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As it turned out, Lyn had to go in to do some paperwork and thought it would be instructive for Tala to accompany her to the guild’s main office.

Lyn promised coffee, so Tala agreed.

In retrospect, that was an early sign that Tala had failed: Coffee was becoming integral.

As they walked back through the city, Lyn seemed to be mulling over an idea. Finally, she turned to Tala, as they continued. “Would you consider wearing gloves, when around other Mages? We might want to find a way to reduce the…cloud around you.”

Tala glanced at the other woman and then briefly down at their feet. The older woman was walking just out of arms reach. “Is it that bad?”

Lyn hesitated, then, finally, sighed. “Yes.”

Tala waited for more, but when nothing more was said, her eyebrows rose. “Oh…Ummm… I’m sorry?”

Lyn smiled. “It seemed that honesty would be best.”

“Well, thank you.” Tala contemplated for just a moment. “I don’t have any money for gloves-” She stopped speaking as Lyn’s arm extended her way, proffering a set of thin, black, leather gloves. “You…already bought me a pair.”

“I did.” Lyn smiled apologetically. “I wasn’t quite sure how to approach you about it…” As Tala took the gloves, and began putting them on, Lyn continued. “They are treated and sealed inside and out, so they shouldn’t be able to pick up any iron, but I’ll leave that to you to verify.”

“I…Thank you. This is a kind gift.” If she was being honest, it hurt a bit that something about her offended her friend so much that she’d preemptively sought ways to hide it. Tala took a deep breath and let it out. I’m being touchy. She is looking out for me, as well as how I am, and will be, perceived by other Mages.

Did she care what other Mages thought?

If Ashin’s reaction to her was indicative of how non-Mages would view her, she likely couldn’t have many friends if she drove all Mages away. Tala finally nodded, as they continued their trek through the city. “Truly, thank you.”

Lyn seemed to relax. “With those, we only need to find a way of dealing with your…lack of aura.”

Tala frowned. “What?”

“In my mage-sight, you basically don’t exist…” There was a long pause, during which Lyn began to frown. “No… that’s not right. You are like a human shaped mirror to my mage-sight, walking around.” After a moment, she nodded. “The result can’t really be described any other way. In some situations, you are virtually invisible. In others, you stand out like a human-shaped oddity.” Her eyes flicked to Tala’s face, then away. “Except your eyes.” She shivered slightly. “Honestly, the combination is a bit…”

Tala quirked a smile, remembering her own view in Lyn’s washroom mirror. “Terrifying?”

Lyn laughed. “Just a bit. And even without my mage-sight, you feel a bit strange, like a piece of paper, lightly brushing across my skin. I’d guess it is something with the iron reflecting my own power back my way.” She shrugged. “But really, I’ve no idea.”

Tala didn’t really have a response. She remembered her classmates’ awkwardness and hesitancy around her. Were they just feeling a weaker version of what Lyn is? What would that do to the already socially hesitant, Mages-to-be? Her years of near isolation took on a new cast. Did I do that all to myself? She felt a deep seed of sadness and loneliness blossom within her. No, don’t focus on that. I have a task to complete.

Tala remained silent on their trek back toward the Caravanners Guildhall, even while Lyn pointed out interesting shops, restaurants, and features of the city.

“That shop sells the best hats.”

“This Gate is named after…”

“The spinach soup, there, is to die for!”

Finally, a last comment brought her from her silence. Indicating a door tucked back, between the two neighboring buildings, Lyn said, “He buys and sells artifacts and arcane goods.”

Tala’s head snapped up, and she noticed the look of smug satisfaction on Lyn’s lips.

“I thought that might interest you.”

Tala took a step towards the door. Artifacts, magical items that have no visible inscribings and only need power, every so often, to continue functioning. She’d never seen one, and had only heard of them through hearsay, so she’d no idea if that was actually true, but it was enticing. What would it be like to not require metal to keep items functional? I need to study some.

Lyn stopped her. “You can come back later…when you have money to buy something.”

Tala groaned. Right…fundless. “Fine. How much should I have?”

“If you want a trinket, something that works similarly to an empowered item? Ten to fifty ounces, gold. An item of real power, though?” Her smile turned wicked. “You should have a soul or two to trade.”

Tala laughed, but trailed off when Lyn didn’t join in. “You aren’t serious…right?”

Lyn shrugged. “I’ve never heard of someone buying one of the truly rare ones, and every Mage I’ve known to sell one retired shortly after.”

Tala swallowed. So…not cheap. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but she still felt disappointed. “Maybe… He’d let me study them?”

Lyn laughed, then, and turned to keep walking. “He keeps a large book, which describes the items for customers to peruse. The items, themselves, are kept under tight security somewhere in the city. To be clear, the book describes the trinkets. He keeps knowledge of the truly powerful ones in his own head, supposedly.”

“Somewhere?” Tala fell in beside her friend.

“I certainly don’t know where, and while many have fun guessing, I don’t know of anyone who actually knows.” Her eyes were twinkling. “I do know of several very skilled trackers, Mages all, who worked together to tail him after several sales. According to them, he never left the shop.”

Tala rolled her eyes. “He obviously has some artifact teleportation item, or an expanded space.”

Lyn cocked an eyebrow. “Of course! How could we all be so foolish as to not consider the obvious.”

Tala sighed. “Fine. So, he never leaves, and the items just… what? Disappear?”

“That’s the mystery.”

Tala turned back, allowing her eyes to rest on the shop front and focusing on it more intently. It was still an odd, new experience, but she thought she was allowing her mage-sight to sweep through the store. She certainly got a good look at the inside of the buildings on either side, both family homes, both empty for the day. The view was mainly just the impression of the various types of magical connections present in mundane objects, but it was enough to get a general idea. Even so, she couldn’t see anything beyond the front of the building she was interested in, and that looked…strange but also strangely familiar.

Tala blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision of the odd effects associated with the building. She made an incoherent sound of distaste and wiped at her eyes absently. “Mleh… what is that?”

Lyn sighed. “Too bad. I’d hoped your sight could penetrate it. He has iron plates up on the inside of his walls.”

Tala glared. “You could have warned me.”

“That’s what it feels like to look at you. Or to stand near you, for that matter. Consider it educational.” A small smile was tugging at the older woman’s lips.

“I’ve seen myself, thank you.”

“Ahh, then a reinforcement of the notion?”

“You’re…”

“So helpful?” Lyn offered.

“Yes.” Tala nodded, adding in a monotone. “So, so very helpful.”

“I aim to be of assistance.”

The silence broken, the two chatted amiably for the rest of the walk to the guildhall.

When they arrived, Lyn led Tala through a chorus of greetings, almost universally directed at Lyn. Lyn introduced Tala in passing, but no one stuck in the younger Mage’s mind.

Together, they passed through a large set of beautifully crafted doors, into a lushly appointed side-room. Her mage-sight immediately overwhelmed her with information, as it apprised her that every single occupant, excepting the occasional tray-bearing server, was a Mage. There were at least thirty people that she could see. The influx caused her eyes to go out of focus for a moment, and her balance to become unsteady for an instant, before it passed.

Even so, she found that she could easily recall the auras surrounding each, if she wished to. She did not.

The sounds of cooking and the clink of plates and cutlery came from an adjoining space, and the low buzz of conversation rested comfortably throughout the room.

A restaurant?

“This, Tala, is the Guild’s Mage Lounge. You can’t afford the food right now, and I’d recommend against it, even if you have the money.” She leaned in and faked a whisper. “They charge much more than they should.”

An occupant of a nearby table laughed at the comment, which he was obviously meant to have heard. “The prices are high, but the company is second to none.” The young man, perhaps around Lyn’s age, stood and walked over to them. “Did I hear right? Your name is Tala?” He offered a hand.

Tala took it hesitantly. “Yes, and you are…?”

But he was looking down at her hand. “Gloves? What an interesting fashion choice. And no robes?” He glanced to Lyn. “Is your friend trying to shame us all into purchasing better wardrobes?” He turned back to Tala smiling with evident humor. “I’m entranced, but you can call me Cran.” He shook her hand once more, firmly but not in a ‘I want to prove how strong I am’ sort of way, and released her.

“Master Cran, then. Nice to meet you…I suppose?”

Lyn grinned. “Master Cran, you really shouldn’t overwhelm the poor dear. She’s new to…” Lyn hesitated, then sighed. “I was going to say, ‘Mage society’ but that makes us sound like the sort of club, which honestly we’d avoid.”

His smile, somehow, seemed to widen. “New, eh? A mageling, then?” He glanced between the two women. “Mistress Lyn? Have you finally taken on a mageling? I thought you’d sworn off the idea.”

Lyn shook her head. “No, not a mageling…” She glanced to Tala. “She can tell her own story, if she wants to, but she isn’t used to all of this.”

Cran turned to regard Tala, looking truly excited. “No… You aren’t an outland Mage, are you?”

Lyn groaned, placing a hand over her face.

Tala frowned. “An outland Mage?”

Lyn sighed. “Master Cran has a pet theory that there are human Mages beyond the cities. He guesses that they’d have to be much more powerful, and use different methods, to cope with the greater amounts of Magic and the more powerful entities out there.”

“It’s not my theory, Mistress Lyn. Many Mages believe some variation on the same.” He gave Tala a conspiratorial smile and shifted into a half-whisper. “It doesn’t help that so many of our most gifted associates seem to vanish for long stints, then refuse to tell us where they’ve been.”

“They aren’t going outside, Cran.”

“You don’t know that.”

Lyn sighed, but Tala shook her head and interjected. “No. I’m from the cities. I even trained at the Academy.”

Cran looked vaguely disappointed but recovered. After a pause, his smile shifted to one of friendly interest. “May I look?”

Tala frowned. “…what?”

Lyn leaned over to whisper, truly this time, though Tala thought Cran might still be able to hear. “He’s asking to use his mage-sight on you. It is usually rude to gaze upon another Mage without permission. Yet another way that Mistress Holly’s decisions were…unusual.”

Cran seemed to misunderstand the whispering. “You can look at me as well, of course.”

Oh, he couldn’t hear. Now that she thought about it, Lyn had spoken so quietly, she might not have even known the woman was speaking, before Holly’s work on her inscriptions. She adapted incredibly fast to what I can perceive… She might have to ask about that.

In the meantime, however, Cran was looking expectant.

“Oh! Of course, but I think you might…” She trailed off as she saw the inscribings lacing around his eyes ripple with power.

Cran frowned, staring down at her feet. “Huh… Is it working or-” He had swept his gaze upward and his words cut off abruptly as his eyes met hers. He seemed to visibly restrain himself for an instant, his hands twitching so subtly that Tala knew she would not have noticed it even a few days earlier. “Oh…I don’t quite understand but…” He leaned forward, seemingly despite himself. “Well, chrome my ba-”

Lyn cut him off. “Cran! Language.”

He cleared his throat, his eyes flicking to her briefly. “My apologies, Mistress Lyn. Mistress Tala, what…” His gaze swept across their surroundings, seeming to note a few curious stares. He lowered his voice and continued. “What are you?”

Tala quirked a smile. “Very hungry. Are you buying?” She glanced to Lyn. “You promised me coffee, and don’t you have work to do?”

Cran opened his mouth, then closed it, before his smile returned in full force, bringing with in a soft laugh. “I suppose I should buy you dinner before-” His eyes ticked to Lyn again before he sighed. “You aren’t much fun sometimes, Mistress Lyn.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“But you were thinking it.” He gestured for them to follow him back towards his table.

Lyn waved down a server and ordered coffee for Tala, paying as she did so. “As Mistress Tala so kindly pointed out, I have work to be about.” She gave Cran a flat stare. “You treat her well, yes? If possible, try to introduce her to those leaving with her in a few days.” She handed over a card.

Cran took it and nodded. “I will. Mistress Tala?”

Tala gave Lyn a small wave in goodbye, then turned and followed him. The table was large enough for four, and with enough chairs, though he’d been sitting there alone.

The book resting on it immediately gave Tala the impression that he was seeking solitude, simply enjoying a quiet evening. She frowned slightly, as she sat down. Solitude in the table closest to the entrance? A front then? Or a show. He wanted to see everyone who came and went but wasn’t interested in having anyone join him. Until us.

It was also possible that it had been the only available table when he’d arrived, and she was just overthinking things. That would be typical.

Cran’s voice cut across her thoughts, as he held out a menu towards her. “What will you have?”

Tala took the menu and glanced at the prices. Lyn had not been exaggerating. “I can’t order anything from here!” She felt mortified.

He just smiled. “Tell you what: Order any one meal and repay me with all your darkest secrets.”

Tala gave him a flat look.

“Fine, fine. Tell me your quadrant, if that even applies, and we can go from there?”

She smiled widely. “Deal.”

Tala ordered a sweet-potato and yam chowder served in a wheat-sourdough, bread bowl.

She did not think about how much it cost. Three silver, and the coffee Lyn ordered for me was twenty copper! She most certainly did not feel guilty at the expense.

As the server departed, Tala flicked back through her memory to what her mage-sight had shown of Cran when she’d first entered.

Immaterial Creator, specializing in kinetic energy. He has a series of gold powered, silver activated, spell-forms designed to drive any incoming threat away. Her analysis hadn’t been detailed enough to determine exactly how it detected incoming attacks, nor exactly how the magic would respond, but if Cran was true to his word, she could look more closely, if she wanted.

In addition, he had several concentrations of earth energy scattered throughout his body. If she had to guess, she’d say they were now-healed breaks to his bones, but it would have been just a guess. Am I seeing earth because it is, or is that simply the closest thing I can recognize? She would not be surprised if bones had a magic all their own, somehow.

By his spell-lines, his mage-sight was very basic, in that it would likely just highlight sources of power around him, likely color coding for the type of power. It didn’t seem nearly detailed enough to provide any analysis.

How is mine doing that? I haven’t studied spell-lines as an inscriber, but the knowledge of what spell-lines do seems ready at hand… Another ‘Holly addition’ most likely.

Cran cleared his throat. “So… do we need to wait for the food to arrive or…?”

“Hmmm? Oh! I apologize, my mind was elsewhere.”

“I could see that.” But he smiled, removing some of the sting from the rejoinder.

“To answer your question: I am of the Immaterial Guide quadrant.”

He nodded. “I thought your lines had a familiar feel to them.” He squinted, even though there was plenty of light. “Though, the tone of your skin makes it difficult to see them very clearly… Why do you have a gray cast? And why can’t my mage-sight see you properly?” He lightly rubbed at his arms for a moment before pausing and glancing down. He looked back up, eyes narrowing. “This feeling is you, too, right?”

“How many dinners are you planning on buying me?” She smiled mischievously, trying to hide her own nervousness.

He smiled in return. “At least confirm that I am right, even if not the method?”

After a moment’s hesitation, she realized that answering was a triviality. He would know when she left that she was the source of the feeling. She gave a tentative nod. “I am the source of what you’re feeling, if I understand you correctly.” After a moment, she felt concern paint her features in a sort of frown. “Is it terrible? I can leave…”

He shook his head, his smile growing. “Honestly, it isn’t. It feels almost like a light pressure against me.” He let out a low chuckle. “Sort of like having a blanket thrown over me on the side facing you.”

“That…doesn’t sound too bad.” Pressure? Is that because his magics tend towards kinetic energy? Was every Mage around her feeling something unique to their own emphasis? Probably only those within a pace or two.

“It isn’t.” He smiled again. “Now, you leave in a few days. Where are you going?”

Tala opened her mouth to answer and found that she didn’t know; she closed it again. She frowned.

“Oh, come now. I’m not paying for information like that.” He teased.

She quirked a smile. “I’d not ask you to, but I actually don’t know. I didn’t ask.”

“You didn’t…” He seemed stunned.

“I needed to leave and return on a tight, specific timeline, and Lyn found the best set of routes for that aim.”

Cran nodded, seeming somewhat mollified. “I see. A bit odd, but to each their own, I suppose. How long will you be gone?”

Again, she was stumped. Even so, she did have a semblance of an answer. “Just a couple weeks.”

“A couple weeks to get there and back, eh? With a tight turnaround in the middle...” He seemed to be contemplating. “You’re likely going to either Alefast or Marliweather.”

Tala stiffened, slightly. “I hope it’s Alefast.”

“Oh? Don’t like Marliweather?”

She shrugged. “I know some people there…”

“Might be nice to visit them, then?” He’d cocked his head just slightly, clearly puzzled.

“I don’t know, yet.” She took a deep breath and let it out, pulling a smile back in place. “What do you know of those cities?”

His puzzlement was replaced with a knowing smile. “Well! I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been to both, and neither hold a shine to here.” He nodded. “Bandfast is the place to be.” He hesitated, before adding. “Though, Alefast is worth a visit, if a short one. Waning cities are always fascinating.”

“Well, I’m glad I’ll be back so quickly, then.” I’ve never been to a waning city. She almost laughed at herself. I’ve never been anywhere, really.

He shook a finger her way. “But I know your type. The Guild will have you running hither and yon, and you’ll soon have no time for your old friend, Cran.”

She cocked an eyebrow, allowing a small smile. “Old friend?” She looked around. “I believe we’ve just met.” The server returned then, with her coffee. She thanked the man, and he bowed slightly before leaving.

“Yes! And with a habit like that.” He pointed at her coffee. “You’ll need many friends, deep pockets, or both.” He winked.

She laughed. “True enough.” She took a careful sip of her new dark necessity and exhaled in contentment. “So, old friend, do you intend to tell me about my possible destinations?”

He did, in fact, have many stories about his times in each city, and she soon had a bevy of recommendations should she find herself in either place. There were also several warnings among the good news: a leather worker whose products never held up to rain, somehow; a tailor who’s stitching was never quite right, and even though the clothes fit, they pulled and pinched in ways that shouldn’t be possible; and many more. Most were about Marliweather, in truth, as he’d only been to Alefast once, and that had been years earlier.

Tala’s food came, and she ate while listening, as each recommendation or warning came with a tale, some short and some long. She was easily able to hear conversations at the surrounding tables, and while she processed them, seeking any mention of her, or anything else of interest, she didn’t actually listen closely. I suppose I can remember later, if I so desire. She doubted she would.

All told, Tala found herself whisked through the morning and into early afternoon, in a rather pleasant fashion. The cadence changed, however, when Cran’s eyes flicked to the door, and he abruptly stopped his current tale. “Oi! Renix, Master Trent, get over here!”

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JLMullins

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