Pan tentatively opened his eyes. His new master, to his great surprise, was now smiling. Though small, two even rows of teeth hidden, it was a warm, full up-turning of lips that flooded his coin-like eyes with the same feeling, making them glimmer with fun. The kindness of the gesture put Pan at ease. At least, his rigid posture, seated on the very edge of the lounge cushions and back straighter than a steel rod, relaxed a smidgen.
‘Thank goodness,’ his new master said with true gladness and a bare iota of relief. ‘I was worried for a moment that old Beron had actually taken a scalpel to your mouth, and the Directors kept it off your records to ensure his retirement fund didn’t suffer for it. My name is Fen. In privacy I would like you to address me as such. Do you understand? Speak, Pan,’ Fen said, lips tweaking his smile a little wider as Pan remained silent, eyes growing rounder than Fen’s perfect pearl ring at the prospect of addressing his master so familiarly. ‘I don’t want to issue an invitation every time you are required to open your mouth. I am a patient man, but I feel that would grow tiresome. Don’t you agree?’
‘Yes…Master…Fen,’ Pan forced out, eyes trained on Fen’s toes. All ten sported shining polish, poking out of their stylish sandals like ten little stars lined up by size.
Fen sighed lightly, but it didn’t affect the degree of his welcoming smile. ‘I suppose that will have to do. And I’ll have no averted eyes, no grovelling. And don’t let any bow go past forty-five degrees. Understood?’
‘Yes…Master Fen.’ Pan caught his neck before it sunk past the specified angle.
‘You have been selected to train as a master,’ Fen went on, apparently deciding to let Pan ease into speaking and not forcing him into direct conversation. ‘That is a great honour. It is also a great deal of work,’ he said as Pan nodded away at careful forty-five degree angles. ‘For you more so than others, as I am a newly qualified master and have no other apprentices. Most masters have younger boys that serve them while their older ones focus on their training. You must do both. In addition to your escort duties and service to me, you will once again be required to attend classes. They are scheduled daily, but if you are in high demand – and I am told I will be in high demand,’ Fen broke off to explain, ‘so you will be as well – you will not get as much time in the classroom as others, so you must make good use of the time you do have. These classes are much more challenging than the training you received as a new escort, and I expect you to study hard. You’ll also receive additional instruction from me – whatever I deem appropriate to teach you – and you will be expected to continue regular Shelf duties as well. However hectic your schedule and life was under Beron, multiply it by the same amount and you’ll start to realise just how strenuous your life is about to become. I hope you’re prepared.’
It was fleeting, but the look that crossed Fen’s face then, tampering ever so slightly with his smile, hinted that near-silent Pan was yet to convince him of his competence.
Pan felt colour collect in his cheeks and ears, a shade as rosy pink as the ruffled pinafores and ribbons that lucky guardians took so much joy dressing the girl-children they cared for in. Despite having the Directors’ support, Pan had heard there’d been some controversy over who he would be assigned to when Master Beron became unavailable. That there were many masters who would not have mute apprentice, recommended for master training or not. Master Fen, just recently bestowed with the title, had stepped forward only when no one else would have him. Pan knew he owed the man. That he had to prove himself to him. And that had to start now.
Pan set his jaw and forced himself to look his new master directly in his freshly minted coins of eyes. He nodded firmly. ‘I…am.’
Fen nodded as well, though he looked distracted, now regarding Pan in a gentle, but somewhat penetrating manner. As if those bronze eyes could see all Pan was and all he would be, and were making some final judgement as to whether the unwanted escort was truly worth salvaging. More tense than a fresh, well-wound violin string, Pan sat under his master’s gaze, lowering his own when he thought it rude to keep up eye contact any longer.
‘Are those all of your belongings?’ Fen eventually asked, looking over at the small chest and lone sack-bag sitting by the entrance. Pan nodded again. ‘I’ll give you the morning to settle in, then.’