Masters Roarahbaugh, Utialai, Calhwin, Verrais, and Kelph were summoned from their beds and stood waiting when the wagon arrived. Between the five of them they held a stranglehold over virtually everything that happened within the School of Disciplines. These were men and women accustomed to the ways of power and prestige, or at least the self-important artificial kind present in the academic universe, and they didn't take well to being woken up in the small hours of the early morning. They presented themselves as the common front they wished the world to believe they were, but that front crumbled as soon as they understood what the guard brought them.

The gross, petty dissension that the academic council usually suffered began to rise as each of the Magi scanned the unconscious figure. Their usually-veiled contempt for one another and the political maneuvering it engendered was kept from full flower by the seriousness of the threat. Morgan held the drone under shield and just beyond the edge of consciousness for nearly two hours while the masters and their assistants probed and conferred and postulated and the guard shuffled uneasily between their immediate duty to the kingdom and their need for magical advice and assistance.

In that frustratingly long time all of the combat capable Masters at the school were roused, divided into teams, and given the chance to scan the drone. Morgan in turn tried to listen for his own signature or the taint of blood magic on any of them. He didn't find a trace of either, and he was sweating profusely with the effort of holding the drone. The harsh perturbations of the local fabric caused by the sloppy castings around him were rasping across him unceasingly and threatening his hold. He hoped that nobody could tell. The shield he was using could have been held indefinitely by any second year apprentice, if anybody found out what it was taking out of him he'd be in deep trouble.

Seth was ghosting around the periphery watching and listening for whatever might come his way, and occasionally straying near Morgan, for which Morgan was grateful. With the flow of people Morgan could not keep Seth near him, but the brief rests provided by the infrequent moments of contact were keeping him sane. Seth didn't dare speak aloud amidst all this concentrated ego but Morgan could tell he hadn't found out anything useful. Seth had a certain way of unclenching his face when he had news. Right now a slight furrowing of his brow said he had nothing.

Groups of magi and soldiers were finally dispatched to begin searching the area for more of the drones and Morgan was relieved of his charge. He wasn't quite trembling but he really wanted to just go home and curl up in bed. Instead he was called before the five masters and put, mildly, to the question.

Utialai and Calhwin drew the duty of questioning Morgan and neither seemed pleased at having to do it that early in the morning. After going over his pre-prepared, watered down version of the events surrounding the wilding a good five times, the miniature interrogation moved on to his return home and subsequent failure to report.

Utialai, her hair in her face and on the edge of boredom asked “So why did you suddenly decide to return home?”

“I received a message that my room mate had been injured and might be in trouble.” A total lie but one that would hold up.

Calhwin then asked “A message from whom?”

“A woman from the nearby town, I never asked her name or the name of the town, came to me with a note apparently from the local mentalist. It named Mieka and seemed legitimate so I rushed home. The message was unsigned. You know how expensive it is to send a message long distance, I just figured that whoever it was didn't want to spend the extra money.”

“I see.” Utialai seemed unimpressed. “So why exactly did you ride down several students and staff.”

“I didn't `ride down' anybody. I was in a hurry to get home and find out what was going on.”

Calhwin asked “And what was going on?”

“I'm still not sure. When I got home Mieka had been dumped at the door,” an outright lie, “and I took him inside. According to him he'd been waylaid on the road to the Ephar Canal Project more than a day's ride away. Next thing he knew he was waking up inside our house.” The lie held enough truth that Mieka could not cross it up. Liane knew better of course, but even so the added mystery, if it found its way to Morgan's enemies, would serve him well.

Calhwin broke the take-turns nature of the interview. “So you figure he was gated in?”

“I have no idea how he might have gotten from the scene of the attack to our front door.” If he were put under a truth spell he could make that statement, he'd needed the workroom to do the casting and he had no idea where Mieka had been during the actual beating, so `getting from the scene to the front door' was clearly out of the question.

Utialai came back in “And then what happened?”

“I recharged my normal household protections. I didn't know if the attack was personal or might recur. I'm not much of a healer so I just waited with him while Liane, his wife, my other roommate, saw to Mieka.” Another near lie.

Calhwin looked him square in the eye. “That's all you did in that time?”

“Yes sir.”

Utialai then asked “How do you feel about your actions?”

“I think they were justified. Particularly since I discovered that... person... outside my home.”

Calhwin looked down at his notes, “And you think that this person was sent specifically after your housemate?”

“I really couldn't say what the purpose or motive might lie behind that person's presence. I am just glad I was there to catch it.”

Morgan's two inquisitors conferred for a short while and then dismissed him.

* * *

Exhausted, Morgan went home to `protect his family' and ran into three search parties along the way. As they neared the gate Morgan could feel his own spell working against him. He was a very different person now than the one that had set the wards. The spell saw him at once as both friend and stranger. One moment the gate was a clearly visible destination and the next he seemed fuzzy about why he was walking up the gently sloping but featureless hillside. Too tired to really try to tangle his way through the casting, Morgan simply decided to follow Seth.

Seth went straight up to the gate and walked in.

There was nothing about the spell that was set to except anyone from its effects. The anti-notice part wasn't even part of the protections on the household proper, having been set around the workroom in the deep stone. The effect was simply bleeding into the greater spell, and Seth walked right through the entire thing like he didn't know it was there. At the thought Morgan realized that Seth in fact, did not know for himself, where the spell was. He took news of the spell from Morgan on good faith, but it didn't register on his awareness at all.

The clues fermented themselves into a whole in Morgan's mind. Morgan launched a tiny burning dart of energy at Seth, the kind of thing that would make someone flinch as if stung by a bee. The release was clean and his aim flawless, but Seth didn't react to it at all. The energy flow seemed to disappear down a dark well. Seth wasn't outright immune to magic, that was clear from the experiences with the collar, link, gates and so on but somehow the forces of magic were in some odd way normally blind to his presence. What they could not “see” they could not effect. Only when some intimate mode was used could magic even start to breach his passive defense.

Seth's strange immunity was a kind of mutual ignorance, what he didn't know about in detail, or perhaps even willfully accept, passed by or through, or around, or maybe even into him without a trace.

It was too much to think about all at once. A few tests occurred to Morgan, but he was too far gone to care about them. It was nearly dawn and Morgan wanted to curl up in bed and die.

* * *

Morgan woke up in the early afternoon and headed for the kitchen.

Seth was `on duty' in the living room, lying on the couch. Morgan thought he was asleep at first. When he entered, Seth opened his eyes instantly to `recognize' him, then went back to listening calmly, in a half drowse, to the tiny noises of the house. Alert for any change and ready to respond, with one sword on his lap and the other in its scabbard, hooked at his waist and hanging over the edge of the couch.

A moment of envy bloomed in Morgan for just a second. He envied Seth's self possession, and nearly everything else about him. Whenever he thinks about the last few months he finds them littered with his own mistakes. And next to every mistake there was Seth bailing him out or saving his hide one way or another. Every now and again Seth seemed more like a big brother, wild animal, or like he was now, a strange guardian spirit that had wandered into his life and decided to stay. Sometimes, when they were alone, it was like the whole master and slave thing had somehow fallen by the wayside. Seth had even managed to obey that order. But when they were out in the world it was palpably there, an odd weight on Morgan's psyche that was frighteningly familiar and comfortable, maybe even welcome.

That `wild animal' was his creature, absolutely, and without limit.

That thought sent a shiver up his spine even as his mind held it in mild shock, like he'd found daisies growing wild in the depths of his father's mine.

Morgan's reverie was broken when Liane brought Shiea into the kitchen.

“Morgan, we need to go out. We aren't stocked for a siege and we're nearly out of food.”

“Send Seth out to get what we need.” The tacit order was out of his mouth before he realized that was what it was. He flinched at the implications of his words. Something inside him had come to a final accommodation with Seth's status.

“Will he be able to get back?” Liane hadn't seemed to notice anything in his phrasing, but then again she was always ordering everybody around the house.

“Sure, he had no problem this morning, he'll be fine.”

“Here.” Liane handed Shiea to him and began looking into their stores to make sure she knew what they needed, while Morgan took a few moments to reacquaint himself with his near-daughter.

When she was satisfied she knew what was what, Liane repossessed Shiea and went out to Seth.

Seth was already waiting for orders. He must have heard them talking in the kitchen because he had put on a vest and was standing ready near the kitchen, a folded knapsack tucked under one arm.

Morgan caught a glimpse of crimson when Seth moved. The vest was the same one he'd worn before. It was reversible. Turned this way out it looked like plain livery, and not the warning colors of a bodyguard. Tricky that, probably one of Seth's ideas, it had that peculiar smell of competent economy that always hung so strongly about him.

Liane listed what she wanted generally and in particular, and then produced a handful of silver and copper from the household fund. The sight of money brought Morgan around to the practical. The fund had to be getting kind of thin by now. He was entitled to a healthy piece of gold for his recent adventure, but then he'd lost his classes for the semester when he'd had to leave, and his position at the library was long gone. He'd need to find a way to pay his, and also Seth's, share of the expenses.

Mieka and Liane wouldn't be able to carry them both very long, even though they'd never say anything about it even if they had too.

“... you'll be safe while I'm gone?” Seth was ostensibly talking to Liane, but he'd pitched the question to carry to Morgan.

Even as Liane started in on some sort of `of course' or another Morgan gave Seth a quick thumb's up to say he was healthy enough, and generally ready, to take on whatever trouble might arise while Seth was gone.

Morgan went back into the kitchen when Seth left. He'd followed Liane out without getting his breakfast and his stomach still needed attention. Liane was right, they were running out of food. He grabbed some bread and cheese for filler, some dried fruit, and a large mug for tea. The water from the sluice was filtered, reasonably heated, and aerated by magic. That was the only way to get rid of its stony metallic taste. It made a gentle fizzing sound coming out of the sluice. Morgan used little more than a memory of a spell and a tiny crack in his shields to heat the water to a good tea-making near-boil.

Whenever he used his power now it felt like the corded scars were writhing inside his flesh, seeking and probing for something, like roots in stony soil. There was pain of course, and star-bursts of sensation that defied succinct description, but the net effect was almost pleasurable. Something inside him was being adjusted, or crushed into a new shape, proving the adage that a person could get used to anything eventually.

Morgan was pulled back into the now by a splash of scalding hot water from his cup. In the moment he'd been distracted the tiny warming had erupted into a furious boil and half the water was gone from the cup. Morgan refilled the cup from the sluice and practiced great diligence in bringing it to the desired temperature.

After crushing some leaves into a tea-sieve, Morgan gathered his food onto a tray and carried it out into the living room.

* * *

Munching contentedly on his breakfast Morgan let that crack in his defenses happen again. Behind the tingling and the writhing and the pain was all his old abilities. Blocking the former to reach the latter, Morgan let his awareness bloom until he could passively vrec the house and its surroundings. He kept eating while he did the scan. It was a trick he couldn't have even attempted three months ago but somehow the new sensations accompanying his talent let him stay more aware of his body than before.

A sudden feeling wrenched him back completely into his body. He snapped too, ready to fight, but is was just Liane. She was gently shaking his shoulder and he had to swallow his own responsive power.

“Morgan? Are you all right?”

“Uh... yes. Of course. What made you think I wasn't?”

“I thought something was wrong, you weren't doing sorcery but I couldn't get your attention.”

Morgan was puzzled. “I was scanning the area outside.”

“Oh...” She looked at him again, “but you were eating and... It was strange. You were staring off into space, but not like you usually do, and you were still chewing. I thought you were having a seizure or something.”

“I see.”

She looked like she thought he didn't see at all.

“I really do. I have been doing all sorts of weird or scary things lately. It seems like I haven't been doing much of anything else. Sometimes I just have to stop and stare at myself. I'm kind of losing control of my life some how. You have to have noticed.”

“I have, and I've been meaning to ask you about it. How are things with you? And between you and Seth?”

Morgan got a very tired and slightly vague look on his face for a while, and sipped his tea while he composed an answer.

“I've been way too close to the edge for a while, and now I am in deep trouble.”

Liane lifted one eyebrow, “Is that a `just you' or a `between you and Seth' answer?”

“... both, I think ...”

Liane took a deep breath. “Are you lovers?”

Morgan flatly said “No.” But there was an echo in it.

“That's too bad, I think he's a good match for you.”

Morgan turned his head to look her straight in the eye. “I may be losing my mind a little bit at a time, but I am not stupid...”

She wasn't sure how he meant that, so she waited. When she knew he had no intention of going on, she prodded a little more. “So you do find him attractive.”

“Of course, who wouldn't? But...”

“But what?”

“It would be emotional suicide.”

That was not what she'd expected to hear. She'd been ready for something like `what would people say', to which she had the planned answer `people are already saying it'. `Emotional suicide' wasn't even near the pool she'd been planning to wade into here.

Morgan went on, “He's attractive, strong, self confidant, and loyal. He's also dutiful and driven to please. It would be an absolute disaster to get emotionally involved with him.”

“That's the stupidest thing I have ever heard! You are emotionally involved with him. What could you possibly have to fear?”

Morgan was silent again and this time she didn't break in and push.

Eventually Morgan muttered, “A competent performance.”

Liane heard the words but a “what?” came out anyway. It didn't make sense to her at all. her mind groped for something, but finding nowhere mentally to go she bounced back in with, “what do you mean by `a competent performance'?”

“If I said... If I even hinted that I wanted to bed him I am sure he would do it. Knowing him he'd be too near perfect at it too. The thing is, he'd do it no matter how he felt about me or what we were doing. He'd make sure I enjoyed it and he'd make sure I felt he'd enjoyed it. Even if he was repulsed to the very fiber of his being I would bet that he'd never let that out in any way. He'd `do the job' probably over-well and with annoying competence, the way he does everything else. I would never be able to be sure how he felt.”

“And you do care about how he feels, don't you.”

“Yes, a lot. More than I want too, but that's not the point I'm making. Everything between us would be... tainted... because I could never be sure it wasn't just an act. Don't you see, I own him, and he's used to being owned. What can I do? I am... stuck.”

“You could free him.”

“I've thought of that, but you haven't seen nearly enough of him to understand. I don't think he could take that. I don't understand it myself, but he has spent thirty years of his life consciously acting enough like an imprinted slave to convince strangers that he is imprinted. At any time he was free to walk away. It's something that has become part of his identity, so much so that when we ordered him, just once, not to act like a slave in private it took like a gease.

“I can't give him or sell him to someone else because then, even if he cared deeply for me his sense of duty and honor would bind him and keep him away from me so as not to shirk his duty to his new master. No matter how you work it, if I let myself feel for him I am doomed.”

Out loud Liane just said “I see”, and she did understand. Morgan was absolutely right about the `competent performance' but he was way off in his assessment of how he was dealing with it. Inside her head the little voice said `you are already in love with him and now you are going to pound against that inside yourself until your frustrate us all beyond endurance.' With a firm understanding of the situation inside her own head, she decided to move the conversation into other areas, namely the real state of his physical and mental health.

Relieved to be talking about something physical and potentially solvable. Morgan talked Liane through the details and ramifications of his recent past. Since they were being frank about things he let some of the mental strain show through and shared his concerns about the changes he felt happening in himself. He was somewhat detailed about his overdrawing, and occasional near-inability to control his powers. It was cathartic to be able to unburden himself and it was important that Liane understand some of the risks nearer to home.

Having achieved some relief by talking things out, Morgan headed back into some of the less-sure ground. “So how are the rumors and such?”

She knew immediately that they were back on the subject of him and Seth. “Oh about what you'd expect from some quarters. You are lovers, or you are forcing him to be your lover, depending on who you talk to. There's also the occasional `he's a dangerous animal and should be put back in the cage' that shows up when things are less focused on your love life. Apparently, in those circles, you are `barely able' to contain his animal nature. And finally there's a small `that slave is really in charge' faction that I don't quite understand.

Morgan understood it perfectly.

“About what I expected from the first day, but it could have been far worse.” Morgan's leanings were well known around the school, but until Seth had come into his life he'd otherwise had the reputation of a monk. Tor wouldn't have told anybody about why he'd bought Seth, leaving a vacuum around Morgan's motives that was all too easily filled with speculative innuendo. “At least it's nothing really crippling” he sighed.

* * *

Seth was acting the dutiful slave re-provisioning the household, in terms of status it was several notches below bodyguard but it had its advantages too. He'd be expected to haggle in the name of protecting his masters finances, which was almost always enjoyable, and with town and country being torn apart in the search for drones it was likely to be a pleasant outing. Despite the searches and whatnot there was still a reasonable bustle to the market square. Basically a classic tableau of people getting on with their lives.

As usual the crowd parted somewhat for Seth, though it seemed to do so without actually paying him any sort of attention. The free had a universal aversion to feeling intimidated by a slave, so their movements had that semi-conscious air of happenstance. Seth's excellent eye for finding the best goods mixed in amongst the common held true, and he managed a good price on what he chose. It was really a matter of being able to see past appearances and into the quality. The difference between good and pretty was usually lost to most of the free.

Having finished acquiring the necessary with plenty of marks to spare Seth decided to get of few special things to improve the meals they were eating at the house. While haggling over a particularly pungent blue-black fash of Mung spines Seth spotted a familiar livery. It was the same house mark that had been worn by the men at arms from the shed and the Winterdark ambush. This time it was embroidered on the sleeve of a free-woman maid servant out provisioning her own lord's house.

Despite the fact that Seth stood out in a crowd, and certainly someone from that house knew he'd killed one of their lordlings and a couple of men at arms, Seth managed to go unnoticed as his various tasks `coincidentally' kept him within sight of the maid servant. She was spending money wantonly, barely haggling or caring about real value of her acquisitions. Moving through the more expensive part of the bazaar was itself expensive, since Seth had to make the occasional purchase to hide his intent. He accumulated a few fine items at good prices and was actually thinking menus while he went. If he didn't manage to find out anything helpful the money he spent would at least make credible meals. Not necessarily a good trade given what he knew of the household budget, but worth the risk.

Her purchases told him a lot. While she wasn't haggling much, the few times he'd been able to get close enough to hear she'd gotten good prices and often the merchandise came from the merchant's private reserve, or was set aside specifically for her. That meant that her house had a good bit of clout in the merchant's guild, and the marks to back up that clout. Not good. Worse yet, she walked freely without escort and all of the cut-purse and pickpocket types Seth spotted steered well clear of her despite her being an otherwise choice target for those pursuits. That house was also well connected to the less savory part of this small city at the least.

Seth followed her to a large walled compound on the western end of town. He didn't dare get too close because the approaches were likely being watched by the house guard. Not being seen was part of their job, but he could feel them in the air. More accurately their presence could be inferred from the way the quiet street was too quiet and felt like it was always that way.

Comparing what he'd seen at the compound to the other buildings in the merchant's quarter was repressing. Aside from its suspicious placement, it was one of the largest and most secure of the buildings in the area. That meant importance and power. That little spot in the middle of Seth's back where he could most easily imagine a knife being stuck, started to itch as he made his way purposefully back to the market. Morgan was certain that someone powerful at the school was involved, when Seth told him how powerful an enemy they probably had in the town, he would not be happy.

Seth couldn't quite decide where exactly he should go next. The only real difference between taking a knife here and back in the market streets would be the possibility that a good witness might allow Morgan to recover his purchase price. Not much personal comfort there. Seth had made an accommodation with his paranoia a long time ago. You develop a practical paranoia if you survive the margins very long, or in combat very often, but knowing its origins didn't make the tight feeling in his stomach any more pleasant. It did, however, let him move through the crowd without any outward show of anxiety.

Seth could generally see across the heads of people around him, except when some loaded cart or other obstruction passed. Across that sparse landscape of hats and bare heads Seth saw the hooded head of a mage change direction towards him. There was no way to be sure it had anything to do with him, until he changed direction slightly and the head changed direction too. Seth took a couple more steps, choosing the place where he would meet the stranger and still have room to maneuver.

He relaxed a little with two realizations. First, the mage was half-hurrying in a way that didn't say danger, and second, his knapsack was covering his knife spot. Sometimes it's the strangest things you notice that make you feel safe.

The young man who finally drew close was clearly an apprentice, just old enough to have only a touch of boy still evident in his features. A vague thought along the `I could snap him like a twig' vein flashed comfortably through Seth's head as the habit of meekness welled up in him. It was always difficult not to intimidate people when you stood so much taller than them. Years of practice made it second nature. It wouldn't do to scare this little pup.

“You! Is your master Magus Morgan?” His inquiry wavered somewhere between direct and dreamy, he was still learning the discipline of his aotahe.

“Yes lord, that is he.” With his head bent Seth still watched the crowd. The boy probably couldn't notice that in his divided state of mind.

“Good, they'd said you'd come this way.”

News of Seth's passage was worth someone's remark, not good, but the statement wasn't addressed to him so Seth waited.

The boy's manner varied a moment while he searched his thoughts for the message. “Masters Roarahbaugh and Utialai wish to speak to Magus Morgan in the lesser hall this afternoon at the third bell.”

It was well past the second. “Yes lord.”

“Nobody has been able to reach him, do you know where he might be found?”

“I left my Master at his home, it is my understanding that he intended to remain there.”

“Nobody has been able to reach that either...”

Another comment probably not intended to be thought aloud. The odd nature of what was supposedly blocking the house was become a matter of common knowledge. More bad news.

The pause began to stretch out and Seth resisted the urge to shuffle his feet a little while he waited for the absent minded youth to continue or send him on his way. Eventually he spoke up “Shall I carry this summons to my master lord?”

The boy started a little. “Um... yes, immediately.”

“Yes lord.” Seth bowed and then stepped around the young mage and started home at a loping run.

* * *

“You there! Slave! Halt!”


Seth stopped dead in his tracks, along with seven other slaves by his quick count. They each looked about themselves and the lucky other seven proceeded along their way as soon as they knew that they were not the slave in question. Seth got to stand his ground and wait while two armsmen, dressed in the last livery he wanted to see just then, came strolling up.

There were precious few options open to Seth. While he could take either or both of them with probable ease, there was a good crowd pointedly not watching events unfold. If he drew first he'd certainly end up on a gallows, possibly with Morgan soon to follow. If he drew last, the `certainly' dropped to just a `probably', though Morgan would be far less likely to take a rope for Seth's actions. That left running away, which would re-raise the whole imprinting issue and send him back to a cage in the kennels, and that other kind of standing around waiting to be run through. Seth stood and waited.

The two armsmen stopped a healthy distance from him. Healthy being just out of range should Seth draw his steel. They eyed him warily but pointedly made no move toward any kind of weapon. The knife-spot in Seth's back began itching again even under the weight of food he carried.

“Lead us to your master, slave.”

That was not anything he'd expected, and he had to think it through. Once in Morgan's presence Seth would recover the role of bodyguard freeing his steel if they should act against him, that was bad for them. They could just be trying to get him away from public scrutiny, but they were all but free to kill him where he stood, again bad for them. The only advantage that might be got is if he led them to the house they would get inside the shield. No, not the only one, they'd be inside the shield and have the element of surprise over Morgan. If there was more magical nonsense involved, their presence inside the shield might give others a way to find their way through it too. The only safe assumption was that they wanted to get someone or something inside the house. No matter what Seth must not lead them there.

“My lords...” Seth faltered for a moment, looking for the right way to deflect this. “I carry an urgent message for my master which I must run to him immediately, a summons which will brook no delay.” Damn, that wouldn't be enough, he could tell by their expressions. If they chose to run with him he could try to outrun them, which he figured he could do, but a foot race was not like combat, you never really knew who you could beat until you ran the course. “I also have orders that my master is not currently receiving visitors in his home.”

That latter did give them pause. Morgan's orders, as his true master, took precedence over the orders of any free man not of royal blood. If a true lord, governor, or some such ordered him it would be a toss-up, so barring a royal writ he was on high ground here.

The two armsmen looked at one another and then back at Seth, clearly vexed, but apparently believing him imprinted they couldn't figure a way around his trump.

The older one finally stepped exceptionally close and spoke so that no `disinterested' party might hear. “My Lady Jaesiaria, Matron of House Annaoral offers honorable truce for such time as she can, that being one week as of dawn this day, to your master, Magus Morgan, with the express intent that they meet in person, within that time, to discuss the matter which lies between them.” With that he pressed a sealed envelope into Seth's vest and stood back. “Will you deliver this message to you master?”

“Yes my lord, he will hear your words exactly.”

“Then go.”

Seth took off for home at a run. He'd heard a lot from Morgan about the machinations surrounding the school but this was the first time he'd heard those wheels-within-wheels squeaking first hand. The phrase `for such time as she can' nestled into the front of his mind. The way it'd been spoken... Something heavy hung on that particular pin. Or maybe he was only meant to think so. It was a matter for Morgan, he only had to worry about catching all the pieces and cleaning up the mess if things fell apart.