought at night.
He sighed as he flopped back onto his small bed. He let out a sad chuckle, the idea pierced through his heart like a pin, sharp and painful, more painful due to the fact that he knew that it would never come to pass.
The chambers around him were still empty and silent. He revelled in the joy for a moment of his magic seeping from his pores, snuffing the flame form the candle before his room was plunged into darkness.
When the day came he smiled politely as Gwen enquired about the servant's feast, grinned at Gwaine's hangover and listened to Gaius complain about Geoffrey always beating him at everything.
And then the day ended, and the world became quiet and Merlin waited for the next day to come.