Steve dreamt of Marcellus. Warm hands caressing him, soft lips kissing him, sweat, passion and pleasure. He awoke to a moment of pure contentment. Then the panic and guilt hit him. He couldn't like what they'd done. He wouldn't! God, what kind of perverted, twisted person am I turning into? After several minutes of turmoil, Steve managed to calm down enough to function. He pulled the service rope and paced the floor, actively not thinking about Marcellus. After a while, there was a knock at the door. "Come in," he said, heading for the bathroom.
"Good morning, my love."
Steve whirled toward the door to see Marcellus standing just inside the room. Steve thought immediately of his dream, and all the panic returned. "What are you doing here?"
Marcellus frowned. "I came to escort you to breakfast," he said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"I thought I told you I didn't want to see you!"
"But that was yesterday. I thought today-"
"You thought wrong! Now get out!" Marcellus opened his mouth as if to speak, but Steve cut him off. "Out!"
Looking confused and very hurt, Marcellus bowed and left the room. Seeing him had brought back all the worried and guilty thoughts that Steve had fought to rid himself of that morning, and he had to work on calming down all over again. He was startled when the attendants came in, and incredibly self-conscious during the bathing process. However, by the time he placed the crown on his head, he was feeling better. After all, it wasn't as if there was a danger of him falling again. He would be spending the day with the Princess. He shouldn't even see Marcellus again, much less actually have to deal with him. What was there to worry about?
Steve checked the mirror, then nodded to the attendants, dismissed them and went to the dining room to wait for the Princess. After a few minutes, she came in with a curtsey and a timid good morning. "Good morning to you," Steve said.
"Did you sleep well," she asked, just as timidly.
"Yes, I did. What's the matter?"
"Nothing, Sire," she said quickly.
Steve raised an eyebrow. "Something is. You look worried. What's wrong?"
"Truly, Sire, nothing. I'm quite well."
Steve let it go and they sat down to breakfast. Annette was uncharacteristically quiet during the meal, keeping her eyes on the plate except for occasionally nervous glances at Steve. Finally, he couldn't take it any more. "What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing, Sire," she replied.
"No, come on. I mean it. Tell me. Why do you seem so nervous?"
"Well..." Annette sighed and shifted her gaze. "I... I was told that you might be irritable this morning, due to the heat, so I should take care not to anger you."
"Irritable? Who told you that?"
"Prince Marcellus said that you must be suffering from your fever again today."
"What? Why the hell would he say that?!?"
Annette jumped a little, startled by his language. "He... he said you snapped at him and old him you didn't want his company today."
"And that means I must have heat stroke?" Steve asked incredulously.
"Well, Majesty, you must admit, it is rather unusual."
Steve sighed. It seemed that avoiding Marcellus wouldn't be as painless as he thought. Apparently, the whole world knew they were best friends, and expected them to spend every waking moment together. So much so that when he didn't want to, it must mean he was insane. "I guess it's no big deal," he said. "I just want to spend some quality time alone with you, that's all. I can't help it if he's jealous of that." The Princess looked mildly shocked by his last statement, but she didn't say anything. "Anyway," Steve said, "I'm not suffering from any fever. It doesn't even feel that hot to me! So you don't have to worry about me being irritable, okay?"
"Yes, my Lord," Annette said, clearly not believing him.
Steve sighed again and decided that the best way to show her that he wasn't angry was to stop acting so pissed off. He continued with breakfast, talking pleasantly about nothing in particular, until finally, Annette started to relax. By the time the meal was over, she was chattering away like she had been the day before.
"How would you like to take a walk in the garden?" Steve asked her.
"Certainly, my Lord," she said, grinning.
"Nothing," she replied. "I'm only thinking about your enchantment with the gardens. Prince Marcellus said that he was sure the hardest part of your recovery would be keeping you out of the garden on hot days."
Steve smiled, managing not to cringe at the mention of Marcellus' name. "It's a lovely place," he said simply. He didn't want her to know that the garden was the only place he knew how to get to besides his own quarters, and he wasn't sure how else he was supposed to entertain her. Annette took his hand and they went to the garden.
Steve spent the next ninety minutes or so listening to Princess Annette talk about her favorite flowers, favorite colors, favorite dresses, and favorite hairstyles. Occasionally, they met courtiers who bid them good morning and briefly asked after Steve's health. Each time it happened, Steve told the courtier in question that he was feeling fine. When they passed out of earshot, he was given a detailed account of Annette's opinion on the person, their taste in clothes and the current court gossip about them. Steve just listened politely, grateful not to have to speak much.
After a while, the already hot and muggy air got even hotter. Despite the light layer of clouds that covered the sky, Steve began to sweat. He led the Princess to the nearest bench and they had a seat. He was just starting to cool down when he saw Marcellus round a corner. Marcellus smiled when he saw Steve, but his smile grew uncertain when Steve didn't smile back.
Steve stood abruptly and beckoned to Annette. "Come on," he said.
"But, Sire, we just sat down," Annette said.
"I'm ready to go. Come on."
Annette looked at Steve like he was crazy. Steve didn't really care. He didn't want to see Marcellus. Couldn't be reminded. He practically pulled Annette from her seat, glancing toward Marcellus as he walked away. The prince's face was red and he lowered his head when Steve glanced at him. Steve turned and strode quickly in the opposite direction, not caring where he went, as long as it was farther from Marcellus.
Princess Annette allowed herself to be pulled along for several minutes. Then suddenly, she spoke. "You're hurting him very much, Sire."
"Prince Marcellus. You're hurting him deeply. What has he done to anger you so?"
"Why are you always defending him?" Steve countered.
"Because he has always been kind to me even though he has good reason not to be," Annette replied immediately. "It saddens me to see him that way, and I just wondered why you are avoiding him."
Steve frowned, wondering what reason Marcellus could have not to like Annette that she would know about, but he didn't care to ask right then. "You're so worried about his feelings," he said tersely. "How do you know he hasn't hurt me in some way?"
"I don't," Annette said slowly. "That's why I asked, my Lord."
"Well, I don't see that it's any of your business either way," Steve snapped, not liking the fact that she was right.
Annette frowned at him and stopped walking. "I wish to return to the palace," she said.
Steve sighed. "Okay. We'll go back."
"Alone, please, my Lord," she said, stepping away when he started to come toward her.
Steve pursed his lips. "Fine."
"Good day, Sire," she said, curtseying. She took about five steps backwards, then turned and walked away down the path.
Steve sighed and walked in the opposite direction. He felt a little guilty about hurting Marcellus, but he squelched the feeling immediately. Marcellus had caused him countless hours of pain and mental anguish. Too much association with him might even cost him his soul. Both of their souls! It was better for both of them if Marcellus stayed away from him. But he couldn't possibly explain that to Annette. And why should he? Where did she get off demanding any explanations? His actions were his own business! He was the king after all, right? At least, everyone thought he was, which amounted to the same thing.
Having justified his actions to himself, Steve decided to head back to the palace. He stopped, looking up from the path to get his bearings and swore. Without realizing it, he'd entered the hedge maze. He tried to remember the lay-out as he'd seen it from his window, but it didn't help. He had no idea when he'd entered the maze or which ways he'd turned. "Dammit!" There was no one around to ask for help either. Great time to offend the Princess, Steve, he thought. He turned and walked down the only way he could have come, until he came to a crossroads. He was stumped. He couldn't remember if he'd turned at this junction, or walked straight through.
"Shit!" Steve tried to relax and mentally retrace his steps after the Princess left. After a while, he decided he must have turned right when he got there. He went left and walked until he came to the next place where a path intersected his own. He cleared his mind and traced his steps again, deciding on a direction. He repeated the process several more times, hoping each time that he would round a corner and be out of the maze. Instead, all he saw were more hedges. After thirty minutes, Steve knew he was hopelessly lost. He couldn't have been walking half this long before he'd realized he was in the maze. He found a bench and plopped down, so frustrated he didn't know whether to cry or scream. He was tired, worried and extremely pissed at himself for snapping at Annette and getting himself lost as a result.
Steve sat on the bench and waited for someone to pass by. Three courtiers passed. They greeted him and he casually asked if they were headed for the castle. They were not. He masked his disappointment and waited for another group to come. After about an hour, Steve was about ready to snap. No one he saw ever seemed to be leaving the maze. He considered just joining someone and following them around until they were ready to leave, but it would be too risky. If he stayed with anyone too long, they might ask him a question he couldn't answer, or refer to something he didn't know about. Maybe he could just wait until one of the people he'd seen already came back. He should be able to avoid conversation for as long as it would take to get back to the palace. It had been a full hour since he'd sat down, so it shouldn't be too long before someone came back this way. Feeling better about things, Steve settled back to wait a little longer.
Another hour later, Steve knew that there had to be another way to get out of the maze. No one he'd seen pass came back. He was hungry now, and getting more than a little impatient. He couldn't sit around waiting for someone to wander by and save him. At this rate, he could find his own way out before he found anyone to follow. He got up and started walking, trying to take note of landmarks to make sure he didn't come back to the same place twice. He wandered around hedge after hedge after hedge, wondering more than once just how big this "fucking, evil, vile, despicable maze" really was. He took occasional rests, still canvassing courtiers to see if they were leaving. Each time, he was unsuccessful. After a while, he stopped meeting people all together. A few minutes after that, the sky - which was already shadowed with clouds - began to grow truly dark. The sun was setting.
Steve looked at the darkening sky and wanted to weep. "I'm never getting out of here." He was having a hard enough time in broad daylight. There was no way he could find his way out in the dark. He walked faster, hoping that he would miraculously find his way out before nightfall. No such luck. He was still wandering aimlessly when the last traces of sunlight faded away. He hadn't seen any lamps on the paths, so he knew there wouldn't be any lamp lighters coming that he could follow. "Damn."
Steve stopped walking, looking around and wondering what the hell he was supposed to do now. Then the thunder started. A long low rumble, followed almost immediately by a flash of lightning that made everything around him clearly visible for a split second. "Aw shit!" Steve had never been outside during a thunder storm, and he had no wish to see what it would be like now. He walked a little faster, as if that would help. The thunder came again - a clap so loud it made his heart race - followed by low rumblings that seemed to go on forever. There was another flash of light. Then it started. Large heavy raindrops began to fall, sparsely at first, but gradually increasing until there was a dark, noisy torrent all around him. He was drenched in under five seconds. The rain fell so hard that he couldn't have seen two feet in front of him even if it hadn't been almost pitch black outside.
Steve sat down on the path with his back to a hedge, feeling utterly defeated. He was lost in a maze in a foreign place with absolutely no way out and no way home. He was hungry, exhausted and soaking wet. Steve rested his chin on his knees and wept. After an unknown time spent in abject misery, Steve heard a voice. He snapped his head up and listened carefully, hoping and praying that the voice would speak again. It did!
"Sire! Sire, where are you?"
Steve gasped. A child's voice, calling for him. At that moment, it was the most beautiful sound in the entire world. Steve scrambled to his feet. "Oh, thank God! Here!" he cried. "I'm here!"
"Hooray!" the young voice cried. "Stay where you are, Your Majesty. I'll follow your voice. Marco!"
Steve giggled hysterically. "Polo," he called. They played the game until a small figure came into view on the path. The child wore a heavy looking cloak and carried a lantern. The hood was removed to reveal a dark-haired girl of about nine or ten years, grinning happily.
"I win!" she cried. Then her eyes widened and she curtseyed deeply. "Please forgive my ill manners, Your Majesty," she said.
"It's okay, honey," Steve said, grinning from ear to ear. "Put your hood back on, okay?"
She obeyed him, then came forward and reached for his hand. Steve gave it to her and she gasped. "You're like ice, Your Majesty! Where is your cloak? He's sure to have a fainting spell when he sees you."
Steve didn't bother to ask who "he" was. He was too ecstatic to care. The girl pulled something from her cloak and raised it to her lips. A shrill whistle sounded. Then the girl began leading him down the path and out of the maze. It was a good twenty minute walk to the exit, with many twists and turns that Steve couldn't hope to keep straight. Not that he ever planned to come to this godforsaken place again. His guide blew her whistle periodically, and in a while, a few other children joined them. They were all treated to the knowledge that she was the winner, because she had found His Majesty first, and he was cold as ice so they had to hurry back. They were a party of eight by the time they reached the exit. He could see it long before they arrived, as it was lit by several more waist-high lanterns. Steve and the children walked faster. "I win!" the girl cried as soon as she was in earshot. "I win! I found him first!"
They drew up to the new group - several children and one adult. The children cheered and bowed. The adult rushed over to Steve and yanked him into a strong embrace. "Thank the Waters you're all right!" the man whispered.
Marcellus. Steve pushed him away with more force than he thought he could muster in his current state. Marcellus staggered back and Steve heard gasps from a few of the children. Steve turned to one of the taller boys and said, "Take me inside."
"Yes, Your Majesty." With a hesitant glance at Marcellus, the boy came forward and they headed for the palace.
"Do... do I still get the prize?" a small voice asked.
"Of course you do, little one," Marcellus said. His voice cracked.
Steve shut out the sound and strode purposefully toward the castle. He'd gone about six yards when he heard quick footsteps behind him. "Sire!" Steve turned to see his little savior running over to him, holding out a bulky object. "Here you are, Sire," she panted. Steve took the offered object and unfolded it. A cloak. He looked up past the girl and saw Marcellus staring at him. His eyes were red and he was soaking wet, no longer wearing his cloak. Steve looked at the damp garment in his hand. Then, shivering as he was, he dropped the cloak to the ground, looking directly at Marcellus. He turned away, but not before getting a good look at the utterly shocked, incredibly hurt look on Marcellus' face. Steve shoved down any feelings of guilt that threatened to rise. He couldn't have Marcellus around, hugging him, caring about him... loving him. It was wrong. Maybe now he'll get the point.
"You dropped it," the girl said in surprised confusion. Steve ignored her, walking even faster. His "escort" had to trot to keep up. "Sire!" the girl called. "Sire, you dropped it! Your Majesty! Your Majesty, wait!"
"Bring it back, Susanna," someone called.
"But Prince Marcellus said to-"
"Just bring it back."
Steve couldn't hear the rest of the conversation, and he didn't want to look back and see why Marcellus hadn't said anything. He couldn't afford to weaken now. He walked even faster, finally arriving at the castle doors. He was immediately swept away by at least ten bustling attendants, all fluttering about him, asking why he'd gone out without his cloak and what possessed him to play games with children in the rain. Steve let them hustle him up to his quarters, pondering what they'd said. Games with children? What could they mean by that? Then suddenly he realized what Marcellus had done. He must have told everyone that Steve was playing a game so that no one would know he was actually lost. He'd gotten some kids together who knew the maze well and fooled them into thinking it was just a game of hide and seek or something. Steve felt incredibly guilty about his behavior, and with a bit more effort than before, he managed to push the feeling down again and give his attention back to the attendants.
Oblivious to Steve's distress, the attendants were busy removing his wet clothes. He was undressed in record time, and immediately led to a steaming bath. Steve moaned appreciatively as he lowered himself into the tub. The hot water stopped his chattering teeth in a matter of minutes. He just laid in the tub and soaked for about half an hour. Then he bathed and allowed the attendants to wash his hair. He was dried off, then wrapped in a fluffy robe and led to a chair beside the fireplace. Someone brought him a mug of hot chocolate spiked with some kind of sweet liquor, and he was assured that a hot meal was on its way.
Steve settled back in his cozy chair and smiled, sipping his cocoa. He felt much better, and he couldn't wait for his belated dinner. In short order, the meal arrived. They set it up right by the fire and served him until he'd had his fill. Then they provided him with more spiked cocoa and left him alone. Steve sighed contentedly. A guy could get used to this kind of treatment.
After a few minutes, there was knock on the door. "Come in," Steve called. The door opened and Annette came in. Steve stood and she curtseyed. "Good evening, Sire," she said smiling.
"I hope you are feeling well."
"I'm fine now, thank you, Annette," he said.
"Not feeling too tired or upset about being caught in the rain, my Lord?"
"No, actually I'm feeling quite well now that I've had the chance to warm up."
"That's wonderful, Sire," Annette said smiling. "I'm very pleased to hear it."
"Thank you very much, my Lady," Steve said, smiling just as brightly. Apparently, she'd forgotten their little tiff earlier that day. "Would you like to have a seat? Perhaps lose a game of Armada to me?"
Annette wagged a finger at him. "That is very ungentlemanly of you, my Lord," she said.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I promise, I won't tease you anymore."
Annette only smiled at him. "I'm afraid I can't stay," she said. "Mother has asked me to spend the evening with her. She sends you her regards and hopes you are well."
Steve still felt a bit intimidated having the Queen of England staying at his castle. Especially since he wasn't really a king in his own right. He smiled. "Please tell Her Majesty that I am most grateful for her kind concern."
"I will. Good night, Sire."
"Good night." Steve sat down again when she left, enjoying his drink and the cozy fire. The attendants came and cleared his things away after a while. Steve was just wondering what to do next when there was another knock on the door. "Come in," he called.
The door opened and Marcellus stepped in. "Hello, Stephen," he said softly.
Steve frowned. "Why are you here?"
"I came to see how you were feeling. Did the attendants see that you were given dinner?"
"Yes, and I'm fine now, so you may go."
It was Marcellus' turn to frown. "I was hoping I could stay a while."
"Well, you can't. I'm tired. I don't want company."
"But Princess Annette said you were feeling better and you had asked her to stay."
Steve glared, angry to be caught in a lie. "Just because I asked her to stay doesn't mean I want to see you. Now go."
Marcellus bowed. "As you wish, my Lord," he whispered. Then he left, not meeting Steve's eyes. Good, Steve thought, knowing it was no such thing. After a few minutes spent pacing and convincing himself that he didn't feel bad about Marcellus, he climbed into bed and fell asleep almost immediately, exhausted from the day's adventures.