In one of the small bathing halls designated for escort use filled with sunken pools, mirrors, and impressive pillars that swept upwards to the ceiling, Pan lathered himself in mint scented foam amid the predawn glow, scrubbing viciously at his dessert cream skin with a hard bristled brush.
It was one of the most fundamental lessons the boys at the castle were taught. To look presentable. More, to look good. Attractive. As much as a woman’s lavish gown, silken petticoats, pointed shoes, and extravagant jewelery were, Pan was an accessory. There to serve, but just as importantly, to set off the woman. Make her even more radiant. Even more alluring. More staggering.
‘You’re a good-looking lad,’ Fen had commented a week or so ago as they’d gone over their itinerary for the next day – an older woman (older, as in early thirties) with a pearly shock on her head and a reputation for being short-tempered with her escorts had been suddenly scheduled for time off the Shelf, and Fen instructed to oversee at short notice. The master had set down his leather-bound portfolio, thick with rough sketches through to intricately detailed and labelled outfit ensemble designs, and taken Pan’s chin with his cool fingers, turning and examining his highly defined bone structure. ‘I’m surprised Master Beron didn’t take full advantage of this as my master did with me. No wonder his women are beginning to slip in popularity. No need to bow,’ Fen had smiled, letting go as Pan bobbed his head, trying to both obey his master’s wishes and fulfill his own intense, far from broken need to show respect and humble himself at every conceivable opportunity.
Ducking under the water, Pan rinsed the thick foam from his body. He then took the new shampoo and conditioner Fen had ordered for him and washed his hair, combing it out wet before taking his straight razor. Scrutinizing himself in one of the many mirrors, the reflective surfaces both lining the walls and standing at angles across the tiles, he angled and sliced until his chin, cheeks, chest, and stomach were totally hairless. Climbing out and shaking excess water from his limbs, Pan settled on a stool by a small square mirror and rubbed himself with lotion until he shone under the lights.
A boy with limbs and torso recently sprouted and slimmed from previously stocky versions of the same things called out his name from the entrance, waving as he stripped off his robe. Darien.
Pan couldn’t call back. He couldn’t speak, not in there. Not when there were eleven others bathing nearby who would hear him. But he raised his hands, incandescent beneath lotion and light, signing fluidly in return. It wasn’t a complete language, but Darien and his friends had helped Pan assemble a large collection of hand signals they could recognise. These signs made communication much faster and more involved than when he’d always had his head down, scribbling notes. For more detailed exchanges, however, Pan was lost without a scrap of paper.
Darien immersed himself in the water of the pool nearest Pan with a little yelp at the polar temperature, dumping the contents of his grooming kit nearby. He beckoned with his scrubbing-brush, calling Pan over. Pan left his mirror and knelt by the edge of the pool, placing a mat beneath his knees to keep lotion from washing off and the pattern of tiles from embedding in his skin.
‘You smell nice,’ Darien said, leaning in and sniffing Pan’s arm. ‘You’ve never done mint before.’
Pan signed, saying it was a favourite of Master Fen’s.
‘You’re sure he’s not just trying to boost your vitality? He doesn’t know you well yet, and you can come across as rather dull, to be honest.’
The scent’s all through his rooms, Pan protested, a little hurt. It was hard to appear vivacious when carrying conversation with a pen and paper.
‘Don’t be so defensive, I know you’re not dull. It suits you better than muck, in any case. That’s all you ever smelt of whenever you came out of Master Beron’s chambers. Still voiceless,’ Darien observed as he squeezed foam smelling of cut grass on a rainy day onto his brush, Pan giving a grimacing smile of confirmation. ‘I hoped being free of Master Beron would cure you instantly.’
Pan shrugged, starting to smear ointment over his face and neck, eyes flicking insecurely towards the other bathers. Darien followed his gaze. ‘I get it. You’ll speak when we’re alone. Even then, it’s impossible to get more than two words out of you at a time,’ he complained lightheartedly, massaging his honey blonde head with shampoo, a dazzling tuft that could cause the unsuspecting to blink and instinctively protect their eyes, particularly beside Pan’s of sable. And beside Pan, Darien often was. ‘But serving under Master Fen will be a healing experience for you, I’m sure. Who knows? You might even start speaking in full sentences before you become a master!’