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Sunset seemed only half an hour off or so when a halt was called, and the wagons trundled into a circle.

Tala climbed down, tucking her various odds and ends back into the box that Den was letting her use on the side of the cargo wagon.

Several large tables and benches were brought out of the back of her cargo wagon’s backmost cargo-slot, and they were set up within the circle.

Tala also saw a group of guards digging a latrine pit a short walk downslope of the wagon circle.

During the day, Tala had walked just over a nearby rise to answer the call of nature, always being careful to sweep both land and sky with her mage-sight before going. She also suspected that she’d seen evidence of latrines within the wagons, which simply dropped the waste down onto the ground as they traveled. That obviously wouldn’t be tenable overnight, unless the latrines had a way of being closed up until the next day’s traveling had begun.

She did not focus on any of the wagons to verify her theory.

Now that I think about it, there were a few times that Den asked a guard to take the reins, and he went into the bunk wagon… Had other drivers similarly left their posts for sporadic breaks?

Come on, Tala, this is ridiculous. Why, under the stars, would you care about the caravan’s habits of defecation? She shook her head as she looked around.

One thing that her contemplations on what might have fallen from the bottom of wagons did do was to ensure that she would not be sleeping under any wagon, except maybe the cargo wagon.

She bent down to look underneath and was pleasantly surprised. Not only was the platform some four feet off the ground, making a rather nice space, but there appeared to be a rather thicker than average growth of grass, almost centered in the sheltered space.

That should be extra comfy.

But bed was later. Now, now was time for food.

Den had led the wagons into a circle, which left the right side of each wagon facing inwards, allowing for all of the ladders to the top of the wagons to similarly be facing inward. Defensible. Nice. The man, himself, was unhitching the oxen and tending to their needs. Tala offered to help, but he declined.

With nothing better to do, she headed towards the chuckwagon.

Now that the caravan had stopped, the passengers were climbing from their wagons and stretching. Those in the two less crowded wagons did seem to be dressed a bit nicer than the five from the other passenger carrier, though they were all dressed much more nicely than Tala, herself.

With the sun going down, she’d left her hat in the cargo wagon’s box, and she felt a bit exposed.

The passengers seemed to be avoiding looking her direction, and she frowned at that. Did they not expect Mages on the trip? No one would be that stupid.

Ashin walked up to her; he’d been in the second shift, so he was nearing the end of his time on duty.

She turned and smiled. “Ashin, did you have an easy afternoon?”

He smiled back. “Mostly. I was stationed on one of the passenger wagons, so I had to listen to those two bickering.” He nodded his head towards two of the wealthier passengers, who had had a wagon to themselves.

“Oh? What about?”

“I couldn’t tell.” He frowned. “I don’t generally try to listen in on other people’s conversations.”

Tala waved that away. “Once you start shouting, you lose the right to privacy.” She sighed. “But if you didn’t hear, you didn’t hear.”

He shrugged. Then, he glanced around, seeming a bit embarrassed. “So…can I help you find a washbasin?”

She blinked at him, confused. “What?”

“A basin filled with water, so you can get cleaned up.”

She just stared at him. “What?”

Finally, he rolled his eyes and gestured at her. “You look like you came out of a butcher’s shop.”

Tala glanced down. Her sleeves were encrusted and stained deep red, almost black, with the arcanous bird’s blood, and as she shifted her face, she realized that she likely still had some of the stuff stuck there, as well.

The front of her shirt was speckled in a rather pleasing pattern that would have been stylish, save the source of the coloration.

She grinned, looking back to Ashin. “Don’t like the look?”

He grunted. “Don’t be difficult, Mistress Tala. You are scaring some of the passengers.”

She glanced towards those whom she was apparently scaring and noted several of them look away as she turned. “Huh.” She flicked her eyes back to Ashin. “And, what? You drew the short straw?”

“Master Sergeant Divner thought it would sound best coming from someone you knew.”

“Meaning he was too much of a coward to ask a Mage to clean up, himself.”

Ashin raised a shushing hand and glanced around again. “I volunteered.”

She frowned. “I thought he’d be asleep.”

“He was resting, not on bunk rotation. He’ll go down after dinner.”

She grunted. “Fine, but I’m not going to be able to get the blood out of this shirt.”

“Don’t you have others?”

“I like this one.”

He gave her a flat look.

“Fine.” She sighed. “You’ve gotten some backbone.”

“I’m used to the wilds. Things make sense here.” He looked at her, again. “And you’re making it harder by scaring the passengers.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine. Where can I find a washbasin?”

He led her around to the far side of the cargo wagon and showed her where a tightly worked wood crate could fold open, making a passible basin. It also had a drop canvas which blocked the view from under the wagon, and provided a clean place to stand, regardless of the ground. Clever.

He also showed her a tap in a small cistern of water, imbedded in the front of the wagon.

“It only holds about thirty gallons. Master Renix can refill it, if we have to.”

She nodded. “With ice, that makes sense.”

Ashin nodded as well. “Yes, but it isn’t ideal. We also have water barrels, but we don’t want to have to transfer it to this.”

“So, don’t waste water, right?”

“Right.”

“Understood.”

He waved goodbye and left her to it.

Tala took a moment to go around the wagon and grab a change of clothes before returning to the washing station. She let some water out, into the small basin and removed her gloves first, hanging them to the side. She’d cleaned them earlier, while stripping the bones of the remnants of flesh, and had ensured they were both dry and spotless before she touched Renix’s book, or her own notebooks.

That done, she cleaned her face, and any other exposed skin, of dried blood. Then, checking for any witnesses-there were none-she stripped off the blood-stained clothing and pulled on the new. It was only a quick moment, but it still felt odd to be naked in the middle of nowhere, beneath a darkening sky. I suppose I’ll get used to it…

The water was warm, having been heated through the wagon’s wood in the sun all day, but it wasn’t hot. Still, it was a pleasant thing, washing off the road-dust…and blood.

When she was done, she emptied the basin -she’d only used about two cups of water- and hung up the drop canvas so it was up off of the ground.

She re-entered the circle of the wagons to find dinner service well underway.

She joined the back of the short line, as everyone walked up to the chuckwagon and was served a heavy, hot soup with thick slices of buttered bread. I would have guessed chicken soup, but given today’s events… She focused on the meat, and indeed, there was still lingering power swirling through the poultry in the deliciously savory smelling soup.

Huh… I wonder what that does to a person, when they eat it.

Looking around, she saw the three other trained Mages sitting at a table on the far side of the ring.

She walked over and set her bowl and bread down beside them on the provided tray, stepping over the bench to sit on it. There were already pitchers of water and wooden mugs for their use.

“So, what kind of effect does eating magic infused meat actually have on people, long term?”

All three stopped eating and turned to her.

Atrexia was the first to respond. “What?”

“This.” Tala pointed at the soup. “The meat is from the arcanous avian that attacked us…Oh! Right, you were in your wagon.”

“No, I heard about it.” Atrexia looked at the soup. “Why do you think this is from that?”

Tala frowned. “Just look at it. It’s practically dripping with power.” She shrugged. “And I was there when the cooks harvested the meat from the beast, earlier today.” She took a bite, feeling an interesting pulse of energy as the bit of meat touched her tongue. “It does taste pretty good.” Tala smiled.

The others didn’t smile. Trent actually pushed his bowl away from himself.

Tala frowned. “Come on. You had to know. You’ve gone on dozens of these trips. This can’t be unique.” She took another bite. “You can taste the magic in it.”

Atrexia cocked her head. “You can?”

“Of course! It’s obvious…” She trailed off.

“Obvious to you. You also said you can see the power in it, but I haven’t felt you activate your mage-sight…though I’m not sure I could sense that from you, even if I tried.” She sighed. “No, Mistress Tala, we did not know they were feeding us arcanous meat. We knew they harvested from the creatures, when they were killed, and we knew that they sold parts upon arrival. I, for one, never watched them harvest, so I never knew meat was taken.”

“Never watched them? Are you serious? Arcanous creature parts are incredibly valuable!”

“And the guards get a good return on their work, harvesting. I don’t really feel it is right to interfere.”

Trent was nodding. “It’s not really done.” He hesitated. “Well, some Mages do harvest as they go, but when they do, they generally claim the entire creature.” He shrugged. “I’ve never heard of a Mage sharing with the caravan. They either take it all or ignore the process.”

“So, you’re telling me, no one knows they're eating Magic meat?”

“I’m sure many know, but why would we?”

“Have you never asked what you’re eating?”

“It’s good, it’s filling, no need to ask further.”

Tala rolled her eyes. “You all are a strange lot.”

“Says the demon girl.”

Tala glared at Atrexia before she realized that the other woman had spoken so quietly even Trent, who was sitting directly next to her, should not have even known she’d spoken. Atrexia met her glare, eyes widening. Oh…rusted pyrite.

“What are you?”

Tala looked away, taking another bite. “I’m a Mage, Mistress Atrexia. Leave it at that.”

“A human Mage, right?”

Tala turned back to her, a questioning frown forming across her face. “Are there other kinds?”

Atrexia glanced towards Trent, who was giving her a hard look, then away. “Never mind. It was a silly question.”

Tala kept eating, steadily. As she did so, she noticed that Renix was unusually quiet.

Finally, he muttered something to himself, and Tala caught it easily. “I just thought it was spicy.”

She quirked a smile, and he seemed to notice because he glanced towards her and blushed. Tala pointed her spoon at Renix and swallowed her mouthful. “You’ve a good mageling, Master Trent. He’s sensitive and perceptive, maybe more than either of you realize.”

Renix’s color deepened, and he looked away. Trent turned to study his student. “Huh. Might be worth testing him on it.” The Mage looked around, then sighed. “But not in the wilds.” He looked back at his soup. “How often do you think they’ve been feeding us, this?”

Tala shrugged, picking up her empty bowl. She’d been hungry. “I’ll ask.” She took her last bite of bread after mopping up the remnants of the soup, and carried her plate back to the chuckwagon, where there was an obvious place to process her own dirty dishes. No seconds, I guess.

After cleaning her items, and leaving them in the pile to dry, she walked around to the smaller door at the back of the chuckwagon. She knocked.

After a moment, a smaller man opened the back door and smiled at her. “Mistress Tala, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“You may call me, Brand. What can I do for you?”

“Brand.” Tala nodded formally in greeting. “What was the meat in tonight’s dinner?”

His face didn’t even twitch, but his eyes flicked to the left, just briefly. “Chicken, Mistress.”

Tala cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

One of the other culinary workers stepped up behind Brand and whispered in his ear. Tala heard it clearly. “Brand, she was there when we harvested the meat.”

Brand’s face froze. After a long moment, he bowed slightly. “One moment, please.”

And just that quickly, he stepped backwards and closed the door.

The conversation was quick, quiet, and terse, but Tala heard every word.

“You let a Mage watch you harvest?”

“You wanted us to deny a Mage?”

“Of course not! If she wanted the body, you should have given it to her!”

“She didn’t want the body, though. She just wanted pieces we weren’t interested in. And you said get the meat if we could.”

Brand growled.

The door opened briefly, and he stuck his head out. “One more moment, please.” The door closed.

Tala found herself smiling.

“What are we going to do?”

“I’m not going to talk to her. She already knows your name.”

It sounded like Brand took a deep breath, and let it out, slowly. “Fine. I am head chef, I will take responsibility.”

“Crack me over the head you are! You’re just in charge of ingredient acquisition.”

“You really want to argue with me, now?”

There was a long pause, then the other man responded, even more quietly. “No, head chef.”

“I thought not.”

The door opened once more and Brand stepped out, closing it behind him. “Mistress Tala?”

“Hmmm?” She couldn’t speak for fear of laughing.

“Please, follow me. I don’t wish our discussion to be overheard by the passengers.” There was a tremble to his voice, which hadn’t been there, before.

Nervous? Clearly, but that didn’t seem quite right. Tala followed him away from the wagon circle, even while Brand darted looks left and right, as if fearful of being seen. It was full dark, now, and they were deep in shadows within a half dozen feet.

Brand turned to face her, a slight tremble obvious through his whole body at that point. “Now, what can I do for you?”

She cocked her head. “I just want to know what the meat in the soup was.”

“Blade Wing Falcon, Mistress. Specifically, it was breast meat.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, seemingly in an attempt to calm himself, as if steeling himself for what was to come.

Tala nodded. “See? That wasn’t so hard. Now, why-”

While she spoke, Brand had leaned to one side, looking past her, away from the wagon circle. He frowned and interrupted her to ask, “What is that?”

Tala turned her head to look, but when she scanned the countryside, she saw nothing. Turning back, she said as much. “I don’t see any-”

Her words were cut off as a knife plunged down, into her chest.

No. That isn’t quite accurate. Well…rust me to slag.

Brand brought the knife downward in a forceful stab, driving the point through her shirt, and into the top of her chest, but it did not break the skin.

At the moment of contact, her silver inscribings had detected it and a flick of power had activated the intercellular and intracellular bond strength enhancements.

Both she and Brand looked down at the knife, piercing through her shirt, dimpling her skin, and pushing her left breast towards the side. In a tight circle, directly around the tip of the knife, and extending out in a radius of roughly an inch, her skin glowed with a soft, grey-tinged, golden light. “Ow? I guess?”

Brand stepped back, horror written on his face, as he dropped the knife, tripping and falling onto his backside. “Oh…what have I done.” His voice was a harsh whisper, as if he truly didn’t know what was happening.

Tala was quite curious about that herself. I’m knife proof? That was something she could have gone a lifetime without learning, but she supposed it was better than the alternative.

She knelt down in front of Brand as he began incoherently babbling, begging for forgiveness, explaining that he had a family, and that he needed to live.

After a long moment, Tala held up a hand, and he stopped instantly.

“Why did you do that?”

He swallowed. “We were told by Mages to never, under any circumstances, eat or feed others arcanous meat.”

She quirked an eyebrow, and she was reasonably certain that he could see it in the reflected firelight that managed to reach them.

He swallowed. “A cook on one of these trading routes, years and years ago, probably a few decades, was running out of rations, and used what he had on hand, meat from an arcanous beast killed that day.” He glanced to the side, then continued. “To his surprise, he found that the men who ate it were stronger the next day, and even seemed to heal faster than expected. One guard, who had been bedridden by the fight the day before, was able to stand and move about under his own power. It was a miracle.”

The cook seemed to be calming down as he told his story.

“This head cook told other cooks, and together they tested the theory. After they had a solid body of evidence, they approached the Mages but were only able to state that they had a theory about eating arcanous meat. The Mages cut them off and simply stated: Never eat or feed anyone arcanous meat, and never mention it again.”

Tala waited for a long moment before Brand continued.

“But it was helping the men. Fewer of us mundane folk were dying on the voyages, and those who were injured healed more quickly and completely. We couldn’t stop…”

“So, you continued, despite the Mages’ instructions?”

He nodded, looking away from her.

“How have the guards not noticed?”

“Oh, they know Mistress, at least the Sergeants. They also know not to mention it to the Mages.”

“Huh…Well, I hope I didn’t just ruin it all for you.”

Brand looked at her with obvious confusion. “What?”

I’m hearing that a lot, tonight. “It seems to be working and helping a lot of people. I’d hate to think I’ve taken that from you.”

“I just tried to kill you…” He seemed quite hesitant about reminding her of the fact.

“If a child hits you with a twig, do you get angry? No matter his intention?”

Brand blinked at her. “So… I’m a child?”

She waved it away. “You couldn’t have killed me.” She hesitated, knowing full well that he would have killed most other Mages, had any one of them been in her place. “Maybe…don’t do that again? I’ll have to be watching the caravans you are a part of, going forward, and if any Mages die mysteriously, I’ll come for you.” She tried to look intimidating as she spoke the last. There is NO way I’m actually going to keep tabs on this guy…

She apparently did it right, because he paled, nodding vigorously. “Yes, of course, Mistress. I wouldn’t dream of it.”

She hesitated, thinking about all that she’d just learned. “You all wanted Mage involvement in the past, yes?”

He, likewise, seemed to hesitate before answering. “Yes?”

She nodded. “I want in. Get me all the information that you have, and some way to indicate to future chefs that I’m in the loop. I saw your people harvesting, and they were very particular about what they took. I assume you have notes on what portions of the arcanous beasts create what effects, and what portions aren’t safe, and so on?”

The pause was longer, but finally, Brand seemed to make up his mind. “You’ll help us? You won’t cut us out or turn us in?”

She grinned widely. “I wouldn’t dream of it. It sounds like you may have just saved me a lot of tedious work, and I’d love to help you in return.” They seem a bit on edge, but I suppose trying to hide something like this for more than a decade will do that… Hopefully, my involvement will ease that tension a bit. She pointedly did not consider the fact that this unauthorized group might have killed to keep the secret before. It was, after all, unlikely; Holly had been insistent that Tala’s form of mage-sight was unique, and only her mage-sight really clued her in.

Brand nodded, slumping with obvious relief. “I’ll get you what you need.”

“Good.” She looked back towards the circled wagons. “Now, I just have to figure out what to tell the other Mages…”

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JLMullins

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