'Royal Inspector Royally Pissed Off' that day's headline read, and sure enough, Pain looked quite annoyed in the accompanying picture. Charon would have liked to think it was because Pain'd been aware that someone of the press had captured his image, but he wouldn't have bet any money on it.
"Charon? You wanted to see me?"
The Public Relations-wing of the Department of Justice had spent years trying to incorporate the saying 'speak of the Royal Inspector and he will appear' into Avalon's daily vocabulary - like any government-funded effort, it had never really caught on. Charon remembered, though.
"Actually, I seem to recall sending you a message to request you to come and see me first thing in the morning." Charon had been working for a solid four hours already; right now, he was in the middle of a report about a shipment of magic beans that had gotten 'mislaid' somehow. "Was there a crisis nobody considered important enough to tell me about?"
Nasty things, magic beans. Mortals simply had no sense of self-preservation; give them a fair warning, and they'd ignore it. Give them a strict order not to do something, and watch them rush away to do it. Give them magic beans, and next thing you knew, they'd be climbing giant beanstalks that would have them end up in some part of Avalon, where they'd cause all kinds of mischief.
"You're obviously busy," Pain said. "Never mind, I'll come back later."
"Under normal circumstances, it'd make me feel all special to have reduced you to talking in mono-syllables, but somehow, I feel like you're not happy with me right now." Pain sighed and made a show of looking around for something to sit on. "Were you at Artemis' party last night?"
"No, why? Did anything interesting happen?" Charon gestured, managing not to wince as a stack of scrolls rolled over the floor when the cushion they'd been lying on gently lifted itself and floated in Pain's direction. Pain collected the scrolls without a word, neatly arranging them they way they'd lain before.
"My memory's a bit vague, but I think it did. Although the really interesting part didn't quite happen at the party, of course." Pain looked pensive. "Maybe I should ask Max - he's terrified of getting drunk and being taken advantage of for some reason, so he usually stays completely sober."
Charon raised one eyebrow. "I wonder wherever he might have gotten such an idea."
"I was only joking." Pain pouted. "He knows I wouldn't do something like that."
"Did you or did you not feed him drunk and then dragged him home with you, where he awoke the next morning with a hang-over and no recollection of what happened the night before?"
Pain shrugged, acknowledging the point.
"Actually, my question was more intended along the lines of things of general interest. Something you might want to tell me about, before the general public reads it in the morning paper?" Charon picked up the newspaper and tossed it at Pain.
Pain frowned as he quickly skimmed the front-page article. "Oh," he said weakly. "That."
"Yes," Charon snapped. "That."
"They took some liberties with the quotes," Pain observed. "I mean, I didn't say even half this stuff."
"Which half would that be: the part where you referred to Artemis as a 'blood-thirsty bitch who was all bark and no bite and who should go lay down in a corner to gnaw on a bone', or the part where you single-handedly undid three months' worth of diplomatic negotiations by implying that all goblins were grubby, greedy, groveling, money-grabbing goons?" Charon demanded.
Pain winced. "The part where I said the wine tasted like vinegar with sugar?"
"They must have left out that part."
"Look, Charon, I - "
"You know what the press is like!" Charon burst out. "They're still pissed off at me for trying to get them banished from those parts of the court where people are actually trying to get some work done. They know they can't get any dirt on me - "
" - because the world would surely end if you ever took some time off work - " Pain interposed.
" - and so they target people like you and Max," Charon finished, ignoring the interruption. For all that his reputation portrayed him as someone who was all play and no work, he knew Pain was as dedicated to his job as Charon himself was. Most of the time, anyway. When he was sober and not fooling around. "In fact, I'm surprised they didnt even mention Max in here. One piece of good luck, I suppose."
"Oh, I doubt if luck had anything to do with it," Pain said.
"You talked to them," Charon realized.
"They noticed me," Pain said. "They asked me for a few quotes. One of them wasn't that bad-looking either - kind of cute, if you like the type."
"Please tell me you did not try to pick up a journalist." Charon shuddered. On a certain level, he understood and might even approve of Pain's easy approach to relationships - with a job like theirs, it was unwise to form any kinds of attachments that would require any substantial investment of either time or effort - but he doubted if a journalist with a grudge would see it quite the same way.
"He wasn't an actual journalist," Pain said and grimaced. "Unfortunately, it turned out that his ah girlfriend was."
Charon considered how badly off the world would be if he turned the Royal Inspector into a newt for a couple of months. Frogs were more traditional, true, but they generally required a kiss to reverse the spell, and though Charon might not be at all averse to kissing Pain as a faerie, he doubted if Pain looked nearly as kissable as a frog.
"I'm sorry," Pain offered.
Charon looked at the stacks of scrolls that had taken over nearly every available bit of surface-space in his office. Mainly, they were reports that were too important or complex to be entrusted to one of his secretaries - there were some diplomatic letters, and, naturally, a fair amount of documents that ought to have been delivered to Cedric from Goblin Affairs, Max from Defense or whomever was heading Justice this week - the King kept firing and appointing new people, ignoring Charon's pointed comments about how a stable department was a happy, productive department.
"How sorry?" he asked.
Pain looked half-wary and half - anticipatory? Ah, yes. Charon supposed he might request Pain to 'apologize' to him in a more private setting, with perhaps a glass of wine and some food. Charon had to admit the idea held a certain appeal - it wouldn't quite be abusing his position, either, not with Pain perfectly happy to play along. It wouldn't do anything to undo the damage Pain's 'interview' had done, though, and if Charon was completely honest, these days, most evenings he barely felt up to walking home and stumbling into bed, let alone entertaining any nocturnal company.
"Truly, madly and deeply," Pain said, shifting his position slightly.
"Well." Charon turned away and picked up the report he'd been reading earlier. "There may be something you can do to show your sincere remorse, but I'm not sure if you'd be willing. You might find it not to your taste."
Pain flashed him a grin. "You're underestimating yourself, Charon."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Charon said innocently.
Pain's grin widened. "I'm sure you don't. All right, I'll do this something, to show you I'm sincerely sorry for blundering at the party."
"Upon your honor?" Charon pressed.
Pain rolled his eyes. "Upon my honor as Royal Inspector."
"Wonderful. I'll tell them to move in an extra desk. You can start to help me work through this mess tomorrow. If you've got anything to take care of, I suggest you use the rest of today to take care of it, since I'll be expecting you to keep the same hours I do."
" 'Minister of Defense Unable to See the Sight of Blood'," Charon read out loud, throwing a questioning look at Max, who appeared to be slightly embarrassed.
"I told them I was a vegetarian," he explained. "Well, actually, they just asked if I were, and I said that yes, I was. I didn't think they'd appreciate me explaining why - it's one of those Eastern cultural things - so I didn't bother with that. They didn't seem very interested, anyway."
"Was this at Artemis' party?" Charon asked, frowning.
"You heard about that?" Max seemed surprised, then nodded. "Of course, Pain must have told you. Speaking of whom: look, Charon, I know you're probably a little annoyed with him for those quotes, but he only did it for my sake. I mean, how was I to know Artemis would get all worked up about my having taken an oath not to eat meat? It's not as if I'm trying to convince other people to do the same, or protesting against hunting. Live and let live, unless it's a goblin - that's what we say in the East. Or used to say in the East, anyway," he amended quickly.
"And so Pain told her to back off by calling her a blood-thirsty bitch." Charon sighed and shook his head. "Couldn't you have gotten rid of her yourself, a bit more diplomatically? She's still a goddess, after all."
"I tried," Max said unhappily. "But that female journalist was kind of egging her on, and, well, you know Pain's not exactly at his best when it comes to dealing gracefully with women."
"I wouldn't call hitting on her boyfriend 'graceful', no," Charon agreed, his tone bland.
"My point is: you shouldn't be so hard on him," Max said. "Pain's Pain - he can live up to his name, but you and I both know we wouldn't want him to be any other way."
"Can I tell him you said that?" Charon inquired, grinning.
"Of course not!" Max said with a horror that was, Charon thought, only half-faked.
"I'll keep your words in mind." Charon sighed as he thought of the amount of paperwork that was still waiting to be dealt with - the Fourth Rank Secretaries who delivered the mail had caught on to the fact that Charon had gotten himself an assistant, and so seemed to have decided to go back to dropping everything that looked even remotely like it ought to be brought to the attention of the Prime Minister, or that simply required more than five seconds of studying it to determine what it was about, off at Charon's office. Charon dreaded the moment anyone'd find out his 'assistant' was actually the Royal Inspector; Pain's reputation might serve to ward off ambitious First and Second Class Faeries, but on the First and Second Rank Secretaries, the effect seemed to be the opposite.
"Does the King know you're keeping his Royal Inspector prisoner?" Max asked curiously.
Charon snorted. "I'm hardly keeping him prisoner. He offered, and I accepted."
"Somehow, I don't think that's all there is to the story."
"You're free to drop by and assure yourself of the fact I'm not forcing him to stay."
"And risk you giving me all the mail from the past three weeks that you feel to be more relevant to my department than to yours? How daft do you think I am?"
"I need Pain," the Supreme General of the North and Summer Commander of the Court Guard declared, walking into Charon's office just when he'd been about to send someone for tea.
"Good morning, Nina," Charon said, trying to brace himself without looking like he was bracing himself. In spite of his words the day before, he'd honestly expected Max to try and 'free' Pain himself.
"You'd better hope nobody's heard you just now," Pain added. "Unless you want tomorrow's front-page headline to be that you're some sort of masochist. They wouldn't even need to make up any quotes; simply change a capital into a lower case - which they do often enough anyway."
Nina glowered at both of them. Charon promised himself that next time, when he felt like he needed a nice cup of tea and a short break, he'd get them right away, instead of telling himself he'd just finish one more letter, and risk someone waltzing in while he was less than fully alert.
"Unlike some people, I'm not an idiot. If I'd been there when that bitch was suggesting my brother was a weak-minded fool, I'd have granted her the last part - and smacked her for the first."
Charon wondered why he sometimes got the feeling that he was the only one inside the court who had any sense of diplomacy or the meaning of such words as 'tact'. Granted, as a woman, Nina could probably get away with smacking a goddess without getting branded as an 'enemy of women' but ...
"I'm not allowed to hit women, unless it's in self-defense," Pain said. "Prime Minister's orders."
"Yeah, well, I'm not allowed to hit on men, not even when they're hitting on me first. Big brother's orders."
"Which means, of course, you're ignoring them."
"I'm ignoring them because they're stupid, not because they're from Max," Nina said. "But anyway, Charon, play-time's over. I need that Royal Inspector of yours to get his cute little butt over to the Northern garrison, and I needed him there two weeks ago."
Charon opened his mouth to refuse, then hesitated. Something about Nina's phrasing bothered him, and he was fairly sure she was only here because Max had asked her, but if there really was a situation in the North that required a Royal Inspector, he had no right to keep Pain here. The North was volatile; that much was common knowledge. Lockout-fields kept most of the Specters out, most of the time, yet every now and then, the fields would malfunction, or allow a particular Specter to pass through for some mysterious reason - thanks to the garrison, such Specters tended not to last long enough to do any great damage, but unfortunately, once they were destroyed, there was rarely enough left to make even a start with an investigation as to what had allowed this specific Specter to slip through.
"Sorry, Nina, no can do," Pain said. "I mean, look around you. If I don't stay and help him deal with this, he's going to work himself to death, and then where would we be?"
"Take him," Charon snapped.
"But you need me!" Pain protested.
"I need you more," Nina said.
"If only you'd been a man, I could have gone to some interesting places with a comment like that," Pain mused with a sigh.
Nina smacked him. Charon cheerfully walked the two of them to the gates of the Prime Minister's palace, making sure they'd left before he returned to his office, sending one of his Second Rank Secretaries for a pot of tea - with one cup.
'Court Guard Commander and Prime Minister Get Into Catfight!' the next day's newspaper proclaimed, in glowingly red letters that seemed to burn the very paper they were printed on, and after that Charon's desk and the remaining scrolls on it, and after that Charon woke up and discovered he'd been having a nightmare. Since it was two hours to sunrise when he woke up, he decided he might as well get to work, which he did, wondering as he walked if Pain leaving had been part of the dream, too, or if maybe Pain getting roped into helping him hadn't happened to begin with.
As a result, the thing that had bothered him about Nina's statement only hit him late in the afternoon of the same day, by which time, of course, it was far too late to do anything about it.
In a sense, Charon could almost admire her - nothing she'd said had been an outright lie. She'd told him she'd needed Pain in the North 'two weeks ago' - and two weeks ago, there had, indeed, been an unusual outbreak of Specters throwing themselves at the lockout-field, occasionally succeeding to smash their way through, for all that doing so hardly left them in any shape to fight or be able to defend themselves. It had been pointless, senseless and therefore something Nina had wanted a Royal Inspector to take a look at - because Specters weren't suicidal, so there had to be something else going on, something she nor anyone else had picked up on.
Pain had arrived, tracked down some rookie-faerie with some weird ideas about Specters and their purpose in the greater scheme of things, and dealt with the problem, all in less than three days. That was Pain for you, really - he never stuck around long.
Still, sooner or later, Charon knew Pain would return to the court. Not because of Charon, or because of Max, or even because of Fanta, but because of all of them. Charon could wait.