He had to talk to Fen. Darien. His physician. Anyone who would not condemn him.
This had gone too far. He couldn’t keep thinking like this! Even if it was true … even if it was, the Shelves were still necessary. They would be extinct but for their creation, and the sacrifice of their dear women. Women were noble, altruistic. They weren’t trifles to be gawked at, not at all! They loved their women! Respected them. Revered them. Honoured them. Didn’t they? Didn’t he?
Yes, Pan decreed within without any doubt.
Being so sure of his own position placated him a mite.
But he had to bear his soul soon, or else it would devour him alive.
That day though, the opportunity never arose. As soon as the Etiquette instructor dismissed them Pan dove into his chores, dusting and scrubbing Fen’s chambers laboriously. His master was nowhere in sight. Pan’s guess, that he was flitting between the three work rooms his three teams of tailors had holed up in, was correct, and the moment Fen returned Pan was pushed up on a stool by a harried tailor. He spent the next hour or so standing there. Needing to save time, Fen began to give his apprentice instructions whenever his deep discussion with the tailors paused, outlining their women for the week as Pan balanced on the stool, hemmed in by pins, thread, and the skilled men (under pressure but near basking in their element, relishing the challenges Fen had set) that manipulated them. ‘We will be collecting Jacyntha at five twenty tomorrow morning. Remind me, this is your first time with her, yes?’
Pan, who had been ordered to stay perfectly still, couldn’t write. He couldn’t even lift his hands and hope Fen recognised his simplest of signs. But the tailors. There were six of them. And the team working wonders with scarlet satin was due to present their finished products at any moment If the door creaked, six would become nine.
Fen had caught him like this before. And before he’d spluttered shamefully at best, unable to produce anything even resembling a word. He couldn’t do it. It was impossible.
‘Pan? Answer me, please.’
Please don’t make me speak, Pan begged with his eyes as he inclined his head ever so slightly in a nod, cringing as a pin pricked his chin. Fen pretended not to notice, apparently rapt with his portfolio. Though they too pretended to ignore him and be totally focussed on his body and the unfinished garments they arranged around him, it was difficult not to notice as Pan’s lips smacked dryly and his throat gurgled in mounting, oh-so-familiar panic.
‘We have a lot to get through, yes or no will do.’
Don’t think about before. It’s not impossible, Pan tried to force himself to believe even as his throat muscles tightened, determined to cut off his voice. I can speak to him alone … so I can speak to him in front of anyone … however many. I can speak … I can.
‘…y-y-y-yes …’ Pan eventually managed. The tailors hastily scuttled back when he broke off with a shocking wheeze, and then coughed violently, panting as his larynx softened and breath returned.
‘Try not to move so much, you’ll muss the collar.’
Pan just deciphered Fen’s instruction amid his continuing hacks and ringing ears, still throbbing with the sound of his own voice. He couldn’t see through his watering eyes, but felt the now expected-glass Fen held to his lips and the thick, heavy towel draped across his front to protect the tailors’ work. ‘Seven people. I think that’s a new record,’ Fen said as he tilted the glass and Pan drank, doing his best not to spill as his form shuddered sporadically, still recovering. ‘Do you need to sit down?’ Fen asked. He took the glass away and carefully lifted the only slightly dampened towel.
Pan, his blurred gaze on the sparkling floor boards, shook his head in three or four tiny, quick movements like a vibration, unwilling to cause more trouble by attempting a greater motion. But then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and lifted his eyes. They had dried enough to see that Fen, whose emotion was conveyed primarily through his eyes, sported a wide, full smile. Pan even saw a flash of those white, even teeth he’d imagined Fen having on the day they met.
‘Well done,’ his master said, squeezing his shoulder gently. ‘Don’t be discouraged, that it was only one word – you are advancing. One thing, one tiny step at a time. This was a real triumph for you. I’m very proud.’
Pan glowed, gratified beyond belief. Immediately, his shoulders loosened, and his weight seemed to redistribute so he stood more comfortably in his skin. He felt taller – his stomach, lungs, heart, everything, seemed to have swelled and lifted a hand’s breadth within him, pushing him closer to the ceiling. And he most certainly felt lighter. That was what Fen’s pride had done for him. And he had to say so. And though it was just as difficult as before, the tailors now milling awkwardly a few meters away, and his words were less than a whisper, barely wriggling past his lips, Pan looked his master straight in the eye, head up for once instead of bent low.
‘Th-thank … y-y-you.’