Steve was awakened by the sound of a door closing. Startled, he sat up and looked around. It was still dark outside, but in the soft moonlight, Steve could see a shadowy figure standing in front of the study door. "Who's there?" he asked sharply. The figure didn't answer. Instead, he stepped toward the bed, pulling out a long, narrow dagger that gleamed in the moonlight.
Steve gasped and scrambled out of bed on the opposite side from the intruder. He ran toward the door, but the man beat him to it. He slashed at Steve, barely missing him. Steve pivoted and ran toward the study door, hoping to escape that way. Before he could reach the door, the intruder caught up to him and knocked him to the floor. Steve twisted so that he was facing his assailant, but he couldn't wriggle away. The intruder knelt on Steve's chest, pinning him down. Then he raised the dagger high and brought it down.
In desperation, Steve grabbed the man's wrist with both hands just before the dagger reached his neck. He pushed with all his might, forcing the blade back up a few inches. However, the intruder was stronger than Steve, and had better leverage. Steve watched in growing terror as the blade drew closer to him despite his efforts. Then he remembered something. He was in a castle. He was the king. Where were his guards? "Guards!" he shouted. "Guards! Help! HELP ME!! "
For several seconds, during which the blade drew inexorably closer, no one came. Then, suddenly, Steve heard the sound of running feet and the door burst open. "Sire!"
"Marcellus!" Steve cried, relief nearly making him lose his hold on the intruder's wrist. "Marcellus, help me! Get the guards!"
There was a moment's pause, then the weight of the assassin was lifted from Steve's chest. Steve scooted back out of the assassin's reach and watched the fight. Marcellus dragged the assassin backwards, deftly evading his wildly slashing blade. The assassin twisted and jerked, finally managing to pull free of Marcellus' grip. He rolled and jumped to his feet, facing Marcellus and brandishing his dagger. Steve began to panic. What could Marcellus do now with no weapons, and wearing only a nightgown and a robe? He looked around frantically, trying to find something he could use as a weapon himself. The sword case was all the way on the other side of the room. Before he could find anything suitable within his reach, the assassin lunged. Marcellus sidestepped him with more ease than Steve would have given him credit for. Marcellus grabbed the intruder by the collar as he passed and flung him against the wall. Before the assassin could turn, Marcellus grabbed his dagger arm and yanked it back and up. The assassin cried out and Marcellus jerked his arm up harder. Finally, the man dropped the dagger.
Marcellus loosed his hold on the assassin long enough to grab the blade from the floor. The assassin spun and kicked at Marcellus while he was still crouched. Marcellus rolled out of the way and hopped to his feet. Without pause, he rushed the intruder, slamming the hilt of the dagger hard onto the side of the man's head. He struck the assassin again and again, stopping only when the man fell to the floor in a daze, blood pouring from his temple.
Breathing hard, Marcellus dragged the assassin into a sitting position and pressed the dagger to his throat. "Who do you work for?" he growled. The assassin grinned but said nothing. "Who?" Marcellus yelled, shaking him.
"You, of course, my prince," the intruder said derisively, grinning even wider.
Marcellus gave a frustrated sigh. Then he drew the dagger back and plunged it deep into the intruder's torso. He twisted the blade and dragged it down, then to the right, cutting through the assassin's abdomen in a grotesque "L" shape. Finally, he pulled the dagger out and stood over the dead man, sweating and trembling slightly. Then he turned to Steve, eyes smoldering. Steve shuddered, shaken by what he'd just seen. Sweet, sensitive Marcellus, who had cried himself sick over Steve that very morning, had just viciously killed and virtually gutted a man without a moment's hesitation. "You... you just killed him," Steve said breathlessly.
"An assassin only fails once," Marcellus said grimly. He stepped toward Steve, his eyes so full of rage that Steve shrank back, alarmed. Just then, the door burst open again and three guards rushed in, carrying lamps.
"Your Majesty!" one cried. "Are you hurt?"
"I'll see to him," Marcellus said sharply, blocking them from Steve's view. "Get this filth out of here, and set six guards to each staircase. " He pointed to one of the guards. "You. Light these lamps, then leave us."
"Yes, Your Highness." The guard set about lighting up the room, while the other two took the would-be assassin away.
Marcellus turned and knelt beside Steve. Steve edged away, feeling a little nervous. However, Marcellus no longer looked angry - just intense. He took hold of Steve's left wrist and pulled it forward. However, instead of looking for a cut or some other wound as Steve had expected, he turned Steve's hand palm upward and gazed at it for several seconds. When he looked at Steve's face again, his expression was unreadable. Nervous again, but not sure why, Steve tried to draw his hand away. Marcellus held his wrist so tight Steve couldn't budge. A flash of fear struck Steve, but Marcellus' expression suddenly softened. "Have you been wounded?" he asked.
Steve was encouraged by Marcellus' concern. He forced himself to relax, trying to ignore the blood-stained dagger the prince still held. After all, he told himself, of course Marcellus killed the assassin. I'm the king, and his lover. What else could he be expected to do? He probably looked so angry after it was over out of worry for me. "I think I'm all right," he said.
"We'll see," Marcellus replied. "Can you stand?"
Steve got slowly to his feet. Even though he hadn't been wounded, he was still shaky, and Marcellus had to help him to a chair. By this time, the room had been lit completely, and the guard came and hovered near Steve and Marcellus. "Will you require anything else, Sire?"
Marcellus rounded on the guard. "I thought I told you to leave us!" he said fiercely.
The guard jumped and backed away. "Your pardon, Your Highness," he said. With a hesitant glance at Steve, he bowed and quickly backed away. Marcellus followed him to the door, much to the discomfort of the guard. When he finally got out of the room, Marcellus slammed the door and locked it.
Marcellus turned and walked slowly back to Steve, advancing until he was only inches away. Then, in a low, precise tone, he asked, "Who are you, and what have you done with King Stephen?"
Steve's mouth dropped open and he gaped at Marcellus in utter shock. "How did - " He cleared his throat. "What do you mean? I am King Stephen."
"You are not," Marcellus said. "I have discovered your charade. Now tell me what you have done with him!" Steve just stared, unable to speak. "Answer me!" Marcellus cried impatiently. "What have you done with King Stephen?!"
"N-nothing," Steve stammered, knowing there was no point in trying to keep up the act any longer. Marcellus had found him out. He knew! Steve had no idea how, but he knew. "I didn't do anything to him."
"Then where is he?" Marcellus demanded.
"I don't know," Steve said.
"Yes, you do!" Marcellus cried. "Tell me where you have hidden him!"
"I didn't hide him anywhere!"
Without warning, Marcellus backhanded Steve so hard he nearly fell out of his chair. "DON'T LIE TO ME! " he screeched. "Where have you taken him?? "
Steve shrank back into the chair, raising a hand to his stinging face. He cowered under Marcellus' furious gaze. "I... I didn't-"
"Silence, knave!" Then, in a low voice, he said, "Tell me where my bondmate is." He took a handful of Steve's hair and yanked his head back. Then he leaned forward and pressed the assassin's dagger to Steve's throat. "You will not get another chance."
Steve swallowed hard and started to shake. He looked away, unable to face Marcellus' cold green eyes. Instead, he caught a glimpse of the bloodied corner where Marcellus had viciously killed his almost-assassin just moments before. He shook harder, swallowing past a lump he could feel developing in his throat as he realized that there was very little - if anything - that he could say that wouldn't result in his immediate death. "Please," he whispered at last. "Please don't k-kill me." He swallowed again, trying and failing to keep his lower lip from trembling. "I... I s-swear to you, I d-don't know where the king is." Steve felt the dagger press even harder against him, threatening to break skin. " Please !" Steve cried. "Please hear me out!"
Marcellus didn't press forward any more, but he didn't move the dagger away, either. "Speak," he commanded. "But be quick."
Steve licked his dry lips. "I... I'm not trying to take anything over," he began, struggling to keep his voice steady. "I'm a singer. I was shooting a video... that's a... a thing where we act out a song, and I was pretending to be this king getting married to a princess. Then all of a sudden I was getting married, and everyone thought I was the king, and I didn't want to tell you because I was afraid you'd kill me, and now it looks like you're going to kill me anyway!"
Marcellus stared down at Steve for several seconds. "You were right to be afraid," he said at last. "That is the most ridiculous story I have every heard, and I am going to kill you now."
"Wait, please!" Steve cried desperately. "I'm telling you the truth! How could I have kidnapped King Stephen, even if I wanted to? There wasn't enough time. One minute it was the king, and the next it was me! No one could have done that!"
"A skilled magician could," Marcellus countered. "How do I know that you aren't a powerful wizard who has spirited my king away to some unknown prison and transformed yourself into his likeness to claim the throne?"
"I'm not, I swear it!" Steve said, growing desperate again. "If I were really a magician trying to fool everyone, why would I risk giving myself away by making all those mistakes and treating you the way I did?"
The moment the words were out of his mouth, Steve regretted them. Marcellus' face became positively murderous. His grip on Steve's hair tightened painfully, and his hand actually shook. "Even if you were not responsible for the disappearance of my bondmate of fifteen years, your treatment of me would be reason enough for me to gut you," he growled. "As it is, I think I might prefer to kill you slowly over a period of days."
"Oh God," Steve said weakly, starting to tremble again. He tried to keep the tears from his eyes, but the cold, murderous fury in Marcellus' eyes made it impossible. "Please, Marcellus -" Steve gasped. Marcellus' already painful grip on his hair suddenly got much more painful, and he yanked Steve's head back even further.
"How dare you address me by my familiar name when you have not a drop of noble blood in you?"
Steve's mouth worked silently for a few seconds, but he was too afraid to actually speak. Finally, voice shaky and thick with tears, he said, "I'm s-s-sorry, Your H-highness. And I... I'm sorry I h-hurt you. I know there's no excuse, but I am sorry. Please believe me."
"I know your thinking, cur," Marcellus said darkly. "You think that simply because you look like the man I love, I will be moved by your counterfeit tears. You are mistaken. You are a vile usurper, and your life is now forfeit to me."
Steve whimpered plaintively when Marcellus began to press the knife down harder than ever against his throat. He knew that nothing could move Marcellus to spare him now. Sobbing, he squeezed his eyes shut and started to pray. "Our Father, who art in He-" The dagger broke skin, and Steve could feel the blade dig in, then start to move toward the center of his neck. He choked and stopped speaking, too terrified to do anything but cry and try to finish the prayer in his head.
Then, suddenly, the dagger stopped. A second later, it was gone. Steve opened his eyes to see Marcellus staring down at him, a slight frown on his face. "You're still here," he said. Steve merely stared at him, paralyzed with fear, hope and utter confusion. Marcellus continued softly, as if speaking to himself. "A wizard would surely have used his powers against me by now. At the very least, he would return to his own home, rather than sitting idly by while I cut his throat."
Marcellus slowly released his hold on Steve's hair. He stared down at Steve thoughtfully for several moments, keeping the dagger raised in case Steve tried anything. He needn't have bothered. Steve sat frozen in place, afraid to move even a fraction of an inch. Finally, after several tense moments, Marcellus seemed to have come to a decision. "It may well be that you are not responsible for King Stephen's disappearance," he said. "But you are still an impostor who dared to place the nation's crown on your ignoble head. As such, you are subject to the country's punishment."
"What... what's the punishment?" Steve asked, fairly sure he didn't want to hear the answer.
"Anyone found guilty of attempting to usurp the throne is publicly flogged, keel hauled, then - assuming they survive that - they are drawn and quartered."
Steve frowned. He understood the public flogging part, but although he'd heard the other terms before, he had no idea what they meant. "What's keel hauled and drawn and quartered?" he asked. Marcellus looked at him as if he were completely insane. "I really don't know," Steve said timidly.
Marcellus sighed. "When you are keel hauled, you will be bound at the wrists, and a long rope will be tied to your ankles. You will then be dropped into the sea from the prow of a ship and dragged along the keel until you reach the stern. Assuming you don't catch on anything or hit your head and drown, you will be taken to a field to be drawn and quartered. Each of your limbs will be tied to a horse and drawn tight. When the signal is given, the horses will be directed to gallop in opposite directions until your body is literally ripped limb from limb."
Steve had just enough time to bend over before he hurled. Marcellus skipped back to avoid the mess. Steve wretched repeatedly, unable to stop himself even though he tried. The wound in his neck made the whole process excruciatingly painful, but he continued to heave until his body decided it was finished. Steve shrank back in his chair, shaking uncontrollably. The tears had returned, and he looked imploringly at Marcellus. "I didn't m-mean to usurp anything," he whispered. "It's not my fault I'm here. Please, Your Highness... you said you believed it wasn't me. Please help me."
"Help you?" Marcellus asked sharply. "What would you have me do? Aide you in this treasonous deception?"
"Yes! I mean, no, I don't want you to commit treason, but I need you to help me hide. Teach me how to be King Stephen!"
"I will not!"
"Please, Your Highness, I'm begging you! My life is in your hands. Both our lives! I mean, what if you kill me, then the king and I switch places again? King Stephen will come back in a coffin. Or worse!" Marcellus gasped, clearly shocked by the idea. "Besides," Steve continued, encouraged by Marcellus' reaction. "It's not as if I could cause any damage while the king is gone. What harm could I do with you controlling me?"
"But what assurance do I have that you would obey me?" Marcellus asked. "You yourself have just pointed out that I cannot risk killing you."
"But I'm dead without your help! You know King Stephen better than anyone else. Without you helping me, I'm sure to screw up badly enough that someone else will figure out I'm a fake. If that happens, I'll be killed, whether you want me to be or not. Please, your highness. Help me."
Marcellus studied Steve for several moments. Then he turned on his heel and walked out of the room. Steve gasped, but before he could ask Marcellus where he was going, the prince was out of the room, demanding that four guards station themselves at Steve's bedroom door, and at the study door. "No one is to come in or out of this room without my permission, is that clear?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
"The King as well, Highness?"
"No one," Marcellus said sharply. "Understood?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
There was silence. Steve stared at the door, his panic returning with full force. Where was Marcellus going? What would he do? Steve had no idea if Marcellus agreed with him, or if he planned to have him executed after all. What if it was the latter? Marcellus had fixed it so that Steve couldn't leave the room unless he went out a window. And even if he could do that, where would he go? What could he do? Nothing! He was trapped. There was nothing to do but wait and hope Marcellus didn't give him away.
In the middle of his panicked thoughts, Steve noticed something odd. Wetness. His collar was wet. Steve looked at his clothes and gasped. The front of his white gown was covered with blood. Shocked, Steve raised a hand to the cut on his neck. When he brought his hand away only moments later, it was completely covered with blood. Fighting a wave of nausea at the sight of so much of his own blood, Steve clamped his hand tightly over the wound in an effort to stop the flow. Much to his dismay, it didn't seem to have any effect. He could feel the blood oozing between his fingers. In seconds, it had covered the back of his hand and started trailing down his arm. Steve's already mounting panic skyrocketed. He'd been so intent on trying to convince Marcellus not to kill him that he hadn't even noticed how much he was bleeding. What if he bled to death before Marcellus returned? What if that turned out to be a better fate than what Marcellus had planned?
Steve's breaths came faster and faster the more he thought about his situation, until he was in danger of hyperventilating. His neck continued to bleed, showing no signs of slowing down. Finally, Steve couldn't take it anymore. He had to get help. If the guards saw how much he was bleeding, they would have to get the doctor. Steve stood up, and was immediately overcome by a nauseating wave of dizziness. He collapsed into the chair, his panicked breaths coming even faster now. He couldn't even stand. He was helpless!
Just then, the door burst open, and Marcellus strode into the room, followed by six attendants. Steve gripped the arm of the chair with his free hand, certain that his violent shaking could be seen all the way across the room. "Quickly," Marcellus said.
The attendants rushed toward Steve. Two men took hold of his arms, two took his legs and they lifted him from the chair. The swift motion sent another wave of dizziness and nausea through him. The remaining attendants supported his torso, and they carried him swiftly toward the door. Steve looked at Marcellus, who held the door open. "Where..." he gasped. "Where are you... taking-"
"Hush" Marcellus said sternly. "You haven't energy to waste talking."
"Please..." Marcellus glared at Steve - not long enough for any of the attendants to notice, but quite long enough for Steve to get the picture. He bit his lip and forced himself to keep quiet, but his fear redoubled. He was actually hyperventilating now, and so light headed that he could hardly see straight. After a few more moments of near-blinding panic, Steve finally lost consciousness.