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Tala and Ashin approached the counter of a small restaurant, tucked a little back from the main thoroughfares. It was a busy place, doing a brisk business with customers ranging from clerks and errand boys to what looked to be a few Mages.

Tala stepped up first, when they reached the front of the line. “I’ll take a sausage pasty. And whatever he wants.”

“Ummm… No. I cannot possibly let you pay for me.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a Mage!”

“And you’re acting as my guide. Order.”

“No.”

“Guardsman Ashin, I caused you to miss breakfast, and it is easily time for lunch. Let me buy you food.”

He looked away, seeming uncomfortable, but he didn’t answer.

“Are you defying the will of a Mage?” She had a twinkle in her eye as she asked that, but either he didn’t notice, or he took it for malevolence.

He swallowed visibly, then turned to the bemused clerk. “I’ll have the same.”

Tala paid, received their food, and picked a table off to one side.

They ate in silence.

The pasties were much larger than Gretel’s meat pies had been, but Tala supposed that was because they were intended as full meals, in their own right. They weren’t quite as good, but they were different enough that she didn’t begrudge the variation.

As Ashin finished his meal, wiping his crumb-covered hands off on his pants, he nodded his head towards her. “Thank you, Mistress Tala.”

“You are quite welcome, Guardsman Ashin.”

He frowned but didn’t otherwise object. “Where else do we need to go?”

“I need to get a serviceable camp knife, and to drop through a working forge.”

Ashin cocked his head. “Wouldn’t those be the same place?”

“Not necessarily. I don’t want to go to a simple seller of knives. I need to go where metal is worked. And I don’t want to go to a forge that doesn’t sell such knives.”

He shrugged. “Very well. Are you ready?”

She nodded, finishing her own pasty, brushing her hands together to free them of the crumbs. “Let’s go.”

They wound through the streets out of the inner city, through the second ring, and into the artisan circle. While most workshops had attached stores, there weren’t many merchants actively hawking their wares, so it made for a much quieter, more relaxing stroll.

Over the course of the morning, Ashin had slowly narrowed the distance he kept from her, while remaining out of easy reach, and that bothered her, if only just.

Did I fear Mages, before I became one? It wasn’t really a fair question. She’d been a child and had never had to deal with one, directly.

Will everyone, aside from other Mages, treat me like this? No, servers and merchants had been nothing but polite to her.

Because, to them, a Mage is a wealthy customer… Ashin had always been quite certain to introduce her as a Mage, wherever they went.

Likely because I don’t have any visible spell-lines, at the moment. She sighed, continuing her inward contemplations.

Though there was the sound of hammer-on-metal coming from many directions, Ashin directed them unerringly through the sparse crowds until they came to a smithy, tucked in a side alley.

As they approach, Ashin raised his voice. “Heyho! In the smithy.”

The sound of hammer-on-steel paused, and a response floated out. “Enter!”

Ashin led her through the broad arch, into a warm space where organized tools were affixed to almost every surface.

An older man strode out to greet them. “Ashin! Good to see you, sir. Is the new blade holding up?”

Ashin patted his sword. “Haven’t had to test her, yet.”

“Glad to hear that! Better a safe man, than a drawn blade. But do let me know if you have any trouble.” He turned towards Tala, nodding slightly. “And who is your friend, Ashin?”

Ashin cleared his throat. “Master Aniv, this is Mage Tala.”

Master Aniv hesitated for a moment. “Mage?” He glanced around. “Mistress. This is a smithy…I don’t mean to be insulting, but isn’t iron…”

Tala grinned. “Exactly why I’m here. I’m in need of a camp knife, and your permission to fill a bag with iron dust.”

“Iron…dust? I don’t exactly collect-” He broke off as she pulled out the magnet she’d purchased. He frowned. “Is that an ingot?” He scratched the side of his face. “No, if you’re wanting iron dust, that’ll be a magnet. Right?”

“Yes.”

He scratched the back of his head next. “I’ve no use for the dust in my shop, I suppose. I’ll see what I have in stock for the knife, and you’re welcome to the iron you can gather with that.” He hesitated. “Iron dust, that is. I imagine that could grab some of my tools.” He smiled, kindly.

Tala gave a slight bow towards him. “Thank you, Master Aniv.” Without further comment, she knelt and began running the magnet across the hardpacked floor, immediately beginning to collect iron dust. As she worked, she heard the mutterings of Ashin and Aniv’s conversation but didn’t bother to attempt listening in. She was used to people finding her methods unusual.

When the magnet was well loaded, she scraped off the iron dust into one of her canvas sacks, which she’d purchased for the purpose. Within five minutes, she’d collected close to seven pounds of the stuff. If it had been solid, it would have been a bar roughly an inch square and two feet long. That should be enough.

Standing, she brushed her hands and knees off, and placed the newly cleaned magnet back in her pack. The bag of iron dust, she kept out.

True to his word, Master Aniv had a sturdy looking, simple camp-knife set out for her.

They haggled on the price for a bit, but not vehemently.

After the knife was securely on her belt, she turned to go, but Master Aniv cleared his throat. “Mistress, if I may ask…”

“Yes?”

“Has something changed? Will Mages be seeking iron dust for…some new type of working?”

She grinned. “Oh, I doubt it, Master Aniv. You see, I’m quite mad.” With a wink, she turned and strode from his shop, Ashin following behind.

 

* * *

 

Their final stop was at an apothecary, the local name for an herbalist, where Tala negotiated for use of the man’s tools. She’d had to bargain quite strenuously to get the apothecary down to what she had remaining to spend, but as she looked around at the small workshop, she assured herself that it had been worth it.

Now alone in the back room, she dumped the iron dust into a shallow basin. First, she filled the basin with water, gently agitating the bowl to allow any flotsam to separate out. This, she swept from the water’s surface.

Next, she carefully drained most of the water and added a harsh soap, gently agitating the mixture to free even more contaminants. Finally, she went through a dozen cycles of filling the basin with clean water, swirling it together with the iron, then slowly removing the water. She continued this process until the water was no longer soapy, and she was left with a uniform, wet powder in the bottom of the large basin.

She had taken her time with each step. Though the iron had been free, she was loath to lose any, and if she left contaminants in the dust, they could spoil the end result. Because of that, the cleaning process had taken at least a couple of hours, though she didn’t have a clock to watch the time. I hope that Ashin isn’t too bored.

She then carefully spread the iron out on large drying trays, which the apothecary would use to dry herbs, separating off as much water as she could during the process. She then stuck them into the hot box, which was on the building's southern side. The air inside was uncomfortably hot to her fingers even as she quickly stuck the trays inside.

There, that will be dry in no time. It appeared to use a process similar to a solar oven that she’d seen some artisan bakers use. The apothecary must have some way of lowering the temperature at need, or he’s more likely to burn the herbs than dry them. Still, she did not complain; it was perfect for her purposes.

While the iron was drying, she melted a large portion of beeswax, also purchased from the apothecary, adding in several oils, and oh so slowly brought it up to temperature. While that was happening, she prepared the molds that were ready to hand. These particular molds were used for making soap integrated with, and affixed to, a wooden handle, so a less flexible user could lather up their own back with ease.

The iron still wasn’t dry.

She cleaned the basin, and the other items she had used, and wasn’t still using, and then checked the iron again.

Still damp.

The academy had magically powered dehydrators, which removed all traces of moisture almost instantly. It was mainly intended for medicinal or preservation purposes, but she’d happily implemented it for her own designs.

I’ve already been here for too long. If her estimates were correct, it was at least the third hour, after noon.

Irritated, she walked back to the front of the shop and discussed the issue with the apothecary. He was quite bemused, explaining that he’d assumed she needed his workshop for the next couple of days, given her description of her project.

His heated haggling, and irritated capitulation made much more sense in that light.

After further discussion, the man happily agreed to finish the process on her behalf, following her specifications exactly, in exchange for her departing now, and only returning to claim the end-product: six large, iron-salve bars on sticks. He even promised to put the extra iron dust into small bags, at 5 oz of iron in each.

He guessed that he would have her products ready for her in two days, three at the most. He also assured her that he would happily do the entire process for her, in the future, if she provided the iron.

All in all, she was quite happy with how it turned out. Now, I’m ready.

But she was broke…again.

 

* * *

 

Tala was not, in fact, quite ready. She and Ashin had to practically run back to the tailor; thankfully, she’d paid in advance. Then, they hurried back to Lyn’s house, where Tala quickly, and self-consciously, scrubbed herself clean, hoping to the heavens that she’d removed all traces of the iron dust. And then, clad in her new clothes, she was ready.

She planned to have her borrowed clothes cleaned and returned to Phoen, along with a thank you note, but she didn’t have time, or funds, for that just now. So, she left them in the room in Lyn’s house for the time being.

They arrived at the doors to the Caravanner’s Guild, not quite out of breath, just as a bell tower resounded for the fifth time, and Lyn stepped out. “Oh! Good, you’re here.” She smiled easily. Her eyes flicked over Tala’s outfit. “I like that. Non-traditional for a Mage, but pretty, in a simple sort of way.”

Tala looked down at her linen blouse and loose pants. “Thank you. I quite like them.” The top was light grey, the pants dark, and each was tightened to her figure, and held in place with simple cloth ties, monkey’s fist knots, and braided loops. These were not meant for quick removal, and the tailor had done an excellent job fitting them to her for easy, free movement.

Lyn glanced towards Ashin. “How was the day?”

Ashin gave a shallow bow towards Lyn. “It was…interesting, Mistress Lyn. Thank you for allowing me to assist.”

Lyn nodded to the man, but then turned to Tala, eyebrow quirked.

Tala gave a small smile. “He was quite helpful. Another taste of ‘Guild benefits?’ ”

Lyn’s smile grew just slightly predatory. “And don’t you forget it. I want you begging to renew your contract, once you’re done.” She held out a small book. “This is an overview of what you need to know to empower Guild specific dimensional expansion spell-forms, for our wagons. For any trip, you will have to begin work on that front at least two days before departure. That way, the wagons can be loaded before the day of departure.”

Tala nodded. She’d been wondering about that. “That explains it. I was curious how you’d addressed the issue of switching out who empowered them.”

“Exactly. Aside from the standard issues of any empowered magic item, each Mage visualizes the changes differently. Even if we could, changing casters while cargo is inside would be…problematic.”

“I can imagine.” She took the small book and examined it. “This is a ridiculous title…”

Lyn turned and began walking as she replied, Tala and Ashin falling in step. “Oh? You don’t like: ‘Why Organize When You Can Expand?’” Ashin seemed much less hesitant about being close to Lyn than to Tala.

Tala sighed. “Seems like someone’s flawed attempt at humor.”

“Not everyone excels at Meta-Naming, dear.” Lyn glanced at the little book, even as Tala was flicking through it. “There isn’t enough in there for you to recreate the spell on your own, but I don’t know why the Wainwrights bother with that precaution. You will be in sole charge of the wagons for your entire trip. I doubt that even a half-wit of a Mage would miss the ‘hidden’ aspects of the working.” She sighed. “But, I suppose, we have to maintain the illusion of secrecy. Honestly, they are just a marginal modification on any number of dimensional storage items used throughout the cities.” She shrugged. “That book is yours now, by the way. Feel free to take notes in it or modify it as you see fit.”

Tala held up the book, even as she began reading snippets. “Thank you. I can already tell I’ll glean a lot from it.”

Lyn’s eyes twinkled. “Oh, I hope so. I have high expectations for you, little Tala.”

Tala decided to ignore that, and absently let her feet follow where Lyn led, her eyes ravenously consuming the spell-lines, theory, and concepts outlined in the little book. I should dedicate one of my notebooks towards spell-workings and copy out the relevant sections, adding in what was redacted, once I can examine the wagons themselves.

The workings were actually vastly more complicated than simple dimensional expansion. They also prevented gravity from affecting the container based on the contents, while allowing the same to act on the contents within the expanded space, as normal. It was delicate work, but in the end, it meant that the wagons would function as if unloaded, while the cargo would still be held in place as expected.

Clever. I’m glad I’ve an understanding of gravity, too, or this would be vastly more difficult. She supposed that it was easier to educate a lacking Mage on the basics of gravity than on dimensional distortion. And I am familiar with both. She smiled happily to herself.

A criminally short time later, Lyn pulled Tala’s attention back up. “Here we are!”

Tala’s eyes reluctantly left the page before her, but as they did, she hesitated. “Is Mistress Holly’s shop in there?”

Before them rose a colossal, three-story building with a warehouse aesthetic. It wasn’t dilapidated, but it was clear that very little care had been taken for the outward appearance of the place.

“It doesn’t look like a great place to establish a business in...”

Lyn chuckled. “No, Tala. This is Mistress Holly’s place.”

Tala turned to her in confusion. “How can she possibly need this much space?”

“She has over a hundred apprentices, and there are ten full inscribers who also work under her direction with their own apprentices.”

Tala almost gaped.

“She isn’t the only inscribing business in town, but nearly so. She has developed a special means of inscribing, which she manufactures here, and sells to inscribers in each of the fourteen cities.” Lyn brushed back her hair. “It has changed what is possible for Mages.”

No wonder Lyn was confident I couldn’t go elsewhere…

“Shall we?”

The three of them walked through the front door into a cozy waiting room, but before they could sit, an assistant bustled out from behind a sturdy desk. “Mistress Tala?”

“Um, yes?”

The assistant muttered something under her breath that Tala thought was: “Heaven’s be praised.” Then, she smiled widely. “Welcome! The Mistress has been expecting you.” Tala thought she saw a bit of manic stress in that look. “Please, right this way.” She paused. “I’m to take your payment?”

Tala was hesitant, once again. Nonetheless, she took out five golden coins and handed them over.

“Thank you.” The assistant placed the coins through a slot in a strongbox mounted to the wall. “This way, please.”

Tala followed the woman down a wide, brightly lit hallway. The inside of this facility was a good deal nicer than the outside. I suppose Holly isn’t concerned with attracting clients so much as keeping them happy once they’re here?

Doors stood open to either side, and Tala was able to glimpse inscribing chambers, as well as what looked like planning rooms. Several of the latter had large black-boards, covered with multicolored lines, depicting dozens of slight variations of different spell-lines. Some were crossed out, others had pieces circled, showing clear progressions through versions of possible schema. How much effort do they put into each inscribing? If she understood the scaling correctly, one of those rooms had been devoted to the discussion of spell-lines for a single shoulder. Do those lines look familiar?

The implications were staggering. And Holly said she would have my schema modified and ready in one day? If she’d succeeded, Tala’s opinion of Holly would drastically rise above its already lofty heights.

The assistant stopped outside the door at the end of the hall and gestured for them to enter.

The room was fairly standard for an inscriber’s workroom. A comfortable looking chair sat in the center, surrounded by lenses and lights to give the inscriber better vantage for their work. That said, there were a couple differences that were immediately apparent.

First, the chair didn’t seem to be set up to allow the occupant to be face down, which was odd. How will she inscribe my back? Her keystone, the largest set of spell-lines, encompassing and overlaying her magical gate, was intact, between her shoulder blades, but she would still need other work done across her back.

Second, along the wall were racks upon racks of needles from half an inch long to nearly two feet in length. Each looked to be made of an intricate, if irregular, braiding of silver, gold, and copper.

What?

Holly was already in there, sitting on a stool in the corner where she hadn’t been obvious. She stood, immediately. “Good! Finally. Mistress Tala, have a seat.”

Tala glanced towards Ashin. “Um… don’t I need to undress?”

Holly waved a dismissive hand. “Of course not…unless you want to? Just set your things, especially anything iron, over to the side there.” She hesitated before adding. “Clothes are fine, iron is not.” She indicated an empty shelf. “Make sure to get it all. No buckles forgotten, dear!”

The assistant was already gone, though Ashin and Lyn had followed Tala inside.

Tala obeyed, leaving her pack, satchel, and belt to the side. Her belt held her knife, so that was easy, and she had opted not to get shoes, so those, likewise, couldn’t be an issue.

“Simple cloth fasteners on the garments? Good. That makes this easier. I’m glad you found an adequate tailor. Sit!”

Tala sat.

“Now.” She glanced at Lyn and Ashin. “This will take a while. I assume all night, in fact, do you really want to stay?”

Ashin cleared his throat. “No, Mistress. I will take my leave.” He bowed slightly to each of them in turn.

Tala waved to him, just before he departed. “Wait, why did you stay so long, then?”

He gave her a quizzical look. “I was asked to accompany you and had not been dismissed.”

She opened her mouth, then hesitated. I’m going to have to learn better what is expected of me. “Ahh… Well, thank you, Ashin. I appreciated the guidance, today.”

He gave her a second nod and a smile. Then, he was gone.

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JLMullins

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