In the tales that troubadours tell, all princesses are young and beautiful, albeit ever in some fluffy bit of trouble that the handsome knight has no problem unraveling to win her heart, not to mention access to her heretofore virginal nether regions. She leaves maidenhood willingly to provide her knight in shining armor a lifetime of stimulating conversation by day and satisfying sex by night. Or at least I imagine that’s what ‘happily ever after’ means. I’ve never been in one of those happily-ever-after relationships, so I can’t speak to the matter from personal knowledge. None of the noblewomen I’ve known were capable of an hour of stimulating conversation, unless you cared deeply about the weather, sewing, babies, or court gossip.
And satisfying sex lasts until the period for which you’ve rented your dalliance partner’s nether regions runs out. Either when you’ve spent once or when the sun comes up, depending on how horny you were when you sealed the contract with an exchange of coins. Satisfying being a relative term under the circumstances. When you’re young, you’re easily satisfied. Fortunately. Looks are a nice fringe benefit, but a place of warmth and moist mystery in which to leave your built up tension is all that’s really required. And when you’re back in civilization after a long campaign, you have enough built-up tension and enough cash to rent for the night.
I haven’t rented for the night lately. In fact, I don’t rent much at all these days. The very best courtesans try their hardest to keep up their conversational end of the bargain between rounds of thrusting and grunting, but my standards are simply too high.
Yes, I recognize that I am the problem, not they. No one else complains of the inadequacies of their tongues.
Still, Maleagans’ order, “Summon the princess,” engendered a certain quickening of the loins, figuratively if not literally. My libido, who normally snoozed his way through life, summoned up a mental image of a young, golden-haired beauty in a gossamer gown, holding a scroll in delicate fingers, prepared to offer a real opinion about a particularly pithy stanza of Virgil. I sat up straight in my chair, feeling twenty again. Well, thirty maybe.
The woman who accompanied the page was neither young nor golden-haired, not dressed in a gossamer gown nor holding a scroll in delicate fingers. I judged her to be older than I, although she possessed a certain agelessness that made it difficult to say for certain. Nor was she beautiful in the classic sense, which means all too typically glowing skin without blemish or wrinkle, a face to launch a thousand ships or at least make one man weep, pert breasts proudly displaying a delicious hint of cleavage, and a slender waist that a large man could almost encircle with his fingers. But still. There was beauty a’plenty in this woman’s poise, her classic jaw line, her eyes that danced much as Merlin’s had.
“You summoned me, Count Maleagans?” No special courtesy, no hint of obsequiousness of any sort. Just respect, along with the clear expectation that it would be returned.
I was stunned. There isn’t any other word to describe it. Smashed between the eyes like a steer at slaughter. Had I been standing I probably would have fallen over.
“Elaine. This is Sir Kay, Knight of the Round Table. He asked if he could have the honor of speaking with you.”
“Kay. Ah, it is good to meet you at last. I have heard much about you.” Elaine extended her hand in the manner of a woman of higher station, expecting it to be kissed. The back of her hand was gently wrinkled with an age spot or two, but otherwise looked just about like what you’d expect from an older princess. I somehow managed to kiss it without drooling or otherwise making a fool of myself.
“Would you care to join us for a glass of wine?” Maleagans offered. “Perhaps a sweet?”
The Princess Elaine showed the tiniest hint of a smile that set my heart to racing. “I suppose. Hilda and Glenda have been on their best behavior all day, so I don’t imagine they’ll ruin your feast left unsupervised. What are you serving?”
Maleagans and I both looked down at the shapeless mass mounded on our plates. “I suppose it is bread pudding.”
Elaine let out the exact same sigh I was feeling, except she managed to make it delicate and feminine, not just a whoosh of released emotion. “Perhaps just a half glass of wine, then.”
Maleagans snapped his fingers for a stool, and we moved apart to make room for Elaine between us. Just before she sat, he wagged his finger at me, then drew it menacingly across his throat.
“So, Kay. I guess good manners dictate that I should ask how things are in the court of my brother.”
My mind raced in response, trying to figure out what she was asking. If she were indeed a princess, her brother had to be either a king or a prince. Did I know any king whose sister this might be? Lot of Orkney’s much younger sister, maybe, but I had never been to his court. Pellinore, I suppose he had a court somewhere but he’d been doddering around Camelot so long I had no idea where. Elaine might have a trace of Cornish accent, so maybe Mark of Cornwall? No resemblance whatsoever, though.
“Your brother. Um, pardon me for asking, but, ah, I’m not sure who your brother is.”
The princess laughed, a gentle restrained bubbling of good humor that was gone as quickly as it had appeared. “And here I thought, by the weight of your reputation, that you knew everything. It appears that my hour of fame has come and gone. If indeed, I ever had any fame.” There was no trace of bitterness in her words or her minute smile, so I supposed this was a long-standing joke of hers. “Shall I just tell you, or should we make it a riddle? I have two sisters more famous than I, whose names both begin with an M.”
Morgan le Fay immediately popped into my mind. And she had a sister named Morgause. And they were both sisters to . . . Arthur.
“Your brother is King Arthur?”
“Well played, Sir Knight. Guessed correctly with nineteen questions left.”
Elaine, the oldest of Duke Gorlois and Igraine’s three girls.
My mind raced to assemble and bits and pieces of rumors I’d heard about Elaine over the years. Not much, particularly compared to her two more infamous sisters. Morgause, wife of King Lot and mother of five Knights of the Round Table including the lions Gawain and Gareth, Gaheris the beloved, the mysterious Mordred about whom rumors abounded, and the petulant Agravain who attempted to scorn me in his own feeble way because we were both at the bottom of the knight ladder. Morgan, wife of King Uriens before he’d died, the ageless beauty whom I’d seen briefly at Pentecost. Elaine—married early to some insignificant duke, disappeared from the saga. Strange. And even stranger that I’d never even thought about it before.
“How did you come to be here? And why have I never seen you in court?” My mind was functioning as if I’d been drinking all night, and my mouth responded by spewing out the first thing that I thought of. Well played Sir Knight my ass. Fickle Athena and all the other deities of intelligence have abandoned you, and you’re making a hell of an impression on your own.
Why do I care what kind of impression I make?
Because she can read, you idiot. And she’s witty. She dresses the daughters in white instead of babyshit brown. You care because you’ve never met a woman like this before.
“So questions two and three squandered, and we don’t even have a riddle on the table. I came to be here by horse, same as you. You have never seen me in Arthur’s court because I’ve never been there when you were there, the same reason why I’ve never seen you in court. See how much alike we are?” She sipped her wine without losing the mocking hint of a smile. “If we are to match wits, then game on, Sir Knight.”
Well, if wits were the weapons of the evening, I was much better armed than in the lists. “I am the king’s foster brother, which is like unto a half brother. And you are his half sister. So we are connected by halves, it seems.”
“And two halves make a whole, and one can peer through a hole and see the world outside. While four halves make two, which we are clearly.”
My mouth was open to make a comeback, which I’m sure would have been breathtaking had her pronouncement not struck me speechless. Fortuitously if unintentionally my goblet slipped from my fingers. It clanged onto the table, spilling a half-cup which dripped through the boards and onto my lap but effectively distracted attention from my open jaw
Did I correctly hear this woman say that four halves make two? Impossible! Multiplication of fractions by a woman? Get moving, brain!
“On the morrow Oswald and I will ride forth from our quarters, and two fourths make a half, as do two quarters, which will then be missing. And so then you will no longer be whole, so you cannot watch us leave through the door.”
Elaine clapped her hands in delight, a dainty movement accompanied by her bubble of laughter. “As if such a whole could ever be stoppered by such half measures.”
“What the fuck are you two talking about? Pardon my Latin, Princess.” Maleagans was clearly less than amused. In the same manner that one is naturally uncomfortable when around two people speaking in a tongue that he doesn’t know, I suppose.
“Nay, Count Maleagans. Only if you had said, ‘Quis es vos sermo super fornicari,’ could we pardon your Latin.”
Maleagans slammed his fist down on the table, his face already red and getting more so by the second. “Super fornicari my ass. This meal is over. You are dismissed.” He clapped his hands loudly. “Hilda, Glenda. Go with your nanny back to your chamber. Page. Escort them there. You and you.” He pointed to two armsmen at random. “Accompany them, make sure they’re safe.”
He turned and glared at me. “Maybe that was just harmless talk, maybe not. But I didn’t understand it, and that means I’m plenty suspicious. Particularly since I’ve witnessed your underhanded slipperiness firsthand. So I’m going to remind you of your pledge. Now, are you going to honor your oath in a seemly manner, or do you want to meet me with naked sword in the courtyard on the morrow? We can let God decide if your chatter about haves and forths was harmless.”
“Nay, Sire. My oath still binds.” The words burned on my tongue as if I had swigged freshly distilled brandy.