Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by Diana Wynne Jones, Harper Collins, et al. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Author's Note: About two-thirds of this story began its existence as the introductory section of "To Be of Use," my Yuletide story. But I ran out of time to get past Joris and Konstam's first meeting, which meant all this stuff didn't have any training sessions in Khan Valley, or demon-hunting missions, or post-book interviews and strategy meetings, or Joris's eventual emancipation, to balance it out. So I cut the introduction and turned it into a separate story.

Of course, that meant I had to add a section and elaborate on others, but I think it worked out reasonably well despite the surgery. +grin+ (And on that note, I do still want to get the rest of my original outline into words somehow, but I don't have time right now and I suspect that when I do have time, I'll have run out of motivation. I hate when that happens.)

Summary: There weren't many labor slaves in Cardsburg, but Joris knew how the world worked. He just never expected the knowledge to become personal.

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Cut Clean
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There weren't many labor slaves in Cardsburg -- it was a union town, and the factory workers were very firmly against anything that might depress their wages -- but the rich always had their entertainment and there was no point luring free men onto the sanitation gangs when it was much cheaper to rent convicts. And there was television, with all the races and pageants, so Joris knew how the world worked. He just never expected the knowledge to become personal.

Pater died when Joris was six. Mama did her best and Granna picked up odd jobs here and there, but the money ran out and Mama was going to have another baby. Joris and his sisters learned to be very quiet and listen from around the bend in the staircase when Mama and Granna argued late at night.

"He's too young!" Mama said, again, three weeks after Joris's seventh birthday. "And what kind of person would I be if I destroyed my family trying to save it? What would Kaspar think if he could see us now? How can I think of sacrificing my angel child to those jackals, those demon-kin?"

"The State mandates education until he's twelve," Granna said, "you know that, so it's not as if he can help us by getting a job."

"Seven is old enough to enter an apprenticeship," said Mama.

"And who would we bind him to around here? Car thieves? Listen, Abigel, how is it better to let us all starve to save your pride? My son would not want to see you in the streets, and at least this way we can find a good agency and make sure Joris has some prospects."

Mama threw up her hands. "Prospects! Ha!" But she didn't stamp off the way she'd always done before.

"What other choice do we have?" Granna asked. "I've been asking around and I think I've found a reputable agency that deals with the municipal mart. Joris is a bright boy, a strong boy. He'll do well on the tests and they'll find him a good place. And maybe someday we'll be able to buy him back and set him free."

There was a long silence. Upstairs, Joris bit his lip. Nadia clutched his hand, her blue eyes wide with panic. "They can't make you leave! I'll go with you," she whispered.

"Shhh," Joris hissed, wrapping her up in a hug to make sure she didn't run downstairs and give them away.

"Fine," said Mama. "Fine. We'll go next week."

Joris tugged Nadia back to bed before Granna came upstairs and pretended he didn't notice her poking him or whispering in his ear. He didn't want to talk about it. If he didn't think about it, maybe it wouldn't be real.

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On Skyday, Granna brought Electra to school with Joris and Nadia. Electra had got just a bit too big for Granna to carry her all the way up the hill from the river district, so Joris held her mitten-covered hand and made sure she didn't run into the streets or wander into shops and get lost. Nadia trailed behind them, pale and silent and touchy.

"Be angry at me all you want," Granna told her as they reached the schoolyard gates, "but don't act up for your teachers. You don't want to shame your mother." Nadia stomped off to join the other five-year-old girls as they filed into the shabby concrete building. Granna sighed. "She'll understand someday," she murmured.

Joris wondered if he'd been meant to hear that.

One of the teachers standing watch on either side of the warded gates walked up to Granna and asked for her identification. "Isabel Mauer," Granna said, hefting Electra into her arms again. "Joris and I need to speak with the schoolmaster. Electra here is along for the ride."

"That's nice," said the teacher. "Papers?"

Granna nodded to Joris, who pulled her citizenship pass out of her coat pocket and handed it over. The teacher examined the photograph, compared it to Granna, and handed it back with a thoughtful frown. "Illness, apprenticeship, or sale?" he asked.

Granna scowled. "Sale," she said, grudgingly. "I need Joris's transcript and a refund for the rest of this year's fee."

"Don't tell me the details; the boy's not my student. I'll take you to Magister Zhao," the teacher said. "Follow me."

Joris wanted to run away. He didn't. Instead, he trudged into the school behind Granna and the teacher and made silly faces at Electra so she wouldn't realize how wrong everything was.

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It took four days to get the paperwork straightened out, so it was Ironday by the time they boarded a bus for the long ride across Cardsburg. Joris, Nadia, and Electra shared a bench, with Electra in the middle so she couldn't wriggle free and cause trouble. Mama and Granna sat across the aisle and murmured angrily to each other.

Only Granna was staying for the actual sale; Mama and his sisters said goodbye outside, on the sidewalk. "We don't need all of us bothering the agents or giving them a bad impression," Mama said as she crouched down and adjusted Joris's coat, her face drawn and fierce and damp with tears. "It will work out, Joris. I promise. Be brave, be respectful, and don't ever forget you were born free. Nobody can take that away from you."

Joris hugged his sisters goodbye and tried not to cry even when Electra screamed and threw herself on the cobblestones and turned beet-red, or when Nadia went paper-white and clung to his arm and had to be pried off finger by finger. Mama dragged them back along the street, leaving Joris and Granna alone in the winter chill, facing the impersonal steel door of the agency.

"Well," said Granna, pulling one gnarled hand from her coat pocket. "Shall we?" Her face was as still and calm as Mama's had been turbulent. Joris clutched Granna's hand and lurked behind her skirt as they walked into the cold stone building.

Inside it was much nicer; there were thick blue carpets, the walls were painted a very faint gold, and the air was warm and vaguely sweet-smelling. A tall, rawboned woman with pitch-black hair sat behind a high counter and smiled at Granna and Joris as they hung up their coats and ventured across the lobby. Her nametag said 'Ms. Aung, Intake Specialist' and had a red butterfly sticker in the corner. "Welcome to the Sarkoy Agency," she said, in a flat, western accent. "Are you the Mauer family?"

"Isabel Mauer, yes, and this is my grandson, Joris," Granna said. Joris sidled further behind her legs, and then felt ashamed of himself. But he couldn't quite bear to face the woman, not when he knew she was one of the people who were going to make him a slave.

Ms. Aung handed Granna a long brochure and a clipboard stuffed with forms all covered in tiny gobbledygook. Granna clutched a pen awkwardly in her gnarled fingers and began signing the papers. Ms. Aung watched for a minute -- "in case you need any assistance," she said -- and then led Joris back through a hallway into a little white room with a low table covered in papers and colored blocks.

"The evaluator will be along in a few minutes," she said, bending down to smile at Joris. Her teeth were very white, like rich people's teeth, but they were still crooked like Mama's. "He'll give you a few tests so we know what kind of position is right for you. I have just three questions before he gets here. First, can you read?"

"A little," Joris whispered.

"Can you write?"

He shrugged.

"Not as well as you can read?" Ms. Aung asked, and smiled wider when he nodded. "That's okay. Not everyone your age can read or write much at all, so you're already doing well. One last question: are you bilingual, or do you only speak Kathayack?"

"Mama puts me in the two-track classes at school," Joris said, in English. "She says it's important to learn because you want to get ahead. And sometimes we watch the news in English some nights." He knew his accent was bad, twangy and broad instead of clipped and round like the television announcers , but he thought he got most of the words right.

"Very good!" Ms. Aung said, making a note on a clipboard. "We have a much better chance of finding you a good position if you speak more than one language. I think you're going to be lucky, Joris. I have a good feeling about you."

Joris looked down at the table. Eventually Ms. Aung left.

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Mr. Ecklie, the evaluator, was a pale man with wispy, beer-colored hair who reminded Joris of his mathematics teacher. He made Joris do a lot of stupid exercises, like balancing on one foot or catching balls while reciting nursery rhymes, and then solve silly problems about patterns. He was brisk and stand-offish, but Joris was trying to be good so he could help his sisters, so he didn't argue or ask questions.

Finally Mr. Ecklie gathered his papers and made a few final notes on the clipboard. "You have a lot of potential," he said as he opened the door and waved Joris into the hallway. "We can ask a high price for you, so we'll be able to offer your family a good deal," Mr. Ecklie continued. "You won't have to worry about them anymore."

Mr. Ecklie pushed open the door to the lobby and Joris ran across to scramble into Granna's lap. Granna wrapped him up in a hug and murmured, "It's okay, it's okay," into his hair.

Mr. Ecklie spoke to Ms. Aung for a few minutes, and then they both walked over to Granna and Joris. "You have two options," Ms. Aung said. "Joris is easily a first-class boy, which means we can expect at least eight thousand five hundred crowns as his sale price. We can pay you forty-five hundred crowns as a flat price, or we can offer you forty percent of our gross profit, plus one hundred crowns to tide you over for the next month."

Granna closed her eyes and twitched her fingers, trying to do the math. "So unless he sells for, hmm, at least eleven thousand crowns...?" she said.

"You'd be better with the flat price, yes," Ms. Aung agreed. "The percentage option is best for young women with accomplishments, since bidding wars can drive their prices sky high. Untrained boys are a more standard commodity."

Granna hugged Joris tighter and sighed. "Fifty-five hundred. He's very bright, you know that, and he's almost never ill. He's a good boy; he won't make trouble. That must be worth some extra."

Ms. Aung and Mr. Ecklie exchanged a look. "Five thousand is as high as we can go," Ms. Aung said. "Take it or leave it."

"Fine," said Granna. "Write the check to Abigel Mauer and let me say goodbye to my grandson."

Mr. Ecklie shrugged and strode out of the lobby. Ms. Aung offered a bright smile and said, "We can't tell you anything about Joris's owner, whoever that turns out to be, but we will notify you once he's sold. If the purchasers are amenable, we try to negotiate the release of basic health information once a year, so you'll know he's alive and doing well."

"It's not enough," said Granna. "We'd get more information if we sold a dog. This whole business is inhuman."

"Some do say so," Ms. Aung agreed, with a slightly more threadbare smile, "but I assure you, the Sarkoy Agency makes every effort to keep both buyers and sellers satisfied, and we only offer slaves in the highest class auctions. Your grandson will go to a safe, secure position."

Granna snorted. "Write the check. I've already rationalized this on my own."

Joris curled against her side as Ms. Aung walked back to her desk and began scribbling on Granna's paperwork. "They won't let me write to you?" he whispered. "But what about the baby? How will I know if it's a boy or a girl?"

"You won't," said Granna, kissing his forehead. "Maybe it's different in other countries, but in Kathay, State law says slaves have no families. They say it's to keep slaves from running away or families from trying to steal their children back, but I think it's just to make people feel as small and squashed as beetles on a sidewalk. You're not a beetle, Joris; you're a human. You have a family and you have a name. Don't forget that. And remember that we love you and we'll always be waiting for you to come home."

Across the room, Ms. Aung finished her paperwork and pressed a button; a buzzer sounded faintly from somewhere further back in the building. "I have your check, Mrs. Mauer," she said. "You have one more minute to say farewell, and then I'll take Joris to his new quarters."

Granna lifted Joris to the floor and took his hand in her gnarled fingers. "Make us proud, Joris Mauer," she said. "I'm so sorry I couldn't think of any other way."

"It's all right," Joris said, trying to sound grown-up and not to cry. "It's for Nadia and Electra and the baby. I'm the oldest. I'm supposed to take care of them."

Now Granna looked like she was going to cry, which Joris had never thought would happen; Granna was always calm, always the one who saw the way out of problems. "Oh, angel child. We didn't deserve you," she said. She crouched down and hugged him, as tightly as Mama had outside the building. "I love you," she whispered into Joris's ear. "Be strong."

Ms. Aung stepped out from behind her desk and handed the check to Granna. Then she opened the door to a long corridor and beckoned to Joris.

"Tell Mama and Nadia and Electra--" he said, and then couldn't finish. He didn't have enough words, enough time. He stared at Granna, hoping she'd understand.

"They know. But I'll tell them again," she promised.

Joris hugged her one last time and walked backwards toward Ms. Aung, into the Sarkoy Agency building, into his new life. Granna watched, still and solemn, until the door closed behind him forever.

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AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I appreciate all comments, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.