He was running short of breath, the footing was getting treacherous, and he had so much more to do. There was a new face in the crowd, that made seventeen. It was a man this time, not that that made any difference. He had a job to do. They were just standing there, waiting, watching silently with unfocused eyes. Asking the same question with their unseeing stare. He did his business and moved on. He just kept on doing what he had to do. This time he slipped and felt gore gush up into his boot. Again and again, he had to keep going, he had to. His blood was pounding in his head. He couldn't catch his breath. His arms ached, but he had to keep going. It was the new face again and he dipped his steel in and the face fell away, again. Behind it the first face waited again, unmoving and unseeing. He hated their question. He knew he had to keep going. He just wished he could remember why...

* * *

He was standing in a gentle bowl-shaped ravine. He had a branch set across sawhorses and was sawing a short length from its blunt end. There were people standing around the rim staring down at him. He could feel them watching him intently, and with malice. Forces were being summoned and then thrown at him from all sides. Fire, ice, wind, waves, rock, everything he could imagine. Everything missed him by a fraction and vanished. He wanted to grab it all and throw it back but the branch needed to be cut first. He was sawing and sawing and sawing. The pile of sawdust was growing but he seemed to be making no progress through the branch. It made no sense, and he knew it, but it had to be done. He just wished he could remember why...

* * *

Morgan woke to find Seth's arm draped over him again. He waited, but this time there was no urgent warning voice. This was, he decided, a much better way to wake up.

The odd thing was that he was awake at all. Something was tugging at his awareness. A quick mental survey revealed a burning sensation at his left wrist. With awareness came a sensation just short of pain. Behind him Seth kind of grunted and woke. Within moments Morgan was sitting up, trying to stretch the metal band off his wrist while Seth was engaged in a similar but far more futile attempt against the band around his neck. Seth's difficulty removing the collar was natural, but the wrist band should have come off instantly.

Not being stupid, Morgan dropped a quick line into the ground seeking an open channel of energy, thanking whatever fates there were that he had recovered the strength to do it. As soon as he had a line he began generating a field of cold, or more precisely an orderly absence of heat, about his wrist. Before he had really started to make any headway there he turned and gripped Seth's neck and collar in a classic front strangle-hold and put eighty percent of his effort there. It didn't take more than a few seconds to chill the metal bands, and Morgan dove straight into the astral to examine them.

The spell was damaged. It looked like a spool of cable that had spun free and back-lashed. Instead of a the orderly interlacing braid of fibers there were strands everywhere. Many of the connections were black and crispy tasting. Even as he watched, the spell was healing itself. The damaged connections were sloughing away to be replaced with unbroken strand, which slithered back into the mass. The inference, that somehow those connections were gone, was astounding. They'd re-grow of course, but if he could just figure out what had happened and duplicate the effect, he'd be able to remove the spell. Of course the nasty heating would have to be countered, but there was hope.

Morgan couldn't sustain the effort. Even with the tap feeding energy into his depleted system he was still too sick to stay astral for long. Fading back into the mundane, the sharp ache through his entire body reasserted itself. The emergency was over and even the small amount of brisk motion he'd done to grab Seth was threatening him with collapse. He fought for a moment to make sure he didn't lose his tap. He eased himself back down to his bedroll and concentrated on distributing the energy he was drawing out to each part of his body.

* * *

Seth spent the next few minutes of the morning trying to work some salve onto the reddened skin under his collar while pointedly ignoring the strange looks he was getting from their captive. Since Seth himself had absolutely no idea what had really happened he wasn't surprised that the stranger had a good dose of confusion soaking into his general misery. Seth took some more time out to check the bound stranger. The position he was in could easily be fatal if left too long. Satisfied that he was holding just shy of total physical collapse, but could probably stand another twelve hours before any real lasting harm set in, Seth indulged himself in some of his morning ritual.

Composure is a hard thing to regain when it is lost so early in the day. He chose stretching and the simplest movements as a way to search for his lost equilibrium. He hated killing, not because of any kind of direct guilt, but because of the memories. He had killed more times than he cared to think about, just getting near the topic threatened to bring an exact number and a parade of faces and details that he would rather do without. Killing without cause was wrong, but many had been killed without need. He could never convince men he knew would lose, that they should just give-over or run away. It wasn't bragging, it was pathetic experience. He simply didn't lose. He went for the clean wound whenever he could, except with a mage, but a day's ride out from everywhere... there clearly was no other way the night could have gone. It was still going to stay with him for life. Like always.

The more immediate problem to Seth's mind was their guest. He'd either have to be kept bound until they could deliver him to, well, someone, or they would have to let him go. There was no way he'd kill him after managing to keep him alive, and if Morgan told him to, he didn't know what he'd do, but the kid would live. He decided he knew, deep down, that Morgan would never give such an order. At least he hoped he knew. Then again he'd only been with Morgan for about a month, how well did he really know the man. The question nagged him unreasonably.

* * *

When Morgan stirred again Seth was as ready to face the lion as he was going to get. He untied the length of rope that gagged and pulled back the head of the stranger. Then he untied his hands. Gripping each arm at the elbow just below the cinch, he twisted them halfway around so that the palms were facing in instead of out. That unlocked his shoulders and would give him some degree of movement even with his elbows still cinched. Then he tipped the man up into a kneeling position. The muscles in his back and neck were exhausted from holding his head up all night so he couldn't lift his head. The net effect left the man in the classic position of submission, and relieved, no glad, to be there. The perfect mental and physical condition for getting a few straight answers out of an enemy, spy, or would-be highwayman.

Morgan taking his cue from Seth, began to ask a few questions. It took longer than Seth had expected, but still not enough time to leave anybody but the captive hurting for breakfast. The answers they got meant nothing to them or their situation. He'd left his home and family because he couldn't stand farming. The two swordsmen had been working together for about six months. The mage was a recent addition to their group, but several weeks ago, before the books had even arrived at the school. They had moved up into the pass from the coastal plains in the last few days because the plains were under more strict patrol to protect the royal court. They were usually sneak-thieves, and hadn't had anybody even notice them since the mage had joined them. The mage was supposed to give them cover, and help in case of any kind of combat. He hadn't had any designs on them in particular, but the old man and the mage had done all the planning, so he couldn't swear to that.

There wasn't anything particularly threatening in that information, but it didn't make Morgan feel all that much better. The fighters were doubtless just what they were, but the mage had been too powerful and disciplined to be just a hedge wizard. Despite the danger of paranoia being always near wherever high talents were involved, Morgan could find no pattern of direct manipulation. The mage could have been a pawn of opportunity. If it was some obscure plot, it had probably failed. There was always a chance that it was designed to fail. That could explain why the mage hadn't released on Seth. But then why would he have gathered something so offensive if he didn't intend to use it and why did he let himself get killed? No, it wasn't a veiled feint, face value was the best way to take it. A random encounter with thugs.

“So what do you want to do with him?” Seth asked.

“We don't have time or provisions to take him on with us, or take him back.”


“I don't really have the energy for much right now...” Morgan paused thoughtfully, “I say we give him a choice, submit willingly to a gease or we kill him.”

Seth didn't like the sound of that at all and was about to protest when Morgan caught his eye and a winked.

“I'll take the gease, what will I have to do?” the captive was eager to keep his life, a fact that Morgan had been counting on.

“I'm going to compel you to, upon release, go directly to Queens College, present yourself to a man named Tor Ben Jarren, the master of slaves there, confess your deeds here to him, and submit to imprinting.”

The man seemed to slump even more. “okay, I'll take it.”

“Good, now relax and try not to resist...”

It took only a few minutes to lay the gease. Hed already said the word out loud so they were easy to reenforce. They ate, feeding their captive a good breakfast since he wouldn't be able to stop for food or rest once he set out once the gease took hold. They also delayed a bit, letting the man rest a little. When they cut him loose he headed straight down the trail toward the school, and most likely the life of a slave. If he had people, relatives or a family that could vouch and pay for him, he had the right to contact them and they had a right to ransom him free. Given his condition and circumstances that seemed unlikely.

They stood looking after the man for a few moments.

“Do you think I did the right thing, sending him to Tor?”

“You probably did him a favor. It's unlikely that he would have survived very long without his friends.”

“I just feel kind of tainted, I never have had much use for slaves...” Morgan's voice trailed off and he looked sidelong up at Seth, “You know what I mean. It just seems kind of harsh.”

Seth smiled down at him, clapping him on the shoulder almost too hard for him to take, and kind of pulling him in, feeling glad to know Morgan. “He'll do all right, life seems good for a slave at the school and the imprint will make him like the work if it's at all likeable. You can check up on him if you're really worried.”

They struck camp in short order and got started back up the trail a little later than optimal.

* * *

Seth knew boredom, though not as well as he sometimes wished. The thing about boredom was that it was usually a partner to work. The steady hike up hill was far from the most straining thing he'd ever done. He felt that if it were necessary he could keep it up forever. Still, the far side of the mountain was something he was looking forward to. Even in the cold he was boiling under his jacket and armor.

The thin sheets of wyrsa hide against his skin moved with him like it was his own skin. He was thankful that it was wyrsa and not some thick boiled cowhide monstrosity. From time to time he'd had to go in common leather, or worse metal armor. Heavy, awkward, and ill-fitting were things he could do without for a seven-day march. wyrsa was tougher anyway, he'd killed enough of them outon the margins to know that. The continuous sheen of sweat between him and it was getting to be a bit much but the living hides steadily drank that moisture. He toyed with the idea of stopping and taking off the jacket but then he'd have to carry it and the occasional blasts of arctic air that cut into him also said no. There just wasn't any comfortable middle ground to be had. At least there wouldn't be any snow to trudge through.

When he finally caught the rhythm of the climb he let the minor miseries slide away, they were replaced by musing thoughts ranging from the odd concept that in other realities noon happened at different times in different places, to whether a large ball could make it all the way back to the valley floor if he tossed it back down the trail. Somewhere in his head he had the math and topography to deal with both questions, and most of the other things he thought about. He didn't pursue anything that far since that might distract the part of him that was watching for dangers or opportunities. Besides, interesting and distracting thoughts good for marching could be easily ruined by too much analysis.

* * *

Morgan was miserable on the horse. He wasn't a good enough healer to fully replenish himself. He'd staved off the worst of the previous day's abuse, but the profound soreness would be with him until his body fixed itself the natural way. He couldn't escape into the astral now even with a good tap into the ground. It was too much work and the gease had taken more out of him than he thought it would. He simply wallowed in his discomfort and watched Seth's constant, tireless assault on the trail.

He used to be strong like that. Well, not quite like that, but strong nonetheless. Not that he had any desire to go back to the life of a miner. It was more that he was beginning to feel a little inadequate under the onslaught of Seth's presence. Somewhere along the line he had completely lost his connection to his body. The idea of ending up frail, or corpulent, like many of the Masters at the school was suddenly repulsive. He wasn't that far gone, but if he didn't make a point to start doing something about his physical condition soon it could easily go past the point of no return.

He worked with higher energies, which didn't promise a long life span, but if he were careful and lucky he could make more than a century. He had just about stopped aging, what with having to use the energy mostly raw up till now, but the idea of taking care of himself beyond simple survival was strangely new to him. Seth would probably have some ideas on what to do. Seth. The man was taking up a larger and larger part in his life, like he belonged there all along. It was almost hard to see how his life was before Seth had come into it. He wasn't sure he knew how to feel about that, but it made him comfortable somehow.

* * *

They had a late lunch at the summit of the pass and camped for the night more than a fifth of the way down the southern slope. When night came and went without incident and the whole next day passed without any life-altering decisions Morgan began to feel like a human being again. They camped about an hour after reaching the bottom of the pass. That fourth morning of the trip, if you count the morning they left, found Morgan content with the journey. He'd barely stirred when Seth got up, feeling safe and happy under the man's protection, lounging until Seth stopped exercising and started working. He was finally recovered. He even managed to give his horse a good brushing and strike his share of camp by the time Seth had breakfast ready.

Within an hour the tract widened and merged with the more traveled road to Queens Landing. When the road widened Seth dropped back to walk at Morgan's stirrup. By noon they found themselves being slowly overtaken by a large mounted party coming down from the headlands.

“Let's stop for lunch.”

Seth looked up at Morgan and then back up the road. “Good idea.”

They found a small patch of grass by the side of the road and set in for a cold lunch of salt-beef, bread, cheese and water.

As the party approached one rider broke from the group and rode up to where they were eating.

“Greetings Lord, my lady Teichia of Plains Haven sends her greetings and asks with whom she shares the road this day?”

Morgan stood to meet the stranger while Seth maintained a casually ready crouch masterfully disguised as simple loafing. This greeting was really the guard's way of making sure they were not laying in wait for his charge.

Formal manners were never a mistake on a high road. “Greetings to your lady, I am Morgan, Magus of Queen's College, traveling to court at Queen's Landing.”

“Well met, Lord.” The man turned and rode back to the oncoming troupe.

It was a surprise when the man returned. “My lady also travels to court, and requests the honor of your company for the remainder of the journey.”

“My man Seth is afoot and I fear we would slow your lady unforgivably, so we must decline.”

“I'm sure my lady has ample room for all of your possessions amongst her wagons.”

Morgan found himself in a sudden fit of dislike over this stranger's attitude. A tiny nudge at the back of his mind, however, said that this was a good opportunity. A quick check in the name of paranoia demonstrated that the nudge came solely from his own thoughts and not from any airy or subtle compulsion of magic. He glanced down at Seth and read a tiny change of expression which said, he hoped, “take the offer.”

“Your lady is most gracious to extend such a courtesy and we,” he deliberately used the inclusive just to irk the stranger, “would be glad to see ourselves in her company. See to the arrangements within your ranks and we shall wait on your lady's arrival.”

The man turned his mount and crossed the diminishing distance. By the time the party reached them they had finished eating. Morgan was mounted, his horse facing the road, and Seth was loaded down with both packs. The train made no move to stop, instead the guard reined off and turned his mount full around so that he was just to Morgan's right.

“This second wagon has room for your goods and your man.” He gestured at the wagon in question and then went on. “After you've seen to your things my lady asks that you join her in the fore.”

The wagons were moving somewhat faster than a comfortable walking pace, and the man timed his remarks so that Seth would have to run with the gear to get it, and himself, into the moving wagon. Morgan was pleased see that not only was this no kind of real strain for Seth, but that Seth performed a practiced, nearly jaunty, mount of the wagon's tail-gate which made that fact obvious to the sergeant. Morgan didn't seem to wait to see that Seth had accomplished any part of his task before he guided his mount forward and to the right, cutting off any move the sergeant might have made, and forcing the other horse to back half a step. The net effect was a snub of the man's attitude toward the pair, executed as if they had been practicing it for a lifetime.

Morgan brought himself forward until he was abreast of the carriage window. On his way he asensed for talent or sorcery and found none. Lady Teichia was dressed for travel but presented an air of refinement nonetheless. She was perhaps twenty years Morgan's senior. “Greetings my lady, I am Morgan, Magus of Queen's college. Your hospitality does me great honor.”

“Nonsense Lord Magus, it is I who am honored by your company. Would you care to join me inside? I'll call a halt so that you may board.”

“No need to trouble yourself or your men my lady, though I would be honored to join you.”

Gripping the luggage rack atop the carriage with his left hand, he swung his right leg over the saddle and lowered himself to the running board. Morgan was a fairly good horseman, but he cheated a good bit using some deft twisting of hastily summoned forces to insure that nothing would turn this tiny act of daring into memorable buffoonery. Knowing that Seth would still be watching him, he flipped the reins over the horses head before releasing them. More trickery on the bit lead slowed the horse while the wagon caught up and Seth casually took hold of the reigns. Then Morgan casually opened the carriage door and stepped inside.

They dispatched the mandatory pleasantries in record time, setting aside titles in favor of simple names.

“I must confess Morgan, I invited you to join me because I have been traveling without any talented retainer.”

Morgan briefly cast out across the band and found only the slightest wisps of magical ability.

“Isn't that kind of dangerous?”

“Exactly the point. Plains Haven is large, but not particularly wealthy. I couldn't spare any of my talent away from their duties to accompany me even though I carry a year's taxes. I have been relying on the assumption that no party this large would travel without talent to protect us from any kind of hedge-wizard we might encounter.”

“That sounds risky, wild talent is pretty common.”

“Yes, I suppose so, but I think robbery is mostly a crime of cowardice. I brought a lot of guards. Still, I feel better with you here, however long that lasts.”

“It's my privilege.” And so something of a contract was made.

Morgan spent the rest of the day in pleasant conversation on many topics. Lady Teichia was quite well read and had years of experience entertaining. A skill which she practiced with ease.

* * *

Seth's afternoon went rather less well. Even with a canvas cover tied down over the worst of the load, the wagon possessed a foul reek. It didn't carry with the wind, but up close it was a smack in the face. He didn't quite recognize what it was, but tannery and the related arts came to mind. He just thanked whatever powers there were that the wagon wasn't fully covered. He immediately dumped Morgan's pack and then stripped off his own. By the time Morgan sent his horse back Seth was ready to get away from the wagon.

He looped the reins over a stay on the back of the wagon and dropped down beside it. Jogging along he quickly got the saddle bags free and in with the packs. Normally it would be bad judgment to separate himself from the horse, but Seth couldn't see forcing the horse to deal with close exposure to the smell if it were unnecessary. Recovering the reins he led the horse wide of the moving column and slowed down. Behind the third wagon was a draw-line with several spare horses.

He resumed jogging with the horse and approached the young man running the line. A few quick but respectful words explained his needs and, having seen the horse safely into the line he ran forward, back to his place on the wagon. He sat patiently on the back of the wagon, watching the other bored travelers and ignoring the smell. It didn't take him long to realize that he was the only slave in the company. That didn't really surprise him, slavery was much more common out in the margins. The story of the third son going out to the margins to make his name, and ending up imprinted and back in his home county was cliché, but unlikely. The third son was most likely to get himself killed if he didn't settle down fast, but if he did get imprinted he wouldn't likely get further than 100 miles from the spot where it happened for the rest of his life. This close to the center of the realm slaves were mostly local criminal types owned by governments and institutions.

“Hey son,” the wagon driver hailed him, “come on up here out of the stink.”

The driver was easily ten years Seth's junior, that “son” was some kind of idiom.

“Thank you sir.” Seth replied, and began carefully making his way across the canvas covered mound of goods.

The wagon's seat was far more comfortable, being high enough above the cargo to elude the stench, and spring mounted to absorb the constant jarring motion of the old road.

“So, son, how'd you get stuck back there?”

“The sergeant told me to ride there sir.”

“Yea, he would, that boy has an attitude problem a mile wide.”

“I wouldn't know sir.”

“Well, you will if you spend much time with him. He doesn't care for your kind at all, or people in general for that matter, but he's good at his job. I'd just steer clear of him as much as I could if I were you.”

“I'll keep that in mind.”

The wagon driver shifted his mind back to his job and things went well for about a mile, then the sergeant noticed Seth sitting up on the seat and reined in. When the wagon pulled up along side him the sergeant struck Seth fairly hard, a blow Seth knew was coming but let land full force.

“I told you to ride back there.”

The truth, that he'd said no such thing, was something that wasn't going to do Seth one bit of good. He intended to comply with the new order but he felt the driver's restraining hand on his shoulder. Free people could be difficult to deal with and since he didn't know who outranked who here, he yielded to the hand.

“Look Jase, take the attitude back to the barn, which is where you'll end up if keep that chip on your shoulder.”

“What, you gonna go yowling to the lady about how I treat this baggage?”

“Think son, this baggage is owned by someone who is sitting in with the lady right now. If you go on like you are, he may take exception.”

“Well,” the sergeant addressed Seth directly, “what do you think, baggage, will your master take exception?”

“Sir, I can not speak for my master.”

“What can you do for him then?”

“Whatever he desires sir.” Seth took pains to keep his tone respectful. Jase was a bully, and a simple one at that. The few times he had been down this road before it had not ended well at all.

“What has he... desired... lately?” The intimation was clear but Seth didn't care to notice.

“I guard my master and his family and assist him in his various interests, sir.” In a way Seth enjoyed the sparring, since he was unimprinted he wasn't the guaranteed victim Jase expected. He just hoped he'd have a chance to head off the probable disaster before anything important was compromised.

Tired of his first round of baiting, Jase resumed his place at the head of the column. Seth knew he'd be back, if not on the road then when they stopped for the night.

* * *

Two hours before dusk the entourage landed, intact, at one of the regularly spaced inns along the coast road. Lady Teichia had, in accordance with her skill at conversation, discovered the depths of Morgan's relative poverty and had made a more-or-less official arrangement for Morgan's, hopefully negligible services in exchange for room and board. Seth, baggage and all, regrouped with Morgan and they waited while the bulk of the group got the wagons and horses in order for the evening. When the people were clear Morgan set protective wards over the wagons that would have stymied any of the masters at the school. He wasn't showing off, there probably wasn't anybody nearby that could see his work, but ten years of temporary-only high-energy casting left him with artistic but intense habits.

They deposited their belongings in their small room. After getting a few things out of the packs Morgan set wards over them also. Seth took a few minutes to apprise Morgan of the situation with Jase and then they went down to the common room to eat.

It hadn't been totally certain to either of them that there were no other slaves among lady Teichia's party until they got to the dining hall. In particular a vague air of tension spread through the room when Morgan told Seth to sit at his table. Seth, instantly aware that it was a mistake for Morgan to have said it aloud but unwilling to disobey an apparent order, sat. Morgan realized it was a mistake a beat later and decided to bluster through his mistake by ignoring it. He started to bespeak the innkeeper with his order but cut off the magic before the man knew that he'd started. His habits were those of life near the center of the largest concentration of talent on the continent and had no allowance for having a slave.

“Your pardon sir, but perhaps your man would be more comfortable eating in the kitchens.” The innkeeper seemed solicitous, but imperative.

Morgan was not dressed well enough to hold off common approach so he decided that a little attitude would help stave off any further blunders. “Obviously, my good man. When I have finished with him here, he shall. I do not like craning my neck up at my servants and I felt the need to sit.”

“Of course, my mistake.” Satisfied that Seth would not be eating with his proper patrons the man went back to the preparations for dinner and the nights other custom.

Morgan pitched his voice not to carry. “Hopefully that will give us a few minutes of peace.”

Seth answered with a slight grin.

“I have made a deal to guard the caravan for the rest of the trip to court. Since that means we will be with these people for the next several days we had better try to find a way to deal with that guard. As near as I can tell these people are just what they seem, and they seem like good cover. I don't want any incidents on the road.”

Seth nodded.

“I also want you to start teaching me how to defend myself by mundane means. I was totally helpless back at the clearing and I didn't like the feeling.”

“No problem, but we'll need to work outside. Do you think it wise to be seen taking instruction from me?”

“No, probably not, but I think it's necessary. With enough attitude it should work out. Besides I want to be there if and when things come to a head with that guy. I figure it's best if it happen in the practice yard and this will get us both there.”

“Sounds about right I guess. If you're serious about learning to fight, eat lightly or you might get sick.”

“I am serious about learning, as much and as fast as I can.”

Seth started thinking about how to start Morgan's training and with what weapon.

Morgan signaled the innkeeper to approach and Seth to stand.

“See my man is well fed, he knows my orders for his upkeep, and then have him returned to me.”

Clearly relieved that Seth was no longer at table, the innkeeper bowed and then led Seth back into the kitchens.

Morgan's dinner was tasty and filling and he was careful to keep to the lighter foods. He stayed with water instead of beer or ale, relying on magic instead of alcohol-content to make sure it was potable. Seth returned about halfway through his meal and stood at something just short of attention behind him, fulfilling his role as bodyguard and furniture. Morgan tried not to feel self-conscious but ended up eating the second half of his dinner somewhat faster than the first.

Once they made it outside into the cover of darkness and relative obscurity they were both relieved. They headed across the courtyard to the small staging area that could serve as a practice yard where Seth started Morgan's education in combat. Seth had chosen the staff as Morgan's first weapon. It is not a really good killing weapon, but it is fast, has reach, makes the best use of the wielder's strength, and can disable or knock out an opponent fairly easily. In short it is an excellent defensive weapon. He explained all this to Morgan and then demonstrated the basic moves.

He started Morgan off doing simple alternating strikes against a practice dummy. Things went along nicely until a small contingent of the guard came onto the field. Servants had lit a series of torches all around the small field giving the dusk a surreal flickering quality that was lost on all of them. Seth was barking short but encouraging commands at Morgan, mostly things like “harder” and “put your weight behind it”, all in a effort to keep him motivated.

Jase broke from his contingent and struck Seth. “You don't yell at free men, slave.”

Morgan stopped his exercise and set the staff against the post. “Thank you for your interest in the well-being of my property. Might I ask, did you find any other errors in his behavior or instructions?”

“None that I have seen so far, beyond a certain arrogance not befitting his station, lord.”

“I see. Do you train the men under your command sergeant?”

“Yes sir, I have that honor.”

“I ask because I have only recently acquired my man and I feel the need to have his skills evaluated by a skilled but objective third party.”

“I would be honored lord.”

“Excellent! Please give me a moment to make my orders clear to him, you know how difficult it can be to work with these brutish types.”

Jase totally missed the sarcasm. “Certainly sir, would you mind if I brought my men over to observe.”

“By all means, the more the merrier.”

When Jase went back to fetch the other men, and no doubt brag about how he was going to get to beat up the slave, Morgan turned to Seth.

“Don't really injure him or humiliate him too badly but give him a nice memorable bruising, and be subtle. okay?”

“No problem.” The grin came and went quickly, but with an intensity that made Morgan wonder for a moment if this was such a good idea.

* * *

The “test” went on for a little more than a hour. They used wooden practice swords. In that time Seth followed Jase's orders perfectly, executing each move as ordered. Jase never once got close to penetrating Seth's guard while Seth managed to strike a huge number of light blows that were punishing but not obvious to the spectators. Jase's ego didn't let him acknowledge the beating he was taking in front the watching crowd. Working on pure bluster, Jase finally declared Seth's performance “fairly competent” and quit the field.

As he left Morgan tacked a tracer onto Jase just to make sure that he wouldn't be up to any mischief. Late that evening, when Jase went alone to the bath house, Morgan got the sudden urge for a bath himself. He wasn't quite finished with the thug. He had Seth fetch some working clothes, it wouldn't do for Seth to dare free-man's territory as an equal, and they went for their “chance encounter”.

When they reached the baths Morgan made sure Jase was alone inside before they went in. Morgan stripped while Seth changed his clothes in the most conspicuous way possible. To this point Jase had only seen the literacy markings on Seth's face. The law was quite specific about the display of markings, but armor was a clear exception. Seth's bucklers and jerkin completely covered his more significant marks. As he watched Seth change, Jase paled considerably under his bruises.

Morgan lowered himself carefully into the steaming-hot common bathing pool while Jase brought himself to a boil of anger. Just as he was about to explode his wrath all over Morgan, Morgan gathered the flows of water, air and steam and used them to seize Jase in an unbreakable grip. The binding was so tight that Jase could just barely blink and move his tongue enough to swallow.

Morgan casually scooted over to Jase and took a moment to enjoy the hot water.

“I just thought I'd drop in and share a few thoughts with you.” He paused for effect.

“My man Seth is under orders that give him some pretty extreme latitude for a slave, and should someone, say even a free man, interfere with his duties severely enough, he is even empowered to act to protect himself so that he can complete those duties. I don't know about you, but I am sure glad that nobody made that kind of mistake today...

“But I digress...

“You know one of the first lessons a man learns when perusing his Talent is the responsibility that comes with power. Granted some don't take that lesson to heart, but it is still an important lesson. The whole point is that when you have an overwhelming advantage over someone you must go out of your way to treat them with respect. I suspect you feel the same way about the advantage you might have over someone that was, say, imprinted as a slave and so almost defenseless to the will of a free man. The kind of person that would push that kind of advantage just because he could, well it would be hard for anybody to really respect someone like that...

“Besides, it's against the law.

“You know, were I to encounter such a person I would probably be forced to imprint them myself. Not that I would be any good at that mind you. It's not my field. I'd be likely to overdo it and leave the poor guy barely able to function. That'd be terrible because under the imprinting he'd still be himself. He probably wouldn't even be able to take the steps necessary to have the job fixed. Probably end up tending a midden or some such for the rest of his life.

“I'm certainly glad I've never encountered anybody like that. I think I'd find it tough living with the kind of guilt I'd feel over such a botched imprinting.”

Morgan in fact had no training or experience with any mind work as delicate as imprinting, or for that matter the kind of redaction used to adjust an obvious mental imbalance, much less fixing something as basic as a plain bad attitude. A well-remembered treatise on unorthodox magical combat gave him the hints for what he did next. In one section it talked about binding a field of strong but undifferentiated emotional energy over an opponent. The onslaught of intense but undefined emotions tended to wash away the real feelings of the target, leaving them in a neutral but active mood. It could all but paralyze a person and force them into a state of intense introspection during which they would be vulnerable to other attack. Morgan's idea was to wash away Jase's immediate anger so that he'd have a chance to cool down before things snowballed. Besides he figured that a little introspection wouldn't do the man any harm either.

Morgan set up the intense field around Jase and bound it to him, setting it to decay over the course of the next twelve to twenty hours. He'd stay up all night in a near-meditative state, so he'd get some rest, and by morning it would be wearing down enough that he could do his duty. Morgan saw the act as immediately necessary. What he couldn't see, and was likely never to appreciate, was that that single act derailed Jase's otherwise ignoble fate. Before they'd met Jase was doomed to become an increasingly lonely, bitter and difficult man who's inability to accept the word of others would have seen himself, and the men under his command, wiped out during a military skirmish some years down the line. After their meeting that night Jase's future promised a family, some wisdom, and a healthy old age.

Morgan was simply relieved by the thought that the rest of the journey might just be peaceful and easy. Seth, having no clue what happened between the other two men, figured that things would probably be getting worse.

Morgan released Jase from the physical restraint and said “You're getting all water logged, you should probably go get some rest. And thank you again for working out with my man.”

When Jase had left the baths, Morgan gestured at Seth to join him in the tub. After they had washed, Morgan found himself drowsing comfortably next to Seth. “I think the rest of this trip is going to go all right.”

Seth grunted, skeptically-indifferent.

Morgan turned out to be right, to a point. The rest of the journey to Queens Landing, or at least to the gates of that city, went nicely without incident.