Through the middlemost of five window strips sectioning a meeting room’s walls high in the castle, Fen could see a storm of flying silver arrows assailing targets below. He couldn’t distinguish Pan from the other figures that routinely darted down the range to collect arrows from that distance, but he and Jacyntha would be there. Working hard.
‘We would not be observing your work so closely if we thought this was simply a matter of personal style,’ Director Hay addressed Fen from across the low, varnished table. ‘Slight variations in how Masters work are acceptable. Such differences assist in matching women with teams that will bring out their best. And though your methods deviate markedly from the norm …’
‘Not deviate,’ Director Cain grunted in opposition, ‘rather, you undermine our system completely. The system you yourself learned and lived by as an escort.’
Fen acknowledged his comment with a courteous dip of his head, as Director Hay continued. ‘Perhaps, Director, but his women are clearly responding positively. You and your escort are popular topics of discussion at the women’s lunches and social events,’ he directed at Fen. ‘Many have expressed a desire to be reassigned to you.’
‘To hear so makes me very proud of our work, Director,’ Fen smiled, spotting a sable-headed escort below. He rapidly plucked arrows free, then raced back towards where they’d been loosed, disappearing beyond the reinforced steel shutters rolled partway back to fill the room with warm, mid-morning sunshine.
‘But it is not simply your style,’ Director Hay said more sternly, commanding Fen’s full attention. ‘You mean to campaign for all Masters to adopt your methods, and replace very fundamental rules as to how escorts handle their women.’
‘If my findings are compelling? Yes,’ Fen nodded, gracious yet resolute, and raised his teacup to his lips, sipping.
‘I have read your proposal and early reports, Master Fen. And I must say, your preliminary findings certainly fit a description of “compelling.” But I … we,’ he included the other Director with an encompassing wave of his hand, ‘remain unsure that what you suggest is worth the trouble it will take to implement.’
‘I fail to see how it will be great trouble,’ Fen returned politely, crushing a lemon slice into his tea and stirring the sharp flavour through. ‘A few simple changes to escort lessons and a general instruction to relax should be all it takes.’
‘But there are now flaws in our system,’ Director Cain made his opinion known, clearly displeased. ‘Escorts are servants. To even suggest they are anything but borders on offensive, young Master. Why investigate, let alone propose, such radical changes when there is absolutely no need? From where I stand, this appears to be nothing but rabble-rousing. One might even suspect you of being an emancipator.’
‘Director, please,’ Director Hay sighed. The Director of Women’s Affairs was a suspicious man, and saw emancipators wherever he went, even among respected Masters.
‘I assure you,’ Fen replied perfectly calmly in face of such an accusation, ‘I am not attempting to rabble-rouse, and I am certainly not an emancipator. But I believe there is need for change, Director Cain.’
Fen set his saucer down and looked straight at Director Cain, bronze eyes round and compelling. ‘I believe that the women are, in general, quite unhappy.’
‘An emancipator’s view,’ Director Cain snorted. ‘What have they to be unhappy about? They are the most precious beings in existence, living lives of praise and plenty. They want for nothing.’
Fen dared not speak plainly of the Director’s abysmal ignorance in his so-called field of expertise. Instead, he examined in turn the detail of the glimmering blue and green whorls adorning their teacups and the gold, stylised star-patterned embroidery of the lounge cushions, keeping the smile on his face steady.
‘Just as men are, women are complicated. They require more than fulfilment of basic needs to be content, more than the luxury and overwhelming attention we lavish them with. The women Pan escorts like him very much. They like feeling close to him. You say women have expressed a desire to be reassigned to us? Directors, a few simple changes in women-escort relations and women would have no need for wish for such relationships.’
‘They have their masters, and their appointments. And they have each other,’ Director Cain said stuffily, lighting his pipe and blowing smoke across the table. Fen prided himself that he barely winced. He hated tobacco smoke. It diffused across good, clean air and infested his nostrils for hours. ‘They have no need for further interaction.’
‘However kindly we treat them, Masters don’t have time to nurture close relationships. And their time with other women is limited, close friendships discouraged,’ Fen reminded him as politely as he could. ‘Of everyone she knows, a woman sees her escort most. If he became someone she wants to see and likes spending time with, I predict her happiness will increase exponentially. Is that not your number one priority,’ Fen directed to Director Cain. ‘Ensuring the happiness of women?’
Director Cain scowled deeply, and Director Hay raised a diplomatic hand.
‘I’ll agree that the system is a tad out-dated, and perhaps a review is in order. Some of your ideas may be worthy of consideration, Master Fen, but the idea of escorts and women becoming so close concerns me, to say the least. Sharing such personal information …they’ll be speaking, next.’
‘Speaking is not necessary,’ Fen assured him. ‘Why do you think I wanted Beron’s former pupil? He makes his heart known without words.’
‘Aren’t you trying to teach him to speak?’ Director Cain queried suspiciously.
‘Considering how any other apprentice I might have taken would have only his discipline keeping his mouth shut, I fail to see how addressing Pan’s speech problems is an issue,’ Fen frowned lightly. ‘Frankly, I’m concerned more assistance hadn’t been arranged for him long ago.’
‘He is a fine escort, more so for the loss of his voice,’ Director Cain said, shrugging as though Pan’s voice was no loss, none at all.
‘Will he continue writing notes and signing as a Master?’ Fen challenged, a tiny ball of indignant fire sparking into being within him. ‘His voice is no truly gone, and it is only due to events in this very castle and failure to properly address them that he …’
‘Master Fen,’ Director Hay lifted his hand again, silencing an uncharacteristically agitated Fen before he made any accusations detrimental to his career. ‘You may continue your investigations and trials for now. But the moment we say, this experiment ends, and your escort had better re-learn impassivity before his next assignment.’