When early evening came, and Annette was pouting because she didn't think it was fair that they wouldn't let her win Armada at least once an hour, there came a knock on the door. Marcellus answered, and a boy of about twelve bowed deeply. "Please excuse this interruption, Your Majesty. Your Highnesses," he said. "His Lordship Captain Martinez requests your presence in the chambers at your earliest convenience, Sire."
"Um... okay, tell him I'll be right there," Steve said, not really sure what was happening. The attendant bowed again and went to deliver the message.
Marcellus turned, looking serious. "I'm afraid I must ask you to return to your quarters, Princess," he said.
"Yes, Your Highness," she said, already headed for the door. Clearly, she had a better grasp on the situation.
"What's going on?" Steve asked when Annette had gone.
"Andreas Martinez is the Captain of the Guard," Marcellus explained quickly. "They have caught the assassin, and have probably weakened him enough that he is near talking. Come."
They walked quickly down to the first floor of the castle, this time surrounded by eight guards instead of four. They made their way to a remote part of the castle that Steve hadn't visited before. They went down a vacant hallway to a flight of stairs leading up. Steve was perplexed at first, having expected to go down to the torture chambers, but when he thought about how practically no house in California had a basement, he figured it made sense. They walked up several flights of stairs, around and around, headed for the top of what Steve knew must be one of the four outer turrets of the castle. They kept a slow pace, taking several rests. Steve didn't think he would have been up to a fast-paced trek up more stairs than he cared to count even under normal circumstances. Losing such a large amount of blood two days before certainly wasn't helping.
Eventually, Steve began to see rooftops through the slit-like windows in the stone walls. As they neared the top, Steve heard a scream. He stopped short, alarmed by the high-pitched, terrified sound. He'd never heard anything like it before. Apparently unfazed, Marcellus and the guards paused and looked at him. "We are nearly there, Majesty. Do you require another rest?"
Steve shook his head, and they continued. The next time he heard a scream, Steve gritted his teeth and forced himself not to react. When they reached the door at the end of the last staircase, the guards opened it and stepped aside so that Steve and Marcellus could enter first. Steve froze when he entered the room, feeling like he had stepped directly into a nightmare. Indeed, he had. They were in a large, circular room without windows, lit only by torches. There were shackles hanging from various points on the wall, along with racks boasting various strange, but painful looking metal instruments. The "furniture" in the room consisted of tables of various sizes, with straps and chains attached, as well as two metal cages shaped to fit a human being, with evil-looking spikes facing inward. There were several other devices that Steve vaguely remembered learning about in school when they'd studied the Spanish Inquisition. There was a large fire burning in the single fireplace, and the stench of blood and seared flesh pervaded the room. It was all Steve could do not to wretch on the spot.
A tall, extremely buff looking man wearing what appeared to be a fancy version of the guard's uniforms stepped away from one of the tables and bowed deeply to Steve. "Thank you for coming, Your Majesty," the man (obviously Captain Martinez) said. "The villain's resistance is wearing. I think we may have our answer soon." He gestured for Steve to go before him to the only occupied table. Slowly, Steve walked toward the table, not really wanting to get any closer. A thin man of about thirty lay naked on the table, chained by his wrists and ankles, his limbs stretched taught. His violently shaking body was covered in red stripes and burns, and he was bleeding in several places. "Speak, knave!" Captain Martinez shouted. "Who sent you!?" The archer gritted his teeth and shook his head. "As you wish," the Captain said. "Another turn," he ordered.
"Aye, sir." One of the guards standing nearby began turning the large wheel near the table. There was a clinking of chains and the tortured man groaned loudly and his face contorted with agony as his limbs stretched even more.
"Bring the poker," the Captain commanded. The man's already heavy breathing suddenly got faster and he strained in his bonds. Soon, Steve saw why. One of the guards was approaching the table from the direction of the fire. He wore a thick, heavy glove that looked like something a blacksmith would wear, and he carried a long, iron poker. The top six inches of it glowed red. Captain Martinez stepped back, gesturing for Steve and Marcellus to do the same. A high keen started in the back of the prisoner's throat, and his writhing got more desperate, despite the fact that his movements were limited by the tight chains. The guard slowly lowered the poker toward the man's inner thigh. He was hyperventilating now, and sweat began to roll off his forehead. "Will you speak?" The prisoner looked like he really wanted to consider speaking out, but after a few seconds he shook his head. The poker came down, and Steve turned his head just before the prisoner screamed. When he dared to look again, there was a hideous burn on the man's leg, and tears had come to his eyes.
Steve wanted to hurl. He'd thought he couldn't feel sorry for a murderer, but that was before he knew what it meant for a man to be tortured. Before he'd seen it with his own eyes. "Dammit, just tell him what he wants to know!" he cried. The man shook his head, fighting back tears.
"Another turn," the Captain commanded.
"Wait," Steve said sharply. "Why?" he asked the assassin. "Don't you want this to stop? Just tell him!"
"K..." The man gasped, and Steve leaned closer. "K-kill me," he whispered hoarsely.
"Dammit, no! What is it? Is it because you think they're going to kill you whether you tell or not? Is that it?" The man didn't answer. "Tell me what I want to know, and I won't let them kill you." The assassin (and everyone else in the room) stared at him in shock for several moments. Finally, he shook his head again. Steve sighed, frustrated. "What's your name?" he asked.
After a moment of stunned silence, the man whispered, "Daniel."
"Daniel. Do you have a wife? Or a husband? You have kids?" The man nodded, looking, if possible, more pained than before. "You don't want to leave them alone, do you? Tell me what you know."
"Can't," he said, his voice thick. "He'll kill..." The man stopped, wide eyed. Clearly, he'd said too much.
"There!" Steve cried. "You said 'he'. Tell me who he is! Who's threatening your family, Daniel? Tell me who put you up to this, and I promise you I won't have you executed, I'll see to it that your family is safe, and I'll make sure you get to see them again." There were gasps and the beginnings of protests from behind him, but Steve raised his hand to silence them. "Think about it, Daniel. I'm a man of my word. Am I not, Marcellus?"
"Yes, Sire," Marcellus said, sounding as astonished as Daniel looked.
"You want them to be safe, don't you?" Steve watched the man's face, never taking his eyes off of him.
The prisoner was clearly unsure whether Steve was telling the truth, or just lying to get him to talk. He bit his lip so hard it bled, torn between disbelief and hope. Finally, chest heaving, he spoke. "I don't... know his name. He said... someone told him I was... good with the bow and arrow. The best. He offered me... money to kill you. Enough to feed my family for a year. I said no, and... he told me he would... k-kill my children if I didn't do it. My Maribel is... gone, and... they're babies... all I have. I c-couldn't let... He said he would kill them if... I gave him away." At this latest revelation, Daniel finally did start to cry. "They'll... b-be killed! I've killed them!"
"Where do you live, Daniel?" Steve asked.
"N-number 4... Oceansgate Road," he said through his sobs.
Steve turned sharply. "Captain Martinez, get somebody over there right now, and bring those kids here. Be careful. If anything happens to this man's children, I'm holding you responsible, understand?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Try to take the assassin alive."
"Yes, Sire." He was on the move immediately, headed out the door and down the stairs at a fast pace.
"You," Steve said, pointing to the guards still standing near the table. "Let him go."
The guards immediately loosened Daniel's chains. He curled in on himself, shaking and trying to control his tears. When he looked at Steve, his eyes were filled with gratitude. "Th-thank you, S-sire," he managed. "Th-thank you. W-waters bless you."
"And you," Steve said. He looked at the guards. "Have the doctor look him over, then hold him somewhere until I figure out what I'm going to do."
"Yes, Sire." They immediately set about lowering the man from the table and trying to help him stand.
Steve turned to Marcellus next, mildly afraid that he wouldn't approve of what he'd done. What if he hadn't acted like the king would have? "Shall we repair to your quarters to discuss this matter, Sire?"
"Certainly," Steve said nervously. They went down the many flights of stairs and headed for Steve's study. When they were alone, Steve looked worriedly at Marcellus. "I'm sorry, Your Highness," he said. "I'm sorry I butted in, but I couldn't take it! He was-"
Marcellus raised a hand, silencing him. To Steve's surprise, he was smiling. "There is no need to apologize, Steve," he said, calling him by his name for the first time. When he spoke again, Steve thought he could hear a hint of admiration in his voice. "In ten minutes, you got information from the prisoner that hours of torture failed to extract, and you showed mercy to a man who'd recently tried to kill you. You behaved admirably. In fact," he said, his expression turning thoughtful, "upon further reflection, you acted just as I would expect King Stephen to."
"Really?" Steve asked, feeling relieved and a little proud. Marcellus nodded. Steve collapsed into a chair and sighed, wiping the sweat from his brow. "I hope I never have to see that place again."
"That is exactly what Stephen says any time he has to visit the torture chambers," Marcellus said. "This borders on the uncanny."
Steve chuckled. "I think it crossed the uncanny border a long time ago," he said. "What do you think I should do about him?" he asked. "I don't want to put him in prison. I mean, what choice did he have? But I don't want to just send him back home either. What if there's more than one person behind all this? It might not be safe."
"I do not think it would be wise to allow an attempted assassin to go unpunished, no matter what his reasons," Marcellus said. "It would set an unwanted precedent."
"However," Marcellus said quickly, "you might find banishment to be an acceptable punishment. You can order him to move with his family to North or South Pacificana for the rest of his life, or for a stated number of years. If he is escorted out of the country by guards and they travel in secrecy, they should escape danger from the true villain behind the attack."
Steve smiled. "That sounds perfect."
"I thought you would approve. Now, all that remains is to wait for Captain Martinez's report." Marcellus took advantage of their time alone to give Steve a few more lessons in kingliness. He headed for the book case and returned with a huge volume, several times larger than the old family Bible that his mother had. He set it down on the desk and beckoned for Steve to come take a look. An Unabridged Genealogy of the Pacifican Royal Family. "You said you remembered my father's name from one of our family books. Is this the one you saw?"
Steve shook his head. "The one I saw was the abridged version."
"Ah. The unabridged version includes birth and death dates, along with the major accomplishments of selected family members. You would do well to study this, as the king is expected to know much of what it contains."
Steve sighed, noting that the book was about five inches thick. Great. "Okay," he said aloud.
Marcellus turned to a page early in the book and invited Steve to look.
King Alejandro Pereira
1479 - 1535
Founder and first king of Pacificana.
Provided asylum to refugees from Spanish terrorism.
Defeated the Spanish in The Battle of 1497.
Philosophies of peaceful expansion instrumental in sheltering Pacificana from the ravages of the Scourge.
Provided asylum to innocents during the early years of the Scourge.
Sired seven children with Queen Mariana (of Portugal):
"Wow," Steve said, looking at all the accomplishments. And all the kids. "He was a pretty busy guy." He did a little figuring in his head. "He won a battle when he was only eighteen?"
"He sailed with Columbus when he was only thirteen," Marcellus said. "When he arrived at the New World, he founded Pacificana and declared himself king within his fourteenth year."
"Indeed," he said, practically brimming with pride for his ancestor. "He was a natural leader. Charismatic and persuasive even at such a young age."
"What's this all about?" Steve said, pointing to the fourth accomplishment. "His philosophies helped protect the country?"
"Ah, yes. King Alejandro abhorred the horrendous treatment the Spanish showed to the native people of Columbia. He and his followers broke away from the Spanish travelers as soon as possible, and journeyed to modern-day Pacificana. Once there, Alejandro determined that he would show clemency, rather than violence toward the natives. When he began to expand the country, he promised the native people their religious and cultural freedom. Because of this, Pacificana was spared the devastating destruction of the Scourge for many years."
"What's that?" Steve asked.
"What is what?"
"The Scourge," Steve said. "What is that?"
Marcellus gaped at Steve in utter disbelief. "You... you do not know of the Scourge?" Steve shook his head. "Merciful Waters," Marcellus said, sounding completely astounded. "How can this be?"
"Maybe we just have a different name for it?" Steve suggested. "We had the Black Plague in..." Steve trailed off. Marcellus was already shaking his head. "No?"
"No. The Black Plague occurred before the Scourge. I cannot understand how you could not know this! The whole world was affected by the Scourge."
"What happened?" Steve asked.
"On January 1, 1500, the Terrible Ones arose from the volcanoes and began a reign of fire and terror on the earth. All the major leaders of the world received a visit from one of them. They were told that the Spirits of the Earth were displeased with the way things were progressing on Earth, and payment must be made for their crimes. For one hundred years, most of the world was ravaged by the Terrible Ones. Fire and destruction covered the earth. Pacificana was spared until the ascension of Alexio the Tyrant. He brought the wrath of the Dragons upon the country when he began forcing citizens to abandon their beliefs in favor of his own."
"Wait a minute," Steve said sharply. "The whats?"
"He brought the wrath of the what on the country??"
"The Terrible Ones," Marcellus said. "The Dragons."
"Yes," Marcellus said, frowning slightly. "Whom did you think I meant?"
"Not dragons!" Steve cried. "I thought you just meant the volcanoes erupted or something!"
"Yes, that as well. But the Dragons also emerged from the volcanoes to give the message of the Spirits to the world's leaders." Steve stared blankly at Marcellus. "You have nothing like this in your history?" Marcellus asked.
"Nnnnnooooooooo," Steve said slowly. "Not at all."
Marcellus shook his head. "I cannot believe that such a cataclysmic event in our history could be missing from yours."
"I can't believe such an insane event occurred in anybody's history! Dragons? Reign of fire!? It sounds like a movie or something!"
"Oh, nevermind," he said. "What happened next?"
"The Dragons left Pacificana after Alexandria the Wise took the throne from her father. Then, on January 1, 1600, the world's leaders received a second visit from the Terrible Ones. They said that the Scourge was over, but should the Four Spirits decide things were progressing badly again, there would be another age of destruction, even worse than the first. Then, the Spirit of the Waters sent rains and huge waves to put out the fires, and the Rebirth began. Queen Alexandria founded Aquanism in gratitude to the Great Waters for putting out the fires and ending the Scourge without the loss of a single life. It soon became the largest and most popular of all the elemental religions that arose during the Scourge. Pacificana and Great Britain provided a large amount of aide to other countries to help them rebuild, and society renewed itself as a more accepting, less hostile place than it had been before the Scourge."
"Wow," Steve said after a moment. "That would definitely have to be why we're so different."
"I still find this amazing," Marcellus said. "Your leaders never received the message of the Spirits of the Earth?"
"Nope. Nothing of the sort." In fact, though he didn't say it out loud, Steve believed that most of what Marcellus had told him must be a myth made up to keep people in line. Maybe there was some strange mass volcanic eruption that had plunged the world into chaos, but real dragons? I just don't think so.
"Amazing." Marcellus shook his head, then turned to the next page in the book to continue the lesson. They went through the kings and queens of Pacificana one by one, taking a pause so that Steve could get his note taking equipment together. Steve glazed over the dragon talk in favor of things that made sense to him. Once in a while, Marcellus tested Steve on the information they'd gone over. "What was the significance of the Treaty of Westminster? Who was the ninth ruler of Pacificana? How long was the reign of Queen Adriana?" Eventually, they reached the page that showed King Stephen's grandmother.
Queen Magdelena Pereira
1885 - 1939
Offered protectorate status to West China.
Helped found the League of Allied Nations.
Mothered four children with King Stephen (of Great Britain):
"I donít get it," Steve said. "Why are two of her children in red ink? I thought they only did that for successors to the throne."
"They do," Marcellus said. "Prince Mageldi would have ascended after the death of his mother, but he was killed in a deep sea storm in 1939, along with his wife and daughter."
"The same year she died," Steve said, pointing to the queen's name. "Then he would have ascended that year if he hadn't died, right?"
"No," Marcellus said. "Queen Magdelena's heart failed her upon hearing of the demise of her son and his family."
"Oh, man," Steve said. "How awful."
"Indeed," said Marcellus. "It was amidst great grieving that Stephen took the throne. He was very close to his older brother, both in age and in spirit. And, of course, the untimely death of his mother was extremely difficult for him to bear."
"I can imagine."
"The late King Stephen was always very protective of his family and anyone else that became close to him ever after that event. Indeed, I think this is what saved me from his wrath when Stephen and I bonded."
"You know," Steve said, "I've been meaning to ask you about that. What's the deal? If you're married to King Stephen, how can he marry Annette?"
Marcellus frowned. "Married? King Stephen and I are not married. We are Bound."
"So, it's not the same thing?"
"No! Bonding usually accompanies marriage, but they are not the same. Marriage is merely a civil ceremony to ensure the joining of legal properties. Bonding joins the soul."
"Umm... Could you elaborate on this, Your Highness? I'm sure this is something I should know."
Marcellus looked astounded yet again. "This baffles me! You truly must be from another world. I would never have thought to teach you of this, because it is so basic to us."
"But, I didn't know about the Scourge either," Steve reminded him.
"True. Then, you have no idea how I discovered your deception, do you?"
"No, as a matter of fact, I don't," Steve said. "That's another thing I've been meaning to ask. How did you know I wasn't the king?"
"Your answer is tied to your question about the Bonding. When two people are in love, and they wish their souls to be joined, they hold a Bonding Ceremony. The bonding occurs on a boat, or at the shore. A Priestess makes a cut in the palms of each partner's weaker hand, then they join their hands together and let their mingled blood drop into the sea."
"Wait. You share blood? Don't you worry about diseases?"
"What ill could come of something blessed by the Spirit of the Waters?" Marcellus asked. Steve decided to leave it alone. Maybe they didn't have serious blood-borne diseases around here. "After the mingled blood drops into the water, the blessing of the Great Waters is asked upon the union. There is usually a sign that the Spirit of the Waters has given her blessing, such as a particularly beautiful wave, or even a vision of the Spirit. Then, the couple's souls are joined."
"At the risk of sounding completely ignorant, what does it mean that their souls are joined?"
"It means they become One," Marcellus said. "Bondmates share feelings and sense each other in other ways. For example, I usually can tell when Stephen enters a room without seeing him. If he were grievously wounded, I might feel his pain. And, of course, I sense his emotions."
"Wow," Steve said, awe in his voice. "You can really tell what the other person is feeling?"
"Of course," Marcellus said. "That is why I knew you were not my king when the assassin attacked you in the night. I did not know your danger until you called for help. If King Stephen had been attacked, I would have known the moment he sensed a danger to himself. Instead of fear, I sensed only the calm I usually feel when I know he is sleeping. Then, of course, there is this." Marcellus held his left hand palm up so Steve could see it. There was a narrow scar running diagonally across his palm. "King Stephen's hand bears a similar scar. Yours does not."
Steve remembered the look on Marcellus' face the night of the attack when he'd turned Steve's hand over. He'd obviously been looking for the scar. "You must have been pretty upset," Steve said, feeling slightly edgy at the memory. "Well, obviously you were. I wonder why you didn't find me out before."
"I have been thinking about this," Marcellus said. "If your theory is correct, then at the same time that you were brought here, Stephen was taken to your world. I felt his confusion, shock and anger at the same time you expressed these emotions. He was nervous the days after that, as you seemed to be. And when you seemed to be angry at me, I believe that Stephen could feel my hurt, and was therefore angry at you for causing it."
"But what about when we..." Steve stopped, thinking it might not be wise to remind Marcellus that he'd fooled him into cheating on his bondmate.
"In times of extreme passion, most people are experiencing their own emotions too forcefully to allow them to concentrate on those of their partner."
"Ah. Well." Steve cleared his throat. "That's another thing we don't have in my world. I mean, I think some people have psychic intuition or something, and they can tell what people are feeling, but that's only a very small number. Mixing your blood with somebody else's just doesn't have that effect where I'm from." He sighed, thinking about how Sherrie was drifting apart from him. "I wish it did, though", he said. "It would be great to be that close to someone."
"It is a beautiful experience," Marcellus said.
Steve sighed again, pushing away his morose thoughts. "If it's such a beautiful thing, and everybody knows about it, why was the first King Stephen mad about it?"
"Stephen was already betrothed to Annette when we bonded. When Stephen was fifteen, his father arranged that should Queen Elizabeth give birth to a girl within the next five years, she should be given to Stephen for a wife when she came of age."
"What?" Steve interrupted. "That's crazy!!"
"Why?" Marcellus asked. "Ensuring a union between Pacificana's heir apparent and the crowned princess of Great Britain was a very auspicious achievement. Their marriage will unite the two most powerful nations in the world into a virtually unbreakable alliance."
"But she wasn't even born... conceived yet!"
"Yes, there was a certain amount of risk involved. But Queen Elizabeth was still in her child bearing years, and she had already mothered three boys. Probability demanded that a girl would be next."
"But..." Steve stopped himself. Obviously, this was a hopeless argument. Just chalk it up to weirdness, he thought. "Go on please, Your Highness," he said aloud.
"Although I was only ten years of age at the time Stephen's marriage was arranged, he and I were already fast friends. As the years progressed, we grew even closer, until finally we knew we were in love. The king knew this, and when Queen Elizabeth gave birth to a girl on the fifth year after the arrangement was made, there was talk that I might have to return to my father's home in Juneau. When it seemed definite that the king would send me away, Stephen took me out on his boat, ostensibly to tell me goodbye. In truth, he meant to propose the Bond. Naturally, I accepted, but King Stephen was furious when he found out. I'm sure he wished to have us both flogged then and there. However, as I said, his kind heart did not allow him to stay angry for long."
"Wait, why didn't he just send you home anyway?" Steve asked.
"And separate bondmates?" Marcellus asked incredulously. "It would be the height of cruelty."
"Oh. I see. So Stephen knew his father couldn't break you two up if he bonded with you."
Steve shook his head, grinning. "Very sneaky. Sounds like something I would do."
Marcellus allowed himself a small smile, before continuing Steve's lesson on Bonding. Steve took a few notes on special phrases used in the ceremony, and the legal rights of Bound couples as compared to those of married couples. The more he learned, the more he thought he liked the idea that two people could get close enough to each other to share feelings. He wondered what it would be like to be that close to someone. He looked at Marcellus, and thought about how nice it was before he'd been discovered, but after he'd stopped being afraid to let Marcellus get near him. I wonder what it would be like to be that close to him.
Steve sighed. Yeah, right. He couldn't hope to compete with Stephen. The king was obviously the love of Marcellus' life. They'd been together since he was ten, for God's sake. But it would be nice. Steve sighed again, pushing the thoughts out of his mind before going back to taking notes.