Ch. VI: The Friend of My Friend is My EnemyMature

          Paniten arrived at the airport in the queen's private jet on a bright Thursday. He was dressed to travel comfortably in clothes he often used to practice martial arts, loose black cotton trousers and a black t-shirt. He knew he'd have to dress well for court, so he took advantage of a more casual wardrobe now. He had attendants now, and they grabbed his luggage and carried it to the waiting luxury hover. Still unused to being waited on, he reached for a suitcase, only to be scolded as they loaded his and their own belongings into the back.

          Pan stared out the window the entire way to the desert palace, thinking about Niamh. He was frustrated to be called back- here he couldn't lock himself away in his suite and practice fighting or music. Here he would have to mingle with nobility and try to fit in. He was also frustrated because he was excited to see Niamh and he didn't want to be. She was beautiful, yes, but she was also cruel and vain. He refused to acknowledge her good traits- no one who caged people just because of their sex deserved his friendship. 

            The view was beautiful the entire way there, golden sands, blooming cacti, and finally the sunset. They made it to the palace with just enough time for him to be made presentable for supper. Putting a mask of indifference on to hide his growing excitement, he followed a manservant to the dining hall where he was re-introduced to the nobility by the queen mother before taking his seat at her right hand.

          Once the food came out and the drinks began to flow, chatter filled the large sandstone room, filling his ears with gossip and small talk.

          "How is the Capitol?" Niamh asked, daintily cutting a piece of lamb into minuscule bites.

          "Dull," he said simply, picking a shank up with his bare hands and ripping a chunk off with his teeth just to irk her.

          She pursed her lips but bit her tongue. "And how about you? Did you enjoy your time there alone or are you glad of this trip?"

          "I guess both," he answered, wiping his greasy fingers on his expensive pants.

          Niamh calmly put her fork down and dabbed at her still clean lips with a napkin. "I know you wish to irritate me in any way you can, but you are only making more work for the laundresses, a lovely group of hardworking people you've never met, so I'd appreciate it if you would stop acting like a spoiled child and eat the food before you with the respect our hardworking kitchen staff deserves."

          Pan struggled to hide a scowl. She knew exactly what to say to keep him in line. "Fine, but don't expect me to buddy up with these people," he snapped under his breath.

          "I trust you'll be polite to the men and women who oversee the welfare of citizens like you, and to their innocent children who have yet to find their place."

          He snorted and almost choked on a chickpea. "Innocent, right." He speared an olive with his fork and chewed, trying not to scowl. 

          Niamh ignored him for the rest of the meal, instead speaking with a large redhead she kept calling Dox. Pan looked him over. The man was easily 6'7", three inches taller than Pan, and was clearly built for strength instead of speed. He would be a challenging opponent, probably trained as a knight with a decent amount of hand-to-hand learned as well as swordsmanship and gunnery.

          Niamh giggled several times while speaking with Dox, which irked Pan for some reason. He almost grabbed her arm when she reached out to touch the redhead's hand. He was forced to exert even more self control when the ginger took her hand and kissed it. Pan's skin began to crawl as he watched them interact. There was something off about the man.

          When dinner was over, Niamh stood and suggested adjourning to the sitting room for music and games. All the young people accepted the invitation, while the older ones politely declined in favor of resting after so rich a meal. The Queen took Pan's arm before it was offered and practically marched him there, pulling him down beside her onto one of the small comfortable sofas.

          "Let's all sit close and play at cards- Hojin, please bring the games here," she said to an attendant as the young people pulled a low table over along with some couches and chairs. The tall ginger named Dox was actually bold enough to ask Pan and the queen to move over so he could squeeze in beside her, the size of the couch forcing him to put one arm around her shoulder and have her practically in his lap. Pan was almost crushed into the side, Niamh's warm body pressed into him because of their additional couch mate. He turned a little and she was almost leaning against him, her cinnamon scent perfuming the air around her and filling him up.

           He'd never admit it to her, but she was intoxicating, even as she lost at cards. Her laugh was like windchimes and her skin was as smooth as silk; every time her arm brushed against his he couldn't help but notice. Another thing he couldn't help noticing was the giant hand playing with a strand of her shiny hair. He tried to lean away without being obvious, but that made it difficult to play his hand when it came to his turn.

          When 1am rolled around, he feared the games would never stop. They had all moved to the open floor and were sitting in a circle playing a game called Command or Declare and the temari ball had just been rolled to him by a pale platinum blonde name Recie who had been eyeing him all night.

          "Command," Pan said, gritting his teeth.

          She pouted for a moment, thinking. "I command you to walk around the circle on your hands while singing The Man of Perrinshire."

          He sighed and stood, stepping far enough from the circle that they wouldn't get hit should be fall.

The man of Perrinshire

Spent his life as a liar

his wife came home

saw he wasn't alone

and set his pants on fire

          Paniten finished his lap and and landed on his feet, brushing his hands off on the seat of his pants. Holding the decorative orb in his hands, he glanced around the faces in the circle, pausing on the queen and Dox. He tossed it to the gargantuan ginger and waited.

          Dox met his eyes and smiled. "Declare."

           "Tell us why you are here," Pan said, knowing he wouldn't get any information. He simply hoped to imply to the man that he was watching him.

          "To play this game and enjoy the company of the queen and our friends," Dox answered coolly, handing the queen the ball and turning away.

          "Command," Niamh said boldly.

          Dox appraised her for a moment, trying to ascertain how much he could get away with. "I'd be a fool to not ask for a kiss when someone so beautiful has given me such an opportunity."

          The circle began to chatter and giggle, a few tsked disapprovingl. Pan just scowled and watched as Niamh leaned over with a laugh and kissed him. The circle whooped and broke into laughter when Dox pretended to faint.

          They played for another hour, to Pan's dismay, before too many were yawning to ignore. "Why don't we finish here and turn in," Niamh suggested. "Perhaps tomorrow we could have brunch in the garden and hide in the castle until the noon sun is not so bright."

          "Actually hide?" a lanky brunette named Irin asked. "With this many of us, a game of tag or hide and seek-"

          "Those are children's games," a darker woman with a strong nose scoffed, cutting him off. 

          "I'm game," the knight named Felise said excitedly. Several others nodded or chimed in their agreement and Niamh held up a hand, yawning.

          "It's fine with me," she said. "Now I bid you all goodnight. Pan?" She turned to him, holding out her hand. He took it, smirking at Dox as the group split and they went down the  hall toward her chambers.

          "Your rooms are connected to mine, I'm sure you remember? We share the sitting room of the suite." He nodded and they entered the royal chambers. She let go of his arm and turned to go to her half, but he stopped her.

          "Who is Dox?" he asked, pulling her down beside him on a sofa.

          She scowled at him for man-handling her but spoke politely. "He is the son of a crotchety noble couple who seems to have turned out fine despite his uptight raising. Why?"

          Paniten studied her face for a moment, then swept a thumb over her forehead to smooth away her irritated expression. "Something is off about him," he said finally. "I don't think you should encourage his companionship."

          Instead of trusting him like he expected, she smirked. "You're jealous."

          Pan tried to stay calm, but a flash of anger crossed his features for a moment. "No. I'm concerned, and I trust my instincts. I thought you did, too."

          Niamh waved a hand, dismissing him. "I'm going to sleep," she announced, standing. "I suggest you do the same. Maybe you'll think more clearly after a rest." She turned to walk away, but his anger got the better of him this time and he grabbed her arm.

          "Don't be stupid, Niamh, I-" he started, but her other hand landed a stinging smack on his cheek.

          "I appreciate your concern," she said, her fists clenched. "And I would value your companionship, if you gave it, but if you continue to grab me or imply I'm stupid again, I will have you put in the stocks for a week without food." She shook his hand off of her arm and strode through the doors to her room. He heard a lock click and shook his head to clear it.

          "She'll see I'm right," he said furiously, glaring at the doors to her room. He turned on his heel and headed off to bed, one hand touching his reddened cheek.

                                                                                   ~*~

           Morning came, but none except the staff stirred til 11, when yawning and dressed in casual attire, the queen's court stumbled out to the garden for brunch. The servants had set up a few round tables and as the nobles sat, they covered them with fruit, sandwiches, tea, soups, salads, little cakes, and spirits. They started out quietly, slowly becoming chattier the more they consumed. By the end of the hour, they were as loud as they had ever been, joking across tables and stealing grapes from each other. Even Niamh was laughing loudly at a joke Recie was recalling, trying to stifle her noise with her hand and failing.

          Pan was on her left, trying to appear amused and failing as he stabbed a fig that rolled toward him while the table shook.

         "Is anyone ready for a game?" Felise asked, her cheeks red from excitement and mimosas.

          "Queen Mother!" Bernadette, Niamh's temporary replacement for Bastiana, came running in with the queen's tablet. "Here is your agenda for the day- I'm so sorry, I should have given you the week's schedule yesterday." She fumbled with the tablet as she handed it over, cowering slightly from Niamh's scowl.

          "Yes, you should have. I am completely unprepared for- court? There is a sentencing? Where is the crime report? Have the nobility been assembled? I'm not even dressed properly!" She stood quickly and turned to the youth. "You are all to get dressed and take a seat with your families in the Hall of Law. You have twenty minutes." Niamh turned back to Bernadette. "You come with me. And you, Pan."

          The three of them strode out, Bernadette tapping away quickly on the tablet to summon the Queen's lady-in-waiting, and a few extra servants.

          By the time they entered the royal suite, the servants were already there with outfits ready to go. She and Pan stripped quickly and changed into finery as fast as possible with the help of the ladies and men in waiting. Niamh kept up a lecture about responsibility for Bernadette as one of the girls fixed her hair, though she paused when they started on her makeup. By the time they were ready, the acting advisor was looking properly chastised as she trod ahead of them to the hall of law. Pan kept Niamh walking in a straight line with a firm hand on her back as she skimmed the reports on her tablet.

          They entered and everyone stood as Niamh took her seat on the straight-backed throne. Bernadette and Pan took seats on either side of her after she sat, and waited expectantly. Niamh was silent, not acknowledging anyone as she finished re-reading the first report for the criminal before her.

         "Edgar Torick, you are before the court today, accused of digging up ancient websites that exploited women and distributing printed contents as well as links via the darknet to other criminals and once reputable men. The evidence against you is straight forward and you have given us a list of recipients in hopes of leniency. You have admitted your guilt. Do you agree with these statements?" The Queen Mother peered down at him over the rim of her round glasses.

           "I do, great Mother," the small, sniveling man said.

          "What have you to say for yourself?"

          "I offer my sincerest apologies- I implore you to consider the weakness of my sex and take into account the list I gave you," he did, his voice shaking as he stared up at her.

           "Hmmm." Niamh tapped on her tablet a few minutes, knowing the criminal was squirming with discontent. "You have admitted everything? There is nothing else?"

           "No, Mother, I promise I have given you all the information I have," he answered, sweating.

           "Very well. You have a lifetime ban from the Internet, and you are sentenced to one year in the underground alone, with limited activities and excursions. After that you will be moved to a tech-free cell with other individuals who have also been banned from online activities. If any woman decides to vouch for you, she will be informed of the ban and her home will be swept free of any advanced devices. Take him."

          Two guards moved forward to remove him while two others dragged in the next fellow, this time in cuffs.

           "Barton Caulwill, this isn't your first offense," Niamh said as she read his history. "I'm going to have to speak with the one who sentenced you first- men who beat their wives don't get a second chance in the Capitol. Your wife had a pretty face once, from what I can see. Stop."

           The man had opened his mouth, a snarl on his face, but the queen raised her hand to silence him. "I will let you speak if you can do it politely."

          "The stupid bitch had it coming," he hissed.

          There were gasps from the nobles in the room. Slurs like that were intolerable.

           Niamh's mouth was a thin line. "Teach him how to set and put a splint on a broken arm with one hand. Break one, make him put a splint on it, break the other and have the doctor set it." The man's face grew pale. "If I ever hear of that word passing your lips again, Mr. Caulwill, I will make a daily soap brushing mandatory and give the guards permission to recreate your face in the likeness of your victim on a monthly basis. Take him now."

          The nobles in the room were murmuring to each other, shocked by the slur and creative punishment. Bernadette cleared her throat to silence them and called for the next case. "This is the last one for today," she added quietly. Niamh smiled, relieved.

          "Delia Greene, you-" Niamh glanced at the tablet and then Bernadette, swallowing. "You have been diagnosed as a sociopath. Bodies have been found-" She gripped her tablet, nostrils flaring. "What do you have to say for yourself?" She demanded.

          The young woman was cuffed and beautiful despite the uniform she wore. She looked up at the queen with large green eyes. "I'm innocent," she said simply. "You can't punish me for being crazy." She began to giggle.

          Niamh looked at her in disgust. "You knew exactly what you were doing." She turned her attention to Bernadette who was taking notes. "I want her torn to pieces. Dogs, wolves, lions, a colony of rabid bats- I don't care if it's piranhas. Just make it happen."

          "You can't be serious," Delia Greene said.

          "Ms. Greene, if I didn't think being half burned alive, partially dismembered, and then drowned was a little too much work for those I employ to rid the world of you, that's what would be happening instead. So enjoy this method- the other plan would have taken days, this will only take a few hours."

          "You can't do this," the murderess screamed as they dragged her out. "You can't kill me!"

          "I think I have had enough for today, Bernadette." Niamh stood and the court followed suit. "Please entertain the guests." She swept from the room, her sari-like garment billowing behind her as she headed for her chambers. Paniten followed. He knew she'd never admit to it, but he'd heard her voice break when she spoke to Bernadette.

The End

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