‘Ch-chance … to see … her,’ he forced out determinedly, gesticulating, forming signs as he spoke. He found it helped, somewhat. ‘W-w-why … w-waste? W-why … n-not w-w-want … look at … h-h-her? Even if … c-c-c-can’t … h-have …’
Pan choked, muffling his coughs in his elbow.
‘Don’t misunderstand, of course they want to see her: Jacyntha’s a celebrity, someone special and exciting. But men aren’t romantically interested in women, we haven’t been for centuries. You know that. That was wonderful, by the way,’ he added, smiling praise for Pan’s verbal efforts.
‘I … know,’ Pan responded to his master’s first statement, thinking sadly of Jacyntha’s longing for affection, and growing a little flustered that Fen didn’t understand. His voice cracked softly as he started his next sentence, and he flinched, eyes darting towards the door behind which Jacyntha slept, wearied from her late night training. The cot where Pan would sleep lightly for a few hours lay just outside it, where his sleeping ears would be attuned to any danger to his charge.
Pan cleared his throat as quietly as he could, and tried again. ‘B-b-b-but … w-why ch-ch-choose me?’
‘As in,’ Fen grasped what Pan meant as his apprentice turned ruby red, hanging his head. ‘Not why would a man desire a boy over a girl, but why would they look at you, specifically, over Jacyntha?’
Pan nodded mutely.
Fen was silent, a serious look coming over his face. Slowly, he sat on the edge of Pan’s cot, inviting his apprentice to sit beside him.
‘Pan,’ he began with the patient, yet somewhat disbelieving air of someone about to teach an important life lesson that should have been taken to heart long ago. ‘You must have realised by now, surely. You are beautiful. No,’ he cut Pan off as he began to protest, frowning deeply and only looking more lovely with the slight crease in his brow.
Fen shook his head, sighing. As an escort, he’d been one of the most attractive boys in the castle. Now a young man, he’d anything but lost his looks. But Fen knew his burnished bronze eyes and handsome face were no more than the filthy rear end of a horse compared to his oblivious apprentice’s. He found it trying, at times, coping with Pan’s beauty. But Fen was stronger in will and morals than most men. He knew of too many masters that bedded their young apprentices. Vulnerable as Pan was and suddenly up for grabs, Fen knew any master that claimed him wouldn’t have been able to help himself. One more reason to take on the boy. Fen swore to never touch him, and his resolve hadn’t crumbled yet.
‘One look at your face,’ Fen continued, ‘and no man or boy in this castle can help but desire you. They can’t help but watch as you pass by; I see them every day. Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t yet been swept up in the arms of some director or good-looking young master. In secret, of course,’ he added. All escort relationships were kept very quiet, particularly when they weren’t with other escorts. ‘But I’d know.’
Fen had, in fact, already had to step in and prevent numerous advances on his apprentice, though he was sure many more infatuations existed, and remained stoically unacted on.
‘I imagine,’ Fen half-invented, ‘that they’re all doing their very best to be considerate about their affections, given your history with poor young Gain.’
Pan had been growing redder and redder in shame and denial as Master Fen spoke. But at the mention of Gain, he froze. His chest tightened, his stomach churned, and his vision blurred, airways closing as his throat constricted alarmingly.
When he sensed it was coming, he could usually take it – he’d feel ill and miserable for hours, but he could take it. But sprung on him like that …
Pan gasped, hands flying to his neck as it started to strangle him. He began to gag sickly, previously pink cheeks now dangerously violet. His eyes rolled up in his head, and his felt his body give up on holding him upright.
He couldn’t breathe … couldn’t … breathe…
‘Pan, calm down.’
Pan was on his back on the cot, Master Fen a hazy figure above him. He could feel pressure at the base of his throat, his master kneading with his fingertips, trying to ease Pan’s breathing tubes open as he gasped, a goldfish dangled above its bowl by a vindictive little boy. Master Fen’s blurred form and the room around disappeared into soft blackness.
He … couldn’t … breathe …
‘Pan? Pan …?’
Knuckles digging into his chest. Pain at his sternum. Pan came awake with it and retched, vomiting over the side of the cot, bringing up the soup he’d bolted down before escorting Jacyntha to the evening party.
I’ll clean it up, Pan signed in mindless confusion. Where’s the bucket?
He stumbled for the nearest cleaning supplies. But Fen seized him, pulling him back.
‘Sit down, now.’
Though barely putting the words together, Pan deciphered the tone of an order, and stopped what he was doing. Master Fen made him sit and gave him a minute to recover. Then, he took him firmly by the shoulders.
‘I was told that would happen. I wasn’t sure I believed Beron.’
Master Fen had said it on purpose? How could he …
‘Don’t look at me as though I’ve betrayed you,’ Fen said, almost roughly. That alone was enough to shake Pan: he’d never heard any word leave his master’s mouth that wasn’t gentle, soft as the plump goose feather pillows Jacyntha now slept on. ‘You’re doing amazingly well. I’ve never heard you speak so smoothly. I find it impressive, how well you function. But you can’t let this happen anymore, do you understand? What if one day no one can help you? You’d die, gasping for breath. Suffocation, you understand, is far from the most dignified manner to pass.’
Pan neither said nor signed anything. He breathed deep and fast, eyes in his paled face locked with his master’s.
‘This only proves it further in my mind: you can’t be happy and well, however you mask your pain. You need help. You’ve needed it for a long time, and now that you’re my responsibility, I can’t in good conscience let you continue without it. I’m going to talk to your physician,’ Fen announced. ‘See if we can arrange meetings on a more regular basis. Perhaps he knows of someone with experience treating those who’ve suffered similar trauma. Keep your appointment on Friday,’ he instructed. ‘I’ll talk to him before then.’
‘I’m … fine …’ Pan croaked, so ashamed. It was all he could do to keep from curling in a ball and rocking away all sense and surrounds.
‘Don’t you want to feel better?’ Fen asked appealingly, coin-round eyes so concerned.
Pan shrugged miserably. Sometimes, he thought he felt fine. Blessed, even. But right then, he didn’t know how else there was to feel.
‘You could, I assure you. And you will,’ Fen said resolutely. ‘We’ll make sure of it.
‘You should get some sleep.’
Fen rose, directing Pan to lie down. Pan obeyed without a sign or word. Fen sat in an armchair nearby, waiting until his apprentice was asleep. Then, even after cracking Jacyntha’s door to check she still slumbered peacefully, and looking down protectively on Pan who tossed and turned on the tiny cot, it was some time before Fen was able to return to his chambers, leaving his apprentice alone.