There were so few of them. So few. But arranged on the Shelves – twelve sprawling balconies spanning all five of the cavernous pentagonal chamber’s walls – and with only Pan there besides, making his slow way along the many rows, there seemed so many. Able to loop on forever.
He wouldn’t be alone in there for long. Soon the nine other escorts that made up that morning’s duty would arrive. After them, guests would begin to enter. They would laugh and converse at length, strolling along the balconies and looking at women. Most they regarded in passing, making appreciative comments about her blush or bracelet, though some women were regularly regarded much more intently. At the Shelves, the escorts would attend guests’ needs, fetching them drinks and leading them on tours – women of historical significance and those of high popularity, past and present. If a man stared too fixedly at a female face, a nearby escort would politely insist he move on. If a woman was returned to her Shelf, those on duty would stand guard, keeping guests from coming too close as she was set on her stand. Mostly though, the escorts patrolled. Walked up and down. Five walls, twelve levels. Two thousand four hundred faces. Lips smiling. Eyes like vacant tunnels. No light. Empty.
Sometimes, when he’d been having a rough day, Pan had found the Shelves peaceful. More often than not though, he found them sad. Sad, and a little disturbing. The women were all around him, yet he felt alone. They were frozen, styled to perfection. Nothing but figurines with glassy eyes in that state. Dolls.
Were those appropriate thoughts for an escort to have? For a prospective master? Should he mention it to someone? He would never have told Master Beron, but Fen was proving to be a reliable confidant. He’d asked about Pan’s photographs, and was now privy to his relationships with all three women in his life. Fen also knew of his close friendship with Darien, and the basics of what he had suffered under his former master. Pan had divulged primarily though neatly dashed-off notes accompanied by the occasional faltering word at Fen’s kind prompting. It was getting a little easier. Speaking.
Perhaps it would be best to discuss and dissect such issues with another before he grew too confused, or progressed too far into his training. And if not with his master, there was always Darien. Darien would know what to think of his unconventional musings.
Sighing as he found himself before the doll version of his mother (as he so often did), studying how her ringlets cascaded over her bared shoulders, fluid as a stream, Pan turned away and leaned on the railing, eyes on the main entrance far below. He had been early. But at least one other escort should have arrived by then. Shouldn’t they have?
Suddenly, a cry slit the air. A woman’s cry.
Pan’s head whipped around.
Back entrance. Fourth wall. Two balconies below.
Slipping in his soft sandals, Pan bolted for the stairs and tore down them, racing towards the sound.
He skidded to a stop at the end of the row, heart hammering. He blinked in surprise, replenishing breaths deep and silent beneath the disturbance unfolding before him.
It was a woman. Older, maybe even thirty-five. She was weeping. Struggling. Ringed by her escort, his master, and three soldiers.
There were chains fastened on her wrists. Pan could see how her heavy velvet sleeves and skirts had been designed to disguise them, but they’d fallen free from concealment.
A woman chained? What was going on?