"I want to move back to the palace in Barefoot District," the queen announced one day in court. The ladies murmured among themselves and the men frowned and muttered.
"So soon? But you haven't even spent a full season here!" Baroness Yora protested.
Niamh sighed and gazed about the marble splendor before her. She was restless and this district near the Nevian Desert was so pompous- she was not as comfortable here as she was at the capital's palace, her usual home. "I am sorry," she said. "I do not wish to offend you. I simply long for home."
"You are young," Duke Ricar said with a sniff. "It is understood the young do not hold their tongues so well as the properly aged."
She bristled but nodded at the grumpy old man with the proper diplomacy in her manner. "Would the court join me in the garden?" The "court" consisted of mostly middle-aged people. Only a handful present were close to her age.
"It's much too hot," Duchess Aoife complained. The rest of the older crowd chimed in with her, agreeing that they would be much more comfortable indoors. Had the queen musicians for entertainment? Perhaps some delicacies to eat or mah jongg to play?
The queen sighed and cast about for ideas. "We can play a card game," she suggested. "Four decks is enough for all of us."
"I would love to go to the garden." A slender blonde with a lively face stood and curtsied to the queen. "Perhaps Sir Adoro and Lady Felise would like to join us? Any others?"
Slowly the younger members of the court stood and walked over to the princess. "Perhaps our mothers and grandmothers would enjoy the quartet in the sitting room?" the lady suggested.
"What an excellent idea!" Niamh brightened up and called for the head butler. "Please, arrange for music, table games, and appetizers to be sent to the sitting room for our senescent guests, and perhaps some treats to the garden for my younger friends as well." The butler bowed and left to alert the quartet and chef.
"Thank you," the queen said to the young woman. "With Bastiana on leave I am lost!"
Lady Lilla giggled. "It's understandable- they're so stuffy and hard to please. Someone had to step up." The vivacious young woman shoved the handsome knight Adoro who walked beside her.
"Would you like us to advise you in your dear Bastiana's absence?" he offered. He flashed Niamh a charming smile, his teeth stark against his dark skin.
"If that is a serious offer, I would at the very least take Lady Lilla," Niamh said with a laugh.
The lady elbowed Adoro out of the way and took the queen's arm. "It would be lovely to help you in her absence, though you are right to count this bauble-brained knight out of the running. May I ask you a question?"
"You may," the queen allowed.
"We were wondering, Felise and I, where is that handsome man who accompanied you the first weeks of your stay here? I barely recall his name! It was Pantheon?"
Niamh laughed and shook her head. "His name is Paniten, and he dislikes it here. Though I am at a loss without him and Bastiana, I agreed to let him return to the Barefoot District Palace. However, now that things are running more smoothly, I think I shall insist on his return. He needed a break from court life, but I think nearing two months is enough, don't you?"
The young courtiers nodded and chimed their agreement as they urged her to bring him back. "We need a new playmate," Felise pouted. She was a beauty, with shining brown hair curled and falling from their pins. She was shorter than the queen and Lilla, and not as dark as her brother Adoro. He was taller than her and every bit as handsome as she was beautiful. His shaggy chestnut hair fell around a dark chiseled face, and they both had large hazel-brown eyes, long lashes, and full lips.
"I don't think we'll be allowed to play with him," another young lady joked. She had skin the colour of chocolate and masses of springy black hair that fought to get away from their ties. "I'm Anera." She held out a long-fingered hand for the queen to shake.
"Thank you," Niamh said. "It's been almost three months and I've barely spoken to anyone but the crotchety duke and the baroness. You'll probably all have to remind me of your names a few times."
An extremely tall and well-built redhead laughed and bowed. "I'm happy to remind you of my name every hour, majesty. Meradox, here to make you laugh, and anything else you'd like." He took her hand and pressed his lips to it, his green eyes never leaving her own as a wicked grin split his face. "I apologize for my parents boring you."
Niamh blushed, her golden cheeks dusted with pink. "I'm so sorry, I meant no offense-"
He cut her off with a chuckle. "Nonsense, nothing you say could offend me; every word that passes your lips becomes beautiful."
Her breath caught a little. He was incredibly charming, and somewhat intentionally. It wasn't uncommon for nobility to try to court her, but the standing tradition was for the queen to bring new blood into the family by seeking a common man, like Paniten. Still, Meradox's smile was intoxicating, even though his words were a bit over-the-top for her. She cleared her throat and took back her hand. She reminded herself she wasn't committed to anyone yet, and acknowledged that his eyes promised fun and mischief.
Niamh smiled. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
The queen and youth of the court spent hours in the gardens, forgetting about the older court members as they played games, wove flowers into crowns, and flirted. When the sun began to sink, the butler returned and announced that dinner was ready, only to be met with groans. They all stood up, dusting themselves off, and made their way to the wash basins to clean up before they presented themselves to their parents.
Dinner was livelier than usual, among the young and old. Everyone seemed to have a more enjoyable evening because of the activity split, and people left in good spirits when dinner ended, heading off to their rooms in the palace or off to their homes for the few with mansions nearby.
Niamh sighed, content, and stood out on the ballroom balcony once her guests turned in, gazing at the starry sky. This district had much less crime than the capital. She was almost stress free, but she couldn't help feeling lonely without Bastiana and the rest of her close advisors and friends. She studied a constellation, thinking of Pan. Had she made the right decision sending him back with Bast? She was trying so hard to get to know him, but he was even surlier in this castle than the one at home. After a few weeks here, she'd given up and sent him back to the capitol. Maybe things would be better when she got back. She began to fantasize about him opening up to her and going on outings when her thoughts were interrupted by a very large hand on her shoulder.
"Pardon me, my queen," Meradox said, stepping back and bowing when she jumped.
"What are you doing here so late?" she asked, taking a step back toward the rail.
Meradox took her elegant hand into his own. "I couldn't sleep yet for thinking of you," he said, gazing into her eyes. "I hoped you might still be awake, and it seems my hopes were rewarded."
"Um," Niamh said. She cursed herself silently, frustrated with how she was reacting to him.
He chuckled and held out a muscular arm. "Would you join me in a turn about the garden?"
"I would enjoy that," she said, recovering herself. Taking his arm, she followed him to the garden, walking the little brick paths and sharing small talk until he stopped at a bench. He gestured to it and she took a seat, smiling back at him as he joined her.
With a sigh, he took her hand and held it to his lips. "Is it too forward if I hold your hand, my queen?"
"No, it feels nice," she said, wiggling her fingers. "And please call me Niamh."
"Niamh," he breathed, turning to look at her. He got closer and alarm bells started going off in her head. She was awash with nervous energy as his lips parted slightly. She closed her eyes and leaned closer.