For as long as Arthur could remember, Castle Camelot had played host to a myriad of rooms and halls that went unused. Guest suites. Conference chambers. Two of the castle’s five towers. Former servant’s quarters. Most of those stood empty, only opening for use during grand events.
One of those unused chambers was a massive wedding hall.
Arthur had never gone inside it himself. The doors were always locked. To his knowledge, this particular chamber had only been used once. Uther had ordered it to be built many years ago, in preparation for his wedding to Arthur’s mother. Their union had been a grand event, with celebrations that lasted an entire week.
After Ygraine’s death, the place had been sealed away. For years it had silently collected dust, left abandoned and forgotten.
The Iron King had always had a sense of grandeur. Even for an engagement ceremony.
Carefully, Arthur slipped the ring around Mithian’s finger. It was a diamond-inlayed golden ring with the Pendragon insignia on it – the same ring that his father had used to propose to his mother. According to Uther, the thing was a priceless heirloom. It had been in the Pendragon family for generations. Using it was tradition. The Crown Prince had not been given a choice there, either. As Arthur let go of the Princess’s hand, he wondered how many of his ancestors had used that ring because they wanted to.
Arthur glanced to his left. Not ten feet away from him, Richard and Morgana were going through the exact same ceremony as Arthur. The cold, hostile glares between them were sharply offset by the artificial smiles that played on their lips. It was jarring. Arthur had never seen his sister make an expression like that.
“Please accept this token of my affection,” Richard smirked, placing a similar ring around Morgana’s finger. Her smile widened.
“With pleasure,” she replied, her voice drenched with sweet venom. If looks could kill, the hateful fire in her eyes would have turned Richard into a smouldering pile of ashes on the floor. Instead, the Crown Prince of Nemeth merely chuckled. Arthur had never been able to read him well. But even he could tell that Richard was enjoying this a little too much.
“… tiful, my lord.”
Arthur was pulled back to his side of the hall by the soft voice of Mithian, who was still standing in front of him. The Princess looked up at him timidly.
“The ring,” she said. “It… it looks beautiful.”
“Thank you. It belonged to my mother.”
And I didn’t want to give it to you.
Arthur stopped himself from saying those thoughts out loud. And a moment later he was glad that he did, because his words had a visible effect on the girl in front of him. Mithian stood up a little straighter, lifting her head as a glimpse of a smile shone out from underneath her mask.
“I will treasure it.”
She’s genuinely happy with it, Arthur thought. That observation made the Crown Prince feel even worse. He clenched his teeth together as his hands balled into fists.
I don’t want you to treasure it.
I don’t want you to have it at all.
I don’t want to bind myself to you.
Arthur bit his tongue when he saw the glare that his father threw him. The Iron King did not have to say anything. The stern look in Arthur’s direction spoke volumes. He knew exactly what Uther was thinking. The Crown Prince could hear his father’s commanding voice inside of his head, ever-present and unyielding.
Play your role, Arthur.
And he did.
He had to.
“I can think of no one more suited for it than you, my lady.”
On the other side of the hall, Arthur could see Morgana facing different demons from his own. Richard had taken a step towards her, grabbing the sides of her head as he lifted her face.
“I have ordered my servants to prepare the entire east wing for you,” he smiled. “You’ll have a personal retinue and your own domain within my castle. You will want for nothing.”
Morgana raised a single eyebrow at his words, placing her hands on her hips. When she spoke, her tone was both unimpressed and unmistakably mocking.
“Will my domain include a chess set? I do like to play, my lord.”
“You will use mine,” Richard replied. “I will have it moved to your chambers. But if you wish, you may bring your Queen.”
Richard tugged on her chin, pulling her head towards him as he leaned in.
“After all… it belongs to me now.”
But Morgana slipped out of Richard’s grasp at the last second. In a soft voice, the budding witch purred:
“No, my lord. Not until the wedding.”
The Crown Prince of Nemeth immediately stepped back, letting go of Morgana as if she was suddenly made out of hot coals.
“Of course. Forgive me.”
“Forgiven,” Morgana smiled. She turned around, looking in the direction of the massive doors.
“Now… if you will excuse me, I believe that we have a celebratory ball to attend.”
“Naturally. Allow me to escort you, my lady.”
She shot him another venomous look as he refused to let her leave alone. The couple began to make their way towards the entrance, with Richard’s arm firmly locked around Morgana’s waist. Arthur watched them go. As the two passed him on their way out, the Crown Prince was suddenly overcome by a strange, morbid thought.
He wondered how long it would take for Richard of Nemeth to be murdered in his sleep.
Growing up, Morgana had learned to exploit every area of the castle ballroom to its fullest. Every part of it could be used for different ends. The bright, dazzling light on the dancefloor. The quiet area beside the buffet. Even the dim, cold corners of the grand hall, where Agravaine liked to skulk around.
But none of those had Morgana’s preference. No, her favourite place to be was right next to the grand piano. Especially when Sarah was playing. Her oldest maidservant had always had her back, for as long as she could remember. But it was more than that. Over the years, that piano had proven to be the perfect cover for conversations that shouldn’t be overheard.
As expected, it did not take Arthur long to leave the dance floor and join her. The two of them always ended up next to that piano at some point – Morgana to re-strategise, and Arthur to recharge. This time was no different. She knew how much her brother disliked these events. She had seen him struggle with the female half of the nobility all evening – and the budding witch couldn’t help but tease him a little for it.
“Are you enjoying your evening, brother?”
“You invited some interesting guests,” the Crown Prince muttered.
“And? What do you think?” Morgana smirked. Arthur let out a sigh. His eyes trailed off to the left as he slowly surveyed the dance floor.
“I think we need to make sure that Lancelot doesn’t go home with the Queen of Northumbria. And one of your guests was drunk. She said I have a ‘nice face’.”
Morgana let out an amused chuckle.
“You do have a nice face. It was meant as a compliment, I’m sure.”
Arthur sighed, crossing his arms as his face pulled into a frown. Morgana had seen that expression on him before. Her brother always made that face when there was something bothering him, and he was trying to find a polite way to say it. But with everything that was going on, Morgana had no patience for that today.
“All right, spit it out. What is it?”
She could see him looking at her from the corner of her eye. It was not going to be a pleasant conversation, she could feel it.
Moments after that thought crossed her mind, her suspicions were confirmed.
“Morgana, why did you drag Gawain into this?”
She slowly exhaled. Morgana knew that that question was going to make an appearance eventually. She also knew that she could not answer it honestly. Not if she wanted to get away after the tournament without anyone becoming suspicious.
She had to lie.
“Why shouldn’t I include him?”
Arthur shot her a disapproving glare.
“He is a commoner.”
“Exactly,” Morgana replied. “And he is a skilled fighter that is fiercely loyal to you. Other commoners look up to him. We can use that. We have a lot of damage to undo from Agravaine’s witch hunt vendetta – if Gawain fights in the tournament, our people will be busy cheering for him instead of calling for your blood.”
“You’re joking, right? That is why you dragged him into this? To use him as a pawn in your games?”
“Yes,” Morgana lied, crossing her fingers behind her back. It wasn’t a complete lie. She really had considered the effect that it would have on the commoners of Camelot. It was a good reason.
It just wasn’t the truth.
It also was not what Arthur wanted to hear. Her brother groaned, rubbing the top of his nose in frustration.
“Dear Watcher, Morgana. You can’t use people like that. They are not pawns. And Gawain should not be in the tournament.”
“Why?” Morgana snapped at him. “Because he’s a commoner? Or because you don’t think he can do it?”
“That’s not what I mean-”
“Because you know he can do it,” Morgana continued, cutting him off as she crossed her arms angrily. “Gawain is a great swordsman. You made him into one yourself. He works harder than anyone here and he deserves a chance to prove himself.”
Morgana lowered her eyes to the ground, the defiant expression slowly being replaced by sadness. When she spoke, her voice was barely audible over the sound of the piano.
“He just wants to be a knight, Arthur. Can’t we give him that? Just once?”
Morgana wasn’t sure if her brother had even heard her. Arthur’s gaze travelled to the other side of the ballroom, where the Kings of Albion had gathered.
“Morrie… you know how idealistic Gawain is. Knights are his image of a hero. But the other nobles are not nearly as progressive as the two of us. I already had to use a great amount of influence to let Gawain join my men, and that was just in Camelot.”
“Think about it-”
“No,” Arthur interrupted her. “You did not. Not in the way you should have thought about it. I don’t know what your angle is, Morgana. But you’ve invited four Kingdoms’ worth of nobles who believe that a commoner’s rightful place is beneath them – and then placed Gawain in the arena as if he is their equal. If they tear him apart over it, it will be on your head.”
Morgana never got the chance to reply to him. At that moment, the large, double doors of the ballroom suddenly opened. The royal siblings watched in surprised confusion as two armoured knights walked in, followed by the royal usher. He scraped his throat, unfolding his lengthy list of guests. Morgana raised a single eyebrow at the sight.
Wait. Didn’t they already have everyone here?
The usher triple-checked his list before making the announcement, in a loud tone that even drowned out the grand piano.
“And now presenting! His Royal Highness, King Cenred of Essetir!”
That instantly got the attention of every single noble in the ballroom. Conversations immediately fell silent as dozens of heads turned. Even the music halted, abruptly stopping on an eerie note. From where she stood, Morgana could easily see people’s expressions. As the newcomer came into view, she noticed the crowd’s curiosity very quickly turning to suspicion and anger.
Everyone realized the truth at the same time.
Whoever Cenred of Essetir was… he was not a member of their allied Kingdom’s nobility.
He was not one of them.
For the first time in decades… the court of Albion had been invaded by a complete stranger.
From the corner of her eye, Morgana suddenly noticed the reaction of one person in particular.
Her future husband-to-be.
A devious smirk spread across Morgana’s lips.
The new King of Essetir suddenly became even more interesting.
“Well? Are you going to greet our new guest, or should I?”
“Where is his entourage?” Arthur muttered, ignoring his sister. “His guards? His nobles? Why is he alone?”
“Perhaps our new royal ally simply prefers solitude.”
“Not possible,” the Crown Prince replied, his voice rapidly growing suspicious. “You can’t travel all this way all by yourself. This has to be some kind of trick.”
“Would you like for me to go ask him? Someone has to keep us from looking like neglectful hosts, after all.”
“No- wait, Morgana-“
But the lure of the unknown was too strong. Before Arthur could protest, Morgana had already begun walking towards him, attracted to the man in front of her like a bee to honey. She could see King Uther do the same thing – but with much, much more reluctance in his step.
“King Cenred,” Uther said. “We were beginning to think that you were not coming. It is an honour to welcome you to Camelot.”
The Iron King’s words were polite – but even Uther could not hide the clear hostility that echoed from every corner of the ballroom. Behind his back, the kings of Nemeth, Mercia and Wessex all glowered at the newcomer, anger and suspicion dripping from every inch of their expressions. At that moment, everyone in the ballroom shared the exact same thoughts.
Who the hell are you?
Why have we not heard of you before now?
Did you murder the King of Essetir? What did you do with the Princes?
And, more than anything else…
Who in Watcher’s name do you think you are? A stranger to all of us, brazenly claiming a King’s crown?
But Uther voiced none of those questions. Instead, the Iron King merely asked:
“If I may – where are the Princes of Essetir?”
“Delayed,” Cenred answered, barely acknowledging the glares and scowls that were being thrown his way. “I travelled ahead. Tardiness is bad form, after all.”
It was not the answer that Uther had been looking for. It was barely an answer at all. But the King of Essetir did not offer any further explanation. Morgana could see him straighten his back, silently staring Uther down. Daring the Iron King to challenge his words. Morgana could hear a few gasps from the crowd in reaction to their sudden, intense power play. The tension in the room became almost unbearable.
Morgana instinctively felt like she had to step in. She came to a halt behind Uther, softly calling out to him with her arms folded behind her back.
Her voice abruptly snapped Uther out of the silent stare-down with Cenred, and back into his mask of politeness.
“Of course. King Cenred. May I introduce my daughter, Morgana.”
She gave Cenred a polite bow, already formulating a dozen strategies in her head about the conversation that was sure to follow.
“It is an honour to finally meet…”
As Morgana made eye contact with the person in front of her, the budding witch could feel a strange sensation. A chill ran down her spine, paired with a sense of something else – something that Morgana couldn’t identify. The sorceress blinked, briefly taken aback.
Something about this man felt… oddly familiar.
“And this is my son, Crown prince Arthur.”
“Ah, yes,” Cenred spoke, completely disregarding Arthur as his eyes remained locked on Morgana. “I believe congratulations are in order. May I be so bold as to request a celebratory dance?”
“O-of course,” Morgana replied, genuinely taken aback by the offer. As he took her hand, she tried to read the man in front of her – and realized to her growing surprise that she couldn’t. Cenred’s mask did not give away a single tell.
That was not good.
But this was Morgana’s ballroom. Her territory, carefully shaped and decorated to aid her in every manipulation or power play that she wanted to perform.
This was her lair.
So why was it that, as soon as Morgana looked into those cold, grey eyes… she suddenly felt oddly out of her depth?
As they bowed to each other, her face inches away from his and their eyes locked on to one another, Morgana suddenly felt it again. A strange, almost tangible sense of… what was it? The sorceress couldn’t put her finger on it. She knew that she had felt this before.
The next second, it didn’t matter anymore. King Cenred spoke to her in a voice that was soft enough so only Morgana could hear him. With a smirk, he asked:
“Tell me… how strong is that mask of yours?”
Do not let him intimidate you.
She had dealt with types like this before. She knew how to handle them. Morgana’s expression mirrored Cenred’s perfectly as the budding witch smiled back at her dance partner, accepting his challenge.
“Stronger than yours.”
The King of Essetir chuckled at her answer. He softly took her hand in his as his other arm covered the small of her back. The two began to twirl around the massive dance floor, surrounded by a ring of people. But the rest of the world suddenly felt strangely distant. Morgana could feel the angry glares of the nobles around her vanish, drowned out and completely forgotten as she looked up at the person in front of her.
At that moment, a completely new game began.
Morgana had formulated a dozen strategies in her head. She was highly practiced and confident in all of them. But in that moment, every single one of them vanished like snow on a summer’s day. As they spun around in circles, Cenred barely touching her as he expertly guided Morgana across the dance floor… the budding witch could suddenly hear a voice inside of her head. A deep, powerful, confident voice, drowning out every thought that she had and speaking directly to her soul.
I know what you are.
And Morgana finally realized.
She finally understood just what it was she had felt.
And why that feeling was so, so very familiar.
Morgana slowly exhaled.
Bring it on, sorcerer.