Author's Notes: Sorry for the lateness, college has been super-crazy.
It felt strange. Well, rather, it felt strange that it didn't feel strange. The cool metal of the collar felt as though it had been there since birth, fused with the thin skin of his clavicles. It dipped into the curves of his (skinny, according to the King) neck, embracing the flesh, feeding on it. It was elegant, pristine. Something he most definitely wasn't.
"Don't play with it, you'll go blind," came the sleepy voice from the depth of their chambers.
Merlin let his hand fall from the silver encasing his skin. He studied his reflection, wondering how he had ended up this way. A very together, strict, constrained warlock dressed as a pretty decoration for the King's side. He had never considered himself good-looking, having always been a bit on the slim side with his brittle bones and lack of muscle, having been teased by his peers in the village with mean childhood nicknames like chicken and mouse-face. And yet, Arthur had turned out to be right: there was nothing a little grooming couldn't do. Before, Merlin had rolled his eyes when his master had complained about all the pampering, writing it off as a spoilt brat's capricious episode; now, though, after having been subjected to hours of scrubbing courtesy of his scary maid, he finally understood how hard it was to maintain a public face.
Though the bags under his eyes betrayed the events leading up to this minute, Merlin Pendragon was as put-together as he had been since the moment he'd pledged his love to the King. He stood in front of the mirror, restraining himself from reaching out towards the man (boy) looking back. His skinny shoulders were drowned in a grand dressing gown sewn with the finest velvets and gilded threads of the kingdom. It cascaded down his figure, opened at the chest where a couple of lovebites, mixed with bruises from the rough handling from the day he'd spent in the dungeon, stood out against the pallidness of his skin. His hair was a mess, and his feet were bare as he refused to wear the ridiculous royal slippers in favor of letting the soles of his feet feel the biting cold of the castle morning. It felt as though nothing had changed overnight.
Except for the collar. The fine silver encased the central blue sapphire, rendering the otherwise tasteless big gem beautiful. Down from it hung several strings of opal and topaz, all linked together with minuscule chains. Out of the sapphire grew flowers, beautiful horned roses and grand fleurs-de-lys. Two mythical dragon-fish surrounded the gem, rendering the feminine accessory slightly more wearable by a man. It was an astonishing piece of craftsmanship; the envy of all women (and some men) of the land, and all Merlin wanted to do was rip it off. . _1345628338_
"Come back to bed, Merlin, it's too early to think as loudly as you do," came the voice again and Merlin sighed, turning away from his reflection and paddling back into the bowels of the chamber where the King lay on their bed, eyes blurred with sleep, chest bare, scarcely covered by the woolen blankets recently imported from Mercia. Without a word, the Consort slipped into bed, exchanging the gown for the warmth of Arthur's body underneath the coarse threading.
He propped himself up on one elbow and surveyed his King's tired face. The man looked as if he had been the one to spend the previous night in chains fearing for his life. Merlin could tell it had taken a toll on him as well. It touched him, that Arthur cared this much about him, despite being close to... He didn't even know what... Ugh, this is such a mess, he thought to himself and let his muscles succumb to the urge of simply relaxing and laid down all the way alongside Arthur.
"What were you doing there?" The King questioned quietly, opening one eye gingerly to look at his warlock.
"Nothing," Merlin answered with a strained smile, wishing Arthur would just close his eyes again and sleep like all normal people did. Arthur raised and eyebrow, inching a bit closer to intrude into Merlin's personal space even more. "Just... thinking."
"I guess it's a lot to take in," Arthur mused quietly, his eyes darting between the fine gem of the collar and Merlin's weary eyes.
"For both of us," Merlin confirmed. He let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry's not... not what I'm looking for," Arthur said quietly. "I just... I wish I had known before. We could have..."
"Executed me earlier?" Merlin managed a laugh. "I don't think so."
"Stop it, you know what I mean."
A tense pause hung in the air.
The great hall fell into an immediate hush when the heavy doors opened and the King and his Consort stepped inside, preceded by Gaius and Agravaine. The Knights seemed to lean towards them as they walked through the live corridor to take their places on their thrones. They gravitated towards the Pendragons, some whispering encouraging things under their breath for Merlin to hear, other simply nodding to them. Merlin lowered his eyes, trying to avoid the many gazes that were fixed on him, or rather, on his exposed neck, framed by silks and wools; the vertebrae seemingly held up by the silver collar. He thought he heard a snigger travel throughout the hall quietly, almost soundlessly. That, surprisingly, did not serve to discourage him – instead, even as Arthur's hand around his elbow tightened a fraction, Merlin raised his chin defiantly and continued walking, crossing the torturous distance that was left.
As they sat in their thrones, the hall seemed to relax, and chatter broke out immediately. Merlin couldn't tell whether they were discussing him or another matter, but he kept an eager ear out. Arthur had told him this morning that it was impervious for them to know what the people of the Court, as well as the people of the street, were saying about the two of them and (he'd said it with a pause) Merlin's delicate magical... situation. Personally, Merlin found it extremely humorous from a certain perspective that Arthur was more worried about him having Magic than Merlin himself. It was almost as if Arthur was emulating Hunith, that one time when Merlin had barely scraped his knee when he'd fallen from the branches of a tree he'd used to climb and she had insisted on him seeing the village physician. So much ado about nothing, Merlin thought, nodding at Gawain who'd just grinned at him and winked. At least he still had his friends on his side, through thick and thin. During his short stay in the dungeon, he had been visited by several knights, all of which had reasserted their kinship with Merlin. Such devotion was touching, to say the least, and Merlin basked in it. In the village, where he had been born and raised, he had been a bit of an outcast, with only a handful of distant friends to boast. Here, though, in spite of his predicament, there were people who had much better things to do with their time (they were knights, after all) willing to pledge their lives for his sake.
"Good morning, people of the Court," Arthur began and, immediately, the hall fell into a hush, all heads turning to look at the King. Though Merlin knew they were waiting for further instructions from their sovereign, he couldn't help but feel that some gazes were slipping myopically to himself, and his treacherous body straightened its shoulders, sitting rigidly in its seat. Arthur himself spared him an amused split-second's glance before standing regally, his hands clenched into fists and planted onto the tabletop in an authoritative manner:
"As I am sure you all know, my spouse, my Royal Consort, Merlin Pendragon, has been revealed to be a sorcerer. He wields magic of such power we haven't seen," Merlin blushed, "and yet has remained a faithful member of this court, never giving me or any other knight any reason to doubt his allegiances. As it is, magic is prohibited in the kingdom, and Merlin submitted to a compromise, the only alternative to which would be the death penalty as instituted by the laws of Camelot. His magic has been harnessed and bound to me personally for the safety of this Kingdom. Though I firmly believe he shall never deviate from his righteous and reasonable path, I am the one who now holds his powers captive all for the benefit of Camelot. Any questions?"
There was a tense pause, bursting at the seams with inquiries that nobody dared make. With a timid whisper that passed over the hall, the nobility chose to remain silent, their eyes fixed perpetually on their ruler.
"Agravaine?" Arthur asked, his gaze darting towards his uncle. The King was no fool, he knew Agravaine at the very least meant to undermine his political power with his serpentine political talk, yet, as Merlin himself had confirmed had been a good idea, he had chosen to 'keep his enemies closer.'
"My Lord, I was just wondering..." Agravaine trailed off vaguely, his slimy presence reverberating along the castle walls. Merlin shivered.
"What if your... husband," it was definitely a dirty word in Agravaine's mind, "were to break his promise and find a way to reclaim his magic to see your Kingdom destroyed?"
An uncomfortable silence fell.
"Although that is very unlikely, because Merlin and I are very much in love with each other and the whole Kingdom of Camelot," Arthur paused to look at Merlin who hurriedly nodded in confirmation, his heart beating rapidly in his chest, "if he were ever to switch sides to that of my dear sister, I would not hesitate to terminate his life. Permanently."
Merlin took in a shuddering breath. For the love of Camelot. That was what it came down to, he realized, and yet he couldn't help but feel just a singly, tiny, little bit betrayed by Arthur's statement. He could not fool himself into thinking that the King was in love with him yet he had supposed that maybe, just maybe, Arthur could put him before his stupid nobility. Yet the answer stared him right in the eyes – Camelot was Arthur's first and only love, and rightfully so, and he was just a visitor in this blissful relationship the two had built all throughout Arthur's childhood and well into his adult years. He was just a supplement, he knew, yet his treacherous heart had supposed... no.
"And what does the Royal Consort have to say about this?" Agravaine asked, his voice so acidic it could corrode the castle walls.
Merlin glanced rapidly at his husband, searching. Arthur nodded almost imperceptibly. Whatever you say is fine.
"I would accept my fate then, Lord Agravaine," Merlin replied, surprisingly loudly even to himself, his voice steady. I guess all it takes is telling the truth and believing in it, a bitter thought crossed his mind before he quenched it down, suffocating it with the weight of the affection he felt for his King and Kingdom. "For if I were to betray my Lord and husband, and this Kingdom, which has offered me such bounty and spared my life for the unforgivable sin of magic, I would have been infested with a demon of some sort and I would choose to eradicate it by means of death from my body before it took to causing any more harm."
"But surely, Your Highness, your personal ideals go against the politics of Camelot?" Agravaine asked, his gaze darting between the knights for support. Most of them turned away, choosing not to look into the eyes of the man.
"My ideals have nothing to do with the laws of this Kingdom, Lord Agravaine. When I came here, I willfully chose to abide the laws of King Uther and his family, and to betray them again, as I have done in the face of necessity, would be unthinkable and extremely cowardly on my part. As it is, if King Arthur chooses to use my magic for his benefit and the benefit of every creature living within the bounds of this land, I shall abide his call and try, to my very utmost, to contribute to the salvation of my beloved home country," Merlin answered, startling himself with his own eloquence. He supposed it came from the numerous hours he'd spent writing Arthur's speeches back in his servant days, – not that he didn't do it now.
The knights looked as if they were watching a very interesting justing tournament, their necks straining under the back-and-forth motion of looking at each participant.
"This," Merlin paused, his hand doing up to touch the cool metal of the sapphire collar around his neck so familiarly, as if he had worn it since birth, "is a testament to my commitment. The contract can only be entered voluntarily and I have signed over my magical powers and all of my capabilities, sorcery and not, to my husband, my King, whom I hold in extremely high regard, and love dearly, with every fibre of my being."
He looked up only to see Arthur staring down at him with a confused and slightly elated expression on his face, akin to one he would get after having been hit over the head with a shield.
What? Merlin thought, slightly amused.
That was... very good acting, Arthur replied before slipping his hand down to hold Merlin's on top of the tabletop for every member of the Court to see.
I meant it, Merlin replied before thinking.
Then I accept it, Arthur answered, his gaze slipping to the curve of Merlin's smile that spread stupidly over his lips in the view of every single knight of the realm. They wrote off the sentimental lop-sided grin as a gesture of affection on the side of the King's foolish magical husband, and Merlin was all right with that because nothing mattered at that moment except for one thing: the King accepted him.
"That... was... successful."
"Can't... have to..."
"Not now... damn it!"
The panted statements made very little sense to those uttering them as their lips smashed together in hurried, fleeting lip-locks while their owners struggled to find their way across the darkened chambers and into their marital bed. Merlin was pretty sure he'd knocked over more than one candle-holder on the way, with Arthur evening out the score by crashing a suit of armor to the ground somewhere in the North wing. They had been in this dance for what felt like hours, rushed hands wandering over each others bodies, exploring every curiosity they hadn't indulged in before. While very little of substance had been said, Merlin felt so deeply in synch with Arthur as if they had just spilled their utmost secrets to each other.
Or maybe it was Arthur's tongue in his mouth.
Either way, they traipsed and treaded over pillows and garments and oh, Guinevere's cat, before finally falling into the luxury of the silk sheets imported from Mercia. Merlin felt hot, hot all over, as Arthur's hands left blazing trails of shameless fire up and down his chest, his tunic now somewhere between his chin and his floating ribs.
Despite their marriage having been based on lies and a very strategically planned public relations campaign, they had always had a healthy bedroom life, as Arthur had daintily put it once. Yet, there had been very few times on record when Merlin had felt like he couldn't stand the heat they shared, when it consumed him completely and utterly like a flame powered by aromatic oils. He was a fool to complain, of course, but he almost wished he could erase his own memories so that times like these would always be experienced for the first time.
"Stop... thinking... you're too... loud," Arthur whined directly into Merlin's lips, biting the bottom one in the process and drawing a shameless moan from his Consort.
"Someone has... to... out of the two... of us," Merlin panted back, scratching up and down Arthur's back with his primp fingernails (which had gotten cleaner and longer during his time as a member of the royal family).
"Sometimes... I wonder... how I... tolerate... you," Arthur said before sinking his teeth into the skin of his collarbone.
"Because you love me," Merlin replied before promptly closing his mouth with a snap of his jaw joint. I can't believe I just said that, he thought to himself, his heart pounding. In a second's time, it felt like the temperature in the room had dropped twofold.
Arthur distanced himself from his husband as if he had been burnt.
"What did you just say?" He asked quietly, watching Merlin closely, his lips still wet from the kissing and the sweat the two had shared just moments before.
"Merlin, I think you misunderstood our wedding vows," Arthur said sharply. Merlin's heart gave a small twang and suddenly, the words were tumbling off his tongue without thinking:
"Or maybe you did."
There was a tense pause.
"Do you mean to say, Merlin, that you expected me to fall in love with you?" Arthur asked quietly, dangerously, distantly.
"I never expected anything. I just thought–,"
"I don't even like men, Merlin!"
"Could have fooled me."