Paniten let Niamh have a head start and turned toward the kitchen. He was stopped almost immediately by the sous chef, who demanded to know why he was there, his voice heavily accented.
"Please, does anyone know the queen's favorite treats?" Pan asked him. "She's very upset right now."
"Our Great Mother loves trying new things- give me ten minutes and I will have a basket of old favorites and new delicacies," the head chef called over his shoulder at him. The stringy woman began barking orders at her staff and they began to fly over the place, grabbing fresh vegetables and things, chopping furiously. "You go to the gardener and ask for a modest arrangement for her majesty," she added to Pan. "Bailey will meet you by the door to her chambers with food."
Pan walked to the garden and called out, hoping one of the gardeners would hear him. A moment passed and a shriveled old man came from behind a row of cacti. "You called, sir?"
"I'm sorry to disturb your work, but if you could assemble a modest bouquet, the Queen is very upset and with your help I'd like to cheer her up," Pan explained.
The little man's eyes sparkled. "No bother at all- let's brighten her day, eh? Tell her Marty gives his best. You know, I've known her since she was a lass, used to play hide and seek in the gardens here," he rambled, cutting some flowers here and there. "I know all her favorites- I will be right back, must get some from the climate controlled house, there's gotta be at least three roses in here and a few irises too," he mumbled to himself as he tottered off. Pan waited patiently and was rewarded five minutes later with an eclectic but charming bouquet. He thanked the man and hurried off to her chambers to meet Bailey with the basket.
"Forgive me, sir," she said when he arrived, eyeing the bouquet. "Is something like that really good enough for the Queen Mother?"
"Marty arranged it himself, based on her favorites. I trust him," he said shortly, taking the basket from her. "Thank you."
The young girl nodded and fled back down the hall.
He entered the joint chambers and was shocked at the disarray. Chairs were knocked over, a vase was smashed, and a couple of paintings were askew. His thoughts immediately jumped to an assassination attempt and he dropped the bouquet and basket and rushed into her side of the suite. He sighed with relief when he saw Niamh lying on her stomach on the bed, one leg in the air and her court outfit rumpled on the floor. She didn't look up when he entered, so he edged out to retrieve the flowers and food.
She ignored him as he searched her linen closet, retrieving a quilt and emptying her glass tumbler of tea to add water and the flowers from the garden. He set up a little picnic on the floor beside her bed and then sat.
"If you're hungry and would like to join me," he said a little stiffly, "the chef prepared some of your favorites."
The smell was already getting to her; it had been several hours since brunch. She slid off the bed, adjusted her full slip, and sat across from him. "Why are you doing this?" she asked, reaching for a spanakopita.
"Because I saw the details of the case on the tablet Bernadette gave me and I need to spend a little time with someone who isn't a disgusting waste of existence."
Niamh relaxed and reached for her phone, sending out an auto-request for tea. "Then let's talk about something else," she said, putting her phone aside and offering him an innocent looking truffle. "Chocolate avocado," she explained.
"That's delicious," he said with surprise. "What about this?" He offered her a small purple fruit.
"Mangosteen!" she said. She grabbed a knife from the drawer behind her and cut through the rind, using her fingers to peel it back and reveal little white sections. "Queen of fruit, try it." She took a section for herself and then handed it back to him. "I'm guessing you didn't eat like this in the underground?"
Pan shrugged. "I can't complain about the food there, at all. We were given a monthly food allowance and filled out an order form for what we wanted and cooked for ourselves. If I haven't tried something, it's because I'd never heard of it and my roommates didn't introduce me to it, not because it wasn't allowed. You don't know the ins and outs of the underground?" he added.
"I know that the men are well taken care of and that they see a reasonable amount of time outside everyday as well as plenty of trips, that day passes are available, and that any of you can request freedom on your own merit," she said dismissively. "I don't know the day to day specifics."
"Did you know it can take a decade before a request for freedom comes before a reviewer?" he asked casually.
"Ten years?" Her mouth dropped in shock. "No one has brought this to my attention- I could have expedited this service- if there is a backlog all I have to do is move some people around or have a program created!"
"Well," he said, a little surprised himself. "Now you know. But you need to come up with something that can be implemented everywhere because I'm sure the Capitol is t the only place behind."
Niamh sniffed. "I pride myself on how efficiently this world runs. It seems I have been misled. I shall hold a counsel when we return to the palace and sort this out with the leaders. Now, let us speak of something more frivolous than politics, I am so tired of these matters for the day."
Pan nodded in understanding, trying to divert his mind from what he saw of Delia Greene's case. "So, the chef said she would prepare some new things for you to try. What here is new for you?"
Niamh observed the setting he had placed before her, interrupted momentarily by the arrival of the tea. She thanked the maid and Pan took the the tray, pouring a cup for her and then himself. "This is new tea," Niamh said, inhaling the steam. "And this I've never had." She pointed to a bowl of meatballs in BBQ sauce.
"You're kidding- these are the best! Here," he used tongs to transfer three to her plate. "You've really never had meatballs?"
"Meatballs?" she said, a look of disgust on her face as she lowered one back to her plate. "What animal?"
"No, no, no," he laughed. "It's not what you think- they're just ground beef mixed with oatmeal, egg, and seasoning, no strange body parts. I promise," he added when she looked at him distrustfully. "Wouldn't the chef know the foods you'd refuse?"
That satisfied her. "Reba would never serve me so like that. She knows my preferences." She took a bite and smiled. "It's a little sweet, but it's good. I would eat this again."
"So you probably don't know what this is, either?" He nudged a plate of sausages wrapped in puff pastry toward her. "This is a fancy version of pigs in a blanket, I'm guessing."
"I'll take your word for it. Usually she makes more vegetable dishes." They carried on for an hour, suggesting different things to try and the youth. They agreed on just about everyone for the most part. When evening came, Niamh texted housekeeping to clean up their leftovers from lunch. Pan left her room so they could both dress for supper and then met the queen in their joint sitting room.
"When I take a husband," she began as they walked down to dinner together. "The quarters you're in will be converted into a nursery for the heirs. We will have to find you somewhere else by then."
Her voice was so perfectly casual, but it made him nervous. Was she not considering him as a suitor anymore? He should be thrilled, but Meradox's face loomed in his mind. He thought back to court today, too. Maybe she wasn't the worst person to rule this country. She treated Delia, a woman, as harshly as she had the male criminals. If she had been a man, he doubted Niamh would have altered the punishment in the slightest. He didn't agree with her every idea and conviction, but he considered how she handled what he'd said about the underground earlier. His feelings about her were mixed, but the course of action she followed in light of his information for her might clear them up a bit. He'd have to wait and see if she followed through.
The next month passed without incident. A week after Pan had informed the queen of the freedom request backlog, a counsel was held, a solution found, and a process being put in place. Thousands of men around the world were updating job passes to life passes, now free to go anywhere instead of just work, gyms, yards, and group excursions. A few groups of extremists calling themselves Amazons staged protests at the rising tide of free men now walking the street, but Niamh went live globally as the Queen Mother a few weeks after her arrival back at the Capitol's palace. Her voice rang like bells from every device as she gave a speech about the matriarch's ideals and warnings about repercussions should crime rates rise, whether the party responsible was the protestors or the men. The extremists were diffused for the most part, and crime rates didn't rise past what was considered normal. After a brief respite at home, it was time to move to one of the spring palaces, this year it was the one in New Seoul.
"Bastiana! I cannot deal with Park right now, she is being ridiculous! Make an excuse- I have to find a tactful way to order her to begin the new pass process." Niamh ripped her formal robes over her head and tossed them in a heap at the foot of her bed.
"Anything I can do?" Pan asked, striding into her room.
"Yeah, get me out of this place before I burn it to the ground."
Bastiana looked at her reproachfully. "She's your aunt, Niamh, you need to be respectful."
Bastiana rolled her eyes at Pan. "Let me know when the tantrum is over." She fled as a shoe went sailing past her ear.
Pan sighed and went to the queen's closet. He pulled out the most civilian-like outfit he could find and tossed it to her, along with a hooded coat. "Take your makeup off and put this on. I will be right back." He walked to his own suite and dressed down in street clothes, mussed up his hair, and went back. She was just sitting on the bed, glaring at him.
"Why?" she demanded.
"Just trust me, ok?" He sat beside her and started removing the ornaments from her hair as she wiped off her makeup and pulled on the lace patterned leggings. When he finished, she stood and pulled the dress he had grabbed over her head and went to look in the mirror.
Pan followed. "There, you look different enough to come out- let's go!" He took her hand and they left, Pan navigating the corridors like a professional.
"How do you know your way so well?" Niamh asked as they slipped through a tapestry and down a narrow passage.
"I am your body guard," Pan said. "I studied the official and unofficial blueprints for a week in case I need to remove you in secret. You never know about assassins."
"I have had the least number of attempts of any before me," she sniffed. "But I appreciate your preparedness."
He smiled and unlocked a door that led into a cute but empty little house. "Traditionally the chef lives here, but the current one prefers rooms in the palace and there has been no threat detected in this country so she is allowed to choose her living situation. Now why don't we go get some coffee?"
He unlocked the front door and led her out cautiously. The street the palace was on was constantly patrolled so they had to be careful until they got further away. A guard was gliding slowly by on a hover bike as they passed a fancy bakery, so Pan pulled her close, obscuring their faces with a kiss til the guard had passed.
They walked a few more blocks, hand in hand, until they found a coffee shop connected to a ramen shop.
"Which one?" he asked as they stood outside.
"I have had coffee, I have not had ramen," Niamh said.
"Really?" Pan asked.
"My chefs calculate my needed daily intake of vitamins and calories and plan meals accordingly except on feast days. Ramen is a nutritional void, even when made with vegetable noodles and an egg is on top."
Pan huffed at her. "Do you want to try it or not?"
"Of course I do!" she said.
He laughed at her and held the door as she scowled. He ordered them two everything ramen and they sat, sipping sugary drinks as they waited. After a short while, two large steaming bowls full of noodles and tasty garnishes were set before them.
Pan picked up his chopsticks and broke his egg yolk before pointing at her. "You have to eat it all," he said, his eyebrows raised.
"If I eat all of this, then you have to take me swimming."
"Deal, but no complaining if I stare."
She rolled her eyes and copied him, breaking the egg yolk and stirring it slightly. She watched in disgust as he slurped a big mouthful of pasta off his utensils. Looking around she noticed similar eating habits and sighed, trying to eat more neatly than her dinner partner.
They almost rolled out a half hour later, Niamh clutching her stomach and groaning. "I can't believe you made me eat so much," she whined, panting a little as she tried to match his longer stride. "Slow down, it's compressing my lungs!"
He laughed. "I should've let you stop and finished for you; that was the best I've ever had."
"You're so empty inside, no wonder you eat so much," she puffed.
They walked off their large meal block after block until they reached a public indoor water park. "C'mon, we can buy suits inside."
"What if someone recognizes me without this hooded dress on?" she asked nervously.
"I don't think you realize how different you look when Ira hasn't spent an hour painting your face. Castle staff, friends, or family will recognize you but the public won't realize you're the queen. Just try to speak less formally and let's have fun. I have to keep my promises, to take you swimming, and to protect you." Pan smiled at her and they got in line for tickets, staying close to each other while Pan kept his eyes and ears open just in case she was right. He'd be leaping from the castle wall if something happened to her on his watch, and it was always his watch.
They got into the park and headed straight for the gift shop, spending a good twenty minutes picking out suits for each other and towels. Pan chose a sleek black one piece with cutouts to keep her from standing out too much and Niamh chose bright blue trunks for him so she could pick him out more easily in case they got separated. The indoor park was encased in a glass dome that filtered out most of the UV rays, so they bought a light sunscreen to share and tossed it in their new beach bag along with towels and grabbed a map of the park.
Kids were everywhere, running and screaming, making Niamh nervous. They decided on an easy going ride first and headed to the Splash Warp. They spent a few hours trying all the rides before they finally decided to dress and leave. They made their way to the lockers and retrieved their belongings.
"I have never had so much fun in my life! The few times I went out to places like this as a kid we'd have to rent the entire place and hire security and all the staff and special guests would go- it was nice, but so formal and tame. This was much better!" Niamh chattered as she dressed in a stall.
Paniten smiled and packed their bag. "You and I have over a hundred missed calls and messages," he observed, looking at their phones.
"They'll survive- shoot Bastiana a message from both our phones telling her we're fine and don't worry. Sign it 'Dove.'" Niamh came out, her hood up and her freshly washed and dried hair flowing out of it on one side.
Pan finished sending the messages and put the phones back in their bag. "Do you want to head back? Or keep rebelling?"
She looked around and grinned. "Let's go eat somewhere! I'm starving."