True contentment has never been my lot in life. I have no clue why the gods made me that way. I mean, I know I should be content. Compared to most other people in the world, or even compared to myself twenty years ago, my life is unquestionably good.
For example, I’m almost always warm. Back when we were out on those long campaigns against the Saxons and it rained for two weeks straight, the earth turned to mud; it was impossible to light a fire, and your teeth never stopped chattering. Now I can summon a servant to lay a fire in my chamber anytime I want one.
And you think I’d give thanks every day of my life for having plenty to eat. I’ve spent many weeks deep in enemy territory where they’d chosen to burn their own farms rather than leave so much as a moldy turnip for us to scrounge. Before I took over as quartermaster, we chewed leather because that was the only relief our bellies got. Now, it’s been a long time since I’d wondered where my next meal was going to come from.
Plus I’m hardly ever afraid, but I remember well what it’s like to be scared shitless. Or scared to shit, to be more precise. When there are men in mail with bones woven into their braids as far as the eye can see, beating their axes against their shields and screaming because they wanted to kill you so badly, your bowels turn to water. Now, I’m neither important enough for anybody to want to kill nor unimportant enough that someone could get away with it. And I haven’t shit myself in years.
So I should be perpetually joyful, right? There but for the grace of Odin or Yahweh or maybe Zeus goes I? Unfortunately, I’m just not made that way. Never have been, as far as I can remember.
What I have been, as far back as I can remember, is Arthur’s foster-brother. I was only two when he came to live with us, too young to remember such a momentous occasion. My earliest memories are from five or six, with the little bastard toddling along, trying to keep up. But even then he was a loveable little shit. When we weren’t practicing our swordsmanship we explored the world together, peeked at the servant girls in the privy, and talked about our dreams.
His dreams were always grandiose compared to mine. “You take note, Kay. Someday I’m going to be a king.” I gave him a regular ration of shit about that, and yet I didn’t totally discount it. In this unsettled land of ours, confidence and determination counted almost as much as birth. Plus, unlike me, he had a noble name.
Kay. Who the hell would name their son Kay? That one little detail alone would have been enough to make me the butt of half the ballads that the bards sing. A Boy named Kay was popular for awhile before I thrashed the son-of-a-bitch who wrote it and promised to smash the lute of anybody else I caught singing it. Da swore he’d told the scribe that my name was Cei—a fine Welsh name—but the man wasn’t all that literate and wrote it down as Kay and apparently, once something’s written, only Jesus and maybe one or two of the other higher-up gods can change it.
I killed my mother just being born; I learned when I was about seven. I wasn’t supposed to find that out but of course you can’t keep something that juicy secret when all the servants know. Da was off campaigning with Uther the entire time I was growing up, showing up only when winter finally drove the armies out in the field. When he was home he spent a lot of time around the fire—getting reacquainted with his son and foster son, eating the housekeeper Narla’s excellent stews and regularly knocking her up with another bastard stepbrother, but mostly just staying warm. He was a good man, stolid and unimaginative. And so utterly unlike me that I decided—like so many kids do, I suppose—that he couldn’t be my real father. Narla grew rounder, laughed a lot, ruled the household with a light touch when Da was gone, and gave me real responsibilities such as organizing the kitchen stores as I got older. It was as good a childhood as most. No real reason for my discontentment—other than my crappy name, not having a mother or a father, being followed everywhere by a snot-nose kid who was convinced he was going to be king, and looking forward to a career of mediocrity in the profession that had been chosen for me, knighthood.
All that changed when Merlin showed up. But that’s a story for another day.
The first years after the Saxon treaty, in my early thirties and at the peak of my manhood, I’d have to say I was rather content. Not only was there plenty to eat, so many good men hadn’t come back that there were more than enough wenches with a warm spot for any knight who had fought the Saxons. Two warm spots, I should say: the one in their hearts, and that other one tucked up between their thighs that men don’t have but all crave. Plus waking up warm and dry with no chance of dying that day from a Saxon axe was a delicious extravagance that never got old. Except it did, of course. Contentment is pretty much a “what have you done for me lately” sort of condition.
And then there was the job. Promoted from quartermaster to ‘Seneschal to the Court of Arthur,’ with a big pay raise (of course knights don’t work for free; that would be silly). Mostly knights get land holdings that come with peasants who have to give us a portion of their labor in the form of taxes. But in my case, since I didn’t live on my estates—the king and queen got antsy when I wasn’t in residence—I got my share in gold from the taxes people paid the king. Since I didn’t know shit about farming and even less about animal husbandry—I had never been hard up enough for wenches to learn one end of a sheep from the other—that arrangement worked fine with me.
Merlin brought the concept of seneschal, along with the word to describe it, back from the Middle East. He’d learned a lot during his years there, between Arthur’s birth and when he was old enough to be trained in the art of being a good king. I’m not sure the word had been invented yet, even in the Middle East—Merlin had a way of bringing new ideas from future times as well as foreign places.
According to Merlin, a seneschal was a trusted person who ran a lord’s household so he would be free to take care of all his other duties. Particularly a king, who had a boatload of other responsibilities. Think it’s easy to be king? That all you have to do is command people to do what you want and it magically gets done? I wouldn’t be king for all the spice in Constantinople. First of all, you have to listen to people’s gripes and act like you give a rat’s ass about their petty concerns. Then you have to entertain other noblemen and chat them up even though you outrank them and they should be flattering you instead. Keep up an army and be ready to lead it in battle on a moment’s notice, but don’t spend so much that you hurt the economy (I think that’s how we ultimately beat the Saxons—their farmers were all in the field fighting and so the economy in East and South Saxony collapsed). And somewhere along the way, you have to produce an heir, or it all falls apart when you die.
What the king didn’t have to do—at least, what Arthur didn’t have to do—was pay attention to his own household. Because he had me to do it for him. And when it comes to the seneschal business, I’m right up there with the minor gods. Probably better, even if gods would never admit such a thing. If the priests are right and you go to heaven when you die, I fully expect to be put in charge. Get those fucking cherubim and seraphim whipped into shape.
One thing I know for sure: if that happens, we’re going to have kaffka every day for the rest of eternity. Zeus and all his buddies will be dropping in from Olympus. “Hey, Yahweh, what’s up big guy? What say you invite us in for a cup of kaffka?” And Thor and Odin and his gang will be hanging around so much that the bottom will drop out of mead sales and ultimately there’ll be a recession in those parts of the world. Oh, well. What’s a little inconvenience for mankind, compared to kaffka for the gods?
But. There’s always a but.
During times of peace, the number of knights grows dramatically. Birthrates are strong while death rates are way down. Pretty soon the population of wenches and the population of knights is back in balance. And wenches always prefer knights who win tournaments, or at least show respectably. They give their chosen beau a little token to wear on his helmet while he’s jousting, and they nurse him back to health when the tournament’s over.
Alright, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. When you’re a knight, there’re plenty of wenches. And ladies as well. Daughters of the lesser nobility who would love to capture an actual knight of the round table. There aren’t that many of us—only 99 total, with one empty seat, the Siege Perilous, which is reserved for the Grail Knight.
But you know what daughters of the lesser nobility are? Vapid. Brought up to sew neat stitches and keep an orderly household and raise noble children while remaining suitably subservient. And if one should stumble onto a creative thought, by Klothes the goddess of spinning, keep it to yourself. And here’s the clincher: I don’t know of a single noblewoman who can even read. Not one.
When you’re young, rutting takes up a disproportional amount of the time between a man and a woman—convincing her to rut with you, the rutting itself, and recovering from rutting so you can do it again. Doesn’t sound too bad when you’re eighteen. But as you grow older, the time spent rutting diminishes and the time in between, during which you start having real conversations, gets longer. And what in hell do you talk about with a vapid noblewoman who can’t even read?
I shudder at the thought.
I’ve never managed to even show respectably at a tournament, much less win. And now that my duties leave me little time to spend training, I never make it out of the first round. Or hardly ever. But as a knight of the round table, I’m expected to enter. At least I’ve made falling off a horse into an art form.
Meanwhile, I muddle through my life of modest discontent.
“Sire? The Queen requests that you attend her.”