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Tala was walking behind one of the passenger wagons for wealthier patrons as she knocked.

There was a short pause before the wagon’s servant opened the door.

“Yes? May I-GAH!” The poor man stumbled backwards, clearly having not expected a blood-spattered Mage at his door.

Tala smiled, apologetically. “My apologies, good sir. I have something for…” She hesitated for just a moment. What if the woman hadn’t actually given her right name? It didn’t matter, really. Tala raised her voice and continued. “For Janice.”

There was a soft squeak from inside, and Janice appeared, pausing for a moment to help steady the servant, who was recovering quite admirably.

Janice glanced at Tala before bowing. “Mistress Tala. Would you like to come in?”

Tala looked down at herself, even as she continued to walk, keeping pace just behind the wagon. “I don’t think that would be kind to this good fellow.” She gestured at the still-wet, red splatters across herself. “Blood is not easy to clean.”

“Oh! Oh, of course. That was silly of me.” Janice’s eyes fell on the horn resting across Tala’s shoulders, and her eyes widened. “It’s true, then? That’s a…”

“A thunder bull’s horn, yes.” Thankfully, most, if not all, of the blood had drained out of the horn since she’d cut it free.

Janice sank down against the door until she sat, still looking down to Tala. “I heard the thunder this morning, and everyone was talking about you bringing down a bull, I even thought I saw you working to harvest it, but still…” She smiled. “I didn’t believe.”

Tala smiled in return. “May I ask…?”

Janice nodded. “My husband… He was an explorer of the Wilds.”

Tala’s eyes widened, but she didn’t interject.

“Some years ago, he wandered…somewhere he shouldn’t have and was changed.” Janice shook her head. “No, that isn’t right. Wild magics were worked upon him.” She sighed. “We sought treatment, but no one could reverse it. Still, it didn’t seem too severe: a little weakness, his bones seemed to break more easily, but not much.” She scoffed. “It got worse. Finally, they were able to diagnose him: brittle bone syndrome. Somehow, magic had given him the disease as if from birth, and his body was working to catch up.”

Tala was frowning in concern. “I think I understand. Some magics can strike humans with strange, inexplicable diseases, but what do you need the horn for?”

Janice brightened, clearly drawn from unpleasant musings. “We were able to purchase a construct, one that transferred power directly into him. If we hadn’t, he’d likely have died months ago. Arcanous harvests that can power it are plentiful, but not potent enough to overcome the hostile magic completely. We only just recently learned that a thunder bull’s horn should have sufficient power, of the right types, to empower the construct for complete healing.” She smiled. “There were none for sale in Bandfast, so we undertook this journey either to find one on the way, or to acquire one in Alefast.”

“Then why not just tell me?” Why not use a bone? …Because bones reinforce what’s there? The horn is meant to alter the strength of bone, if that were reversed… She understood…I think.

Janice shrugged. “I approached one of the other Mages, but she said she could not kill a thunder bull, unless provoked to it. Apparently, the small herds are incredibly vengeful.” She sighed. “Even so, I was hopeful, when I saw the thunder cattle on the first day, but nothing came of it. Then, one was killed the second day, but virtually nothing could be harvested from it.” She grinned, once more. “Then you.” Her eyes widened. “Oh! Your payment!”

Janice stood in a rush and vanished inside. She returned with a small, iron chest. “Four- and one-half ounces, gold, and fifty ounces, silver, as agreed.”

Tala was frowning to herself. After a long moment, she sighed, hefting the horn off and holding it out to the woman. “Here.”

Janice set the iron box down, just outside the door, and took the horn from Tala. After a moment’s pause, when Tala didn’t take the money, she hesitated, starting to look nervous. “I…I can get more, if that is what you need, Mistress.”

Tala started. “What? No! No. I…I just don’t feel right taking-”

“Taking what you are owed?” Janice’s hesitation had vanished, and she almost looked amused. “Mistress Tala. We’ve enough, more than enough. My husband’s line of work was dangerous, and his earnings more than accounted for that. You’ve given us what we needed to restore him, and we are nothing but grateful. Please.” She tapped the box with her toe. “Take the money.”

Tala nodded, hefting the box. This feels like close to seven or eight pounds! At least half the weight must be the box. She flipped open the lid and saw five golden coins, four one ounce and one-half ounce, resting atop a pile of silver.

“You are welcome to count it if-”

Tala shook her head, flipping the lid shut. “Everything looks in order.” After a moment, she added. “If the single horn is insufficient, let me know. I harvested both.”

Janice’s smile widened further. “That is very kind of you. Thank you. I will send Mayhew if we need it.” She bowed, turned, and retreated inside.

The servant, presumably Mayhew, studied her for a long moment before bowing as well. “Thank you, Mistress. Can I assist you further?”

Tala smiled slightly but shook her head. “No, thank you. Please do tell if they need further assistance.”

Mayhew bowed, once more. “I will. Good day, Mistress.”

“Good day.”

He shut the door, and Tala trudged out to the side and back up the line of moving wagons, iron strong-box in hand.

She was sorely tempted to use her mage-sight to watch the goings on within the wagon but felt, more than ever, that that would be an invasion of privacy.

Still, when she heard a burst of startled, joyous, feminine laugher, followed by another laugh, from a much deeper, clearly masculine voice, she found herself grinning ear to ear.

She had done good, this day. The iron chest felt light in her hands, and if anything, her smiled widened. I did good, AND I was paid to do it. She could get used to this. Things were definitely, irrevocably, looking up.

 

* * *

 

After placing her new iron box into the storage that Den had lent her on the lead wagon, Tala went back down the line to the chuckwagon. As she strolled up, the last of the small carts was being lifted into place against the outside wall, folded once more.

Brand was locking it in place, walking beside the continually moving wagon train, when he saw her. He smiled widely. “Mistress Tala! My friend. You delivered beyond all expectations. If it were not entirely inappropriate, I would kiss you.”

“Yes. Inappropriate.”

His smile hitched just slightly, but he recovered. “We got nearly a thousand pounds. A thousand pounds, Mistress Tala!” He laughed happily, raising his hands towards the heavens. “And we didn’t even harvest the whole beast! We got most, true, but not all.” He was still smiling. “I’ve never even heard of a caravan killing a thunder bull with enough time to do such a thorough harvest.” He hesitated. “No, that’s not true. I’ve heard of one or two who had to down a wayward beast in the dead of night, but in each case, they had to fend off scavengers, or other predators, through the dark hours as they worked. In the end, I doubt they got more than we did.” He was nodding happily.

“You are most welcome?” She was a bit taken aback by his outpouring of words. We didn’t see any scavengers save the terror bird… Had the avian been responsible for that?

“Ahh, your price, yes!”

She frowned. “I’m not always just after my price…”

He waved her away. “You did good work, and you deserve reward. Yes?”

She thought a moment, then shrugged with a smile. “Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Good, good. We are cutting strips for your jerky as we speak, see?” He pushed open the back door, and she could see one of the cooks doing just that, cutting strips of the red, bloody meat, and tossing them into a large cast-iron kettle. The lid to such rested off to one side. “We will marinate it overnight and should be able to complete the jerking process before we arrive at Alefast, tomorrow afternoon.”

“How much do you anticipate?”

“Weight, after the jerking is complete?” He pondered for a moment. “A hundred pounds?”

“What!”

He held up a hand. “I know we got close to a thousand, Tala, but we just don’t have the resources to process that much. We’ll be feeding the caravan with the other meat. Besides, jerky reduces quite a bit! To get you a hundred pounds, we’ll be starting with almost half the meat we harvested, right around four hundred pounds. I will definitely be correcting the capacity issue on future trips, just in case.”

Tala held up a hand. “No, you misunderstand. That seems like quite a substantial amount. I did not intend to complain…” She cleared her throat. “Honestly, I’m not actually sure I’ll be able to carry all that.” She thought about it further and realized that she had many things she really had no means of carrying. “I…I think I don’t actually have a good place to store most of what I own, while in Alefast.”

“Oh!” Brand was nodding, excitedly. “Of course, of course. You are a young Mage, likely recently freed from her master and out on her own. What you need is a form of dimensional storage.”

Tala did not expound upon the irony of him telling her, a Mage who’d been hired to facilitate dimensional storage, that that was what she needed…not the least because he was right.

“The vendor we sell excess harvests to, and the harvests we gather specifically for them? I’ll introduce you. You can likely get a discounted rate.”

“How much does such a thing even cost?” She was loath to admit it, but she’d known they were outside her budget, so she’d not even asked after them in Bandfast.

“For the most basic, inscripted item? Something with the storage of a small closet? I’d say the item itself would be around five ounces, gold.”

Tala blinked. That has to be wrong. “There is no way they are that cheap.” She still probably couldn’t afford it, but…

Brand shrugged. “The main expense comes from ongoing impressing and the power sources. Dimensional creatures are a rusting pain to kill.” He paled, glancing her way. “I’m sorry, Mistress. I wasn’t watching my language.”

Tala waved him off. “No matter.” She thought. “So… the largest expense is the means to power it?”

He nodded. “And it costs almost as much as the item itself to have the inscribings renewed. They usually have to have that done every three to six months.” He shrugged. “I’ve never really understood why it varies.”

“Quality of the power source, the mind behind that power, and the quality of the inscriptions themselves.” She rattled off, without much thought. Her eyes narrowed. “Will this vendor of yours carry quality goods?”

Brand seemed to be processing what she’d said, but answered quickly, nonetheless. “Of course! And she’ll give you the best deal in the city, after I introduce the two of you.”

Tala nodded. “Then, I’d be grateful. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” He glanced over his shoulder, to the other cooks who were clearly working dedicatedly within the wagon. “I should go.”

“By all means. Thank you.”

“You are most welcome.” He bowed and closed the wagon door behind himself.

Brand had given her a lot to think on and a lot to look forward to. That in mind, Tala began her daily walk, up and down the lumbering caravan, taking notes, making sketches, and thinking, always thinking.

 

* * *

 

An hour later, Tala was feverishly digging through the book on item creation, striving, in vain, to understand the theory behind using inscriptions on inanimate objects.

It should have been easy. After all, she understood her own inscriptions, how hard could it be to place those same workings into an item?

The answer: Very.

Apparently, spell-forms had to be altered depending on the medium in which they were set. Meaning, an item would have quite different lines if made out of differing materials: wood differing from stone, which differed from glass, which differed from human skin. Human skin was also different from any other tissue or bone material, and those all differed from each other. That didn’t even cover the variation within each of those broad categories of material. It made even the concepts behind inscribing almost inscrutable. Apparently, inscribing animals was an art unto itself, and only a handful of humans had ever attempted it.

There’d been some mad emperor of ages past who’d wanted an army of magically enhanced war-dogs, but that had gone…poorly.

Aside from a passing reference to the historic failure, magic in animals wasn’t addressed in this book. It would explain why I can’t specifically understand exactly what an arcanous creature is capable of, unlike with most Mages.

Within the pages, there also seemed to be indications that living, versus dead, also mattered. Meaning that she couldn’t carve spell-forms for wood constructs into an arcanous tree and expect them to function properly.

Interestingly enough, it seemed that the spell-forms for items were, in general, less complicated than those for inscribings. The brief explanation given was that human Mages required far more catch points, caveats, and safety to function properly, as the magics generated were directly linked to a living mind. Unfortunately, the book also explained that items that would be magic-bound, whatever that meant, had the same stringent requirements as skin inscribings.

Unbound items simply followed prescribed, preset functions, nice and simple.

That provided hope, but not answers. She was halfway through the book, and she’d yet to come across a single example that she could draw upon to begin expanding her practical knowledge.

There were two final flies in the ointment. First, the spell-lines for gold, silver, and copper each differed from each other as well, regardless of medium, adding another variable to the monstrous equation. Lastly, spell-forms were three-dimensionally sensitive, meaning a spell-form that functioned perfectly on a flat cloth would change radically when shifted, scrunched, rolled-up, or otherwise not perfectly flat. That could be compensated for, as all human inscribing had to, but it was yet more complexity.

Still, she persevered. I am nothing if not stubborn. She had determined to learn what she could about items, and slag anyone or anything that got in her way.

“Mistress Tala?”

Her head snapped up, and she almost glared as she took in someone poking their tousled, dirty-blonde head over the side of her wagon’s roof. “What.” She didn’t snap at Renix, but it was a near thing.

He was clearly nervous, but he smiled, seemingly more to reassure himself than as a gesture towards her. “Are you busy?”

Yes, obviously. What kind of asinine question is that? “Somewhat.” She sighed. “What can I do for you, Renix?” Why am I so grumpy?

“Well, I-” Renix started.

“Coffee!” She practically shouted it, completely overriding Renix. “I haven’t had nearly enough coffee, today.” She quickly closed her books, tucking them away in her satchel, as he tried to recover from her outburst. She finished before he did. “Walk with me and ask your question.”

Without waiting for him to get off the ladder, she swung over the side and dangled down beside the wagon.

The wheels were rumbling to either side, and she realized that this might not be the wisest course. Ah, well. What’s done, and all that. She kicked off the side of the wagon and dropped, landing outside the path of the wheels with a carefully exhaled breath, knees bending perfectly to absorb the impact on the soft turf.

Renix scrambled down the ladder to join her.

Where’s his horse? She shrugged. Doesn’t matter. Tala turned towards the chuckwagon, and Renix fell into step beside her. “So…?”

He cleared his throat. “Well…”

He seemed hesitant, but she didn’t mind. Coffee was ahead.

They were almost to the chuckwagon when Renix coughed and rapidly mumbled out his question. “How did you become a Mage so fast? What’s the secret? I feel like I’m going to be trapped as a mageling forever. I mean, I could advance any time, but I just don’t feel ready. You know? Well… I guess you don’t know. After all, you advanced and-”

Tala was so startled that she stopped walking, Renix stopping beside her. Thankfully, coffee was still drawing closer, as the wagons continued to move past them. Tala stopped Renix’s monologue with a raised hand. “Is Master Trent a good master?”

“What? Of course! Why would you ask that?”

She shrugged. “If you are learning from a good man, why would you want to leave? I can understand you wanting to stay. I can understand you feeling as though you have more to learn. Do you have any complaints?”

“Well, no, but he chooses our missions.”

“Would you choose differently?”

“…No, but that’s because he explains his reasoning each time, and of course, I agree.”

“So…?”

Renix turned away. “I don’t know… I… I hate being poor. I hate feeling like I’m owned by so many people, and I can’t get ahead, but at the same time, I don’t feel up to being out on my own just yet.”

Tala blinked. That’s…that’s close to home. She cleared her throat. “Well, I’m indentured to the Caravan Guild. They own large chunks of my time until my contract is up.”

Renix scoffed. “But you chose that, and you have so much freedom within that servitude.”

Tala was shaking her head. “We are always beholden to others. Some by choice, like those we sell our service to, some by blood…” She hesitated, then shook her head and pressed on. “Some for labor, some for time, but in all cases, it is we who are responsible to fulfill those obligations. Even were you free and wealthy, you would be beholden to yourself. You’d have to eat, sleep, and exercise. If you wanted to work magic, you’d need to keep on good terms with an inscriber.” She shook her head, again. “Renix, life is about needing other people, and being beholden to them, and they to you.”

Renix barked a laugh and turned back towards her. “That’s easy for you to say. You are on a path to wealth, and I know you’re younger than me.”

Tala could see a bit of pain in Renix’s eyes. He’s comparing himself to me and seeing failure. “Renix, I…” She grunted out a sigh in frustration. “I am, and always have been, very odd. It has given me advantages, but I’ve hated most of it. I never wanted to be a Mage, but I was sold into this profession. Until my price is paid, I am owned, just like you.”

Renix paled and glanced away.

Tala quirked a smile. “Ahh, you weren’t sold into it. Let me guess, parents paid for your schooling?”

Renix didn’t meet her eyes but nodded.

“No shame in that. Stars know I’d prefer that.” She let out a long breath. “I was sold to pay my family’s debts, Renix. I owe more than I’ll make in years, at contract rates, and that’s if I had no expenses.” She touched his arm, and he turned to face her. “Life is about working with what you have, where you have it.”

He was frowning. “Even so. You are so much further down the road than I… how can I catch up?”

The question was so genuine, that she paused to actually consider, before she answered. “One moment.” She strode after the now passed chuckwagon and knocked on the rear door.

Brand shoved it open. “What!” His expression shifted from anger to confusion when he saw her. “Mistress Tala?”

“Coffee?”

He hesitated for a moment, then laughed. “I’d thought you might want some.” He stepped inside and returned with a large, earthenware jug, a simple cork sealing it shut. “Here you are. All that’s left for today.”

Tala eyed it warily. “Is it still good?”

“Mistress Tala, coffee doesn’t spoil. It won’t be hot, but you’re a Mage. Figure it out.”

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JLMullins

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