After Nimue’s retinue departed, taking along all the answers to the million questions I had about higher mathematics and the future, there really wasn’t any reason to hang around Camelot. Well, I mean other than keeping up with the job of seneschal and running the place. But by now I’d firmly established that I didn’t have to be there all day, every day to accomplish that. Since Arthur had granted me the quest of the Royal Fucking Dogcatcher, I’d spent twenty-nine nights on the road—about half of those actually camping out under the stars—and only ten in my own bed. And surprisingly enough, unlike the first Grail Quest, I was actually enjoying it. Oh, I enjoy luxury as much as the next Knight-errant, I suppose. But Camelot had become old and stale for me.
And then there was Oswald’s company. Upbeat, curious, didn’t chatter when he didn’t have something to say. One could hardly ask for a better traveling companion.
Plus we ate pretty well on the road, compared to anybody else I knew. You couldn’t be in charge of feeding the royal court for thirteen years and not pick up a skill or two of your own unless you just weren’t paying attention. And while I might not be the greatest knight that ever lived, I’ve always paid attention to what was going on around me. I’d done it as a boy, and Merlin had encouraged it—even honed it, you might say—during the years I’d lived around him.
“Bring Elaine to Avalon for Beltane.” Maybe George had said that as a throwaway line, but I was treating it as a real invitation. A Beltane celebration headed by a druid is a serious, sexually-charged event; I could only imagine how it would be with the high priestess officiating. So now I had a deadline to accomplish winning the Princess. That was good. Not that I’m a serious procrastinator, but I confess to being a little slothful at times, and always work better with a deadline. I hoped it would kick my brain in gear to come up with a solution.
“We’re hitting the road on Thursday morning,” I informed Oswald. “That’ll give you three more days to work with Guardemaine and three more nights to speak your sweet nothings to the lovely Lisle.”
“How about tomorrow, Sire? We’ll have been here a week by then, which seems more than enough. I not only can feel myself getting soft, I can sense The Queen itching to inspect my fingernails.”
“Tomorrow it is, then.”
“Not to mention that Agravain is out there somewhere.”
No, I hadn’t forgotten Agravain. But he could be anywhere. Rushing off to find him was far more likely to take us in the wrong direction than accomplish the goal of finding him. I was as pissed off about the whole incident as Oswald was, but that didn’t make me quit using my head to make decisions. Now seeing any reason to rain on Oswald’s enthusiasm, however, I merely echoed, “Not to mention.”
Galahad caught me as I was sitting down to the evening meal. “Sir Kay, I was wondering if I could buy you an ale and have a word with you after dinner? I need some of your sage advice.” He looked troubled, and the bags under his eyes indicated that he might be having a little difficulty sleeping. Knowing the lad as I did, it probably wasn’t due to late night carousing, so I readily agreed.
It took him a while to get into his problem. Perhaps because he was reluctant to talk in front of Gascon, who I’d asked to join us, knowing he was wiser by far than I. But Galahad didn’t have much of a head for drinking, and by the middle of the second ale it all came tumbling out.
“When Arthur knighted me, he didn’t say anything about me being the Grail Knight or entitled to sit in the Siege Perilous. And I didn’t assume anything like that, until Father Ignatius announced publically that I was him and nobody disputed it. Anyway, a couple of days later, when nobody was in the Hall, I sat in it. I was so scared I could hardly breathe, but nothing happened to me. But now the Grail has been proven to be a fake. So how can I be entitled to the seat? I’m so mixed up, I can hardly sleep.”
“Whoa, Whoa. Slow down, my friend. Let’s think this through.”
When Guinevere’s father first had the Round Table made, at its public unveiling, Merlin had pronounced one of the seats to be the Siege Perilous. None but the ‘chosen knight’ was to sit in it, at his own peril. He’d even done a little demonstration: he invited anyone who thought he was special to try the chair. Gawain, young and brash—he was only nineteen at the time, and even more hotheaded than he is now—laughed, strutted over to the chair, and plopped down in it. There was a flash and a sort of explosion that propelled him out of the chair and rendered him senseless for several anxious minutes. Later, Merlin had one of the woodcutters carve and burn the words, ‘Siege Perilous’ into the back of the chair.
In the ensuing years, many tales and superstitions had grown up about the chair. Merlin had burned the words himself with fire that flew from his fingertips. A servant had stumbled, touched the back to catch his balance, and been instantly slain. The knight who sat in that chair would become Arthur’s heir—that interpretation flourished as the years passed without the queen producing any offspring. And after the first Grail Quest had ended in failure, the seat invariably became linked with the knight who would ultimately find the Holy Grail.
My personal belief is that Merlin had been making a little joke, while at the same time reminding the company that humility is an important trait for a Knight of the Round Table. No doubt he had cast a spell on the chair before his little demonstration. I suspected that no such spell remained, and that I too could sit in the chair without harm. But respecting Merlin, and knowing that in the company of knights I would never be ‘chosen’ for anything—unless the king needed an ark built, of course—I hadn’t tried it.
So what to tell Galahad?
“First of all, when Merlin established the Siege Perilous, he didn’t say anything about the Holy Grail,” I lectured Galahad. “He said that the seat was reserved for the ‘chosen knight.’ So obviously you are chosen for something.”
Gilda was just returning with a fresh pitcher. “Gilda. You’ve demonstrated great insight on a variety of subjects. If I told you that Galahad was the chosen knight, what would you say he was chosen for?”
“Him? Chosen to succeed his father as the greatest knight in the world, maybe? Chosen to find the Holy Grail, and that first little adventure was just a warm up to make the story better?” She ran her fingers through Galahad’s hair. “Or how about this? He was chosen to make Gilda the barmaid bounce and thrash around in her bed and feel like a young maiden again.” She bent over and gave Galahad a sloppy kiss full on the mouth, rendering him beet-red and speechless in one fell stroke.
“Oswald!” My squire had been sitting quietly at the next table over, presumably giving us a little privacy although I’m certain he’d heard the entire exchange. “If I told you that Galahad was the chosen knight, what would you say he was chosen for?”
Oswald put his hand to his temple and closed his eyes. Cheeky little bastard was getting too good at this playing-the-Fool act of his. Might need to take him down a peg or two. Maybe I’d make him swing a full-sized sword when we trained on the morrow. “Chosen above all others to complete the greatest quest in the history of Arthur’s reign. See if he’ll ride with us on our search to find kaffka, Sire.”
“Gascon. What do you say about the matter?”
‘What I say is that God moves in ways that are mysterious to the eyes of men.”
“Yes, I agree with that. But could you possibly be a little more specific?”
Gascon imitated Oswald’s pose with closed eyes and hand on temple, making everyone laugh. Those at the tables near ours quit pretending not to listen and turned to form an outer circle around us.
“I think God chose you to remind us that His ways are done in His time and not when it’s convenient for us. In particular, those among us wearing clerical garb who thought they could dictate God’s time. And I thank you for that, Galahad. Now that you’ve accomplished His first purpose, I think you will yet find the Holy Grail, when God wills it.”
“Y-y-you think I’ll find the Holy Grail, Father?”
“I do, son. Because you have humility, and innocence, and a purity of spirit that the rest of us seem to have lost. But,” he reached across the table and ruffled Galahad’s hair as Gilda had done, “if you plan to keep that innocence and purity of spirit long enough to succeed, you’re going to have to stay out of Gilda’s clutches.”
The pub exploded with laughter.
“So, twice chosen knight.” Gilda plopped herself down in Galahad’s lap with her arm around him and her lips close to his ear. “What’s it gonna be? Some old cup that nobody knows if it’s real or not, or the best cunny this side of the English Channel?”
Galahad leapt up out of his seat, almost dumping Gilda on the floor. But her arm around his neck allowed her to keep her feet until his reflexes kicked in and he caught her in time. Which put his hands in places he clearly hadn’t intended, deepening his blush until I feared that he might burst blood vessels. But innocent, pure of spirit, and overly susceptible to the debilitating effects of alcohol or not, Galahad was first and foremost noble to the core. He stepped back out of Gilda’s embrace, picked up his almost-full mug of ale, and upended it over his own head. Then, shaking his head to clear his thoughts—or perhaps, like a dog, to rid his hair of excess ale—he knelt down and took Gilda’s hand.
“Nay, fair lady. I am deeply honored by thy offer, but alas, it cannot be.”
Gilda looked down at Galahad with astonishment—and undisguised admiration. If I were a betting man, I would have laid down two gold pieces that before the night was out, she would be the ultimate victor in this contest.
But innocence and purity of spirit are so rare in my world. I stepped up on the bench, placing my fingers on my temple and closing my eyes as Oswald and Garcon had done, before speaking.
“She offered her honor, he honored her offer, and all night long he was off her and on her.”
That effectively ended the seriousness of the evening. Galahad scurried out the door and fled into the night. Gilda swatted me half-heartedly.
“Oh, Kay! Having robbed me of my game and spooked my prey, are you volunteering to take his place?”
My thoughts turned back to the night before Oswald and I had left on our own Grail quest. Back to when Gilda showed a glimpse of an intellect normally hidden from the sight of man. I thought it only fair to at least consider her offer for a moment. But I didn’t have enough purity of spirit that I could afford to squander any.
So, with a touch more reluctance than I expected, I got down on my knee and took her hand as Galahad had done.
“Nay, fair lady. I too am deeply honored by thy offer, but alas, it also cannot be.”
“Sweet puppies of Arwan. What does a girl have to do to get laid around here? Father?”
Gascon got as far as one knee before Gilda threw up her hands and stormed back to the bar. I didn’t bother to tell her that, despite not having sampled the wares personally, I was certain she wasn’t even the best cunny that Galahad had partaken of in the last fortnight, much less on this side of the English Channel. Everyone needs their delusions.