Behind Glass (section twenty-six)

From three-thirty, the castle began to fill with rich and powerful men, many come from wards right at the edge of the country. They had arrived days before, and stayed in private suits arranged in the sunniest corners of the castle, or else at their own stylish townhouses. Those who’d enjoyed appointments with pretty and popular women joined men just arrived from the city, congregating in parlours, libraries, and at the Shelves where they exchanged greetings—gentlemanly cordial handshakes between acquaintances, and boisterously enthusiastic hugs and back slaps between close friends long unmet.  From four, taking their tumblers of amber whisky and pungent smoking pipes with them, they began to flow out onto the castle grounds, crowds of common men falling back to let them pass.

Outside, they separated into smaller, more intimate groups, talking of business and home life, and exchanging news from far-distant wards as they wandered between sporting venues: the fencing lawn, badminton courts, equestrian paddock, gymnasium, athletic field, and archery range. There, they watched as every woman to compete the next day trained, judging their displays and deciding who to lay bets on, and how many coins they were willing to gamble on their skills.

‘She’s good, write her down,’ Pan heard a sallow-faced lawyer standing a few archers away say to his serving boy as Jacyntha stretched and re-focussed. She’d been positioned right at the end of the range, and had hit her target’s centre five out of twelve shots emptying her previous quiver. That was below her average, but every other arrow had scored eight or nine points.

‘He was watching Jenna, wasn’t he?’ Jacyntha spoke in a low voice, eyeing the lawyer as his group of six (not including a couple of favoured foster sons and several serving boys that followed a few steps behind) drew nearer. Pan nodded the affirmative. ‘How did she do?’

He held up ten fingers, and gave a small grimace.

‘She hit the centre ten out of twelve shots? Good,’ she smiled, looking satisfied. Pan blinked, confused. Jenna was her greatest competition, the favourite based on her last two fiesta performances. Jacyntha was expected to shoot no better than fifth place. What was there to be so pleased about, that all the gamblers were so impressed by her?

Still smiling, Jacyntha drew Pan close, telling him to make believe he was straightening her training clothes. ‘I want a from-behind win,’ she whispered conspiratorially as he swept non-existent dust from her shoulder. ‘And I want to look a risky gamble—talented, but inconsistent. That way, I’ll get a few true gamblers to bet on me. They’ll win more when I win, they’ll boast more, and we’ll attract much more attention and glory. Master Fen approves; we talked tactics this morning. As we were walking to the meeting,’ she explained further when Pan cocked his head, not sure he believed her. ‘We spoke quietly, and briefly. He knows, I promise you.’

It would be a much more impressive victory, if only a few would take a chance on her. But if she didn’t win, her reputation would plummet. And she was already a touch inconsistent, perhaps more than her tactics would allow. Hadn’t Pan already seen that, almost besting her just a few hours before?

Reading his face, Jacyntha lifted her chin confidently into the air. ‘This tournament is mine. I won’t settle for anything less than first place. In any case,’ she added a little sniffily, ‘the decision has nothing to do with you. I know you’re only trying to help,’ she added in quiet apology as Pan bowed low, turning a little pink. ‘Sorry, I always get a little tetchy before competitions.’

She will have thought about the consequences if she loses, Pan decided as he swiftly tended her arrows, sharpening the slightly dulled points. And if she hadn’t, Master Fen would have. They would handle it. Popular as she’d proven to be with the poorer young men, it wouldn’t be disastrous if her risky tactics failed.

A starting gun sounded distantly from the running track. Pan started horribly, dropping the arrow he was sharpening. He stooped in time to catch it, face heating up again. Anything could make him jump as badly as though a Director had just been stabbed, and Pan held the dripping culprit knife. The clanging bells in the castle, a kind instruction from Master Fen. Even a soft, friendly word from Darien could startle him. He had to work harder to contain his anxiety—Jacyntha had noticed, he was sure. But she didn’t say anything, though she did give him a sort of encouraging smile. Pan bowed again, hiding his face, and quickly got back to work.

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