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Some Breach of Good Manners

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I suppose our first mistake was letting Morgan le Fay in that last November evening when she dropped by but she said the storm made her magic shaky, and anyway she thought we could help her with something. Bertie and I have a sort of talent for—well, corrupting is such a negative word—fixing young knights who have never learned to let loose. All those chivalric norms at Arthur’s court these days: who needs them? In our little corner of the world, the atmosphere isn’t debauched exactly, but it’s freer. Forget the endless longing of Camelot; here, we love bawdy feasts and brash declarations and bed-swapping that carries on until dawn. If we’ve got some wide-eyed company along for the ride, all the better.

Morgan told us of a knight at Arthur’s Table who was too proud of always doing what’s right for the ladies who fall into his lap. He never took advantage, working always under Mary’s sign and in the name of his king. Morgan sighed and said it pained her to see this knight so deprived of the pleasures we cultivate out in the hinterlands. She called him Gawain, and I could feel Bertie tense beside me. He loves boys from Wales, he says the wild landscape produces the most exciting lovers. I knew already we’d agree to help, and we talked late into the night about how best to help Gawain see things our way.

I’m always less involved in these things than Bertie; he has such a way with knights. I’m only there to show them just what they’re missing before Bertie drives the point home. He uses a number of tricks to get the boys alone with him in the woods—God only knows what he tells them, but they do come back changed. For this we thought the showier the better. Morgan was helpful in refining our Green Knight conceit, but she left to celebrate Yule elsewhere, and our holidays were quiet out of necessity. I missed Bertie while he traveled to Camelot, but we thought that Gawain would only put himself in our hands if he believed he was serving his lord. It was a gamble that Gawain would be the knight to offer to take the blow, but Arthurian chivalry turned out to be good for something, and when Bertie came home I happily stitched him up and we settled down to wait out the year.

Gawain’s year of delay (it’s not that hard to find our castle) meant that we had plenty of time to rethink our approach, now that we’d gotten a measure of him.

“He was so concerned about not overstepping any boundaries!” Bertie complained once. “All this ‘if you would, noble lord’ and ‘so that my liege lady were not displeased’—feh!”

“Maybe that’s where we start,” I said. “Make him cross lines he’s never even thought of before.”

But Bertie didn’t catch my meaning and I found myself scheming alone. When we’d first heard of Gawain’s troubles, we had thought this to be a test of chivalry solely in the martial realm, for Gawain’s reputation and pride were bound up with his prowess with the sword (I must admit his original cut to Bertie’s neck was very clean). Forcing him to exercise courtesy elsewhere had not occurred to us. But hearing about his concern for his queen gave me ideas. Also, Bertie couldn’t contain himself from chattering on about Gawain’s looks, and I got annoyed. We have rules, of course; he knows I don’t enjoy hearing of his petits copains.

Then Gawain arrived and I saw that Bertie was right to be so filled with longing. Gawain was beautiful, all reddish-brown hair with limbs so shining and attractive, and truly I don’t know where he learned to kiss like that, even in greeting. I found myself wanting Gawain, and despite believing this was Bertie’s prize to win, I kept flirting with him.

Bertie was in one of his manic moods and hardly noticed me but Morgan’s knowing looks at Christmas dinner had me surer than ever that this was going to end with some combination of the three of us in bed. Sleeping with his host, or his host’s wife, or both—so obviously unsporting of Gawain, and so desperately tempting.

My husband seemed hell-bent on forcing Gawain to confess his mission for the Green Knight and skipping ahead to the part where they came together afterwards in a rush of adrenaline. But from Gawain’s cautious jollity I could see he would have to be worn down more carefully, and when I thought of my own longing, I had to take Bertie aside.

“Let me sleep with him first,” I whispered into his ear. Bertie pulled back to look at me, and I could see him beginning to pout. “I know you saw him before,” I said, thinking fast. “But you’re pushing him too much and this will only work if he thinks he’s obeying orders. Ask him to stay in tomorrow and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Bertie disliked having to wait, and I know their little tit-for-tat arrangement was meant to goad me into giving Gawain what Bertie himself wanted. But I didn’t think it would take long for everyone to be satisfied. I’m not vain, really, but I am proud that most men can be led astray by my small laughing mouth and slim hips.

And yet.

The first morning Gawain jokingly said he would surrender at once but then claimed to be unworthy of my attentions (he was turning out to not be the cocksure knight Morgan had said needed our special brand of reform!). I spent so long convincing him of his own virtues I nearly forgot to kiss him. And my punishment of Bertie for his desire backfired—I only gave Gawain a peck, and yet he gave Bertie a kiss as pleasant as he could devise. A boy with a mind of his own is a tempting thing, but we were supposed to be the tempters, not the tempted.

The second morning Gawain offered let me take my pleasure from him, but that kind of deference was antithetical to our purpose. When we fell into a discussion of love’s misery and bliss, I was so frustrated that I found myself begging. “Show me your expertise while my husband is away,” I suggested, although generally, I dislike invoking Bertie while I’m seducing someone else; it seems mean-spirited. But I thought perhaps Gawain was more attracted to him and that inviting his shadow into the bedroom could move things along. My suspicions were confirmed when again the small embraces I gave him were turned into long gracious kisses for Bertie. And still Gawain was not yielding to our tactics. He was as courteous as ever.

The third morning I knew we were running out of time. Gawain was so honest he would not let himself break his oath and would soon leave us, Bertie was wild with longing, and I was upset at being spurned. I prepared to seduce Gawain however I could: my nicest dress, tits out, only low-minded jokes. I nearly had him when he worried aloud about shaming himself by this act of sin, and that was it for me.

I cannot abide others thinking that what I do—what I like to do—is somehow wrong; it’s why we live so far away from court and only socialize with those who favor the same activities. Gawain— what did he know of sin, when sin was about actively harming, and my life is about actively pleasing! Our work with these knights is about reframing right and wrong to make life a little more enjoyable for all. Now it was indelibly clear to me that the atmosphere of our castle, the festivities we created, the wanting I had written all over my face, were doing nothing to reform Gawain.

But I couldn’t just let him go, not knowing what Bertie had in store for him (and I do think that right then he was so frustrated that he could’ve taken Gawain’s head off without any qualms). In a haze, I forced the enchanted girdle Morgan had made for me into Gawain’s hand and retired to my chambers. When Bertie came back from hunting I told him of my failure with our guest, who seemed unable to break through his own sense of propriety. It was the first time I had been unable to help a knight this way, and I must confess it laid me low for quite a while.

I truly do not know what Bertie had planned for his sojourn at the Chapel with Gawain. My husband likes his theatricality, he wants to put on a performance to shock young men into something they don’t think they’re capable of, he wants them to feel that they are on the edge of something terribly risky before he relents and praises them for their chivalrous ways.

“A little playful threatening never hurt anyone,” Bertie always says, although none of this must have seemed very playful to Gawain.

When Bertie told me later of Gawain’s harsh words against womanly wiles, I began to wonder at our actions. Gawain was still young—loyal, talented, a natural knight with more experience than another hundred lifetimes could’ve given a different man, but young, and it seemed unfair to force him into a mode of being so alien to him. Some days I wonder why Morgan thought he needed to be led to us, why he needed a trial of his pride.

Although I hardly knew what I was doing by the end, so great was my aggravation, I do think I did not want him to take the belt as a sign of his failing. It had been a gift, a reminder that a little pleasure never hurt anyone. But Morgan tells me now they all wear similar sashes as a sign of humility, although for Gawain it must be more like a sign of shame. These Camelot boys are so mixed up about kings and gods and duty and women that I think now it was unchivalrous of us to expect Gawain to discern our true intentions. Oh well—that’s how these things go, don’t they? Honi soit qui mal y pense, indeed.