Finished sharpening, Pan arranged her arrows neatly in the propped up quiver and jumped backwards, standing at attention as Jacyntha raised her bow. In emptying that quiver, she struck dead centre twice, then scored eight, six, nine, four, and eight, hit the centre four times in a row, and scored eight with her final shot. Pan was sure every single arrow, every score (except perhaps that four), was calculated. Between shots she’d turn to her spectators, flashing confident smiles and laughing.
The lawyer’s group watched Jacyntha for a good while, longer than they had Jenna and the other archers. She was halfway through her third quiver when they finally moved on, headed for the paddocks. Immediately, another group took their place, watching intently as Jacyntha displayed her talent, as inconsistently as she dared.
Everyone that paused to evaluate Jacyntha, groups and lone observers that watched calculatingly as they jotted down notes, stayed rather longer than necessary deciding whether to place a bet on her. Pan only noted the phenomenon, not thinking anything of it until it grew too dark to shoot without switching on the bright range lights. All the men remaining left to place their bets, and Pan and the other escorts were left to tidy before taking their charges to bathe and dress for dinner. Jacyntha paced as he polished her ash bow, eyeing him with a very odd expression on her face. She sighed once, catching Pan’s attention.
‘They were watching you more than me,’ she commented quite loudly, making the nearest women and escorts glance over. ‘Why does my new escort have to be so pretty? Just look at your face. He’s prettier than me, don’t you think?’ she directed at her neighbour, who descended into giggles at Jacyntha’s irritation and Pan’s horror. His mouth dropped open, totally scandalised. ‘How am I supposed to draw attention to my bullseyes with you beside me?’
Immediately, his nose scraped the swept range floor, backbone curved deeply in hideous shame, nearly in tears. He relaxed a little when Jacyntha’s kind laugh sounded above him. She was only teasing, she promised.
‘I’m not angry, not at all. And I didn’t meant to upset you, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you were quite that sensitive. It is true, though,’ she added in a whisper as Jared grinned at him from a distance, hearing as Jacyntha’s suffering passed down the range and entirely forgetting his disapproval of Pan’s risky contest before lunch. ‘All those men wanted you. No man has ever looked at me in such a way,’ she said, looking suddenly quite wistful.
Pan didn’t understand how any man could look at him over someone as incredible as Jacyntha.
‘Because they’re more likely to get you than her,’ Master Fen explained quietly, late that night when Pan told him of Jacyntha’s teasing. Or, rather, corrected the story his master had already heard.
Dinner had been a reasonably quiet affair, the women eating and exchanging light conversation with masters, directors, and their dining guests before coming together for a small party. A singer and three dancers been taken off the Shelves for the evening’s entertainment, and as they performed word spread of Jacyntha the Archer’s lament of her attractive escort. It became one of the most popular topics of conversation; even masters were glancing in his direction, talking behind their wineglasses. Dressed formally in dark grey with Jacyntha resplendent in jade silk on his arm, Pan did his best to look impassive. But every word of hearsay made him cringe.
‘Don’t concern yourself about the gossip,’ Fen had already reassured his apprentice, looking gently amused that it bothered Pan so. ‘Jacyntha’s just teasing you. And she likes that everyone talking about you; she made sure they would. She’s showing you off. There’s often competition between the women, all insisting they have the best escort. Jacyntha seemed quite keen to prove your superiority to Jenna and Celia in particular. And did you see, they were doing their best to parade Jared and Celia’s escort – was it Tomas? – back at her … it’s all quite sweet and amusing. Watching as a master, that is. I’ve been shown off in my time, Pan. Don’t trouble yourself about it.’
I understand that she’s off-limits, Pan signed, not wanting to be misunderstood. But why would they look at me over her? She’s beautiful and talented, and so rare. Why would anyone pass up that chance in favour of me? As bad as it sounds, he went on, very much loathing the truth he signed, the only reason she’s off her Shelf is to be looked at. So why weren’t they?
‘Pan, I promise you I’m doing my best to learn, but I’m still not adept at signing,’ Fen reminded him gently to speak.
Pan swallowed. It was too much to say. He’d have to simplify.