Later that evening, after the competitions were over, Chris and his knights went back to the castle. Oh, the partying would continue through the night, but the men of the round table had other business to take care of first in the throne room. The swearing-in ceremony. This was something they always did in private. They had two knights to welcome into their ranks.
Buck slapped Ezra on the back. “Good thing you got here when you did, or you’d have missed all the fun. We didn’t expect you for another week, though.”
“Don’t get used to it, Sir Buck. I generally like to take my time, but I was eager to see the famed Camelot—and her even more famous King Arthur.”
Buck looked around with a worried expression on his face. He pulled Ezra back further away from the rest, whispering harshly. “Don’t let Chris hear you call him that! He hates the name! He’s King Uther’s illegitimate son, but the old man never gave him or his mother a bit of his time or concern until he got wounded on campaign and couldn’t father any more children. Then Chris was more important to him than gold all of a sudden. He had young Chris brought to the castle—just swept him away from his mother’s arms. His mother had named him Christofer, after her father. Uther decided he the boy should have something more fitting for a future king. Old goat thought pretty high of himself and renamed him Arthur. Chris hated the old man for the way he treated his mother and the way he ran roughshod over him so he refused to accept the change. He won’t let anyone call him that.”
“I thank you for your advice. I didn’t understand the situation. Rest assured, he will never hear it from my lips.” Ezra caught a glimpse of the king walking towards the dais. The man was glaring at him murderously. He had heard. The looks he was giving them did not bode well for Sir Buck, either.
They caught up to the others. Nathan was looking him up and down without trying to appear to do so. “So you’re our guarantor of peace, huh? To ensure Lot doesn’t break the treaty, your life is in Chris’s hands. Lot must have something really devious in mind or he doesn’t like you all that much.”
Ezra stiffened. Sir Nathan’s comment had hit the mark. King Lot had never liked him. He doubted the man would give him a kind thought even if he brought him the whole world as a gift. “Or perhaps the obvious answer is that he is interested in peace. It remains to be seen if others have the same goals.”
Vin cleared his throat. “It’s time.” Chris was seated upon his throne, waiting to begin.
Buck was so proud of his cousin. JD had grown up a lot since his arrival at court. Sure he was still kind of innocent, and Buck hoped he never lost that, but he’d learned how to be a man somewhere along the way. That didn’t mean Buck was going to treat him any different. Oh, no! He smirked. JD was always going to be a boy to him.
Ezra wasn’t really paying attention to the words. Rather, he was fascinated by the squire’s reactions. He took the oath with such youthful earnestness that it was plain to see that becoming a knight was his heart’s desire. His enthusiasm was almost a palpable thing. The others looked on him with such pride. When he was finished they all gathered ‘round him, slapping him on the back. Ezra almost missed Vin trying to get his attention. It was his turn.
Ezra walked slowly up to the dais. With a deep breath, he knelt down on one knee in front of the king. He gave nothing of his feelings away—either in his expression, or in his movements. Inside, however, he fretted nervously about what he was actually doing.
Ezra had always considered himself an honest person. Well…somewhat. But perhaps others didn’t see him that way. Queen Maude often told him he was a deceitful little monster or a conniving piece of baggage. King Lot had backhanded him on more than a few occasions for giving him what the king called “sly looks”. Maybe he wasn’t such an honest person after all.
He tried not to lie to people directly or give his word for fear of having to break it. But it was said that oaths taken under duress were meaningless. Could this be considered duress? He had to say the oaths in order to get near the king. He had no choice but to take them. But still… He was pulling hairs, he supposed. Ezra had chosen to swear to the knightly codes, knowing he would break some of them. He studied the king’s face. He, too, knew how to hide his feelings. Ezra could read nothing in the man.
Chris drew his sword, holding it in front of him. “Lord Ezra Standish, fostered by King Lot of the Orcades, will you take the oaths?”
Ezra recited the words carefully, keeping his voice steady. It was difficult through some parts.
To fend off injustice from the poor.
That was one of the reasons he was here—to depose an unworthy king and free the people of Camelot from his yoke.
To fight for the safety of one’s country.
Yes. That was part of his mission, too. King Lot told him often of King Christofer’s designs on other lands. He had to do his part to protect the people of the Orcades from this tyrant’s overreaching ambition.
To always do ladies, gentlewomen and widows succor.
Simple enough. He had never harmed a woman. In fact, he always gave alms to beggar women and widows. He thought that if Lady Morgan had not been of noble blood, she might’ve been in such a predicament. He wondered if the king had taken such an oath.
To shed blood for your brethren.
Brethren? Surely not. They were the enemy. It’s not as if they would be guarding his back.
To never do outrage nor murder.
He swallowed hard and hoped no one noticed. This one he might end up breaking. He was here to destroy the round table from within. He might be forced to kill someone. Ezra could feel sweat running down his neck.
Always to flee treason.
The words almost didn’t come. Surely he could not keep this one. Betraying his oaths, turning on the others, seeking the destruction of the king—all forms of treason. He was surely a traitor and the penalty for treason was death.
He looked again at the king, seeing the hard, cold man he’d been raised to hate. Why should he care about keeping his word? The things King Christofer had done were surely against the code. If the one receiving the pledge did not himself honor it, then the one giving it could not reasonably be expected to keep it. These other knights were no better. At the very least, they condoned the king’s actions by their support or by their inaction. They didn’t deserve Ezra’s loyalty. They were merely the king’s lackeys.
Ezra’s mind was more at ease over the thought of his future betrayal, but the idea of becoming an oath-breaker still bothered him. He couldn’t understand why.
Chris struck him soundly on the shoulder with the flat of his sword as was the custom and nodded for him to rise. “I give you, Lord Ezra Standish, Knight of the Round Table.”
The others moved forward to welcome him. Their congratulations were not as enthusiastic as they’d been for JD, but Ezra hadn’t expected them to be. He knew his presence was not desired. It didn’t matter. He was in.
The celebrating continued into the early hours of the morning, each man telling stories of heroism they’d done or seen. After several hours of Buck’s tales of his conquests of women, Ezra was ready for sleep. A servant was summoned to take him to his new room. He bid the men goodnight and took his leave of them.
After he’d gone, the topic of conversation naturally turned to him. Chris wanted to know what the others thought. “Well?”
Buck shook his head. “He’s kind of stiff. Maybe he just needs to loosen up a bit. We should take him down to the tavern for a few drinks. That will straighten him out.”
Nathan huffed. “I don’t think that well-bred peacock could handle the swill they serve down there.”
Vin was still looking at the door Ezra had left through. “Think he’d surprise you.”
Chris glanced at his friend. “What do you mean?”
“There’s a lot more going on past those fancy clothes and manners than you’d think.”
Josiah nodded in agreement. “Vin’s right. Buck, too.” He smiled. “We’ll have to test his drinking abilities at some point. Maybe if he drinks a little too much, we might find out why he’s so tightly coiled. And there’s something…” He shook his head.
Chris raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“You know I’ve lost a lost of my sorcerous abilities as I’ve gotten older—that happens. Wielding magic takes a lot of physical strength and endurance that a body just naturally loses over time. But I can still feel magic around me. And that young man smells of magic.”
“He’s a wizard?”
“No. But he’s been exposed to magic. A great deal of it. It’s almost a part of him. I’m curious to know what it is, but I’m certain he would never tell.”
“Is it something dangerous?”
“I don’t think so. It’s more…passive than active.”
“But you aren’t sure.”
“There’s no way to be absolutely certain, no.”
Chris scowled. “Another reason to keep an eye on him.”
Ezra lay in the dark of his new room, feeling very young and alone. Lady Morgan always made him feel that way. He’d just finished reporting to her through the magical scrying glass she’d given him, telling her all he’d seen and done thus far (Well, except for the joust, of course. He wasn’t an idiot). Right now she was safe in the Orcades plotting what manner of betrayal would hurt King Christofer and his men the most.
He pulled the covers close, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was times like these that reminded him of Madam Bess. When he was eight…four…he’d been afraid of the dark. She was an older woman whose job it was to turn down his bed every night and remove his dirty garments for laundry. She said Ezra reminded her of her own late son. Many a night she would stay longer than she should have, telling Ezra outrageous stories or just singing little ballads she’d heard. It was their secret. He always called her Madam Bess even though the Queen called her “woman”. Madam Bess liked the way he addressed her. She said it was a sign that he would make a fine knight someday because he treated women chivalrously whether they were servants or noblewomen.
She’d stayed several years and then suddenly disappeared one day. Maude said she had become too familiar and had to be sent away. That was always the way of it. Ezra remembered his gentle, encouraging tutor who’d been replaced by a cold taskmaster and the good-humored armsmaster who’d been replaced by a brutish bully. He hoped Maude had been telling the truth for once and she’d merely been sent away, unlike the permanent disappearances that happened to servants that Lady Morgan disliked. It warmed Ezra’s heart to think of Madam Bess out there somewhere, turning down another lord’s covers.
He watched the deep shadows creep across his room. After a time, Ezra’s eyes drooped shut. The new knight of the Round Table fell asleep with the sound of an old woman’s singing in his head.