Behind Glass (section twenty-four)

‘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.
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Behind Glass (section thirteen)

The others laughed only lightly, once or twice each, and Jarred hastily reigned in his chortles. Pan was the only one of them forced into the ranks. Rumours swooped and soared about every such boy as to why. And though the hushed stories remained plentiful after four years, hardly any detail was known of Pan’s crimes. He, of course, never said a word. But it had been serious. That was accepted as fact. A cruel joke gone horribly wrong. People had been hurt. If he’d been any older, he might have faced a harsh prison sentence.

But Pan did not have the appearance of a willful miscreant. He did not seem a joker, and he certainly didn’t give the impression of being cruel. This had confused many when he’d first arrived, unsure how to treat a young criminal who looked to be so sensitive.

No one had listened to him. All the other boys had said it was him. Blamed him. Pan’s pained anger at them had died once he’d found his place in the castle – what else could they have done? Blamed Claire?

Those memories were bad. But excitement again bubbled and frothed in his chest, the sweetest ice cream float ever scooped, as he remembered all that was good about Claire, too. There was so much of it. Merrick had to repeat his question for Pan to notice. ‘What is her talent?’

In response, Pan reached for the little pad of notepaper and stumpy pencil he kept in his pocket, but Darien snatched them away. Making an indignant sound, Pan made a grab for them, but Darien tossed them to Jarred, who sat on them, grinning.

No proper signs for it, Pan protested. Give that back!

‘You’re expressive enough to make do without,’ Darien teased, tousling his earthy hair.

‘And even if you regain command of it, your speech may never be as good as it once was,’ Mal pointed out compassionately. ‘You may still need to sign throughout your life.’

‘And these sessions are all about improving your communication,’ Darien said. ‘Make a new sign, go on.’

Scowling, Pan thought for a moment, wriggling his fingers. For now, miming would do. The others guessing rowdily as though it were a tournament with a grand prize, Pan first mimed playing chess, and then rolling a pair of dice.

‘So she plays games for her talent?’ Jarred said doubtfully. ‘That’s not much. Even tea-serving is more impressive.’

Pan shook his head emphatically, dropping the invisible deck of cards he’d just begun to deal out to imaginary players. Making a fist, he pumped it in the air, mouth open in a voiceless cry of victory.

‘Oh, she wins games for her talent,’ Merrick nodded, grinning. Games of wit, strategy, and presumed luck were perhaps the most popular pastime in the city, certainly in the castle. ‘I see. All the old gentlemen must just love being put in their place by a young girl. She’s good enough that its her talent? She never looses?’

‘Never,’ Pan croaked, beckoning for his paper and pencil. Seeing this was to be quite a long explanation, Jarred passed them over. They all grouped around him, Merrick, Mal, and Jarred leaning over the back of the couch and Darien at his side, and read as Pan’s speedy hand dashed off stories.

How the two of them had met, Pan letting out a gasp from where he stood beside his guardian at their neighbour’s front door, seeing a girl for the first time. The games, first chutes and ladders and dominos, then chess and backgammon, that they’d played together every day, Claire listening and interjecting with moans of unfair treatment as Pan described the life of a normal boy, a normal child.  He spoke to jealous ears of his school and friends, and their outings to the nearby seaside – Claire was already almost nine by the time they convinced her guardian to let her visit the sea. When they were older, their guardians had begun teaching them many fishing, shedding, and comparing card games on warm evenings by the open window, a slice of chiffon cake and cup of tea apiece.  This had fast led to Claire’s discovery of her talent, first destroying Pan and then putting their guardians to shame, game after game. Since the unearthing of her raw talent, she’d researched techniques and perfected her strategies, honed her presentation, and developed fall-back plans for every conceivable game a challenger could pull off their shelf.

Her guardian was so pleased, Pan wrote, a soft glimmer of happy memory in his eyes, pale sunshine peeking out from behind those two grey mornings.  Her poetry and badminton lessons weren’t going well at all.

Pan went on writing, starting to script in detail about one very special night that Claire and he had been allowed to attend an adult party at which Claire’s talent was to be publicly revealed for the first time. Her guardian had said nothing until after she so adorably challenged and then ruthlessly defeated the elderly ward Director in seven rounds of blackjack. As Pan shared these precious memories with them all, Darien shifted slightly to better see his friend’s face. Pan was smiling.

He’d never seen Pan smile for so long. Never so brightly, the glittering, beautiful ceiling lights fading to something drab and unsightly by comparison.

Behind Glass (section twelve)

‘Darien told us you’ve got Claire Baker three weeks from Thursday,’ Merrick soon said, bringing Pan smoothly into the conversation. ‘The new addition, and on her first time off the Shelf. That’s impressive. The Directors must be pleased with you, to be giving you such an important job. But Claire … I don’t really know anything about her, just that you’re friends.’

‘You and Claire are friends? You never told me that. That’s so rare,‘ Mal observed with interest. ‘How did you become friends with a girl?’

We were neighbours in the third ward. Our guardians were friends.

‘Still, I’m surprised her guardian let her see anyone aside from her foster brothers.’

We were the same age, and her brothers were so much older. She was lonely. My guardian heard of this, and took me to meet her.

‘So you were her only playmate growing up?’ Merrick asked, looking a little jealous. Most boys didn’t know any girls personally. Though they saw women constantly as escorts, it wasn’t the same thing. The women on the Shelves were not their friends.  For obvious reasons, such relationships were difficult to build, even with those they escorted most often. The women were their jobs.  And however fond they may grow of them, that was what they had to remain.

For a long time, yes. I was the only other person she knew. I introduced her to some of my friends when we were older, and her guardian slightly less protective. He’d started letting her leave the house a few more times a year, in any case.

‘And that’s when you started causing trouble, wasn’t it?’

Pan chuckled weakly while the others laughed. But Darien didn’t laugh long, crinkles of the cheery smile about his wide cornflower eyes fading, turning his youthful face far more grave.

‘I remember,’ he said seriously, ‘when you first arrived here.

How? Pan asked. We didn’t know each other yet. Why would you remember me?

You’re hard to miss.’

What do you mean? Pan asked curiously.

Darien didn’t elaborate. Pan would object, never believing that half of the boys in the castle had fallen in love with his face the day he’d arrived, white and trembling before the towering marble structure that was to be his new home and prison. It was no wonder really, given who his mother was. By first glance, every one of them had known the new boy was Lilian Mason’s son. Most whose hearts he’d unknowingly captured still regarded him with longing even as he transitioned from child to man, a phase so awkward for most that Pan handled with grace. But all were now far too afraid to even think of touching him.

‘You were constantly on the verge of tears, and had a startle reflex so amplified it was like the world sought to hunt you down. And that was before you were assigned to Beron. If by ordering miscreants here the main purpose is for them to regret past actions, you should have been sent home after three days.

Pan sighed.

Sometimes I wish they had sent me home.

The others, save Darien, looked rather uncomfortable. ‘It hasn’t been all terrible, has it?’ Merrick asked hesitantly.

No, of course not, Pan reassured him. Sometimes I wish that, that’s all. On bad days. But if I wasn’t made an escort, I wouldn’t have met all of you. I wouldn’t know my mother and Georgiana, and I’d never have been able to see Claire again.

He wanted so much to see her again. Even though it was her fault. If she hadn’t been so free-spirited, he never would have been ordered to the castle. When he articulated this, Jarred gave a loud laugh. ‘I’ll give you due credit – you do stand by your story.’

I never did any of itPan replied staunchly. I was just nearby when it happened.

Behind Glass (section eleven)

‘What’s wrong with him?’ Jarred wondered aloud as Pan gulped his water, Merrick refilling his glass with the pitcher from the table. It was set with tiny, glinting pieces of coloured glass that together formed exploding fire blossoms against a black sky. ‘Beron didn’t actually do anything, did he? Ravage his throat, or cut his tongue? He would’ve gotten in so much strife.’

‘Jarred, use your head,’ Darien said. ‘Master Beron never touched him.’

‘This is hardly untouched, Darien,’ Mal couldn’t help but murmur, taking Pan’s hand protectively. ‘And we can’t keep pretending Beron is the only one responsible.’

Pan’s face, which had faded from blotchy purple to a tone a few shades paler than his usual dessert cream, immediately exploded with blood, turning him not frock pink but ruby-red with shame. Why was this always being brought up?

Not now, Mal,’ Merrick said softly as Pan fought not to squirm in his seat. He longed to vanish, to melt into liquid and dissolve without a trace into Fen’s nice lounge. ‘We’re not pretending anything, but you can’t just spring that on him like this.’

Let’s keep to the matter at hand,’ said Darien firmly, ‘which is his voice.’

‘These issues are all connected,’ Mal began to protest, but Merrick hushed him, seeing as Pan began to sweat.

Darien faced Jarred, who was waiting even more curiously for an answer. Though he was Pan’s age and a willing escort, Jarred was not yet in master training – he had only come to the castle the year before. As such, he knew of Beron’s reputation, but nothing else. To Pan’s relief, Darien kept his explanation absolutely minimal, barely enlightening a somewhat disgruntled Jarred at all. 

‘He has no physical ailment keeping him from speaking. It’s all in his mind. It’s all in your mind,’ Darien turned his attention to Pan. ‘Beron’s no longer your master, and everything that happened with Gain is long past. Making believe it never happened then dwelling on it endlessly when it comes up won’t help – you must move on, do you understand?’

How am I supposed to do that when he …

‘Master Fen, your physician,’ Darien continued, cutting off Pan’s flying hands. ‘All of us.  We all want you to speak again, that’s why we’re spending so much time on you. The Directors too, Master Grange tells me they show keen interest in your progress. You are working hard, we know. But you’ll achieve nothing while you continue to stand in your own way. You have to stop being so afraid. Whatever you’ve been through, there is nothing keeping you from speaking. No one, save you.

I know that! Pan signed furiously, hands whipping through the air so fast it was a wonder they didn’t slice it. But I can’t! I can’t make myself do it! Every time I choke! My voice is gone!

‘It’s not gone! You were speaking just before!’

Anger fading but so horribly embarrassed, disheartened by his failure and now feeling quite ill – the mention of Gain always had the effect of a mild stomach flu – he couldn’t bear to hear to their words of encouragement, particularly Darien’s. The number of times Pan had failed were too many to count, and he had witnessed them all. How could any of them be so sure he’d recover command of speech? What were the Directors thinking, making him stay there? He was going to be a mockery as a master!

‘You were speaking in front of us, all four of us! You’ve never managed that before, you’re doing very well. Those last ones were just a challenge. You need to work up to them, that’s all.’

He’d been working up to them for months now, and still fell short. I don’t want to talk about it, Pan let them know shortly, hunching and signing very harshly. Leave me alone. Get out of here.

But, as Jarred pointed out, they weren’t in Pan’s rooms. And Fen had granted all of them free use for the evening. He was quite stubborn about it, so while Merrick and Mal were hesitant they decided to stay, and soon began chatting about their upcoming women. Thinking he needed some alone time, they didn’t bother Pan when he slouched off to his room to sulk. Darien and Mal both kept a close eye on him until his door clicked shut.

Out of sight, Pan collapsed on his bed, losing to tears. He never cried in front of anyone; that was another souvenir from his time with Beron. But he could still weep alone, and he spent a few minutes wrestling with his pillow as he cried. He won easily.

It didn’t take long for him to feel very childish for his rudeness and venting. After another minute he wiped his streaming eyes, gave a long sniff, and pushed his door back open. Sitting next to Darien with a heavy sigh, Pan flicked out an apology with his fingers. Darien immediately put a reassuring arm around him. Pan rested his head on his shoulder.

‘It’ll happen,’ Darien told him. ‘You just need more time.’

Behind Glass (section ten)

After a month working with Fen, Pan joined Darien as one of the top escorts in the castle thanks to his young master’s growing reputation and the doors he opened to showcase Pan’s talents. Pan really was a very good escort, but could never have hoped to gain recognition for himself under Beron. The Directors were finally seeing more of him. They at last saw the very high quality of his work and how the women liked him, Pan obliging and dependable, treating them with utmost courtesy and never sparing them a moment of the attention they deserved. Subsequently, the Directors kept him busy—three days couldn’t go by without him having another woman on his arm. And what with their studies, chores, and Shelf duties in addition to their work, Pan’s incredulous questioning of the existence of free time in master training was well founded. Still, one or two nights a week after study with their respective masters or in the classroom, Darien found time to set aside for Pan’s speech rehabilitation.

One evening a few weeks before they were scheduled to escort Claire and GeorgianaPan was growing increasingly excited, memories of his friend and sister soaring beautifully through his mind as he applied eyeliner, poured drinks, and twirled girls around dance floors until more important men intruded Pan and Darien, along with Merrick, Mal, and Jarred, congregated for such a speech session. Before Pan’s reassignment they had scouted out empty chambers to meet in, as the sun would set in the east before Master Beron offered his hospitality to a gaggle of escorts and Pan wasn’t comfortable using the common rooms. But on Pan obediently revealing his evening plans in three disjointed words as he served his master’s dinner, Fen had offered his sitting room for their use. It would be so much more comfortable in Fen’s mint-scented rooms than a mildew-scented, damp storage cubicle or a tiny, dust-choked study alcove off the main library. The escorts had gladly taken him up on his offer.

Pan sat on one of the navy lounges, eyes fixed on the sparkling ceiling lights and hands clasped tightly as the others took turns asking him simple questions. How are you? When’s your birthday? How was the weather today? Who was your last woman? What’s your favourite type of cake?

Even though they were  friends, with three others present besides Darien it took Pan half an hour to pronounce a single word. Once he’d gotten his throat working though, he was able to answer most of their questions with one or two-word replies. Darien then steered them towards more complicated inquiries, trying to lure Pan into saying a complete sentence. But Pan’s throat and tongue and teeth just would not cooperate. As he grew more and more frustrated trying to push sound past his lips, Pan slipped further and further down the lounge until he was horizontal, head in Mal’s lap. Mal patted his head kindly, but couldn’t help laughing along with the others at the intense annoyance all over Pan’s face, brought even more to life by lurid, cursing signs, hands held in the air above his head.

‘Tell us about yourself,’ Darien said for the fourth time. Pan groaned loudly and took Mal’s arm, pulling it close to block out the room. Staring at the ceiling hadn’t made shaping sentences any easier, and neither had closing his eyes. Perhaps an external physical shield would help. ‘Start with your name, and go on from there.’

‘My name…’ Pan began falteringly in his hoarse whisper, but choked before he could continue. ‘My name is…’ he tried again when the spasm had passed, but again his throat constricted. Making an odd gurgling sound and coughing furiously to clear his windpipe, he swung out of Mal’s lap and banged his forehead against the spongy back of the lounge, bouncing back with the forceYou’re all really enjoying this, aren’t you? he signed, hugely irritated, but still able to laugh weakly along with his friends. But after another hour he was no longer laughing, and neither were they.

‘Come on, Pan,’ Merrick said, leaving his perch on the opposite lounge‘s arm and sitting close beside him, taking his hands to keep him from exploding with dismay. ‘What did you do today? Just one thing. Give us seven words in a row and we’ll stop for the evening.’

Seven? He had to be joking. But every eye was on him. Thinking he had to achieve that impossible goal to be allowed to rest and desperate not to fail his friends, Pan began to panic. He mouthed uselessly, emitting only incomprehensible clicks and wet gurgles. ‘I…’ he managed with great difficulty, but then gasped, gagging. Ripping free of Merrick, Pan’s hands flew to his throat. He pawed at it, kneading, trying to encourage the muscles to relax as a physician once showed him. But they remained tight, squeezing, closing off his airways.  He started to wheeze. Eyes going very wide, Pan began to turn pale violet.  

He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t breathe …

‘That’s enough,’ Darien said at last. Coming to Pan’s aid, he motioned Merrick aside and took over. Reclining Pan against the lounge cushions, he gently massaged his throat until he’d calmed down, larynx at last brought under control. Pan’s renewed breath tremorous, Darien rubbed his shoulders comfortingly and helped him drink the glass of water Merrick  fetched, holding the vessel while Pan’s hands shook.

Behind Glass (section six)

Pan knew he only ever meant well, and allowed himself a grim smile at Darien’s teasing, but painfully unlikely speculation. Then, while Darien was focussed on his reflection, Pan sneaked out a hand and dunked his friend’s head under the water in retribution for the jibe. Darien resurfaced a moment later, spluttering and laughing. ‘You utter arse! Sorry,’ he called out, grinning widely as the two nearest them frowned at the uncouth word. ‘You unbecoming, irritating, inconsequential little swine. Is that better?’

Pan laughed, a peculiar, smothered little burst of sound. Master Beron’s elegant insults actually sounded funny when it was Darien’s mouth they left. Digging in his case wearing a smile somewhat more cheerful, he found a narrow tube and carefully applied the cream within to the thin, delicate skin of his lips and eyelids. ‘Shelf duty today?’ Darien asked. Pan nodded, starting to sign his schedule, but Darien gave him a pointed look. Try, it said.

‘Morning…Shelf,’ Pan murmured reluctantly, lips barely moving as he dried his hair, rushing to get the rest out before his throat froze up. ‘Afternoon…class. Then…with Master Fen.’

‘See, you can do it,’ Darien smiled, giving him an encouraging pat on the arm and showering him with water just as Pan hung up his towel. Scowling in good humour, he dried again. ‘That was a four-word sentence, well done. Well, it was almost a sentence. I imagine Master Fen has you practicing?’

Pan nodded, keeping most of the wince from his face, forehead only wrinkling by a few unhappy lines.  Though he hadn’t the time for sit-down rehabilitation sessions, Fen was trying to coax him into speech most every day, during fittings, lessons, meetings, mealtimes – whenever there was a small time gap that could be filled. Though Pan hoped he was beginning to prove himself to Fen, ever obedient and work both fine and diligent, he felt regaining his voice would cement that worth. But despite being free of Master Beron for weeks and the daily (if brief) practice he did, he could still barely utter three words to his master. Fen told him not to let it, but it was starting to get him down.

‘I’m glad, but we should try to begin sessions of our own again in our free time.’

Pan gave Darien a look so plain not signs nor notes nor broken words were required to translate.

When are we going to have any free time now that we’re both in master training?

Darien laughed long and clear, the sound bouncing between the bathing hall tiles and pillars as light from the newly risen sun began to bounce as well, reflecting between the many mirrors. ‘We’ll find time. Honestly, I’ve met no one with a more expressive face. You really are priceless, Pan.’

I have to be expressive, Pan signed with a matter-of fact-gesture before articulating a more pressing concern. Will you be asking the others to come now? Merrick and everyone?

‘I think that would be good, now you’re getting a little more confident. You’ll have to speak to many more than just me and Master Fen when you’re a master yourself.’

I know, Pan signed dismally.

‘We’ll only ask a few for starters. It’ll be fine, I promise you. But forget that for a moment: I hear you’ve got Claire Baker soon.’ Pan nodded, shoulders still slumped at the thought of straining and failing to produce words in front of all his friends. ‘How about that, then? Can’t just be chance.’

I don’t think it is.

‘She’ll be sad not to hear your voice,’ Darien commented as he climbed out, dropping a mat beside Pan’s and taking down his thick white towel from a hook. ‘She was sad she didn’t get to meet you, see you properly before being put on the Shelf. Master Grange told her you and I are friends. She spoke of you many times, that week.’

Pan ducked his head, eyes downcast. It was Darien who’d been selected as Claire’s first escort, accompanying her through the week-long celebration leading up to her birthday and seeing her to the Shelves for the first time. Pan hadn’t been allowed to meet her. He’d only seen her at a distance from where he’d stood in military straight lines with the escort ranks as she’d been paraded through the city.

Seeing how Pan missed his friend, Darien quickly changed the topic again, hoping to make him smile. Or at least, make him stop being so gloomy. ‘Guess who I’ve got at the same time? Give up?’ he raised his tone in exaggerated excitement as Pan shrugged. ‘None other than Georgiana Mason.’

Pan did a double take. Only he had ever escorted Georgiana since he’d entered the ranks. He was her only relative escort, and for a highly desirable woman such as her it was seen as an extra precaution that only he attend her. But if anyone else were to do so, it would be Darien. No question.

Darien was special. He was honest, noble, and kind. And he had an eye for beauty that had all the masters clamouring to claim him from the moment he entered the ranks, a bright-eyed, eager twelve-year-old. He was exactly everything an escort was meant to be. Somehow, the Directors saw similar traits in Pan. Pan wanted to know what was slipped in their tea every morning to render the supposedly intelligent and insightful men so delusional.

Behind Glass (section five)

In one of the small bathing halls designated for escort use filled with sunken pools, mirrors, and impressive pillars that swept upwards to the ceiling, Pan lathered himself in mint scented foam amid the predawn glow, scrubbing viciously at his dessert cream skin with a hard bristled brush.

It was one of the most fundamental lessons the boys at the castle were taught. To look presentable. More, to look good. Attractive. As much as a woman’s lavish gown, silken petticoats, pointed shoes, and extravagant jewelery were, Pan was an accessory. There to serve, but just as importantly, to set off the woman. Make her even more radiant. Even more alluring. More staggering.

‘You’re a good-looking lad,’ Fen had commented a week or so ago as they’d gone over their itinerary for the next day – an older woman (older, as in early thirties) with a pearly shock on her head and a reputation for being short-tempered with her escorts had been suddenly scheduled for time off the Shelf, and Fen instructed to oversee at short notice. The master had set down his leather-bound portfolio, thick with rough sketches through to intricately detailed and labelled outfit ensemble designs, and taken Pan’s chin with his cool fingers, turning and examining his highly defined bone structure. ‘I’m surprised Master Beron didn’t take full advantage of this as my master did with me. No wonder his women are beginning to slip in popularity. No need to bow,’ Fen had smiled, letting go as Pan bobbed his head, trying to both obey his master’s wishes and fulfill his own intense, far from broken need to show respect and humble himself at every conceivable opportunity.

Ducking under the water, Pan rinsed the thick foam from his body. He then took the new shampoo and conditioner Fen had ordered for him and washed his hair, combing it out wet before taking his straight razor. Scrutinizing himself in one of the many mirrors, the reflective surfaces both lining the walls and standing at angles across the tiles, he angled and sliced until his chin, cheeks, chest, and stomach were totally hairless. Climbing out and shaking excess water from his limbs, Pan settled on a stool by a small square mirror and rubbed himself with lotion until he shone under the lights.

‘Pan!’

A boy with limbs and torso recently sprouted and slimmed from previously stocky versions of the same things called out his name from the entrance, waving as he stripped off his robe. Darien.

Pan couldn’t call back. He couldn’t speak, not in there. Not when there were eleven others bathing nearby who would hear him. But he raised his hands, incandescent beneath lotion and light, signing fluidly in return. It wasn’t a complete language, but Darien and his friends had helped Pan assemble a large collection of hand signals they could recognise.  These signs made communication much faster and more involved than when he’d always had his head down, scribbling notes.  For more detailed exchanges, however, Pan was lost without a scrap of paper.

Darien immersed himself in the water of the pool nearest Pan with a little yelp at the polar temperature, dumping the contents of his grooming kit nearby. He beckoned with his scrubbing-brush, calling Pan over. Pan left his mirror and knelt by the edge of the pool, placing a mat beneath his knees to keep lotion from washing off and the pattern of tiles from embedding in his skin.

‘You smell nice,’ Darien said, leaning in and sniffing Pan’s arm. ‘You’ve never done mint before.’

Pan signed, saying it was a favourite of Master Fen’s.

‘You’re sure he’s not just trying to boost your vitality? He doesn’t know you well yet, and you can come across as rather dull, to be honest.’

The scent’s all through his rooms, Pan protested, a little hurt. It was hard to appear vivacious when carrying conversation with a pen and paper.

‘Don’t be so defensive, I know you’re not dull. It suits you better than muck, in any case. That’s all you ever smelt of whenever you came out of Master Beron’s chambers. Still voiceless,’ Darien observed as he squeezed foam smelling of cut grass on a rainy day onto his brush, Pan giving a grimacing smile of confirmation. ‘I hoped being free of Master Beron would cure you instantly.’

Pan shrugged, starting to smear ointment over his face and neck, eyes flicking insecurely towards the other bathers. Darien followed his gaze. ‘I get it. You’ll speak when we’re alone. Even then, it’s impossible to get more than two words out of you at a time,’ he complained lightheartedly, massaging his honey blonde head with shampoo, a dazzling tuft that could cause the unsuspecting to blink and instinctively protect their eyes, particularly beside Pan’s of sable.  And beside Pan, Darien often was. ‘But serving under Master Fen will be a healing experience for you, I’m sure. Who knows? You might even start speaking in full sentences before you become a master!’