Steve spent the next week memorizing information and practicing his manners in preparation for the Biannual Council. Soon, he could recognize everyone's picture, and give Marcellus detailed information about each dukedom, and how each duke was related to the king. He also knew exactly how to address everyone and how everyone should address him. When he wasn't going over the names and faces of the dukes, duchesses and other dignitaries that would be attending the Council, he was in the gym with Marcellus honing his swordsmanship skills, and practicing archery. There seemed to be an unspoken, but mutual agreement to avoid the staff from now on.
As the days passed, Steve found himself growing more and more attached to Marcellus, and he could tell that Marcellus must feel the same way about him. He was always kind and sweet to him, and he treated him a lot like he had before he'd discovered Steve was an impostor. He started to spend every night in Steve's room, much to Steve's delight. Sometimes they just slept, sometimes they did more. Thanks to his similarity to the king, Marcellus already seemed to know exactly what Steve liked and disliked. Steve asked Marcellus what he enjoyed, and what Stephen had done for him. Marcellus told him what he wanted to know, and Steve made a concerted effort to do everything Marcellus found pleasing, resulting in several knowing smiles from the more outgoing attendants each morning after. That proved somewhat embarrassing, but Steve didn't really care. He was happier now than he'd ever been with Sherrie, and as far as he was concerned the whole castle could hear about it.
Steve and Marcellus talked much more as well. Marcellus told Steve all about how he and Stephen first met, and gave him more details about their bonding and the aftermath. He talked about how insecure he was at first regarding Annette, and how he'd often worried about Stephen drifting away after the wedding. Stephen had, of course, always told him that nothing - even a wife - could ever come between them. He believed Stephen would never behave coldly, but he was still somewhat nervous about Annette intentionally trying to drive a wedge between them, or using her standing as the queen against Marcellus. When Annette turned out to be a sweet, good natured girl who had no intention of trying to play power games with Marcellus, his fears were completely assuaged.
Steve told Marcellus about his doubts (or rather, his certainties) regarding Sherrie, and about his sadness at how things were turning out. He talked about his growing fear that he might never find a trustworthy, caring person to share his life with. He also told him how lucky he felt that he at least could be happy with Marcellus for the time being. (This was followed by much blushing.) Their discussions branched off from relationships to work, to life in general. Steve found that there were lots of things that they had in common, even though their worlds were so different from one another. The more Steve learned about Marcellus, the more he wished he didn't have to leave Pacificana.
Annette seemed to have noticed a change for the better as well. She told Steve and Marcellus more than once that she was glad to see them looking so happy lately. She was even more of a chatterbox than usual, a feat for which Steve thought she deserved congratulations, if it wouldn't have offended her highly. She told Steve all about the wedding preparations that were going on in tandem with the preparations for the Council. All about them. He was well informed about the exact type of flowers that were to be used for the barge, the brand of silk to be used for the flower girls' dresses, and how she just knew that Countess whoever planned to wear only the most fashionable dress. It was her hope that they could marry within a week after the meeting ended, so that all the dukes and duchesses could attend. Steve agreed that it would be "so marvelously lovely", and listened to her talk for as long as she wanted.
Activity in the palace increased by leaps and bounds as the day of the meeting approached. Preparations had to be made for food, drink, decorations, and lodgings for the dignitaries and their servants. Excitement was high because of the performers, too. So much had happened since Steve first found out about the meeting that he'd almost forgotten the Beatles were supposed to be playing. There were several performers scheduled to play before them, and preparations had to be made for all of them, as well as their assistants. Extra security had already been ordered by Captain Martinez, as their searches for the man behind the assassination attempts had not proven successful. Steve made sure to emphasize the need for guards to be set specifically to protect the performers, as well as everyone else.
A few days before the meeting was scheduled to begin, Marcellus suggested that Steve meet with the Minister of Hospitality. He explained that she was in charge of making sure the dukes and duchesses were made comfortable throughout the event, and seeing to it that the various performers had everything they needed to put on a smooth show. "A word in your ear, Steve," Marcellus said, a few minutes before the Minister was supposed to arrive. "The Minister of Hospitality is a little..." He cleared his throat. "Well. I do not feel comfortable speaking ill of a lady, but she is somewhat... less formal than perhaps she should be. Stephen tolerates her because she is very good about accomplishing many tasks at once, but... I thought I should warn you beforehand, so that you would not be taken off guard by her behavior."
Steve raised his eyebrows, wondering what kind of behavior required a pre-introduction warning. "Okay, Marcellus," he said. "Thanks for the heads up."
Shortly, the doors to the audience chamber opened and the announcer entered. He bowed, but before he could say anything, a woman came into the room and bustled around him. She was wearing a canary yellow dress with white polka dots, which he knew from several long, one-sided discourses with Annette was a fashion no-no. She had a matching hat with large feathers, ribbons and ruffles, and long gloves that were also bright yellow. In one hand, she carried a yellow, ruffled fan, with which she was busy fanning herself, even though it wasn't hot. She was accompanied by about four pages, laden with bags, tall fans and even an umbrella. There was something familiar about her face, but Steve couldn't put his finger on it, what with the ribbons and feathers an all the pomp and circumstance.
The lady made an elaborate curtsey, then scurried toward the dais. "Good morning, Sire!" she said loudly. "So wonderful to see you again!"
Steve gasped when he heard the voice. "Sheila??"
"Yes, Sire," Marcellus said, sounding as surprised as he looked.
The announcer stepped forward, giving Sheila a nearly imperceptible look of annoyance before bowing deeply to Steve. "The Lady Sheila Morgan, Minister of Hospitality, seeks audience, Sire."
"Thank you," Steve said.
The announcer left the room, and Sheila came closer. "Well, Your Majesty," she said, lightly touching his hand. Steve was shocked. It wasn't like the real Sheila, who would come right over and put her arm around him while she talked as if they were the best of friends. However, considering the fact that he was supposed to be the king, it was at least as outrageous, if not more so. Outside of life threatening emergencies, no one ever touched him except Marcellus and Annette, and then, only in private or when invited. This must be what Marcellus had meant about her being informal. "It's so wonderful to see you looking so well," she continued loudly. "And you, too, Your Highness! You're looking as young as ever!"
"I thank you, Lady Sheila," Marcellus said. "You look quite well yourself."
"Oh, thank you, Your Highness. You are too kind. Your Majesty! I am so thrilled about this year's Council! Plans are already on the way for the most fabulous feast ever, only the best jugglers and fire throwers, and of course, the musicians! I'm sure you'll love all of them!"
"I'm... sure I will," Steve said, cringing slightly at her loud tone of voice.
"Oh, Sire! I have exciting news! I have found an excellent man to assist me with the preparations! You simply must meet him!"
Steve suppressed a sigh. He had a sinking feeling he knew who "Lady" Sheila was talking about. "Oh?" he asked aloud. "Who might that be?"
"His name is Count Graham Dent. He's the Minister of Artistic Design at Oxford, and he has quite a lot of experience handling galas such as this. Come with me, Your Majesty, and I'll show you everything I have planned for the meeting! You four," she said to the pages. "Find an attendant and ask him to show you where my quarters are. And make sure you find me if any of the guests arrive while I'm out with His Majesty!" The pages bowed to everyone, then scurried off to follow orders.
Sheila took Steve and Marcellus on a tour of the castle, pointing out every place she planned to have decorated and how, the things she planned to change about what was already in progress, and details about where the various performers could stay, and what would be done at the greeting of each guest. Graham Dent showed up somewhere along the tour. He wasn't much different from the Graham Dent Steve already knew: tall, thin, with short blonde hair and a tendency to be melodramatic. About the only difference was the medieval type outfit. Steve and Marcellus were led through the castle for at least an hour, hearing the grandiose plans of Lady Sheila and Count Graham. Steve felt like he was back at the studio, listening to them talk about his video. The only difference was that when they asked Steve for his permission, or his input, they actually listened to the answer and looked like they might consider acting on it.
Lady Sheila wanted to take Steve outside to inspect the grounds, and give his opinion on the streamers they planned to set up throughout the garden. Steve was hesitant, but Marcellus reminded him that now that the High Priestess had performed the protection spell, he didn't have to fear harm from the assassin. Steve shot Marcellus a pained look when the other two weren't paying attention, and Marcellus looked apologetic. They were subjected to another thirty minutes of Sheila's exclamations about how "maahvelous" everything would be when she got through with it, and Graham's ideas for various artistic settings before they were saved by the arrival of the first duke. One of the pages scurried over to them and announced that the Duke of Japan had arrived, and Lady Sheila excused herself and went off to greet her first guest. Marcellus told Count Graham that they would leave him alone to contemplate things while they returned to the castle to greet Duke Kiyoshi.
"You knew Lady Sheila before she was announced," Marcellus asked on their way back to the audience chamber. "Have you met her before?"
"Yes," Steve said in exasperation. "Well, no not her. Apparently, King Stephen and I aren't the only ones who are doubled. My production manager's name is Sheila, and she's just like that! She's loud and flashy and she's always a little too familiar. I know Graham, too. He's... well, you've met him."
Marcellus chuckled. "Indeed. I wonder if everyone here has a mirrored self in your world."
Steve sighed. "Who knows? I just know that of all the familiar faces for me to see, they didn't have to be Graham and Sheila!"
Marcellus only laughed again, then prepped Steve on greeting the duke. The meeting went well. Duke Kiyoshi was the son of a half Cherokee, half Portuguese princess and a Japanese baron. He was precise in his manners, and Steve was a little nervous about getting everything right. Afterwards, Marcellus told him that he'd done an excellent job. He pronounced the duke's name perfectly, and his manners were stellar. He'd even remembered to ask after the duke's wife and children by name, which seemed to make a great impression on the duke. After Duke Kiyoshi and his party had paid their respects to the "king", they were given back to Lady Sheila, apparently to be shown to their rooms to rest after their long journey.
Over the next two days, the rest of the dukes and duchesses came to the castle. The earliest to arrive were those who had to travel across the ocean. The three rulers of China arrived the same day as Duke Kiyoshi of Japan. Steve managed to remember to put everyone's last name before the first, although it felt a little strange doing it with the duke of South Pacifican China, whose last name was Pereira. The dukes and duchesses of Russia, Hawaii, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands arrived the next day. Steve made sure to try and add a little personal touch to each greeting, asking after family members, or "reminiscing" about some shared event from the past that Marcellus had told him about. Marcellus praised him highly for his handling of each meeting, but the remaining two leaders were the ones who worried Steve the most. The duke of North Pacificana was Marcellus' father, and his aunt was in charge of the South. Both of them knew Stephen very well, and Steve worried that they might refer to some event, or even some habit of Marcellus' that he didn't know about. Marcellus assured him that he would be there the whole time, helping him out, but Steve was still nervous.
Duke Marcel and Duchess Tina arrived within minutes of each other the morning before the Council. They came to the audience chamber together. Duke Marcel was about sixty years old, with graying hair and a smile very much like Marcellus'. His wife, Lady Alanna was an Irish woman with striking red hair and deep green eyes. Duchess Tina was small, with black hair, a pretty face and a delicate manner. Her husband, Lord Martin, was a tall, handsome, broad shouldered Spaniard with dark brown hair and a somewhat serious expression. The four of them greeted Steve warmly, with a little less formality than the other dukes and duchesses. Marcellus had told Steve to expect as much, since they lived relatively close, and visited often. There was a mini-family reunion, wherein Marcellus' relatives gave him hugs, and looked him over.
"You've been under stress," Duke Marcel announced. "Is everything all right? Have things been going smoothly at the castle, my son?"
"Yes, what has happened, little one?" asked Lady Alanna. Steve thought he could hear a hint of an Irish accent through the Portuguese. He smiled to hear the term "little one" used to describe a thirty year old man, even if he was the woman's youngest child. "You've lost at least ten pounds since we saw you last!"
Marcellus shook his head, smiling. "I am quite well, Mother, and I am sure that I have not lost any weight."
"You say that, but I know you better," Alanna replied. "A mother can tell when her son is upset. What has happened?"
"Yes, what has happened?" Duchess Tina asked. "There are more soldiers patrolling the palace than usual. And Duchess Alanna is quite right, you have lost weight."
Marcellus sighed. He shot Steve a look nearly as pained as the one Steve had given him when he'd been stuck with Graham and Sheila. "There is a matter which has been of a concern to both the King and myself," Marcellus said. "I neglected to tell you because I did not wish to worry you unnecessarily. However, if His Majesty does not object..."
"Not at all," Steve said. "But first, would you care to take some refreshment? You must be weary after your long journey. Would you like to sit down?"
"Yes, thank you, Sire," Duke Marcel said. Steve called an attendant and ordered chairs to be set out, along with cool drinks and light food. When everyone was settled, he and Marcellus told them about the postponed wedding (treading lightly regarding Steve's "illness"). The dukes and duchesses expressed their concern for his health, and Steve assured him that he was completely cured. Then, they told their guests of the assassination attempts, and their theories on who was behind them. The four of them were shocked and outraged that anyone would dare attack their king, and Steve was again struck by how well liked Stephen was. They were perplexed by the reports that he bore a resemblance to the royal family, and no one could guess at how that resemblance came to be. They assumed that the archer must have been mistaken, and moved on to ask about the security measures, and any progress being made in capturing the criminal. Marcellus explained exactly what was being done to protect everyone during the Council, and how Captain Martinez's search was progressing.
"Well!" Duke Marcel exclaimed. "No wonder you both seemed to be on edge. Two attacks within three days! And for you to have received such a serious wound so soon after the bout of heat stroke must have been quite upsetting to everyone, Your Majesty."
"Yes, everyone was very concerned," Steve said, mildly unnerved that Duke Marcel was able to tell just from a few short words that he, as well as Marcellus, was edgy. "Of course, Marcellus was extremely worried," he continued, giving Marcellus a small smile. "However, Dr. Rivell is quite a capable man, and with his care, and Marcellus' diligent attentions, I was back on my feet in a matter of days."
"I am so pleased to hear that, Majesty. And no other attempts were made after the archer attacked in the garden?"
"None that we know of," Steve said.
"We have followed Captain Martinez's suggestion, and remained indoors since the second attempt on His Majesty's life," Marcellus explained. "However, even if the villain has tried a magical attack, King Stephen cannot be harmed by it. When we received word that the assailant wielded magical powers, we requested the aide of the High Priestess immediately. She performed the Protection Ceremony."
"Ah," Duke Marcel said, nodding. "Excellent."
"You have auspicious guests here, Your Majesty," Duke Martin said. "No attempts were made to harm Queen Elizabeth, or Princess Annette?"
"None, thank the Waters," Steve said, surprised and pleased by how smoothly the phrase rolled off his tongue. "But I have asked Captain Martinez to see to it that both Her Majesty and Annette are closely guarded at all times. And of course, there will be extra security during the Council. I want everyone to feel safe."
"Of course, Sire," Marcel said.
"Now, I think we've had enough of this dreary talk," Steve said. "Unless you have any other questions, I can have Lady Sheila show you to your quarters so that you can rest. Or, if you would prefer, Marcellus can take you. I'm sure you have much to catch up on."
"That would be wonderful. Thank you, Sire," Alanna said. They stood, and headed toward the door. Marcellus surreptitiously beckoned for him to come along, and Steve walked with them, listening to Marcel and Alanna tell Marcellus all the latest news from their home in Juneau. Marcellus asked about his sisters, and all his nieces and nephews. He asked after Tina's children and grandchildren, and told them how things were going aside from all the excitement over the assassination attempts. Steve smiled and nodded through most of the discussion, joining in only when he felt he could do so safely. When they reached their destination, Lady Sheila was there to greet them, all smiles and flamboyance. Steve and Marcellus took their leave, letting Sheila make sure they were made comfortable. With the last of the dukes finally settled in the castle, Marcellus and Steve headed back to their quarters.
"You were wonderful," Marcellus said when they were alone again. "My mother and father have both known Stephen since early childhood, and they noticed nothing amiss. I am very proud of you."
Steve smiled broadly, extremely pleased. "Thank you! I was afraid that Duke Marcel had noticed something wrong at the beginning."
Marcellus waved a hand. "Anyone would seem a little distracted considering the events that have occurred in the past weeks. You were perfect." Steve smiled again, and Marcellus took a few minutes to explain the schedule of events surrounding the Council.
The Biannual Council was more of a three-day summit, rather than a simple council meeting. Since most of the dukes and duchesses only had the chance to come to the palace once every two years, they liked to make the occasion memorable. The night before the meeting, after everyone had a chance to relax and get used to the new time zone if necessary, there was to be a huge feast. The minor entertainers, such as jugglers and fire-throwers, would perform during and after the meal. After the feast, everyone would be left to their own devices. Marcellus said that most people usually took the time to catch up with family members that they had not seen since the last meeting, or they spent time preparing for the next morning's meeting.
At the actual meeting, which would take place after breakfast the next day, the dukes and duchesses gave their reports, highlighting any particularly good or bad news that they had to share. Then the king outlined what was happening in Pacificana proper, what, if anything, about world politics was affecting Pacificana, and what he wanted for the country. Steve had already been rehearsing with Marcellus what exactly how everyone was expected to behave, and what he was supposed to say, but Marcellus took him over a few more points, just in case. Nothing catastrophic had happened anywhere in the country, so the meeting should be pretty predictable.
After the meeting, they would have lunch, then the real entertainment would begin. Stephen's favorite part of any event was the music, and he had apparently hand-picked all of the groups who were scheduled to play. Steve looked forward to finding out if the king's taste in music matched his own. The Beatles would, of course, play last, and security would be at its tightest during their performance.
When the concert ended, there would be another feast, to which everyone at the castle was invited. Steve planned to take that time to get to know this world's version of one of his favorite bands first hand, if he could. When the feast was over, it was usually late enough that everyone was ready for bed. The dukes and duchesses were welcome to stay at the palace for as long as they wished, but Marcellus told Steve that most only stayed for a few days before heading home. Marcel and Alanna usually stayed for at least a week or two after the Council was over so they could spend time with Marcellus.
"After the dukes and duchesses leave, the servants go about getting the castle back to normal, and we can relax," Marcellus said.
"Sounds wonderful," Steve said.
"Oh!" Marcellus cried, slapping a hand to his forehead. "How could I forget the most important event that will occur after the last of the dukes departs?"
"What's that?" Steve asked.
"It is then that Lady Sheila returns to her home in Los Angeles!"
Steve laughed long and hard at that, and Marcellus couldn't help but join in. When, at last, they got their laughter under control, they spent the rest of the morning talking, playing Armada and relaxing before the festivities began.