Steve was in the middle of a list of the possible (and highly detrimental) side effects of dissolving a bond when they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Marcellus gave him a moment to blot and hide his notes before calling out, "Enter."
Captain Martinez entered the room, and Steve was on his feet in an instant. "What happened?" he asked when the Captain was in mid-bow. "Did you get the children? Did you catch the guy?"
"I am sorry, Sire, but I must report that the criminal escaped before we could apprehend him."
"Damn," Steve said.
"Did anyone get a description of the villain, Captain?" Marcellus asked.
"Nothing very clear, Your Highness. He fled uncommonly swiftly, leading me to believe that magic was involved." Marcellus nodded as if there was nothing unusual in that assumption. Steve decided to pretend there wasn't. "All I could discern," the Captain continued, "was that he was of slightly less than average stature, stocky of build, and that he had long, dark hair."
"Hmm," Marcellus said, frowning. "That doesn't leave us with much to go on."
"I am sorry, Your Highness," the Captain said.
Marcellus shook his head. "You did well, Captain. I'm sure you already have your men looking for anyone who fits that description and has been known to use magic."
"What about the kids," Steve asked. "Are they all right?"
"We were able to retrieve them all, Sire," the Captain replied. "Unfortunately, I am afraid that they appear to have been abused. I have ordered attendants to see to them."
"Good," Steve said, infuriated to hear that the bastard behind all this had stooped to terrorizing children. "I'd like to see them now, if possible. Maybe they can tell us more about what the man looks like."
"Of course, Your Majesty." The Captain led them downstairs, followed by their ever-present entourage of guards, and they went to a small room. Several attendants were bustling around, filling bowls with hot water and gathering supplies. They stopped when Steve entered and bowed low. Steve waved at them, signaling that they should go on about their business.
It took a moment for Steve to find the children. There were four of them all together, sitting on a bench. The oldest of them was a girl of about five. She held an infant on her lap, and a pair of twin boys who might have been three sat one on either side of her, each pressed close to her, holding on to her dress. Steve was disturbed to see that all of the children - even the baby - bore several dark bruises. Their clothes were ripped in places, and he could see cuts on their arms and legs. One of the attendants approached the children and reached for the baby. The girl shook her head and clutched her sister closer. "It's all right, little one," the attendant said gently. "I won't hurt her. You're safe now, all right?" He reached for the baby again, and after a moment, wherein the girl looked a lot like her father had when he was trying to decide whether or not to trust Steve, she relinquished her hold. She followed the attendant with her eyes, making sure he'd been telling the truth. Soon, however, she had other things to think about. Two more attendants came over and started gently removing the children's clothes.
Steve winced when he saw the children without their clothes on, and he could hear Marcellus gasp beside him. They had bruises all over, and there were cuts and burns on their skin in several places. Jesus, what the hell was he doing to them? The attendants shook their heads and tsked sadly, then set about cleaning the children and bandaging what they could. Steve came forward while they were working and knelt beside the bench. "Hi," he said. The children looked nervous, but they smiled wanly in response to his broad grin. "What are your names?" Steve asked.
"Maribel," the girl said softly. "This is Daniel and this is David," she said, pointing to each twin in turn. "My sister, Liliana is there." She pointed to a table where an attendant was busy checking the baby over.
"I'm Stephen," he said. "I know that there was a very mean man at your house for a while." Maribel frowned and squirmed away from the attendants so she could pull her brothers closer. "You did a good job protecting them," he said to her. "You can help me catch the man who hurt you." Her eyes widened, and she was distracted enough to let the attendants continue their work. "Do you remember what he looked like?"
She wrinkled her forehead. "Mean."
Steve suppressed a laugh. "I'm sure he did. But did he have any special marks on his face, or something like that?"
"He had scary eyes," Maribel replied. Daniel and David both nodded vigorously. "He had long hair, too. And big hands. And he smiled a lot."
"Smiled?" Steve asked, surprised.
Maribel nodded. "He..." She bit her now-trembling lip, and her eyes started to fill with tears. "He smiled when he hurt us."
Steve frowned, stomach turning at the very idea that they were dealing with a man who got pleasure from torturing little kids. Fucking sick bastard, he thought. "Well, we're going to catch him as soon as we can, okay, Maribel?" he said aloud. "He's definitely not going to do anything to you again." Maribel nodded. "Since you've been so helpful to me, and such brave little children, we're going to give you special treats, okay? We're going to give you a pretty new dress, and your brothers and sister are going to get new clothes, too. And you can stay here and relax or play or whatever you want, okay? How does that sound?"
Maribel smiled and nodded. "Thank you, sir," she said. She nudged her brothers. "What do you say?" she whispered.
"Thank you, sir," the boys chorused.
"You're welcome, little ones," Steve said. He got up and went back to where Marcellus and Captain Martinez were standing. Their expressions were as grim as his thoughts. He led them toward the door, out of the earshot of the children. "I don't like this at all," he said. "This guy is really sick."
"Indeed, Sire," Marcellus said. "He has a truly evil spirit, he wields magic, and he is bent on your destruction."
"Well, what are we going to do about him?"
"With your permission, my Liege," Martinez said, "I would like to increase security throughout the castle, as well as in the surrounding towns. If he succeeded once in coercing a loyal subject into making an attempt on your life, he may try again. The palace servants and members of court must be made secure."
"Sounds like a good plan," Steve said, disliking the idea that someone inside the castle might be influenced by the mystery assassin.
"I would also suggest requesting the assistance of a Priestess, my Lord," Marcellus said. "The villain may attempt to use a spell against you, and I would feel safer if you were protected against such an occurrence."
"I would never have thought of that," Steve said, truthfully enough. "I think that's an excellent idea." He still found it strange that these people took the existence of real magic for granted, but considering the fact that he was in a totally different world, he wasn't about to take any chances. "I think we should also try to talk to Daniel again. Maybe he can tell us more about what this villain looks like."
"Of course, Sire," Marcellus said. "Bring him to the small audience chamber, Captain. We can question him there."
"Yes, Your Highness."
"When the children have been made more comfortable, bring them to the chamber as well," Steve said. "But keep them out of sight of the prisoner, and don't bring them in until I ask for them."
"Yes, Sire." Martinez left, and they headed back down to the audience chamber. After the discussion they'd just had about the criminal out for his blood, he was quite glad to be accompanied by his guards. The dais was arranged differently than it had been that morning. Now, there were only three chairs - the throne, and one regular chair on either side of it. Steve took his place on the throne-like chair, and Marcellus sat on his right. After a few minutes, Captain Martinez came in, followed by four guards. Two of them held Daniel firmly by the arms, while the other two brought up the rear. The prisoner had been given a pair of plain, rough looking pants to wear, and his wrists and ankles were shackled. Steve was pleased to see that he'd been bandaged in places. He looked less pale and drawn than the last time Steve had seen him. When Daniel saw Steve, his eyes lit up for a brief second, but his expression soon changed to a nervous one. He probably thought he was about to be punished. The guards walked to a respectful distance from the dais and bowed. Daniel sank to his knees and bowed his head.
"I need your help again, Daniel," Steve said.
"Anything you ask of me, I will do, Your Majesty," he said.
"We weren't able to capture the man who forced you into this," Steve began. Daniel looked up sharply, immense disappointment and grief on his face, which he immediately struggled to control. Steve guessed that he thought that meant they hadn't been able to retrieve his children either. Steve didn't say anything to correct the assumption. It was probably a mean thing to do, but Steve wanted to keep it a surprise. "We need to know what he looked like so we can find him before he tries something else. Can you remember anything distinctive about his face?"
"His eyes, Majesty," Daniel replied. "He had the palest blue eyes I've ever seen. Almost clear they were. Like ice. And when he looked at you, it felt like that was what his heart was made of. That stare..." He shuddered at the memory. "It sent chills." Steve thought about how the children had all agreed that the man's eyes were frightening. He wondered what the man looked like in person. He also hoped he never had to find out. "He looked to be about fifty or so," Daniel continued. "There was a small scar, here on his chin. His jaw was a little wide, and his chin was pointed." He frowned, and looked hard at Steve and Marcellus. "Come to think of it, Sire, he looked a bit like you."
"Careful, knave!" Captain Martinez snapped.
"Wait, we need to hear this," Steve said. "In what way did he look like me?"
"Well, Sire, his face was shaped much the same as yours, and his nose had the same shape. Even his eyes had a similar look, except for the color of course. I would not speak treason, Majesty, but he bore the royal countenance strongly."
Steve frowned, looking at Marcellus. "Could I have offended somebody in our family without knowing it?" he asked.
"No member of the royal family would try to assassinate you, my Lord," Marcellus said firmly. "You are well loved among all our relatives."
Steve got the impression that Marcellus wasn't just saying that to defend his bondmate. Stephen seemed well loved by everyone at the palace. Why would any of his own relatives want to kill him? "Well, clearly our genes are strong. Is it possible that someone in the family had a child somewhere that hasn't been accounted for?"
"Anything is possible, Sire," Marcellus said, looking as if he thought it a very far-fetched idea nonetheless.
"Captain," Steve said. "I think you should inform your men of this new description. If his eyes are so distinctive, it shouldn't be hard to find someone who remembers seeing him."
Steve looked back down at Daniel. "Now, as for your sentence," he said. "Although I sympathize with your situation, you committed a serious crime against the crown, and you wounded one of my guards in the process. I can't let that go unpunished. Therefore, I have decided to banish you from Pacificana. You will be relocated to North Pacificana, where you will remain for the rest of your life. I think a period of probation is also in order, don't you?" he asked Marcellus.
"I do, Sire" Marcellus said. "I would suggest at least two years of probation, during which any infraction will be harshly punished."
"Done," Steve said.
Daniel gaped at Steve for several moments, obviously dumbstruck. "Is... is that all, Sire?"
"Yes. Unless you want me to think of something else," Steve said.
"No, no! Thank you, Your Majesty!" He bowed several times, even though he was already on his knees. "Thank you!"
"You're welcome. However, there is one more thing I intend to hold you responsible for." Daniel looked worried, as if he knew his punishment was too good to be true. Steve turned to Captain Martinez. "Did you make the other arrangements as I asked, Captain?"
Martinez looked confused for a moment, before understanding dawned. He gave a slight smile. "I did, Your Majesty."
"I'm ready for them now."
"Yes, Sire." The Captain went toward the chamber door. Curious, Daniel turned to watch him, but Marcellus put an end to that with a sharp reprimand about turning his back to the king. Captain Martinez opened the door and beckoned to someone Steve couldn't see. Daniel's children came in, followed by an attendant. As Steve had promised, they all had new clothes on. Maribel had apparently decided that the attendant was to be trusted, because she was allowing her to hold Liliana. The boys were holding hands, but they didn't seem frightened. Their cuts had been bandaged, and they looked much happier now. They smiled in recognition when they saw Steve and rushed forward to greet him, oblivious of court manners. They were oblivious of their father as well, as the guards had hidden him from view. Daniel's jaw dropped, and he stared at his children as if he couldn't believe they were real. Steve grinned.
"Hello, sir," Maribel said happily, coming up to stand beside his chair. "We had dinner," she announced. "And a nice man came and gave me a doll! Danny got a boat, and Davy got a horse, and Lily got a bear."
"Well that's great, sweetie," Steve said, grinning even wider at Daniel's reaction. He was smiling now, and Steve thought he could see tears starting to form. "That's a pretty dress," he said. "And you guys look really handsome. Why don't you turn around so I can see the back?"
Happily, the children obliged. Suddenly, there was a squeal from Maribel. "Papa!" The children sped toward their father, who struggled to get his arms around them despite the shackles.
"My children! My children!" Daniel attempted to squeeze the life out of his kids and kissed them until they were all giggling and squirming. "Where is Liliana?" The attendant brought the baby over for him to see, and he gave her several kisses as well. After the initial excitement wore off, he took in their condition. His tear-filled eyes started to look worried. "What has happened to you, my darlings? Did that evil man do this to you?"
"Don't worry, Papa," Maribel said. "He says that they'll catch him soon," she said, pointing toward Steve. "He's the one who said I could have a new dress. Do you like my dress, Papa?"
"Yes, very much, my darling," Daniel said, but his eyes were on Steve. "Did you thank the king for sending the guards to rescue you?"
"Yes, love. He is the king."
Maribel turned and looked at Steve with wide eyes. "Oh!" She curtseyed a little clumsily, and the boys bowed. "Thank you for rescuing us, sir. Your Majesty."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Daniel said, voice thick with emotion. "Thank you so much. Waters' blessing on you."
"You're welcome," Steve said. "Captain, do you think that you could keep him in the room with his children until they're relocated, instead of putting him in a cell?"
"As you wish, my Liege," the Captain said.
Daniel looked ecstatic and the children clapped gleefully. They were led away, Daniel thanking Steve profusely with almost every step. The children seemed to think walking backwards was a funny game, and they giggled at the adults all the way to the door. Once there, the kids waved goodbye, Daniel thanked Steve again, and Steve was left alone with Marcellus and their guards.
"Do you think they'll be all right?" Steve asked.
"I'm sure they will, Sire," Marcellus said. "I will ask Lord Edward to arrange their safe relocation so that Captain Martinez can concentrate on continuing the search and securing the castle. They will be given a suitable house to live in, and an archer as skilled as Daniel will not find it hard to secure work."
"That's great," Steve said. "What should we do now?"
"It is late, Sire, and you have had a very long day. I think it's time we retired for the night."
Steve agreed, and they went back upstairs to his bedroom. The guards remained outside, leaving Marcellus and Steve alone. Steve sank onto one of the couches and sighed heavily. Now that he had a chance to take a break, he realized he was exhausted. "What a day!"
"Indeed," Marcellus said. "I fear I have failed in my commitment to keep you from doing too much."
"It's not like you could help it," Steve said. "But I'm okay. I got a chance to rest when you were teaching me about our... your family," he said, correcting himself.
Marcellus smiled slightly, noticing the mistake. "You are learning to behave like a king very quickly," he said. "I am pleased. Whether you know it or not, your mannerisms are quite like King Stephen's, and when you remember to speak formally, your speech patterns resemble his as well."
"Really?" Steve asked. He shook his head. "It's still kind of scary to think that there's another me out there."
"I understand your feeling," Marcellus said quietly. "It is unnerving to see my Stephen standing before me and know that it is not truly him." He sighed, eyes looking sad.
"You miss him."
Marcellus nodded. "I take solace in the fact that I now know he faces no grave danger. He is asleep now." Marcellus shook himself. "As you should be. I shall call the attendants to help you into your nightclothes."
"Thank you, Your Highness," Steve said. Marcellus left, and Steve tried to stay awake long enough for someone to change his clothes. He was half asleep when the attendants came. They apologized for disturbing him, helped him into a night gown and tucked him into bed. Within seconds, he was fast asleep.