Then his eye was caught by the sight of a young maiden riding slowly up the road to the castle. His smile faded. She seemed somehow to exude sadness, a discordant note in that smiling landscape, and King Arthur had an ominous feeling that her slow progress up the road was going to end with a request to him for money.
Money! Why did everyone have to come to him for money? Why did everyone think that money would end their troubles? Why couldn't people take their own fates into their own hands and ...?
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a servant. "There is a damsel who craves audience with you, sire," he said.
"Yes, yes, I know," said the king testily. "I saw her coming. Another deserving provincial theatre down on its uppers, no doubt. I can hear it all now ... Dear King Arthur, Unless you let us have 10,000 pieces of gold by week's end, we shall be reduced to presenting mummer's pieces by Master Alyn Ayckbourne just to keep going ... Moan, moan, moan ... Nothing wrong with Master Ayckbourne's stuff, if you ask me. Streets ahead of that Harold Pinter man ..."
"Your majesty ..."
He looked round. The maiden he had so recently seen on the road had now come to join him on the castle walls. Her face was streaked with tears. She was beautiful but tragic.
"I don't deal with the lottery payouts personally," he said, "so it's no use trying to tell me all about it. Sir Bedivere is the man to see, down in the accounts chamber."
"I have not come for money," she said.
"Not come for money?" said Arthur. "But what else could you want?"
"I have come for help. I am the princess of a far-off kingdom which is being laid waste by a huge dragon. Could you not lend me one of your knights to slay it?"
King Arthur laughed.
"My dear, in the old days that might have been possible. We did indeed send knights out on missions like that. But it was terribly cost-ineffective, and economic madness. Not only that, but there was quite a high level of knight wastage. Beside, we found that it led to knight-dependency. People came to imagine that any small evil could be sorted out by one of my knights, and they forgot how to look after themselves. That's why we instituted this lottery. The idea was that we would make lots of money from the lottery and give it all back - well, some of it back - to people who really needed it."
"So you can't help me," she said dully.
"Don't take my word for it," he said. "My knights will tell you the same. Look, I'm going down now to chair a meeting of the Round Table - come along and I'll introduce you."
In the great hall of Camelot, 100 knights were gathering around the Round Table, merrily discussing profit maximisation and management streamlining.
"Gentlemen!" shouted the King. "Your attention for a moment! We have a visitor, a princess from a far-off land. She claims that a dragon is laying waste her land, and wants one of you to go and kill it!"
There was a shout of laughter. "Feed the brute!" cried one knight. "Pay it off!" cried another. "Offer it share options in the country's exchequer!" cried a third. "Give it a seat on the board!"
But then another knight stepped forward and held up his hand for silence. It was Lancelot.
"Shame on you all!" he cried. "This fair maiden has come to us for help and all we can do is promise her money. Do you not see how this sends out the wrong signals?"
His noble words silenced them. "Already we at Camelot are under siege from the media. I have here a copy of the latest Wessex Ancient Times, with the banner headline: Camelot Fat Cats Take The Cream While Population Is Lucky To Get A Lick Of The Saucer. One more adverse story and things might get very bad for us. We cannot afford to turn this lady away, PR- wise."
"Hold on!" shouted Sir Kay. "Are you saying that one of us should risk his life against a dragon just to give Camelot an image lift?"
"I am," said Lancelot.
"How do we know that this girl isn't a set-up?" shouted Sir Kay. "Maybe she's been planted by the News Of The Dark Ages! Anyway, what do we care for what the papers say? We've got the money, haven't we? They can't take that away from us!"
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