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As Tala walked up to Brand, ready to depart the work-yard and truly enter the city of Alefast, Renix came over as well.

“Mistress Tala?” He seemed mostly better, but he still had a bit of a far-off look in his eyes.

“Yes?”

“Master Trent asked me to give this to you.” He held out a rolled piece of thick paper.

Tala unrolled it and identified it as a map with a small patch of trees emphasized. “Ahh, yes. Thank you.” She turned to look around, but Trent and Atrexia were already gone. Looking for an available flesh worker?

“I’m also to tell you that we will be staying at the Wandering Magician, and you can find us either in residence or leave any of us a message in the next couple of days. If you need lodging, it is also a reasonable place for a reasonable price.”

Brand interjected. “He’s right. It’s one of the better valued establishments in the city. They’ll treat you right.”

“Thank you, Renix, and you Brand.”

Renix bowed with a smile. “Absolutely. We’re going to go get my head looked at now.” He smiled ruefully. After that, he hesitated for a moment, glancing at Brand, but seemed to decide against saying anything further, except for: “Good evening, Mistress. I look forward to seeing you, again.”

“Good evening, Renix. Take care.”

With nothing further, Renix turned and departed as well, even as Tala turned her attention to Brand.

“So, your contact?”

“Let’s grab your stuff, first.” He led her over to a hand cart, which was propped to one side, and they took it back to the cargo wagon. Den’s wagon was in a state of complete dismantlement, from the wagon bed up. The cargo-slots had been lifted free and were arranged for easy unloading the next day. The roof and sides had been disconnected to allow those cargo-slots to be removed, and the pieces lay neatly stacked, off to one side.

Together, Brand and Tala quickly emptied her rather full box into the hand cart.

“One more stop.” He led her to the chuckwagon, where he called over one of the warehouse workers to help him move a medium-sized, but obviously rather dense, package and add it to the cart. Brand thanked the man and turned back to Tala. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten your jerky, did I?” He smiled. “Alright! Let’s go.”

Tala kept her eyes sweeping over their surroundings as Brand led her a couple of blocks to an open-air market. He had tried to insist on being the one to pull the cart, but she had flatly refused. He was not her porter.

The streets were wide, but not so wide as to feel cavernously empty with the diminished population.

There were people going about their daily lives, though they seemed more hardened folk than the average in Bandfast had been. They’re on the tail end of civilization and are holding on for profit and glory. They were likely among the hardiest of humanity.

The architecture was functionally aesthetic. While it was beautiful to behold, all details and embellishments had been designed so that they would, and obviously had, survive the ravages of time and centuries of weathering, thus were not as intricate as they might otherwise have been.

The market was a large, open square with temporary, sturdy stalls erected and manned by more of the hardened citizenry.

Brand helped her navigate the late afternoon traffic. The space wasn’t packed, but it was still a bit crowded. Before they entered the market proper, Brand had advised her to turn the cart around, to push in front of herself, and he walked beside her. As they walked, he was clearly keeping a close eye on anyone who got too close to the handcart.

“Would someone really steal from a Mage?”

Brand huffed a laugh. “If they thought they could get away with it? Yeah.”

“Huh…”

Near the far side of the market from where they’d entered, Brand led her to a stall, which was set up in front of the open front of a clearly well-established shop.

“BRAND!” A boisterous, slightly rotund woman strode forth and scooped him up in a voluminous hug. “I didn’t expect you back until next season. What changed?”

Tala tried to direct her attention elsewhere, and away from the private moment. Brand’s muffled response came from within the embrace. “We decided we wanted to get the kids something special for their name-days this coming year, and an opportunity came up to head this way.”

“Well, that makes vastly too much sense.” The big woman placed him back on the ground. “How’s Lissa? The kids?”

“Very well, thank you. Is Adrill still alive?” His eyes flicked towards Tala. She was inspecting the contents of the cart.

“Ahh, the old goat’s still living. He’s down in his workshop, searching for new ways to destroy my store.” The woman turned to Tala. “Good day, Mistress. I am Artia, owner of this fine store. If you need anything pertaining to magic, I would recommend a Mage such as yourself seek out the Constructionist Guild, three streets to the north.”

Tala glanced to Brand, who was out of Artia’s line of sight, and he made his thumb and fore finger into a circle. Tala frowned slightly. He mouthed, “Token.”

“Oh!” Tala reached into a pouch at her belt and pulled out the iron coin, upon which was stamped a scythe. “I believe this would mean something to you.”

Artia looked hesitant, but still took the offered coin. Immediately, she froze in evident shock, looking back and forth between Tala and the token. “Well…” She glanced to Brand, who was beaming. “In that case…” She cleared her throat and put on a smile. “This is the best and only place in our fine city to find items of magic.”

Brand cleared his throat, and Artia turned a raised eyebrow his way.

Finally, she grunted. “There are several lesser merchants of arcane related items, but they will never have what you need, and certainly not the very best!”

Tala grinned. “Didn’t you mention the Constructionist Guild?”

Atria waved that off, still looking at the token. “Mage drivel. Not a decent merchant among them.”

Brand cleared his throat. “You might be a bit biased.”

Tala found herself grinning. “I am Tala.” She held out her hand, and Artia took it in a firm grasp.

“A pleasure, Mage Tala.” The larger woman seemed a bit uncertain if she truly believed that. “I suppose we should get your cart out of the street and learn a bit more about each other. Shall we?” She handed the token back.

“I’d be delighted.”

They took her handcart down a small side alley and tucked it into a walled, back courtyard, where it would, ostensibly, be safe.

As they walked back to the storefront, Tala cleared her throat. “Actually, I am in desperate need of a blacksmith. Would it be possible for me to quickly swing by one nearby, while the two of you catch up? I shouldn’t be gone more than half an hour.”

Artia gave her a quizzical look, then shrugged. “Works for me, dear. There’s a good one about five blocks that way.” She pointed south.

Tala gave a slight bow and strode off in that direction without a backward glance.

As she walked, she heard Artia turn to Brand and whisper. “What does a Mage want with a Blacksmith? Why did you bring her here? Why does she have a Harvest token?”

“I’ve learned it’s best not to ask. As to the other questions, we’ll resolve that soon enough.”

“Hmmm…odd girl.” Artia tsked. “Should be an interesting evening, though. A Mage! And she’s not trying to unravel the Order?”

“I genuinely think that she isn’t.”

“Good, but I’ll have to-” The rest was lost as Tala continued to move further away, not giving any indication that she heard, or even knew that they were speaking.

Interesting. It should, indeed, be a fun evening.

Tala found the smith exactly where Artia said it would be, and the sound of hammer on iron drew her on for the last couple of streets. She came up to the entrance of the work area and called out. “Ho, in the smithy!”

The hammering didn’t slow, but she saw other movement within the workshop, as a middle-aged man walked out. “Well good-day to you miss-” His eyes widened as he got a better look at her. “-tress. How can this humble smithy serve, this day?”

Tala quirked a smile. “No need for that, good master. I have a commission for you, if you feel up to finishing by early tomorrow.”

The man frowned, glancing behind himself. “No good blade will be made in an evening.” He hesitated. “Not one that I’d be confident to sell in any rate.”

She held up a hand. “It is much simpler than that, sir. What I want can be likened to a simple woven basket on a pole.”

He scratched his head. “Like a fruit picker? Aren’t those usually woven out of reeds or wooden slats?”

She clapped her hands together and grinned. “Oh! You’ve seen them. That makes this so much easier.”

He nodded. “My gran had a couple of orchards, and we used the tools quite extensively when I was a boy.”

“Then you are a better workman than I could have hoped for. I want one of iron, not steel, with holes small enough that it can catch small pickings, say a small cherry?”

“Yeah… we can do that. By tomorrow morning?”

“Yes, please. And I’d appreciate two pairs of iron pliers, if you have them on hand.”

He looked at her again, clearly assessing her. He paused and brief confusion flickered across his features as he noticed her shoeless feet. I guess he doesn’t see many Mages. “Umm…A silver each for the pliers, and four for the iron picker.”

She grinned. “And you haven’t even given me your name.” She shook her head.

The man paled, then reddened. “My apologies, Mistress! I’m Pedrin.”

“Good master Pedrin. I will happily give you a silver for the two pairs of pliers, and another for the picker.”

He opened his mouth to object, but she held up a hand to forestall him.

“I will, of course, pay in advance, and you will receive an additional silver in the morning, upon my receipt of the tool.” She pulled her hand out of a pouch, holding up two silver, 1 ounce coins. “I will be paying in hard coinage.” She smiled, noting the slight additional widening of his eyes. “Naturally.”

She watched him do the quick math, and he obviously realized that the total value of her offer was still below 4 oz silver, but he nodded, nonetheless. “I think we can do that, Mistress.”

She held the coins out towards him. “I request the pole be at least ten feet long, but no longer than you feel reasonable, given your experience, and of a sturdy, solid, hardwood. Additionally, I request the right to collect some of your iron dust, should I find the need.”

Pedrin blinked at her in confusion. “Iron…dust?”

She shrugged. “I simply mean the dust that covers this very smithy. I’ve no need for anything else, and I will warn you beforehand. You can even watch my collection of such, if you so desire.”

After another hesitant moment, he nodded and took the coins. “Do you want the pliers now, or in the morning?”

“I will trust in your good name, master Pedrin, and I will pick up all three tools, tomorrow.”

He gave a slight bow. “As you say, Mistress. Have a wonderful evening.”

“And you as well.”

With that, she turned and strode back for Artia’s shop, leaving a somewhat stymied, but happy, smith in her wake.

 

* * *

 

Tala returned to Artia’s store to find the woman and Brand sitting behind the stall in two comfortable chairs, sipping from earthenware mugs and chatting amiably.

As she walked into view, Artia stood, smiling, and gestured at a third chair. “Come, sit! Did you find the blacksmith to your liking?”

“I believe so. Thank you. I can now focus on our conversation without feeling the need to run off.”

Artia bowed slightly, before returning to her seat.

Tala sat as well and smiled. “So, have you two caught up, or should I make myself scarce, again?”

Artia handed her a drink, and Tala accepted it gratefully. “Why don’t you expose the Order of the Harvest and have them disbanded?”

Tala hesitated for a moment, then sipped the drink. “Mint tea, chilled, right?”

Artia nodded.

Tala smiled. “What would I gain?”

“Excuse me?”

“For shutting you down. What could I possibly gain?”

Artia seemed taken aback. “I don’t pretend to know the minds of Mages.”

Tala snorted a laugh. “That’s exactly what you’re doing. You assume that, because you’ve had bad experiences with Mages in the past, all Mages will be the same.” She quirked an eyebrow questioningly.

“Well… I suppose…”

“You spoke to one Mage, who made a sweeping judgement without all the facts. What you’re doing sounded dangerous, because it is, and he erred on the side of caution, as Mages are wont to do. It was your ill fortune that caused the Mage in question to have enough authority to issue a wide-ranging edict that enforced…” Tala trailed off, realizing something. “You’ve never checked…”

Artia and Brand looked at each other, then back to her. Brand frowned. “What do you mean?”

Tala laughed. “You got the response of one Mage, and he was so forceful in the response, you assumed he was speaking on behalf of all. Do you know if your work is actually forbidden, or do you just assume so?”

Brand opened his mouth, then closed it, looking puzzled. Artia took a drink, then shook her head. “It’s been more than a hundred years, dear. It is known that we cannot speak to Mages on this. Every initiate to our Order is sworn to keep this from Mage eyes and knowledge. We have extensive guild contracts in place to keep Mages from poking into the businesses of Guilds associated with the Order.”

“Yet, I’ve never heard of eating arcanous meat as being barred.” She hesitated. “Granted, that could just be me, but I can certainly look into it. The other Mages in the caravan didn’t really have an opinion on it, one way or other when I spoke to them, before asking Brand.” A hundred years? She hadn’t realized that the notes had covered that long of a timeframe.

Artia paled, slightly. “There are more?”

Tala shrugged. “They know they were fed arcanous meat, and that’s it. I shared nothing further after I learned it, as it wasn’t mine to share.”

Artia and Brand shared another look.

“So…are the surprise questions out of the way or…?”

Artia smiled broadly. “I think I like you, girl.” Her eyes widened fractionally. “Ummm… Mistress.”

Tala waved her down. “Tala is fine, and I am a girl, so.” She shrugged again. “Fair assessment, I suppose?” She looked down at herself, noting the red dipped sleeves, and spotted front. “I really should see a tailor, though…”

Brand perked up. “I can recommend a good one.”

“I’d appreciate that, but for now,” She turned to Artia, “I need to sell some arcanous parts, and I need some dimensional storage.” She quirked a smile. “My handcart should bear witness to both of those things.”

Artia glanced to Brand, who nodded encouragingly. “Very well. Come on into my shop.”

The three stood to walk inside. Before they entered, Artia called out. “Brandon!” And a young man, likely a little older than Tala, came from the darkened interior. “Brandon, be a dear and mind the stall, would you. If Master Brand is correct, the newly arrived caravan guards might be coming by to sell some harvests. Call me if they do and you need me. Yes?”

“Yes, mother.” He turned from her, and froze, staring at Tala.

Tala smiled as she walked past, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge him. There was something…off about him. Her mage-sight didn’t give any clues on casual inspection. If anything, something seemed missing, but she couldn’t really place it. She didn’t want to deal with the oddity at the moment; so, she chose to ignore it.

From inside the shop, she heard Brandon whisper to his mother.

“Who is she?”

“A Mage, obviously.”

“A beautiful Mage.”

“Brandon! Mind the stall.”

“Are you sure? I could…”

There was the sound of light slap to what Tala presumed was the back of Brandon’s head, and she grinned without turning around. It is nice to be appreciated for me, I suppose.

Brand and Artia followed shortly thereafter, and Artia cleared her throat. “Well, apologies for the delay, Mistress. Shall I show you around?”

Tala turned her attention, for the first time, to the interior of the large, but well filled, shop around her.

One wall held racks of weapons, the opposite wall held packs and bags, belts and straps. Tables and cabinets neatly arranged in between held every manner of item from eyes in clear jars of pickling juice and fur pelts to razor blades and spoons.

Every item gave off an aura of magical power, whether she could see inscription on the surface or not.

She let out an involuntary gasp of amazement. “What…?

Artia walked forward, clearly pleased with herself. “These are our wares, dear. Items of magic and power. There are some arcane or magical beast harvests, some artifacts of earlier eras, and the rest are constructed and empowered items, awaiting use by Mage or man.” She grinned. “What do you desire?”

Tala immediately walked over to a short-bladed knife that spoke loudly to her mage-sight about sharpness and durability. The magic around and throughout the piece was twisted in and through itself in strangely familiar, yet somehow entirely alien, patterns. “What is this?”

“Ahh! Good eye. That is an artifact blade. It never chips or shatters, never needs cleaning, and is always sharp as a razor.”

Tala frowned. “I don’t see any inscriptions. No source of power. There aren’t any arcane or magical parts sealed inside, either.” She couldn’t fully pierce the steel of the knife’s construction, but she could see well enough to determine that the material was uniform and solid the whole way through, as were the magical loops and knots woven through the material.

“As I said, an artifact blade. Never needs to consume harvest parts, and never has to be refreshed. It simply is.”

Tala turned a deeply skeptical look towards Brand. “You promised me a solid contact, not a spinner of tales.”

Brand paled. “Mistress Tala!”

Tala held up her hand. “There is no way that this would just be sitting here if it had such power.”

Artia laughed. “Calm down, Brand. She’s both right and wrong.” She turned to look Tala in the eyes. “It is as I said, and just as I said. It won’t pierce magical defenses and is no more than a simple knife.” She smiled. “Sure, it’s a nice knife, and you never have to sharpen it, or worry about it breaking, but given a normal, very serviceable knife can be purchased for less than a silver, and one such as that is not hard to keep sharp, buying this one for half a gold isn’t really something most people will care to do.”

Tala glanced back at the knife. “A half ounce, gold?”

“A real bargain.” She chuckled. “But not worth it to most. I picked it up from a hunter, assuming some well-off patron would find it interesting, and not mind the cost too much.”

Tala’s frown had returned. “Why wouldn’t the Mages want this to study?”

“Never been to a waning city, have you?”

Tala shook her head. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“The way it’s been explained to me is this: As Magic gathers around a waning city, it bends the world, drawing in all sorts of things of magic. Most are creatures, large and small, but some are items, like this knife. It doesn’t draw them in in the sense of moving them, but it does, somehow, make it more likely that hunters will find them in the ruins scattered all about.” She patted Tala on the arm. “Oh, sure, you can hunt ruins anytime, if you want to put your life in your hands, but those around a waning city?” She stepped back and gestured around her shop. “Those always seem to have more, despite centuries of hunters combing through them first.”

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