An attendant came running from one end of the tunnel and stopped to bow before the queen. "You called, Mother?"
"Sorry, you don't have to run," she apologized. "Do you have Paniten Benson's history? I'm interested in this one."
The attendant handed over her electronic tablet with his information on the screen and exchanged looks with Bastiana. "Majesty, this one has been returned three times already for disrespect, disobedience, and a generally bad disposition. Surely someone kinder- there is Murphy Cailin just a few blocks down. He came a few weeks ago when his last guardian passed away."
Niamh heard her out politely, but she had made up her mind. "Paniten Benson is attractive and according to your tablet an experienced body guard."
"That was before his sister died five years ago," the woman pointed out. "After that he went from shy and removed to disillusioned and bitter. He is very unpleasant."
"So am I," Niamh said, putting on her judge's face. She was taller than the woman and seemed to loom over her. The attendant gulped and took her tablet back.
"As you wish, Queen Mother," she said, grasping at her waist for her card keys. She unlocked the door and bowed the queen inside.
Niamh was pleased with the level of comfort provided for the men. They may live mostly underground, but with all they had access to, they might as well be living in society. She knew why they couldn't, of course. The ancient history books that were once taught in schools back in the a.d. days were simply accounts of all the horrors men had committed time after time. In all the days since mankind became womankind there had been only one "war", and it had ended quickly with minimal blood shed. They called it the Rebellion- a small group of men had gotten free back in the early days and helped others escape. Once they regrouped, they burned down what had been the capital city, killing many women and children in their attempt to "make a statement" as they had claimed. It was then that the underground network had begun. It was a widely practiced method, though many coastal areas and less developed countries used old military bases or converted prisons into comfortable living situations for men without guardians.
The Queen Mother entered and bowed to the four men who- for the most part- bowed back and offered her refreshments. "No, no thank you, I'm fine- I'm here for Paniten, actually," she said, frowning at the condescending lump on the couch. When she noticed how the others faces fell, her heart twinged. "Well, Paniten is to come with me, but I was hoping, if you're willing- I have placements for all of you at the palace."
The three men smiled and introduced themselves. "I'm Edwin," the shortest one said. He was about the same height as Niamh, with curly brown hair, freckles, and a stocky frame. "I'm an excellent hand with livestock and horses, if you need someone for the stables."
"If there are children to tutor, I can teach them Korean or Latin," the lanky blonde offered. "My name is Ries," he added with an offered hand. "This twitchy midget is my brother." He socked the short brunette in the arm and received a scowl.
"I learned Korean from my mother and grandmother, but my Latin could use some shaping up," she said after shaking his hand.
The third man held his hand out too. He was very dark skinned, with honey brown eyes, dimples, and a shaved head. "I'm just a gardener named Nobis, majesty, but it would be an honor to toil in the royal gardens." Niamh greeted him graciously, assuring him that he, too, was needed.
Finished with the others, her eyes settled on the lithe subject of her original interest. She appraised him for a moment, frustrated that he wouldn't look at her or stand. Bastiana raised an eyebrow and mimed tossing him over the back of the couch, but the queen gave a subtle shake of the head and cleared her throat.
"I know your name, but I would still like you to introduce yourself," Niamh said. "May I sit?"
"It's your couch," Paniten said, standing. He leared at her, taller than her by a full seven inches. Impressed in spite of herself, she swallowed but didn't sit. Niamh stared him down.
"You should be more polite to our gracious ruler," tiny Lolita scolded, coming to stand beside the queen.
The man blinked at the small angry woman. "Sorry," he said with a shrug.
"You'll need to fill this out," the attendant said nervously, handing her tablet to the lady advisor. "It's a multi-order form since she wants all four."
"All four- Niamh!" Bastiana protested.
The Mother raised her eyebrows. "We have plenty of room and plenty of jobs at the palace. It will be fine." She drew close to the woman and whispered "I just couldn't walk out with one- they were all so nice!"
"You're too soft," Pyotr murmured fondly.
"I know that over four score criminals who would not agree with that in the slightest," Bastiana muttered as she filled out the electronic form. "Alright, we're going to need two boats, and probably chains," Bastiana told the attendant. She handed her tablet back to her and they all thanked her as she ran off to get what they needed.
"It's just for the boat ride," Niamh apologized to the men as the guards brought with the attendant chained them. "Once we get to the palace we'll get you rooms and sorted out with the staff. I'm afraid the rooms won't be as large as this- you'll have individual bedrooms, but there are communal sitting rooms and bathrooms for the staff to share."
"We appreciate it," the blonde assured her. She smiled, though it slipped off her face when she saw the scowl emanating from her new supposed body guard and date to the ball that night.
"Maybe you should take Nobis- he's handsome, quiet, and charming," Lolita said, her eyes bright with interest.
"Maybe you should take Nobis," Niamh said with a wicked grin. "I can tell you're tired of Tomlan already- give him back to his poor mother!"
The girls bickered part of the way back, becoming silent when they began to pass the gardens surrounding the palace. The plants had been grown on a trellis that canopied the waterway in this area like a tunnel. The effect was beautiful- there were rose hybrids, orchids, plain old daffodils (the queen's secret favourite) and tulips peeking around the bottom edges of the trellis, ivy, blue and yellow and white clematis creeping all over, and even bunches of grapes hanging invitingly down. For people with little fear of bees, this was the most beautiful part of the city.
By the time they got back, they had a scant two hours to get themselves ready for the ball. The women rushed inside to dress, leaving the women-at-arms to gather their new people and get them to the right staff for their new lives. While three of them were rushed off to the servants quarters, Paniten was escorted to an ornate suite in the same hall as the queen's chambers. A man-in-waiting stood when he entered the room and presented him with some very fine clothes for the ball.
He raised his eyebrows. "I'm not wearing that," he said with disgust.
"The queen was hoping you might say that. This is what you will be wearing if you choose to not wear this," the man said.
Paniten glared at the older man. "You're not holding anything else."
"Precisely, sir. She said you can go naked if you do not wish to wear the tux."
"I'm not going at all."
Six armed guards stepped out of the other rooms in the suite. Paniten fumed. He might be able to take them all, but he wouldn't make it out of the palace, and if one of them died in the fight, he would die in a cold dark cell from dehydration.
"I see you have chosen to wear the tux," the man-in-waiting said calmly when Paniten made no move to escape.
He was then pushed into a chair where a hairdresser styled his shaggy straight black hair into something more sophisticated. "I look like a member of a Korean boy band," he snapped at the barber.
"Good. Her majesty is a quarter Korean, so she'll take it as a compliment. I'll make sure to tell her it was your idea. Are you Korean?" the hairdresser asked.
"A quarter, too," he admitted. "My grandfather and grandmother were both half."
"What a lucky coincidence- I don't suppose the rest of you is Greek?"
"The rest of the queen's blood is Greek and Irish," he explained.
"I don't care if it's Greyhound, I'm not interested," he said, scowling.
One of the armed women watching him hissed. "Watch your mouth, boy," she growled, prodding him in the back with the butt of her sword.
Paniten gritted his teeth and fought the urge to seize it and slice her from stem to stern. Once his hair was done they bleached his teeth, trimmed his nails, plucked his eyebrows, and finally allowed him to dress.
"Perfect- well, close enough," the hair dresser said. "I'm Dylan, by the way." He held out a hand to the surliest new member of the queen's household.
He wouldn't admit it, but the hairdresser Dylan didn't bother him so much. He shook the offered hand. "Paniten. Just call me Pan."