Leon was nice. Really nice. Incredibly nice. About the nicest man Mithian had ever met. A little too nice, if she was being completely honest, at least for her tastes.
She learned just how nice he was as they spent the evening sitting together at the feast held in her honor to welcome her to Camelot. Mithian tried to shove away her feelings of annoyance, but not once had he made any crass jokes, gossiped about the other attendees, or even burped. Was he hiding some awful secret? Because no one could be that perfect. Except for Leon, it seemed.
Pleasant as Leon was, the night would have been better spent in the company of someone with a proclivity toward mischief. If she had to be paired off, why not with someone who would at least flirt? Leon had been the model of propriety, a fitting match for the perfect princess demeanor Mithian maintained at home. But shouldn’t a visit away afford her the opportunity to let her hair down? At least a little?
Still, Mithian supposed she should count herself lucky as things could have been much worse. She could have spent the evening sitting beside Arthur.
It wasn't that Mithian had anything against Arthur. Not really. But it had been clear from the moment that her delegation arrived in Camelot that he had eyes for another. Her father was going to be so disappointed.
“Just be yourself,” Rodor told her before she left, “and Arthur will be sending a messenger to ask me for your hand before the visit is halfway over.”
Mithian knew her father only wanted her settled and for the alliance with Camelot to be fully cemented, but the way she saw it, those things could easily be accomplished without having to marry Arthur. She’d ridden in silence for most of the journey from Nemeth, pondering the ways she might diplomatically turn him down if he did propose.
All her worries had been for nothing. Camelot’s king had been cordial and courteous as he welcomed her to his realm, helping her down from her horse as he asked about her father, her health, the trip to his realm. He looked nice enough in his formal attire, though she couldn’t help but stare at the Lady Morgana. The white fur draped around her shoulders accented her dark hair and bright lips, leaving Mithian with the sudden urge to hug her. She shook it off – that wasn’t the appropriate way to greet someone she barely knew.
Instead, she let Arthur walk her to her chambers to get settled. She’d barely changed clothes before he whisked her away to the training pitch to watch an informal sparring match with his knights. By late afternoon, he was escorting her around the castle grounds, showing off architecture and artifacts. One might think he was building up to a proposal if it weren’t for the fact that through it all, Arthur kept stealing glances at the servant that failed to leave his side, bantering with him and teasing him. And the way they smiled at each other…
“I would give up my own kingdom to be so loved,” she muttered, walking a few paces behind them.
One of the accompanying knights, the one with the fabulous hair, must have overheard and understood. Because almost as soon as the words left her lips, she was being told about Camelot’s first knight, Sir Leon, who was apparently the best man Camelot had to offer, his appeal surpassing that of even the king.
“He and Arthur are like brothers,” Gwaine explained to her, “and you’ll never find anyone kinder or more loyal. His sense of humor is subtle, more refined and not as blunt as Arthur’s. He’s extremely capable with a sword and his footwork is…”
“I noticed the Lady Morgana bested him on the pitch today,” Mithian interrupted. It had been the highlight of Mithian’s day to watch Morgana knock down and disarm Camelot’s knights, using speed to make up for what she lacked in size.
Mithian had rarely picked up a sword apart from ceremonial blades. Her father had made a halfhearted attempt to teach her how to fight when she was younger, but after two lessons, he’d abandoned the idea. “Your arms are too weak,” he told her. “You’ll only get hurt.” Maybe that was true, but maybe if Mithian had a different teacher, one like Morgana, then perhaps she could learn to compensate.
“Ha!” Gwaine laughed. “She did, along with me, Percival, and Elyan. And if you hadn’t been here watching, I’m sure she would have bested Arthur as well.”
“Did she not want to embarrass her brother?”
Word had spread to Nemeth about the revelation that had come out a few years earlier regarding the Pendragon siblings’ shared father. Though it had led to some gossip about Morgana, especially as other details emerged regarding her abilities as a seer, Mithian saw no reason to judge her. One couldn’t help the indiscretions of their parents, and Mithian had never been as wary about magic as some.
Though Morgana might have fled Uther’s court for a few years, seeking refuge with the Druids, she’d never been malevolent toward anyone that Mithian knew of. Calling out her father’s injustices did not make Morgana a monster. If anything, it made her the opposite.
Secretly, Mithian admired Morgana’s bravery. Rodor was by no means an Uther, but there were times when Mithian wished she could be more like Morgana. Especially when Rodor started pressuring her to marry.
“Oh no, Morgana loves trouncing Arthur,” Gwaine said, interrupting Mithian’s thoughts, “but he’s managed to bribe her with the promise of a new sword if she doesn’t do it while you’re watching.”
“So the Lady Morgana likes swords then?” The question slipped out before Mithian could catch it, her subconscious piecing together the clue Gwaine had given her with the fact that Nemeth’s royal smith was unmatched in skill. Mithian could easily commission a blade for Morgana that would rival any Arthur might offer.
Gwaine grinned as if he was suddenly in on a secret. “Oh yes. From what I’ve heard, she’s trained since childhood. One could easily impress her with the gift of a sword.”
“That’s good to know.” Mithian hoped the heat she felt didn’t show on her face. “For diplomatic reasons. It’s important that Camelot and Nemeth have a strong bond. Especially since Arthur and I will not share a throne.”
She nodded in the direction of Arthur, who had his arm around Merlin’s shoulder, whispering something in his ear. After a moment they both burst out laughing.
“Yes, those two are…”
“Why don’t you go on and introduce me to Leon?”
Mithian had to concede that Leon was charming. He gave her a low bow when he arrived outside her guest chambers to escort her to the feast held in her honor, then offered his arm to walk her down the corridor.
“Your dress is lovely, my lady, though not as lovely as you.” There was a slight blush as he said the words, as if he rarely spoke to ladies about their appearance. But then from what Gwaine had told her, he wasn’t the sort of knight who spent his days engaged in debauchery.
Leon pulled out her chair when they arrived at the hall where the feast was held, caught a servant’s clumsy hand before she was accidentally doused in wine, and made pleasant conversation. Talking with him revealed that Leon was also well-read. He was by any measure charming company.
Was she being set up with Leon? The encouraging smiles Arthur occasionally directed their way suggested that might be the case. Maybe he’d worried about the potential harm not proposing to her would do for diplomacy with Nemeth and was hoping she’d hit it off with a high-ranking knight he considered to be his proverbial brother. The longer she and Leon sat together, the more relieved and relaxed Arthur appeared to be.
Well, he could hold off on the wedding planning. For one thing, Leon, though incredibly sweet and kind, was not her type. For another, despite his best efforts to hide it, Mithian caught him sneaking glances at a woman wearing a lavender dress with intricate embroidery. And from the way she blushed when their eyes met, it was clear that she had been looking for him as well.
“Who is the woman sitting beside Lady Morgana?” Mithian asked. “I saw her watching the training session earlier today.”
“Ah, that’s, um, Gwen, Guinevere. She was Morgana’s maidservant before Morgana left. Now that she’s back, they’re friends.”
“Is she your friend as well?”
Leon’s face turned beet red, but he managed to answer the question, going on at length. By the time the final course of the meal had been served, Mithian had learned much about Gwen. She and Leon grew up together, she was a talented seamstress, her favorite food was spice cake, and she liked to go walking at night in the summer.
“She’s very special to me,” Leon continued, “one of my best friends. And sometimes I wonder if…”
Mithian could easily guess what Leon wondered, though he never got a chance to say the words thanks to Arthur. The conversations died down as the king’s voice rang out.
“Welcome, Princess Mithian. Camelot values our alliance with Nemeth and we are pleased you have chosen to visit us. Because you are an honored guest, you may choose a gift of your liking from me.” Merlin nudged him. “Within reason. My people and my land are nonnegotiable. Not that I thought you’d ask for them. But apparently, I’m a thick-skulled clotpole who can’t… anyway, what gift would please you?”
Mithian froze. Receiving gifts at these functions was standard, being asked to choose was not. This was yet another reason why she couldn’t marry Arthur. He likely didn’t know what to give and put the burden on her. She tried to think of something worthy of a visiting dignitary, yet not too extravagant. Looking around the room for inspiration, her eyes stopped on Morgana, who gave her a smile that conjured a host of butterflies in Mithian’s stomach. For a moment, she remembered Morgana wielding her sword on the training pitch.
“A tournament,” she heard herself say, “fought by King Arthur and his knights, as well as the Lady Morgana.”
Arthur’s face went somber. Oh dear. Tournaments in a lady’s honor were often associated with betrothals. Did he think Mithian was trying to trap him?
“I’m afraid I won’t have much to offer the winner,” she continued, hoping to set things right, “apart from my admiration and…”
“A kiss,” Morgana called out. There was that smile again.
“A kiss,” Mithian agreed, trying to keep her voice steady. “My admiration and a kiss.”
The color returned to Arthur’s face. “Let the tournament commence at noon tomorrow. Now everyone continue with the feast.”
Mithian couldn’t help but notice how the king didn’t make a move to leave. A man who wanted to win would likely retire early, but Arthur was still eating and drinking, while Merlin leaned so close that he was practically sitting in Arthur’s lap. As she settled in to listen to Leon relay even more facts about Gwen, Mithian glanced toward Morgana’s place at the table only to find her chair empty.
The next day Mithian found herself sitting in the king’s seat at the tournament arena, watching one of the most impressive displays of swordsmanship she’d ever witnessed.
It was a fortunate thing, she realized, that relations between Camelot and Nemeth were on such good terms, as the knights of Camelot were skilled fighters, possibly better than Nemeth’s most capable warriors.
They battled it out on the pitch below her, the crowd gasping and cheering as, one by one, knights were eliminated. She was pleased to see that Leon held his own for some time, not because she wanted to kiss him, but because he’d been kind to her the previous evening. When he finally was bested, Arthur disarming him after a close duel, he stepped off the pitch to be greeted by a beaming Gwen. Mithian was too far away to hear what Gwen said, but the kiss she gave him made it clear that someone considered Leon a winner, even if he hadn’t placed first.
Leon’s defeat left only two competitors standing, Arthur and Morgana. They’d both fought well, each performing better than the day before. Arthur had even managed to hold his own despite having stayed at the feast until midnight, which made sense. Tales had been told throughout the five kingdoms of his prowess as a fighter.
And yet compared to his sister, he might as well have never handled a sword before that day. Because Morgana was shredding him. Not literally – he was the king and her brother after all – but it was clear almost as soon as the match began that she would be the victor. Winning the tournament, it seemed, was more important than the promise of a new sword.
Morgana dodged Arthur’s blows, not that he could level that many, attacking him with a ferocity and skill that put Camelot’s knights to shame. Maybe it was because she was smaller or because she’d worn lighter armor, but she moved with speed he couldn’t match, dancing around him, landing blow after blow with her dull sparring blade.
Finally, covered in sweat and gasping for breath, Arthur conceded.
“I yield,” he called out, “just… don’t hit me anymore.”
Merlin helped Arthur limp off the pitch as the cheers rang out for Morgana. She gave the crowd the customary wave from the winner, then turned her gaze toward Mithian. She was smiling, her cheeks flush from the fight. There was something in her eyes that made Mithian feel just as warm as if she’d been the one dueling the king. Morgana tilted her head slightly, as if asking a question.
It was not behavior fitting a princess to leap over the railing. Mithian’s landing was far from graceful and she was pretty sure she’d twisted something in her ankle. She ignored it, choosing to instead focus on a more important matter that required her attention.
“My lady.” She was standing so close to Morgana she could feel the heat radiating off her body. “Last night I promised the victor of this tournament a kiss. And if you have no objections…”
Morgana shook her head as Mithian brushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear, then brought their lips together. If it had been anyone else, anyone at all, that would have been the extent of it. But Mithian found that once she started kissing Morgana, it was difficult to stop. Especially when Morgana’s arms wrapped around her, dropping her sword to pull Mithian closer.
Hard steel armor pressed against her waist, and Mithian thought of how nice it would be to embrace Morgana with something softer between them, something like the furs Morgana had been wearing when Mithian’s delegation had arrived. Maybe one day (one day soon, said a hopeful part of her mind) she’d get to find out.
A gentle tap on her shoulder reminded Mithian that she was in a very public setting. She turned her head to see Gwaine grinning at her.
“Not to interrupt, but perhaps you could formally declare the tournament over. The king is, um, currently occupied. Merlin is in his tent, helping him out of his armor and…”
“I see,” Mithian said, hoping no additional details would be provided. “Very well. Since I proposed the tournament, it’s only fitting that I close it. But first, Morgana, I know your victory cost you a new sword.”
“Oh, I think it was well worth a…”
“Be that as it may, I would like to make up your loss. Nemeth has one of the finest smiths in the five kingdoms. Perhaps you could accept one from me instead. Of course, I don’t know your preferences for a blade, so it would be helpful if you were to ride back with me and stay until it’s completed.”
“I would like that very much.”
Morgana’s eyes sparkled and it took all of Mithian’s self-control to not start kissing her again right then and there. But Mithian could wait. After all, it was a long ride back to Nemeth and her horse was strong enough to carry two.