The last sound of his old life was susserance of papers landing on a desk. No fanfare. No justice. Just a nothing-sound covering the moment when he hid his essential self behind a mask.

“Do you have a name?”

“Yes sir, my Lady gifted me with the name Seth when she acquired me, sir.”

The man behind the desk looked up from the papers. Seth knew when he delivered them that they consisted of a deed, his deed, and the various papers directing and covering his transfer of ownership. The man's eyes widened slightly as he focused on Seth's face, or really on just one tattoo. High on the centerof his forehead, well above any other mark, was a horizontal black bar. Geometrically precise, width of a finger, maybe less, each end exactly above the pupil of each eye, and blacker than their depths. That mark was rarely seen on a slave older than fifteen years, and never outside the custody of a registered breeder. It marked him insane, his mind beyond reach, uncontrollable, untrainable.

That mark should have long since been a death sentence.

The man behind the desk did not react to the sight, knowing that the wrong reaction could prove deadly. “Do you know why you are here?”

“Yes sir.”

“Tell me.”

“Upon the death of the Lady Korane Mildaw d'Arte I was, in accordance with her will, to destroy all of her material possessions of personal or professional import, except her journals. Liquidate all she possessed in the form of real estate and investments other than myself, and deliver the resultant moneys, minus incurred and specified expenses, to her surviving heirs. The specified expenses being; those which cover the cost of safely delivering her journals to the library of The Queens College of Arts, Sciences, and Disciplines at Kentarja Mountain; those of my final vetting and certification in preparation for the legal transfer of myself to the ownership of that same college; and those fees to acquire the Solicitor in Probate for the distribution of those moneys.

“Having completed these tasks I present myself in fact, and deed, along with my papers, to you, sir, Master in Situ of Queens College, to make use of me as you will.”

Throughout the speech, awakward and unnatural as it was, the sense of immediate danger faded “You speak better, and substantially more, than any slave I have ever kept.”

“Yes sir.”

“You may keep your name.”

“Yes sir.”

The man behind the desk scribbled a quick note on a small piece of paper and sealed it with wax and ring. Then he stood.

“Follow me.”

Seth followed his new owner, a free man he knew from his inquires to be named Tor Ben Jarren, out of the office building and across grounds to the kennels. Another slave was sent running to the residence hall with the note which requested an appropriately skilled apprentice meet them there. Upon his arrival, the apprentice deftly formed a cold iron ingot into two unbroken rings of sorcerers' steel, the larger fitting snugly around Seth's neck and the smaller handed to Tor. Seth's clothes, substantially finer than those appropriate to his station, were taken from him and he was locked, otherwise naked, into a large cage.

A scribe came shortly after Tor and the apprentice left. In accordance with the law, each of Seth's skills that may interest or threaten a free man were drawn on his skin with ink and needle. Words, being too small to be of use from a safe distance, and being beyond many free men, were not used; sigils and icons amidst curves and lines spelled patterns of knowledge across his skin. Seth stood patiently, following the directions given by the young woman; displaying his front, then back, then each side, and finally each arm extended palm forward. The quality of the inking was superb and the quantity remarkable. The scribe recorded his markings quickly and with great skill, and then left Seth alone with the restless dogs to think about his future, and wait.

His mask did not slip.

* * *

For Tor, Seth was a puzzle. The “untrainable” mark is reserved for slaves that do not have the mental capacity, subtlety, or sanity to accept imprinting and the imposition of skills. In early childhood every born slave in the known world has to submit to an adept who imprints a simple set of required behaviors directly into their mind. A free man who becomes a slave by capture, crime, debit, or outright sale would be killed, or occasionally freed, if he cannot be imprinted. The teacher-adepts, masters of the Discipline of Direct Teaching, the mind to mind transfer of skills, will inform an owner or breeder if a child cannot be taught or healed to sanity. The owner has the choice of destroying the child or marking him.

Of course free men also use teacher-adepts to acquire skills. While it is not cheap by any means, certain skills, like literacy, are often direct-taught, especially to the middle and lower classes. A child of eight can, after a single day with an adept, read or write anything they can say. Lords and cities will often have their foot-soldiers trained to the sword this way, especially in times of war. All the arts and sciences can be taught directly. The only real drawback to this kind of teaching is the skills thus acquired tend to be static and resistant to further learning and development. Only the rich or the gifted attend any kind of school to gain knowledge and skills the long way. The free who are, or would be, unteachable rarely do much better than the slaves who were summarily put down.

No matter what the path, the unteachable, the barred, do not “get better” and almost all invariably become little more than dangerous animals by the time they reach adulthood. They are expensive to raise, too slow or unstable to train normally, and full grown adults simply are not marked unteachable.

Tor knew the law required every significant skill possessed by a slave be inked on him. The law did not, however say every skill inked on a slave be one the slave actually possessed. Occasionally an owner would over-ink a slave to feign prestige or confuse spies, but he had never heard of the black-bar being used that way. As ill omens go, that mark would be like inviting death and pestilence to dine in your home.

The apprentice who had collared Seth was skilled in both metalwork and mind-work. The note Tor had sent to the hall had asked that Seth's mind be scanned while he was collared. Leaving the kennels, the apprentice said all he had found was a strong but simple sense of presence, “on par with a well-trained horse at most.” Deeper scans, he said, revealed there was “no sense of anything deeper to find.”

Translation: Untrainable.

And yet, there was Seth's excellent speech, and his tattoos. If he wasn't slow he must be so insane his mind was untouchable. Anyone that far gone would be extremely dangerous. Lady Korane had been a formidable mage. If some spell held his new charge, chances are it would already be fading because of her death. If such an enchantment were present and not maintained, it would suddenly fail at some unknown time, releasing whatever it contained. Tor guessed that was why the Lady had had him deliver himself to the school, where such a creature could be disposed of safely. Still, he had seen a lot of strange things at the college so he decided not to act until he was sure.

After some consideration Tor sent an official missive to the academic council requesting any information about Seth that might be gleaned from the journals he'd brought, and made a mental note to have an unofficial chat with a friend at supper.

* * *

Seth examined his surroundings minutely. Familiarity breeds contempt and contempt tends to keep someone from feeling like a trapped animal.

The cage was nice, for a cage. The first few cages near him were all of a kind and, inexplicably, far more substantial than anything you'd need to hold a dog. Of course this was a place where magic was taught and used, so who could guess what these cages were originally intended to house. Built in pairs, with concrete floors covered with a thick layer of straw. The back wall, and a third of the wall separating each cage from its partner, formed an “L”, also of concrete. A thick slab built out from the concrete walls at about mid-thigh formed a kind of bench above and a shelter below. The remainder of the enclosure, two and two-thirds walls, and the ceiling, were made of thick steel bars. A continuous, brisk trickle of water coming through a hole four inches above the floor fed a small cistern built simultaneously into and above the floor next to the shelter. A drain slot kept a constant two inches of water available in the “water dish” at all times. The worst thing about his particular cage was that it hadn't been cleaned properly since its prior occupancy. The straw was reasonably fresh but the floor hadn't been washed. The thing stank of angry wet dog, and worse.

Seth cleared the straw through the bars, forming a medium-sized pile just outside the cage door. Then he tried to rinse away the urine using the water from his dish. Finally he just got up on the ledge and sat quietly, thinking and waiting, leaving the stained floor exposed as a silent accusation.

* * *

Seth remembered cages. Actually, Seth remembered everything, it was his true gift, but cages were bubbling up in his mind. He remembered his first cage. That cage happened when he turned five. He had been eager to leave the creché where he had spent the first five years of his life. All he had to do was go in and spend an hour with a stranger, learn the rules for his life outside the nursery, and then he would be free, or freer anyway, to see the world. When his hour was up the stranger hadn't sent him back to his room, he had grabbed him by the arm and, without saying a word, dragged him out of his world and thrown him in a cage. The first of four years of cages.

People had come and gone around him while he sat there waiting for nearly three days. At age five he hadn't understood what was happening or why. Then there was the sudden pinprick of a dart in his back and in moments he collapsed on the floor, paralyzed but awake. Someone turned him over and he was looking up into a face. His tongue was thick, he could barely swallow or blink. He saw sticks between him and the face and heard movements near his ears. Then it began, the sticks clacked together, again and again, and each noise felt like a bee-sting on his forehead. He tried to scream, to cry, to get away but there was only the noise, the pain, and the face.

Yes, Seth remembered cages.

The hot sting of his own tears brought him back from his memory. Was his mask was slipping so soon? That cage, that memory, and the nightmares it still sometimes brought him, were his driving thing. He had come a long way from that cage. For four years his own will kept him moving, and then His Lady came into his life. He trusted her, loved her, and she him. She had been his mentor, his mother, and his friend, to his best understanding of those terms. She had been old to start with, and on the day they met she had caught her death. For the twenty-some years that followed she'd held her death at bay by dint of her discipline. And for those twenty-some years Seth had grown and flourished under her. His service to her was more than most free men dreamt of. With the completion of her last will he finally, suddenly, knew he was alone in the world and felt himself become once more, an anonymous slave, even less than that because of this cage. Still he trusted her, and through her, everything she believed in. Trusted her beyond her own death. That trust was the single thing keeping him from throwing himself at the bars, screaming his life away with his voice.

Instead he waited, and finally grieved for her, sitting, staring off to infinity, blinking back tears, and looking inside himself for anything solid. His deepest thoughts searching for any kind of support. With two fingers hooked under and unconsciously clutching his collar as if the pliant, ensorceled metal could be wished away. Waiting for his Lady's patient, obscure will to reach out from her grave and rescue him from the lonely world her death had left him.

* * *

The tentative scraping of a rake against the concrete brought him back again, and he was surprised to find he was, for the most part, okay. A man in his fifties was raking away the dirty straw Seth had piled outside the cage, while taking pains to stay as far away from the bars as humanly possible. Seth caught his eye, shrugged, and grinned at him. The man's tension eased palpably, but he still kept his distance from the bars. When he had finished clearing the straw, he came back with a hose. The nozzle had a soap injector, and he used the high-pressure spray to completely wash and rinse the cage, always careful to allow a place for Seth to remain out of the spray. An hour in the bright sun and mountain air dried the cage, and the man piled a sizable mound of fresh straw against the bars.

The man, clearly another slave, never spoke to Seth and Seth made sure to act respectfully towards him. Given his questionable future, he didn't want to take the chance of offending someone who might end up being his keeper for quite some time.

When his keeper had gone off to attend his other tasks, Seth transferred the straw from outside the cage into the sheltered space under the slab. The nights would get fairly cold this time of year and this close to the mountains. With night still several hours away, Seth began to consider how he was going to occupy himself.

The space in the cage, while ample, would be too small for most of his daily exercises, and his most obvious problem would be relieving himself. A small, floor level opening through the wall separating his cage from its neighbor housed a drain, but a grate mounted flush with the wall, not to mention its inconvenient placement, meant it would only be useful for urination. Simply spreading out the straw was an unacceptable alternative. The three elements, eventual sanitary need, plenty of spare time, and the straw, connected in his head. He sat down in the warm sun, leaned against the wall, plucked individual straws from the pile in his shelter, and began humming to himself and weaving a crude chamber pot.