Seth woke an hour before dawn, uncurling himself from his warm straw nest. He crawled out from under the slab and brushed the clinging straw out of his hair and off his body. After relieving himself, he washed up as best he could using the chilled water from his “water dish.” In the predawn darkness he began to tend to his body. His duties for the last twenty-some years had grown to include bodyguard to a very powerful woman, and he had acquired considerable combat skills and experience. The habits of exercise and training were a permanent part of his psyche.

He did push-ups with his feet up on the slab; various pull-ups, curls, and leg raises while hanging from the overhead bars; then ran in place, continuing until every muscle in his body was trembling with fatigue. When his body was screaming for him to stop he moved to the center of his cage and began a slow dance of hand to hand combat maneuvers. The voice of Quenth, the Master of Arms of the Southern Marches Keep, barked in his memory; orders, advice, the lessons of combat. Seth relived one of his favorite lectures in his mind while trying to keep himself from trembling overmuch. “The tactics of exhaustion during combat.” By the time he finished the slow movements his muscles were recovered from exhaustion and he was all cabled sinew and poise. The sun was nearly two hours above the horizon.

His keeper arrived shortly after Seth finished his workout. He was carrying a large dish full of food, which made Seth acutely aware that he hadn't eaten since the previous morning. After he slid the dish through the opening at the bottom of the cage door, and stood up and back, he spoke to Seth for the first time. “Sorry about the dog-dish, It's all I've got that'll fit through there.”

Not moving for the dish Seth said “Thank you for the food, sir, no matter how it comes.”

“Well... eat.”

“Thank you, sir.” Seth said again, coming forward and picking up the bowl, pausing for only a moment as he realized there were no utensils. The dish contained a generous helping of cooked potatoes and carrots, some greens, some meat with gravy, and a large hunk of hardy bread. Even cold, the food was of an unexpectedly high quality. He began eating as neatly as a man could be expected to eat from a dog dish using bare hands.

“I was told to be wary of you and not to let you get hold of anything that could be used as a weapon. What'd you do?”

Swallowing a mouthful of potato, Seth said “I was born under an angry star, sir,” and swept back his thick black hair to expose the bar.

His keeper, who had seen more men and animals than most, barely widened his eyes, but remained silent as Seth continued to eat. He finished his meal quickly, wiping the dish clean with the last of the bread, and returned the dish under the bottom of the door.

“There were no orders about your feeding, nor anything else, so I'll make it my business to see you get at least breakfast and supper.”

“Thank you for your kindness, sir.”

“No problem, just don't go make me have to come looking for you.” He smiled and nodded before heading off with the dish, leaving Seth smiling for the first time in weeks.

* * *

By noon Seth was pacing. Water dish, seven steps, front left corner, three steps, front right corner, six steps, slab, reverse, six steps, front right corner, three steps, front left corner, seven steps, water dish, turn, repeat. Periodically he would stop and try to adjust his collar. The unfamiliar weight clung snugly to his neck just above his trapezius but far from snug to his jaw. He could slip a couple of fingers under it, and it would yield somewhat to constant pressure, but when he stopped it would flow back into shape around his neck like a sluggish, elastic creature. The extra weight, about two pounds, and the gentle pressure, was actually nauseating.

He was surprised, mid pace, to find the scribe who had sketched him yesterday walking towards him. He stopped pacing and waited by the front of the cage.

She seemed embarrassed as she approached, and Seth suddenly felt his nakedness. He pushed away any awareness of her embarrassment, and with it his exposure, and met her gaze. She stopped just out of arms reach of the bars and looked into Seth's eyes for a moment. “You're not dangerous are you?”

“Not without orders mistress.”

She considered his answer for a moment. “I would like to ask you something.”

“Whatever is your wish mistress.”

“Please don't call me `mistress', my name is Liane.”

“Yes Liane.”

“Ugh, why do they make you all so formal? It's like talking to, I don't know, a text book or something!”

Seth knew what she meant and decided to switch to the informal, and somewhat sarcastic demeanor he had shared with his Lady. “I humbly beg forgiveness for having to contradict m'lady, but nobody ever made me anything,” he said with an exaggerated look of innocence.

She was struck dumb for a moment while she found a new place for him in her world-view, and then all of the tension drained out of her as she realized that she was going to like the man in the cage.

“I actually came by to see if I could get you to do something for me.”

“I would be pleased to help you any way I can, but uh...” Seth gestured vaguely at the bars separating them.

“No, it's something you can do from in there.”

Seth raised an eyebrow at her.

“I want to bring a group of students down here and, um,” the embarrassment was returning to her face, “have them draw you.”

Seth felt the warmth of blood trying to creep into his own face.

“It's just that you're so well defined and it's so hard to find a good model for doing detailed body studies, and the contrast of the markings against your pale skin, and well, um,” now they were both blushing, “since I knew that you were just stuck here I figured you might not mind.”

“Given my station, I think the person you'd need to ask is Master Tor.”

“He already said yes,” she admitted, “but it won't really work if you don't go along, so I need to ask you. Besides, I wouldn't feel right just showing up with a bunch of students without you knowing. This isn't a zoo or something...” her voice trailed off and she looked away as she said that last.

Seth waited for her to look at him again and said “I sincerely thank you for your consideration, and the complements, and I would be honored to pose for you and your students Liane.”

Again she looked at him for a long time. “By the way, what's your name?”

Seth was somehow gratified to realize that the possibility that he might not have a name never occurred to her.

“I am Seth.”

* * *

Within the hour Liane returned with nearly a dozen students. Their arrival was heralded by the barking of dozens of dogs unused to the presence of so many strangers in their territory. The brightly colored students' robes, ill-suited for the kennels and most dog-related pursuits, were none-the-less safe, as the kennel-master kept his grounds quite well. Liane had planned ahead and each student arrived with a stool or old cushion in addition to their drawing supplies.

Seth was lounging on the slab, finishing off a meat-filled loaf a boy had tossed him through the bars. He hopped down for a drink when he finished, and then went back to his perch while Liane got the class settled in along the two exposed sides of his enclosure. He worked at seeming to drowse in the sliver of shade provided by the separating wall, while he listened to Liane and got used to his future audience.

“Today,” Liane started to address her class, “we will be continuing our work with figure drawing. As we have discussed in the past, the art of accurately recording an individual in a dynamic setting is substantially different than the relatively simple act of portraiture. The primary difference being that the subject will rarely remain still enough, for long enough, to capture a complete pose. Instead it will be incumbent on you to produce a complete, stationary mental picture of the subject and use whatever opportunities present themselves to complete the necessary details.

“Your assignments will vary.

“From the bardic students I will want thorough recordings of the subject. Keep in mind that a bard's duties encompass not only the entertainment arts, but also the recording of factual details which may prove significant not only in the construction of accurate tales but also the construction of accurate intelligence. A royal bard may be expected to act tantamount to a spy in extreme conditions, so your mission is to preserve fact, disguised as art.

“The classical artists, while also concerned with detail and factual correctness, need to concentrate more on capturing the moment. Setting, mood, action, and intent are all necessary in a masterwork. The artist is given great latitude in the area of literal truth in order to preserve these elements. Explore the subject, and the setting. Be complete, but do not let details overwhelm your artistic perception of the moment.

“Finally, the pure scholars are to be concerned with the individual elements of the subject. Your pursuit of the art of drawing is primarily useful to record the details of your observation. Your goal should be to establish the clinical reality of the elements of the subject. All too often the scholarly diagrams and depictions of a subject are of little value because the qualities of art are missing from them. The use of shading and perspective to detail the three-dimensional nature of a subject, and to provide a sense of scale, are absolutely vital to a proper scholarly work.”

Liane paused for a moment to make sure they were actually listening, that the import of what she was saying had not been lost on her students.

“You are all very advanced students in your arts, so I will expect a lot from our session today. We are actually quite fortunate that this exercise is available to us. Neither the subject nor the circumstance has been staged. I will, however, supply you with information about the subject that might not normally be available to you in the field.

“Our subject today is `Seth', a slave, and unexpected acquisition of the school. Deeded to the school by the estate of an alumni from the School of Disciplines, this individual would normally be considered a valuable property. The subject, an adult male in his early thirties, has been committed to physical captivity here for evaluation as a potential threat to public safety because, along with an impressive number of skill marks, he possesses a certified black-bar. We are, by the way, instructed to maintain a safe distance from the cage at all times, just in case.”

Several of the students drew in slight gasps or murmered and moved restlessly.

“Seth, will you approach?”

Seth was a little annoyed, but as Liane turned to face him the clinical and distant veneer of `lecturing teacher' faded for a moment, She smiled and winked at him conspiratorially. Doing his best to convey a sense of barely restrained, dangerous animal anger, Seth eased himself down from the slab and moved quietly and directly to the bars between himself and Liane. She took an involuntary step back in fear before he caught her eye. He winked back, turned to the students and softly said “Boo.”

Small, nervous laughter moved quickly through the students, and the strained silence returned. Seth ran his fingers back through his hair and then stood placid and confidant before the students. While this would normally be unacceptably forward and rebellious for a slave, Seth understood from Liane's opening lecture that a meek and flavorless presentation to the students would not help their education. They needed a degree of dynamic character to find and possess in their drawings.

“Before we begin the drawings, there are some details that I would like to bring to your attention. Feel free, as always, to ask questions as they occur to you.”

Liane fetched a long dowel pointer from amongst her possessions and began using it while she cataloged her observations. Seth could have easily taken it from her. Instead he tried not to roll his eyes while she tapped and poked it about.

“First, you will notice that Seth is quite large, with a nearly stereotypical athletic build. The classic V-shape created by the contrast of wide shoulders and very narrow waist means that there will be no room for any kind of exaggeration in your drawings. Do not try to complement his shape, the way one might for a patron or powerful figure, as there is very little room between the reality and apparent caricature.

“Next, the skin is almost abnormally white and gives the impression of near translucence. This is a trait that is very difficult to capture in and of itself, but when combined with his markings, produces an even more potentially troublesome contrast. The markings themselves are quite bright, and represent probably the state of the art in inking skin. Since we are not working in color today, the careful use of shading to pick out internal details will be necessary. Likewise the eyes, being a chromatic shade of powder-blue, will prove difficult.

“Turn around please.

“Nowhere more than the back is it obvious that the skill-marks have been woven artfully into a complete presentation. Notice that the entire picture, while presenting the factual skills as required, also forms a complete image of a Phoenix, wings spread out to the shoulders and flame tapering down to a swirling origin in the small of the back.

“Turn again please.

“Comparing the exuberance of illustration on the back to the minimalist understatement of the front of the torso, which is untouched except for a relatively small cluster of interlocked glyphs on his left pectoral and subtly embellished with the same sinuous flame style, we can see that the entire inking is meant to be considered as a single composition. The swirling liturgy of flames, picked out mostly in dark greens, blues and blacks, which make up the calves and forearms, reinforce the Phoenix motif while highlighting their embedded skills, like bright flares in the curves of the flames. The myriad of animal forms, which the tongues of flame individually transmute into, produce a life-cycle motif in nearly classic symbolism.

“Finally, the complete lack of body hair...” Liane seemed to notice her own observation for the first time as she spoke it, and faltered. Seth traced a line part way through the glyphs on his chest, shrugged open-handed, and mouthed the single word “artists” at her. She took back her composure and continued.

“...Finally, the complete lack of body hair allows us access to every detail of form, musculature, and markings.

“Now, please begin your observations and drawings.”

Seth watched the students watching him. And then whispered to Liane, “what should I do?”

“It doesn't matter, just move around and do whatever comes naturally.” She whispered back.

“Comes naturally?” His glance picking out the bars and lock, and the absurdity of the instruction.

“In a classroom I'd have you sit on a stool or something, but I'm not allowed to give you anything like that. So just be yourself.”

Liane retreated from the bars to take herself out of the scene.

At first Seth just stood and looked from face to face. But the students couldn't seem to bring themselves to hold his gaze, and he realized that wouldn't help anything. Subconsciously he began pacing along the two sides of the cage that were lined by students. When he realized that he was pacing and clutching his collar again, he deliberately made himself stop and get a drink of water.

Looking down into the shallow cistern he saw the hard edge of a hunted expression on his own face. That wasn't good.

He moved to the center of the cage and knelt, sitting on his ankles for a few moments, to reach inside himself again for a little inner peace. Then he stood and began one of the many dance-like combat exercises he'd learned over the years. This one was a long but fast-paced series of punches, blocks, advances, kicks, and retreats. Sharp angular flowing movements that could devastate most opponents. When he completed the sequence he switched to a more elegant sequence that was more about balance, flow, and the mind. He kept it up for what seemed like hours.

When he finished all that, he got another drink and then got up on the slab. He leaned back into the corner, one leg stretched out along the slab with the other dangling over the edge at the knee, and slipped into an afternoon drowse.

He was only vaguely aware of the students when they gathered up their belongings and left.

* * *

Supper came and went for the school, and shortly afterward Seth's keeper arrived with his dish. Potatoes and boiled greens, a flaky white-fish in a pepper sauce and, of course, bread, which filled him up nicely. Seth was impressed with the quality of the food. He wondered if everybody ate this well at the college. When it occurred to him that his keeper might be treating each meal as if it could be his last. He decided not to ask, and thanked his keeper again for the food.

When the man left, Seth curled into his straw nest to escape the evening cold. Sated, he fell asleep quickly. Before he reached the places in his soul where his dreams lay waiting, something woke him up. He moved slowly, snuggling in his nest as if he were sleeping, until he could see out from its shadow into the evening shadows around his cage.

He could just make out a figure in a student's robe staring at him, or rather the pitch darkness where he lay. He watched the figure for some time. Finally Seth softly spoke. “Is something troubling m'lord?”

“You are.” The figure responded in a near whisper.

“I regret that I have caused you any displeasure m'lord, is there anything I might do to ease your trouble?”

“I need to ask you a question.”

“I will endeavor to answer as best I can m'lord.”

A pause.

“Were you born a slave?”

“Yes lord, I know my line to seven generations.”

Still another, longer, gap of silence.

“My family is in the trade. I have spent my life around slaves. When I was younger there was a girl who earned the Bar...”

“That is regrettable lord. What became of her?”

“My father... she was put down...”

“That is understandable lord.”

“The thing is, well, I see you here, and you seem okay, and now I am wondering if...”

“If her fate was just, lord?”

“Yes, if she had grown would she have become someone like you?”

Seth thought for a while about how to answer, he listened to his Lady's voice from within his memory, answering his own questions about his life. In her voice he found the answer to the young lord's worries.

“My Lady, whom I served for more than twenty years, came to that same question. She told me that, shortly after she acquired me, she had studied as many Black-Bars as she could find and she believed that I was unique. Whatever it is that makes me unreachable, that covers my mind with what she called `a blanket of absence', is not what bars others. She was wise, my Lady, and knew more than any person I have ever heard of. I know that she believed what she said.”

“Yes, but is it right to treat people like that?”

“M'lord, this is a harsh reality, harsher than most I suspect, and when the Emperor set down the Tenets of Rule, there were many good reason for slavery to be among them. It serves the slave as well as the master m'lord.”

“What did slavery ever do for the slaves?”

“Do you know history my lord?”

“Not as well as I should.”

“Do you know the story of the people of the Tabor plains?”


“They were conquered, utterly defeated, some seven hundred years ago. When they fell they were enslaved by the Kingdom of Raleare – their conquers – their genocide forbidden by the Tenets of Rule. Three hundred years later Raleare collapsed after barely winning a war. During that war many of the Tabor were freed to fight for what had become their homes and families. The freed Tabor re-gathered their people through purchase, and less honest means, and returned to their ancestral land. The Tabor were preserved, intact, by their enslavement. The imposition of the templates held them tractable, which meant that they were never bred to be docile. That slaves are free to be themselves with each other, and behaviorally bound only when dealing with the free, allowed the Tabor to preserve their culture and lore. And the blood of the Tabor also moved into the family lines of the free that they were pressed to serve so even the Raleare they left behind had gained some of the Tabor blood.

“Slavery preserves the blood even though it costs the individuals dearly. It is a harsh mimicry of the ways of nature. It sometimes moves in painful rhythms, and there are times when it is too much for one person to bear, but the same, or worse I think, can be said for being free. We are moved with, and as, wealth. There are times when we eat as the free starve. Naming it absolutely right or wrong is beyond me, but it is right enough for our world.”

“So, you're happy here where you are?”

“Don't get me wrong lord, I would give anything, if I had anything to give, to be out of this cage and free of this blasted collar. When I let myself think about it, that someone somewhere may decide at any moment that I am to die like an animal, a tight fist of fear clenches in my gut. But if the cost of my standing outside this cage were that I had never known and served my Lady, I wouldn't pay it. I don't lust to be free, I need... other things.”

“And if they decide you are to die.”

“I do not die easily my lord. A good number of soldiers, assassins, and even sorcerers have learned that the hard way. If my Lady had asked it, I would have cut out my own heart and laid it on her casket as tribute, and I believe she knew that. I know in my heart that she didn't send me here to die. There is a way out of this cage that won't ask me to raise my hand against the people here. If it takes minutes or years to find it, I will find it. Lord.”

The figure stood in silent contemplation for a while, and then disappeared back into the night. Seth never learned who his visitor had been. He watched the place where he had stood, and wondered at his own words for a while, then snuggled back into warmth of the straw, drifting into the world where he and his dreams stalked one another.

* * *

Tor Ben Jarren sat at his desk late into the night, mired in the petty annoyances that were his job. The labor requirements for a place as big as the Queens College were nearly limitless. In every organization the daily operations happen almost by reflex, each person doing what had to be done because that is what they always did. If it weren't for that saving grace nobody would be able to keep the college open, let alone clean and fed. Tor's job was, almost exclusively, to handle the snags, and everybody knows that snags, no matter the kind or size, are annoying.

The snag on the top of Tor's desk at the moment was a big one. A young lordling had filed a complaint against one of the staff, claiming the woman in question had destroyed a month's work by touching a complex and expensive ritual component in the apprentice workroom. Of course Tor knew it wasn't true, better liars than the young lord had tried to blame their shoddy work on the staff. The idiot's bravado in the matter was the problem, he was demanding a public punishment. The woman couldn't speak fairly for herself, of course, because her imprinting would cause her to wrongly concede in the face of her accusers insistence.

Tor decided that a prudent `administrative delay' would be the best way to disarm the miserable mess, and shifted the paperwork into his `holding' basket.

The shift brought Seth's papers back to the top of Tor's pile of problems. The school's deed had been filed but the matter of his disposition still loomed. The academic council had not seen fit to respond to his missive as of yet, no surprise there, and he had not been able to contact his friend. “A pressing matter in the library”, as if there was such a thing short of a fire, had kept him away from the dining hall for two nights. Looking again at the sketches of Seth's skill marks, most of which Tor knew well, and a few he had never seen before, made Tor wonder again how many of them might be true.

The art class had gone well, he had made a point of talking casually with several of the students as well as Liane. He got to look at some of the drawings, and was surprised to see the range of emotional detail they had captured.

An idea took root in Tor. He would get some of the craftsmen and masters of the skills Seth was marked with to go interview him. Maybe find an excuse to get more students down there. Stress the guy into revealing himself perhaps. Besides, the more opinions he could get to support letting the man out of the cage the better. Especially if it turned out to be a mistake. Yes, he thought, that would be best.

Tor blew out the candles in his office and headed to bed, his mind settled on a vague plan.