NB: sorry for the late post today. It’s been a very busy day. But I wasn’t going to bed and leave you hanging. I’d never do that!
I never got a chance to speak to Nimue. The place was a madhouse. Knights had been steadily filtering in since news of the discovery of the Grail had spread throughout Britain, and almost everybody was back home. Notably absent were King Hoel, Sir Ector of Donard, Sir Aglovale, etc. Well, I wasn’t spilling the beans about where they were. I mean, I had a deep-seated loyalty to Arthur as well as my oath, but I didn’t think either necessitated taking sides in the squabble between him and his sister. Besides, if the truth be known, I was pretty fond of his sister. She was bright, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable to talk to. Plus we’d shared some good times, whether totally under my own volition or not.
You’re pretty fond of two of his sisters, I corrected myself.
The welcoming feast went off without a hitch. With my renewed contacts at Wald-Ambara, I’d sent a buyer there with train of horses and instructions to bring me back something fresh and interesting. What he’d brought were panniers of eels, still wiggling, along with some boiled prawns (which would have never survived the trip otherwise). Our guests, expecting your typical roasted ox, were delighted.
Eels are one of those animals in the oyster family: it took someone either very imaginative or very hungry to try one the first time. They’re ugly and wriggly and look for all the world like overgrown worms. Well, I guess when you get right down to it, a cow isn’t all that attractive either. And not only do people eat those with relish, humorous tales abound of horny young men who, unable to attract the attention of a willing human female, attempt to mate with them as well. And now Morgan had completed that circle of sexual/culinary comedy for me, teaching me to eat those delicacies that the gods had intended for men to fuck rather than the adolescent desperation of fucking those beasts that were intended to be eaten.
The gods have an irrepressible sense of humor.
I guess, in retrospect, that was my main objection to the new religion: the dead god had no lighter side. Or perhaps that was just the more fanatic of his followers, since I’d not met the guy personally.
Monsignor Dagrezia was in attendance at the feast, on the other side of Guinevere to the king’s left. If he shared Ignatius’ righteous indignation about the priestesses being an affront to God who ought to be burned, he didn’t show it. He even found an opportunity to compliment me on the tasty eels. Perhaps his age and wisdom had given him a sense of tolerance missing from his younger, fierier coreligionist. Or maybe his night of prayer and meditation in the South Tower had truly changed his life. If so, Arthur needed to lock Ignatius up there for a week. Or a month, however long it took. Probably could just throw away the key, all things considered.
The priestesses and the young initiates were an endless source of fascination to the single knights. Arthur had spread the word that these women were dedicated to the goddess, under various oaths restricting their availability, and were not to be discomforted in any way. But that only made them more intriguing. The younger ones were clearly unused to being around men, but their shyness added yet more fuel. The sexual tension was so thick we could have cut it and smeared it on our bread. There was going to be a booming business in the banging business tonight. If any of the whores happened to own a white gown, she could retire by morning.
Nimue sat to Arthur’s right, with the strange man beside her. Up close, the resemblance to Merlin was even more uncanny. From their mannerisms and obvious restrained affection, they were clearly . . . what? Lovers within the constraints of Nimue’s vows? A year of conversation, followed by one night a year of culmination? The very idea intrigued me. Maybe it was just crazy enough that I could talk Count Maleagans into it. Sitting outside Princess Elaine’s window every night for a year, talking but unable to touch more than fingertips, before being allowed inside for a single night.
Of course, if I was going to abandon Camelot for a year, I could just become Maleagans’ seneschal instead. He’d already offered that option. Maybe I should raise that idea with Arthur.
Maybe not. I hadn’t even mentioned to Arthur that I’d seen his elder half-sister, much less that I was besotted with her. There was a chance he’d be incensed with the very idea—Arthur had an unpredictable streak, despite all the years we’d spent together. But if he weren’t, he’d want to do something. He was a man of action; in that he was totally predictable. Make a law, send an ambassador, strap on Excalibur. But maneuvering the king into acting clearly fell under the very broad definition of breaking my oath.
Nimue spoke briefly but warmly about the special favor that Arthur’s realm held for the goddess, but ended by warning of a time of war and famine that would follow if we allowed men’s natural greed to overcome our virtue. Afterward, two of the lesser priestesses sang a lament, their overlapping voices at a strange harmony with each other. It was totally foreign to my ear, but oddly compelling. When they finished, we were too moved to applaud until Arthur rose to his feet to begin the accolades. Cambry followed with a more traditional song of welcome. And then Fool, in a golden wig and white gown, presented an outrageous, bawdy farce about how the priestesses dealt with the burden of chastity. From anyone else it would have been blasphemy, but from Fool’s mouth it was just good fun. And although many in Nimue’s retinue blushed furiously at the jests, there was an endless chorus of shrieks of laughter from the women in white. Arthur had tears rolling down his cheeks; I’d fortunately made a recent trip to the privy, else I’d have peed my pants.
After the feasting and the drinking and the entertainment were ended and our guests had retired, I learned that Nimue, the strange man, and the two little girls were all sharing a room. So the girls were hers. And his too? Things got more curious by the hour.
* * * *
I spent the remainder of the evening with Father Gascon. I’d been so busy that we’d scarcely exchanged a word since the discovery of the Grail. The Old Boar’s Head was relatively quiet, what with the whores all out plying their trade and the men who hadn’t been early enough or lucky enough to rent the services of one out looking elsewhere.
“So, Gascon, what do you think of this whole Grail business?”
Gascon looked troubled at my question. “’Tis a mystery indeed, Kay. We all know that God does perform miracles, but few of us have actually seen one. Believing in miracles—indeed, believing in God’s love in a troubled world—is what faith is all about. And now this. It seems almost too convenient, doesn’t it?”
I moved one of my towers to a very strong and threatening position, hoping that in his disquiet, Gascon wouldn’t notice the threat.
“But aren’t priests of your religion supposed to be above all that?”
Gascon was taking a drink as I spoke, and it was all he could do to keep from spraying ale over me and chess board alike. There followed a bout of coughing from his swallowing wrongly. Finally he recovered enough to answer.
“Priests are pretty much normal men with a different job. Men become priests for many different reasons. The work is relatively easy and you’re not likely to starve, so some become priests because they are lazy. It is a route where a capable man can reach a much higher social station than he could in other endeavors, causing others take up the cloth out of ambition. It is actually rarer for a man to seek the priesthood out of a desire to serve his fellow man than for a desire to serve himself.”
Gascon looked down at the board and advanced a footman. If he’d appreciated the subtlety of my attack, it wasn’t apparent yet.
“Those are pretty damning words, Father.”
“Not really. You’d be surprised at how many priests grow into the job. I believe myself to be one such example, having been initially drawn to the priesthood out of indolence. Reading the sacred book for yourself, being around people in need who you actually help, associating with men better than you—all of those can change a man.”
I eased a horseman forward to support my tower. “But not always.”
“Indeed.” Gascon studied the board, but was clearly distracted by the conversation. “There will always be Father Ignatiuses in the world. Men whose ambition is so great that they believe God wants them to succeed at any cost.” He diddled a bit, then moved an archer across the board where it might stall my build-up. Too little too late, in my evaluation. I advanced a footman to shore up my position and threaten his archer.
“So if the Grail is real, what do you believe it is made of?”
“I would suppose it to be a simple cup made of fired clay. But it would be marked somehow by the intense love of the one who held it. Blackened fingerprints permanently glazed into the surface, maybe. Or imbued with a glow from that love so that anyone who saw it would know it was unique.”
“Man is uncommonly fond of gold. But I find no evidence whatsoever that God cares a fig about it.” He absently retreated his archer a square.
“Check.” I advanced my queen to a commanding position beside my tower.
Gascon studied the board, then tipped his king over. “Just as some men are uncommonly fond of winning. I never realized that you were one of those.”
“If I were so uncommonly fond of winning, I wouldn’t be scores of games behind in our campaign. I’d quit playing you and teach Oswald.”
Gascon looked up with a dubious expression. “Playing with me garners you the occasional win and allows you to keep your dignity besides. If you teach Oswald, six months from now you would be regularly humiliated. Unless you tell him that it’s bad manners to beat his knight. In which case he would intentionally lose five matches out of six in ways so clever you wouldn’t realize he was throwing the game, winning just often enough to keep it sporting.”
“Are you saying Oswald is smarter than I am?”
“Of course not. No one is smarter than you, Kay. Only Merlin, if the tales be true—I never had the pleasure of meeting him. I’m certainly not. But still, I own you on the chess board. Why is that, do you suppose?”
“I have no idea. Why don’t you enlighten me?”
Gascon emptied his mug and signaled for another round, then began to reset the pieces on the board. I wasn’t sure I wanted to drink any more, with the big day I had coming up on the morrow. But what the hell. If things went horribly wrong, being mildly hung-over would at least make a good excuse. Of course, I’d likely be dead. But still, everyone would say, “Sir Kay? Yes, I remember him well. He was a brave knight and a good man, with a true talent for numbers. He’d still be alive today if he weren’t hung-over that fatal day.”
Carver the owner brought us a new pitcher himself. Gilda normally didn’t sleep with men for money, but she was a shrewd businesswoman. Perhaps the lure of easy gold had tipped the balance. Or perhaps she had a white gown and figured, what the heck? I poured Gascon a mug and myself a half while he moved pieces around on the board, seemingly at random.
“OK, it’s your move. How many possible moves are there for you?”
I did a quick tally. “Twenty-one.”
“Which of those is the best move?”
That took a bit longer. Finally, I answered. “Moving my horseman to that square, I believe.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I played each possible sequence out in my head for a few moves to see which ended up better.”
Gascon smiled. “Exactly. And you are able to do that because you’re so smart. But eventually, the number of possible moves becomes too great, or you become too tired or too intoxicated to care. And then you become careless.”
I was shocked. “You don’t do that?”
“Heavens, no. We’d be here all night before I could ever decide what to do.”
“Then how do you decide what to move?”
“My gut tells me.”
Gascon laughed and patted his ample belly. “Well, probably not my gut. Probably a different part of my brain. It’s what I call cleverness. The answer pops in your head without you thinking about it, and you just go with your gut.”
I was flabbergasted. “And that’s how you beat me so consistently?”
Gascon patted my arm. “You’re much cleverer than I am. But you don’t trust your gut. Instead, you try to figure everything out.”
“And that’s what Oswald is? Clever?”
“Oswald is the cleverest lad I’ve ever met.” See how easily he’s maneuvered me with my own daughter? Fortunately, he’s a lad of honor.
“So how do I get some of this cleverness?”
“Why bother? You have Oswald?”
“So if I had some of this cleverness, how would I get out of an oath given in error so I could woo a theoretical lady that I’d hypothetically fallen madly for?”
“You’re too honorable to use cleverness to get out of an oath, Kay. And if you managed it, you wouldn’t be happy. The only answer for you is to find some way to fulfill your oath and gain your lady both.”
“Hell, if I knew how to do that, I wouldn’t have had to ask.”
After I left, and long into the night when I should have been sleeping and preparing for the morrow, I mulled over Gascon’s explanation about Oswald and cleverness. Should I wake Oswald up, share what I was planning, and get his opinion? Suppose he told me it was a horrible idea. Was I willing to abandon it with nothing better to replace it? Or if he told me it should work but it didn’t and I died, would he be scarred for life?
I’ve always thought smart was a pretty good way to be. But by the time I finally drifted into a fitful sleep, I’d have swapped it all for some of that cleverness stuff.