‘There’s nothing wrong with his tongue, he could speak when he first arrived at the castle,’ Merrick told his master, giving Pan an apologetic glance when Master Gray requested to know more. Pan stared down at the large square tiles. They glistened in light emanating from many ornate wall sconces and the windows high above that ringed the ceiling. His shoulders hunched as Merrick spoke, feeling the familiar shame as his ears heated up and face reddened. ‘But he had a few issues adjusting to escort life, and he also had some … some problems … with his first master. We think – that is, the castle physicians think – that he might have been frightened into silence.’
‘Frightened into silence?’ Master Gray repeated slowly and thoughtfully, looking Pan up and down.
‘He can barely speak anymore, we can’t think of any other reason for it. He only speaks to Darien – Master Grange’s apprentice – and even he’s hard-pressed to get a single word out of him. But he doesn’t have any problems making himself understood. And he’s working very hard, trying to get his voice back,’ he added, smiling broadly at Pan. Pan blushed even darker, but this time with bashful gladness. He signed a quick word of appreciation to Merrick.
‘You would be Beron’s former pupil, then,’ Master Gray realised, taking his part of the key as Merrick retrieved and passed it to him. The master tucked it away safely in his suit pocket, eyes still on Pan. ‘I believe I have heard of you, and of your situation. Master Grange may have mention you to me in passing a few months ago – I did not realise you were the same Pan that Merrick is so fond of. A pity, that you have been so affected by your time in the service. But I must admit,’ Master Gray said with a light frown, ‘it is strange. Beron is a hard master, but no one else has ever lost anything to fear in his service. But then,’ the master reasoned further, ‘he never recommended any of his previous students for master training, either. I don’t see how the two fit together, but you are a boy of exceptions, it would seem. Whatever he put you through, be assured that you have earned his respect.’
Pan bent his neck even further and bowed from the waist, going well past forty-five degrees.
‘Keep working hard, boy. No one will take a mute master seriously.’
‘Take it easy, Pan,’ Merrick recommended quietly so his master couldn’t hear. He took Pan’s upper arm affectionately, pausing as he followed his master towards the stairs. Pan’s spine was still curved deeply, eyes on the polished marble floor. ‘I know you’re trying, but I don’t think hard work alone will recover your voice. You’d already be singing if it did.’
Pan signed, hands low and disheartened. What can I do?
‘You have to relax,’ Merrick told him. ‘The Directors all know your situation, and they know what’s best for you. I’m sure they and the castle physicians were in some way responsible for your being assigned to Master Fen—ignore the rumours, he can’t have been the only master willing to take you. Master Fen can help you. He will help you, if you let him.’
Pan ducked his head deeper before his friend, tongue scraping in protest as he fought to shape words before an audience.
Merrick’s lips parted in surprise, but he recovered with a bright smile, giving Pan’s arm a little squeeze. ‘It’s good to hear from you again. We’ll talk more later, okay?’
He caught up with Master Gray, leaving the towering hexagonal chamber. Pan wasn’t left alone in there for long, the other escorts about to start their Shelf duty soon appearing below. Pan moved to join them, lowering his head in greeting. Their first guests for the day began to arrive soon after. But though he performed them flawlessly, Pan couldn’t keep his mind on his Shelf duties that morning.
They were good friends, but he was startled by Merrick’s supreme confidence in him. More, he was thrown by another assurance – Master Gray’s in addition to Lilian’s – that Master Beron held anything other than complete and utter contempt for him. But as Pan settled into his rounds, notebook and pencil at the ready as he toured the lowest balcony with a few elderly gentlemen leaning on ebony canes that clacked resoundingly against the tiles, Rose Burns went on shrieking in his mind.