In the castle’s war chamber, the weekly meeting between the Iron King and his generals was in full swing.
“I want scouts here, here and here,” Uther spoke, moving small miniatures back and forth on the table. “And double our guard near the mountain pass. Not a single inch of our southern borders is to stay unmonitored.”
The aging King sat back down, frowned in contemplation as he crossed his arms.
“They have to come out at some point,” he said. “And I will not be blindsided by them when they do.”
There had not been a single sighting of Cornwall’s army in two months. Not one soldier or scout had been spotted across the border. And their own scouts had not returned. The year had already moved well into Spring, and Uther did not have the faintest idea what Gorlois was planning. The thought made him feel deeply, profoundly uncomfortable. If Uther didn’t know what was happening, then he couldn’t counteract his opponent’s moves. He would lose all control.
Uther despised losing control.
As the generals began to coordinate their troops, Uther’s gaze was pulled to the seat next to him. Arthur’s chair was empty. It was unlike his son to miss a war meeting; normally, the Crown Prince was one of the first people to walk into the chamber. Uther’s frown deepened as, from across the table, he made eye contact with Agravaine.
“Have someone fetch Arthur. He needs to be briefed on today’s events. And explain himself,” the Iron King added under his breath. He watched as Agravaine beckoned a servant in the corner of the room, who quickly approached and whispered something into his ear.
“Ah. The Crown Prince has taken a day off, sire,” Agravaine replied.
The Iron King raised a single eyebrow in response.
“I believe that he is spending time with his fiancée. He is indisposed for the remainder of the day.”
Uther suppressed his annoyance at Agravaine’s words. He would have a conversation with Arthur about proper timing later. Mithian was an important pawn, and staying in the girl’s good graces would not hurt. He knew that his son was less than enthusiastic about binding himself to her. But Arthur had been raised with a strong sense of duty. He would do what was expected of him, regardless of his personal objections on the matter.
In that regard, Arthur greatly resembled Ygraine.
“Very well,” Uther replied. “Then fetch me Morgana instead. She can brief him when he-”
But the Jacoban priest interrupted him, shaking his head at Uther.
“She’s not here, either, sire. I believe she went out for a ride.”
This time, the Iron King could not hide his annoyance. Uther crossed his arms in disapproval. As he glared at Agravaine, he could feel a familiar sense of rage begin to bubble up from the depths of his stomach.
“May I remind you all that we are in an active state of war?” the Iron King growled. “Am I the only one in the royal family that actually cares about a missing army?”
“Of course not, sire-”
“Well, it doesn’t bloody seem like it,” he snapped. “This is ridiculous. Send a servant at once to fetch them both. They can have leisure time when Camelot has peace.”
The Royal adviser glanced at the servants in the corner, who quickly and almost invisibly shook their heads at him. Agravaine grimaced in response.
“I’m afraid that they did not… give us a location to fetch them from,” he spoke through clenched teeth.
“Then go find them,” Uther growled. “We’re supposed to have a war meeting, for Watcher’s sake! What is so bloody important that it cannot wait until tomorrow?”
One of the advantages of being the future King was that there was not a single door within Camelot that Arthur could not open. That privilege included buildings outside of the castle. The tournament grounds were equipped with a small but functional kitchen; a space that was used to prepare snacks and drinks for the knights in-between matches.
When there were no events being held, those kitchens were left abandoned. Nobody used them. As a result, rarely anybody ever went near the place.
It wasn’t perfect. The place still had cobwebs hanging in the corners and dust piling up on the top shelves. But as far as meeting spots went, the kitchens were already a big step up from that dusty, spider-infested southern tower.
Arthur watched as Guinevere reached into the pantry, pulling out a number of items that she had brought in with her. The maidservant quickly walked the wooden tray over to the nearest counter. As soon as she’d placed it all in front of her, the girl turned towards Arthur.
“Okay… Please gather the same things that I did,” she said, gently instructing him. “You’ll also need sugar, milk, carob powder a-and salt.”
“Salt?” Arthur replied, confused. “But it’s a pastry. Why would you need salt?”
Guinevere merely smiled in response.
“You do. Trust me.”
Arthur took her word for it. He wasn’t one to question those more experienced than him. The Crown Prince quickly gathered everything that Guinevere had listed, feeling strangely giddy as he piled the ingredients onto his tray. Arthur could vividly remember the last time that he had tried to cook something. Back then, he’d just tried to prove to Gawain that he could.
But this time, Arthur actually wanted to. Morgana would probably laugh him out of the castle if he ever told her. But something about the idea of eating a pastry that he’d made all by himself made him feel strangely giddy.
Carefully, Arthur put the tray down on the kitchen counter. He scratched his chin in contemplation as he looked down on the small pile of ingredients.
“All right. What are we making?”
“Chocolate cake,” Guinevere replied, glancing over at him with a slight smile on her lips. “I know that you like carob powder, so… I thought that cake would be a good start.”
The irony of it was not lost on Arthur. The Crown Prince frowned as he looked down on his would-be cake.
He had tried this before.
It had not gone well.
But this was his chance. He could try again. After four long years, the time had finally come for his confectionery revenge. He wasn’t a child anymore. He had grown in both size and strength. This time around, Arthur would succeed. After all, he had a teacher this time. That had to be enough. The Crown Prince nodded to himself, grabbing the nearest spoon as the sugar fiend inside of him nodded in approval.
This time, Arthur was ready.
“O-okay. First, please put everything you have in the bowl. From there, we’ll move on to…”
“Um… A-Arthur,” Guinevere said, cautiously getting his attention. The baffled look on her face made Arthur’s confidence instantly evaporate.
“What? What is it?” he asked, confused. She pointed at his bowl in response.
“You’re, um… you’re supposed to crack the eggs first.”
Arthur hadn’t thought about that at all. The Crown Prince could feel his cheeks grow hot as he looked down at the mess that was his future cake. He’d just thrown it all in. He hadn’t even taken out the stone cup. Everything was covered in sugar and flour.
Not a good start.
Arthur fished around in the bowl, searching with his fingers for a while before pulling the eggs back out. The Crown Prince stared at them for a moment before sheepishly turning back towards Guinevere.
“I, uh… I don’t know how.”
Part of him still balked at admitting any his shortcomings to another person. But just like Gawain, Guinevere did not hold it against him. The girl smiled, quickly abandoning her own cake as she walked over.
“Okay. It’s easy,” she explained. “You just hold the egg out over the bowl and gently crack it between your fingers. Try to keep any shell parts from falling in.”
I can do gently.
Arthur frowned, narrowing his eyes in concentration as he grabbed onto the egg with both hands. It would be fine. He could do this. Cracking eggs was easy. Guinevere had said so herself. All he had to worry about was not pressing it too-
“That’s okay,” Guinevere chuckled. “You can just take it back out. Try a-again.”
“Oh. Right. Of course.”
Arthur quickly turned back to his bowl. He fumbled with the eggs a few more times until he finally got the hang of it, cracking them properly. Arthur watched as Guinevere moved over to her own bowl to continue her instructions.
“Okay. Now stir it until it’s smooth and all the same colour, like this.”
Stir the batter. Right. He could do that. Arthur had enough upper body strength to deadlift a soldier- he could handle stirring a small bowl. This would be easy-
“Um. A-Arthur? You don’t have to stir… that hard.”
The Crown Prince opened his eyes, cringing a little when he realised that his spoon had reached the bottom of the bowl. He’d steered too hard. There was not a single drop left in there. All of the batter was smeared out over the walls. And the counter. And the floor.
It was a total mess.
The Crown Prince could feel a strange sense of déjà vu as he awkwardly turned towards Guinevere.
“… I’m a terrible cook, aren’t I?”
“You… have some learning to do,” the maidservant admitted awkwardly, causing Arthur’s expression to fall.
“You don’t have to soften the blow,” the Crown Prince responded, feeling disheartened. “Even I can tell that that was terrible. There’s barely any batter left.”
“Well, yes… but we can try again. A-and there are worse first times,” she added, giving him a tiny smile. Arthur raised a single eyebrow in response.
“Yes. Mine was.”
“I set the stove on fire.”
Her smile widened. Arthur watched as the maidservant gave him a warm, reassuring look.
“Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.”
Two hours later, the smell of dust in the kitchen had been replaced with the sweet scent of sugar and chocolate. Arthur hadn’t been able to make a pretty cake like Guinevere’s. His batter hadn’t risen properly and they had been forced to cut it into little chunks. But the Crown Prince wasn’t disappointed. What came out of the oven still smelled delicious – and he had made it all by himself.
It was good enough.
His teacher seemed to agree. From the corner of his eye, Arthur could see Guinevere’s inspecting glance turn into a warm smile of approval.
“Yes. They look good,” she nodded. “You did well.”
Arthur was used to compliments. When he was a child, the adults at court had lavished him with praise whenever they could. As he grew older, he had started to realise that it was because they were trying to get into his good graces, and not because he had actually done something worth being praised for. Compliments had naturally started to feel hollow as a result.
But not when they came from Guinevere. Arthur could feel his chest swell with pride at her words. He knew that she was sincere, even if it was only over a cake. The Crown Prince made eye contact with her, his mouth pulling into a smile.
“I have a good teacher.”
“Not really,” Guinevere smiled back. “Sarah is way better a-at teaching than me. I just told you what to do. A-and you’ve never cooked before, right?”
“Not exactly,” Arthur replied. In his mind, the disaster that was his childhood attempt did not count as cooking. Guinevere nodded at him in response, her expression strangely eager.
“Did you like it?”
“I did,” Arthur admitted. “More than I thought I would. Making things with your own hands is… oddly enjoyable.”
“You’ll get better at it with practice, too. Especially if it’s fun. If you tried, I bet that you would make a good pastry chef. Or a baker. You already have the sweet tooth for it.”
The Crown Prince was probably supposed to be outraged at that idea. But instead, the sentiment made him feel weirdly happy. For a moment, Arthur tried to imagine himself without a crown. Without any of the burdens that came with being the next ruler of a Kingdom. He pictured himself as just a baker, rolling bread and baking pastries until the sun went down.
“A baker instead of a King,” Arthur muttered. He watched as an expression of uncertainty crossed Guinevere’s face. The girl shrunk into herself, suddenly looking very timid.
“Does… does that sound weird?”
But… I don’t dislike it.
“If I’m a baker, what would you be?” Arthur asked curiously. He could see that the question took her by surprise. Guinevere blinked, placing a hand on her chin as she cocked her head.
“I don’t know,” she thought out loud. “I think… a seamstress, maybe? Or a chronicler? I do like stories.”
That was new. Arthur knew that Morgana’s maidservants had many talents, but he didn’t know that Guinevere was interested in either of those things. The Crown Prince took a step towards her, curious to find out more.
“You’d be a storyteller?”
Guinevere immediately folded into herself, breaking eye contact as she looked away from him. Arthur watched as her eyes clouded over.
“Probably not,” she said softly. “Not a-anymore. I wasn’t good at it, a-anyway.”
The sudden change in her demeanor wasn’t subtle. Arthur could sense that something was off. That they’d gotten close to something that Guinevere was not ready to reach. The Crown Prince reacted on instinct. He quickly took control of the conversation, steering it away and back towards a safer subject.
“A seamstress sounds good,” he smiled. “I bet you could make some great things if you had the entire day to yourself. I know I would,” the Crown Prince continued. “I could make dozens of cakes and fruit pies! I’d have no war meetings or knight training either – I could just spend all day making jelly tarts. I’ll sell half of them and eat the other half by myself.”
“You shouldn’t do that. You’ll get really chubby,” Guinevere replied, chuckling at his words. Arthur gave her a playful shrug in response.
“Then I’d be chubby. I’ll just buy bigger clothes. Maybe a chef’s hat and a giant apron. You could make one for me, if you’re a seamstress.”
“I… probably could,” Guinevere replied softly. The colour had returned to her cheeks, together with her smile. Arthur opened his mouth to joke around some more, and see if he could make her laugh, when he suddenly faltered. A small bubble of doubt welled up from the pit of his stomach. It took him a moment to realise where it was coming from. Then the words appeared in his mind, and doubt turned into hesitation.
“I’d be a baker, though,” he eventually said, deciding to voice his worries. “Not a Prince. I wouldn’t have any titles. I probably wouldn’t even have any money.”
“Probably not. Baker a-are not very rich.”
“Yeah. I… probably wouldn’t mind that too much. But…”
Arthur couldn’t help himself. He had tried to let go of suspicion, of the idea that he wasn’t worth more than his title. He really had. But years and years of reinforcement had drilled the thought into him like one of the tenets that were carved into the church walls. It didn’t just go away.
He knew that Guinevere wasn’t like that. Arthur knew that the maidservant could see beyond his title and genuinely liked him for who he was. She had told him multiple times already. That should have been enough. But even now, the Crown Prince still couldn’t help himself.
Arthur couldn’t help but wonder… and doubt.
“Say… would you still notice me as a baker?”
Arthur had hoped for words of reassurance, while a part of him expected rejection. Anticipated it, even.
But once again, the maidservant ended up surprising him.
“I… didn’t even know you were a prince a-at first.”
“You didn’t know?” Arthur replied, immediately confused at her words. “Didn’t we meet at Llamrei’s stable? About a year ago? You knew who I was, then. I know you did. You ran off on me.”
But Guinevere shook her head at him.
“That was the second time. We didn’t meet a-at the stables.”
“What do you mean?” the Crown Prince asked. At Arthur’s look of utter confusion, the maidservant began to explain. He watched as she folded her hands in her lap, fiddling with the sleeves of her tunic.
“We first met in in the lower town. Two years a-ago. During the famine.”
“Michael and I hadn’t eaten in days. We were starving, so… so I took him outside to beg for food. Sometimes people left scraps in the marketplace.”
“When we got there, people had come down from the castle with sacks of bread. They were feeding everyone in the square. Sarah was one of them, so I thought that they were a-all servants. They had more food with them than any of us had seen in a week.”
“There were a-a lot of kids in the square that day, so you probably don’t remember us. A-and that’s okay. You don’t need to. But Michael and I… you gave us food yourself.”
“You… you were there?” Arthur asked. His voice was barely audible, coming out in a quiet whisper as he looked at Guinevere in shock. The maidservant gave him a single, timid nod.
“Yes. You saved some of our lives with that bread. Mum taught me to a-always give back what you receive. I started working as a servant so… so I could give it back to someone who needed it in the future. I didn’t even know that you were royalty. I only realised who… who you were, when Sarah…”
“When she chose you to work under my sister,” Arthur spoke, finishing her sentence for her. Guinevere gave him a tiny smile.
Arthur was reeling. All form of logical response failed him as the Crown Prince was hit with a wave after wave of realisation. Arthur vividly remembered that winter. He remembered the sea of hungry faces that stared up at him from the lower town, with hollow cheeks and eyes sunken in their sockets. Sarah had helped them to sneak out many times during that winter. They had given whatever they could miss. Children had ended up crowding around them, eager and desperate to grab as much food as they could get. It was never enough. At the time, the Crown Prince had wondered if they had made any difference at all.
He’d had no idea.
“… so that’s why you were so protective of him. Michael is your baby brother, isn’t he?”
As he watched Guinevere’s smile rapidly fade, Arthur cursed himself for not keeping his mouth shut. But part of him couldn’t leave it alone. Not this time. In the year that he had known her, the Crown Prince had never seen Guinevere with siblings. She never mentioned relatives, either. Not once. Except for her mother, Arthur had never heard her talk about her family.
He couldn’t leave it be. Arthur had to know.
“Your brother, is he…”
“He didn’t make it.”
“I… I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t know what else to say. And Guinevere didn’t answer. She didn’t have to- Arthur could see the pain in her expression as the maidservant turned away from him. The raw, intense sense of heartbreak that lay just beneath her hastily averted eyes. Arthur watched as Guinevere wrapped an arm around herself. She visibly shrunk as her gaze was drawn to the floor.
He couldn’t imagine the kind of hurt she was feeling.
Arthur couldn’t imagine losing Morgana.
Slowly, Arthur’s eyes were pulled to the top of the table. They trailed past the cake that Guinevere had made, stopping on the little squares of pastry that Arthur had managed to make.
He’d wasted an entire bowl of food to get there.
For a moment, the Crown Prince hesitated.
“Guinevere,” Arthur eventually muttered. “By any chance… did Michael like chocolate cake?”
It took the maidservant a moment to respond. Guinevere wouldn’t make eye contact with him. She glanced at the table from the corner of her eyes, staying silent as she gave him a single nod. As he looked at the pained expression on her face, Arthur suddenly came to a decision in his mind. His hesitation slowly faded away.
What was left… was compassion.
“Can I bring him some?”