Ch. VIII: Crime and PunishmentMature

          "Where. Have. You. Been?!" Bastiana stormed. It was one a.m. and Niamh and Pan had finally returned.

           "I kept her safe, Bastiana, everything is fine," Pan said.

           "Shut up! You're lucky I can't have you executed!" Her voice shot up, shrill and hoarse. "Tell me how you evaded security, tell me now! I had people out looking for you this entire time and no one spotted you!"

          The two looked at each other and back to Niamh's hysterical advisor. "Just lucky, I guess," Niamh said finally.

          Bastiana took a deep shuddering breath. "There is only so much I can do or say, because you are my queen, but were you my daughter, I would tell you to be more considerate of all the people you made frantic today. Every single security person, knight, and member of council was not only out of their minds with fear for you today, but- do you have any idea how difficult it is to keep quiet about the queen disappearing? There could have been a worldwide panic if word had gotten out! I need tea. Grow up, and you-" she strode over to Pan and slapped him smartly across the face. "Whipping boy. How dare you? You are her bodyguard!" She marched out and headed straight for the kitchen while Niamh used her phone to call for ice and some tea for themselves as well.

          "Are you alright?" she asked, touching his blazing red cheek Lightly with a cool fingertip.

          Pan opened his mouth wide, working his jaw. "Surprisingly yes. She's been trained too well. Did just enough damage to keep me hurting a while without any permanent problems."

          "I deserved it," Niamh said miserably, opening the door for the maid carrying a tea tray. "That was my slap."

          "Good to see you again, Great Mother," the maid said, setting up tea. Niamh looked at her pathetically and the girl left, a look of relief etched in her features.

          "No, I deserved it, it was my idea. I'm supposed to be responsible for you." Pan took the bag of ice from the tray and pressed it lightly to his face, wincing.

           They went to her room with the tea tray and reclined in the bed, flipping the holo on and searching for something to watch. They were both exhausted from the day, but too wired from events to sleep right away. They settled on a movie and finished their tea, Niamh passing out shortly after it began. While Pan tried to muster the energy to go back to his room, he fell asleep as well.

          It was only an hour later when he woke with a start. The holovision was off, the room completely dark. He laid there as still as possible, listening hard past his own breathing to figure out what had awoken him. He heard three sounds that alarmed him, all soft and in succession, the soft brush of cloth a few feet past the queen on his right, a faint click at the foot of the bed, and a hitched breath to his left.

          He felt incredibly exposed. He was lying on his stomach in pitch darkness and there were at least three people in the room that weren't there when they fell asleep. His phone was under his pillow but without seeing the screen, he couldn't be sure he'd hit the panic button and if he wasn't careful, he'd alert whoever was present. If these were professional assassins, he had to act now, and if they were any good, they probably had night vision. He was at a complete disadvantage.

           Praying they would wait to act, he inched his fingers toward his phone, feeling around it the best he could and hoping he had tapped in the right places. Suddenly, the palace exploded with sound and light, the room blazed and he blinked at the sudden brightness. Three people in black were standing around the bed, a different device in each one's hand. L

           Niamh screamed and launched herself at the nearest assassin. Pan leapt up and sent one sliding across the floor with a powerful kick to the chest.

          "Wait!" the third one yelled. "This is a bio bomb- if i drop it, we all die!"

          Guards flooded in, led by a frantic Bastiana. "You are under arrest," she cried.

          "Wait-" Pan ordered, stopping the guards. "We have to quarantine, and we need two unexposed to gather what they're holding while dressed in protective gear. It needs to be sent to a lab." He turned to the criminals. "Which piece is the bomb?"

           "Mine." The one who had yelled stepped forward. "His is just the dispenser, hers is the detonator. We brought it in pieces for our own safety. We were assembling it when you caught us." He pulled his hood back and dropped to his knees, head bowed in defeat.

          "Nobis?!" Pan gasped. "What have you done?"

          "Only what I felt I must," the man answered bitterly.

          The shorter man stepped forward and removed his hood as well. "We hesitated because we recognized you," Edwin, another of Pan's old roommates, explained.

           "I insisted we continue," the woman hissed. Her hood fell, revealing dark striking features similar to Nobis's.

           "Don't speak unless you're spoken to, Ara," Nobis barked. "And answer no questions when they take you."

          She inclined her head and stood in stony silence while Bastiana called for quarantine and men in bio proof gear entered, accepting the bomb pieces in glass boxes on rolling stands. The criminals were led to the sitting room and stripped to their underclothes and frisked, then cuffed and chained together. They sat on the carpet surrounded by guards in the sitting room while Pan, Niamh, and Bastiana sat on the semi-circle couch in the queen's bedroom.

          Niamh was shaking with anger. Pan sat next to her and took her hands, forcing her to unclench them in an effort to calm her down.

          "I took them from the underground," she hissed. "I gave them jobs. What about the other roommate? Is he in on this? Is he hiding here?"

          "The guards searched your entire suite and the rest of the castle, it's okay, no one else is here," Bastiana assured her.

          "I'm surprised at Nobis and Edwin's betrayal, true, but I cannot imagine Ries being involved, even if his brother is. He enjoys life too much and doesn't take anything seriously enough to get into this kind of trouble."

          "We still have to investigate him, and the rest of their families," Bastiana said.

          "I want them locked in a room with that bio bomb set to detonate if the lab comes back promising. Obviously we can't if it would be a risk to anyone else, but seeing as they worked so hard on it, it would be a terrible shame to defuse and dispose of the bomb," Niamh said, a wicked smile splitting her features.

          Pan shifted uncomfortably and walked over to the now enclosed balcony, pressing a finger to the stiff plastic bubbling out. "Do you have to be harsh?" he asked quietly, not expecting her to hear.

           Niamh had forgotten herself and she was ashamed. A blush darkened her face and she went to stand beside him. "You are my friend," she began, slowly. "I hope you agree, even though I know you wouldn't have before...I will take your feelings into consideration, and any advice you have or thoughts you would like to share on the matter, they will be met with an open mind." She took his hand in hers and squeezed. "You need to remember they were going to kill both of us, slowly, hoping we would spread the sickness to the entire palace and probably beyond. They told you they hesitated when they saw you, but they planned to continue anyway. So I will honor your ties with them, but I need you to consider the depth of their betrayal."

          Pan looked out over the city, dawn beginning to stain the sky as the world turned them toward the sun. "Why don't we all get some sleep while we wait?"

          The queen walked over to Bastiana still on the couch an had her stand so she could press a button on the side. The couch folded out into a bed as she gathered some pillows and a blanket. "One of you can sleep here and the other can share my bed. Or you can both sleep here. Your choice."

          Bastiana looked over her majesty's shoulder pointedly at the handsome, wiry man already sitting on Niamh's bed, his tired face in his elegant hands, unaware of the discussion.

          "Well, goodnight, Bastiana. Let's all catch at least a few hours before hell breaks free." Niamh turned off the lights and got into her large bed on the other side of the room. "Pan," she whispered. "I know you're not alright- do you want to talk?"

          He sighed and the bed shifted as he got under the blankets. To her surprise, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. "Not now, I think- I think I just need to sleep."

          "Okay," she said hesitantly, stiff in his embrace. She felt his hands on her back, clenching into fists, and tried to relax so he would. She stayed awake until she felt his breathing slow and his arms loosen, and then drifted off to sleep, her dreams a mix of sweet and terrifying as her subconscious dealt with the night's events.

The End

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