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Sword in the Stars
A Once & Future Novel
By A. R. Capetta
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Merlin crash-landed in the past with a great, undignified belly flop.
The chaos of waves left him torn between gasps and muttered curses. He had rocketed through the time portal, an endless skydive without parameters or parachutes, before it dumped him in this flooded, cramped circle of stone.
“Anyone else down here?” He bobbed. “No? Just me?” He splashed around, finding rough stone, and high above, a hole punch of blue sky. This was no cavern. The walls had been hacked in a pattern that spoke of plans and intentions and humanity. He was in a well.
“Nothing a little magic won’t fix.” But when Merlin went to dig some up, he was near empty. Trying to keep everyone together in a time portal with completely different laws of physics had drained him. And it hadn’t even worked. He would worry about that later; for now he had to get out and see if their great gamble had paid off.
He braced his arms and legs for a long climb. The well was narrow enough that he could jam himself between two opposing sides, scuttling upward and hurting his back and his neck and his dignity most of all. “Dignity is for knights,” he scoffed under his breath. Merlin was a mage. A bit of absurdity came with the territory.
When he reached the top, he gripped the edge, hoisted one leg, and rolled over. He hit the flagstones of a central square with a resounding smack. He stood, shoved his glasses into place, and looked around.
It wasn’t off in some hazy distance, surrounded by dragons and dreams. The city was here, the city was now. A normal day in Camelot should have been bustling with crowds, crying babies, forges clanging, and those incessant flutists—a shrill reminder that music wouldn’t improve for centuries. Yet all was silent, still. Layers of odors that he hadn’t even known he’d missed stampeded his senses. Damp earth. Sprightly grass. Meat cooked in a godless amount of butter…
And there was his castle rising above the whole scene, keeping watch over the city. It was Arthur’s, too, yes, but Merlin had designed it for the young king, giving it towers and secrets that regular castles could hardly dream about. It had been his highest achievement, next to Arthur’s reign. Only now the castle looked small—the starscrapers of the twenty-second century had broken his sense of scale—and yet the way it stood against this perfect blue morning left a mark.
On the sky. On his soul.
He was home.
Merlin’s memories should have risen up to meet him, rather like the flagstones had risen up to meet his face, but none were forthcoming. Perhaps he was too nervous. After all, he wasn’t supposed to be facing his past alone. The time portal had tried to burst his body into atomic confetti, but even worse, it had ripped his friends away from one another. He looked around for Ari, Gwen, Jordan, Lam, and Val, wondering if they’d all landed safely in the square while he alone had had the misfortune of shooting straight down the barrel of a smelly well.
All he found was one young person with a gaping mouth and fishy-wide eyes watching his every move. They had ruddy white skin and scruffy brown hair, and they said a word that sounded a fair bit like shit.
It was hard to adjust now that he had gotten used to the distinct Mercer accent of the future. Not Mercer; English, the language is English, Merlin corrected. Curse that consumer monster with its uncanny knack for swallowing culture and rebranding history! Actually, he’d gone back far enough that England didn’t exist quite yet. The island was known as Britannia during this time. He spent a moment mentally mapping it out: Camelot’s golden age had flowered just before the Norman invasion, and after the island’s run-in with the Roman Empire, which left nothing but divisions and bathhouses in its wake.
“Good day!” Merlin shouted heartily, causing the scruffy kid to drop their bucket.
They eyed him, then the well. “Did you spring from the roots of the stone?”
“Stones don’t have roots,” he quipped, though he enjoyed the way this language lent itself to metaphor. His future-y friends had been so amused by his allegorical loquaciousness, but it was a remnant of his origins, a rare one he actually treasured. Not that he knew his precise origins. The farthest back he could remember was waking up in the crystal cave, ancient and alone.
“Then where did you come from?” the small stranger asked.
Merlin suppressed the desire to say a galaxy far, far away. “I’m from Camelot.”
He was only half a foot taller than this young person, which begged the question, how old was Merlin these days? Was it possible he’d gotten younger since they left the future? Perhaps the portal had shaved off more of his life. A penalty for time travel? Morgana had given up her existence to send them back, while Excalibur had broken to bits. Was this his price?
He loved magic, but sometimes it was unmistakably the worst.
The kid grumbled as they sent the bucket down the well, while Merlin twisted water from the ruby robes Ari had gifted him on Ketch. He tried not to look suspicious, though that ship had probably sailed to distant seas by now. First things first, he needed to find the crowds. Ari was always at the center of the action, the others not far behind. They were her little ducklings. Thinking of Jordan and her knightly skills, he course-corrected: lethal ducklings. “What’s happening today? Where is everyone?”
“All attend King Arthur’s wedding,” the kid said, sweating under the weight of the bucket as they brought it back up. “He takes his bride in the tournament ring.”
Oh, yes, the ever-delightful treatment of women as possessions. He was definitely back.
Something clicked oddly. “Gweneviere? Arthur is already marrying Gweneviere?” He didn’t know why he was surprised. He’d commanded the portal to take them back to Arthur’s eighteenth birthday season, which had been a particularly momentous time for the young king and a rather squishy blank period in Merlin’s memories. That’s when the enchanted chalice had appeared—and disappeared—and that’s what Arthur’s spirit had sent them back to retrieve.
“The Lady Gweneviere comes from afar,” the kid said eagerly. “An exotic beauty. My friend says she’s a force for good in Camelot, but my mother believes she bewitched the king.”
Ah, another piece of the past he hadn’t missed. The perfect storm of antipolitical, cultural, and social correctness. His friends were in for a migraine of homophobic, racist, and gender-related fuckery. He had to find them. Fast.
“Where is the wedding?” he barked, making the kid jump.
They pointed beyond the city walls, and Merlin left at a run. His path wound him around Camelot’s central castle, as glowering as it was grand, with eight-foot-thick walls, stones capped with dark moss, and mere arrow slits for windows. He forced himself not to look up at the tallest tower. Another version of him might be up there, even now. Merlin had told his friends he didn’t want to expose them to the horrors of the Middle Ages, which was true, but some of those horrors weren’t just historical. They were deeply, deeply personal. He had to avoid a run-in with his old self at all costs.
“Shouldn’t be hard,” he murmured. “As long as we stay out of the castle and don’t cause any scenes.” How likely was it that Ari had found trouble in the few minutes they’d been apart?
Good heavens, Merlin needed to sprint.
As his breath cut short and his feet rubbed against the inside of his wet boots, he soothed himself with one of his focused to-do lists. Merlin had to find his friends, steal the chalice, and make a new time portal to return them to the night they left.
Oh, he thought, three steps. Always a good sign.
In the back of his mind he added less immediate, but ever-important hopes: to protect Gwen’s baby, reverse his ridiculous backward aging, and release Arthur’s spirit from Ari’s body, allowing the dead king to finally rest. To end this cursed cycle once and for all. But surely those things would happen if they made it back to the future and irreversibly stopped Mercer.
“Piece of—” A scent wafted over him. “Delicious roasted meat.”
A cheer rifled the air, and the cacophony led him through the main gates and up a dirt road slick with mud. In the near distance, atop a perfectly green hill, a proud tournament ring held thousands of people and quite the celebration. The pennants were flying, bearing the red dragon and Excalibur. More promising smells hit. His stomach roared, and he told it to stop being so Kay-like.
He pushed himself to remember the less-than-admirable qualities of this place. Even from a distance, the divisions of an unequal society stood out. Commoners huddled together on the edges of the ring, while the nobles kept comfy seats under the dyed red pavilions. If Merlin dared to ask anyone their pronouns, he might very well be treated as more dangerous than a rogue mage.
Merlin elbowed through the commoners for a better look. He was a bit grimy from well climbing, which helped him fit in with this foul-smelling bunch. Musicians lit up horns, and the crowd stilled with anticipation. Everything looked and sounded and felt like the start of a royal celebration.
He really had come out of the time portal at the right moment. It was the first bit of good news since Ketch, when for a few glorious nights he’d believe the universe was free of the Mercer Company’s oily grasp and headed for the end of the Arthurian cycle. He had celebrated with Val and copious amounts of kissing.
Val. They had all gotten separated in the time portal—Ari first, then Gwen, Lam, and Jordan—but Val and Merlin had been holding on to each other, Val’s brown eyes the only grounding force as every rule of physics was stripped away, and they plummeted toward a nightmare he thought he’d escaped long ago.
And then Merlin blinked, and Val was gone.
Stolen right out of his arms.
Drumbeats announced the procession as knight after knight on horseback rode into the ring. Merlin watched while they circled, noticing armor from all kinds of places. Most likely these knights had traveled for weeks to attend the event and seek favor from the king. Some of their suits were polished silver; some red, scratched, and dented; others blackened with coal. One knight stood out in blue armor, a circular dragon emblazoned on his breastplate.
Merlin squinted, both recognizing the image and drawing a complete blank as to what it meant. “I should remember more,” he muttered, but then, he was seeing this wedding for the first time. His old self had boycotted Arthur’s wedding—that much he did remember.
After the knights, women with flowers in their hair and woven around their ankles stepped forward, faces calm but unsmiling. As they formed a circle and started a complex pattern of steps, Merlin noted that it wasn’t a homogeneous medieval dance crew. For some reason, he had expected everyone to be whiter than the puffy clouds above the tournament ring. A single look proved that wasn’t true. While some girls were white and wildly freckled, others had smooth bronze complexions. There were pale blondes and paler redheads, as well as maidens with warm brown skin and tight black curls tumbling out of their braided crowns. One girl had a Middle Eastern set to her features and jewel-bright eyes much like Ari. One looked so much like Jordan with her thick blonde braid that Merlin did a double take. But no. Jordan would put her neck on the block before she’d throw herself into such festivities.
He went back to scanning the—also surprisingly diverse—crowd for his friends, when the star of the show appeared.
“King Arthur!” the people cried as one. “All hail King Arthur!”
Merlin’s heart skidded to a stop. It had been so long since he’d seen Arthur. His first family, his only real family until Ari and the others swept him into their lives. At a distance, Arthur looked small, his straw hair unkempt beneath a golden circlet crown and his moves jerky with nerves. There was no command in his presence, no steel in his gaze. He wasn’t yet the king of legend, but he wasn’t the curious, half-wild boy Merlin visited so often in memories. He was caught between the two.
Merlin wanted nothing more than to shout Arthur’s name, break through the crowds, and reunite himself with his former ward and first magical pupil, but such a meeting wasn’t in the cards. Interacting with the story in the past was strictly off-limits. They were here to steal from Camelot, not make fools of themselves by bum-rushing the king.
Arthur walked slightly sideways, pulling a woman in a cream-white dress in his wake. She wore greenery in her dark curled hair, blossoms around her neck, and a decorative knot of cords on her wrist that bound her to Arthur’s arm.
“Gweneviere!” several people shouted, almost reverently. Many more stayed silent. While no one would openly jeer the king’s choice, dislike crusted over plenty of features. Merlin huffed and looked back to the bride. And blinked. And then blinked harder.
The girl he’d known as the queen of her own Renaissance Faire Planet was standing at the dead center of Camelot, her gaze defiant until she turned to Arthur and gave him an encouraging nod. Gwen looked like she fit right in, perhaps because her life had been a unique form of training for this moment. Even if her mix of European and Asian heritage set her apart enough that the youth at the well had given her the micro-aggressive title of “exotic.”
The truth was that Gwen had come from much farther than anyone in Camelot could imagine. Far enough to be measured in galaxies and centuries. That’s the sort of distance it took to be safe from Mercer, and they were meant to be hiding out, yet it looked like Gwen had done more than storm the castle—she’d broken down the doors of the king’s heart.
In a single day? How?
Merlin clutched his head as he remembered that she’d gotten married to Ari in less time than that. Oh, this was bad. Tremendously bad. He could feel the time continuum wobble. He’d have to freeze the entire stadium and steal her out of the tournament ring, and…
“Merlin!” a voice whisper-shouted. Someone snagged his elbow and he was drawn back through the crowd, away from Gwen upending the entire Arthurian cycle.
Merlin came to an abrupt stop before a familiar knight in unfamiliar clothes. They wore the same rough-spun as the rest of the commoners. Their dreads were pulled back, but they sported no piercings. No makeup glimmered on their deep brown skin. At least their smile was worth a hundred blazing suns.
“Am I glad to see you, dude!” Lamarack clapped Merlin in a hug, thumping his back. He ached all over from his portal dive and subsequent climb. “You look…”
“Younger,” he said with a wince. “I know.”
“At least you’re alive. We thought the worst.”
“Who is we?” Merlin glanced at the scrappy person keeping to Lam’s elbow, the same kid who’d witnessed his arrival.
“He came out of the well, Lamarack,” they squeaked.
“As if that were my first time at the bottom of a well.” Merlin scoffed. “Hardly.” He turned to Lam, only to find them looking over the crowd at Gwen, their height a great help in the effort. “What in the blazes is happening?”
“You’ve missed a lot, old man,” Lam said without taking their eyes off Gwen.
“Missed what?” he snapped. Lamarack ignored him, and the mage spun back to his most pressing concern. “What happened to ‘steal the cup and get out unnoticed’?” Lam quirked an eyebrow. Before they all went through the time portal, Merlin had told them not to interfere with the past—hadn’t he? There had been so much happening. An unborn baby to protect from Mercer, who wanted to claim it as a price for rebellion. A cycle of tragedy and torment to stop. Surely he’d told them not to demolish the past in the process?
Surely he shouldn’t need to explain that one.
“You’ve heard of the butterfly effect?” Merlin barked. “Changing the tiniest thing in the past can damage the future. Gwen has leapt into the middle of a mythological hurricane! She and Arthur are bound to each other! Literally!” He paused. “Are they handfasting?”
Handfasting was a scrap of history he’d forgotten about in the great heap of time that came after it. He’d never paid much attention to anything having to do with traditions of love and romance. He’d called it idiocy, or brainmelt in his kinder moments, but he did remember this test of loyalty and devotion. Those who meant to marry were tied together for the length of their engagement, the knots cut on their wedding day. Most couples handfasted for a year, but Gwen had arrived today, mere hours ago.
Unless… she hadn’t.
He flashed back to the portal’s winds, everyone separated. Merlin had imagined they landed in different places, but what about different times? “Did you arrive—”
“Months ago,” Lam finished wearily.
“Tell me everything,” he yelled. “Now!”
His outburst drew looks from the crowd. Lam—who had lost a hand to Mercer in the future—angled to grab Merlin with the remaining one and hauled him many yards away. “We have to lay low, Merlin. We’ve been here for a long time. Me, Gwen, and Jordan.” Lam pointed to the sturdy blonde girl in the lineup of handmaidens with flowers in their hair.
“That was Jordan!” Merlin squinted. She looked like she wanted to hack her white dress and garlands from her body with the nearest battle-axe. Her hair hung to her waist, her cheeks the severe pink of barely restrained fury. He was afraid to ask his next question. “Ari? Val?”
Lam shook their head. “No sign of them.”
“But how long have they been missing? How long have I been missing?”
“Four months… ish?” Lam managed. It made sense. Tracking Earth’s moon wouldn’t be an obvious business to Merlin’s space-born friends. “Gwen keeps better track of it than I do.”
“Naturally.” She had an internal calendar, set to the progression of her pregnancy, no doubt. “But four months,” Merlin said, swallowing the loss, trying to glimpse Gwen’s stomach and finding that her wedding dress had a strategic shape that turned her into a formless bell. “Does Arthur know she’s…?” He pantomimed having a round stomach, and then having the contents of that stomach, well, slide out.
Lam grabbed one of Merlin’s hands, stopping him. “We’ll explain when we’re all together. Gwen will want to tell you. This place…” Lam winced. “Camelot is not what we thought.”
Looking around, Merlin had to agree. And while he was delighted to be wrong about certain things—such as the total whiteness of ye olde Britain—his lack of clarity about the past was its own kind of danger. Merlin was meant to be their guide. Not just to Old Earth, but to the story itself. As King Arthur and Gwen recited vows in strong, unwavering voices, he pressed himself to remember anything about the original Gweneviere. Too many movie actresses shot through his mind, and only one memory rang true: telling Arthur that he’d read the omens and that the young woman he’d fallen for was a curse on the king’s heart as well as his reign.
No wonder the people of Camelot didn’t trust her—Merlin had told them not to—and Arthur had claimed his first youthful rebellion by marrying Gweneviere anyway, while Merlin had kept to his tower during the ceremony like a miserable old falcon.
He would not glance at that tower right now. Rivers of sweat sprang up on his palms. “Gwen has put herself in horrible danger.”
“She knows what she’s doing,” Lam said as if they needed the reminder, too.
Arthur used a silver dagger to cut the knot binding him to Gwen. They slipped rings on each other’s fingers, and then the inevitable moment came when their lips met. He tucked one of her curls behind her ear. It looked fairly chaste in a picturesque sort of way. Still. King Arthur had just kissed Gweneviere. Their Gwen.
“This is all so wrong,” Merlin whispered. Another cheer broke loose, but this time it didn’t die. It grew in pitch and frenzy, twisting from celebration to something more primal. Screams shattered the moment, turning it into a riot. Swords flew from sheaths. Villagers ran, while nobles were tightly circled by their personal guards. Merlin spun. “Who’s attacking?”
“It’s the Middle Ages, man. Who isn’t attacking?” Lam pounded him on the shoulder and rushed against the escaping masses. He kept close behind Lam, whose immense height divided the crowds on both sides. Merlin’s magic was still exhausted, but he couldn’t be a slouch in battle. He popped blue sparks in the face of a man who tried to stab Lam in the back.
“Get to Gwen!” Lam shouted.
It was hard to keep her in sight now that the architecture of the crowd had collapsed, but Merlin caught glimpses of her holding Arthur’s hand at the center of the tournament ring. The knights from the procession had begun battling each other, no order apparent in their attack. They seemed determined to take each other apart.
“Where are Arthur’s knights?” Merlin hollered to Lam as they hopped the railing and entered the straw and muck of the ring.
“Great question,” they called back. “Nothing here is like the story!”
He caught sight of Jordan running to Gwen’s side. She raised her skirts, kicked one of Arthur’s guards in the back, and ripped his sword out of his hand before he fell. Within moments she was taking down attackers, the only one in the crowd with a smile on her face.
An avian cry sliced the sky, making both Lam and Merlin stop. Everyone looked up. Merlin’s chest squeezed tight as a large falcon circled over the ring and landed on Arthur’s shoulder. The king cried out, but with a spark of magic, he became a tiny songbird. Merlin had loved the trick of turning Arthur into animals, but this was no whimsical adventure. It was an escape. One that pointedly didn’t include the new queen. The two birds flew high, and when the songbird tried to return to Gwen, the old falcon bullied it back to the castle, leaving her in the center of the fight, white dress a beacon for all of those who wished to hurt the king—and were now closing in.
“Dude, the old version of you is cold,” Lam yelled.
Merlin’s cheeks were ablaze, his nerves fizzing. He wanted to hide from his shame, but there was nowhere safe in all of Camelot. This place was his shame.
Merlin fought sudden tears. No, he would not cry when faced with medieval battle. He was a mage… whose magic was exhausted. When a knight ran at him, sword raised, Merlin crouched and hugged his knees, only to hear the unmistakable sound of someone pounding his attacker into oblivion. When he looked up, the knight with the blue armor was standing over him.
They were mercilessly tall. Merlin yelled as the knight used the back of his robes to lift him to his feet like a dog taken by the scruff. “Help Gwen!” the voice commanded.
A familiar voice. One he sometimes heard in his head. One that laughed at him when he was being foolish and cheered him on when he was being, well, foolish.
“Ari?” he shouted as the knight spun away and took on a challenger in red who swung a short sword in his right hand and a great axe in his left. Merlin watched as the blue knight leveled both with a hard swing and then charged, using their breastplate as a battering ram. Which felt Ari-like, indeed.
The red knight toppled like a turtle on his back, and the blue knight grabbed the axe out of his grip and used one hand to shove his helmet back and the other to bring the blade’s arc down on his neck. In a great, foul spurt of red much darker than his painted armor, he went limp. Merlin must have been wrong; Ari was never so violent.
He tripped toward Gwen, who breathed the biggest sigh of relief at the sight of him. “I’m here, I’m here!” he hollered.
Jordan had found a sword and was protecting the queen with her entire muscled, dress-covered body. “Good, now help!”
Merlin tried to create a protective bubble, but only wound up out of breath. Gwen pulled him close as if she was now determined to protect him.
The blue knight swung toward Gwen, and Jordan stepped between them.
“Stop!” Jordan barked. The knight sheathed their sword and began the process of pulling their gloves free, while Jordan frowned at the dragon on their breastplate. “Who are you?”
“Your biggest fan, Jordan.” The knight flung away their gloves to lift their visor.
It really was Ari. Looking and swaggering and smelling for all the world like a medieval knight.
Ari clapped eyes on Gwen, her voice clear and promising. “Hey lady.”
Gwen’s face flooded with happiness and tears, and Ari’s was poised to do the same. They moved toward each other, but Lamarack suddenly shouted, “Yield, Sir Kay!”
“Kay?” Ari and Merlin asked in unison, both turning just as a knight pinned Ari’s wrist behind her back, stole the rounded dagger from her belt, and slammed it through the chainmail beneath her arm.
Ari screamed as she fell to her knees. It was the worst sound Merlin had heard in his long, painful history. Gwen’s shredded cry was a close second. He and Gwen ran for Ari while Jordan felled the attacking knight with a great blow to the helmet.
Ari tipped forward into Gwen’s arms. Merlin hovered over them, inspecting Ari’s wound. The dagger was in up to the hilt—which meant it had gone all the way through her chest. Now it was Merlin’s turn to cry out. An hour ago he and Ari had been standing in the red sands of Ketch, imagining a future without Mercer.
Now he’d fast-forwarded to a part of their story he could not recognize.
“Heal her!” Jordan commanded.
Merlin needed a spark that could disintegrate that dagger without causing more damage. He had to seal Ari’s wound and cauterize it, fast. He couldn’t survive all the ages and all of the Arthurs and come back to blasted Camelot only to lose her. But when he closed his eyes and hummed, his fingers fizzled and went cold. Merlin had returned just in time to not save anyone.
The battle died out around them. Gwen screamed a command at Jordan. Jordan hunkered in her ruined dress, took something small out of her cleavage and shoved it in Ari’s mouth, forcing her jaw closed. Merlin didn’t understand what was happening. He opened and closed his useless, magic-drained hands. His power hadn’t come back quickly enough.
Time was against him—it always had been.
Ari was hiding out in the Middle Ages, but the future was never far from her mind.
Praise for ONCE & FUTURE
* "All hail this worthier-than-ever, fresh, and affirming reincarnation of the legendary king and her round table of knights which dazzles with heroic flair, humor, and suspense."—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
* "A marvelous mythology remix for teens who enjoy action-packed speculative fiction and genderqueer romance."—Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
*"This epic space adventure... is a must-have."—School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
"Fun and fearless, this story romps right across the galaxy and into your heart."—Amie Kaufman, New York Times bestselling author of Illuminae
"Pointedly funny and deftly topical, an effortless Arthurian update with heart in all the right places."—#1 New York Times Bestselling Author E.K. Johnston
"Once & Future is an utterly delightful romp, full of witty voice, imaginative adventures, and deeply lovable characters. It kept me up into the wee hours of the morning. I couldn't put it down!"—Katherine Locke, author of The Girl with the Red Balloon (2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book)
"Once & Future is a sizzling, bold exploration of gender, power, and revolution. Its dynamic and diverse cast will inspire and delight readers. I loved every second!"—Jessica Khoury, author of The Forbidden Wish
"A rip-roaring, no-holds-barred, gloriously queer reinvention of Arthurian legend."—Malinda Lo, author of Ash and A Line in the Dark
- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers