"Merlin," Arthur said later that evening, not bothering to look up from his documents. The servant glanced over his shoulder while polishing the prince's boots, making a noise to show he was listening. "The next time I do something that you think is…insensitive or unreasonable to the people in the lower town, even if it's because of ignorance of the way things really are outside the palace, don't be afraid to speak up about it."
Merlin raised his eyebrows in surprise. Usually Arthur wanted him to keep up a respectful façade in public and hold his tongue until they got away from anyone who would disapprove of his normal cheeky insolence. He didn't want to look weak by letting his servant talk back to him, although he never had a problem with that when they were alone, only in front of others.
"Really?" he asked. "Even if there are townspeople around to hear me?"
"Especially if there are townspeople to hear you."
"Why would you want the townspeople to hear me criticizing you?" he asked incredulously, wondering if the prince had finally lost his marbles.
"Because, Merlin, if the people see that I'm willing to listen to a servant, to actually listen and take his words into account, then they may be more willing to speak to me themselves. I don't want my people to be afraid of me, or to think me unreachable because of my station. I want them to feel safe to approach me with their problems and not think that I'll look down on them because they're not nobility. Their problems are just as worthy as those of the nobles, and I want them to know that I see it that way. Maybe if they see that I'm willing to take your advice into consideration, they'll feel more free to speak up as well." Merlin didn't answer for a moment and Arthur glanced up to see his servant smiling at him with a strange look on his face. "What?" he asked.
"You've come a long way, Arthur," he said, unmistakable pride coloring his tone. Arthur was surprised and a little embarrassed at how warm his servant's esteem made him feel and he shifted in his seat.
"From the man you were when I met you." He put aside the boot and turned slightly to face him more fully. "The arrogant prince, always bullying the servants and pushing people around for laughs, completely disregarding those around you. You're not anything like that anymore. You've grown into a good man." Arthur put down his documents and looked at his servant, the first person he could really call a friend.
"You've had a lot to do with that, you know," he admitted suddenly. Merlin looked a bit confused. "With me becoming a better man."
"Really?" he asked. "How so?"
"I was so arrogant and disrespectful at that time because I had never met a peasant or a servant or a noble that I felt deserved my respect," he explained, leaning back in his chair. "I'm a warrior, a fighter, and I respect someone who can stand his ground against an opponent. And yet everyone I had ever met, apart from Morgana, would cater to my every whim and bow at my every word. So I started pushing, just to see how far people would allow me to go. I would push and push, and everyone around me would just give in, letting me take whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it, no matter the cost to them. All the servants seemed perfectly willing to take the abuse I threw at them, no matter how humiliating it was. No one was willing to stand up for themselves, servant or noble alike, so I felt they deserved everything they were prepared to take from me. They wouldn't have my respect until they fought for it.
"You were the first person in my life besides Morgana—who I don't really count since we grew up practically as siblings—to actually stand up and push back. You, a scrawny little peasant boy, were brave enough to step in and defend someone you didn't even know because you felt it was the right thing to do. Of course, I didn't take kindly to it, but I wasn't used to being criticized by anyone, especially not publically. But then once you were in the dungeons, I found I was actually rather disappointed that you hadn't known who I was. I expected that once you knew I was the prince, you would come back bowing and stuttering apologies and begging forgiveness like the rest of them, and I was disappointed by that.
"But then you came back and stood your ground again, insulting me and mocking me and even gladly engaging in a fight in the marketplace with a mace you had no idea how to use. It may have been stupid, but it was brave. I respect fighters, Merlin, and you put up the best damn fight of anyone I'd ever met, regardless of your lack of actual combat skills. What I had been looking for for years was a battle of wills and I found it in you, Merlin. You were the first person to not be cowed by my title, the first to look me in the eye and see a person instead of just a name and a crown. You weren't afraid to challenge me in anything and everything and you earned my respect very early on for that. You showed me that everyone is worthy of my respect, despite their station or their blood, if they're willing to fight for it like you are."
"So you actually enjoy when I call you names and tell you're being stupid," Merlin asked, his tone teasing but his eyes glowing with happiness and fondness. Arthur rolled his eyes, his smile belaying his feigned irritation.
"Not in so many words, but I appreciate that you don't treat me differently because I'm the prince. You don't walk on eggshells around me, fearing for your life all the time, like most servants seem to. I can't stand it when servants are so submissive and nervous, like I'm going to imprison them for breathing too loudly."
"In their defense, you have been known to put me in the stocks for humming," Merlin pointed out.
"That's because your humming is immensely irritating and off-key," Arthur shot back.
"It is not off-key," Merlin squawked indignantly. "I'll have you know that I'm quite good musically, thank you very much."
"Right, I'll believe that when I hear it."
"Is that a request for me to sing to you, sire?"
"Absolutely not, Merlin, don't you dare start singing."
"Are you sure, sire? I know some great tavern songs."
"Of course you do, Merlin, what with all the time you spend in there instead of doing your duties like a proper servant."
"Weren't we just discussing how you didn't like proper servants?"
"Nah, you'd get bored."
Arthur dropped his head into his hands, trying to stifle a laugh. He heard Merlin chuckling away as he returned to polishing his boots. Merlin may have been the most improper, insolent and inefficient servant he had ever seen, but Arthur really wouldn't have him any other way.