Ch. III: The Assassin's BallMature

          She was stunning.  Her dress was bright blue silk with gold hemming and belt, her signature colours.  The dress fell all the way to the floor, dusting over her golden slippers, with sleeves that were long and wide.  She wore a golden crown on her head studded with sapphires that winked in the light, bringing out a solitary fleck of blue in one gold-and-green eye.

          Pan was not impressed.  There were lots of beautiful women in the world, and he wasn't going to let this one unsettle him just because she was queen.  A queen with a tiny waist, perfect face, and what had to be the longest leg he'd ever seen peeking out of the slit in her dress.

          No, he was not impressed.

          "You're supposed to offer your arm," Niamh said softly as she came to stand next to him.  Her head came up to his collar bone.  He noticed that her hair had been unbraided and was now wavy, falling to her waist.  She smelled like cinnamon.

          He scowled at her, despite her charms.  "Fine."  He stuck out his elbow and tried to enter the ballroom with her.

          "You will do this right, or you will spend a week in the hole," she said calmly.  "It's up to you.  Now smile, and try to look like you want to be here."

          He gritted his teeth and tried.

          "I can wait all night.  It's my birthday, you know," she added.  "You do me a favor now, and I'll do you one on your birthday."

          He felt a little guilty, now, but brushed it aside.  "Alright."

          "Relax," she said.  "Close your eyes and try to relax."

          He closed his eyes.  She kissed him and they popped back open.  She laughed and pulled him to the stairs.  "Now you look fine, just lose the dazed expression and add a grin."

          They descended the grand marble staircase to applause.  She dug her fingers into his arm when he paused on a step.  "The worst is almost over," she said through her teeth.  "We'll have dinner, we'll dance, and then you can go to your chambers and pass out- there's melatonin spray in the nightstand if you need it."

          "Majesty!"  They had reached the bottom and were being greeted and complimented by the party-goers.

          "Thank you all for coming!  If everyone will please join me in the dining room, we can have an evening to remember!" Niamh smiled and bowed, exiting through the crowd with her escort to enter the dining hall first.

          "Nice speech," Paniten muttered.

          She ignored him.  "You still haven't introduced yourself."

          "You already know my name, majesty," he said frankly.

          "I won't address you until you introduce yourself properly," she insisted.  "Please?  It's bad manners."

          He sighed, his nostrils flaring.  "Paniten.  My name is Paniten, but please, call me Pan."

          "Like the ancient god," she said thoughtfully.  "I like it- Pan was my favourite.  I always cried when my nursemaid ended the stories with him dying because of civilization eating up the wild.  I like to think we helped him come back with the reforestation and anti-pollution efforts of my foremothers."

          "When do we eat?" he asked, irritated to find himself in conversation.

          She scowled at him.  "You could at least pretend to listen.  It will all come out as soon as everyone's seated."

          Together they led the party goers to the dining hall and seated themselves at the head table. He was nervous, clenching his hands beneath the table and trying to relax. He did not enjoy large crowds or being hovered over by muscular men and women- he was a private person who would much rather be in a quiet library or empty dojo, left to meditate, study, or practice. His tuxedo itched and he tugged subtly on the cuff of one sleeve, wishing to take it off.

          "Are you craving anything in particular?" Niamh asked, interrupting his thoughts and studying his face.

          "I'll have what you're having," he said with renewed stiffness.  Inside he was chastising himself for being almost friendly with her.  'Be civil, nothing more,' he thought to himself.

          A servant came to Niamh first, presenting her with an assortment of appetizers to choose from.  Pan was second, and then many servants entered the dining hall to leave trays on the table for the diners to choose from.  He watched Niamh neatly eat something wrapped in a leaf.

          "They're dolmathakia me kima- dolmas, stuffed grape leaves.  Try one- it's a Greek tradition as much as these pa jun are traditionally Korean.  There are American classics, too- cheese sticks?" She pointed at a piece of fried mozzarella.  "I don't know, I don't usually eat like this."  She offered him a stuffed grape leaf.

          He tried to eat it without looking suspicious.  "It's alright," he said, bored.  But he took another one, to her delight, and offered her a crab cake.

          "Some of your favourite foods were listed in your history," she admitted, accepting the cake.  "I hope they're up to your standards."

          "Thank you," he said without looking at her.

          After everyone finished sampling the appetizers, the main course was brought out. Creamy garlic pasta loaded with lobster, shrimp and crab in garlic butter, fresh fish grilled to perfection, and more. Everyone stretched after the rich meal and adjourned to the ball room to stretch their legs and work up a new appetite for the special dessert after the dance in honor of the queen.  The first song played was by a contemporary band, a moderate tempo in common time to get things going.  After the band played a short set, the orchestra struck up a tune and the queen led him through a simple minuet.

          "We'll have to get you dance lessons," she said laughing as he turned the wrong way.  A man approached, only a few inches shorter than Pan.  He had bright blonde hair and a charming smile.

          "May I cut in?" the gentleman asked.  He didn't wait for an answer but took Niamh's hand and led her away as the tune changed into a lively tango.  Pan tried to keep an eye on them, but a willowy red-head had asked him to dance.  They passed close by the queen and he saw a flash of metal.

          "Hey!" he cried, diving for the man.  There was blood on Niamh's dress and a snarl of outrage on her face.  The blonde spun and fled the ballroom, knocking dancers out of his path as he ran.  Pan flew after him, leaping over a chair the assassin had flung at him.  "Save the queen!" he yelled over his shoulder as he chased after him.

          The man ran through the double doors, slamming them after him so that the bolt fell and locked them.  Pan wasted no time.  He ran to the balcony that over-looked the garden and saw the criminal running through the Roseway Walk.  He leapt off the balcony rail, aiming for a pile of bagged fertilizer.  He rolled off of them, a little bruised, and ran after the criminal hard, finally catching up near the gardenias.

          "You have nowhere to run," Pan breathed out heavily.  "Come quietly- or not.  I'd love to kill you here, but I'd rather not shower the plants with your filthy blood if I can help it."

          The man spat at him and lunged, his bloody knife out.  Pan stepped to the side.  "She deserves it, keeping us like animals," the man growled as he stumbled.

          "Maybe it's wrong, but this isn't the way to change things."  He broke the man's wrist with a quick twist and he dropped the knife, swearing.  "Seeing reason yet?" The blonde swung at him in response, reaching for the knife with his good hand.  Pan knocked him out with a swift kick to the head and turned around.

          "Nice one," a male guard said appreciatively.  "We can take it from here."

          An armored female slapped his rear as she walked past with cuffs and a chain lead.  "You should stop by sometime," she added with a wink.

          Pan just shook his head and ran back to the ballroom.  Most of the guests had stayed inside, worried the assassin would double back for their queen, but many had run after the violent pair to watch and cheered him on now as he jogged back to the dance to check on Niamh.

          They had moved her to her private chambers, but a servant had been left behind to lead him there.  "Is she alright?" he asked the maid.

          "I don't know," she said tearfully.  "I saw blood, but nobody told me anything except to take you to her room."

          They walked quickly, exiting the dance hall and turning down three corridors before he recognized the large hall.  They walked until it dead ended at a pair of beautifully carved double doors that opened onto the Queen Mother's chambers.  He knocked lightly and stepped back.

          "Hurry in," Bastiana whispered, opening the doors.  "Please fetch us some orange juice," she added, nodding at the maid.

          "Is she alright?" he asked as they walked through the sitting room the queen used to privately entertain her close friends.

          Bastiana nodded.  "She'll be fine.  The cut was deep, but he hit no organs and it wasn't poisoned.  She's already all sewn up and completely incensed.  She's ordered his head to be delivered on a plate, and she can be pretty literal when it comes to punishment."

          "What is the penalty for trying to kill the queen?" Pan asked.  "Officially, I mean."

          "Officially it says drawn and quartered, but the queen, or her family, should the assassin succeed, reserves the right to punish as she sees fit."

          Pan raised his eyebrows.  "What's her favourite punishment?  What do you think she'll order?"

          "There's no telling.  The queen and her foremothers are widely known for their creativity, though she is fond of severe maiming.  She likes to sentence them to sewing up their own wounds from it, too."

          Pan winced and walked through another door leading into the queen's bedroom.  There was only a doctor and a nurse, checking her vitals and adjusting her covers.  "I'm fine, I'm fine, you did your job, please, send me Bastiana!"

          "I'm here, Niamh," the lady replied sitting carefully on the edge of the bed.  "Paniten's here, too."

          "Pan," he told her, walking around the bed to the less crowded side.  "We caught him."

          "Good," Niamh said viciously.  "I'm going to spend the rest of my birthday thinking about what to do to him."  She reached for the wine glass on the nightstand and fell short.

          "Here."  Pan handed her the glass and looked at her thoughtfully.  "Don't be too harsh," he said finally, taking the now empty glass back.

          "Why ever not?" she demanded haughtily.  "He tried to kill me!"

          "Yes, and I broke his wrist and knocked him out."

          "You think that's good enough?" she asked calmly, her face turning white with rage.

          "No, I think he should be sentenced to death, but does it have to be cruel and unusual?" he asked.

          "Yes!" she yelled.  The doctor and nurse started forward again as the heart monitor beeped wildly.  "I will publicly humiliate him and then he will die!"

          "What did you have in mind?" Bastiana asked dryly.

          "We'll string him up naked on the palace gate.  Let's be old fashioned- a rotten fruit and vegetable stand on the left for anyone who wishes for sport, and on the third day we cut off his head and stick it on a pike.  We can leave it at the gate, a warning for any who would think to be his successor."

          "Very well.  I will make the arrange-"

          "No!  No, not that!"

          "What then?" Niamh's advisor demanded.

          "We- we put him in a cage.  A cage- we can hang it over the gate and leave him there."

          "For how long?" Pan asked.

          "Until all that's left is bones."

          "Okay," Bastiana began cautiously.

          "NO!  No, wait-" Niamh said, sitting up quickly.  She winced from the pain in the wound.  "I've got it.  The arena!"

          "The arena?  Where all the plays are held?" Pan asked.

          "Yes!  We cut him up a little, give him the knife he used to stab me, and then set a pack of wolves loose!"  She seemed very excited about this idea and bounced on the bed despite her wound.

          Bastiana and Pan forced her back onto her pillows.  "My lady, why don't you sleep on it?  We can take care of it in the morning."  Bastiana reached for the glass of orange juice the maid had brought.  Pan saw her slip something in it when the queen wasn't paying attention.  He looked at her and she winked.  "Drink this, little Mother," she said, handing her the spiked beverage.  "You'll know what you want in the morning."

          "Mmmm..." Niamh mumbled, trailing off.  "You...drugged..."

          "Happy birthday," Pan said, leaning down to kiss her, effectively cutting her off before she could finish the thought.

          "What was that?" he asked as he and Bastiana left the room.

          "Just a sleeping draught," she said.  "She gets really riled up.  You'll get to see her colder side tomorrow during sentencing.  You should be able to relate."

          She bowed slightly and left him at the door to his chambers, slightly insulted and weary from the night's events.

The End

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