“How did you get to be so smart, Sire?” Oswald asked me on the road to the Castle Malodorous, as it was now permanently affixed in my lexicon. I mean, it wasn’t really malodorous, but it had the color of stink. Which made it a perfectly acceptable word play, had there been anyone to appreciate the exchange of wordplay nearby.
Like Elaine. She wasn’t exactly ‘nearby,’ but she was at the other end of the road we were on. And if I was really smart, I’d have figured out what to do about her by now.
And if you don’t, Morgan is right down this road as well.
Begone, vile traitor inside my own head!
Oswald was turning out to be the perfect travelling companion. He would ride along side me for a while, asking thoughtful questions, and then drop back to ponder the answers. Which gave me plenty of time to think about whatever needed thinking about. Or just being alone, which I appreciated more and more as I got older.
The last time I’d been this way, I’d been escort to the Lady Lorena. Who was way better looking than Oswald, by any measure in any culture. Well, maybe not by Lisle’s yardstick, or among the Greeks who were notorious for that sort of thing. But by any reasonable standard. And I appreciated a fair face and form as much as the next man. But the Lady Lorena, despite how easy on the eyes she was, had one critical flaw: she never fucking shut up. Or to put it more diplomatically, as a Knight of the Round Table should, she felt the compulsory need to fill any conversational quiet space with chatter, typically using the first topic that came to mind. Oswald never spoke anything that he hadn’t considered first.
Not to mention that he saved you from days or perhaps even weeks or months of perfect sex in the thrall of Morgan le Fay.
Well nobody’s perfect. On the whole, he was still an outstanding travelling companion, despite the occasional gaffe.
“Lad, the unfortunate truth is, people don’t get to be smart. They’re pretty much born with all of the smarts they’re ever going to have. You’re perhaps confusing intelligence with knowledge. You can spend your entire lifetime learning new things, and on your deathbed you’ll be knowledgeable as all get out. But you’ll still be pretty much as smart or as stupid as the day you were as born.”
Oswald chewed on that for a minute before rephrasing his question. “What I should have asked, Sire, is: how did you get to be so knowledgeable?”
“Ah, that’s a very good question, with a most interesting answer. I grew up pretty much your typical knight’s kid. Spent hours every day learning how to fight, and not much else. Although I did have the advantage, if such it was, of training with the King. The best tutors and all that. Arthur was three years my junior but unquestionably better, even in the early days, in the arts of warfare.”
“That must have been really neat in some ways and really sucked in others.”
“You’ve summed up the situation most succinctly, lad.”
“So what happened?”
“Merlin got there.”
Oswald’s eyes got huge. “You knew Merlin?”
“Knew him? He lived in a tidy cottage in the back meadow scarcely a half mile from us. I practically lived there when I wasn’t busy training with swords and the like. That’s where I learned reading and mathematics, among other things. I even beat him at chess occasionally, when he was preoccupied.”
“Wow! No wonder you’re so smart. Oops, I mean, so knowledgeable.”
“And not only did he teach me many arcane subjects, he also taught me to love learning. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m the man I am today.”
“What was he like?” I detected a trace of hero worship shifting from me to Merlin. I didn’t mind—Oswald had plenty to go around.
“What was Merlin like? Who really knows, when you’re talking about someone so much wiser, smarter, and knowledgeable than anyone else alive, perhaps than who’s ever lived? He was amazing. And warm at the same time. And he could light a fire by pointing his finger at it, among other things.”
Oswald’s eyes got even bigger, if that were possible, and his mouth gaped open. “You’ve seen magic, Sire? Truly?” Then he realized that he was displaying his emotions and got them under control, although it took a minute.
“So how come he didn’t teach you any magic, Sir Kay?”
Merlin had answered that very question when I was fourteen and much too young to understand. “Magic requires a lifetime of dedication, Kay. You can’t ever do or be anything else. You can’t be a knight and a sorcerer; you can’t be a husband and a father and be a sorcerer. It consumes everything you do and hope and dream for the rest of your life.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” I told him. I’d been around Merlin for a year, and he was my idol, the standard against which everything else was measured. “I’m never going to be any good as a knight, and every girl who sees me likes Arthur better.”
“You have other things in your future, boy. There are many ways to be great, many ways to better the land and mankind.”
If I’d known he meant I was to be a wild success as Arthur’s quartermaster, I wouldn’t have given up so easily.
* * *
The Castle Malodorous was uglier than I remembered it being. It’s like shit oozed from the walls instead of merely adorning them.
“Be that you, Sir Kay?” A familiar shape peered out between the merlins on the castle wall. If Rood had bathed since I’d been here before, it must have been in the moat. “We go for years without a visit from one of you bloody bastards from Camelot, and then we get two in the same month. Well, two visits, even if it’s the same old knight. Did you get lost on the way home?”
“I am on quest in search of the Holy Grail.”
“No shit? The Grail is here?”
“Perhaps. It seems as good a place to hide a relic as any. Besides, someone’s looked all the obvious places and it wasn’t there. So why not here?” I didn’t mention that if the grail was, as I suspected, a peasant’s ill-formed clay cup, it could sit on a shelf here for years and not draw attention.
“Let me see if the count is accepting high-born visitors.”
Rood was gone long enough for me to clamber over the wall if I’d a mind to. A walled city built out of blocks of stone by experienced masons would have required a scaling ladder, but your typical castle had an earthen wall supported by timber meant to discourage raiders and was useless unless manned. But it would have been undignified, and if Maleagans didn’t want me inside, creeping in only to be tossed out was even more so.
“Kay! Rood told me it was you but naturally I didn’t believe him,” Maleagans shouted down from the wall. “I mean, what would attract a noble Knight of the Round Table to return to our rude hospitality? Or are you here to check on Arthur’s bitch? If so, I’ll have the girls bring her so I can hold her up for you to inspect.”
The count was being intentionally discourteous, but it would have served no end to get angry, and so I didn’t. Not showing anger was one thing, but actually not getting angry is a lot more difficult. Fortunately, I’d had a lot of practice. Royals are by their very nature self-absorbed, often to the point of thinking of those around them as mere objects. Arthur was a good king, but he would still piss you off several times a week if you let him. Guinevere, on whose goodness the jury was still out, about three times that often.
“Nay, Count. I am riding in search of the Holy Grail and thought to visit here during my quest just to make sure it’s not sitting around on some shelf somewhere. And I’d hoped to speak with you on a personal matter.”
“So if you find the Holy Grail, you’re not going to steal it like you did the dog?”
“I must strenuously object to your use of the word “steal,” count. I purchased the dog for a mutually agreed-to price and then left it in your safekeeping. Having seen evidence of your bargaining prowess, had you not found the price sufficient, we would still be negotiating, I am certain.”
Maleagans waved his hand as if shooing away flies. “Well, let him in, I suppose,” he told the waiting Rood before turning and stalking off.
My quarters were the same as before. The bed looked exactly as I’d left it, which it probably was. I carefully checked the pottery pitcher and basin to see if either might indeed be the Holy Grail.
It was only then that the total absurdity of this quest hit me. If the Grail was a piece of crude pottery, how the hell was anyone going to recognize it? If I filled it with water and drank, would I be healed? From what, exactly? Middle age aches and pains? Second class knight status? Hemorrhoids? And would I be healed so dramatically that I would instantly recognize the artifact? Or would it only be after a month that I realized my ass wasn’t nearly as sore after a day in the saddle, and maybe one of those cups I’d drunk out of along the way might be holy?
Would a priest actually be able to do any better? Just because he was a follower of a particular dead god, did that automatically give him the ability to tell if his god had used a particular piece of kitchenware?
Totally absurd. In the spirit of being thorough I gingerly sipped from the pitcher. The basin wasn’t clean enough for me to conduct that particular test, so after examining it to see if the discoloration might be a bloodstain instead of poor craftsmanship, I let it go.
* * *
Maleagans was again all in black. In fact, the only significant difference about my audience this time was the Lady Lorena perched at his side when I was admitted, looking as lovely as ever. Although knowing the vast wasteland between her ears and having recently met two members of the fairer sex who both qualified as thinking women, I wasn’t attracted in the slightest. I couldn’t tell for certain, but it looked as if, without the distraction of Miffy, the count and the lady had negotiated mutually beneficial terms.
A sprinkling of ladies-in-waiting relaxed on the floor around her and sewed. Gave them something to do while they waited, I supposed. A trio of pages lingered within earshot.
After Maleagans and I had exchanged a few stiff pleasantries, with him still trying to get under my skin and me stalwartly refusing to be baited, he asked. “And so tell me of this personal matter, Kay.”
“Sire, I was hoping for more privacy than this, since it involves the honor of another.”
“Yes, dear count. How may I serve thee?”
“Kay here wants to talk in private. Should I trust him?”
“Of course, Sire. After all, he is a Knight of the Round Table. I spoke with him in private many times, and he was never unseemly.”
“Well, if he wasn’t unseemly with you, I suppose I have nothing to fear. Assuming he prefers women. Shall we take a turn in the garden then, Kay? That seems to be a place where you like to ponder shit.”
Andromache looked just as forlorn in the fading sunlight as she had in the silvery moonlight. I’d seen Oswald slip out of the great hall, so I guessed he was lurking on the other side of the hedges lining the pathway. I didn’t really think Maleagans had brought me out here to murder me, but if on the off chance that he had, Oswald and his sneaky little swordette would doubtless avenge my death.
“So, speak your private matter, Kay.”
Why beat around the bush? Maleagans didn’t strike me as a man that would be impressed by flowery language or diplomatic circumlocution. “Sire, by powers beyond my control and utterly without my intent, I have fallen for the Princess Elaine. I have come to bargain for the right to seek her hand.”
Maleagans stopped walking and stared at me from a distance of about a foot. At my age I couldn’t really focus on his eyes when they were that close, but I looked in the vicinity of them.
“Hmmp. So, do you have reason to think she would return your suit?”
To lie, or not to lie, that was the question. Well, in for a tilt, in for a duel to the death, as Guardemaine was wont to say.
“I confess that I had occasion to speak with her for a few minutes, although we did not discuss this matter. I thought that would be stretching the boundaries of propriety, not to mention the oath I’d given you. But without being able to articulate any specific reason, I believe that she would consider my suit favorably.”
Maleagans seemed taken aback by my honesty. He turned away and stood tapping his foot on the path. I looked to Andromache for help but she offered none.
“Swear fealty to me, come and run my holdings. Won’t take much of your attention, considering how far down it is from Arthur’s household. Should leave you plenty of time to woo your lady.”
“Break my oath to Arthur, Sire? I can’t do that. A man’s oath is sacred.”
“Well, what did you have in mind, then? I can’t imagine that you can offer anything else I have the slightest interest in.”
What did I have? Not much, compared to the count. Enough land to provide a handsome income for one knight. Seemed like a pittance, as I considered where to start the negotiations. What could I offer that wouldn’t sound paltry?
What the hell. “Count, I offer the entirety of my holdings in exchange for releasing me from my oath and allowing me to court the Princess Elaine.”
“Well, I guess there’s nowhere to go from everything. So you’d be a penniless knight, dependent on others for your existence, all for this madness you think might be love? What makes you think Elaine would have any interest in such a life? Women feign delight over love, but they are much more practical beings than we are.”
He pursed his lips and blew out a stream of air, then shrugged. “Page!” he shouted.
There was the patter of footsteps before one of his trio of munchkins appeared. “My compliments to the Princess, and would she have the slightest interest in a suit by a penniless Sir Kay?” He bent over and whispered into the page’s ear before patting him on the butt to send him on his way.
“Sire, I would much prefer to ask her myself.”
“Yes, of course you would. You’re a tricky bastard, Kay. You could talk the pope into officiating at Beltane. Lorena may trust you because you made no crude play for her nether regions, but I don’t trust you because you can twist words about to make them mean things the gods never intended them to mean.”
“I’ve never . . .”
“Not to mention that you have the power of the high king to fall back on. You’d speak some of your fancy words in his ear, and before you know it there’d be a law that a count can’t own a Knight of the Round Table’s holdings. Then you’d have my nanny while I had nothing.”
I put all the indignation I could muster into my reply. “Sire, I would never do such a dishonorable thing!”
He went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “Having a strong king is a good thing. A lord is at his best when someone’s up there minding the kingdom’s business, so he can concentrate on his little corner of it. But Arthur, I don’t know. A king’s supposed to drink and hunt and fuck the hired help, collect a few taxes, and lead the army during times of war. Uther, now there was a king. Arthur sits around and makes up laws. Along with stately proclamations like, ‘Might doesn’t make right.’ What total utter crap.”
Nothing that I said was going to matter. But the words, “Arthur is a good man, doing his best to create a just kingdom,” were out before I could stop them.
“Just kingdom?” Maleagans’ voice had risen to where he was shouting, with a little spray of spittle punctuating his sentences. “And who exactly decided that a just kingdom is a good thing? Do the little people get to make the decisions in a just kingdom instead of the king? That’s not a kingdom. That’s fucking anarchy.”
Maleagans had worked himself into a rage, pacing and waving his arms. “In a just kingdom I would have told the Lady Lorena to go to my bed and lie down and pull her dress up around her waist and she would have gladly done it. But no. In Arthur’s versions of a just kingdom, a widow can go whining to the high king just because she doesn’t want to spread her pretty little legs for her lord, even though he’s giving her free room and board. Not to mention dressing her in proper finery. And then he sends a knight to buy her dog? Is it any wonder that the kings and barons hate Arthur and plot against him? Maybe it’d be different if he knocked Guinevere up, but the cold truth is, Arthur’s too soft to be the high king.”
The page’s return kept me from having to respond. Which I suppose was a good thing, since the only proper response would be to challenge Maleagans to a duel.
The page went to Maleagans as if to whisper the response, but the count cut him off. “No, just tell us all.”
“Sire, the Princess sends her compliments and her answer, ‘of course not.’”
“Well, there you go, Kay. The wisdom of the princess has saved you from a lifetime of poverty and disgrace.”