“The queen requests that you attend her, sire.”
The cherubic little page, with his pure tenor voice, scrubbed face, and velvet livery, looked totally ludicrous amidst the rancid sweat and drunken clamor of the Old Boar’s Head. I shook my head at Father Gascon, who was intently studying the chess board on the stained and marred oak table between us. “By the name of Jesus and all the other gods, is this what we’ve come to?”
Gascon tut-tutted me for my irreverence without looking up from the game.
“What? You Christians claim to worship only one god, but you actually believe in a whole bevy of them. God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, and Satan.” I ticked them off on my fingers, leaving only my thumb stuck out like I was trying to hitch a ride on a passing wagon. “That’s four I know of, and I’m certainly no expert.”
Used to my baiting, Gascon refused to be drawn in or even show irritation. “You’ve made it appear that taking your footman is my best move, but I think it is a flagrant attempt to scam an old friend. So I shall study this a bit longer. Have some more ale.”
That interruption by the cherub again. Or maybe it was a seraph—I can’t keep all the theological distinctions straight.
“Sire? I can’t be your sire, boy. If you’re a page in the court of the vaunted King Arthur, you must have a noble mother. And if she’s beautiful enough to counter my rather ordinary facade and give birth to you, I would surely remember her.”
“Thank you for that kindness, Sir Kay. Of course, Sire, you’re not my actual sire. That is merely a term of respect insisted on in the court.”
“Do you know what a page’s duties were twenty years ago? He dodged Saxon axes while scurrying between the king and his commanders, relaying orders. And he didn’t wear lace collars, either. Light and nimble, and the ability to remember an order. Those were the requirements.”
If I thought to intimidate a seasoned court page, I sorely overestimated the power of my wit. “If it please thee, Sire, they had an easy time of it then, didn’t they. No one inspecting their fingernails for traces of dirt or smacking them for gross failure to maintain proper decorum by smiling. Mere pantywaists, in our opinion.” All of this spoken with a total deadpan face.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Well, Oswald, you seem to have mastered the office of court page. Should I have need of a field page on my next adventure, I shall consider you.”
“That would be most acceptable, if it please m’lord. Shall we attend the queen now?”
“And which queen would that be, Oswald? This close to Pentecost, there are already six in residence, with a couple more due in tomorrow.”
“The Queen, sire. Not a queen. There is only one of whom it is proper to refer to as The Queen.”
“Ah, Guinevere. Well, Gascon, I guess you’ll get to study your move a little longer. Don’t look a gift footman in the mouth, as Merlin loved to admonish me when he taught me this bloody game.” I quaffed the last of my ale and put down a few coppers beside the empty mug. “Lead on, valiant Oswald.”
Outside the Old Boar’s Head, there was still a bit of a nip in the night breeze although May was more than half gone. Oswald strode along with proscribed dignity until I stopped him. “How about a little practice? See that doorway? Pretend I’m the King and my cavalry commander is there waiting instructions. Let’s see how quickly you can deliver my orders.”
“And what would your orders be, sire?”
I was liking this kid more and more all the time. Cheeky bastard. Well, probably not a bastard. At least not mine—I’m certain I would remember.
“The king sends his compliments, and would he be so good as to move his squadron smartly to the east for a league, then north 300 paces, then west until he is seen by the enemy. And then they are to lower lances smartly and smash his left flank at a full charge.”
Oswald nodded, and then with the first smile I’d seen, abruptly took off at a dead run. Running in livery and court shoes couldn’t have been easy, but he scampered like he’d been brought up on a battlefield. Better yet, he zigged and zagged occasionally, affecting the long-accepted tactic so as not to be an easy target for a hurled Saxon spear or axe. But he didn’t stop at the doorway. Slapping the stone lintel, which he could just reach without jumping, he turned and raced back. Five paces away, he halted abruptly before stepping off the remaining distance with all the dignity he could muster.
“The king sends his compliments, sire.” Oswald’s chest was heaving but his words were clear. “You are to move your squadron smartly to the east for a league, then north for 300 paces, and then west until the enemy sees you. Once you are spotted, you are to lower lances smartly and charge at the full into his left flank.” He waited four beats, and then added, “Shall I take a reply, sire, or will your actions speak for themselves?”
My mouth dropped open at his impudence. I thought that, second only perhaps to Fool, I was the master of the quick comeback. And here I’d been bested by a baby-faced court page who hadn’t even shaved yet. “Pantywaists, sire. You didn’t even inspect my fingernails. Look, they are unsoiled.”
I ruffled his hair, hoping there was yet enough boy in him to appreciate the emotions behind the gesture.
Guinevere was waiting in her antechamber with two ladies in waiting. One, an older teenager in the full flower of her maidenhood, was plainly at a disadvantage—no pun intended—in the shadow of the queen’s golden beauty. Her skin was smooth and youthful, but her features were a bit pinched and overshadowed by dark, unplucked eyebrows too full for her face. Guinevere was known for not surrounding herself with competing beauty. Although truth be told, I’d never seen anyone who was truly competitive. In her mid-thirties, when even noblewomen began to show a touch of age, the years had added regal dignity to her looks without subtracting a whit. And I suppose avoiding the rigors of childbirth hadn’t hurt any although it might have ravaged her self-esteem.
The other lady-in-waiting—girl-in-waiting would be more accurate—was a spitting image of Oswald. By the fine-feathered cloak of Freyja, could there be two of them? She couldn’t contain a smile when she saw him leading me to the door, although that had to be a punishable breach of decorum, so I supposed they had some familial connection.
“Ah, Kay. So good of you to come this late at night.” Guinevere held out her hand for me to kiss, as if her summons had been a mere suggestion that I was free to accept or ignore as I wished.
“Your wish is my command, my Queen.” I hadn’t invented that phrase—I think it originally came from a story told by a well-travelled Arab bard about a shipwrecked sailor and a djinn that he discovered when he rubbed a magical bottle—but it had become popular in Arthur’s court.
“As you know, Arthur is taking a party of kings and high lords out to hunt the White Stag tomorrow. I have decided to invite their ladies on a picnic while the men are out chasing fables. Could you have a lunch prepared for us to take? Oh, and we shall need an escort as well.”
Back in the early days of Arthur’s rule, when trusted friends were far too few and the enemy was a coterie of kings and barons reluctant to accept an unseasoned bastard for their sovereign despite his drawing the sword from the stone, I’d always ridden into battle at his side. But once that war had been won and Arthur began the long, brutal campaign against the Saxons—seven years when the fate of Southern England hung in the balance, before the Germanic tribesmen had finally sued for peace—he’d found better uses for my talents. My unmatched skill with numbers—unlike my thoroughly pedestrian swordsmanship—led to my appointment as quartermaster, desperately trying to feed and arm and horse his men from a land ravaged by years of war.
I turned out to be frighteningly good at it. A critical cog in the machinery of Arthur’s army.
And from that, I’d sunk to this? Although my official title was seneschal—supreme administrator of the king’s household, as Merlin had described it—my main duty had become toady-in-chief to the queen’s every whim. Was it better than endless war with the Saxons? Absolutely. Except my memory of the blood and hardships of war had faded a bit, and campaigning had begun to look better than the reality of peace.
Well, the kitchen could certainly handle Guinevere’s request easily enough. And I could undoubtedly persuade some knight to go along, if I could find one still sober enough to remember in the morning that he’d agreed. But it would be easier to just do it myself. It’s not like I’d have to wear armor, this close to Camelot.
“Certainly, my Queen. But you didn’t need to summon me just to tell me that. You could have had Oswald relate it to me.”
“Oswald? Who is Oswald?”
“He’s my brother, m’lady,” the cherub standing off to the side spoke for the first time. “My twin brother. The page you sent to summon Sir Kay.”
“The page. Of course. Well, I firmly believe that it is much better to discuss these matters in person. They have a way of getting dreadfully mixed up when you don’t.” Guinevere sniffed daintily, a delicate display of her total lack of feelings for the little people. Some wag once said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Guinevere didn’t have absolute power of course—no woman did—but she had enough to play the tyrant-ess over her own little bailiwick. Had she really been the sweet, golden-haired maiden at sixteen that we all adored and would have risked our lives for the privilege of escorting to market? Ah, Guin. The years haven’t been kind to any of us, have they?
I turned to Oswald. “Show her.”
“To your good health, your highness. How many ladies will you be taking with you on the morrow? What hour do you expect to depart? And do you have any special requests from the kitchen?”
Guinevere looked as started as if the puppy she had been petting had suddenly sprouted the wings and face of an imp. “Um, well, let’s see,” she stammered. “Perhaps a dozen and a half ladies, could be a couple more? And maybe an hour before noon, something like that? Oh, and whatever food he decides to serve will be fine.”
“Very well, your highness.” Oswald tore out the door like the imp was chasing him instead of possessing him.
“My goodness, Kay. Where is he going?”
“He’s simulating crossing a battlefield to relay your instructions, my queen. He should arrive here safely if slightly winded any moment.”
Indeed, just as I spoke Oswald paced into the room, looking every bit the court page. Ignoring the queen, he stepped up to me.
“The Queen relays her wishes, Sire. She requests that you be so good as to arrange for a light but delicious meal for up to twenty fair ladies who will be leaving for a picnic in the meadow tomorrow morn at eleven. She did not specify any fare in particular, but I think cook’s cold chicken with oatcakes and honey should be considered, along with last year’s May wine. And perhaps some apples? Oh, and she requested an escort, Sire.” He waited the same four beats before asking, “Shall I return to her your reply, Sire?”
“Certainly, Oswald. Please tell the queen that her victuals will be ready promptly at eleven, and that you and I will be providing the escort.”
Oswald dashed from the room as soon as I had stopped speaking, while his sister glowed. Cheeky bastard.