Pan knew he only ever meant well, and allowed himself a grim smile at Darien’s teasing, but painfully unlikely speculation. Then, while Darien was focussed on his reflection, Pan sneaked out a hand and dunked his friend’s head under the water in retribution for the jibe. Darien resurfaced a moment later, spluttering and laughing. ‘You utter arse! Sorry,’ he called out, grinning widely as the two nearest them frowned at the uncouth word. ‘You unbecoming, irritating, inconsequential little swine. Is that better?’
Pan laughed, a peculiar, smothered little burst of sound. Master Beron’s elegant insults actually sounded funny when it was Darien’s mouth they left. Digging in his case wearing a smile somewhat more cheerful, he found a narrow tube and carefully applied the cream within to the thin, delicate skin of his lips and eyelids. ‘Shelf duty today?’ Darien asked. Pan nodded, starting to sign his schedule, but Darien gave him a pointed look. Try, it said.
‘Morning…Shelf,’ Pan murmured reluctantly, lips barely moving as he dried his hair, rushing to get the rest out before his throat froze up. ‘Afternoon…class. Then…with Master Fen.’
‘See, you can do it,’ Darien smiled, giving him an encouraging pat on the arm and showering him with water just as Pan hung up his towel. Scowling in good humour, he dried again. ‘That was a four-word sentence, well done. Well, it was almost a sentence. I imagine Master Fen has you practicing?’
Pan nodded, keeping most of the wince from his face, forehead only wrinkling by a few unhappy lines. Though he hadn’t the time for sit-down rehabilitation sessions, Fen was trying to coax him into speech most every day, during fittings, lessons, meetings, mealtimes – whenever there was a small time gap that could be filled. Though Pan hoped he was beginning to prove himself to Fen, ever obedient and work both fine and diligent, he felt regaining his voice would cement that worth. But despite being free of Master Beron for weeks and the daily (if brief) practice he did, he could still barely utter three words to his master. Fen told him not to let it, but it was starting to get him down.
‘I’m glad, but we should try to begin sessions of our own again in our free time.’
Pan gave Darien a look so plain not signs nor notes nor broken words were required to translate.
When are we going to have any free time now that we’re both in master training?
Darien laughed long and clear, the sound bouncing between the bathing hall tiles and pillars as light from the newly risen sun began to bounce as well, reflecting between the many mirrors. ‘We’ll find time. Honestly, I’ve met no one with a more expressive face. You really are priceless, Pan.’
I have to be expressive, Pan signed with a matter-of fact-gesture before articulating a more pressing concern. Will you be asking the others to come now? Merrick and everyone?
‘I think that would be good, now you’re getting a little more confident. You’ll have to speak to many more than just me and Master Fen when you’re a master yourself.’
I know, Pan signed dismally.
‘We’ll only ask a few for starters. It’ll be fine, I promise you. But forget that for a moment: I hear you’ve got Claire Baker soon.’ Pan nodded, shoulders still slumped at the thought of straining and failing to produce words in front of all his friends. ‘How about that, then? Can’t just be chance.’
I don’t think it is.
‘She’ll be sad not to hear your voice,’ Darien commented as he climbed out, dropping a mat beside Pan’s and taking down his thick white towel from a hook. ‘She was sad she didn’t get to meet you, see you properly before being put on the Shelf. Master Grange told her you and I are friends. She spoke of you many times, that week.’
Pan ducked his head, eyes downcast. It was Darien who’d been selected as Claire’s first escort, accompanying her through the week-long celebration leading up to her birthday and seeing her to the Shelves for the first time. Pan hadn’t been allowed to meet her. He’d only seen her at a distance from where he’d stood in military straight lines with the escort ranks as she’d been paraded through the city.
Seeing how Pan missed his friend, Darien quickly changed the topic again, hoping to make him smile. Or at least, make him stop being so gloomy. ‘Guess who I’ve got at the same time? Give up?’ he raised his tone in exaggerated excitement as Pan shrugged. ‘None other than Georgiana Mason.’
Pan did a double take. Only he had ever escorted Georgiana since he’d entered the ranks. He was her only relative escort, and for a highly desirable woman such as her it was seen as an extra precaution that only he attend her. But if anyone else were to do so, it would be Darien. No question.
Darien was special. He was honest, noble, and kind. And he had an eye for beauty that had all the masters clamouring to claim him from the moment he entered the ranks, a bright-eyed, eager twelve-year-old. He was exactly everything an escort was meant to be. Somehow, the Directors saw similar traits in Pan. Pan wanted to know what was slipped in their tea every morning to render the supposedly intelligent and insightful men so delusional.