And then the Princess was off to teach noun declensions to her two young charges who were destined to save the world, leaving me lying in bed feeling sorry for myself. The pounding in my head and the savage stabbing by which my ribs reminded me that I wasn’t supposed to move around were nothing compared to how badly my feelings were hurt.
But gradually I calmed down enough to think rationally about what Elaine had said.
I will sleep with you, any time you ask. Oh Kay, how bad could that be? I mean, isn’t that what traditional marriage means for most men anyway?
Sex on request and raising the kids. But Elaine had already ruled children out. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what she’d meant when she declared, “Addition is more urgent than division, but multiplication, sadly, is no longer an option.” Well, if my life’s dream had been a gaggle of snotty-nosed rug rats underfoot, I could have accomplished that a long time ago. Gotten Arthur to grant me the hand of some minor nobleman’s young daughter and gotten on with it. Still could, for that matter.
But yes, during the last six weeks, riding hither and yon across the countryside and sleeping on the ground with thoughts of Elaine filling my imagination, I’d pictured her moving to Camelot and living like a normal married couple. The occasional leisurely morning in bed when duties didn’t demand otherwise, exchanging witticisms over breakfast, teaching her the mysteries of long division.
Ignatius’s Hell! If I’d been willing to abandon my oath to Arthur and move to the Castle Malodorous, I wouldn’t have had to risk my life. Didn’t that count for anything?
Even I recognized that what I was doing was whining.
I guess I could ride back and forth. With a good remount, the trip could easily be done in a day. Spend a day or two at Camelot, eating good food and playing chess with Gascon and flirting with Gilda while Oswald and Lisle do whatever lovestruck prepubescents do. Then ride hard for a day. Arrive just in time for a bad bowl of onion stew, which would seriously diminish the enjoyment of kissing my lady. Spend a day or two in intellectual and carnal delight with my bride. Actually, we wouldn’t even have to be married; she could just be my consort. A hard day in the saddle heading back toward Camelot.
We could even coin a new term for it. Hmm, how about ‘commute?’ From the Latin, ‘com’ meaning together, and ‘mute’ meaning you keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you.
Seems like it might get really old after awhile. But you never know.
OK, here’s another idea. Spend a couple of days in Camelot, then a leisurely ride to Morgan’s. Eat a delightful meal while watching the Happy Campers vie for her attention, then an evening in her bed. Rise late, another easy ride with the Princess at the end. Spend a day in the idle pursuits of love, and then do it in the other direction.
The mathematics of that option meant that I’d be spending as many nights in Morgan’s bed as in Elaine’s, but fewer days of hard riding. Or perhaps more truthfully, more days of hard riding but fewer on a horse.
I scolded myself for even entertaining such an idea, entertaining though it might be.
“Oswald! What should I do?”
My squire refused to even consider the idea of not marrying Elaine. “She’s royal, Sire. Princesses can’t be consorts like some other women can. The very mention of such a thing is dishonorable.”
“But she says she’s willing.”
“No doubt she is willing to sacrifice her name for you, Sire. She seems to be much taken by you. But you are absolutely not willing to sacrifice her name. Or shouldn’t be. That’s the difference.”
“And I don’t suppose I can just ride away and go back to what I was doing before I met her?”
“Running the kitchen at Camelot? I think you’ve outgrown that, don’t you Sire?”
“Does it make any difference that no matter what, you’re going to be seeing less of Lisle?”
“Elaine is a princess, the oldest half-sister of the high king. I’m an undersized, underage pipsqueak of a squire. My day will come in good time. Besides, if we slink back to Camelot and quit going out on quest, you won’t even need a squire, and I’ll end up being a page again.” He put on his best formal voice. “The Queen sends her compliments, Sir Kay, and would you be so kind as to attend her immediately?”
“Aha. So now we get down to the real reason.”
“If you need a better reason to marry Princess Elaine, you’re not as smart as I thought you were.”
That shut me up for good. So I went back to my mulling. Spending more time on what it might look like and less on feeling sorry for myself. And even less considering stopping over at Morgan’s.
Oswald didn’t go back to whatever he’d been doing before. He stood there watching me, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Either he had to take a piss or he had something to say that he didn’t really want to say. I let him stew in it for a bit, and then asked, “Yes?”
Oswald’s words came tumbling out. “Sire, I have to confess my misdeed to you, even if it means that you dismiss me as your squire. While we were armoring you for your duel with Maleagans, I tucked Morgan’s amulet in your baldric.”
I couldn’t speak coherently for a minute or two. Was that why I was alive? Up until that point, I hadn’t truly understood why Maleagans hadn’t slain me, as was both custom and his right. But if it had been magic that stayed his hand, why his comment, “Kay, you poor bloody fool?” Had the amulet enabled him to glimpse into the future, and letting me live was less merciful than finishing me off? Somehow, that didn’t ring true either.
I guess if I really wanted to know I could ask him. Or I could just leave it as one of those unexplained mysteries of life. Even we mathematical, logical extremists need a few of those.
“So tell me, squire. Was what you did a dishonorable deed?”
Oswald didn’t hesitate. “No, Sire. A squire’s most important responsibility is keeping his knight alive. I didn’t break any oath, and neither did you.”
He pulled the amulet out from under his own shirt and lifted it over his head. Holding it reverently in his palm as if it were a relic, then laying it on my chest. “My only hesitation was that I didn’t understand why you hadn’t worn it on your own. I didn’t know whether your decision was borne out of mistrust for Morgan or some misguided sense of honor. But when I picked it up from the floor, it was warm. Like a message from the gods, or at least from Morgan.”
“Seems like sound reasoning to me. So you’re not fired. Hustle off to the training area and run through your morning workout. And then see if the Princess will attend me.”
“Yes, Sire.” Oswald’s formulistic answer couldn’t hide the joy in his voice. He spun and started for the door before my words stopped him.
“Oh, one other thing. Thank you.”
I could swear there was a little undisciplined skip in his step as he tore out the door.
* * * * *
“Oswald said you wanted to see me, Kay?”
Elaine’s face was totally neutral. Assuming nothing, I suppose.
“Help me up, please. A man can’t spend his life lolling abed, no matter what his physicians say.” I began to swing my feet toward the edge of the bed, and both Elaine and Oswald hurried to help. Well, it wasn’t the most painful thing I’d ever done. I discovered that by holding my breath and tightening my chest and stomach muscles, I could cut the agony in half. If I moved slowly enough.
An hour or two later, I was on my feet. Another hour or two later, my head had steadied enough for the floor to quit moving around. That’s when I put my hand on Oswald’s shoulder and knelt.
Elaine merely watched my insanity with bemused amusement.
“When a man’s heart is no longer his own, he is liable to act in a rash manner. But sometimes it is possible to think on something too much. And that would especially be true of people like you and I.”
I reached for her hand, which she gave me without any hint of reluctance.
“I accept your quest to revolutionize Britain two girls at a time as my own. I accept whatever conditions that implies, however many hours in the saddle. We’re pretty bright people—we’ll figure it out.
“So, Elaine, again I petition and entreat: will you marry me?”
Elaine’s face twisted from . . . what? Joy? Anguish? Relief? All of the above? She turned her head away, partially shielding her face with her hand. Was that a tear on her cheek? Almost too late, it occurred to me that it was ungentlemanly to watch, so I looked down at her other hand clutching at mine. And then I couldn’t resist rubbing it gently with my thumb and placing a hint of a kiss on her knuckle.
She made a sound that could have been a gasp or a suppressed laugh. But when she turned her face back to me it was once again stern, albeit marred with the tiniest hint of a smile.
“What seems truly rash is for you to commit to this bargain without sampling the merchandise. Are you sure you won’t be filled with regrets later?”
“It seems a thorough examination will require me to heal for some time. But if I am waiting on tenterhooks for your answer all those days and perhaps weeks, I am certain my condition will worsen instead of improving. So blind faith seems the more prudent option.” I caught a glimpse of Oswald blushing at our wordplay out the corner of my eye, although his posture was proper and unwavering. “But let us seek the sage advice of my squire, who is wise beyond his years. What should we do, Oswald?”
Oswald stepped the two paces between him and Elaine with his finest page’s strut and bowed low. “Our compliments to Her Majesty. We recommend that she accept our knight’s offer expeditiously so we can get him back in bed before he harms himself, as he seems determined to do.”
Elaine could keep a straight face no longer. “That is the soundest advice I’ve received in a year, dear Oswald. Kay, I accept your proposal, on the condition that you get yourself back in bed and stay there.”
“Yes, your majesty.”