All with early afternoon appointments scheduled, Jacyntha and a few other archers chose to pass their free hour after lunch together, starting in a sunny parlour and progressing to the sunnier rose gardens by the castle’s tightly guarded front gate. Apparently immune to the tense atmosphere the extensive castle guard in black created, armed with pikes and rifles and so many knifes they bristled with silver, the archers amiably discussed the next day’s tournament, though Jacyntha and Jenna in particular chattered in an anticipatory, challenging fashion, making bets as to who would score highest with their first shot, and trying to prise and trick the others’ tactics out into the open. Jared, at Jenna’s side, shot Pan an occasional disapproving, apprehensive look, warning him not to do anything controversial before the other escorts.
I’m not going to do anything, Pan signed behind the women’s backs, already fed up with Jared and wishing he hadn’t mention a thing.
At two-fifteen, Pan touched Jacyntha lightly on the elbow, reminding her of the time.
‘Oh, that time already? Yes, of course. See you all at practice this afternoon,’ she said merrily to her companions, tipping a make-believe hat to Jenna in particular. ‘Jenna.’
‘Jacyntha,’ she returned the gesture with a laugh and a competitive flash in her eye.
Walking back through the gardens and into the castle, the entrance hall – an area open to the public most days – were quite packed, overflowing with capital city dwellers and visitors from the wards. Pan kept a firm, protective grip on Jacyntha’s arm as they passed through, raising his free hand to remind those who edged towards them too eagerly to keep their distance.
‘Are they all here to see me?’ Jacyntha asked quietly, looking nervous but undeniably gratified.
They may have done. There were several other women nearby, yet they were all looking at her. Many called her name, vying for her attention; just one passing glance from her pretty coffee-and-cream eyes.
Jacyntha’s lack of appointments wasn’t, it seemed, due to a lack of popularity at all. She had droves of fans, mostly quite young men, all clamouring for just one look at her loose chestnut curls, muscled feminine figure, and her prominent cheekbones. But compared to shy Amy whom Pan would meet later that week, whose fans were all elderly men of high standing, most who admired Jacyntha had neither the money nor the reputation to acquire a meeting with her.
Pan made a mental note to inform Master Fen of this new development. He might be able to organise something, a competition or a raffle, that would enable Jacyntha to meet with more of the men who revered her. That would please her, Pan knew; she looked so tenderly out into the crowd. They should probably have a photograph session, as well. The cheaper, mass-produced images would sell far better than the Directors thought.
Her appointment was in a pretty parlour room with four arched windows—a rarity in a castle full of window strips—overlooking a stone courtyard filled with ferns, moss, and a large fountain. The time passed perfectly smoothly, Pan standing by as Jacyntha chatted gaily with a young, successful gentleman who seemed rather spellbound to be speaking alone with any woman, let alone his favourite. To Pan, this man seemed to have had his whole life paved in gold before him—he was of good blood, had a Director as a guardian, and had been chosen as heir to a mining company and the full fortune that came with it. Pan was of good blood too, and so was Merrick, but their guardians were humble men. They’d never had enough exposure to power and prestige to ensure such a profitable, luxurious life.
Pan loved his guardian. He still thought of him often though he was now considered independent, writing the one letter a month escorts were allowed to his guardian and foster brothers back in the Third Ward. He kept every letter he received from home safe, tucked inside the pages of his books. But he felt guilty every time he wrote back, that he wasn’t being honest with the man who had raised him.
He’d never told his guardian what had happened to him: not his hazing, not the sorry business with … with Gain … not his struggles with Master Beron, and not the loss of his voice. He’d been too frightened in the beginning that someone would find out, and he’d be punished, one way or another. Then, he’d been discouraged from writing home about his troubles, told not to bother his guardian when he had many issues of his own, raising five boys on top of working full-time as a supervisor in the local fish factory.
Eyes loosely fixed on the elegant candelabra twisting like a thick, shining silver braid atop the brilliantly polished mantelpiece opposite the sunset pink-and-gold lounges where Jacyntha and the young gentleman in his tailored dawn-grey suit sat, Pan stood silently at attention for the full forty-five minutes, barely paying a speck of attention to what was discussed before him. His thoughts were with his guardian and Maki, his foster brother just two years his junior. According to his guardian’s letters, Maki had gotten a good job as a trainee in the ward office. From there, his career might branch in any number of directions. Pan was just glad he’d never been sent to the castle, not that he’d truly thought that could happen. Maki was a vision of obedience, and so helpful and merry he’d made not a single enemy in the whole ward; even the rowdiest boys were compelled to like him.
And there aren’t any lively girls for him to get into scrapes with, Pan thought wryly as he checked the time, and saw with a start that he’d kept Jacyntha there five minutes overtime. Moving quickly, he politely brushed her elbow with his fingers, and inclined his head to the young gentleman across. His face immediately fell, and he pulled out his pocket watch to confirm his intense disappointment.
That has to make matters easier.