Seth's dreams came and went as friends, which was rare, and he woke an hour before dawn. He repeated his previous mornings exercise as if it were a ritual he had been doing all his life. His keeper arrived with breakfast and waited silently while he ate. After relieving himself he managed to get one of the boys changing out the straw in a nearby cage to bring the wheelbarrow close enough for him dispose of his chamber pot. He was just starting to plait together the straw for a new one when six armed men arrived. An iron fist of fear clenched around Seth's heart and his hands froze like frightened rabbits.

Seth raised his eyes to the face of their leader, looking to see if his execution had come. The fist loosened a notch as he read appraisal instead of intent.

Seth set his weaving aside without breaking eye contact with the leader, and shifted his position. He'd been leaning back against the wall in a position that would not be easy to rise from quickly. His adjustment, a bend of the leg and a shift of his torso, brought him to a pose from which he could spring instantly. The leader recognized Seth's shift into a defensive posture along with the deceptive casualness of the movement, and a tiny flicker of approval crossed his face.

The leader said, or barked, “come here,” nearly blending the words into one while still keeping the words clear. Seth recognized it as a military order.

Seth got quickly to his feet and presented himself to the bars, and the man beyond them. He stood at attention, choosing the relative safety of minitary formality.

“Arm.” The man barked.

Seth extended his weapon arm out and down at a sixty degree angle, palm down, fist closed, presenting his markings for inspection. All the way around his wrist, forming the base of the flames rising up his arm, was a cuff of ink three fingers wide. The cuff was not one solid band, it was a pair of closely spaced bands, the blank space between them formed a regular pattern of angular waves. The lower band, jagged edge up, meant “trained in armed combat”, the higher band, jagged side down meant “trained in unarmed combat.” The smooth edge of each band was inked in crimson meaning that Seth had killed both ways. The full blood cuff was rare on a born slave.

The lead soldier didn't miss the fact that the pattern was mirrored on Seth's non-weapon arm as well, telling the world that Seth was more than normally proficient in those skills.

The glyphs amid the flames higher on Seth's weapon arm listed sword, shield, dagger, spear, and bow as proficient weapons and another said that he'd commanded free men in battle.

The leader studied him for a while, and then asked “Are you dangerous?”

“Not without orders, Sir.”

The arms master, which is who Seth finally realized he was addressing, appreciated more of Seth's answer than Liane had. He nodded.

“Lower your arm.”

Seth complied, remaining at attention.

“I will speak plainly, I am here to test you, to see if your marks are just bragging. I will expect you to speak plainly in return. I will present several situations, and you will advise these men as if you were their commander. Are you capable of doing that?”

“Yes sir.”

“Very good. First situation, these men have come to execute you.”

Seth took a quick look at each of the men then lapsed into the frame of mind he had used to command others. He also stole a page from Liane. The situation was too close to his own immediate fear to allow him to talk about himself in the first person. He became “the subject”. Having wrested some detachment from his fear he saw his circumstances more objectively. The fact that he might be advising his executioners started a cold trickle of sweat running down his spine.

“First,” Seth began, “go back and get spears. The subject is an unknown quantity. Strongly consider killing the subject in the cage before opening the door. Consider the wide spacing of the bars, and the easy access from three sides, remember the adjacent empty cage is an access. All these factors make that approach safest. Do not allow the seeming dishonor of such a strike dissuade you. There is nothing honorable about getting yourself killed trying to carry out a simple execution.

“If the execution must happen elsewhere, you will still need the spears. The subject is an unknown quantity with apparent skill in hand to hand combat. The cage is too confining in both width and height to make effective use of a sword. A skilled combatant could get inside your guard easily in such a space. You might be able to strike a mortal blow against the subject while he is moving in on you, but the subject has nothing to lose by trying, and mortal wound or not, he may kill you just for spite. Always remember, the subject of an execution has nothing to lose by fighting.

“Use the spears to control the subject, reducing his available space, but do not thrust at the subject through the bars. The cage is three paces wide. A spear thrust of any appreciable length will give both leverage and opportunity to the subject, and could allow the subject to take the weapon. One spear should be stationed along each side of the cage, while two spears enter through the door. The fifth man should enter unarmed, advancing between the spears. His job is to bind the subject and any weapons he might have are useless for that purpose, but they would be presented hilt first to the subject because of the way sheaths and scabbards are hung on the body. Do not encourage trouble.

“Finally I repeat, the subject is an unknown quantity. The meekest, and weakest of individuals is dangerous when backed into a corner. Do not allow yourself to be surprised.”

Seth stopped, he was finished addressing the soldiers.

The arms master stepped forward, “I am satisfied. Who did you train under?”

“I had the honor of being instructed by Lord Quenth, Master of Arms of the Southern Marches Keep, Broken Spires, Yarl.”

The arms-master acknowledged the name with a brief nod and then led his men away.

Only when he could no longer hear the noise of their passing, did Seth begin to relax.

* * *

The encounter with the arms master began a sparse parade of students and craftsmen that went on for several days. Seth's skills ran the gambit of the arts and sciences. Some of the skills were oddly domestic like spinning, weaving, sewing, and potting, while others were more industrial like smithing iron, silver, and gold. There was the odd smattering wider skills, forestry, husbandry, green-lore, chemistry, and several languages, to name a few. Many of his interviewers later wondered at the odd collection, but none thought to ask Seth why the diverse pursuits. Seth would have willingly told anybody who asked that these were the skills he'd needed to help his Lady prepare materials and equipment of her craft. The incessant testing broke up the monotony of the cage, and Seth found it kind of enjoyable.

Tor, on the other hand, was not entirely pleased. He had hoped that the constant and demanding attention would bother Seth and reveal his nature. It was even more troubling to him that Seth actually possessed all those skills because several of the interviewers had already put in requests for Seth's service. The only redeeming element was that every visitor Seth had was of the opinion that he should be let out of the cage.

Tor was getting ready to pen an order. He hadn't decided yet whether it would have Seth put down or moved to the kitchens. As he put pen to paper he heard the front door of his building slam open followed by someone yelling his name. Moments later his office door slammed open too and the familiar face of his friend Morgan came charging through.

“Tor! Tell me you still have him!” Morgan's hands, one bandaged to the elbow, landed hard on the desk.


“The guy who brought them.” Morgan was gasping and swallowing hard from a dead run across the campus.

“Brought whom?”

“Hua? Not who, what. The books, damn it! Tell me you still have the guy who brought the books.” Morgan pushed his red face forward across the desk.

Tor paused, “Eh, Morgan... where are your eyebrows?”

“Ash. Burned. Gone.” He waived dismissively. “Now,” Morgan said very slowly, emphasizing almost every word, “is it true that you have the guy who brought Lady Mildaw's spell-books, locked in a cage somewhere?”

With the word cage certain strange comings and goings Tor had noticed around the school suddenly clicked into place. The “pressing matter in the library”, Morgan's general absence from dinner for nearly a week, and some of the stranger miscellaneous requests coming through his office had to do with “the journals.” Seth must have brought trouble for more people than just him. As sorcerers go Lady Mildaw was nearly infamous both for the quality and far-reaching quantity of her work. Famous enough that even Tor had heard of her. Virtually every Magus on campus would be dying to get a peek into those pages.

Then even more things connected up in his head. “Having a little trouble with your paperwork eh?” Tor settled back in his chair with a friendly, taunting smile on his face.

“You might say that,” Morgan was tight as a harp-string, “if you figure that three masters in the infirmary and five more resting in their quarters, scorched walls and furniture, water damage, smashed fixtures, and assorted cuts, bruises, and sprains constitute `a little trouble'. I swear that woman must have thought the secret of creation was in her precious books. And I am at my wits end from repeatedly telling every teacher, master, and mage here that I don't know when or even what will be available to them.

“I finally get a chance to get to my rooms and get some sleep and what do I find? Liane grading pictures of the guy who dumped this mess in my lap with nothing more than a `by your leave lord' and a note! She tells me that last week you had the only clue I can think of to getting into these books without getting killed, stuffed naked in a dog cage, trying to decide if you're going to kill him or not.

“So, if you don't tell me whether you still have him or not, I swear by the gods of your choice that I will come across this desk and, friend or not, hit you so hard you'll need half of the math department to help you figure out what happened...” There was familiar humor in the threat but Tor got the point.

“Yes, I have him, and I'd pay real money for the privilege of not having him.”

Morgan stopped, realizing that Tor was being deadly serious about his desire to be rid of the stranger. He wasn't sure that he wanted to ask, but he did ask, “Why?”

Tor reached into a desk drawer, brought out a three inch wide metal ring of sorcerers' steel about five inches in diameter and tossed in onto his desk in front of Morgan.

Morgan looked down at it for a few moments, then back up at Tor like he had never seen the man before. “You had him fit with a triphariad collar?”

“Try it out before you damn me with a look.”

Morgan slipped the ring around one wrist, where it shrunk into place quickly. A long pause followed. He tugged it loose and then tried it on the other wrist. Another pause and then he pulled it loose again. He studied it for a few moments then stretched it and slipped it around his head till is sat like a prince's circlet. He got a far away look on his face for a while which was then wiped away by puzzlement. Finally he slipped it off his head to look at it again.

“What incompetent made this?”

“Talchaia. And I've had it verified. That is a perfect casting you have in your hand.”

“But I barely get anything. I can feel it leaching the life forces which sustain it, barely, and nothing else.”

“It gets worse. That muscular mountain is marked like you would not believe.” Tor spread Liane's original drawings out for Morgan. “The ones that concern me most are these.” Tor pointed out the black-bar and the blood-cuffs.

Morgan got that distant scholarly look for a moment, “well, the ones that interest me are these.” He stabbed his finger at the sketch of the twisting interlocking pattern on Seth's chest. “I don't exactly know what it is, but there is something about this that I know I should recognize...”

Both men lapsed into a protracted silence, pondering the sketches. Finally Morgan looked up from the papers and said “I want him.”

“I don't know if I even want him alive, let alone out of that cage.”

“I'll buy him outright, then it won't even be your problem.”

“What? Are you crazy?”

“Yes. How much?”

“I wouldn't stick my worst enemy with this guy, knowing what little I've been able to find out so far.”

“I don't care, how much?”

Tor considered Morgan, who's job was entirely about handling obscure and deadly magics, and saw an out. “Well, he didn't cost the school anything but one week's board, and he is either very valuable or the single biggest liability the school has. okay, one hundred fifty gold and a promise.”

Morgan sucked in his breath at the price, nearly six months' salary, and Morgan was well paid. He knew that Tor was trying to dissuade with that amount, and that having set the price, he would not negotiate. “What's the promise?”

“That you don't take off that band, or let him out of your sight without locking him up, for at least a month.”

One thought about the treacherous books waiting back at the library and his mind was made up. “Done. Get the paperwork. I want him now, before I change my mind.”

Having set the price Tor couldn't back out honorably, but he almost did anyway. Grudgingly he dug the sheaf of papers out of his holding basket and the two men set out for the school's business office.

The emptying of Morgan's savings and an order to deduct a hefty chunk from his pay for the next six months, not to mention various witnessed pieces of paper, saw Morgan the proud owner of the slave Seth.