Despite my cavalier attitude—I was entitled to be somewhat cavalier, since I rode a horse in my primary occupation—I was worried about how Arthur might react. He’s far more open-minded than any other king I’ve ever met, but he’s still a king. When you’re king, there’s no pressure for your ideas and beliefs to be logical. They don’t have to make sense: you get to have them anyway. And the gap between our social standing and my own—Elaine a princess, I a mere knight—would be an affront to the accepted group mores.
On the other hand, Arthur liked to poke a stick in the eye of accepted standards.
Truth be told, I was more worried about Guinevere. No doubt about it—she was a great queen. The perfect complement to Arthur, and a strong proponent of her own causes. I had no doubt that she would be remembered as beloved 1500 years in the future. But she had a petty streak that had grown as she’d gotten older. This whole thing with Morgan le Fay was a perfect example. If Morgan’s side of the story was true—and after the time we’d spent together, I believed her implicitly—Guinevere had gone out of her way to hurt Morgan deeply. Twice. For no more valid reason that jealousy because another woman was more comely. Did the pressures of being Arthur’s wife compel her actions in the same way that Lancelot was driven to be the best knight?
Plus the affair with Lancelot made her even scarier. What manner of demon possessed Guinevere to betray the King with his best knight? Could it possibly be mere uncontrollable love? Having experienced a brief taste of love myself, I gave that theory at least some credence. But for whatever reason, it displayed a Loki-may-care attitude that was dangerous. Lancelot and Guinevere had to know they were going to get caught. Their secret became less so with every passing day (not to mention with every knight that returned from Morgan’s Valley of No Return).
And if that weren’t enough, there was the whole radical idea of teaching girls to read. A knight wedding a princess pricked at the social order; educating women hacked it to kindling with a Saxon battleaxe. Against all of that, what weighed the mere wrath of a seneschal and the threat of bad soup? Even at my vengeful worst, the food would still be better than what the denizens of the Castle Malodorous ate. Besides, now that I’d demonstrated that the kitchen could run smoothly without me being there every day, it was but a small leap to promoting cook and slapping me in the dungeon.
So what was the fallback position? Leave Camelot and live with Elaine in unmarried bliss? Commute?
With a month before I was healed enough to ride, the one thing we had was plenty of time to figure out the best way to present our proposals. Elaine and I spent virtually every hour together when she wasn’t tutoring the girls. The best month of my life, hands down. When we finally rode out of the Castle Malodorous, there were two people in the whole of Britain who could do long division. Three, if you counted George Foster.
I sent Oswald on a short leave to inform Arthur of my progress—quite coincidentally, allowing him to pay a visit to Lisle. When he returned, he surprised us both by bringing the finches. Elaine was delighted all out of proportion to what I’d spent on the gift. She gave Oswald a gold brooch to wear on his cloak and set the healing of my ribs back several days.
Elaine and I finally agreed to the strategy of presenting both ideas—our desire to wed and our grand scheme for opening a school—to Arthur at the feast he would be certain to throw in our honor the night we arrived at Camelot. We decided there was less chance of both being rejected if they came at the same time. Plus there would be other guests there, so throwing a tantrum would be unlikely. I hoped. Needless to say, I’d sent Arthur a message informing him when we would be arriving. It was never a good idea to surprise him about things like that. Probably wasn’t a good idea to surprise him about my wish to wed his sister either, but some things you just have to say in person.
Our first indication that things might not be so bad was finding Arthur standing in the courtyard to greet us when we rode in rather than waiting in the Great Hall for a formal introduction. When I presented Elaine to her half brother, they hugged with a surprising display of warmth that appeared authentic.
“If you can believe it, Kay, I’ve never even met my own sister before. How can that be? I’m the most powerful man on this island of ours, and married to the most powerful person.” He glanced at Guinevere out the corner of his eyes, who granted him a smile for his witticism. “And yet somehow I’ve managed to miss out on this. I owe you a large debt of gratitude for restoring her to me.” He kissed Elaine on the cheek and took her hand. “You look a lot like Mother. I’m looking forward to hearing all about you at dinner tonight.”
As much of a stir as Elaine made, at the welcoming feast it was Maleagans who stole the show. Or rather Maleagans’ party, consisting of Lady Lorena whose swelling belly was just starting to bulge, two utterly charming little girls perfectly dressed in white with flowers around their necks and in their hair, a hovering nanny who just happened to be the King’s long lost half sister, and one white fluffy dog sporting a blue ribbon. The girls curtsied as they presented the mutt to Arthur. “Here is your dog, your Majesty,” Hilda spoke with the gravity only a seven-year-old can bring to such a ludicrous situation. “We brought her so you could see how faithfully Glenda and I have cared for her.”
Arthur shot me a puzzled look. “Miffy, Sire. Lady Lorena’s brachet. I purchased it on your behalf under the law of eminent domain. Count Maleagans’ daughters were charged with keeping it for you.” As I was speaking, Elaine surreptitiously took her brother’s hand and slipped him a pair of gold chains with a small charm on each that we’d brought for the occasion.
Arthur never missed a beat. Well, he’d had a quarter century to practice the fine art of being king. “Ah, Miffy. You are looking particularly fine today. Last I’d heard, you were cast in a dungeon and fed only stale bread and moat water.” He winked at Lady Lorena, who had the grace to blush, before scratching the little dog behind the ears. Miffy responded politely if enthusiastically by licking Arthur’s hand, which probably had residual juices from the haunch of beef Cook had prepared. “It seems that you are none the worse for your experiences.”
Arthur stood and put on his best I-am-the-king face. “Well done, Lady Hilda and Lady Glenda. I hereby appoint you as the King’s Own Keepers of the Brachet. An appointment for life, and for the lives of your children after you.” He placed one of the chains around each girl’s neck as he gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“Count Maleagans.” Arthur reached across Guinevere to clasp his hand. “I must commend you on these two lovely daughters of yours.”
I half expected Maleagans’ ‘you’re half the king your father was’ speech before the night was out, but he was on his best behavior. “Your words are too kind, Majesty. I confess that I had little to do with that, other than the siring itself. My wife died giving birth to Glenda, I am sad to say. Most of their rearing has been done by the princess. She is magnificent with them, and a first rate teacher. Hilda can already read Latin better than I can, although I am ashamed to admit that neither of them can sew a straight stitch for shit.”
“Your daughters can read Latin?” Arthur sounded as surprised as I had been.
Well, strike while the iron is hot. “Your sister is a very learned woman, Sire. Like none other I’ve ever met. And her quickness of wit rivals my own, if I might say such a thing myself. If I asked her a question about riding out in the morning at three miles per hour and whatnot, I have full confidence she would give the correct answer.”
Arthur shook his head, but his smile belied any real dismay.
“And so considering that, I have two requests of thee.” I stood and placed my hand lightly on Elaine’s shoulder; she reached up and rested her hand on mine. “The first request is the hand of your sister in marriage.”
The hall was suddenly very quiet. But before Arthur had a chance to consider, much less answer, I continued on with, “Oh, and here’s the other thing.” And launched into an explanation of the school that we hoped to open, with Elaine adding details between my arguments.
The conversations that had ceased around the room rose to a hubbub as people began to realize that we were talking about a school that taught girls as well as boys. It’s a good thing Ignatius had been banished; he’d have been on his feet calling the dead god’s father’s wrath down on us for even thinking such heresy.
After we’d finished our pitch, Arthur sat back, fingering his beard, eyes narrowed in thought. No doubt cataloging all the things that could go wrong with such a radical scheme. Deciding which would be best to use as the reason to say no. Or perhaps weighing the downside of having a permanently pissed off seneschal. Maybe even contemplating firing me and promoting Cook in my stead, so he could have his cake and something fitting to eat as well (if she hadn’t been a woman, that is).
That’s when Guinevere spoke up. “I’d like to learn to read. I think all girls should.”
And that was that.
Curiously, the question of our marriage never came up. At least in public. Until later, as the feasting and drinking were drawing to a close, Arthur motioned for me and Elaine to swap seats.
“So my foster brother is going to be my brother-in-law. How ironic. Let us drink a toast to that.”
I hadn’t been using the less-than-holy grail for the festivities, but I got it out now and offered it to Arthur. A steward filled it plus topped off my own mug, and we raised our cups and drank deeply.
“I have only one question. Are you sure you know what you’re doing? I don’t seem to have a lot of luck when it comes to sisters. Morgause tricked me into siring a bastard that will probably be the death of me. And Morgan has been a constant burr under my saddle.”
Considering the stakes, I probably should have just nodded and let it go. But Arthur’s pronouncement offended me to the core. So rather than considering the risk, I thought fuck it and spoke exactly what I was feeling.
“I don’t really know Morgause, Sire. And certainly have never heard you admit that Mordred was your son before, although it’s common court gossip. But at the risk of royally pissing you off, I can say that you have deeply wronged Morgan. Her marriage to Uriens was a horror. But instead of being bitter, when he died she ran the kingdom of Gore efficiently as your faithful ally in her son’s stead. And then you took that away too. I guess the real question is: what do you have against Morgan?”
Arthur was taken aback, but hid it by taking a drink from the former grail and pausing to appreciate the cup before speaking.
“I just don’t trust her, Kay. And Guinevere doesn’t trust her, not one bit. Their enmity goes back a long way, although I don’t really understand what brought it on. But I will ponder on what you’ve said. I promise that much.”
I figured planting that seed was the best I could do and left it there. As I said, being King doesn’t mean that you’re either logical or right.
I turned back to Elaine, kissed her hand, and leaned in to speak without shouting over the noisy crowd. “The King has blessed our nuptials.”
Elaine smiled gently. “I never doubted it for a moment, dearest. Not even when you disappeared for months. She brushed her lips over mine before adding, “Just don’t ever fucking do that again.”
“And now I’d like to propose a toast of my own.” She raised her voice enough so Arthur could hear. “To the future Prince Kay.”
Arthur looked a little shocked, then nodded. “I like that. Prince Kay.” He turned and waved to his page, who hustled over to the herald, who sounded a blast on his horn that silenced the room.
Arthur lifted the former grail. “A toast, ladies and gentlemen. To the future Prince Kay.”
“Oh, Kay,” responded the crowd.