|The Castle Prologue: London Bridge
Author: Guede Mazaka
A castle is a microcosm webbed into the macrocosm, a supposedly self-sufficient world that still feels the need to cast its lines into the world beyond and reel in as much as it can rake from the earth. It's both a place of protection and an origin of war, for one cannot find true sanctuary without having the means to enforce the meaning of that word. It has the highest, thickest, most impenetrable walls possible and yet it keeps its gates and windows and doors.
Who rules the castle rules the land, they say. Come see.
Lancelot snapped the match from his now-lit cigarette to Guinevere's, then tossed it over the side. He watched its tiny cherry glow be eaten by the thick fog that had invaded every corner of the city early in the morning, and then had stayed to chew dampness into anyone that dared brave it. "Well, now that we've gotten the preliminaries over and done with, what do you say?"
She dragged on her ivory holder and blew grey dragon-breath into the swirling mists, seeming to veil herself in translucency. "You remember him better than I do. I was only a child when he left for the War, and after that ended, I only saw him the one time at Bors and Vanora's wedding. Whereas you met with him once a month while he was in Rome."
"I wouldn't call it meeting." Somewhere beneath them, the Thames sluggishly rolled its way along, dark and ominous even on the best of days. It would make a good comparison to the second layer of Arthur's eyes, Lancelot thought, seeing as the first was friendly in a cool way and said little about the man's real state of being. Or to the restlessness that churned deep in Lancelot's gut whenever he caught Arthur off-guard enough to see that second layer. "How it usually went was I showed up for lunch, we had an utterly charming time, and then I mentioned business. Whereupon Arthur would close up and turn into the perfect, albeit absent, heir."
"Still more than me," Guinevere muttered, a trace of dissatisfaction wrinkling the side of her mouth. She angled her cigarette up towards some shadowy building on the farther bank and ringed the long white cylinder with a perfect smoke ring. "Have you seen him since he came back to London?"
For a moment, Lancelot wondered whether he could get away with not answering. Then he glimpsed a little spark of mockery slipping from Guinevere's eyes and realized that she already knew, so evasion was pointless. "No more than you."
The jab hit home, and hard enough to shake her back to their childhood habits; she smacked his arm and then attempted to stomp her heel through his foot. When he dodged the second blow, she angrily pulled away and stabbed her cigarette butt out on the railing. "Why the hell did it have to be you? Why couldn't Gawain have ended up with this? Or even Galahad?"
"Because I'm best suited. Even you have to admit that." Lancelot carefully finished off his cigarette so the ash remained clinging to the butt, then leaned over and tapped the ashes into a little pile by his foot. He swirled the butt in them till he could see a faint glow emanating from beneath, which quickly consumed the ashes to create a icy blue ball of crackling energy. Frowning at it, Lancelot floated it up and straightened to show Guinevere.
"Not even reddish now. London's already cut Uther off." She turned away and stared into the fast-thickening white nothingness beyond the bridge, but her nails were nervously scratching at the rail. "You are the prettiest bastard I've ever met, though whether that's sufficient qualification to make you the Scepter is still debatable. The Crown is somewhat more important to things."
"That's nothing but a hoop of gold without something more tangible to back it up," Lancelot riposted.
Guinevere pivoted back to glare at him, while a frisson ran from one end of the bridge to the other. "You're sloppy, and half the time you don't even care."
Because half the time there's nothing worth caring about, Lancelot thought. He noticed that his ball-lightning was beginning to shape itself into a face and dismissed it before Guinevere noticed. No point in showing his hand just yet. "You're not really in a position to criticize me about that, tiara-girl. At least I don't go planting grudges in New Moon…"
"Arthur wasn't happy with that, was he?"
"Once I found out and could tell him about it, you mean?" Lancelot asked in his most casual tone. When she merely shrugged, he allowed a little of his pent-up annoyance to show. "I could have told you that that wasn't going to work. You and Merlin are just lucky Sparrow took a liking to Norrington, so he couldn't be entirely angry about the whole mess. Anyway…no, that was not a good thing for Arthur to come home to."
She somehow managed to turn her hand waving the fog away into a gesture of pure derision. "Besides the fact that his father is dying and he's got to take London whether he likes it or not?"
"You wouldn't happen to know why he enlisted in the first place, would you? And then why he insisted on handling our end in Rome instead of staying here?" The frissons were getting more intense, vibrations starting to physically shake the stone beneath Lancelot's feet. He eyed the bridge, then braced himself against the rail next to Guinevere.
A curl of fog ventured right up to her cheek and stroked a faint sheen of moisture down it before she irritably flicked it away. For all of her seeming composure, she wasn't much steadier than he was; that realization surprised Lancelot and made him try to see her for once as his counterpart, and not the annoying little girl that had liked to clamp onto Arthur's knee in order to distract him from Lancelot.
"No, I don't. Anyway, we're losing the point of this meeting," Guinevere finally said. "Uther's dying. Arthur's here. It looks like the transition itself will be smooth enough."
"Much to Cerdic's disappointment. I think he was counting on Uther to live a little longer; Arthur's too sharp-eyed to let that bastard run on like he has. Now Cerdic either has to fall back or give open challenge." After a few minutes of staring at Guinevere, Lancelot grudgingly admitted to himself that she had grown up into a fine-looking piece. He also reminded himself that her claws had also grown accordingly, so if he wanted to shoo her out of the room, it'd take a bit more than a slap to her backside. She could be fierce competition if she wanted to be-and if Arthur ever started showing some preference. The way things were going, Lancelot was starting to believe the other man had suffered some kind of embarrassing injury to his prick during the war. It wasn't normal-everyone else at least reacted to Lancelot, even if that was occasionally in a negative way.
Another tremor went through the bridge, and this time it was hard enough to knock Guinevere into Lancelot. She instinctively grabbed for his arms, but stiffened when he put his hands on her waist. Then she softened and leaned into him, smiling up with a demure look on her face. "So, what are you going to do with yourself?"
"Don't bother, Guin. I've seen you down with influenza, and that wasn't pretty." When he dodged back from her slap, his hat skittered down his forehead and covered his eyes. Annoyed, Lancelot shoved it back up only to find her smiling at him in an entirely different and infinitely more exasperating way. "The only way Cerdic would have a real chance is if one of us decided to side with him. And you should know by now that I hate that jackass's guts."
"Good. So we're agreed on Arthur," Guinevere said.
The moment that name left her mouth, the world seemed to shiver itself asunder. They were thrown together again and grappled at each other while the bridge warped and the fog ripped itself clear, while distant bells mourned and unseen ravens scratched their calls across the sky. Guinevere hissed and clenched her fingers in Lancelot's coat lapels, eyes squeezed shut as she tried to force order on their surroundings. A pointless exercise, when what was going on was something that neither of them could help; Lancelot merely attempted to keep them on their feet.
And then everything was settled and calm, with the only difference being that the fog had vanished as if it had never even been there. The sky was overcast and so the dim watery light didn't improve in the slightest, and the unease in Lancelot hadn't diminished at all. "Arthur…"
"You didn't declare for him just because you believe in him, did you." Though Guinevere's words were sharp as her blades, there was no mockery in her tone.
"My reasons are the same as yours, I think. We'll just have to see whose he finds better." And how fair a fight that was going to be, Lancelot didn't care to take a guess-though he had no intention of being a gentleman and giving up any possible advantages. On the other hand…they would have to work together in some fashion, else they'd both fall, and take Arthur with them. And that was the last thing he wanted to do.
Lancelot dropped his hands from her, stepped back and straightened his clothes. He glanced at the opaque, bruise-colored waters below, then offered Guinevere his arm. After a moment's wariness, she took it and together, they walked back to their cars.
It was Guinevere who said it first, pausing in the doorway once they'd arrived. "The King's dead."
"Long live the King," Lancelot murmured, staring up at the shadowed sky. "If he's forgiven all of us for making him so."