Title: The Chatter of Britain
Rating: Adult, barely
Notes: A birthday gift and thanks, of a sort, to thehoyden--for always writing with such charm, and for accidentally pimping me into the dratted fandom in the first place. Thanks also go out to shayheyred for the beta and rageprufrock for shaking the pom-poms.
Summary: Gossip is what binds a court together; gossip, intrigue, and innuendo.
Merlin walked through the larder doorway only to stumble upon a hushed feminine conference, obviously being held in the greatest of secrecy. One of the cook's apprentices was whispering rather loudly to another behind her cupped hand.
"And then she said, 'Mighty sword? A dagger, more like!'"
He rolled his eyes at the cascade of giggles and cleared his throat to announce his presence.
"'Scuse me, ladies, I just need a couple of apples for Arthur's horse-- great, thank you!" He caught the apples and pretended to lose his grip, catching them at the last possible moment and juggling them with a flourish to restore the under-cooks' gaiety. The girls laughed at his antics and he left them with a wink and a crunch of the extra apple they'd tossed him.
Regardless of what certain parties might think, he wasn't stupid. One pissed off the kitchen staff at one's own peril.
* * *
How best to keep cordial relations with the kitchen staff wasn't the only thing Merlin had learned about navigating court life. Because just like anyplace else, but somehow even more than most, Camelot was rife with gossip.
Gossip is what binds a court together; gossip, intrigue, and innuendo. It is the gossamer strand connecting all and sundry, from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low, and when a particularly juicy morsel lands, the reverberation of the threads is felt by one and all.
That night, the web was positively thrumming around poor Sir Hectimere, whose horse had spooked and bucked him off into a lake. By noon the next day, he would likely have taken fright at the sight of a rabbit (or something equally harmless) and jumped into the ocean of his own accord, rusting his best armor beyond repair in the process.
If Hectimere proved lucky, he'd be in for a fair amount of teasing for the next few weeks. If not, his reputation could suffer a serious decline.
It hadn't taken Merlin long to realize that the common coin was weighed more by entertainment value than by accuracy. Although some of the first whisperings he'd heard -- Morgana coupled with a serpent on the night of the full moon, Uther ate babies, Arthur liked boys -- well, some of the things he'd heard before he'd known better than to listen to them stuck with him, and proved annoyingly difficult to un-hear.
He made certain to look impressed whenever someone "favored" him with any such tidbit, but he rarely gave them a second thought anymore and never, ever passed them along.
* * *
Merlin was delivering a stack of Arthur's dirty clothes to the laundress when Gwen sidled up to him. "Morgana wishes to speak with you," she murmured, hardly moving her lips at all. "Be sure to notice the sheet I forget once I'm gone, and offer to deliver it to her rooms yourself."
By the time Merlin processed that and blinked, Gwen had collected her own stack of cloth and departed. Sure enough, the one on the bottom had been left behind.
* * *
"My lady, your laundry?" Merlin offered, unable to keep one brow from rising along with his tone.
"Come in and put it away, then," Morgana said, and stepped aside so he could enter her chambers.
He bumped the door shut behind him and placed the crisply folded sheet on the table. "I have no idea where this goes."
Morgana waved his words aside and studied him. "No matter," she finally spoke. "Obviously, the bedding is not at issue. And it goes in that cupboard, over there." Merlin sighed and put the sheet away. How many sheets did one noblewoman need, anyway? When she didn't even have to wash them herself? And why on earth had he been summoned with such a ruse?
"It has come to my attention that you are ... surprisingly discreet."
"Yes, exactly," Morgana's tone evidenced her amusement. "So I wondered if you might apply that discretion to a small errand on my behalf?"
Merlin's response was, of course, as expected. "Anything I can do for my lady."
Perhaps he was getting good at navigating his way around court life.
* * *
He was definitely getting too good at not standing out like an imbecile, if this was what his hard-won invisibility bought him.
His errand to purchase a certain preparation for Morgana ("strictly as an assurance for the distant future, although why I am explaining myself to a servant I do not know") had been a success. His endeavors to deliver it to her, however, were shaping up to be less so.
"Why, what have we here?" Arthur clasped him roughly on the shoulder and snatched the vial out of Merlin's suddenly stupid hands. The look of shock on Arthur's face was swiftly painted over with a façade of aggressive good humor. "My word, lad, getting girls in trouble already? It's no wonder you didn't want to go to Gaius for this." Merlin was going to have bruises where Arthur was squeezing him, he just knew it.
He couldn't possibly tell Arthur the truth, even if Arthur was smiling dementedly down at him like a predator baring his teeth. He felt the need to say something, though.
"Not-- It's not for me," he gasped, as Arthur's grip became impossibly tighter and then released him.
"Ah. No, of course not," Arthur agreed mildly, eyes as normal and un-crazed as if Merlin had imagined the whole exchange. "Got roped into preventing some lordling's by-blow, didn't you, I'm sure. Besides," he said, whispering into Merlin's ear as if imparting a great secret. "It's the lady who has to drink it."
* * *
Merlin rubbed his ear again and wondered if Arthur had done something to it. It was hot and ticklish and kept reminding him of their earlier encounter.
The vial slipped neatly in the folds of linen lining the basket Gwen was preparing for Morgana's midday meal. They were going to ride out and fly Morgana's kestrel, which Merlin knew because he'd received strict delivery instructions from the king's ward herself (who may have trusted his discretion but obviously suspected his native intelligence to be rather lacking).
"Did you speak to, um." Gwen asked quietly.
"Yeah, she just wanted to ask me something," he said, and allowed her to draw her own conclusions as to why Arthur's manservant might have information that would interest her lady. With a sinking sensation, Merlin realized he was starting to wonder whether Morgana's motives had something to do with Arthur, himself, so he couldn't blame Gwen for the direction her thoughts were likely to turn.
Arthur really was incredibly handsome, after all.
* * *
Uther beckoned him with an imperious wave, so Merlin carefully set down the flagon he'd been holding and wove his way around the dancers to the throne.
"How may I be of service, sire?"
Uther spoke so quietly Merlin was forced to bend down to hear him. "You are not entirely useless." Oh, joy. What praise. "I expect you will be able to deliver this to Lady Elaine without alerting her father."
"Certainly, my lord." Merlin palmed the small scroll and returned to his station, casting a glance at the visiting lord and his blonde-ringleted young daughter.
Later, in his room, he cut the sealed ribbon binding the parchment, confident in his ability to seamlessly repair it.
"Love poetry?" he demanded of the night air, mildly outraged. "Uther doesn't eat babies, he seduces them."
* * *
Arthur was grumbling about his endless social duties while Merlin outfitted him with visitor-appropriate finery. "I don't know how I'm supposed to entertain a stupid girl for three hours," he continued sulkily. "Especially one I'm never going to be asked to marry. You're lucky, Merlin, you don't have to come."
"I don't?" he asked, concerned about the sudden flaw in his plan for delivering Uther's little scroll.
"Take the afternoon. Help Gaius, or do... whatever," Arthur said, almost kindly.
Merlin thought fast. He paused in the process of lacing up Arthur's left boot and looked up at him. "That's okay. Whither thou goest, sire, and all that," and found himself answering Arthur's adorably pleased look with a fellow grin.
* * *
Arthur was much less pleased when he caught Merlin delivering the king's missive to Lady Elaine.
Merlin had thought they were alone when he'd handed it to her with a discreet bow and the words "the king wished you to have this, passed in secret from his hand to your heart." Words which he'd muttered rather unconvincingly because although he'd been duty-bound to say them, he didn't have to like it.
Elaine's countenance had lit up just the same, and then Merlin was being yanked backwards by the elbow until he crashed against something unyielding and bumpy.
Arthur had apparently dragged him around the other side of a massive tree, and Merlin couldn't even see around it to the spot where the rest of their party and the Lady Elaine were settled. "What?" he yelled more than asked, tired of machinations and manhandling.
Arthur just gripped his upper arms and slammed him back into the tree trunk again, pinning him there.
"I didn't believe the rumors at first," Arthur growled. "I mean, you're -- you're Merlin," he said, a little bewildered exasperation coloring his anger. "And even after I found you with that, that. I didn't like to think. You're just too-- I thought we-- And then you--! Augh!"
Arthur pressed him back against the tree again, but softly. His forehead rested against Merlin's -- and, really, he seemed anguished for some reason, and his eyelashes were ridiculously long when viewed up close.
Merlin licked his dry-as-dust lips and said again, "What?" Only this time it came out kind of small and croaked.
"I don't even care if half the court has had you. You vile tempter," Arthur whispered, his breath hot and his lips practically brushing against Merlin's own.
Shock and shame and something else coursed through Merlin's veins like wildfire. "Arthur?"
"Yes," Arthur said, and everything went hot and wet and soft and hard when Arthur kissed the living daylights out of him.
* * *
A few minutes more than Merlin would like to admit to later, he pushed Arthur back and slid his feet back down to the ground. He refused to think about the way his legs had wrapped themselves around Arthur's hips so easily, at least not while there were still a few misconceptions to clear up.
Arthur reached for him again but Merlin held up a shaky hand.
"Let me get this straight. You thought I, what, went around sleeping with half the castle?"
"No. I procured a certain serum for someone -- as a favor -- and I passed along a love note -- as a duty." He shuddered a little bit at the thought, and Arthur blanched as the implications of that sank in. "Now I suggest we make our reappearance before word gets around that you're beating me horribly or something." Merlin tugged at his hair in frustration and hoped that he wasn't suffering from some sort of brain damage.
"Okay," Arthur said meekly. And that was all kinds of wrong.
"You know, you should probably summon me to your rooms tonight, because that new armor you wanted me to polish for you? I'm pretty sure I screwed it up. Royally."
* * *
"Intrigue sure has its perks," Merlin breathed. Arthur shot him a wicked grin before swallowing him down again. "Gnarf," Merlin said, clutching Arthur's blond hair and trying not to pull or thrust too desperately.
Afterwards, Arthur's tongue made good acquaintance with his ass.
After that, Merlin found himself pushing into Arthur's ass.
Once they woke up, Arthur pulled him back under the covers and they did it all over again, only this time in reverse.
* * *
It was almost noon when Merlin scrambled out into the hallway, still hopping into one boot and trying to make himself look presentable because he was late, late, late for a lesson with Gaius.
Morgana sailed up to him with a smug look. "You'll be the talk of the castle at this rate," she said, dashing any hopes Merlin had that he looked anything other than supremely well-fucked.
"You should know better than to listen to gossip," Merlin said. "I never do."