Dinner was . . . adequate.
I mean, I’ve eaten a lot of bad meals. Back during the early years of the Saxon War in particular. You didn’t mind the mold on your bread because it was better than starving, and besides, the mud covered up some of the taste of the mold. A cup of warm weak broth was something to kill for, and on the rare occasion that you got one, it was more likely flavored with leeks than a beef bone.
But not lately. That was back before Arthur put me in charge of feeding his army, eighteen years ago. After that, there was no more living off moldy bread. Not even once, unless some headstrong lieutenant got himself cut off and it took a couple of days to get a wagon through to him. And something hot almost every day. Nothing keeps your army’s morale up like decent food. I had the bards make up songs about fresh bread and hot stew and we’d sing them at night at Mount Baden, when the Saxons were camped close enough to hear us over the sounds of their own growling stomachs. I think good food made almost as big a contribution to winning the war as our horses. Or maybe that’s just self-aggrandizement.
Compared to an everyday lunch at Camelot, what Maleagans put before his important guests was swill. At first I thought it an intentional insult, but when I saw the gusto with which everybody else dug into their onion stew, I figured it was probably better than what they normally ate. So I pretended I was out fighting Saxons, ate it, and kept my mouth shut. I could see Oswald across the hall doing the same thing, except of course there was no way to know what he was pretending.
The dining hall was as atrociously accoutered as the rest of the castle. I mean, plates are plates. The highest ranking ate off whatever you’d managed to accumulate—nobody cared if they matched or not—while everybody else ate off trenchers. But the two tapestries hanging on the walls. What would possess anyone to display them?
Maleagans caught me staring at them. “So, Sir Kay, does Camelot have anything to rival those?”
“I can truthfully say, Sire, that I’ve never seen anything quite like them. Where did you acquire such treasures?”
“Those were woven by my wife and her ladies. It took five years to complete the set. The one on the left, as you can readily see, is me riding my favorite steed out from the castle gate. The other shows the keep from the perspective of the meadow.”
“Amazing. I think she’s captured the essence perfectly.” I coughed lightly into my hand to make sure I didn’t choke on dishonesty. “Plus I couldn’t help noticing the color motif of your armsmen and even the servants. Wherever did you come up with such a unique hue?”
“Ah, I believe it was sent by the gods themselves. One day a journeyman showed up at the castle door wheeling a cart holding two barrels. He swore they held fine dyes from the East, the same color as the walls of Byzantium. They’d been stolen from the emperor and secreted aboard a ship that fled in the night. I purchased both casks for a handsome sum, but I think it was a very smart buy on my part. Even after all the staining and dying we’ve done here, there’s still a half a cask left.”
“You are obviously a shrewd man with money.” Yes, I think ambassador was definitely in my future.
About that time a servant whisked away my half-finished bowl of soup and replaced it with a charred slab of meat that had long ago given up any resistance.
“Ah, wild boar. My very favorite dish. I ran one to earth a fortnight ago, and it’s been hanging ever since.” Maleagans picked up his slice and worried at it with his teeth. I tried to cut off a bite but my poor knife went clattering away in horror.
“I am still considering your offer for the hound. As fond as my children have become of the beast, it would be a tragic heartbreak for them to give it up. But then, I wouldn’t be giving it up at all, would I? I would be keeping it for the king, so nothing changes except that I’d be two gold Caesars richer.”
“Well, you couldn’t decide to eat it. But basically you’re correct.”
“Well then, I accept. Make me an offer for Lady Lorena.”
“Sorry, Sire. Eminent domain does not apply to free men. Or women either.”
“Will you pay five coppers for Rood? He’s clearly an idiot door man.”
“Stop, you’re killing me. Your wit is as lively as your table fare. Besides, if the brachet is worth two gold pieces, five coppers seems a little steep for Rood.”
Maleagans stopped chewing long enough to spit out a chunk of processed gristle onto his plate, chuckling before starting back into his slab of boar.
“I heard that the Lady Lorena’s husband was lost in a questing accident. What happened to the fellow?”
“Hywel. Damned fool. He should have stayed home and concentrated on knocking his wife up. But he was bitten by that damned Holy Grail bug. Long after everyone else had given up that folly, he was still riding out in search. He somehow got it in his head that what’s-his-name, Joseph of Arabia or something like that, had hidden the Grail in a cave.”
At least I think that’s what he said. He was working on another chunk of boar, so it was a little hard to make out. But then he spit out another gristly mass and his words became clearer.
“He was exploring all the caves he could find, except that warm hairy one back home, and he found one that wasn’t empty. Woke up a hibernating bear. Didn’t even die with his sword in his hand, just a cross.”
“More than you know. Hywel did a decent job running his holdings, considering how much time he spent away. I gave the fief to my cousin, hoping the responsibility would spur him to make something of himself. Instead, it’s merely shown how much of an idiot he really is. Rents are way down.”
“Perhaps it was Lady Lorena who was running the estates all along, and you should marry her off to your cousin.”
“That’d be great, kill two hares with one arrow. Except he’s wed to another cousin and they have a couple of rug rats already.”
About that time the clatter from earlier in the afternoon sounded again, and into the dining hall tumbled the two girls dressed in white and the pampered mutt formerly known as ‘Poor and Abused Miffy.’ The girls eventually made their way to their father, standing before him with their hands folded.
“I’m glad that my daughters could make it to dinner. Hilda, Glenda, say hello to our guest, Sir Kay, Noble Knight of the Round Table.”
Both girls curtsied shyly. They were delightfully pretty, although I suppose most young girls are. The white in their gowns made their features glow; I wondered why they didn’t have to wear babyshit brown like everybody else. The elder was about the same age as Lisle. I glanced over to see if Oswald was taking note, but he was pointedly staring at his meal. Demonstrating his faithfulness for his own lady, I suppose, since it was likely he’d long since given up hope of finding any tidbits of value to filch for later.
“Sir Kay has purchased your dog for the king, who has in turn given it back to you for safekeeping. Do you suppose you can do that?”
The two looked at each other, having no clue what their father was talking about, and shrugged. I didn’t try to explain, since when you got right down to it, it didn’t make a lick of sense other than to insure that Miffy wasn’t held hostage to a resurgence of Maleagans’ lustful designs.
“So, what have you been up to that kept you from dinner?”
The younger of the two spoke up, using the opportunity to dance from one foot to the other instead of standing still. “Sorry we are late, Father. Nanny was reading us a story and we wanted to hear the end.”
I was washing down the taste of charred boar with a slug of acidic wine. Diplomat-in-training that I am, I managed to choke it down without spraying the Count, or worse yet, on his spotless daughters. Nevertheless, there was a bout of coughing, which incited the mutt to bark frantically and Maleagans to pound me on the back, toward what end I’ve never been sure. Meanwhile, the girls politely ignored my discomfort.
When I’d recovered enough to speak, I asked, “Your nanny reads to you?”
“Oh, yes, Sir Knight.” This from the elder daughter. “She is teaching us to read for ourselves, but we like it best when she does the reading while we look at the words. Especially ‘cause she changes the Latin into regular talk as she goes along, and it makes it like a story instead of a lesson.”
I put on my best stone face, so as not to give away my excitement. You never hand a man like Maleagans anything he could use in negotiations.
“I don’t suppose I could meet the nanny?”
Maleagans stared at me hard. “I don’t know about that. You’re a tricky bastard, Kay. And I mean that only in the nicest way.”
I stared back without a single emotion crossing my face. Which was easy, considering that the emotions whirling through my mind pretty much cancelled each other out. I had no idea what I was feeling.
“So, is there some other new law like Eminent domain that does apply to people?”
“I know of none.”
“And you’re not going to use some of your tricky shenanigans to steal my daughters’ nanny?”
I hesitated before repeating, “I know of no such laws.”
“I want your word as a Knight of the Round Table that you’re not going to try to take my nanny like you did the dog. If you do, I swear, I’ll challenge you and we’ll see who’s best with the sword, Arthur be damned.”
I may not have totally hidden the anguish that I felt. I mean, unless the girls were making it up, somewhere close by was a woman who could read. I’d never even heard of such a thing. But I did my best.
“I so swear it.”
Maleagans turned to a page. “Summon the princess.”