It wasn’t a restful night. At some point I simply gave up. Polished my own armor, although it didn’t need much, since it had been buffed to perfection for my public spill just two days before. Packed a kit, then realized how foolish that was and unpacked it again. Sharpened my sword, which certainly didn’t need it–I hadn’t hit anything with it in awhile, but there’s something very soothing about running a whetstone down your own blade. Finally blew out the candles and just sat there in the dark, watching the stars out my tiny window until it grew light enough that I could see the guards on the near parapet.
Even without the darkness, I would have known it was early because when I left my chamber, Oswald wasn’t standing there.
There was bread fresh out of the oven, but I was too agitated to eat it. I did snag a cup of broth, reciting a curse to Odin and Zeus and Yahweh and Gaia and every other major deity I could think of that kaffka doesn’t grow in Britain. I’ve done this every other morning of my life for twenty years—begging on alternate days to make sure I’ve covered all my bases—but so far it hasn’t done a bit of good.
Oswald found me standing in the hall in front of Arthur’s empty throne. Don’t know which astonished him more, the fact that I was there so early or that I was wearing armor. But he took up station one step behind and one to my left with only the one quiet word, “Sire.”
A dozen people passed through while we were standing there. The ones that we could see (as opposed to merely hearing their footfalls) all did a double-take and retreated quickly. But obviously the news spread because before the hour was out, Arthur stumbled into the hall, followed by Monsignor Dagrezia, who was an early riser, and Sagramore who definitely was not.
“So, brother. What demon drives you to arm yourself at this hour of the morning?”
I’d rehearsed my words, meaning to nobly orate the words ‘I sincerely regret that I can no longer fulfill the obligations of the office to which you have appointed me,” for the benefit of the scribes. But eloquence fled me. Still, I blundered ahead. “Sire, I quit.”
“You quit? Quit what, Kay?”
“I quit the office of Seneschal, and whatever else I must quit to affect that.”
“Even your seat at the Round Table?” Sagramore sucked his breath in at the question.
“What Ever.” I emphasized each word like a truculent teenager.
“Well, you can’t quit. You’ve sworn an oath to me, or did you forget?”
I held Arthur’s eye for a minute before speaking. “Yes, Sire. As you wish.”
I turned and strode out of the hall and straight to the kitchen. The cookstaff was just beginning to prepare for the noonday meal.
“Get rid of that bread. Better keep enough for your own lunch; send the rest to the townspeople. We need to make fresh loaves; these are not salty enough. Grund. Go down to the root cellar. Rummage around in the onion bins, bring back all the ones you can find that have begun to rot. Nattie. Pour all of the grease out of that greasepot until you get to the sludge at the very bottom. We’re going to use that to brown the meat. Salt. We’re going to need a lot of salt. Bring up another hogshead, you, you, and you. Sal, go fill these two vats with vinegar; the wine is not acid enough for my tastes. Ludd, take May out to the back fen and bring back an armload of bitter vetch.” Nobody moved except to stare at me as if I’d been suddenly stuck mad. “Well, don’t just stand around. We’ve a lot to do. Chop, chop.”
The one thing that you absolutely don’t want in a five-star establishment is a pissed-off seneschal. Camelot was about to lose some of its fairy-tale ambiance.
Arthur summoned me directly after the noonday meal. I paused at the door so the herald could announce us, then followed Oswald toward the throne, mimicking his stately pace and perfect twenty-four inch stride. By custom, Knights of the Round Table didn’t bow before Arthur, but we both went to our knees with heads bowed and didn’t move until he spoke.
“Oh, stand up. Mithras, what a mess.” I have no idea what god Arthur worshipped, but he always swore by Mithras whenever Monsignor Dagrezia was around.
I stood as ordered, keeping my back stiff and straight and my eyes fixed on the top of Arthur’s throne above his head. Oswald took up his station behind me; I assume his stance was identical with my own. The king stared at me, but it was his pass at the quintain and I wasn’t speaking first.
Finally he broke the uncomfortable silence. “I supposed I’m doomed to never again eat a decent meal. When did you become so bloody stubborn?”
“Not at all, Sire. My staff is well trained and can function as a well-larded cog, even in my absence.”
“So if I throw you in the dungeon, dinner won’t be over-salted swill?”
I shrugged minutely. “That’s hard to say, Sire. They’re extremely loyal. Perhaps you can hang a few to make an example, though. Or I’ve got it. Just knight them all and have each one swear an oath to you.”
Arthur looked over at Monsignor Dagrezia, who spoke quietly and calmly. Arthur tightened his lips like he was eating something bitter—one of the reasons he’s a great king is that he hates to lose—and finally nodded.
“Page. Summon Lady Lorena.”
A little squirt in livery and collar stiffened, replied “Sire,” and strode off with the proscribed page dignity. Oswald muttered under his breath, loud enough for only me to hear, “There, but for the grace of God and Sir Kay, go I.” It was all I could do not to crack a smile.
Lady Lorena turned out to be a dark-haired, sultry stunner in her mid twenties, although she would have been far more comely were her eyes not red and puffy. “Tell this knight your tale, fair lady,” Arthur commanded once they’d finished the proscribed ritual of bowing and complimenting each other.
“Ah, Sir Knight. My lot is a sad one indeed. I have caught the eye of my lord, Count Maleagans. I am a widow, and my lord wishes to dishonor me without the office of matrimony. When I resisted, he imprisoned my brachet, vowing that he would not restore her until I submitted to his foul advances. He feeds poor Miffy only stale bread and dank water from the moat. Oh, good knight. What am I, a poor widow to do? I love my hound, but the price seems excessive.”
I lowered my eyes and shook my head. “Ah, ‘tis a sad tale indeed.” I looked up at Dagrezia and from there to Arthur. “You’re sending me on a noble quest to rescue a dog?”
Arthur had the grace to look embarrassed. “Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. I suppose I could send you with a message after Galahad and the Lady of Ashmoors, but your chance of catching up with them isn’t all that good. Plus he might challenge you for the right and then you’d be right back here and a dog that needs rescuing would still be all I had.”
I shook my head. “Twenty-six years of loyal and faithful service, and now I’m the fucking royal dogcatcher? Verily, it stuns the imagination. Hold, Sire, while I consult my advisors.”
It is totally unacceptable to turn one’s back on the king, so Oswald and I huddled sideways, keeping one cheek toward the throne. “OK, squire. What do you recommend here? Do I accept this loathsome gig, go back to being a loyal seneschal until something better comes around and maybe have to make my point all over again, or stay on strike and maybe end up serving some time in the dungeon?”
“Let me help you think that through, Sire. On the road, anything can happen. A paltry quest can become a great adventure. The fair Lady Lorena may get cold in the nighttime and decide that your affection is much more acceptable than Count Maleagans’ rude advances. We might even stumble across the Holy Grail. But here’s one thing that can’t happen.” He stood tall and mimicked in his best whisper. “The queen requests that you attend her, sire.”
“I accept this noble quest, my king. Let me make sure that all is in readiness for the events of the next few weeks before we depart.”