What I wanted to do was to throw a red-faced, screaming tantrum, like a hungry baby snatched from its mother’s tit. But the little pebble of my brain that was working convinced the rest of me that not only would that be horribly unmanly, it wouldn’t do a lick of good. And it certainly wouldn’t impress Elaine. Her calm serenity was remarkable, she who had not been kissed in a quarter century.
The princess smiled as she planted a gentle kiss on her finger and laid it across my lips. Then she was gone.
I would be very old in a decade, when Elaine’s oath to Maleagans finally expired; she, even older.
The image of George Foster popped unexpectedly into my mind. He was more than a decade older than I, with not much time left on earth. And yet he had taken as his mate the Lady of the Lake, who was forbidden to have sex except on Beltane. True love is patient, Elaine had said. What right had I to complain?
Yeah, but he can talk with her the rest of the time. I could live with that arrangement, too. Spend 364 days each year in verbal foreplay, charming the princess so that by day number 365, she was so hot you could fry an egg on her thighs.
What a ludicrous image that was. I chuckled out loud despite my despair that I wouldn’t be able to negotiate an arrangement even that unfavorable.
The page led me back to the Great Hall, where my cup stood empty in front of my place. Maleagans watched me approach, a look of triumph stamped across his evil visage.
“Ho, Sir Kay. I trust you enjoyed your hour with the princess. I certainly savored drinking out of that fine vessel. Come back and visit me some time, perhaps I’ll feel generous and swap you another hour’s conversation in exchange for an hour of drinking like the nobles used to.”
“The nobles still drink that way, Count. They just don’t have quite as fine a vessel to drink from as this one. You’d be far better off to buy it for a year of the princess’s life than rent it piecemeal by the occasional hour.” Maleagans’ attitude had caused me to abandon all hope for a better deal and cling desperately to the last offer on the table before negotiations had stalled.
“Certainly, one might think that to be quite fair. Oh, my daughters dearly love their nanny, not even realizing that they are getting the finest education in all of Briton. But they could survive a year with a second-rate tutor, I think.” He reached over and caressed the Faux Grail with a finger, then drank deeply from his own poor cup.
I pressed a little. “I don’t think that it would have to be that dramatic. I’m certain that, as men of good faith, we could work something out better for them.”
“So, what you’re telling me is, if I was a reasonable man, I would jump at this offer. Which makes me wonder why you would offer it in the first place?”
I poured a little of the vinegary ale into the grail, swirled it around, and sipped. As I moved the cup, it did its catch-and-scatter-the-light trick effortlessly. I wondered what it was really worth in a place such as Rome where there was real money.
“Well, I’m certainly not happy with the deal. What man would readily agree to spend a year with his love, only to walk away in the end? But you drive such a hard bargain, Count Maleagans, I don’t think I can do better.”
I swirled the cup again, watching his eyes desire it.
Meanwhile my mind was racing, trying to come up with something that would tip the delicate balance. “Oh perhaps, the truth is much more mundane. What man, having spent a year with a woman, didn’t grow a little weary of her? Think back on his days of bachelorhood with fondness and longing, compared with years strung end-to-end with the same woman? It is our nature, is it not? The cunny is always pinker on the other side of the fence. I could be negotiating the perfect deal for a man: to have a year with his love, and then be forced by his own oath to give her up.”
Maleagans stared hard at me, as if looking deep into my soul. I shrugged with the most sincere disinterest I could feign and sipped from the cup.
“You’re the slipperiest man with words I’ve ever met, Kay. Put that damned cup away and stop trying to distract me.” I reluctantly downed the last swallow and stuffed the cup back in the sack with a sinking feeling.
“No, I believe the truth is, you’re lying. You’re counting on something happening in a year so that you don’t have to return the princess at all. You may be an honest man, Kay, but you’re been around Arthur too long.”
“Count Maleagans . . .”
Maleagans interrupted me by slamming his palm down on the table. “Our beloved king insists that might doesn’t make right, and perhaps in this day and age that is true. But this is equally true: laws don’t make right either. The king can pass any law he desires and claim that, because everybody has to follow it equally, it is just. But a king’s word does not make it so.”
The count rose to his feet, his anger growing. If I’d ever had a chance, I could feel it slipping away. Or more likely, I’d never had a real chance to start with. Some men are doomed to carry a grudge for life and feed it no matter how much it might hurt them. To my misfortunate, it appeared that Maleagans was one of those.
“And if by a stroke of the pen he can steal my fucking dog, by the gods, I’ll not give him the opportunity to do the same with my nanny.”
“If I recall, Count Maleagans, it wasn’t actually your dog. It was the Lady Lorena’s. But suppose I throw the dog into the deal? One magnificent cup for as long as there is an England and one fluffy mutt for the rest of its pampered life in exchange for one year with the princess?”
“I cannot deal with liars and untrustworthy men.”
When the bards tell their tales, things always happen in threes. The hero fights a black knight guarding a bridge who has already defeated two of the hero’s companions, and then a giant whose dungeons are filled with noble ladies, and finally a fire-breathing dragon. Often he dies from his wounds in the last battle.
Maybe some bard would make up a song about the brave Sir Kay and the long-suffering Princess Elaine. I’d fought for Arthur’s kingdom against determined, old-fashioned men like Maleagans who were determined to oppose the boy king, and managed to survive. I’d lived through seven bitter years of war against the Saxons, hard men I had to slay merely because they had the same desires for the same land that we did. And now, just as Morgan had foretold, I was going to fight for love.
Or more recently, I had fought two duels. One for truth in faith, one for gentler treatment of the young. And finally, one for love.
The final chapter of my life was going to make a hell of a saga.
Maleagans words gave me an excuse that would work as well as any. I slid my chair back slowly and rose to full height. “That is the second time you have called me a liar, Maleagans. I was generous enough to let it pass once, but not twice. I renounce my oath to you, and challenge you to a trial by combat to prove before god and man that I am not a liar, and for the right to court the Princess Elaine.”
The room echoed with silence. I presumed that, for once, all the gods I had insulted over kaffka throughout the years were too stunned to laugh at my folly.