Amid the sea of women and girls dressed smartly in suits, or sweetly in frills and ruffles, or elegantly in silk blouses—whichever their Masters deemed suited them best—and just as many escorts clothed identically down to the plain leather straps on their sandals, Jacyntha sat still enough. But from where he stood just behind and to the left of her gleaming, mahogany-carved chair, he and the other escorts carefully arranged so no woman’s view was blocked for an instant, Pan saw her fidget.
Without his extensive training in keeping still and attentive, Pan might have fidgeted, too. By some mind-bending coincidence, every single Director, Master, and Administrator with enough authority to be addressing the room full of athletic women about the fiesta was so dry he could have evaporated every droplet of moisture in every single castle bath, and so dull he might have halted an entire raging army by only his reedy, sleep-inducing drone.
Hidden behind a tower of sculpted wheat-white curls as the Senior Administrator trudged through his full, tedious outline of the two-day fiesta, nose in his notes, Jacyntha turned slightly and whispered to Pan. ‘We have all done this before, we know! All I want to do is start shooting, but the sound of his voice is draining me of energy as I sit here! Is there another man alive so boring as he?’
Pan’s lips tweaked in the smallest smile, eyes flickering to the front of the room. A very elderly Master with a few thin wisps of hair on his crown and an expression so flat a pancake would be impressed was slowly rising, knobbly knees clacking together, as the Senior Administrator at last finished.
‘Oh, for the love of Heaven,’ Jacyntha groaned, not caring to lower her voice and earning a few reproving looks from the older women seated around her. The escorts remained still and silent, apparently not noticing her comment, though Pan caught Jared’s eye a few chairs away. He winked, flashing a brief grin.
As Fen had promised though, the morning meeting didn’t continue for long. The two remaining speeches were brief, and photographs only took another twenty minutes. Soon, Pan had Jacyntha dressed for practice, and ducked behind a curtain to swiftly change into his own athletic uniform.
‘There was no need to impress at the meeting,’ she complained with light-hearted exasperation as they walked out onto the castle grounds currently being prepared for the fiesta, banners and garlands of flowers everywhere. A pair of women was fencing on the lawn nearby, and many other athletes were mid-way through stretching routines. The archery range was down past the stables and to the left, right against the west castle wall. ‘And don’t you think the photographs would have been more eye-catching had we all been dressed for training, instead of looking like we were sharing a pleasant morning tea? All this changing clothes has lost us plenty of good training time, don’t you think?’
Jacyntha was certainly talkative, and Pan had escorted his share of talkative women. But though she carried the conversation on her own, something in particular and immediately compelling about Jacyntha was that she knew how to talk to an escort. Most women tended to chatter away at escorts as they would with their Masters or female companions, either not wanting replies or getting frustrated with their escorts’ lack of answers and apparent lack of interest, turning momentarily sullen. Jacyntha, however, made an effort. Just like Lilian and Georgiana did. She kept Pan involved, asking questions she truly wanted answers for in a way he could actually answer.
With a slightly inclination or shake of the head, an escort could indicate yes or no. Apart from a light touch on the dominant elbow meaning “come with me, please,” that was the extent of communication allowed. But the way Jacyntha talked, an outsider ignorant of escort law might have thought Pan was simply quiet and excessively bashful, and she overbearing.
Choosing a target and setting up Jacyntha’s equipment speedily so she wouldn’t lose any more time, Pan watched as his charge took up her bow fondly and expertly strung it, testing its strength, drawing it back right to her cheek. ‘It’s been kept in such wonderful condition. Were you in charge of it?’
Pan shook his head, Jacyntha selecting an arrow from the quiver set upright in a stand beside her.
‘But you will be now?’
Pan nodded, thinking he’d have to study up on bow maintenance. There would be a book somewhere in the library. Or perhaps, Pan considered reluctantly, he should ask Fergus. Since he’d been taking such fine care of Jacyntha’s equipment up until now.
Jacyntha spent some time practicing her stance, then stretching and twisting her arms, wrists and fingers, neck, and waist as Pan stood attentively by. Then, she began shooting down the range, burying arrows in her target in quick succession. Only two hit the vibrant red centre, but the rest were clustered nearby in the nine-point ring, like quills of a some determined, vertically-climbing porcupine. All but one stray arrow that had only just nicked the edge of the target, scoring one point.
‘I have a lot of work to do,’ Jacyntha sighed, tucking back a strand of hair escaped from her ponytail and gazing resignedly down at her distant, arrow-riddled target. Pan offered an encouraging smile akin those gave Merrick and Jared when they grew frustrated with class work, before trotting down the range’s close-cropped grass and retrieving the arrows.
‘I’m so glad you’re my new escort, Pan,’ Jacyntha said unexpectedly as he returned and re-filled her quiver. ‘I don’t know what I’d do if I was still with Fergus.’
The last arrow fell from Pan’s fingers in surprise, its sharp head sticking crookedly into the base of the quiver.