Same place, same time except one day later, same beverage. Same lack of incense and magical utterances. I wasn’t sure if Morgan was trying to seduce me or not—if there’s one thing you can say about Morgan, it’s that she’s very subtle. But she wasn’t trying to enchant me.
As for me, I was leaving for Maleagans’ in the morning. I still had not a clue what I was going to do when I got there—when you got right down to it, that was why I was dithering.
But I was going nonetheless. I was sick to death of dithering. I was going to shoot the last arrow in my quiver, the strange phenomenon that good ideas sometimes just need a desperate deadline to pop into my head. And if nothing did, I’d be standing in front of Maleagans with my thumb up my ass scrambling to come up with an answer about why I was there.
I’d really wanted to talk to Morgan about a number of things. Our legacy, for one, although I wasn’t sure we hadn’t exhausted everything that could be said about the subject while skirting the idea that we were both pretty insignificant in the big picture. What ideas she might have about how I might get out of my oath so that I could woo her sister, for another.
But right now we were talking about the Grail.
“The trial by combat was so subtle that not a soul suspected the fight was rigged.” Morgan accepted my compliment with a tiny bow of her head and just the slightest flutter of her long lashes. “And not having any idea what or how or when something was going to happen, I couldn’t give it away either. But I’ll have to admit, there were a lot of anxious moments there.”
“And not totally unjustified, Kay. I had to trust in your skill to stay alive long enough that it wouldn’t look like he took a dive. Fortunately, you validated my faith in you. Here, let me see that pretty bauble we won.”
I pulled the Not-So-Holy Grail out and handed it to her. I’d taken to carrying it around in a soft leather bag with a thong tie. Sure, it could get dented in there. But there weren’t as many sharp corners as the silver chest had, which is important when you’re travelling by horseback. Plus it demystified it some.
“Big hunk of glorious gaudiness, isn’t it?” Morgan ran her fingers over the engraving and the inset jewels. “Those stones are pretty pricy all by themselves. Wonder how Ignatius came to possess such a thing?”
“The Church in Rome reputedly has a lot of money. Maybe they gave him some to fund the conversion of the pagan court of King Arthur to Christianity. I’d ask him myself, but by the time I get back to Camelot, whenever that might be, he’ll be gone. Arthur banished him.”
“My brother always did have a soft heart for everyone except his youngest sister. The bastard.” Morgan winked. “Except in his case, I suppose ‘bastard’ isn’t much of an insult, since it’s the truth.” She held up the Faux Grail again, which did indeed catch the fading rays of sunlight from the window and reflect them about. “Pretty damned fine craftsmanship. No wonder the ignorant are all impressed. Even if it doesn’t look a bit like the Grail.”
“I agree. The Grail, if it exists, would likely be a crude pottery cup. Although nobody wants to hear that.”
Morgan gave me a funny look. “Oh, it exists. And it’s certainly not crude pottery, although it’s not gold either.”
I was dumbfounded at her words. “You’ve actually seen it? How? Where?”
“You know, I don’t think I’ll tell you that. That would spoil a perfectly good quest, and to what end?”
Her eyes twinkled, and if the bards could see the nefarious grin on her lips, her legacy 1500 years from now would be screwed for sure. If it wasn’t already. “I have the most wicked idea. The next time I get to spend a few nights with Galahad, I’ll implant the suggestion about where to find it. He is the Grail Knight after all. Oh, how delicious!”
I had to admit, that was pretty clever. Particularly if your life was dedicated to an incongruous sort of chaos without a lot of concern about who got hurt.
“Well, at least tell me what it looks like, so I’ll recognize it when Galahad comes parading home with it.”
“It’s been a half dozen years, but I remember it pretty well. It’s not all that impressive, but it made an impression on me nevertheless. A graceful goblet, of a style I’ve not seen before. It’s made of a heavy metal like silver, but with a much duller—and much darker—sheen. The stem is thin, with two plain inlaid bands of a different metal that looked a little like gold but not really. Plus the top edge had an inlaid pattern of the same stuff. Oh, and there were runes worked into the stem. A very strange, very foreign feel.”
“Probably made on Atlantis,” I suggested, tongue firmly in cheek. “Still, I wonder how Jesus came to possess such a thing. If indeed, it was his.”
Even as I spoke, Morgan’s description tweaked a deep memory from way back in my subconscious. “You know, I’ve seen it. Merlin drank from it on occasion. I asked him about it, but he told me to mind my own business in a way that made me drop the subject. I thought his reaction a bit strange, but forgot about it and went on to more important things. Like algebra.”
“It was indeed Merlin who brought it to Britain. And a jealous lover who stole it from his possessions after he died. But that is another story for another day.”
She refused to tell me any more, despite how cleverly I came back to the topic. So after awhile I buried my curiosity—after all, I was certain I’d be by here again—and went on to a more burning subject: how to get around my oath so I could woo her sister.
Not that Morgan was particularly helpful there. Her attitude was: “Just break the damned oath, Kay. It’s only words.”
“I can’t, Morgan. It’s one of the few things left that I hold sacred. And no, I can’t explain exactly why. But I do.”
“Or here’s another idea. You say Elaine is committed to stay there as a tutor until the girls are wed? Then marry them off. They’re old enough to be wed, even if they’re not old enough to consummate it yet. Arthur will go along with it. He doesn’t mind discomforting women for the greater good. Like father, like son, you know.
Even without the bitterness and the hurt in Morgan’s voice, I would have been horrified at the idea. “That’s even worse. They’re little girls. I couldn’t just use them like that.”
Morgan laughed. “Of course you couldn’t. I wouldn’t have suggested it if I thought you might actually do it. But you’re too naive to think that way, and too good inside to hurt innocents. That’s almost certainly why I love you so.”
I only thought I was dumbfounded before. Her words whacked me between the eyes, like a steer destined for dinner. I. Love. You. So.
Morgan? Was she toying with me in a totally new way? Did she mean love like you do your brother? Is it possible she literally meant what she was saying?
Morgan chuckled. “Don’t look so moonstruck. Of course I love you. Are you really that blind, Kay?”
“How can you possibly love me, Morgan? You hardly know me.”
“I know you a lot better than you know my sister, you idiot. What did you think, that it was either love at first sight or it took years to happen?”
I hadn’t an answer to that, of course. I didn’t know the first thing about love. And it seemed a little late in the game to be guessing.
“You’re the only man I’ve ever known who didn’t either want to use me to gain power or get between my legs. The only one. Even Gawain, the one man I’ve ever truly loved before and the father of my son. He treated me better than any man ever has, before or since. But ultimately, he was just doing it to get under my skirt.”
The speed of her revelations had my head spinning. Gawain was the father of Morgan’s son, the young king of Gore, not Uriens? Gawain was the only man Morgan had ever loved ‘before?’ Before what? Before me, I could only assume. I tried desperately to think of something suave to say, but my mind was totally blank.
“But not you,” Morgan continued. “You come to visit me just to talk, because you like talking to me. And I know that talking to me isn’t just an excuse to get me in bed, because when I offer you turn me down. Do you know how many men have ever turned me down before? None. You bastard.” She swatted me, but ever so lightly.
Morgan drained what was left in her wine cup, setting it down on the table with a little more force than necessary. Then she rose in one of those totally graceful, totally fluid movements that were another of her unique characteristics and glided over to the window. I’d observed a lot of graceful women before—well, perhaps not a lot, but at least a dozen—yet I’d never seen anyone who could move like Morgan. It was as if she became one with the air whenever she wished to float, and then solidified again.
Morgan stood there staring out the window. After a while, I realized she was weeping. I couldn’t hear her, so I’m not sure how I knew. But I did. That served to get my brain out of its fog. When a woman is crying, a man is supposed to comfort her. Even I, near the bottom of the list of men who are familiar with women, knew that. And so I did. I walked over behind her and put my arms around her.
Morgan made no attempt to hide her tears. She laid her head back on my shoulder and put her hands on my arms.
“Why the hell couldn’t my brother have married me off to you, instead of that pig Uriens? His half sister and his foster brother. It has a certain wry symbolism to it, not to mention a tantalizing suggestion of incest which would appeal to his sense of humor. Oh, wait. I forgot. It was really Guinevere, and she has no sense of humor.”
I discovered, to my surprise, that my own cheeks were wet. I hadn’t wept in going on forty years. Knights don’t cry, and boys who are destined to become knights learn that very early or have it beaten out of them. Still, I made no effort to hide my emotions. Cold-hearted witches who were the king’s half-sister didn’t cry either, and we weren’t likely to out each other’s weakness.
I was still scrambling for something appropriate to say, but at least my brain had finally engaged. “I do like talking to you, Morgan. I probably love you, if I knew enough about love to understand what that even means. You’re by far the most fascinating woman I’ve ever met.” I kissed the top of her head. “Not to mention the sexiest.”
“Then stay. I’ll shut down my little Happy Camp and send the campers back home. It’s close enough to Camelot, you can share time between here and there. Who knows, the king might sanction our union and we can make it official. Raise a couple of brats who are the smartest kids the world has even known.”
I could not even begin to process these radical ideas as fast as Morgan was spouting them out. All I could do was to hold her tighter and hang on for dear life. Kids of my own? I’d never even considered such a thing. It was charming, in a way, and at the same time befuddling. And terrifying.
The tears were streaming down her cheeks now, and she made no effort to hide or stem them. “A lovely little fantasy, yes?
“But you love my sister instead.”
A moan of utter despair erupted from the depths of my soul. Up until two months ago, I’d never met a woman that captured my interest, and thus hadn’t experienced either the joy or the anguish of love. And now this?”
Morgan let go of my arms, stepped out of my embrace, and turned to face me. She put both hands in front of her forehead with the fingertips slightly overlapped, then slowly moved them down her face while speaking four of those words I couldn’t understand. When her hands cleared her chin, her cheeks were dry and her eyes were bright with no hint of redness.
Now that’s a useful spell, I thought but had enough impulse control not to say out loud.
“Well, nobody ever said life is fair. So get off your ass and go win my sister.”
There was nothing to say to that, suave or not. So I went for humor instead. I passed my fingers in front of my face like Morgan had done, intoning “Higgledy Piggledy, Itchyco Park.” Then I touched my cheek to confirm that it was still wet, pretended to be surprised, and tried the whole thing again. Finally I gave up and wiped my eyes on my sleeve.
“Damn. I never could get that right.”
My clowning succeeding in drawing a laugh from Morgan. “Or maybe I love you because you’re so witty.” She kissed her finger and touched me on the lips. “I have to choose a new bed partner for tonight, and not one of the lot is witty in the slightest. Agravain least of all. I should invite him to my bed tonight anyway, if he slinks back in before then. Sooth his shattered ego, while giving you something to think about while you’re out sleeping on the ground.”
“Don’t sooth is ego too much. He’ll be out to kill me soon enough to avenge his humiliation as it is.”
“Oh, Agravain’s fear is permanent. So you don’t have to look over your shoulder for him ever again. Consider it an engagement present. I can always take it back if you don’t become engaged to one of us.”
Morgan shuddered. “Don’t think I could stomach Agravain’s pathetic excuse for foreplay anyway, even to discomfort you. Perhaps I’ll sleep alone in your honor. Haven’t done that in a while.”
“You’re really throwing me out before morning?”
“Indeed. Before dinner, even. You need to get going.”
“And turning down my proposal isn’t? Well, it’ll probably still be good if you discover Elaine’s not who you’ve built her up to be and decide to come back. As long as you don’t wait too long.”
Morgan floated over to a chest and rummaged around in it for a few moments. She returned with a sachet on a leather thong, which she hung around my neck. “Your honor is going to ultimately force you to challenge Maleagens. This charm may keep you safe during that battle.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed me on the lips, lingering just long enough to let me know that she meant it. “Or perhaps not. Perhaps I’m greedy and vengeful and would rather you die than belong to someone else.”
She ushered me to her door and out of her chamber.
“But you’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out. Goodbye, dear Kay. And good luck.”