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Tala and Lyn walked together through the nighttime, city streets.

Regularly spaced lights made it easy to see, and the lit windows in the residences they passed assured Tala that it wasn’t too late.

I’m going to die, tomorrow night.

She’d been assured, many many times, that if she did die, it wouldn’t stick, but that was hardly a comfort.

The dessert, compliments of Lyn’s own coin pouch, had been fantastic, but Tala hadn’t been able to enjoy it, fully.

She didn’t really take in the spectacular examples of a dozen types of architecture that they passed, as they wound through the meandering streets.

They circumnavigated construction zones where the owner, or the needs of the same, had changed, and a home was being altered or rebuilt entirely.

They passed parks and shuttered businesses, vacant for the evening.

To her distracted mind, it reminded her of home, her life with her parents, and the time before the Academy.

Her father had been an herbalist, or an alchemist, they were variations on the same idea. I suppose he still is.

He’d helped treat minor injuries, those either beneath the notice of magical healing, or those that would be too expensive to heal with magic, especially those that would pass with time, if some discomfort.

As a result, Tala had been raised around the manufacture of salves, teas, simple splints, and other varied treatments. It had been a happy childhood, and she’d thought that such would be her life, her shop, when she grew up.

She’d been too young to recognize her father’s addictions.

Later, looking back on it, she’d been able to piece together the sequence of events: A growing pain in his joints had led him to increasingly strong remedies. A desire to use his own methods had kept him from seeking magical assistance. The painkillers had moved into true opiates, and the cost of those had created a compulsive need for money, and thus gambling.

To his credit, her father had finally realized the disaster he was creating, put aside his pride, and gotten magical healing. Unfortunately, the physical and mental reconstructions required had been expensive. Hence the family debts.

The only way to pay off the debt had been to sell a promising student into the career of Mage, as such were always of value to humanity, and the Mage’s guild often paid simply to have a child choose that profession. It was also common practice for a family’s debts to be moved to a promising up and coming member. Supposedly, it added motivation. It also protected the family if one member turned out to be a failure. Things seemed to sort themselves out from there.

And so, as the eldest, at the confused age of twelve, Tala had been given into the indenture of strangers, never to see her parents again.

Make no mistake, they’d sent letters, but she’d never written back. Teleportation was expensive, so visits were out. Likely, they’d assumed she would choose to return to her home city when her training was complete.

She hadn’t.

And now, nearly eight years later, I’m going to die without ever seeing them again. She didn’t know how she felt about that, but something in her rebelled at the thought, though she couldn’t have said if it was at that of never seeing her family again or that of dying.

Lyn, again, pulled Tala out of her musings with a simple sentence. “We’re here.”

Tala looked up to see a small home, across the street from a large park.

“It isn’t much, but I’ve a spare room you can use for the next few days.” Lyn glanced her way. “I won’t charge you, not for just one night.”

Tala snorted. “I paid in pies.”

Lyn laughed. “I don’t have enough house to warrant such a payment. Let’s call it reciprocal kindness and leave it there.”

“Says the woman who threw me to the wolves.”

Lyn used a brass key to unlock her front door, pushing it open. “Your soul-deep rage will pass, and this will be nothing but a quirky story of how we first met.”

Tala followed her inside, closing the solid wooden door behind her. “If you write that on my tombstone, I’ll haunt you.”

“You’re a bit dramatic, aren’t you?” Lyn glanced over her shoulder before snapping her fingers, causing lights to flare around the entry hall. “Shoes off. This isn’t the wilds.”

Tala cleared her throat and glanced down.

Lyn followed the gesture and paused, staring at Tala’s bare feet. “Oh…Not sure how I missed that.” She glanced up. “You do take your magery seriously, don’t you.” Lyn’s own feet were clad in simple, if sturdy, slippers, which she casually removed and tucked to one side.

“So… do you have a basin and some water? If you keep shoes out of your house, I don’t want to muck it up.”

Lyn gestured to a door off to their right. “Washroom’s there. I’ll be in the sitting room, when you’re done.” She gestured again, but this time to the arch directly opposite the main door.

Tala nodded her thanks and went into the washroom. It was simple but well cared for. Running water and citywide sewage systems weren’t new to Tala. No one lived outside of cities, so there really wasn’t a possibility of being ‘uncivilized.’

She carefully washed the dust from her feet with cool water, cleaned her hands with the aid of a bar of scented, lye soap, and dried both feet and hands on a cloth hanging on the wall for the purpose.

She’d heard of running hot water, but that was a luxury that few had, and one that she’d never experienced even at the Academy. Would have been nice, though. Apparently, someone had decided that hauling water and chopping wood built character. I’m up to my eyeballs in character, if that’s true.

Thankfully, the cool water and well-made soap were surprisingly refreshing, even on her still sensitive skin. And I’ll be signing up for much more of that… Though, the less frequent inscribing would mean that she wouldn’t have to scrub off her outer skin so often. Or, I could find a different solution to magical defenses…

Her defense was so effective, though, it made any thoughts of seeking other means seem almost laughable. I’ll have to sort that out, before I depart. Iron dust, bee’s wax, and a few other odds and ends. Along with an herbalist’s tools to properly combine them…

She walked out, into the sitting room, and hesitated. There were three comfortable looking reading chairs, a bookshelf, and a couple of rugs on the floor, but that was it. The walls were almost entirely bare, and Lyn was already reading in the central chair.

The place had a lived-in feel, but it didn’t feel like a home.

Tala frowned.

Lyn glanced up. “Ready to grab some sleep?”

“I suppose. Is this your house?”

“Yes? Why?”

“The walls are bare. It just seems…”

“Like I don’t care much?” Lyn smiled. “Somewhat accurate. I’m rarely here, to be honest. I don’t use the kitchen, and when I get back here at night, I sleep.” She shrugged. “Or I read a bit. I’m not really a big one for guests.”

“…You have three chairs…”

Lyn grinned. “And each is comfortable in a different position. I don’t like to be constrained.”

“So… are you sure I’m not intruding?”

“Absolutely, come on.” She set her book aside and led Tala to a back room.

There was a bed, just bigger than Tala thought necessary for one person. Besides the bed, a set of drawers were the only furnishings.

“It’s very little, but it’s free!” Lyn grinned.

“Thank you, Mistress Lyn.”

“Glad to have a place to offer.” She looked around, seeming almost awkward for a moment. “Umm… Need anything else?”

“I should be fine. Thank you. I’ll go shopping for some necessities tomorrow, while you’re at work.”

“Sounds reasonable. Don’t make any plans after tomorrow, though. I imagine Mistress Holly’s got you booked solid.”

Tala grunted. “Yay.”

“I’ll get your jobs booked, too.” She hesitated. “Just so you know, Mages normally do their own bookings, or pay a service fee to the guild if we do it for them.” She held up her hands, forestalling Tala. “But! But I’m happy to do it this time and walk you through it the next couple times. Your master would have taught you the ropes, if you’d been hired as a mageling, the least I can do is fill that role.” She smiled. “At least in part. You’ve chosen a bit of a hard road. A master can help a new graduate in a thousand little ways that I just can’t.” Her smile turned a bit sad, but she continued. “I will do what I can, though. And, I’ll get you some documents on the dimensional manipulation spell-forms you’ll be empowering as well. No reason to set you up for failure.”

On that happy note, Lyn turned and left.

Tala hadn’t really considered her own tiredness, but when she lay down to briefly check the comfort of the bed, she fell asleep instead.

 

* * *

 

Tala woke slowly, stretching on her borrowed bed.

The temperature was just right, though she couldn’t have said whether that was due to magical climate control, or simply the current weather of this city. As she thought about it, she doubted Lyn would have sprung for the exorbitant expense of magical temperature manipulation.

Tala opened her eyes and stared up at the simple ceiling. Today, I have to buy the supplies for my venture, as well as my magical defense, and then, put my life in the hands of a madwoman, trusting that she can repair the inevitable fractures.

That soured her mood, just a little.

She slid from the bed, stripped, and ran through some quick, full-ranging movements. She’d missed her nightly stretches, so she lingered through her morning set. When her body was fully limbered, she worked through a set of 12 exercises, doing each for a slow count of 30, maximizing reps during that time.

Having finished her morning activities, she picked up her borrowed clothes, opened her door, and glanced up and down the hall. Looks clear.

She darted across the way to what she hoped was an indoor bath. The Academy had such, and even her parent’s home had had such luxuries, but she wasn’t 100% sure that Lyn’s much smaller residence would.

Blessedly, she’d been right in her guess and found a large tub with a hearth below the empty basin. Wood was carefully arranged for easy lighting, and a chest to the side revealed about three times as much fuel.

Tala filled the vessel halfway but forwent the heat. I’ll be in the wilds soon enough, no reason I shouldn’t move towards cold washings now.

Thankfully, there was a clean brush near the tub, along with several towels, and she was able work out the night’s tangles with relative ease, despite the fact that she hadn’t bound it up before sleep.

Her speedy self-cleaning was hastened by the cool water but slowed by refamiliarizing herself with her hair. I’d almost forgotten how much of a pain it is to manage.

Soon, she was out and drying herself off. That done, she pulled on her borrowed clothes and stood. So, a brush and some changes of clothes. She looked around, thinking to begin writing her shopping list. After a moment, she smiled wryly. And notebooks and pencils. She was too used to having her notebooks close at hand.

With a sigh, she strode out of the washroom and towards the sitting room. By the light coming in through various windows, it was late morning. Lyn should be at work. I wonder when we’ll meet up.

Tala saw a note on a small table, off to one side, just before she entered the sitting room. It was written in a neat, flowing hand that immediately reminded Tala of Lyn.

 

Mistress Tala,

I’m at work, but I will be off by fifth bell. Meet me at the Guild Hall, where you found me yesterday. I’ve written up a simple list of items I think it wise for you to buy, given what will be provided for you. Have fun!

-Lyn

 

Got the author in one. The location had also been a giveaway. Who else would have come into Lyn’s house?

Tala glanced down and found a second piece of paper on the table as well, containing a list of some basic supplies. The page was held down by a pencil. I’m borrowing that.

A slight noise caught her attention, and she turned to see a man staring quizzically at her.

“Gah!” She gasped out, flicking her right hand forward, in a practiced gesture. Palm towards her target, fingers together, pinky and ring finger tucked down.

He would be incapacitated, and she could…her inscribings were gone. She felt a brief pulse of power from her gate and keystone, but no magic extended from her body. She was left with a mildly uncomfortable tingling itchiness.

The man, for his part, had stepped back, raising a forearm as if to block her incoming attack, even as he, too, gasped out a surprised sound. “Wah!”

He tripped over one of the chairs, but managed to turn the fall into a roll, coming back to his feet, both arms raised in a practiced guard.

They stared at each other for a long moment. Tala didn’t lower her hand, though she felt rather embarrassed at the ineffectual gesture.

Take charge, Tala. “Who are you? Why are you in Mistress Lyn’s house?” The man was young, probably close to her own age, and wore clean, well-maintained clothes. They had a look about them, which made her think they might be a uniform, or meant to serve that purpose.

The man hesitated. “Mistress Tala, right?”

“…Yes? You haven’t answered my questions.”

“Mistress Lyn sent me. Please, don’t light me on fire, or crush my…soul, or anything.”

She hesitantly lowered her hand. “Crush your soul?”

He straightened, brushing himself off. “I’m no Mage. You people are crazy.”

She quirked a smile. “So, unnamed stranger. Why are you here?”

He narrowed his eyes, but his gaze flicked towards her now relaxed hand. “I’m Ashin. Mistress Lyn thought you could use a guide for your shopping day.”

“And she sent you?” Tala emphasized the last, to make her skepticism clear.

He straightened. “She felt that we should get to know one another.”

“Oh?”

“I’m to be one of the guards on your next trip.”

“Oh! You’re a caravan guard?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

Tala waved a hand. “None of that. Call me Tala.”

“Yes, Mistress Tala.”

“You’re being a bit stereotypical.”

“You could kill me with a gesture. Respect and courtesy are simple and reasonable safeguards on my life. Especially since most Mages desire supplication.”

She grinned. “I think I’m going to like you, Ashin.” She glanced down to his waist. “Where are your weapons?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “I left them outside. Most Mages don’t particularly like iron. ‘Iron Reflects’ and all that.”

Tala’s grin widened. “I think you’ll find I’m not like other Mages, in many ways.”

He shrugged. “Does that mean that I can be armed for our venture?”

She hadn’t actually decided to let him accompany her, but the more she considered it, the more sense it made. “I suppose so, yes. Do you know this city well?”

“Yes, I grew up here.”

That settles it. Having a local would be infinitely more efficient than simply wandering around on her own. “Very well. Let’s be off.”

Ashin backed up, allowing her to pass by with a large amount of room to spare. They walked outside, him keeping a wary distance from her, even as he locked the door behind them. He strapped on a sword belt, which had been leaning against the outer wall, before picking up a round, iron-bound shield and slinging it across his back. His final piece was a padded, steel cap, which he fastened onto his head. “You’re sure? All this iron doesn’t put you off?”

She chuckled. “My magic doesn’t have to act through objects, as if I were throwing fire or such, so it is no hindrance to me.”

Ashin paled, swallowing visibly.

Tala cleared her throat and continued in a rush, trying to placate him. “And I actually quite like the smell of iron and leather. You are fine. Really.”

Ashin regained some of his coloring but didn’t close the distance between them. “So…where to?”

“I will need to pick up a few things, as I am sure you are aware. I think the first should be either a satchel, or a set of notebooks. Which would be closer?” Her stomach rumbled slightly. “And, we should probably grab some food. Are you hungry?”

 

* * *

 

An hour later, Tala was checking off the last item from Lyn’s short list, which she had transposed into her own new notebook. She had both a small satchel, containing the bare necessities such as her notebooks and pencils as well as a few other items she thought wise to have within easy reach, and a rucksack for her other belongings.

She had commissioned four sets of clothes, and the tailor had premade clothing ready to hand, so he expected the alterations to her sizing would be done by mid-afternoon. She’d also picked up a small host of other odds and ends to make her trips better. I imagine I’ll refine this set-up after my first few outings.

Ashin had refrained from commenting, though he had raised an eyebrow when she’d bought a heavy magnet.

He had maintained a paranoid distance from her, preferring to keep her in sight at all times. Thus, they’d had the comical interactions of him telling her where to turn, while he stubbornly stayed at least a pace behind.

All their stops considered, her stomach was now quite empty and unhappy at that fact, so Tala had asked Ashin to direct them to food.

A full morning requires a full breakfast. And it was time to deliver.

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JLMullins

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