Despite the early hour, the Shelves were already crowded at five twenty that Monday morning, Masters fitting shimmering keys together and removing women from their stands on every level. Pan, who had not yet escorted at a fiesta (athletic girls were not Beron’s speciality), was not used to seeing so many woman active at once. He could not help but stare over the balcony at the crowd as he and Fen approached Jacyntha Jenner’s door.
Someone to direct foot-traffic at the main entrance might have been helpful. Teams arriving and departing mingled in a disordered clump by the wide-flung doors, escorts wary of anyone passing too near their women, before easing apart and continuing in their intended directions. A waving hand caught his attention, and Pan spotted Jarred a Shelf above him, diagonally to the left. He grinned widely, waving back and widely signing his disbelief at the sheer number of women leaving the Shelves. Jarred worked his hands ineptly, agreeing across the void.
‘Pan? I need your half of the key.’
Reddening slightly, Pan signed a quick farewell to Jarred, and took the lustrous triangle from the cord about his neck, passing it to Fen. ‘It’s a little overwhelming isn’t it?’ Fen said, catching Pan’s eye as he fitted their triangles together in a squat diamond. ‘I think this could be the most women to ever compete in a single fiesta.’
Turning the diamond, five left and four right, Jacyntha’s door slid open. Behind it, two sunny brown eyes blinked.
‘Oh, is it that time already?’
Fen’s sources had been right—Jacyntha was lovely, smiling at Fen and Pan as they helped her down from her stand, and she was not upset at all by the steadily thickening crowd. Fen in the lead and Pan staying right by Jacyntha’s side, they threaded through the many bodies, avoiding the main doors and using an exit a few levels up.
‘You were not surprised that Master Rein and Fergus didn’t meet you?’ Fen asked, closing the door behind them. Their dressing room adjoined Fen’s chambers and was just as airy, freshly crushed mint pleasantly flooding Pan’s nostrils. Many full-length mirrors stood on the gleaming floor planks beside dressers laden with stockings, gloves, and underclothing, and countless hooks carried cunning hats and gown after splendiferous gown. A single navy lounge sat in the very centre of the room, luxuriously carved wooden feet gripping a round shag rug. Nearby stood three crystal cases filled with precious gems and golden chains. Nearer the lounge again, on a long rack with wheels that squeaked like the mice Pan met in wall cracks as he scrubbed kitchen and dining chamber floors, hung Jacyntha’s many changes of clothes, selected and sewn, for the next two days.
Jacyntha shook her head. ‘Assignments change. Schedules change. Years can go by. There is little sense raising a fuss over such things.’
‘That is a relief to us,’ Fen said warmly, leading her to the lounge and sitting beside her. Pan quickly took up position standing at attention beside them. ‘Recently, a woman was quite upset to see us—she only wanted her Master and her escort. It took a visit from a Director to convince her to leave the Shelves.’
‘You are new, aren’t you?’ Jacyntha asked, stretching her muscled arms above her head and cracking her apparently stiff neck, the fabric of her wide skirts rustling with the movement. She yawned widely, long-fingered hand covering her mouth too late. ‘Excuse me. You do seem familiar, Master, but I’m sure the last time I saw you, you still wore escort sandals.’
‘I became a master under a cycle ago,’ Fen confirmed. ‘My name is Fen.’
‘Well, Fen,’ Jacyntha smiled, shaking his hand, ‘if I can do anything to help a young Master make an impression, please let me know. And who is this?’ she asked, turning to Pan.
‘My apprentice, Pan,’ Fen introduced him as Pan bowed low. ‘He’s a very able escort, recently accepted into master training, in fact …’
‘Well done!’ Jacyntha exclaimed, beaming at him. But Fen hadn’t finished.
‘But you must forgive him his shortcomings.’
‘What do you mean?’ Jacyntha asked, looking Pan up and down as if his shortcomings were blemishes she could see if she looked hard enough. Pan felt a tickle of familiar, nervous foreboding in his stomach, and after meeting her eyes briefly, directed his gaze back to the rug. It was woven in shades of ice and charcoal, and was very thick, almost hairy. He could only just see the tops of his feet, toes and sandals sunken in the soft shag.
‘He has a few issues with anxiety. I thought you ought to know in case he suffers a shock in your presence, or you find him overly tense.’
Why are you telling them this? Pan had demanded not long ago, when Fen had begun divulging such private information to their woman. They don’t need to know. I am doing my job so poorly you feel the need to make excuses for me?