"How are the meditation lessons going?"

"Um. All right, I think. I'm teaching him to build a wall around his thoughts, sort of like the way they teach Empaths to shield themselves from other Empaths."

"Is it working?"

"I think so. From my perspective, at least: the Flooding is becoming less severe."

Lord Marin smiled at Cameron as he took another drink of ale. "Well, that's good then, isn't it?"

"Yes." But Marin could hear from Cam's tone that something was worrying him. "It's just, it's not usually how this problem would be addressed. It's an adaptation of my own – so," he added in an aside, "it would be great if it does work, because I could present a paper on it – but it worries me that he can't centre himself the traditional way. He's obviously been properly trained in meditation, but he's like a beginner when it comes to quieting his mind."

"That's because of everything that's happened to him, surely?"

"Oh yes, definitely. It just bothers me. There's too much going on his head that isn't coming out. It can't be healthy, and it can't last indefinitely."

Marin voiced a thought as it came to him. "This wall – would it keep me out of his thoughts, even with the Bond?"

Cameron shrugged. "No idea. Why, were you planning on looking at his thoughts?"

There was something accusatory in the question. In the weeks that Marin had been gone, Cam had become very protective of the boy. All well and good, but he could stop any attempts to cast Marin as a threat right now. "Of course not," Marin said lightly. "Don't be a wanker, Cam. It doesn't suit you. Drink?"

Marin and Cam were in the kitchen talking while Cam prepared dinner when there was a knock on the kitchen door. A boy from the local messenger office stood there, a slightly confused look on his freckled face.

"I – uh – I think this letter is for you, my lord." He glanced down at it, as though to reassure himself of this fact, and the worry on his face cleared a little. "Yes, here you are."

Cameron took the letter and tipped him, but as he walked away Marin could see him look round once or twice, as though he wasn't quite sure.

"What was wrong with him?"

Cam tossed the envelope onto the table and returned to shelling peas.

"Letter from Jarlath. Read it out."

"Oh, I see," said Marin, using a kitchen knife to slit the envelope. The address on the envelope, which until that moment had read "Goodwoman Yate, Yate's Forge, Almos", now held their address. Jarlath, who was their man in Kinaris's guard, had been entrusted with possession of one of the most expensive magic objects Princess Rania owned – a seal which put confusion and compulsion spells on anybody who looked at the letter to which the wax was attached. Thus, although the letter seemed to be addressed to Jarlath's mother, it had nevertheless made its way to Hesta – and the messenger boy had delivered it to the right address, though he had obviously had a vague feeling that something wasn't right. In a day or two, however, the incident would have completely left his mind. If anyone had tried to read the letter before it arrived, it would have looked like an innocuous missive from a guardsman to his old mother.

Marin,

I hope that you're well. I only wish I had news to report, but there is nothing, really. Lord Cian is always swearing at his guardsmen , and they are always leaving (as are all the members of his household who he does not actually own), but there is nothing particularly suspicious about that. He has kept largely to home and made no suspicious journeys in the weeks that I have been here. He occupies himself with falconry and the hunt, and begins drinking every day at lunch time.

Next week he goes into Legos to purchase a new slave. He says it is to replace one who ran away – I gather that's the boy you have with you? (I pity him. I have seen enough to know that it is not an easy life, to be Kinaris's slave.) It sounds like an ordinary errand to me, but I will try to be on the duty roster to accompany him, and will write a report as soon as I can.

I really do wish there were more I could tell you. Kinaris seems half mad, sometimes – he rants and raves when he is in his cups. He has not mentioned her Highness, however, save one occasion when he had a friend to visit – a Lord Edward – and he proposed a toast to her beauty. I watched him closely, but he did not seem to mean more than what he said. Lord Edward seemed to take it at face value.

The only thing of note in Kinaris's behaviour is that he is very private with his papers and correspondence. He keeps it all locked away in a writing desk that is spelled to open only to his hand, and although he is careless and untidy about almost everything else he always makes sure this desk is shut. I confess at the moment I cannot see how I can gain access, but I will do my best.

I feel that being the bearer of no news in these circumstances is just as unforgivable as being the bearer of bad. I hope my next letter brings more of substance.

Please give my regards to Lord Cameron and her Highness.

I remain yours, apologetically,

Jarlath

Marin lowered the letter, frowning.

"Godsdammit!" Cam swore. "Jarlath's putting his life in danger for us, and we've learned nothing. I hate this, Mar. We're feeling our way in the dark."

Night was beginning to fall earlier and earlier, and although it was not quite evening the light was already fading as Marin made his way back from the shops the next day. He drew his coat tighter around himself automatically, so deep in thought about what to make of Jarlath's letter that he barely saw anything of his surroundings until he noticed Seth on the other side of the square. It was one of the smaller, less busy city squares, and the few other occupants could be pretty easily divided into two types: those on their way somewhere else, and those up to no good. Seth was clearly on his way back from the baths, as even from across the square Marin could see that his hair was wet. Just as he was about to call across to the boy to wait, so that they could walk home together, a scuffle of movement drew Marin's attention. He turned his head just fast enough to see a woman being pulled into an alleyway, a hand across her mouth to keep her from screaming. He started running, but Seth was closer, and he rushed headlong into the alley before Marin was halfway there. Shit. Every instinct Marin had was telling him to throw himself straight into the fray as well, but he made himself pause outside the entrance to the alley and assess the situation. A few people in the square were casting sidelong glances, but nobody seemed inclined to stop, or indeed to meet his eyes, and he could see no guardsmen. He looked into the alley. There seemed to be some kind of stalemate. Seth and the woman had, gods bless them, at least managed to get their backs against a wall. Three men were facing them, jeering, and knives flashed in three hands. Not awful odds, on the face of it, though the black cloths around the upper arms of the men indicated they belonged to some kind of gang and probably were therefore experienced in street fighting. The woman was holding a thick staff with at least some impression of competence. Seth was unarmed and bleeding sluggishly from the nose, but he didn't look scared. His face was bright and alert, eyes flickering from one man to the other. It would have to do. The alleyway was too narrow for Marin to swing his sword, so he drew a dagger, sent a quick prayer up to the gods, and charged in, shouting, trying to give the impression of several men at once.

The gang members turned. Marin engaged immediately with the first one, parrying the man's frenzied swing and kicking him in the stomach in one smooth motion. As Marin had prayed that they would, Seth and the woman leapt into action, attacking the remaining men. Marin's man doubled over, and he helped him along with a hand on the back of his head, bringing his knee up to meet with the man's nose. He gasped and slumped over, the knife flying from his hand. Good. Marin really hoped he wasn't going to have to stab anybody. He turned his attention to the rest of the fight, just in time to see Seth take a punishing blow to the face. He spared a glance for the woman, who was handling her staff well. She had had the sense to go straight for her opponent's knife arm, which now hung broken at his side. He had the knife in his left hand, but his movements were slower, and she seemed to be holding him off. Seth was the one in danger. The punch had sent him staggering back against the wall, and he seemed to have cracked his head on the stone. Reeling, he only just managed to raise his arm in time to block a swing from his opponent's dagger hand. Marin stepped forward, waiting for the moment when he could intervene without putting Seth or the woman in danger. Seth, however, recovered more quickly than either Marin or his opponent had expected. His leg snapped out, low, and the edge of his foot connected solidly with the other man's knee. There was a crack, the man staggered, and Marin was about to take the opportunity to step in when Seth bent, picked something up from the floor, and exploded upwards, his fist hitting his opponent's nose with the combined force of his body weight and the dagger Marin's man had dropped, now clutched in Seth's hand. The man went down like a stone.

The gang member fighting the woman looked around and saw that the odds had drastically changed. Marin stepped forward to grab him, but he was too quick, just eluding Marin's outstretched hand and running off. The woman bent over and put her hands onto her knees, breathing deeply.

"Are you all right?"

She looked up. She was older than Marin, probably in her mid thirties, dressed like a prosperous merchant. She looked like somebody worth robbing. Her Almanian was accented. "I am fine, thank you. Although there is a mage that will be considerably less fine when I return her useless protection charms to her." Her hand went to her neck, where there hung a silver charm which Marin could see indeed contained no magic. "That will teach me to trust magic and leave home without a proper weapon. I am grateful to the two of you. I would certainly not have been able to hold all three of them off by myself."

"Though you acquitted yourself very well," Marin said gallantly – and truthfully, offering her a bow. She smiled crookedly. "I am a novice, though one with enough skill to recognise a master when I see one." She gave him a shallow bow in return. "Elda Vanna, of Riora. I am in your debt. If the young man had not arrived when he did I would have been in trouble."

Marin glanced at Seth, who, having leant down to feel the pulse of the man he had knocked out, was now leaning against the wall. His expression was composed, but unexpectedly, Marin thought he could see exhilaration in his eyes. When Elda bowed to him he returned it silently.

"He did very well," said Marin, and the smallest of smiles appeared on Seth's lips. "Though I think we are all in need of a Healer, and we could probably stand to leave before these men wake up."

They made their way outside. Marin alerted a guardswoman, who had made a belated appearance and was looking around for the reported trouble. She looked like she would have liked to question them further as to their part in the fight, but didn't dare challenge a nobleman. Then they left the square.

"My name is Marin, by the way. And this is Seth. Our friend is a Healer, perhaps you'd like to come with us and have your injuries checked?"

Elda smiled, but shook her head. "I've nothing but a few bruises, and a Healer travels with our party. We move on tonight, or I would insist on taking you for a meal to express my gratitude. As it stands," she said, fumbling in her belt purse, and pulling out a small, intricately engraved piece of paper – "This is where I live in Riora. Feel free to call upon House Vanna if you are ever in need." Marin took the paper.

"An honour," he said. "House Vanna is known across the continent for the quality of the lace it trades. If you ever find yourself in Arret we would be delighted to receive you and your party at the castle."

Elda raised her eyebrows, slightly. "My noble rescuer is noble indeed, then."

Marin felt himself blush. He was not immune to the fact that Elda was more than usually attractive. She smiled, made them one more small, elegant bow, and was gone.

Marin and Seth were left looking at each other. Marin examined the younger man carefully. He was bleeding from the nose and lip, but he hardly seemed to notice. That look of exhilaration was still in his eyes.

"You enjoyed that," said Marin suddenly. He hadn't really meant to say it. What was even more surprising was that Seth did not immediately rush into pleading or apologies. Rather, he looked away for a moment, as though considering, and then met Marin's eyes again.

"It was – not unsatisfying. The chance to fight back."

Marin nodded slowly. "Yes, I can understand that."

"And there's always something – something energising about a fight. Especially one you win."

Marin grinned. He definitely knew what the boy meant. Right now he felt he could have run for miles. He risked clapping Seth on the shoulder as they started walking again. "I definitely understand that feeling. Won a lot of fights, have you?"

Seth hadn't seen his own face, but from Lord Cameron's when they walked into the shop, he knew it couldn't look good.

"What in Aca's name happened?" He rushed away from his workbench, towards Seth, but his accusatory tone was directed towards Marin. Interesting. Lord Marin obviously heard it too, because he held his hands up in protest.

"Don't look at me like that, it wasn't me."

"Well, who was it then?"

"One of those gangers who's always hanging out in the market. Seth and I have been in a fight!"

He sounded almost gleeful. Cameron tutted, guiding Seth to the table to inspect his face properly.

"Gods, I hate it when you've been in a fight. There'll be no talking to you now for an age. Go and sit in the corner and wait your turn if you're not badly hurt." Seth understood Lord Marin's exuberance. Though he now felt somewhat dizzy, he still felt excited, as though he wanted to stand up, or run, or shout. Or fight again. There was barely even space in his brain to be nervous about being treated before Lord Marin. He supposed he was worse hurt. Not that he had acquitted himself too badly.

"Where are you hurt, then?"

Seth gestured, trying to think his way through the fight. "I was kicked in the stomach a couple of times, then punched in the nose, then the cheek twice. I don't think anything is broken." It hurt, but not nearly as badly as most of the beatings he'd taken in his life, and the excitement still coursing through his body was taking the edge off.

Marin leaned forward from where he was perched on the edge of the workbench and interjected, "I think you might have cracked your head against the wall at some point, didn't you?" Oh yes, of course. Seth put his hand to the back of his skull and drew it away bloody. Cameron frowned.

"I'll look at that first, then." He parted Seth's hair and gently probed at the wound. That hurt. Seth drew in a hissed breath. Cameron said brightly, "Not too bad. I'll give you some numbing potion and fix it up, but it'll take a while and you'll need to stay awake while I do it, just in case. You can't be too careful with head injuries." Seth nodded, and swallowed the now-familiar potion down.

Lord Marin recounted the tale, making it sound considerably smoother than Seth suspected it had actually been – all he really remembered of the fight was a blur of movement and his body taking over and reacting before he could consciously think.

"And Seth was really brave, although next time Seth, you might do better to slow down and look around you before you go rushing into a situation like that. If you'd've waited we could have gone in together."

Seth bit his lip. Lord Marin's tone was not harsh, but he was right. His old hand to hand teacher would have been appalled at his lack of tactical thinking. "I know, my lord, it was stupid, I'm sorry. I didn't know you were there, and nobody around me would meet my eye, and I just didn't think."

"Well, don't worry, no real harm done. Just a few seconds thinking next time and you might save your face such a battering."

The shock was like ice water to Seth's heart, an instant reminder of his real status. Shit, his face. He hadn't even thought what that meant.

"I – I'm sorry, my lord. I didn't mean to get myself messed up, I'm sorry."

Lord Cameron said lightly, "Don't worry about it, with my skills you'll look good as new inside two days." From the corner of his eye Seth could see him shake his head sharply and pull a face at Lord Marin. Lord Marin looked slightly taken aback, but rallied fairly quickly and changed the subject.

"Actually, Cam, I meant to ask you. Seth said that he has trained a bit in Klathian hand to hand. Is he well enough to take it up again? Only if you want to, of course." This last was directed at Seth. "My mother was mad for it, and we had a Klathian master in the household my whole life," he explained. "I became a master myself last year, though only of the first level, of course. I could teach you, if you'd like, and if Cam says it's all right." That accounted for the familiarity of style Seth had dimly noted in the alleyway. He glanced at Cameron almost involuntarily.

Lord Cameron, who had moved on to cleaning the blood from Seth's knuckles, was frowning. "It really depends. I mean, physically, Seth, you're fit enough, if you want to. You'll have to build up your strength and stamina some more, and you may well have lost some range of movement from the injuries you had before you came here. I'd dearly love to have words with whatever fourth rate 'healer' did that half-arsed job on that fracture on your collarbone, for example." Seth grimaced at that memory. "But I strengthened the old breaks in your bones the first time I Healed you, and basically there's nothing physical that should cause any significant problems." That was interesting, that word 'physical' again. Where was this going? "The only thing is – I'm just not sure – what I mean is, do you think that it's a good idea for you mentally? I'm not saying it is or it isn't, I just think you need to decide for yourself. If you do want to do it Marin is a fantastic, patient teacher, but with your past experiences of - of violence, do you think that will impact how you feel about learning hand to hand?"

"I don't know," said Seth honestly. He really didn't know. All that he knew was that his heart had leapt within him at the idea of training again. He had lived for it, before. Would have spent hours and hours practicing every day, if he could. Was that feeling of being so very much in his skin, so balanced and powerful, gone like so much else, or could he get it back? The chance to find out was almost irresistible, even if it meant more time with his hated Bondholder. "I think – I think it might be different."

"Like today," Lord Marin interjected, "You weren't scared at all, were you? You said it was different, being in a fight, being able to fight back."

"Yes," Seth agreed, and then, without quite knowing he was going to do it, he said, "I think I'd like to try. If you're willing to teach me, my lord."

Lord Marin smiled. "Wonderful. We can start tomorrow morning."

Cameron stared at Seth intently for a few seconds, as though trying to work something out, then he grinned. "You're going to be hungry all the time if you take this up, what with the fact you're growing taller as well. I'll make sure we have plenty of food in the house." And he clapped Seth on the shoulder and went to tend to Marin's wounds.

By the time Lord Cameron had finished with Marin, and had gone off whistling into the sitting room, the strange spell cast by the fight was starting to dissipate. Seth could feel the usual tension leeching back in. The last hour had been so surreal Seth could hardly believe it had actually happened. He was already beginning to have serious doubts about the wisdom of his own words. What had he agreed to? Remembering something, he approached Lord Marin gingerly, careful to keep his manner formal and polite.

"My lord, the dagger the man dropped." He held it out. He had stuck it into his belt absent-mindedly after the fight, and he really should have given it to one of the nobles straight away. It would not go well for him if he was accused of trying to hide away weapons for himself.

Lord Marin examined the dagger appreciatively. It had a silver hilt, set with a single green stone. He tested the blade and the balance. "This is a beautiful knife. Too nice for scum like that." He handed it back to Seth. "You keep it. You earned it. I'll have you a scabbard made."

And before Seth could say anything he had followed Lord Cameron through to the sitting room, leaving Seth staring after him, completely dumbfounded.