‘You can speak freely here,’ Pan’s new master said, gesturing for him to take a seat. The man wore three rings on his right hand. One pearly band, two silver set with stones, onyx and jade. Obediently, and just as silently as he’d entered, Pan sat on a soft navy suede lounge. The man took the seat across from him, the pair separated by a low tabletop made of crystal. It glinted and flashed, dancing rainbows from within in the bright sunlight streaming through many horizontal slits in the walls. These narrow windows offered an intermittent view of the castle grounds, sprawling city of marble, pillars, and arches, and the heather-coated meadows beyond.
Pan had to blink, it was so bright in there. So airy. His previous master’s chambers had been just as large, but were cramped with the clutter of more than half a century of hoarding, windows shrouded against all but pale moonlight. And they’d permanently reeked, the grime that coated the floors and walls refusing to budge no matter how Pan scrubbed. Only his master’s workroom had remained spotless, but even that had a pungent smell about it. Pan sniffed tentatively. Was that mint? Mint and…maybe a hint of cinnamon? And heather. A skinny vase held a simple bouquet of the little purple flowers emitting the fresh scent.
‘What’s your name?’ the man asked.
Despite the invitation, Pan still hesitated. He rarely spoke. He hadn’t, in fact, spoken a word aloud in the presence of anyone but his friend Darien in more than four years. His previous master had delighted in tormenting him. His primary threat was in forever repeating and embellishing the warnings given regularly to new and experienced escorts alike. ‘In the old days, to see to it you treat your women right it would be that we slit your tongue and lop your precious gems so you’d never become a man. Nowadays, there’s few enough of us that such precautions are deemed excessive. Unnecessary. And so long as you keep your tongue knotted behind your teeth and your dick in your pants,’ he always said with a nasty gleam in his eyes, ‘it’ll remain unnecessary.’
Although escorts were only meant to be silent in the company of women, Pan had almost completely lost the ability to speak, terrified of his master. Despite this, he had taken solace in the fact that his days at the ageing tyrant’s command would not last forever. Escort service was a period usually no more than three years for one forced into the ranks such as he. Most were then summoned from the castle to enter a profession more fitting of their talents. Many became soldiers, while some were sent to work on farms. Others were apprenticed to blacksmiths and bakers. Particularly intelligent past miscreants were ordered to take up study at university. But not scholar, sergeant, nor smith had summoned Pan. The Directors had seen in him gifts generally possessed only by boys who willingly entered the escort ranks. Boys like Darien. And, as for Darien, they had decided that Pan, after a full twelve-year service as an escort, would become a master himself.
He’d despaired for days after the Directors told him of their decision, sure he would be under his master’s harsh thumb until his twenty-fourth year, another eight endless cycles away. But then, the cantankerous man had been called upon to instruct a pair of prepubescent troublemakers ordered into the escorts by their guardians and teachers. Instruct, and straighten out. Just as he’d done to Pan. So, Pan had been reassigned. His new master looked young enough to still be an escort himself, and was certainly well-dressed enough to be. And his fair moustache was fine and short, a recent addition Pan was sure – escorts weren’t allowed to grow facial hair. His deep-set eyes, brown so bright they shone as burnished bronze coins, regarded his new apprentice quietly across the sparkling tabletop. Waiting.
‘Speak, please. Your name.’
Pan closed his eyes, trying to imagine that he was alone. He was allowed to speak. He could speak.
‘Pan,’ he at last released a strange, muted whisper, cringing. The soft utterance reverberated around the room like a roll of thunder in his mind.