Dinner that night turned into a riotous affair. For years my reputation has been that, as a knight, I’m one hell of a seneschal. Although much of the ribbing has been good-natured, when everybody gives you shit about how mediocre you are at your profession, after awhile it gets pretty old. But after my demand for a trial by combat—which is the ultimate in putting your money where your mouth is—and actually winning, well, just about everybody who wore metal for a living wanted to drink a toast in my honor.
The acclaim was all well and good—who doesn’t like to be recognized and celebrated by his peers? Countering this avalanche of feel-good was the inescapable fact that I’d cheated to beat a really nice guy who pretty much everybody liked. The facts on the other side of the argument were: not only had I come up with an imaginative way to cheat—when you live by your brains and not your brawn, this is something to celebrate, not be ashamed of—but also I’d stayed alive long enough for Morgan’s aid to kick in. So I confess that, not once during the evening, was I tempted to stand up and say, “Hey! It’s not such a big deal. I cheated!”
Bad as I was turning out to be in solving the most important challenge of my life, maybe becoming a better knight was the answer. Bulk up, train twelve hours a day, take lessons from Lancelot. Eventually I’d be good enough to go kick Maleagans’ ass. Too bad I’d be too old to enjoy the fruits of my labor.
Agravain was eating in as much of a corner as you can find in the Great Hall, huddled with Mordred and Cedrickand a couple of his other buds. I wondered if he was pissed that he hadn’t had the chance to beat me and plotting revenge, or if he’d already put the affair behind him and was planning an evening of debauchery. But the next time I looked up, he was gone.
After another hour during which the toasts got louder but less witty, Lancelot sidled over to the bench next to mine. I can’t say that he and I have ever been particularly close. Too different in our approach to life, I suppose. As far as I know, the only two things that matter to him are being the best knight in the world and Guinevere, in that order. Plus Lancelot is a very serious man. It’s not that he’s offended by jokes, more that he doesn’t understand what the point of joking is. On the other hand, we’ve spent a lot of time on the same battlefield, risking our lives for the same cause. In the battle before Baden Hill, not long after spurs were ‘discovered,’ I found myself beside him in a two-man cavalry charge. It was a truly amazing and glorious thing, something a bard could make a name for himself singing about. Lancelot raced back and forth across the battlefield, utterly fearless of the axe-wielding Saxons, spearing like fish any who dared stand against him. I polished off the ones that exposed themselves in their haste to get away and kept random berserkers from attacking his horse. When the day was decided, I was covered in gore and utterly spent, while he sat in his saddle puzzled, as if wondering where the party had gone. Then he looked over at me, nodded, and rode off without saying a word.
“You fought well today, Kay.” Lancelot raised his cup a couple of inches as if toasting, but drank nothing. “I’ve faced Galahad, and for someone so young, he’s a fine knight.”
“When the walls of Camelot have fallen and all her fine knights are worm shit, I predict that he will be known as second only to his father.”
“Well, he wouldn’t be if he’d died today. So thank you for not killing my son, as was your right.”
“Kill Galahad?” I was shocked that he could even think such a thing. “I’d never kill Galahad. He’s beloved by all. Not to mention the Siege Perilous knight. I’d sooner yield myself than do such a thing.”
“Yield to a knight that you’d beaten?” Lancelot looked puzzled for a moment, staring down into his cup before tossing off what was left. Then he saluted me with the empty mug and moved on.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a brilliant conversationalist to be the greatest knight in the world.
The toasts and the merriment dragged on unabated. Leading the revelers was Galahad, who kept staggering over and putting his arms around me and telling everyone who would listen what a great guy I was. A happy drunk. After awhile, I got the idea that if I was going to spend the entire night quaffing toasts to myself, I might as well drink them out of the Not-So-Holy Grail. Felt really weird, using such a magnificent piece of work. Far nicer than anything I’ve ever owned before. But after awhile I got used to it. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I refused to worry about it right then. Hey, maybe I could swap it to Maleagans for Elaine’s freedom.
Oh, wait, I forgot. Maleagans doesn’t like tasteful things.
And then suddenly I’d had enough. So I took my cup and slipped out for a breath of fresh air.
Oswald was standing just outside the door to the Great Hall. “Oswald! I thought you’d be courting the fair Lisle tonight. You didn’t need to wait here for me!”
Oswald looked a little sheepish. “Well, Sire, I saw you drinking heavily and decided better to be safe than sorry.”
“You think I might have stumbled on my way home and hurt myself?”
“Actually, Sire, not everyone in the realm is overjoyed that you won the trial today. And those that aren’t don’t have your reputation for honorable behavior.”
“You stayed to protect me?”
He shrugged, then looked up and grinned. “I have a lot invested in you, Sire. I’d hate to have to break in a new knight.”
I made a halfhearted swipe at him but he easily dodged away.
I thought about taking my cup and going home. I’d had enough excitement for a week, about twice that much ale, and not a lot of sleep the night before. But then it hit me: when I woke on the morrow, it would be somebody else’s day. So I decided to stretch today out a little longer by making a quick stop at the Old Boar’s Head. At least things would be quieter.
Although not much quieter; the place was pretty packed. One of the long tables was filled with my staff—Cook and Stores, along with Nattie, Ludd, and Sal. They saw me as I entered and rose as one, clapping and hooting and stamping their feet. Oswald slipped in front of me when I stopped and pranced along like Fool, bowing and waving as he lead me into the fray.
I slid into an empty place beside Father Gascon and Esmeralda. Lisle, who’d been hidden behind her mother, leapt up to give me a huge hug, gushing over my exploits. Oswald smiled and nodded to her, but stayed a little apart—obviously taking his guardian angel duties very seriously.
Gilda swayed over with a pitcher, and after setting it down gave me a wet, sloppy kiss. I patted her bum in response, but only in the most brotherly way.
Yes, I was still drinking and partying. But these were my people, and they wanted to let me know that they loved me.
Cambry stepped up with a wicked grin. “I’m not finished your song by a long shot, Sir Kay. But I thought I’d give everyone a little taste of what it’s going to be like.” He gave his lyre a strum, intoned a “Humm,” to match the pitch, and then started in.
Let me sing you a song ‘bout our favorite knight, he is: Oh, Kay.
When he’s in change you know everything will be: Oh, Kay.
There was a Saxon expression that sounded like ‘okay’ and translated roughly to mean that things were neither better nor worse than they were supposed to be. Cambry had cleverly worked the pun into the end of every line of his song. I guess that’s how new words come about. ‘OhKay’ would probably henceforth and forever mean Kay-like. Not all that great, but not too bad either. The crowd all sang the last two words and stamped their feet, and the women stretched out the syllables and pretended to swoon. I tipped him a gold Caesar when he was done, and it wasn’t nearly enough.
“Speech,” someone called from the back of the room, and everyone quickly took up the cry. “Speech, speech.” Then they were clapping and stomping again and nothing would do except for me to get up and say something. And for once in my life, I couldn’t think of a single fucking thing to say.
“My friends. You’ve all been sitting there so politely. Listening to Cambry’s magnificent song. Drinking toasts in my honor. Making me proud to be your friend. But just looking at you I know that, deep down inside, you’ve all been wondering the same thing. Suppose good old Sir Kay left Camelot at eight o’clock tomorrow morning riding three miles an hour, and you didn’t get started until ten but you were riding four miles an hour. How long would it take for you to catch up with him so you could tell him what a great guy he was?”
As people recognized what I was asking there was an undercurrent of low chuckles. Good ol’ Sir Kay. He’s a hopeless geek, but at least he’s our geek.
When I finished my question and paused, it quieted for a moment. That made it easy to hear the answer from a table over on the far right.