After a month working with Fen, Pan joined Darien as one of the top escorts in the castle thanks to his young master’s growing reputation and the doors he opened to showcase Pan’s talents. Pan really was a very good escort, but could never have hoped to gain recognition for himself under Beron. The Directors were finally seeing more of him. They at last saw the very high quality of his work and how the women liked him, Pan obliging and dependable, treating them with utmost courtesy and never sparing them a moment of the attention they deserved. Subsequently, the Directors kept him busy—three days couldn’t go by without him having another woman on his arm. And what with their studies, chores, and Shelf duties in addition to their work, Pan’s incredulous questioning of the existence of free time in master training was well founded. Still, one or two nights a week after study with their respective masters or in the classroom, Darien found time to set aside for Pan’s speech rehabilitation.
One evening a few weeks before they were scheduled to escort Claire and Georgiana – Pan was growing increasingly excited, memories of his friend and sister soaring beautifully through his mind as he applied eyeliner, poured drinks, and twirled girls around dance floors until more important men intruded – Pan and Darien, along with Merrick, Mal, and Jarred, congregated for such a speech session. Before Pan’s reassignment they had scouted out empty chambers to meet in, as the sun would set in the east before Master Beron offered his hospitality to a gaggle of escorts and Pan wasn’t comfortable using the common rooms. But on Pan obediently revealing his evening plans in three disjointed words as he served his master’s dinner, Fen had offered his sitting room for their use. It would be so much more comfortable in Fen’s mint-scented rooms than a mildew-scented, damp storage cubicle or a tiny, dust-choked study alcove off the main library. The escorts had gladly taken him up on his offer.
Pan sat on one of the navy lounges, eyes fixed on the sparkling ceiling lights and hands clasped tightly as the others took turns asking him simple questions. How are you? When’s your birthday? How was the weather today? Who was your last woman? What’s your favourite type of cake?
Even though they were friends, with three others present besides Darien it took Pan half an hour to pronounce a single word. Once he’d gotten his throat working though, he was able to answer most of their questions with one or two-word replies. Darien then steered them towards more complicated inquiries, trying to lure Pan into saying a complete sentence. But Pan’s throat and tongue and teeth just would not cooperate. As he grew more and more frustrated trying to push sound past his lips, Pan slipped further and further down the lounge until he was horizontal, head in Mal’s lap. Mal patted his head kindly, but couldn’t help laughing along with the others at the intense annoyance all over Pan’s face, brought even more to life by lurid, cursing signs, hands held in the air above his head.
‘Tell us about yourself,’ Darien said for the fourth time. Pan groaned loudly and took Mal’s arm, pulling it close to block out the room. Staring at the ceiling hadn’t made shaping sentences any easier, and neither had closing his eyes. Perhaps an external physical shield would help. ‘Start with your name, and go on from there.’
‘My name…’ Pan began falteringly in his hoarse whisper, but choked before he could continue. ‘My name is…’ he tried again when the spasm had passed, but again his throat constricted. Making an odd gurgling sound and coughing furiously to clear his windpipe, he swung out of Mal’s lap and banged his forehead against the spongy back of the lounge, bouncing back with the force. You’re all really enjoying this, aren’t you? he signed, hugely irritated, but still able to laugh weakly along with his friends. But after another hour he was no longer laughing, and neither were they.
‘Come on, Pan,’ Merrick said, leaving his perch on the opposite lounge‘s arm and sitting close beside him, taking his hands to keep him from exploding with dismay. ‘What did you do today? Just one thing. Give us seven words in a row and we’ll stop for the evening.’
Seven? He had to be joking. But every eye was on him. Thinking he had to achieve that impossible goal to be allowed to rest and desperate not to fail his friends, Pan began to panic. He mouthed uselessly, emitting only incomprehensible clicks and wet gurgles. ‘I…’ he managed with great difficulty, but then gasped, gagging. Ripping free of Merrick, Pan’s hands flew to his throat. He pawed at it, kneading, trying to encourage the muscles to relax as a physician once showed him. But they remained tight, squeezing, closing off his airways. He started to wheeze. Eyes going very wide, Pan began to turn pale violet.
He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t breathe …
‘That’s enough,’ Darien said at last. Coming to Pan’s aid, he motioned Merrick aside and took over. Reclining Pan against the lounge cushions, he gently massaged his throat until he’d calmed down, larynx at last brought under control. Pan’s renewed breath tremorous, Darien rubbed his shoulders comfortingly and helped him drink the glass of water Merrick fetched, holding the vessel while Pan’s hands shook.