The guard, whom I didn’t recognize, let us into Maleagans’ stronghold without a delay or an insult. Rood must have still been consigned to the late shift.
Oswald and I had indeed spent the previous night sleeping on the ground, followed by a little extra time practicing the knightly arts in the morning. After all, we didn’t want to get to the Castle Malodorous too early; there’s only so much bad taste that a man can stomach in a day.
“So, Oswald,” I asked him as we rode the last few miles leading up to the castle. “Father Gascon says you’re the cleverest lad he’s ever known. Have you come up with any new ideas about what I should do?”
“I’m sorry you said that, Sire. My strategy was to steal her myself, ride away during the night, and then present her to you when you get back to Camelot. But since you’ve said I’m clever, well, now you would be using your cleverness to win the princess. So you’ve ruined my plan. Unless you fire me as your squire, of course.”
Every time I had a conversation with Oswald, I was more and more convinced Father Gascon had been right.
We paid our respects to the count and were inevitably invited to dinner, which was a lumpy mush of overcooked grain and turnips. On closer examination, the lumps turned out to be stringy bits of meat, although what manner of beast had given up his life to enrich the gruel was impossible to discern. Fortunately, I suppose, the ale had such a strong, sour aftertaste that swilling it around on the tongue replaced most of the rancidity of the stew. I spent the meal alternating bad flavors in my mouth while the image of Sir Maleagans, nobler-than-life if a bit misshapen, looked down benevolently from the bad tapestry before me.
“How much do you get out into the world at large, Count Maleagans?”
“Leave home? Very little any more. I have to tour my holdings on occasion to keep my tenants honest and diligent. But really, why leave? ‘A man’s home is his castle,’ it is said, and I insist that the opposite is true as well.”
“Why? To sample the variety and diversity of foods from other locales, for one thing.”
Maleagans dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “The truth, Kay, is that I suffered a blow on the head during a fight long ago, and it caused me to lose most of my sense of taste.” Fool would have jumped all over that opportunity for a harsh joke, but I, ever the diplomat, just let it lie. “Strong flavors like boar and onions are about all I can even taste. So I really don’t care all that much about food.”
I could court the Princess Elaine by becoming the seneschal of a man with no sense of taste? If I went to Father Ignatius’ version of hell when I died, I would expect no worse a fate.
“So how did that Grail quest you were on the last time you came bothering me work out?”
“Galahad found a magnificent cup buried on Glastonbury Tor. Father Ignatius swore it was the Holy Grail he’d been dreaming about and demanded that Arthur not only build a suitable shrine to hold it, but also declare Christianity to be the only lawful religion of the realm. Seemed highly suspicious, though. So I demanded a trial by combat and proved that it was not the true Holy Grail.”
Maleagans peered at me through narrowed eyes. “You demanded a trial by combat and won? Who was your opponent, the priest?”
“Nay, Count. It was the Grail Knight himself, Sir Galahad.”
Maleagans chewed another mouthful of gruel while he thought that over. “Well, shit happens, I suppose.”
“The King awarded me the dishonored cup for my victory. Would you care to see it?” Maleagans nodded.
This was my only new idea, so I had waited until hopefully the right moment to reveal the surprise. Now I reached into the leather sack and dramatically withdrew the Faux Grail. True to the brilliance of the goldsmith who had crafted it, the polished bowl gathered the light from the candles scattered around the table and reflected it about the room.
“That’s a right pretty chunk of metal.” The count didn’t seem all that impressed, despite his words. Well, as he’d proclaimed himself, a blow on the head had caused him to lose his sense of taste. “What do you suppose a thing like that is worth?”
“I have no idea. But what I’m hoping is that its value is equal to one princess. Because I have come to offer it to you in exchange for releasing me from my vow and allowing me to court the Princess Elaine.” I uttered those words in a rather offhand way, hoping not to give away just what part of my life they represented.
Maleagans narrowed his eyes and stared at me again. That, plus the pointed goatee he sported, made him look decidedly evil. Although perhaps he was just affected by poor vision up close, as I was.
“Nay, the bards all tell that a princess is priceless. But I’ll exchange it for an hour of her company.”
“An hour?” Despite years of practice, my anguished leaked into both voice and expression. On one hand, as I cared nothing for the cup, an hour with Elaine was indeed worth more. But on the other, it was all I had. Swapping it for an hour’s worth of memories, however grand, didn’t seem like a good bargain.
“Aha. I get it.” My voice was back under tight control, although I was pretty sure Maleagans hadn’t missed my slip. “I’d momentarily forgotten the tale of you acquiring the two barrels of dye of Byzantium and what a shrewd negotiator you are. So you toss out a ridiculously low figure, hoping to split the difference between my price and yours. But what is halfway between a lifetime and a day? Well, I suppose that would depend on how old one was.” I drank the tiniest sip of the sour ale I could manage to keep my tongue lubricated. “I couldn’t possibly accept anything less than a year.”
“A year? In exchange for interrupting my daughters’ education for a year, you’d give me this bauble?” Maleagans was trying hard not to show his interest, but I detected that my offer might actually hold some appeal “Well, to be polite, I’ll consider.”
A mere year, albeit filled with unimaginable joy. But would the hours fly by, with the bitterness of our upcoming parting coloring our days together. Was I willing?
What would the clever Oswald do in my place? I recalled his words when counseling that we take up this mad affair in the first place: ‘On the road, Sire, anything can happen. A paltry quest can become a great adventure.’ And anything can happen in a year as well.
I came to that conclusion about the same time that Maleagans did.
“But a lot can happen in a year, Kay. Things aren’t stable, like they were under Uther. My father was his man, you know. Did I ever tell you I got to meet him? Right here, when I was maybe seven.”
The count pushed his seat back and looked off in the distance. “Uther was a huge bear of a man. Towered over my father, with a sword so large that only he could wield it. He dressed in skins, wolf hides with the heads left on sewn together, so that there were snarling teeth everywhere. I couldn’t take my eyes off that cloak. I don’t know which terrified me more, the high king or the grinning wolves.”
Maleagans signaled for a servant to refill his cup and mine. “The years after Uther died were tough. We needed to band together to protect ourselves from the Saxons, but the nobles were more jealous of each other than frightened of the invaders. And then Arthur came along. Drew the sword from the stone, proclaimed himself king, and demanded that father bend his knee to him. Demanded! Went to war to force those who didn’t.”
“That’s how he finally managed to defeat the Saxons, Count Maleagans. By uniting the whole of the realm against them.”
“Aye, and at what cost? He came back from Mount Baden to that cold blonde beauty that he can’t manage to knock up and won’t put aside and started making laws instead of heirs. Sticking his nose into my business instead of his privy parts into his own. Even going so far as to tell me how to treat my peasants. What kind of bullshit new world order is that? This. Is. My. Land!” The count pounded his fist on the table with each word, hard enough to make the bowls and mugs jump. “What’s next? Calling everyone together and have them vote on what we’re having for breakfast?”
There was nothing to be gained and much to be lost by responding. Instead, I held his gaze steadily, projecting all the calm I could.
“If you take Elaine to Camelot, Kay, before the year is out, Arthur will pass a law saying that any member of his family must live at court unless personally excused. With all oaths and agreements to the contrary declared void. You know very well that will happen, don’t you?”
I hadn’t actually given the exact details much thought, since the ‘one year with Elaine’ idea was only minutes old. But Arthur’s penchant for meddling was exactly the reason I hadn’t told him about my infatuation already.
“You may be right,” I admitted. “Your only protection would be that my oath would still prevent me from taking advantage of Arthur’s new law. But you have no reason to trust me, although I’ve been true to my word so far.”
That mollified Maleagans somewhat. “Still, it is a very pretty cup.” He picked up the Faux Grail and held it at arms’ length, rotating it so that spots of light danced on his face and arms. It was truly an amazing piece of craftsmanship. If I’d been ignorant and superstitious, I’d have absolutely believed it to be Holy.
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” he finally pronounced. “I’m going to sit here in the Great Hall of my own castle for another hour and drink some ale out of this pretty little cup. During that hour, you may talk to the Princess.” His laugh had a hint of evil in it. “Although it may make parting just that much more difficult. If so, too bad. I’ll send Rood as a chaperone to make sure that you do nothing unseemly.”
I was too excited about the prospect of seeing Elaine to pay any attention to the insult.