The others laughed only lightly, once or twice each, and Jarred hastily reigned in his chortles. Pan was the only one of them forced into the ranks. Rumours swooped and soared about every such boy as to why. And though the hushed stories remained plentiful after four years, hardly any detail was known of Pan’s crimes. He, of course, never said a word. But it had been serious. That was accepted as fact. A cruel joke gone horribly wrong. People had been hurt. If he’d been any older, he might have faced a harsh prison sentence.
But Pan did not have the appearance of a willful miscreant. He did not seem a joker, and he certainly didn’t give the impression of being cruel. This had confused many when he’d first arrived, unsure how to treat a young criminal who looked to be so sensitive.
No one had listened to him. All the other boys had said it was him. Blamed him. Pan’s pained anger at them had died once he’d found his place in the castle – what else could they have done? Blamed Claire?
Those memories were bad. But excitement again bubbled and frothed in his chest, the sweetest ice cream float ever scooped, as he remembered all that was good about Claire, too. There was so much of it. Merrick had to repeat his question for Pan to notice. ‘What is her talent?’
In response, Pan reached for the little pad of notepaper and stumpy pencil he kept in his pocket, but Darien snatched them away. Making an indignant sound, Pan made a grab for them, but Darien tossed them to Jarred, who sat on them, grinning.
No proper signs for it, Pan protested. Give that back!
‘You’re expressive enough to make do without,’ Darien teased, tousling his earthy hair.
‘And even if you regain command of it, your speech may never be as good as it once was,’ Mal pointed out compassionately. ‘You may still need to sign throughout your life.’
‘And these sessions are all about improving your communication,’ Darien said. ‘Make a new sign, go on.’
Scowling, Pan thought for a moment, wriggling his fingers. For now, miming would do. The others guessing rowdily as though it were a tournament with a grand prize, Pan first mimed playing chess, and then rolling a pair of dice.
‘So she plays games for her talent?’ Jarred said doubtfully. ‘That’s not much. Even tea-serving is more impressive.’
Pan shook his head emphatically, dropping the invisible deck of cards he’d just begun to deal out to imaginary players. Making a fist, he pumped it in the air, mouth open in a voiceless cry of victory.
‘Oh, she wins games for her talent,’ Merrick nodded, grinning. Games of wit, strategy, and presumed luck were perhaps the most popular pastime in the city, certainly in the castle. ‘I see. All the old gentlemen must just love being put in their place by a young girl. She’s good enough that its her talent? She never looses?’
‘Never,’ Pan croaked, beckoning for his paper and pencil. Seeing this was to be quite a long explanation, Jarred passed them over. They all grouped around him, Merrick, Mal, and Jarred leaning over the back of the couch and Darien at his side, and read as Pan’s speedy hand dashed off stories.
How the two of them had met, Pan letting out a gasp from where he stood beside his guardian at their neighbour’s front door, seeing a girl for the first time. The games, first chutes and ladders and dominos, then chess and backgammon, that they’d played together every day, Claire listening and interjecting with moans of unfair treatment as Pan described the life of a normal boy, a normal child. He spoke to jealous ears of his school and friends, and their outings to the nearby seaside – Claire was already almost nine by the time they convinced her guardian to let her visit the sea. When they were older, their guardians had begun teaching them many fishing, shedding, and comparing card games on warm evenings by the open window, a slice of chiffon cake and cup of tea apiece. This had fast led to Claire’s discovery of her talent, first destroying Pan and then putting their guardians to shame, game after game. Since the unearthing of her raw talent, she’d researched techniques and perfected her strategies, honed her presentation, and developed fall-back plans for every conceivable game a challenger could pull off their shelf.
Her guardian was so pleased, Pan wrote, a soft glimmer of happy memory in his eyes, pale sunshine peeking out from behind those two grey mornings. Her poetry and badminton lessons weren’t going well at all.
Pan went on writing, starting to script in detail about one very special night that Claire and he had been allowed to attend an adult party at which Claire’s talent was to be publicly revealed for the first time. Her guardian had said nothing until after she so adorably challenged and then ruthlessly defeated the elderly ward Director in seven rounds of blackjack. As Pan shared these precious memories with them all, Darien shifted slightly to better see his friend’s face. Pan was smiling.
He’d never seen Pan smile for so long. Never so brightly, the glittering, beautiful ceiling lights fading to something drab and unsightly by comparison.