‘You shot with her, and you almost won?’
After one gibber of disbelief, Jared was reduced to a state of mute shock. The others needing only a moment to digest the unexpected news, Merrick grinned and Mal smiled and shook his head, grabbing a few beef sandwiches and a pear from the escorts’ spread.
Downstairs, the woman had already finished plucking morsels from a delectable array of raw and lightly baked finger food, dipping them in an even greater variety of sweet, spicy, citrus-infused, honey-based, and soy sauces, and bathing their hands in the warm water their escorts held, wiping them on white towels hanging over their forearms. Once every platter was cleared, the escorts were momentarily excused. Needing to get back a hurry, given only fifteen minutes to eat as their women drank tea and socialised to a live string orchestra under the watchful eyes of several Masters, a Director or two, and a squadron of castle soldiers, the four claimed the end of the nearest table and began to wolf down their lunches.
‘I’m glad it was you shooting with Jacyntha, and not me fencing with Mary,’ Mal said between hasty chews, barely suppressing a shudder. ‘I’d not face her, not with the offer of our combined weights in gold.’
‘You could take her,’ Merrick said cheerfully, giving Mal a playful nudge in the ribs with his elbow. ‘You’ve just seen her disembowel too many practice dummies in one morning, that’s all. You lost by two points, Pan,’ Merrick returned to Pan’s tale of his competition with Jacyntha. ‘With such a small margin, I can’t help but think you might have gone easy on her, in the end.’
Perhaps, Pan admitted, hurriedly finishing his boiled egg and freeing his fingers. I was anxious enough about shooting with her; I think winning might have been a bad idea.
‘It’s a bad idea anyway,’ Jared said in a low voice, recovering and glancing around, afraid a kitchen servant or another escort had heard any part of their conversation. ‘We’re not allowed to compete, Pan! Not with them! What made you do it?’
‘That’s not good enough,’ Jared shot back, a few crumbs of cheese falling from his lips as he chewed. ‘If I had a coin for every time a woman tried to make me talk to them … you’re going to get into so much trouble.’
‘No he’s not, don’t say that,’ Mal protested as Merrick frowned deeply and Pan felt anxiety start to froth in his chest. Firmly, he forced it down.
Master Fen would have wanted me to, Pan reminded himself as much as informing his friends. If anyone tries to report me, it’s to him they’ll be speaking.
‘Why are you two encouraging this?’ Jared demanded as Merrick and Mal nodded in agreement. ‘It’s plain dangerous what he’s doing, and it’s all due to his master! Pan would never have thought to do something so foolish on his own.’
‘We’re not encouraging anything,’ Merrick protested, though Pan bristled.
Master Fen’s been given permission to experiment with our style.
‘Tell yourself that when you’re being punished,’ Jarred said derisively, though hardly without worry at the thought of his friend being publicly disciplined by riding crop, ‘and see if it brings you any comfort.’
‘Jared, stop it,’ Mal ordered shortly, cramming his last pear slice in his mouth and setting down his knife. ‘Pan’s just following his master’s orders.’
‘He didn’t order him to accept Jacyntha’s challenge,’ Jared protested doggedly.
‘He instructed Pan to behave in a certain way, and he’s doing just that. He won’t be punished.’
‘Master Fen is just so strange,’ Jared muttered, more to himself than his friends. ‘My master often goes on about him, very disapprovingly, too …’
Pan was mid-way through an irritated retort when a very flushed Darien dropped into the empty space beside him. Pan immediately re-formed his sign. You smell terrible.
‘You’d smell bad too, after an hour-and-a-half on the heart rate circuit,’ Darien huffed, grabbing the water jug and drinking two full glassfuls in quick succession. ‘Master Grange makes me do at least that every day, on top of strength and weapons training. I’m exhausted!’
‘So you are Darien?’ Merrick teased in mock wonder. ‘Heavens, we’d been wondering where you’d gone. But it’s only your extra bulk that’s been lost, after all, though you don’t look a bit yourself.’
‘I am myself,’ Darien smiled good-naturedly, looking briefly down at himself. ‘Just fitter.’
Only seven months ago, he’d been heavier by at least twenty kilograms. His rapid weight loss worried Pan no end. Darien had been strong and stocky, only a touch overweight – hardly extra bulk – and Pan fretted that it was unhealthy for Master Grange to force him down to desired escort weight so quickly. And desired escort weight was considerably less than the desired weight for other boys their age. He supposed Master Grange liked having the top escort in the castle, and did everything conceivable to make sure Darien maintained that position.
‘So,’ Darien glanced around at his friends as he wiped his dripping brow with a napkin. ‘What have I missed? You were speaking quite excitedly, just before.’
He began to eat. Pan ducked his head and hid his expressive mouth with his fist, seeing only a pink grapefruit quarter and a small cube of cheese on his plate.
‘Pan’s been shooting with his woman,’ Jared said bluntly. Darien blinked in surprise, looking to Pan and dropping his grapefruit rind back on his plate.
Pan nodded, more nervous telling Darien than the others. Even if he didn’t get into strife, he’d care if Darien disapproved. He cared more for Darien’s opinion than even Master Fen’s.
To Jared’s annoyance, a wide grin broke out across Darien’s face, which still clung to a shred of its natural, pleasant roundness.
‘Good for you!’ He quickly wiped his fingers, and ruffled Pan’s soil-dark waves. ‘You’re becoming our own little rule-breaker, leading the way as time changes all things.’
‘Things are changing here,’ Merrick agreed quietly, eyeing Jared, who folded his arms, looking an unapologetic child being patiently lectured. ‘Slowly, but they are. Before too long, it may be customary to act just as Pan is with our women.’
‘I hope so,’ Mal said fervently, but as softly as Merrick had spoken, big, wide-set eyes swivelling to ensure no one watched them too closely.
Aren’t you hungry? Pan signed as the clock ticked one minute to the end of their break, and most of the escorts rose to rush back to their women. Darien was one of the few who remained, and Pan lingered, concerned.
Darien ate the last bite of his cheese, and sighed over his empty plate.
There was half a cup of almond milk pudding and a sandwich quarter left on Pan’s plate, and he offered them to his friend. Darien bit his lip longingly, but shook his head.
‘I’m not allowed. You should finish it.’
Pan shook his head. No time. And I’m not as hungry as I thought.
‘You never eat enough.’
And this is coming from you.
‘But you don’t have weight to lose.’
Neither do you. I have to go, Pan signed as Darien was about to argue, already heading for the door, no longer clogged by a hundred-odd escorts. I’ll maybe see you at a late class?
‘Maybe,’ Darien managed a smile. Pan hated the blatant hunger in his eyes, and, feeling terrible, scraped the remains of his meal and stacked his dirtied plate on a loaded trolley. Leaping the stairs four at a time, he skidded to a respectful pace before the dining room double doors and entered sedately, re-joining a happily chatting Jacyntha and taking her by the arm.