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One Knight Only

Peter David

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page



  PARTE THE FIRST : - Wheels



















  PARTE THE THIRD - We Three Kings









  Praise for One Knight Only

  “This engaging and intelligent sequel to David’s classic Knight Life is a tale filled with dark humor and ingenious variations on the Arthurian legend in a contemporary setting.”

  —Library Journal

  “This irreverent romp impartially jousts at White House staff pomposity, the inanities of today’s press corps, Congressional antics, and mismanaged U.S. foreign policy. Some of the goings-on are belly-laugh funny . . . a wild mix of ancient legends.”—Publishers Weekly

  Praise for Knight Life

  “Arthurian legend gets another kick in the pants with this rollicking rewrite of bestseller David’s first novel . . . Extensively updated and lovingly revised, this hilarious romp in today’s New York features a cast of zany characters, zippy dialog, and enough action and plot twists to satisfy most satirical fantasy fans.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “A fun spin on that Mark Twain classic. A mix of classic Arthurian fiction and satiric commentary about the nature of today’s politics. Engaging.”—The Monroe (LA) News-Star

  “Filled with genuine wit, irony, and keen observations of human nature.”—Library Journal

  “The once and future king is back and running for mayor—of New York. King Arthur’s New York City court is an old-new story for our time, with a fresh and very funny perspective.”—Booklist

  “A fresh take on the story ... Peter David’s Arthur strikes a wonderful balance between naïve and wise. Memorably funny.”—The Davis Enterprise

  “An intriguing, different fable for modern times.”

  —Library Bookwatch

  “A wonderful modernization of Camelot.”

  —Midwest Book Review

  “A lot of fun.”—VOYA

  “The novel has a little bit of everything: deft satire . . . laugh-out-loud humor . . . low comedy . . . a love story . . . breathless magical action . . . potential tragedy . . . and a solid grounding in Arthurian themes.”—SF Site

  “Witty, creatively written, and fun to read.”

  —The Greenman Review

  If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either

  are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously,

  and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business

  establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2003 by Second Age, Inc.

  All rights reserved.

  This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced

  in any form without permission.

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  and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic

  editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of

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  For information address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  eISBN : 978-1-436-28302-1


  Ace Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  ACE and the “A” design

  are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  Dedicated to those who survived,

  those who didn’t,

  and the heroes who made all the difference.

  “The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be.”



  THE HIGH KING is happy.

  The stag has given him quite a run, and required an entire day of tracking, across the length and breadth of the island. Naturally the High King could have had as much help as he’d desired. Any number of individuals would have considered it the greatest of honors to accompany him on a hunt. They would have beaten the bushes for him, carved the way through the forest, scouted ahead. They would have gladly run the stag to ground for him, attempted to bring it down with bow and arrow or spear, or even assailed it barehanded, as the High King himself had done. They would have, in point of fact, broken their bodies on his behalf, crawled across broken glass, taken a brace of arrows, all to please the High King.

  That was all fine for them. But what fun was that for the High King, really?

  Then again, had that not been one of the recurring themes of his existence? Had there not always been those, walking the earth or stalking the heavens, who had seemed to exist primarily to prevent the High King from taking any joy in his life at all?

  Immediately he pushes his thoughts away from such moribund musings. He knows himself all too well. He knows that if he continues to dwell upon it, the anger will come, followed as always by the righteous indignation. He will stew upon it, and his stomach will bubble in turmoil, and slowly the anger will build with volcanic intensity until either it explodes outward into open demonstrations of fury . . . or else be turned inward, to devour him and send him spiraling into a depression that could last weeks, even months.

  It has taken him a long time, ever so long a time, to find the balance and equanimity that now governs his life. He has learned many hard and bruising lessons along the way to reach this point, and he has resolved never to forget any of them ...

  THE HIGH KING moved among his people, looking as nonchalant as one can with a mighty stag slung over one’s shoulders. He cut an imposing figure and he knew it all too well. He was bare-chested this day, as he customarily was when he hunted, and bare-legged as well. A simple breechcloth, which he would just as easily have tossed aside had he been of a mind to, was all that served to protect modesty. His body was so uniformly tanned and so firm that he looked as if he had been carved from teak. His musculature was perfectly defined, and when he walked he looked like nothing so much as a giant cat uncurling with every stride. His skin seemed to shine with the glow of matchless health. Even had he not been physically taller than everyone else, he would still have seemed to loom over them jus
t from the sheer majesty of his presence. His shoulders were so wide that his torso almost seemed triangular as it narrowed to his waist, and his powerful legs were like knotted tree trunks. He was holding the stag over his shoulders with one hand; his other arm swung in a leisurely fashion at his side, and the muscles rippled and played against one another. His long, black hair—dotted with brambles and clods of dirt from the hunt—hung straight about his shoulders, with a section of it tied off in a lengthy tail down his back. His eyes were close-set and dark, dark as a storm, dark as death. Dark as blackness that could swallow an entire peoples whole and not even blink. He had a straight nose, with nostrils that tended to flare whenever he was in a hunt. Although he was normally clean shaven, the strong lines of his jaw sported a shadow of stubble, since he had not gone out of his way to attend to personal grooming while tracking the stag, and his facial hair tended to grow quite quickly.

  He exuded power and confidence and the wisdom of the ages, and every so often as he walked past his subjects, he would toss off a brief nod of acknowledgment, which seemed to please them greatly. He could only wonder, in a distant and oblique fashion, what it was like to be them. Then again, there were times he wondered what it was like to be he himself, and he was not entirely certain of the answer to that question either.

  The High King strode up the short flight of stairs to his palace, his sandals scraping on the concrete steps. The guards who were posted, two on each step, bowed sequentially as he passed them. They were each dressed somewhat similarly to him, but wore tunics as well as loincloths, and boots rather than sandals. Each of them held a single spear, points gleaming as sunlight sparkled off the gold trim. This was amusing to the High King. What was there in the world, after all, that the High King needed to fear, that he would require guards? But it was of little consequence to the High King. It gave the natives pleasure to serve him in this fashion, so there seemed no harm in it. Nor did any of his other subjects seem to mind. In fact, they seemed to derive some old-world pleasure from it. And who was he to deny anyone pleasure? After all, one had to find it where one could.

  Courtiers and servants bowed and nodded to him. “Good hunt, High King,” they would say. “Well done, High King.” “The beast never stood a chance, High King.”

  Well, that was the truth of it, wasn’t it? As his sandal-shod feet padded across the polished floor, he pondered the fact that the beast, indeed, never had stood a chance. It was something of a paradox to him. He wanted to take pride in his accomplishment, to revel in the praise that his followers heaped upon him. On the other hand, really . . . was there much point to it? To anything?

  He quickly withdrew from such musings, forcing himself to take a mental step back. He knew that if he followed that train of thought to its logical conclusion, it would plunge him into yet another one of his dark and dreary depressions. No one needed to endure that: not his people, and certainly not he himself. But it bothered him; that was twice now, in a relatively short period of time, that he had needed to force himself back to the realm of equanimity in which he dwelt for so long. That which had been so simple for him after long practice, he was now having to impose upon himself with an effort of will. Something was bothering him, gnawing away at him. But he didn’t have the faintest idea what it could be.

  He walked through his private chambers to out behind the palace, where the mighty river ran. It was as clear and pure and unsullied as it had been when he had first seen it, and for a moment he gazed with satisfaction at his reflection. Standing there as he was, streaked with dirt, his hair matted, his prey slung over his shoulders, he felt as if he was staring across centuries to mankind in its earliest, most primeval days. He regarded himself for a time longer, and then eased the beast’s carcass off his shoulders and into the narrow river. It splashed down into the water and simply lay there, its dead eyes staring at nothing. The water burbled and splashed around it, as if toying with the stag’s body, and then the High King turned away and walked back to his private chambers.

  He could have had the most opulent furnishings, but he had preferred instead to keep things simple, yet elegant. All the furniture was carved from wood, glistening brown much as he himself was. Tapestries, woven centuries before, decorated the walls, depicting mighty deeds from times gone by. Here upon the wall, Ulysses again eluded the Sirens, while Robin Hood valiantly sliced one arrow with another, and Jason felt the glory of the golden fleece between his fingers for the first time. Other heroic moments, captured by skilled artisans, all belonging to the High King. Sometimes he could gaze upon them for hours, speculating, dreaming, remembering.

  The High King draped himself over a chair with an ornately carved back that gave it the appearance of the head of a bull leaning over him, guarding him. As he pulled thoughtfully at his lower lip, he heard a splash from outside. He glanced through the open doors, and saw the river where he had deposited the corpse of his prey. The stag’s body was no longer there. He gave the creature no further thought, but turned back instead to his own musings.

  “I am bored,” he said out loud, but softly. He didn’t want his voice to carry, for if it did, he would undoubtedly have dozens of courtiers descending upon him, all endeavoring to entertain him in various ways. He wasn’t remotely interested in that. The problem was, he wasn’t sure what he was remotely interested in.

  He rose and went to his bath. The servers were waiting there for him, of course, and they poured the warm, soothing waters for him as the High King slipped off his sandals and loincloth and eased his powerful body into the shallow pool. He leaned back, allowing the water to come up to his shoulders. The nubile women who were his bath servers slid into the water with him, washing his hair and cleansing the dirt of the hunt from him. One of them smiled at him in a manner that was both shy and knowing, cautious and inquiring. He smiled back, nodding in acquiescence. She removed the few vestments she was wearing, climbed upon his lap to face him while wrapping her legs around his middle, and he took her. She cried out, gasping, calling out his name, burying her face in the nape of his neck, and when he finished and she lay back in the water, sated, he waited a few minutes and then took the other girl as well. Not only was she no less eager than the first, but she felt she had something to live up to. She performed more than well, as did he, which was to be expected, and when she joined the first in blissful stupor, he sat there and regarded the two of them and wondered why he was still bored. He continued to wonder that even as he drifted to sleep . . .

  He has not had Seeing Dreams in quite some time.

  Oh, they had been there, floating about in his subconscious, teasing and taunting him with the faintest visions of things to come. But there has been nothing absolute, nothing concrete. For that matter, there has been nothing to worry about. The High King does not like the Seeing Dreams, for they are invariably sent by the gods who live to torment him. Indeed, in many ways it seems that these days they live for little else. Most of their followers are long, long dead, and most of their power is gone along with them. The High King can’t help but feel that the gods bedevil him lest they fade from memory and power completely.

  Apparently they have chosen to torture him now, and even the High King has to admit, grudgingly, that they have not lost their touch . . .

  The dream came to him, and it was so unsettling, so disturbing, ending so violently, that the High King was propelled from his slumber with enough force to let out a yell that could well have awoken the dead. Since there were no dead around in his vicinity, and had not been for quite some time, it awoke instead the bathing servants, who let out startled yelps as the High King splashed about in alarm.

  Immediately they started babbling out apologies, even though they hadn’t the faintest idea what they might actually be apologizing for. The High King barely heard them, his head still whirling with the sights he had seen. It took him long moments to remember who and where he was, and when he finally managed to compose himself, he turned to the cowering women and rumbled, “Summon t
he Aged One.” He did not wait for them to emerge from the pool before him, to prepare the towels to rub him down or the powders or scented oils. Instead he simply splashed out of the pool, picked up his blue robe from where it lay draped over a chair, and pulled it on even though his body was still soaked. A large wet stain spread across the back of the robe, but he paid it no mind. Instead he walked away quickly, smoothing out the tangles in his hair with his thick fingers even as his mind raced, trying to sort out the images and make sense of them before they slipped away, victims to his wakefulness.

  He went to his receiving room without bothering to change out of his robe. He was, after all, the High King. Who would dare look disapprovingly at whatever he chose to attire himself in? Many dared not look upon him at all, and that suited him just fine.

  He sat upon his great chair and waited for what seemed an interminable time. Finally he heard the soft, steady tap of a cane upon the floor, one that he knew as well as the sound of his own heartbeat. He drummed his fingers impatiently upon the armrest as he waited for the Aged One to enter. There was no use complaining or demanding that the old fellow hurry up. Of all the residents upon the isle, there were only two who did not treat the High King with due deference. One of those treated him as an equal . . . and the other as a subordinate. It was the latter of the two who approached him now, and the High King kept his peace until the Aged One was finally in front of him. His hair and beard were long and white, his face so creased with years that it was hard to believe he once had any features other than wrinkles. His clothing was loose and shapeless, and the High King suspected that beneath it he was not much more than a skeleton with some stringy meat upon him.