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Serving the Kingdom (Unseen Keepers of the Secret III)

By Ellie

Other / Humor

Chapter 1

Serving the Kingdom

Something was wrong, George decided. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was something here that set his teeth on edge and made him wonder what on earth he had done wrong. Of course, it was his first day here, as manservant to King Arthur, the dream job of every servant. Yet why kept people staring at him as if he were an anomaly?

Well, none of that mattered, really, did it? He had the job now and he was determined to hold on to it. Manservant to the king was a position that paid relatively well, but mostly it was about the honour of serving the king, an honour George was well aware of. King Arthur was well liked and a good ruler for his people, but George understood the need for such a king to have a good servant. Otherwise how could he function well?

To that end he had woken long before the crack of dawn to start his chores. This was not the first noble he had been tasked with looking after, so he knew his list of duties was quite extensive. He didn't really mind that; he liked to keep busy. And so he started in the armoury, only to find that he was not the first one to be there. Someone who looked remarkably like a knight was putting on his own armour, maybe to get in a bit of early training. He stared at George as if he had seen a ghost.

'Who are you?' he demanded. 'And what are you doing here?'

'I am George, sir,' he responded. 'The king's new manservant.' He didn't really know what happened to the old one. He didn't even know the old one's name. There was some rumour that he had been killed by bandits though. George shivered at the thought of such a violent and messy death. 'I am here to polish the king's armour.'

For a moment it looked like the knight was too confused to say anything, but then he settled for a still confused 'This early?' He shook his head. 'Never mind.'

He was out before George could bid him a good day, in spite of his own confusion. The first lesson a servant learned was that he had always to be polite and never be anything but polite. So that was what he was. Outwardly he smiled, nodded and bowed, but inwardly he wondered what this strange exchange had meant. Had his predecessor perhaps polished the king's armour at night, before the king went to sleep, so that it was all ready in the morning and he could muck out the stables at this time? He felt a sudden increase in nerves. What if he was doing this all wrong?

No, he wasn't doing this wrong. He was just doing things differently. But that surely didn't matter as long as the work was done properly? It was well known that every servant worked differently. People had to get used to him, that was all. Maybe they even resented him a little for taking the place of the king's previous servant, since he had been killed by bandits. That would only be natural, after all, especially if that manservant had been well liked.

He pondered all this as he polished the king's armour and sharpened his sword, and it calmed his nerves considerably. By the time he had entered the kitchen to collect the king's breakfast, though, he found himself being stared at again.

'Who are you?' a young woman, presumably a kitchen maid, asked of him.

'I am George,' he introduced himself. 'The king's new manservant.'

The maid's face fell. 'Oh,' she said. 'I'm Sarah.' She bit her lip. 'I still don't know what you're doing here.'

George would have thought that would be obvious. 'I am here to fetch the king's breakfast.'

Her eyebrows were up at her hairline. 'This early? Dawn's hardly breaking!'

Now it was his turn to look confused; it seemed to be all he was really doing this morning. 'I was instructed that the king was to be woken at dawn,' he informed Sarah. 'Isn't that right?'

She seemed to be thinking very hard. 'Well, yes. Officially.' She looked thoughtful for a moment. 'But I don't think Merlin was ever in this early, unless the king was going away. He's not going anywhere today, is he?'

'I wouldn't know, Miss Sarah,' George said. 'It is not my place to ask about the king's schedule.'

'I am quite certain that Merlin practically managed his schedule,' Sarah said.

'Of course he did,' one of the nearby kitchen maids chimed in. 'Without Merlin he wouldn't get anything done at all, never mind getting things done in time.'

George had worked in a noble household before today, and he prided himself in knowing how they were run, but it seemed that the royal palace of Camelot was something else entirely. His predecessor, Merlin, apparently slacked in the duties a manservant must do, acting as something of a personal secretary for the king instead. That was something he had not been told when he had been hired. The nerves returned.

Sarah shot him a sympathetic smile when she saw the look on his face. 'Never you mind,' she said kindly, patting his arm affectionately. 'You'll learn how things are done here soon enough. Everyone does, eventually.'

Her colleague didn't seem to share her optimism. 'He won't be here that long,' she said dismissively. 'Merlin will be back before we know it.'

George felt forced to speak up. 'They say that he is dead.'

'Aye, they do,' the girl agreed. 'But they haven't found any body now, have they? Just a bloodied piece of his jacket and that doesn't mean anything. He could be hiding out there somewhere.' She caught Sarah's warning look, and added: 'Oh, please, don't tell me you bought all that crap about Merlin being dead.'

Sarah looked doubtful. 'Well, Lord Agravaine was pretty positive about it.'

'And you know what our boss says about Lord Agravaine,' the kitchen maid said, jerking her head in the direction of a woman George believed to be the head cook. 'Something is wrong about him. Seriously, when has anyone dressed in dark colours done any good to Camelot?'

'The king trusts him,' Sarah objected.

'And Merlin doesn't,' was the reply. She turned to George. 'I'll give it a week, at most, before he's back. In the meantime you can handle the king as you see fit, I suppose.'

This conversation was getting weirder by the second. 'A servant doesn't "handle" the king,' he said, not quite liking that tone of voice she directed at him. It was almost as if she knew something he didn't, and meant to keep it that way.

The kitchen maid shook her head. 'You won't even last a week,' she predicted. 'Not at this rate, anyway. Sarah, can't you just put the poor bloke out of his misery and tell him already? He's completely clueless.'

Sarah shook her head. 'I can't,' she said. 'He'd keel over dead if we did, Elen. We'd best let him work it out for himself. Besides, the boss would have my head if I told him and he'd blab it to the king. She might have yours if you don't get back to work now; you know what she's like.' She turned to George. 'Let's you and I find the king's breakfast and then I'll show you where the king's bedchamber is.'

George bestowed his most grateful smile on her. 'Thank you,' he said. 'Maybe you could help me carry it, too?' Maybe that was a bit forward of him, but he was the king's manservant; he could at least get some help with some of the more difficult tasks. If he didn't, he would still be here by mid-morning and that, he thought, might seriously damage his career prospects in the royal household.

Sarah was looking at him as if he had grown a second head. 'Help you carry it?' she echoed. 'Just how much do you think you need?'

A lot. That was the only appropriate answer. Kings needed a lot of energy and to that end they needed a lot of food. And anyway, kings needed to get the best of everything. King Arthur Pendragon was surely not an exception to that rule.

By the time he had selected what he believed his new employer would need, Sarah had called over two more serving boys to help him carry the load. Elen was watching the whole scene with an amused twinkle in her eyes. 'Is there a feast that no one has seen fit to tell me about? You could feed the entire royal household with what you're taking.'

'You'd better be right about that week,' Sarah muttered. George suspected that he was not meant to hear that.

Something was wrong, he observed again as Sarah led the way to the king's bedchamber. Everyone seemed to think he was doing things that were completely unnatural and extraordinary. But it wasn't, was it? He had been told what his duties were when he had been hired and so far he was doing exactly that. Okay, maybe he was running a little late. He had expected that the kitchen staff would already have prepared the king's breakfast when he came in. Instead he had found himself stared at like he had lost his mind by the head cook, a rather impressive woman named Mary. 'Do you think we haven't got anything better to do?' she had demanded. 'We have an entire castle to feed, boy, not just the king.' When George in turn pointed out that the king was the most important person in aforementioned castle, she had merely shook her head. 'You're one of those, aren't you?' she asked wearily. 'You've got a long way to go yet, mark my words.'

Sarah pushed open the door and pointed out the table from which the king ate his breakfast. 'That one,' she said. 'The one next to the bed. Just make sure you clear it off when he's done; he likes to use it as a desk, since it's so close to the window.'

George raised an eyebrow. 'Shouldn't we lower our voices? We won't want to wake him.' He gave the good example himself.

Sarah shook her head. 'Don't bother. He sleeps like the dead.'

'That's disrespectful,' George said. Something about the way she said it was terribly wrong. One didn't talk about a king like that.

Sarah merely shrugged. 'I really hope you'll learn soon how things are done here. You look like you need it.'

With that last encouragement she left him to his duties and beckoned for the serving boys to follow her out. The latter weren't looking happy. It was almost as if he had done something wrong, but he didn't understand what that could be. Wasn't he doing everything a servant should do? Sarah didn't seem to think he was. Elen and she had carried on and on about how he didn't understand how things were done here, and the longer he was in the castle, the more he began to feel like he was indeed missing the point somewhere. He wondered about that while he selected the king's clothes for the day. No, he concluded in the end, it was not him that was in the wrong here. For some reason these people were acting strange. For them, slacking in their duties had become commonplace. He was one of the few – possibly even the only one – who behaved as he should. Well, that was a reassurance, he had to admit. The king might be pleased to finally have a servant who did as he should, no disrespect meant to his predecessor of course. He might even raise the standard of the whole castle.

He gave the room a final glance. He had cleared up some of the mess that had been left behind, laid out the king's clothes and arranged the breakfast in a presentable manner. The bedchamber needed a thorough cleaning as well, but that would have to wait till the king was out. That was as it should.

He had just positioned himself at the end of the bed when King Arthur began to stir. He stretched his muscles and opened his eyes, staring straight at George, a puzzled expression on his face. 'Who are you?' he demanded. For some reason that seemed to be the first thing everyone asked him.

But George had been well-trained and his professional mask was never even in danger of slipping. 'I am your new manservant, sire,' he announced with a happy smile. 'I have polished your armour, sharpened your sword, selected your clothes – there's a slight chill in the air today, sir – and now, if you would allow me, I would like to serve you breakfast.' There, that was exactly right. He had told the king what he had done already – gently reminding him that he, unlike the rest of the castle staff, could do what he was actually paid to do – worked in a bit of small talk about the weather – manservants were close to the people they served, giving him some liberty to do that – and had offered to serve him his breakfast, as he should. Yes, he quite liked the sound of this.

Only, it seemed that his opinion was not shared. By the end of George's speech the king was blinking in what appeared to be bewilderment. He was practically staring at the breakfast table. Well, he would do that of course; he'd never been so well looked after before, going by what George had seen and heard today.

'What's your name?' the king asked as George walked over to fetch the king a napkin and cutlery.

'George, sire,' he answered. 'At your service.'

The king was working himself into a sitting position. 'Listen, George, this is all very impressive. Very impressive indeed,' he added as George put a number of pillows behind his back as to help him sit more comfortably. Look, this was the kind of praise he had secretly been hoping for. Not that a servant should be expecting praise for merely doing what he ought to be doing, strictly speaking. But praise was a kind of reward in and out of itself and he felt himself glowing with pride.

'Thank you, sire,' he said.

Only then it became apparent that King Arthur was not quite finished though. There still was a but. 'But I already have a manservant. He's shabby looking, he has appalling manners, he's extremely forgetful and he seems to spend most of his time in the tavern…'

It was as he had feared then. All his suspicions about this Merlin had been confirmed, and then some. Well, the king was about to find out that not all servants were as ill-mannered and forgetful. Briefly he noted that the king didn't seem to think that Merlin was dead, despite the evidence. Something about that did not sit well with him. He kept himself busy preparing the king's breakfast for consumption, but something about this speech did not sound right, not at all.

That suspicion was confirmed too, right away. 'But he is my manservant,' the king said. He gave George back the goblet and the fork and then literally flung the napkin in his face. 'And to be honest, I quite like it that way.'

As the king stalked out of the room, leaving his new manservant standing where he stood, cutlery and all, one thought registered very clear in his mind. This was the day the world stopped making sense. The kitchen personnel, he understood to a certain extent. They were never among the most intelligent staff, which was why they never got out of the kitchen until the day they either died or retired. But that the king would choose a servant who was, in his own words, "shabby looking and forgetful" and who was a drunk on top of that, that was something George could not for the life of him understand.

His world had been turned upside down.

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