Steve was awakened the next morning by whispering voices near his bed. He started awake, afraid that perhaps someone had sent two assassins this time. As it turned out, the voices did not belong to would-be killers, but to Marcellus and Dr. Rivell. Both men bowed when they noticed him watching them. "Good morning, Your Majesty," Marcellus said. "I hope we did not wake you."
"No, it's fine," Steve said. "I was just wondering why everyone always seems to be awake and dressed long before I am."
"It is a king's privilege to get up whenever he pleases, of course," Marcellus said, smiling and coming closer to the bed. "And you never will be an early riser, I fear."
"How are you feeling this morning, Sire?" Dr. Rivell asked.
"Much better than yesterday," Steve replied. "The cut hurts less, and I don't feel as light-headed as I did before."
"Excellent. With your permission, I would like to check the bandage."
Steve nodded, and the doctor unwrapped the cloth and took a look, gently touching the tender skin. "It seems to be healing well, Majesty. I see no sign of infection."
"Good," Steve said, thinking that it would be really awful to get an infection in his neck in a place like this. Dr. Rivell took a bottle of what looked like oil from his bag and poured a small amount onto a white cloth. Steve could immediately smell the eucalyptus. The doctor dabbed the fragrant oil on the cut, then applied a little more of the herbal pain reliever before dressing the wound again. Steve felt better immediately, even though he thought he must smell like someone's exotic garden. "Is there any chance that I'll be able to get out of bed today?" Steve asked. He didn't really mind staying in bed, since that meant that he wouldn't have to see anyone except Marcellus for a while, but he thought he should ask in the interest of staying in character.
Dr. Rivell looked like he'd been dreading that question. "I'm not sure, Sire," he said. "It wouldn't be wise to hasten your recovery too much. But if you feel better, we could at least see if you are better able to stand today."
Steve pulled back the covers and slowly got to his feet. Both Dr. Rivell and Marcellus stood near him in case he needed support. Steve's legs felt much sturdier than they'd been the day before, and he was able to walk around on his own. "Great," Steve said. "I'd like to have a bath drawn if you think it's all right."
"Certainly, my Lord," Marcellus said. "Would you like breakfast sent for as well?"
"Sure," he said brightly.
"Sire," Dr. Rivell said. "Please remember that you are still in a fragile state. I would still recommend confining yourself to mild foods, and plenty of liquids. I also suggest that you refrain from too much physical activity, at least for today."
"All right," Steve said. "I'll be careful."
Dr. Rivell looked at Marcellus, clearly thinking that Steve wasn't to be believed. "I'll stay with him throughout the day, doctor," Marcellus assured him. "At the earliest sign of fatigue, I will be sure that his Majesty takes a rest."
Dr. Rivell looked satisfied. "Thank you, Your Highness. Now, if there is nothing else you require of me?"
Steve looked at Marcellus, and the prince gave a slight nod. "You may go, Dr. Rivell," he said. The doctor bowed and backed out. When they were alone, Steve asked Marcellus, "Do you mind if I take a trip to the head, Your Highness?" Marcellus nodded, and Steve stepped out of the room. The guards came to attention again, and Steve was escorted to the bathroom by four of them. When he returned, the pages were already busy getting his bath together. He waited in the bedroom, studying his notes where the pages and other attendants couldn't see him. Marcellus looked on, a small smile playing about his lips. Steve guessed he must approve.
Steve took his bath, being careful not to get his bandage wet. He lingered for a long time, enjoying the hot water and the lack of pressure. He wasn't looking forward to his meeting with the Queen, and it was a pleasure to stop going over the rules of conduct over and over again in his head and just relax. It was also a pleasure to let the fragrant, steaming water ease away some of the aches and pains he'd developed after being tossed around by an assassin, manhandled by Marcellus, then stuck in bed for over 24 hours. When the water started to get cold, he decided he should probably get out. He let the attendants wash his back and put his robe on, then went back into the bedroom. Marcellus stood up when he entered, and shook his head. "I was beginning to think perhaps you'd drowned, my Lord," he said teasingly.
"Sorry," he said. "I guess I lost track of time." Marcellus waved a hand, and the attendants set about the lengthy process of getting Steve dressed. Steve put on his clothes, noticing that someone - most likely Marcellus - had chosen a very fancy white shirt with a fairly high collar, probably in an attempt to mask the bandage. He brushed his teeth, and let the attendants give him a shave and style his hair. Afterwards, as before, one of the attendants brought the crown from it's case. She knelt before him and held up the velvet pillow. Steve hesitated, remembering Marcellus' dire words about what happened to people who put the crown on their heads when they weren't kings. He looked at Marcellus, who had a somewhat uncertain expression on his face as well. Steve supposed that he must be thinking about the fact that he would be committing treason himself by letting Steve wear the crown knowing he wasn't the king. After a moment, during which the attendants started to look mildly confused, Marcellus gave a nearly imperceptible nod. Steve wiped suddenly sweaty hands on the arms of the chair and picked up the crown. He set it on his head, half expecting some awful catastrophe to follow. Nothing happened, except that an attendant showed him the mirror, and waited for his approval. Steve nodded and dismissed the servants.
"Her Majesty has requested an audience with you after you have broken your fast," Marcellus said.
"All right," Steve said nervously. "Could we go over some things again?" Marcellus nodded, and they reviewed the rules yet again. Marcellus dismissed the servants after their breakfast was brought so that Steve could keep practicing while they ate. When they finished their meal, Marcellus sent for a messenger to let the Queen know that they would meet her in the small audience chamber. Before they left, Marcellus instructed the attendant to fit Steve with his semi-formal attire. Curious, Steve watched while the attendant went to a different wardrobe from the one they usually brought his clothes out of. The attendant brought out a capelet of dark, rich blue, bordered with white fur, and draped it over Steve's shoulders. He fastened the silver clasp in the form of the royal seal, then brought Steve the king's scepter. Steve's eyes widened appreciatively. The scepter was a thick silver rod about two and a half feet long, crowned by the hugest sapphire Steve had ever seen. The metal post was probably worth thousands alone. He couldn't even guess at the value of the gem.
When he was finally fully decked out, Steve and Marcellus made their way to the chamber. The usual four guards accompanied them. Courtiers bowed and curtseyed as they passed, looking at him with mingled concern and curiosity. No one spoke to him, and Steve assumed that they must not want to hold him up on what obviously was a purposeful walk. They went downstairs, around several hallways, and through two large double doors into the "small" audience chamber. Steve supposed that compared to the giant ball-room sized chambers where kings made decisions in movies, the room was rather small. It was about six times the size of the king's bedroom, which Steve thought was pretty obscene anyway. There was a broad blue carpet leading from the doorway to a dais that sat roughly at the center of the room. On the platform were five chairs arranged in a semicircle, all made of wood, and all sporting plush blue upholstery. The center chair and the one directly to the right of it were larger than the others, and the backs were decorated more ornately than the others. Steve assumed one of them must be his. Behind the dais was a large oval table with several chairs surrounding it. Steve assumed that the table must be used for longer meetings, or small dinners or something.
There were already several attendants in the room, standing at the ready, as well as the elderly nobleman that Steve remembered seeing at the wedding. The nobleman bowed low when Steve entered, then came forward to greet him. "Good day, Lord Edward," Marcellus said.
"Good day, Your Highness. Good day, Your Majesty. I hope you are feeling well?"
"Yes, I feel fine, Lord Edward," Steve said.
"I am so pleased to hear that, Sire. I have our best investigators working on discovering the culprit behind the attack, and how the villain was able to get past the wall."
"I'm sure you'll get to the bottom of it, Lord Edward," Steve said.
Before anything more could be said, there were three loud knocks on the door. Two attendants opened the doors to reveal three Pacifican guards. The guards walked in, and stepped aside. Behind them were three more guards, these dressed in red and white instead of Pacificana's blue and silver. They also came in and stepped to the side of the doorway. A brightly dressed, but unarmed man stood in the doorway. He bowed, then spoke in a loud, clear voice. "Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, New England and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and Her Royal Highness the Princess Annette herewith seek entry."
Steve stared. Wow. Marcellus had told him that the Queen would most likely be announced, but he had no idea her title was so... elaborate. Even little, bouncy, chatterbox Annette sounded majestic when announced like that. "Let them enter," he said, remembering to project.
The announcer bowed low, then turned around and bowed again. He started to walk backwards, and at last the Queen entered, followed by Princess Annette, three British guards and four more Pacifican guards. Steve's eyes widened, and he barely managed to keep his mouth closed. Queen Elizabeth looked just like he remembered her from the highly televised wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. She wore an elaborate flowered dress, a shining tiara and a red capelet almost exactly like the one Steve wore. Her scepter was slightly longer and made of gold.
Steve was suddenly about ten times more nervous than he had been before. He found it highly unsettling to be standing face to face with such a famous and powerful woman, especially when he was posing as her near equal. Princess Annette stood slightly behind her mother, dressed more formally than he'd yet seen her. She wore a dress of a fine, sky blue material, and a tiara similar to, though much smaller than, her mother's. She looked very worried, and seemed like she wanted to run up and give him a hug, but couldn't because decorum forbade it. Steve swallowed hard. Steve turned his attention back to the Queen, mentally rehearsing his etiquette lesson again. Hopefully, the "Great Waters" were on his side.
He bowed slightly, counting the seconds before he straightened up. The Queen bowed her head slightly, as expected, and Annette curtseyed. Steve was the host, so he was allowed to speak first, even though he was the less powerful monarch. "Good day, Your Majesty," he said, remembering to speak English. "Princess Annette."
"Good day, Your Majesty," Queen Elizabeth said. Steve relaxed a little. She didn't sound terse. Maybe she wasn't holding a grudge about being refused an audience before.
"Good day, Sire," Annette said.
Steve smiled. "Of course, you know Prince Marcellus and Lord Edward." The two men bowed, much more deeply than Steve had. "Would you like to have a seat, Your Majesty?" he asked.
The Queen nodded once, and they moved to the dais. Steve took his place at the central throne-like chair, and the Queen was invited to sit in the other one. Marcellus sat directly to Steve's left, Lord Edward was in the seat left of him, and Annette sat beside her mother. "I do not wish to keep you long, Your Majesty," the Queen said. "I merely wish to ask after your health and to have a few of my questions answered."
"Please, Your Majesty," Steve said. "I am at your disposal for as long as you desire."
Elizabeth smiled. "You do seem to be having a trying week. First, your adverse reaction to the heat, and now, an intruder in your palace. I hope that you are feeling well after your ordeal."
"I appreciate your concern, Your Majesty," Steve said. "I feel fine now, thank you."
"I am glad to hear it. I would like to know if you have discovered any information about the assassin, or who sent him?"
"I'm afraid not, Your Majesty," Steve said. "The assassin gave no information before he was ki... brought to justice," he said, remembering Marcellus' suggested phrasing. "Lord Edward has informed me that our most skilled investigators are working on routing out the criminal behind this." He looked at Lord Edward as if to ask if he had anything to add.
"It does seem clear, Your Majesty," Lord Edward said to the Queen, "that the attack was definitely not aimed at you nor at anyone else in your party. However, I hope that you will be forgiving of the extra security we have assigned to assist in guarding you all the same. We do not want to risk anything happening to our honored guests that diligence on our part could prevent."
"Of course," the Queen replied.
"We currently have no less than 70 guards patrolling the wall, along with several more regularly checking the palace grounds," Lord Edward continued. "Scouts have been sent to the nearby towns to glean as much information from as we can from the townspeople."
The Queen nodded, seeming satisfied. "I assume that the wedding will be postponed until this matter has been fully resolved."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Steve said, noticing that Annette looked mildly disappointed. "I don't want to put Princess Annette, or anyone else in any unnecessary danger. Planning will continue, but we won't hold the ceremony until the danger of attack is completely gone."
The Queen nodded again. "I and the rest of my party are happy to enjoy your hospitality for as long as it takes to resolve this matter and see my daughter happily married."
"I am equally pleased to have you here," Steve said. "I hope you will let me know if there is anything I or any of my subjects can to do make your stay more comfortable."
"I will, King Stephen. Thank you. Now, I will leave you and my daughter alone. She is quite eager to speak with you."
The Queen moved to stand, and Steve quickly got up, as did Marcellus, Lord Edward and Annette. The Queen left with the better part of her escort, leaving two of the six British guards behind for Annette.
When they were gone, Lord Edward bowed to Steve. "Your Majesty, Captain Martinez is waiting to give me his report. With your permission, I will go and speak with him."
"By all means," Steve said. Lord Edward took his leave. When the door was closed, Princess Annette rushed toward him.
"Oh, Sire, are you all right?!" she cried, clearly relieved to finally be able to speak. "You're so pale, and you've been injured! What happened? Did the villain hurt you badly? What are you going to do? Will someone try again? Why would anyone want to kill you? You're so good to your people, and you almost never get angry, and you don't even hold that many executions! It can't be one of your own people. But who could it be? Have you offended anyone recently? I don't see how you could. What about those people in the UPA? They're democrats. Maybe they tried to kill you to try to force Pacificana to become a democracy, too! They must know that would never work. Oh, I'm so sorry this happened to you! I'm sure you'll catch the man behind all this! Oh, Majesty, you poor thing! Maybe you should sit down! Are you tired? Here, let me - "
"Annette," Steve said finally, when he couldn't take it anymore. "I'm fine. I promise. You're sweet to be so worried about me, but I'm quite all right."
"Really?" she asked softly.
Annette surprised Steve by giving him a quick, strong hug. "I'm so glad you're all right," she said. "I'm sure you were very brave."
"Actually, Marcellus was the brave one," Steve said. "He saved my life."
Marcellus was treated to a hug next. "I'm so glad. I was worried sick! Please say that I can stay with you today, Your Majesty."
Steve looked hesitantly at Marcellus. "I'm not sure if that's a good idea."
"Oh, please, Sire!" she cried. "I was so worried, and I had to wait a whole day before I got to see that you were all right with my very own eyes, and now they're saying that the person responsible is still at large, and I just can't bear to be stuck in my chambers without seeing you, please!"
Steve sighed and looked at Marcellus again. The Prince looked partly resigned, and partly amused. He nodded. "All right, Annette," Steve said. "We'll all stay together."
Annette gave him a hundred watt smile, and hooked her arm in his. "Thank you, Sire! What shall we do today? We should do something fun and relaxing to take your mind off of the assassin. Would you like to take a walk?"
"Dr. Rivell said I'm not supposed to do too much today," Steve said. "What do you think, Marcellus? You are my appointed ward."
Marcellus smiled. "A short walk should be fine. Just let me know the moment you grow tired."
Steve nodded, and the trio left the audience chamber. They stopped at Steve's quarters so that he could take off his cape and put the scepter away. Then they headed outside toward the gardens, surrounded by their entourage of guards. Steve suppressed a shudder when they entered the gardens, remembering his ordeal the last time he'd been here. He assured himself that there was nothing to worry about this time. He was with Marcellus, and Annette, and at least four guards who must know the maze well. They strolled at a slow pace, listening to Annette talk. She'd announced that she didn't want to talk about "dreary things" like the assassination attempt, so she kept her long stream of words to more pleasant subjects, like fashion and harmless gossip she'd heard from her ladies in waiting. Steve and Marcellus listened patiently, giving the occasional nod, or exclamation that was needed to keep Annette going.
They stopped to rest near a fountain that Steve found particularly nice in one of the many small circular clearings in the garden. Steve, Marcellus and Annette sat down on one of the benches, while the guards arranged themselves on either side. "Do you think they'll capture the criminal soon?" Annette asked.
"I'm sure they will," Steve said. "Lord Edward is in charge of the investigation, and he's very capable."
"I hope they find him quickly. At this rate, we'll miss the good summer weather. I would hate for it to rain on our wedding day."
"Very true," Steve said. "With luck, this will all be sorted out long before the weather turns."
"Do you think that you will wear a different outfit for the ceremony this time? The other one must have been too heavy with all the heat."
"I hope so," Steve said. I hope I don't have to worry about it at all, he thought.
"The royal tailors are already working on something more suitable," Marcellus said. He and Annette discussed wedding plans for a few more minutes, with Steve mostly listening in. Marcellus had already told him that he couldn't be the one to marry Annette. "Annette must not bond with anyone other than King Stephen," he'd said. Fine with Steve, of course. He liked Annette and everything, but he had no intention of being here long enough to get married. He didn't know what he planned to do about the situation, but he knew something had to be done, if only it meant stalling for as long as possible.
They continued to chat, and Steve noticed that the guards seemed to be getting restless. "Why don't you stretch your legs," Steve said to them. "They don't have to stand at attention the whole time, do they Marcellus?"
"No, Sire. I'm sure it will be fine for them to stretch their legs if you desire it. As long as they don't wander far."
The guards thanked them and started to mill around the clearing, talking quietly to one another so as not to disturb the royalty. Steve watched them absently, only half listening to Annette's ideas for the types of petals the flower girls should sprinkle before them as they walked. It was nearing the hottest part of the day, and Steve decided to wet his hands in the fountain. He stood up, gesturing to Marcellus and Annette that they should stay seated. He started toward the fountain, where a tall, but very young Pacifican guard sat, swishing his hand in the water. Steve was right behind him before the guard noticed him. The boy started when he saw Steve and immediately jumped to his feet and stood at attention. Steve was about to tell him to sit back down and have his fun when the guard cried out. Steve gasped. There was an arrow sticking out through the guard's shoulder. Steve froze, and he slowly grew cold when he took in the position of the arrowhead. It was about two inches from his face, in perfect alignment with the space directly between Steve's eyes.
The young guard ignored his wound and grasped Steve with his good arm, pulling him to the ground and covering him with his body as best he could. The other guards were moving quickly now, surrounding Steve and the others. Steve heard a high-pitched, "What's happening?" from Annette. Soon, Marcellus and Annette were huddled together with Steve, surrounded by four of the guards. From what Steve could see through the spaces between the guards and their raised shields, the remaining two seemed to be scanning the area for signs of the archer. After a few breathless moments, one of them said, "There!" He heard the sound of sliding metal, saw a flash of swords, and the two scouts ran off after the assassin.
"Now, my Lords," one of the remaining guards said. "Stay low." Steve and Marcellus stood, helping the frightened Annette up as well. They moved quickly, crouched behind their human shield. Steve noticed that the young guard that had taken the arrow meant for him managed to keep up well, even though he still had the arrow in his shoulder, and Steve could see that the blood stain on his blue tunic was growing steadily larger. The trip back to the palace seemed to take ages, despite their fast pace. Steve helped Marcellus support Annette, who was shaking now, and having difficulty keeping up because of it. They passed a few courtiers, all of whom could see that something was obviously very wrong, and ran ahead to get help. Thanks to them, there were several more guards waiting for them at the entrance to the maze. They provided another layer of protection on the rest of the trek to the palace.
Once inside, Steve gently pushed Annette closer to Marcellus and pried her hand from his. He put his arm around the young wounded guard, who was stumbling now. "Get this man some help!" he cried to anyone who would listen. "He needs a doctor, right now!" Several attendants rushed over to carry out his orders. Some of them tried to check him over, but he shoved them off. "I'm fine," he said loudly. "I want him taken care of, and I want all of these men to have some kind of reward. That goes for the two that went after that bastard, too. Especially if they catch him." Steve waited until he was sure the young guard was being taken care of properly before letting the guards escort him and his companions up the stairs and to the relative safety of his quarters. He and Marcellus spent the next several minutes comforting Annette and trying to convince her that the blood on Steve's shirt belonged to the guard, not him.
"Oh, Sire, I thought you were going to die! I thought we were all going to die! Is that guard going to die?"
"He'll be fine," Marcellus said with authority. "So will His Majesty. Are you all right, little one?"
Annette nodded. "I'm fine," she said, obviously trying to be brave. "Shall I leave you to change, my Lord?"
"I think that's a good idea," Steve said, looking at his bloodied shirt. "I'll send for you when I'm freshened up, okay? We can spend the rest of the day together inside." Looking pleased, Annette curtseyed and left the room, followed by the two British guards and three more in blue uniforms.
Only after she was gone, and he was alone with Marcellus did the magnitude of what had just happened truly hit Steve. He started to shake, and he could feel his legs about to give way. Marcellus rushed to his side and helped him to a chair before he collapsed. "Shall I call the doctor?" Marcellus asked worriedly.
Steve shook his head. "I just... need to relax... for a minute," Steve said breathlessly. He stared at his shaking hands and concentrated on breathing. "That k-kid could have died," he said. "I could have died. Shit!"
Marcellus put a hand on Steve's shoulder. "You are alive," he said. "The Waters were with you. And you handled yourself bravely."
Steve looked up and managed a smile. "Thanks," he said. They stayed silent for a few minutes, while Steve waited for the shaking to stop and his adrenaline levels to come out of the clouds. When he felt calm enough, he looked up again. "Guess I should get changed?" Marcellus nodded and made the arrangements. While they waited, Marcellus told Steve what was likely to happen if the guards found the archer.
"If he is taken alive, he will be tortured for information. If he is not behind the attacks, we may yet find out who is." Steve felt like he should be horrified at the thought that this peaceful kingdom used torture as a method of interrogation, but when he thought about the scare they'd had that afternoon, he just couldn't bring himself to feel sorry for the man.
Soon, attendants arrived to help him take a quick bath and change clothes. As promised, he sent for Annette, and they spent the next few hours in Steve's quarters, playing games, listening to Annette talk and trying to forget about their brush with death.