Radenth 25, 1013
There were nights when a man just needed a drink. That went double for a zombie.
Accolon shuffled over the brick-paved walk, glad of the darkness, glad of the fact that even in the light of the streetlamps, barely anyone was around to notice him. He liked the Queen’s Arms. It had been the first pub patronized by the nobles of Albion, probably because Lancelot had thoroughly enjoyed the look on Arthur’s face whenever he said he was going to spend the evening “in the Queen’s Arms.” That used to make even Sir Bors snicker, and Lot and Pellinore used to have to hide their mouths behind their hands or dive into a particularly dry legal text so as to not be seen smiling.
The nobles weren’t much for pub-hopping anymore. The joke probably hadn’t caught on with the younger generation yet — a night in the Queen’s arms was more gross than funny. Someday, though, when Tom was King, Accolon expected the joke to come back. Hell, he hoped it would: he had told Kay all those old stories with a reason.
Still, nowadays, Accolon was one of the only gentlemen who went to the pub. That suited him fine. He wasn’t quite a regular, but he was a customer of old enough standing that the staff saw to it that he wasn’t bothered. And the rest of the clientele were just far enough below where Accolon was now and just far enough above where he started that they could, sort of, meet in the middle. Plus the place was quiet.
… Or at least, Accolon realized as he opened the door and a barrage of singing slammed into him, it was usually quiet.
He recognized a few of the men in the crowd. There was Juan Reamon, the royal reeve; Esperaunce Barnabe, the trainer of the knights; even that blasted John Barber, who might have been a perfectly kind and decent person … except he worked for Mordred and presumably it was by his own free choice, so he probably wasn’t. There were a couple of other men he recognized, too, in that way you recognized people who frequented the same pub you did. He supposed it could be called a nodding acquaintance, but Accolon was relatively certain that in order for the “acquaintance” part to count, you had to do more than nod. Knowing each other’s names would have been a good start.
But none of them were the ones he cared about. He was more interested in the man at the center of it all: a man with long, curled gray hair, a bearing that was much straighter than any man with that color hair had a right to have, and … leather hosen? Accolon tried not to shudder in his loose trews. He had bad enough luck with regular wool; he couldn’t imagine leather.
And … he was the man leading the song.
“Oh, the captain had a daughter / Who fell into the water …”
Accolon turned his head to one side (well, it usually sort of ended up that way when he was walking, but this was deliberate) and listened.
“We heard her squeal,” the old man sang out, “and knew an eel / Had found her sexual quarter!”
The other men burst out laughing. Accolon blinked. He’d thought he’d had the measure of the Queen’s Arms pretty well. Except when the nobles were around to raise hell, it was the sort of pub that men came to by themselves or perhaps with one or two friends, nursed their drinks quietly, and went home. Accolon liked that. It certainly wasn’t the kind of place where gray-haired strangers started singing in the midst of the pub and everyone else laughed along.
“Now, the chorus, boys! Sing it with me!”
… Or got everybody else to sing along, for that matter. But to judge by the amount of nervous throat-clearing and unsure smiles back and forth, that was exactly what these men were planning to do.
“‘Twas on the good ship Venus,” the gray-haired man started.
The rest of the men joined in: “By Wright you should have seen us / The figurehead was a whore in bed …”
The volume rose to a crescendo for the last line. “And the mast the Captain’s penis!”
“Cap’n, Cap’n, good Lord, how many times do I have to tell it to you scurvy landlubber dogs!” the gray-haired man railed. It was hard to tell just how serious he was.
“But ‘captain’ fits in better with the meter!” cried out the man in the back with a light-blue jacket.
“Meter? Meter? This is a bawdy sea verse! We don’t care about the meter! Now, one last time, my lads, with feeling — and get it right this time!”
“‘Twas on the good ship Venus,” the men sang — and kept singing.
Fascinating, Accolon thought.
When they finished — getting “Cap’n” right this time, Accolon noticed — the old man straightened and stretched. “Well, well–not bad, not bad, for a bunch of landlubbers. You all practice that, now, and when I come back I’ll let you know all about Carter the first mate and all the rest of ’em.” He sighed. “My Lord, I had a good crew in those days.”
The men laughed, although Accolon could detect a hint of hesitation among them, all clearly wondering whether this man was serious. They dispersed, some to the bar, some to the couches, some upstairs.
And the gray-haired man? He turned around and almost walked straight into Accolon. “Oh–why, hello there, friend!”
Accolon was so surprised to hear himself so addressed that he found himself shaking the man’s proffered hand without fuss or even hesitation.
“Didn’t hear you singin’ with us,” the gray-haired man said. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”
“Er …” Well, it probably did, now. Accolon had to wonder — maybe the man’s eyesight wasn’t so good? He’d bathed before coming out, so it wasn’t like the smell could be tipping him off. “I think I sort of walked in in the middle.”
“Well, what reason is that not to join in?” asked the gray-haired man. “As the folks at the orgy said to the monk.”
Accolon couldn’t help it. A laugh burst out of him.
“Thought that might get you goin’.” The gray-haired man laughed and smacked Accolon’s arm lightly. “I’m Jessiah Andavri, by the by. But my friends call me ‘Cap’n.'”
“Cap’n,” Accolon repeated, forcing the unfamiliar syllables over his tongue.
“Hey–you got it right the first time! That’s good, that is, for a southlander. Most of you have to say ‘Captain’ half-a-dozen times to get it out of your systems.”
“But you haven’t said who you are. Come on now, don’t be shy.”
“Er … my name is Accolon. Accolon le Fay,” Accolon replied. He waited for that to sink in.
The man–Jessiah–stroked his chin. “Le Fay, eh? Any relation to the King’s sister?”
“Aye. Her husband.”
“In-ter-estin’,” Jessiah stroked his chin again. “I’ll be honest with you, my friend. I didn’t think this was the kind of pub where the high an’ mighty spent their time. Well! Shows how wrong I can be, eh?”
“Er–” Accolon bit his lip. “I’m sorry. You might think this is rude, but–you haven’t noticed anything … unusual about me?”
“Unusual?” Jessiah blinked.
“Aye–you know. Muscles not properly connected to the joints, sloughing skin, tendency to lose extremities …”
“Oh, don’t get me started on extremities,” Jessiah laughed, in a way that–well, in a way that made Accolon very grateful for the spells Morgan had cooked up to keep one particular extremity in good working order. And still attached. “But you mean the fact that you’re a zombie?”
“Well … yes …”
“Well, of course I noticed!” laughed Jessiah. “Good Lord, man, I might have more gray hairs on my head than some men have on their whole bodies, but I’m not blind! My mother just taught me it was rude to bring up other folks’ skin conditions, that’s all.”
“Besides, I’m from Bledavik. There was a whole boatload of your lot that washed up there around … oh, let me see … twenty, thirty years ago. It’s not like I haven’t seen one of you before.”
Accolon blinked. “There–there was?” A boatload of zombies? How had that happened? And what had happened afterward? “What–what happened to them?”
“Oh, they’re still there. Practically keep our one seamstress who actually is a seamstress, if you get my meaning, in business. Your lot isn’t nearly as bad as the southlanders make you out to be — but I’m sure you already knew that.”
Accolon blinked. “You mean–you just accepted them?”
“Why not? Their money is just as shiny as everybody else’s. Just got to make sure they don’t give you a finger in with the loose change. And they were a treat to deal with compared to the one ‘living’ man in the bunch. He was crazy — had a dead albatross around his neck, wouldn’t take it off, kept insisting the whole thing was his fault. Compared to him, a shipload of grumpy zombies was a treat to deal with, a fine treat.”
Accolon nodded slowly in the manner of a man who couldn’t believe what he was hearing, but all the same, didn’t want to stop hearing it.
“But enough of that!” Jessiah laughed. “You, my friend, look like a man who could use a drink. So! Let’s get one!” He clapped Accolon on the back and Accolon found himself being guided toward the bar.
Jessiah climbed onto a stool; Accolon followed suit. “Heh,” he murmured, hauling an elbow onto the bar surface and rubbing his forehead. “Didn’t realize it was that obvious.”
Jessiah nudged him. “You’re in a pub, friend. What else would you be needing?”
Well, when Jessiah put it like that …
He glanced at Jessiah through the gaps in his fingers. He’d heard of the strange species of barfly who would sidle up to you and drunkenly tell you his life story. Accolon hadn’t had much experience with the type, mostly because by the time a man got drunk enough to try to tell Accolon his life story, he was far enough gone that he usually only managed to get out, “Shome folks have all the luck, friend,” before he slid off the bar stool and passed out. As far as Accolon was aware, though, the opposite type — the man who came up to you and gently prodded you into telling your life story — didn’t exist.
Until now. There was nothing but kindly curiosity in Jessiah’s eyes. Accolon had never before met a stranger so seemingly trustworthy.
Or maybe he had. He just couldn’t remember.
“Well …” he started. And stopped. How far did he want to go with this stranger?
Not the life story. Even if the first twenty-six years or so could be summed up in a single word: Amnesia. This man hadn’t earned that kind of trust.
But maybe just a little bit … maybe just what sent him out tonight …
Accolon sighed. “My niece came over — had to talk with my wife about some things …” He shrugged. “I find it’s best to just get out of the way when that happens.”
If Jessiah had laughed and made a comment about “women’s troubles, don’t we know!” Accolon would have let the subject drop. He might have even been grateful. But it wasn’t going to be that simple. Jessiah was watching him with an inviting look — nothing more.
Accolon sighed. “Look, fr–Cap’n, what’s it to you, anyway?”
“Oh, nothing,” Jessiah shrugged. “You just look like you could use a sympathetic ear, that’s all. And if it was just ‘women’s troubles,’ you wouldn’t be looking half so much like somebody went and did their business in your oatmeal.”
“I’m a zombie. That’s how I always look.”
“Nah — in my experience, zombies mostly look like somebody just went and pissed in their oatmeal. Not …” Jessiah’s eyebrows went up.
Then, without another word, he caught the barmaid’s eye. “Ah, miss! I’ll be havin’ a double frosty walrus, on the rocks, and my friend here will be havin’ …” Jessiah glanced at Accolon.
“The usual,” Accolon replied, “the usual” being golden Glasonlander ale. It was a working man’s drink — except, of course, that importing it was getting more and more expensive these days. Accolon wished that damned war would just end. It would make life much easier.
“So,” Jessiah asked as the barmaid went and saw to their drinks, “what were we talkin’ about?”
And Accolon saw what he meant to do. He meant to give Accolon a way out. Accolon could just mutter that he didn’t remember, and doubtless Jessiah would come up with something. Something damned entertaining, Accolon could guess. Or embarrassing. Was there that much of a difference, when you came down to it?
… Accolon could do that, take the easy way out. Or … he could keep talking.
It would be nice to talk about it to somebody who wasn’t in the thick of it. Arthur was in almost Accolon’s exact boat, so it was hard to talk to him. They could commiserate, but if either had had a solution, they would have tried it by now. They had both tried several solutions, each of which had only worked in a limited way. And Lancelot … Lancelot was sympathetic; he was always sympathetic. But now he, too, had been drawn into the Pendragon-Orkney-le Fay vortex. His grandchildren had blood ties to the whole thing. He was thus too close to be impartial and too far away to have good advice.
So Accolon shrugged. “My niece. And …” He looked around the bar, wondering where that Barber had gotten to. Luckily he was across the room. “Well–whenever she’s got a family problem, it’s never any good.”
The barmaid pushed Accolon’s drink across the counter, and Accolon took it. Meanwhile, Jessiah answered. “It usually isn’t. Family problems are like that.”
Accolon took a long draught of his ale. “Aye. But this …” He hesitated, then figured a salty phrase or two wouldn’t go amiss with a man who had been leading the whole bar in that kind of song. “This is a fuck-up for the books, my friend.”
“You’re sure about that?”
Accolon shook his head — not in relation to what Jessiah said, just … at the world. In general. “I thought … I thought it would get better after her mother … got what was coming to her.” That was probably the best way to phrase it. Accolon did, after all, have a better idea of how Morgause had met her end than just about any other man in the kingdom. Nobody else had held Morgan as she shivered through that long, cold night on the eve of what would have been Morgause’s execution. And nobody else saw the relief on her face when she was told that Morgause had chosen a different exit. Accolon had made sure of that by dealing with the royal messenger himself.
“But … now it’s her brother that’s the problem.” Accolon shook his head. That Mordred was becoming Morgause all over again. Starting with how he treated his firstborn daughter.
“And you can’t think of a way to help?” Jessiah asked.
“Oh, I can think of plenty of ways to help,” Accolon demurred. “The problem is they all start with ripping the man’s head off and working my way down from there.” After a moment’s hesitation, he added, “Sorry. Zombie. It just …” He sighed and leaned against the bar. “The anger. It gets … intense. That’s why I try to …”
“Walk away,” Jessiah finished. “Smart man.”
Accolon blinked. He’d never thought of it that way. But … perhaps it was truer than he gave himself credit for.
Because at the end of the day, he knew who — what — he was. And yes, being with Morgan, with Ravenna, with Pascal and Chloe made the anger and the grouchiness easier to control. There were plenty of days when there would be no rage building up inside of him. He knew damn well how good he had it, most of the time.
But sometimes …
“Look, friend, the way I see it is this. You can’t fix everyone’s problems for them. Much as you might want to,” said Jessiah.
Accolon took a swallow of ale. “It’s not that simple.”
“Oh? It isn’t?”
Accolon shook his head. “It’s like … a story you’ve heard before. Oh, the names are different, and the places are different, but it’s still the same tale. And the first one … didn’t end well. You don’t want that for the second tale.”
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, this time. After all, Mordred had never hurt Garnet the way Morgause hurt Morgan. There wasn’t that sheer visceral rage between them. Most of what Garnet felt toward Mordred was frustration for her own sake and righteous anger for the sake of Dindrane and Dindrane’s children. And Mordred toward Garnet? Did he even think of Garnet when he wasn’t worrying how she would effect his plans one way or another?
Though that was a rather terrifyingly Morgause-like way of thinking …
And there was something else to worry Accolon. Morgan had been as strong as Morgause, magically. Maybe she’d even been stronger. Morgause had always hesitated to start something with Morgan directly, and when Morgan had been asked to help take Morgause down — she hadn’t hesitated. That said something, to Accolon.
He wasn’t at all sure that he could say the same for Mordred and Garnet.
“And — and to be honest, this time? I’m afraid things might get worse.”
There. He’d said it.
Jessiah’s eyebrows rose, and he nodded slowly. “You sure you can’t think of any solution other than murder?”
“Not … yet.” Accolon bit his lip. “Maybe I’d better talk to Morgan …”
And then — relief.
He usually didn’t bring this sort of thing up to Morgan. Garnet was technically her niece. But damn it — she was Accolon’s, too. He’d been her nurse when she was little. He might have been flattering himself too much, but he’d bet that it was because of him that the girl knew how to feel love instead of whatever pale and self-interested thing passed for it in the Orkney Keep. Lot might have meant well, but he would have never been able to keep Garnet as whole as she was on his own.
But if he told Morgan what he was afraid of … then they could face it. Together. Things tended to work out best for them when they did that.
Accolon put down his empty tankard with a self-satisfied sigh.
“Good,” said Jessiah, slipping off his barstool. “Now that you’ve gotten that off your chest … well, I think it’s time we had another sing-a-long!”
Accolon startled. “What?”
“Come on, Accolon, it’ll be fun!” Jessiah grabbed his arm and pulled him off his stool with surprising strength. Well-balanced strength, too. He didn’t feel a finger so much as loosen, let alone come off. “We’ll try … let’s see, we did the ‘Good Ship Venus’ …”
Oh boy, Accolon thought, his eyes growing wide.
“Let’s see — ah! We can do my personal favorite!”
Jessiah leaned back, coughed once, and started to sing. “Oh, what do you do with a drunken sailor–repeat after me, men!”
“What do you do with a …” Accolon started. But he didn’t quite finish. He wasn’t the only one singing.
Every other man in the pub had gotten up and was rushing to join them. And they were singing.
“Good, good! One more time!”
“What do you do with a drunken sailor?” sang out the pub.
And Accolon sang with them.