The Kingdom of Camelot lay in Central Europe, between two mountain chains. For this reason it could only be accessed via train, with two lines running directly into the heart of the capital. The castle towered on top of a hill and dominated the town with its turrets and barbican; the town itself, which was twelve hundred years old, clustered around Castle Hill. Its cobbled streets wound upwards and intersected in a perfect knot of routes. From its position on a knoll the church chimed the hour; had done so since the fourteenth century. It faced the school with its wide windows, the national flag hanging in front of the headmaster's office, a dragon rampant unfurling with every breeze. Fountains rose at the centre of squares and wells hid in corners. Legend had it that if you threw a coin in them luck would always follow you. Most Camelot inhabitants believed in the principle so they tossed in all their small change, and luckily enough no one ever stole it, perhaps because it was said to bring bad karma. Little shops opened onto the tangled streets, selling their wares. There was a newsagent, which also offered stamps and coin collections, a souvenir shop, which displayed the crafts of regional artists, and a bakery, whose shelves were lined with cakes and eclairs, colourful macarons and buttery brioches.
Let's step into one of them.
Gwen took the last strudel batch out of the oven, observing its crust and inhaling its sweet apple smell. “It's ready,” she said to herself, and she set the sheet with the batch on the tiled surface to the side of the oven.
Singing under her breath, Gwen measured some sugar into a sieve and peppered the strudel with it. When it was covered in a white layer, she placed the pastries onto a tray and slid the tray onto the window display. She imagined Mrs Kaiser would be pleased to know Gwen had made the strudels as promised, and buy at least three. She had four grandchildren, who delighted in strudels, and couldn't be happier than when they had some for their tea breaks. Gwen also knew that Mr Chekov loved to come and check for her confections and he always had the pastry of the day. “They're always the very best,” he'd tell her. Tourists, too, would like such a staple of the Camelotian diet. Together with Avalon pies they always flew off the shelves, so to speak.
Once she'd arranged all the windows to her taste, she turned the sign from closed to open.
Mrs Kaiser was the first to come in. Today she was wearing a long beige coat and a paisley scarf. She shook her umbrella closed and pushed it into the stand. “It's only a slight drizzle, but at my age you never know.”
“Of course, Mrs Kaiser,” Gwen said, running behind the counter. “Feel free to bring in as many umbrellas as you like.”
“So, what do you have for me today?” Mrs Kaiser surveyed the food display.
“Some freshly baked strudels.” Gwen tapped the glass. “What do you say to that?”
“I'll have five,” Mrs Kaiser said.
Gwen raised an eyebrow. “Five?”
“I've got friends over.” Mrs Kaiser leant closer to Gwen. “We've got to discuss the gossip.”
Despite being a principality, Camelot was such a small place that news spread fast. Gwen, who had moved there when she was little, had reason to know that. Camelot could be a beehive for gossip when it wanted to be. The two major newspapers tried to curb it, publishing only serious news. But there still were a few magazines that liked to indulge in a bit of tittle tattle. “What gossip?” Gwen asked, knowing that Mrs Kaiser's was often benign.
“Haven't you heard?” Mrs Kaiser said, her eyebrows dancing. “Prince Arthur is getting married.”
“Is he?” Gwen served Mrs Kaiser, aligning strudels on a carton tray. “This is the first time I've heard of it.”
“He is!” Mrs Kaiser nodded to herself. “I read so in this morning's edition of The Magazine.”
Gwen wrapped Mrs Kaiser's purchase. “Does he even have a fiancée?” In her years in Camelot, Gwen had read much about Prince Arthur's purported gallivanting about town, his numerous conquests. But she didn't believe the reports. Most of the photos were innocent enough and it seemed all Prince Arthur had to do was to be physically close to someone in order to be reported as having a relationship with them. “I hadn't heard about one.”
“Oh yes.” Mrs Kaiser seemed to be quite talkative today. Usually she expounded upon her grandchildren. Gwen knew everything about them, from their names, to their hobbies, to the schools they went to. One played football, another was in the local choir, a third was into going fishing with his dad. The fourth Gwen wasn't so sure about. He was probably the most unobtrusive of the children. “It's that English tourist.”
“English tourist?” Gwen knew they didn't get that many English tourists in Camelot. The principality was very continental in its influences.
“It's this boy,” Mrs Kaiser said, as Gwen handed the packet over the counter. “He was all over town a few months ago. Came over for the Christmas holidays to see the markets, I think. Suddenly he was in all the gossip papers. There was even a shot of him kissing the prince.”
That was something Gwen hadn't seen herself, but she wagered it was true. Mrs Kaiser wasn't likely to make up stuff like that. “Really?” Gwen wasn't really into trading chit chat about the crowned heads of Europe. She was a shop owner's daughter, and proud, but Mrs Kaiser was always so kind to her and this was really no hardship, so she went on. “That's a first for a prince here in Camelot. There's never been proof of anything other than newspaper speculation.” Queen Ygraine's romance had happened all off stage, as far as she knew. “I think.”
“He was on good behaviour before,” Mrs Kaiser said. “I mean, he was seen with a lot of youngsters but never caught kissing.”
“He must have had his share though.” Gwen couldn't imagine he'd gone without. Prince Arthur was young, personable, and rich. He had strings of admirers. “Behind closed doors.”
“That doesn't matter now, does it?” Mrs Kaiser moved to the till when Gwen did. “He's going to get married to this boy.”
Gwen supposed that it didn't. “I wish him every happiness then.” She pushed a few buttons on the till and a sum appeared on the display. “It's twenty,” Gwen added.
Mrs Kaiser paid and, after having wished her a good day, left. Alone, Gwen turned to cleaning the shelves, then moved into the lab to prepare some some dough for the biscuits she meant to bake later. When the dough was ready for setting, she returned to the front and served a few customers. Overall, it was a slow morning. Not many people trickled in.
It was Gilli who made the most noise when he stormed inside, making the bells attached to the door ring. “Gwen, Gwen, Gwen!” he said, as he ran up to the counter. “Have you heard the news?”
“What news?” Gilli was so excited Gwen couldn't help but think it was something momentous. “Come on, spit it out.”
“The catering!” Gilli said. “Can you believe it? We're doing the cake!”
“What cake?” Gilli, it seemed to Gwen, was doing a poor job of explaining whatever he meant.
“We're making the cake for the wedding!”
It was true that they could charge more for wedding cakes than they did ordinary confections. Gwen loved making them, too. She put more care and attention into wedding cakes than into any other thing she did. Believing in love the way she did, working weddings was special to her. A real joy. But they did it almost every month. She didn't see what made this ceremony different from all the others they'd catered for. “So?”
“So it's the royal wedding!” Gilli threw his hands up in the air. “We're doing the cake for the Camelot Royal Wedding! We're going to be the first patisserie in Europe!”
Gwen rushed to Gilli and embraced him, jumping up and down and chanting, “We're doing the royal wedding! We're doing the royal wedding!”
As she sang, Kara studied the wooden architrave. She liked its lines, simple and smooth. And the way it supported the stone arch, the large blocks of it. It was nice and orderly. From time to time she looked at the music too, and at Mr Bevidere, the conductor, but there was really no need. She'd been listening to the choir for years, and knew all the pieces they sang. Now that she was a member, it was all easy. All she had to do was listen to the music in her heart. It invariably matched the notes being played. And then her voice soared together with those of the other girls and boys. It warbled and grew and then went on a diminuendo till the song was over and Mr Bevidere said, “From the top.”
Kara nocked an eyebrow and elbowed her row companion, Alis. Alis looked back at her with a confused air about her. She gave a glance at her watch and showed Kara it was indeed five. They were supposed to be getting home. Well, it wasn't as if they could do anything about it. They couldn't countermand Mr Bevidere's order, tell him that it was all fine and dandy but they had to go. This wasn't an office. It was a choir. Sometimes you made sacrifices to stay and achieve perfection. So Kara sang on.
Just in case her previous performance wasn't up to standard, this time she gave it her all. She filled her lungs and expelled all her air with her voice, gentling it on the lighter notes. When the crescendo came she faced it full on, and when the conclusion loomed near, she directed her voice into the last parting notes.
Mr Bevidere made a sign with his baton and put it down.
The choir members made to step down from the dais.
“Before you all go.” Mr Bevidere held his hands up. “There's something I want to say to you.”
An eager murmuring rose amid the choir members.
“Given that our choir has not only been founded, but has also been funded throughout by the Prince's Charity Trust for Camelot, we have been invited to perform at his wedding.”
The choir burst into applause.
Alis tickled her in the ribs with an elbow and said, “The Prince is getting married to your friend.”
“He's not my friend.” Kara liked to think they were pals, but she knew it couldn't possibly be the truth. She was just a regular girl, with passable school marks, and quite a large family. Unlike Merlin, she didn't have friends in high places. “But Merlin's nice.”
“I thought he was the reason you're in the choir in the first place.”
Kara knew people thought this and why. Partly they were right. If Merlin hadn't come up and talked to her, suggested to her a way to fight all her shyness, she wouldn't be here right now. But the truth was she'd always wanted to be part of the choir line up. She'd always looked to the other singers with some manner of envy because they could do what she couldn't: stand up there and sing the songs that made them happy. Merlin had somehow known her wishes better than she had herself. “It's a bit more complicated than that,” she said. “He told me he was scared of audiences too, but he always took part in his school plays when he was younger. He taught me his secret against stage fright.”
“What's the secret, then?” Alis tilted her head to the side.
“I can't tell you.” Kara smiled. “It's between Merlin and me.”
“Well, you must be chuffed your mentor is going to become Prince Consort,” Alis said. “That makes you special.”
Kara could see why Alis would think that. “I'm really just happy he's happy. That's all.”
Alis looked like she wanted to debate the point, but Mr Bevidere glared at them both, so they stopped murmuring to each other and paid attention to what he was saying.
“So that's the reason why I kept you longer than usual.” Mr Bevidere's voice went up to cover the choir's protests. “We must be perfect. Don't you want the whole of Camelot to hear our voices during the ceremony?”
The choir shouted that they did. They wanted to perform at the wedding and they wanted to be at their best.
“Well, in that case,” Mr Bevidere said, “we'll have to rehearse till six instead of five every day.”
There was some clapping and some boos. But overall everyone sounded eager to participate. They all offered ideas for songs they could perform and some had suggestions for the dresses they should wear and the kind of entrance they should make.
Normally, Kara wouldn't speak up. She felt her opinions didn't count, not compared to those of the others in the group. But what Merlin had said to her about doing the things she liked without any fear applied in this case as well. Or at least, so she thought. On the strength of this, she stepped forward and said, “I know which song Merlin would like sung at his wedding.”
All eyes turned to her.
Violets were the prettiest flowers. They had a delicacy and yet a resilience that was astounding. Their bulbs were like hidden depositories of heaven and their stems were strong and pointed. They were Freya's favourite bloom. She preferred them to daisies, which were too bland, and to roses, which were too in your face. There was nothing like a fresh violet, she thought, cutting the stems a notch shorter so they would fit in the bridal bouquet she was preparing. It was just the perfect flower. When the stems were all the same length, she added them to the callas and ragweed and tied them all together with a white ribbon. It was wide and silken, a little shiny. She had just finished, when the phone rang.
Leaving the bouquet on the counter, she answered. “Bastet Flowers, this is Freya speaking.”
“Freya?” the voice on the other end of the line said. “Is this Freya Wasser, the owner?”
“Yes, that's me.” How many Freyas did this person think worked in the same shop? People could be strange. “How can I help you?”
“I'm George, His Royal Highness' deputy private secretary,” the man said. “Expect a visit at 7 pm.”
“I'm closed at seven.” Every day ever since she'd opened the shop in the first place Freya had closed at six.
“Young lady, perhaps you don't properly understand who you're talking to.” George sounded very dissatisfied with her, very put upon. More than Freya's nan, whose voice always took on that same tone whenever Freya told her she wasn't married yet. “If I tell you the Prince of Camelot is going to pay you a visit, you'll stay open for C--” He cleared his throat. “For goodness sake.”
“But what does the prince need?” Freya had no idea what he might want with her. She didn't sell jewellery or fancy cars. Only flowers. Now, Freya liked them better than valuables, but she doubted princes had the same outlandish tastes as hers.
“Flowers for his wedding,” George said. “Ça va sans dire.”
“Of course, flowers.” Freya might have guessed. She supposed a lot of people would be enthusiastic about having a prince as a customer. Freya wasn't. She didn't feel as stoked as she had when she had opened the shop for the first time and not even as enthused as when she'd done her first wedding. That had been a marker. Her first success. But she couldn't view this occasion like that. She was for simpler things: two hearts, one roof, and all the love in the world. Even so, this was something that would bring joy to a lot of people. And she loved nuptials. She would do something special. “He can come over for a little chat whenever he wants.”
“It's not going to be a little chat!” George's tone rose and rose. “But he will be there at the time appointed.”
Freya couldn't help but look forward to any work that came her way, especially weddings. She would make of this opulent affair the sweetest one imaginable.
Finna measured a length of chiffon, then cut it into swathes and smaller strips. Once she had them, she would sew them onto the bodice she had already prepared. She looked at it now. It was very structured, with whalebone lining giving it a conical shape. It was a very nineteenth century look and one which she didn't favour. It was too severe, too far from the smooth lines she preferred, the floating outlines. But she had precious little choice. Baroness Lach had fashioned the design herself, sure she wanted that silhouette and no other. Finna couldn't but do as she wanted. It was the price of having her own creations sold to the public. If Baroness Lach favoured her, then other people would jump on the bandwagon. For Baroness Lach to choose to wear her designs, she had to be indulged now and again when it came to her own choices. She would don this one at the Confraternity of the Blue Heads' ball. A more important event in the Camelot schedule Finna could not imagine. At least no Blue Head had ever been a fashionista.
Sighing, Finna was cutting the last strip when someone marched into her atelier.
“Finna, it's always such a pleasure to come here.” As she waltzed in, Mithian gazed around with a look of awe on her face.
“Mithian!” Finna dropped tape measure and pins and walked over to her, kissing her on both cheeks. “What brings you here? Another ball?”
“Not quite,” Mithian said. “You know I'm chief of staff at the palace.”
“How could I forget!” Mithian was always the proper lady, elegant and businesslike at the same time. She was the flower of aristocracy and employed at the palace because Uther himself had wished it so. Something about giving a nice lift to the face of the monarchy, he'd said. With Mithian they were already halfway there. “You're my best client.”
“I'll order a dress.” Mithian glanced at the creations that were on the dummies. “But that's not why I came. I'm here on behalf of my employer.”
“But that's the palace.” As much as she wanted to Finna couldn't exactly dress the whole court. King Uther, for one, had horrid taste. He dressed like a staid old gentleman and had an otherwise dissonant penchant for pinkie rings. “That's too big of an order.”
“Well, in this case,” Mithian said. “We'd be talking about two men only.”
“Now that's a reasonable number.” Still, Finna wasn't sure she should accept this job. “I prefer dressing women. Suits are boring.” There was no room to make them interesting, for imagination. Man's fashion was unenterprising. “They have no flair.”
“I'm sure you can work something out.” Mithian touched the sleeve of a mauve dress. “As gifted as you are.”
“Who's commissioning this?” Finna wanted to know. “If it's Uther, I'm going to have to say no.”
“It's not the King.” Mithian rolled her eyes. “It's his son and his partner. You dressed Arthur once already. It's not a stretch.”
“When he came of age.” Finna remembered that as if it was yesterday. Not only could she still envision the suit she'd designed for Arthur then – tweed with soft suede accents, supple leather shoes, no tie or bow tie – but she could also recall the painstaking work that had gone into it. The measure of criticism she had got in return hadn't been proportional to her mistakes, which were few. She still looked back on the experience with a shudder. “I'm not sure I want to be in the eye of the storm again.”
“If anyone's going to do something that's both tasteful and pushes the envelope, it's you.”
Finna was flattered. But that didn't mean she ought to accept. “My atelier is doing fine. I don't need the bad press that will inevitably come with designing for Prince Arthur.”
“You know the paparazzi will sneak a photo of Arthur.” Mithian looked put upon, with an eyebrow up and her lips thinning. “That means that before long you'll be in every magazine in Europe. That's publicity, Finna.”
“I don't know.” She could use the free advertising if she did want to expand, to design for younger people instead of decorous baronesses. That was something she had always wanted to do, but with an ageing population such as the one in Camelot, it wasn't easy. Old nobility tended to be antiquated in more ways than one. “I'll have to think about it.”
Mithian crossed the atelier and kissed her on the cheek. “Do let me know your answer.”
The envelopes were of a pale yolky colour, with a golden edge. The cards that went inside were of the same hue, but without the trimmed border. Though one would have expected to see some engraving on them, they were blank. Leon took the list. It was four pages long, which, considering how these things went, wasn't too bad. So, there was nothing for it but to finish his assigned task. He took off his jacket, undid his cuffs, and rolled his sleeves up. Uncapping his pen, he stood poised to write.
The door opened and Ranulf walked in. “You realise it's past six.”
“You realise I'm Arthur's equerry.”
“Yes, well.” Ranulf sank into the chair opposite his desk. “That doesn't mean you shouldn't have some free time.”
“I have plenty.” Unless there was some drama with the paparazzi, or the office of some nobleman or other contacted him, Leon had most weekends free. Since Merlin had become part of their lives, the number of unpleasant encounters with journalists had multiplied, however. Couples tended to get spotted, and Leon had been on the clock more often, pulling all nighters to convince publications to hold their horses on any scoop they had on Arthur, making sure that what leaked was only a small part of the information available on the Prince, keeping in touch with this or that journalist so they'd stay on the good side of the royal house. Still, that wasn't too tiring a job. It wasn't as though Leon was being overworked. Besides, he did all this with pleasure. To be entirely honest, he didn't know what he'd rather have done with his set of skills other than what he was already doing. “Weddings are just busy.”
“Are you writing those cards by hand?” Ranulf asked.
“Yes.” Leon started to inscribe the first one. “Arthur thought it would feel more personal if it wasn't engraved.”
“Can't be that personal if you're writing them.” Ranulf leaned over to toy with the paper-weight on Leon's desk.
Leon tried not to glare at Ranulf for upending his paper-weight. He was learning not to be anal about these things. His psychologist was working with him on this and he was making free with her advice in this instance. “Arthur has vastly improved since he was a boy, but he's still in the habit of delegating the boring stuff to others.”
“You should rebel.” Ranulf laced his hands behind his head.
“You mean tender my resignation.” Leon wrote RSVP and sealed the card into an envelope.
Ranulf made a face. “You're wilfully misunderstanding me now.” He leant forward again. He did so gracefully, with a winning smile on his face. “Just tell Arthur to write his own wedding invitations.”
“Can't do it.” Leon quite enjoyed doing this. There was a rhythm to this labour he found soothing. “Besides, I wish Arthur well. It's my gift to him.”
“If you put it that way.” Ranulf fell back into his seat. “I do, too. Wish Arthur well, I mean. Who'd have guessed he'd marry so soon, though?”
“I wouldn't have either to be honest.” Last year everything had been different. Arthur had been trapped in a whirlwind of duties, ceremonial functions, with little time left to himself. His optimism had dwindled to nothing, and his dating life had been quite sad, with the European aristocracy vying for his title but not for his love. And then Merlin had holidayed in Camelot. “And to think I was their go between.”
“Were you?” Ranulf cocked his head. “I didn't know that.”
“Yes, when Arthur first met Merlin, Merlin didn't know about his being a prince,” Leon said, recollecting how it had all gone down. “When Merlin found out, it was by chance.”
“I don't see how you can walk round Camelot without knowing who Arthur is.” A half smile on his face, Ranulf shook his head. “That's unthinkable.”
“You've probably met Merlin,” Leon said, starting on his third card. “Head in the clouds.”
“But how did you become their go between?”
Before he could answer Leon had to field a call from the Royal Camelot newspaper. Though the publication was a royalist one, their questions regarding the wedding weren't easy to tackle, especially when Arthur had made it clear he wanted a private ceremony. If the highlights of it were to stay hidden, there was little Leon could tell. Yet there was a pact between the Royal House and the publication in question. The latter would keep its hounds at bay in return for stories coming directly from the source. When he was done with the phone call, Ranulf was yawning. “I'm sorry,” Leon said. “You were saying?”
“You were telling me about how you acted as go between for Arthur and Merlin.” Ranulf really seemed to want to know.
“Oh, yes,” said Leon. “Merlin walked into a museum and found a portrait of Arthur in full princely regalia, discovering into the bargain that Arthur had hidden the truth from him. They'd gone on a couple of dates already, and he was more than a little down at the notion. He thought Arthur was being dishonest with him. I proved to him that Arthur wasn't. That he was only scared.”
“Arthur, scared?” Ranulf shook his head. “I don't think he's ever been scared of anything in his life.”
Leon didn't think Ranulf understood Arthur. He seemed not to know him at all. Leon had grown up with him, so he knew all his quirks by now. “Arthur's scared of not being accepted for who he is. He and Merlin were getting along well. Then all of a sudden Merlin found out. It wasn't easy on Arthur.”
“But you mediated,” Ranulf guessed.
“I took Merlin to Arthur's charity funded choir.” It took some persuading, but Merlin eventually yielded, to Leon's relief. “Told him how much Arthur was helping the community. What a great bloke he is.”
“Arthur funds a charity?” Ranulf's eyebrows converged. “That's news.”
This confirmed Leon's view of Ranulf. Though he'd been around Arthur since they were all kids, he wasn't really intimate with him. “Yes, he does. And Merlin considered it was proof Arthur wasn't a lying bastard. Only a nice chap who sometimes lied.” He hinted at a smile. He knew how annoying Arthur could be, but he was also aware of what a good pal he was. “They took it from there.”
“I'm glad they did.” Ranulf made jazz hands. “Or we wouldn't be having a wedding. I got the hottest girl at court to come with as my date.”
“Then I did the right thing.” Leon was on his tenth card. He was almost on a roll now. “Merlin and Arthur are getting hitched, and you get the girl you want to go out with you.”
“You know what. You're right. You did us all a good turn.” Ranulf spread out a hand. “Give me some of those. I'll help you.”
Leon passed Ranulf half of his cards and showed him the list. As Ranulf started inscribing his half, Leon picked his pen back up, the only noise between them that of scratching paper. They spent the whole evening compiling invitations.
Uther was served breakfast in bed. He usually took it in the great salon downstairs, and had done since he could remember. But today was a different day and he made an exception. It was not often that you butted heads with your son and lost the battle. Indulging seemed like a good idea.
As he lifted the tea cup to his mouth, Geoffrey, his valet, entered. His pace was shuffling and his beard had grown longer. Like Uther, he had aged, though Uther hoped he'd done so more gracefully than his old servant. Sooner or later he would have to tell Geoffrey it was time to retire. He didn't know how he'd do it, but today was not the day.
Pulling the curtains open, Geoffrey greeted him as he did every morning, with the same words and the same bow. He took the suit he would wear out of the wardrobe and hung it on its door. It was a charcoal one that Uther favoured because of its severe lines and the good cloth it was cut from. This seen to, Geoffrey fussed with the basin and hot water, because Uther liked shaving the way his grandfather had.
“It's all ready, sir.” Geoffrey took the tray from him and set it on a table. “It's a big day today.”
“It is.” Uther stepped out of bed and went to the basin. He arranged the mirror, angling it so he could see the line of his jaw. “One seldom gets to change one's mind publicly.”
Geoffrey only cleared his throat.
Making sure there was an abundance of it, Uther lathered his face with shaving cream. “Let's be honest, Geoffrey, I made a blunder when it comes to that boy.”
Sidling from side to side, Geoffrey made some noise.
“I oughtn't have tried to buy him off with that prestigious job.” Thinking it over, Uther cringed at himself. He'd panicked. He'd just reacted, trying to stave the threat off. What he hadn't realised was that the Merlin boy was no real threat, just someone Arthur seemed to genuinely love. “But I'm glad I rethought my decision.”
“Yes, sire,” said Geoffrey.
Uther ran the razor blade down his jaw, following the grain. Once he'd shaved a strip, he dipped his razor in warm water, the hairs that had stuck to it shaking free. “I'm glad I talked to the Merlin boy. I'm relieved too. I had to tell him the truth, for Arthur's sake.”
Geoffrey nodded his head. “Prince Arthur, of course, sire.”
“The fact the boy didn't bite my head off when he learnt I interfered with his professional life is testimony to his groundedness.” Tilting his head, Uther did the other side of his face. “He was moved when I told him the truth. Said he understood why I acted the way I had.” Uther put down the razor and dabbed at his face with a towel. “That confirmed me in the notion he was a decent choice for Arthur.”
“His Highness can only make good choices,” Geoffrey said.
Skin smooth, Uther stepped into the bathroom. Geoffrey had already prepared the water, which by now had reached the perfect degree of warmth. Taking off, his pyjamas, which he consigned to his valet, Uther stepped into the tub and immersed himself. As he relaxed, he talked on to Geoffrey. “And of course, once Merlin knew I'd dabbled with his employers, he refused to take up the job and leave Camelot for his homeland. He's going to work for a Camelot firm pro bono now. He won't earn a penny, but I suppose no prince of Camelot ever needed a salary.”
Geoffrey handed him a sponge and soap before retiring behind the screen.
After he'd soaked awhile, Uther soaped up. He rubbed and scrubbed till his skin was pink. Then he set both implements on the edge of the tub, went down, and washed his hair. When he was utterly clean, he stepped out of the tub and into a robe Geoffrey held at the ready. “Who'd have said his staying meant they'd marry?”
“That's young people for you,” Geoffrey said, as if he had a lot of experience of youths, which, given he'd never come across as unseasoned himself, sounded strange even to Uther.
Uther moved back into his bedroom, where he dressed, pulling on his clothing item by item, Geoffrey assisting him with cuffs, tie and shoe laces. Fixing his shirt collar – he liked the folds pointing downwards – Uther looked into the mirror. “And now I'm going to face a roomful of journalists and tell them how overjoyed I am my son is marrying a commoner.” He patted himself down. “And you know what, Geoffrey? I'm not even lying.”
“Good thing your plan backfired then, Your Majesty.”
“It was.” Uther gave himself a last once over in the mirror. He looked severe, austere, exactly the impression he wanted to make. “Now, let's make it clear to the public too.”
Bells tolled, birds flew in the sky with their white wings spread wide. The sky was clear, streaked with passing pale clouds, the sun shining behind them. As the Prince and Prince Consort got out of its main doors, the population gathered around the municipal building and their voices joined in a jubilant chorus. A shower of rice hit them together with a rainfall of petals.
They both stopped at the same time and unlinked hands. Prince Arthur took a further step forward and said, “Thank you. Thank you for being here today and supporting us.”
The crowd didn't let him speak further but clapped and clapped till his voice was drowned out completely. Children ran around the wedded couple and old ladies breathed out their blessings. And when the couple kissed, the people roared and the sun came out.