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Tala woke even earlier than usual, the sky still dark outside. Back on the road today.

She moved through her stretches and exercises with determined efficiency, smiling as she noticed the improvements her micromanagement was bringing about. It’s amazing what you can do when you can see every individual muscle fiber. She couldn’t control her muscles that finely, yet, but it let her subtly modify every stretch and exercise towards better results.

She was able to toss and retrieve the knife three times without obvious ill effect, though it left her very being aching, much like her muscles. Not ready for a fourth rep.

Tala combed out her hair, which consisted of a single stroke through each portion, due to the artifact comb. This is going to save me hours, all told, over the coming months! She smiled happily, climbing into her bath.

She allowed herself an extra minute or two in the comfortably hot water, before she dried herself off and went to work with the iron salve. Even though she’d been meticulous the day before, she wasn’t going to let it fall by the wayside again, at least not any time soon.

She still had the pleasant buzz of ending-berry power within her, though it had settled into feeling similar to a comfortably warm mug of coffee, instead of the raging, industrial crucible of the first day. It’s probably healthier for me to keep the power at about this level. She’d need to have Holly give her a good, deep examination, to determine if her fervor had made any permanent changes. Hopefully, only good ones…

She was wrapped in a towel, back in her room, when a knock came on her door.

She glanced to the still dark windows in her outer wall, before calling out. “Who is it?”

“Merilin, with your clothing.”

Tala opened the door with a smile, before freezing in place. Merilin was, indeed, standing out in the hallway…along with a male servant.

Tala and the servant both immediately blushed, the servant looking away, Tala pulling the door partially closed, once more. Even with the towel, she did not like that type of surprise.

“Merilin?”

“Yes, child?”

“Why is he here?”

“Did you want an old woman to carry all your clothes, herself?”

Tala paused for a moment, before grumbling a negative. “I’m going to go into the bath room. Please place the clothing on the bed and ask him to leave. I’ll come out and pay you, then.”

Merilin nodded.

Tala tried to be dignified as she scampered to the bath room and closed the door.

She heard movement outside, rustling near the bed, then a single set of foot-falls retreated back out the door, and it closed behind them.

Tala came back out to find Merilin sitting in her reading chair.

“You’re perfectly covered.”

“I’m in a towel.”

Merilin shrugged. “Young people these days. What does it matter what you’re wearing? It should only matter what you show.”

Tala gave her a flat look. “You’re a seamstress. You really don’t think it matters what people are wearing?”

Merilin paused at that. “You know what I meant.” She gestured at the bed. “You’re leaving today, yes?”

Tala nodded.

“Then, I recommend the far stack.”

As Tala turned her attention fully to the bed, she noticed three things. First, there were three piles of varying sizes. Second, there were far fewer items than she’d been expecting. Third, there was magic coming from the pile that Merilin indicated. “What did you do?”

“I made an executive decision. Take a look.”

Tala opened the brown paper, encasing the single outfit in the final stack. Inside, on top, was a leather jerkin that had powerful reconstitution magic woven through it; there were no inscriptions, the power was a natural property of the material.

“That is leather from an immortal elk.” The woman scoffed. “Obviously, it’s not immortal, but the name comes from how devilish they are to kill. They can heal from nearly any wound, so they are almost never able to be harvested.” She sighed. “To kill them usually requires such overwhelming destruction that nothing is left.”

Tala looked down at the item. “So…?”

“So, unless you get these utterly obliterated, they will reconstitute.” She waggled a finger. “That doesn’t give you the excuse to be careless. They are no more initially durable than any high-quality leather, so take good care of them. You’re a Mage, you can give them power as you wear through its natural stores.”

Tala was frowning. “How can the clothes rebuild themselves? Why wouldn’t they return to the form of the elk’s hide?” She looked down. “Why don’t they have hair, if they regenerate?”

Merilin muttered under her breath, so low that Tala hardly heard it. “Mages always want to know ‘How? How? How?’ It’s never ‘Thank you, Merilin. You’re amazing, Merilin.’ ” She huffed, then spoke more loudly. “Their power is suspended by a proprietary, secret method, while the clothing is made. When the power is returned, the garment’s state at that time becomes the default to which the magic returns.”

Tala nodded. That made some sense. “Well, let’s try these on, then.”

She took the package and returned to the bath room, closing the door before dropping her towel. She set the package down and pulled out the tunic. It was beautifully composed, looking almost like fabric in its working. She wiggled into the garment and found it soft, smooth, and silky, inside and out. This won’t chafe at all! That was a boon, leather could easily cause rubbing and soreness if not properly treated or sized.

There were ties up each side, starting at her armpit and going down to her waist. The ties were of leather as well. The sleeves were loose without being billowy, and there were several minimal, stiff, segmented ridges that ran down the arms to hold them in place. Somehow, the stays didn’t inhibit movement at all. The ridges were evenly spaced around each sleeve creating a subtly beautiful pattern, mirrored by similarly flexible, yet ridged, features on the torso. How did she insert boning that holds the shape, without inhibiting movement? It was a masterpiece.

She expected to immediately feel warm, within the leather top, but to her surprise, it seemed to breath like linen. “How is this so breathable?”

Merilin’s voice came through the door. “Immortal elk are massive creatures, and their hides are breathable to keep them from overheating during the summer. Their fur thickens in the winters to compensate, but that is no longer an issue.”

Tala nodded, doing up the ties easily. She had to reach down, through the collar, to arrange herself properly within the garment, but after she did so, it fit splendidly.

The leather of the tunic was a light grey, nearly white, while the ties were marginally darker, offering a nice hint of contrast. Below the ties, the tunic continued down to just above her knees, providing some modesty and adding to the look. She smiled, then turned to the second item in the parcel: Pants.

The pants fit exactly as well as the linen version had, the day before. They were a dark enough grey to evoke thoughts of thunder, storms, and torrents of driving rain. They moved with her, once she was properly situated within them, and the flare towards her feet was as subtle as it was functional. She strapped on her belt, her knife and pouch balancing each other nicely.

She strode out of the bath room, grinning happily. “These are amazing.”

Merilin stood, examining her. “Of course, they are; I made them.” She walked around Tala. “I’m glad you’re flexible enough to do up the ties. Did you notice the boning?”

Tala nodded, feeling along several portions in the tunic and sleeves. “It’s highly segmented. It adds stiffness and structure without impairing movement. I can’t even conceive of how you made it work, but it does.”

“You need to be able to move properly to survive, and you can’t have it pinching, pulling, or impinging on you. I’m not going to let you die in my garment, at least not because of my work.” She huffed. “That would be unprofessional.”

Tala glanced at the remaining bundles on the bed. “Two formal outfits, and three every day, correct?”

Merilin nodded.

“That isn’t what we agreed.” Even as she spoke, Tala was running her hands over the leather on her abdomen.

Merilin barked a laugh. “Do you want me to take that back?”

She hesitated. “Well…no…”

“I thought not. It should serve you better in the long run, so long as you keep it empowered.”

Tala was frowning, again. “I’d thought that harvests had to be fed, and inscriptions inlaid, to make a magic item work.”

Merilin sat back down, with a self-satisfied smile. “If it were a magic item, yes.”

Tala glanced down, then back up. “It is an item, that is magic.”

The seamstress waved a hand dismissively. “For all it knows, it’s just a part of some magical creature. So long as you feed it power, it will do what it does.” She hesitated. “Don’t try to give it power from more than one source. It’ll latch onto the next source that feeds it power, and it will…be angry, if other power tries to force its way in.”

Tala frowned, then shrugged. “You’re the seamstress.” She placed a hand on her side. “Does it need any special mental model or…”

“No idea what that means, so probably not. Give it a trickle of power and see. Come on, girl. You’re supposed to be the Mage.”

That sounds suspiciously like an artifact…Tala hesitantly gathered up a small portion of the power flowing out of her gate and fed it through her hand into the tunic. Unlike Kit, the belt pouch, the tunic was not receptive to her influx at first. Even so, the leather seemed starved for power, and after a brief resistance, the power moved through it in a rush.

A pulse radiated out from her hand, and the leather shifted subtly. There was no visible change, but as she moved and twisted, Tala found that it somehow fit even better than before. Minute portions that hadn’t been quite right were now snugged into place, and it shifted with her like a flexible, stylish, second skin.

I suppose it basically is a second skin… That was a somewhat disturbing thought. Before she could talk herself out of it, she repeated the process on the pants and felt the same perfecting of the garment.

Merilin smiled, self-satisfied. “Good. That worked.”

Tala slowly turned to stare, wide eyed at the seamstress. “What do you mean, ‘Good?’ ”

“I’ve never done this before.”

Tala gaped at the older woman. “What.”

“My mother left extensive notes, and I followed them to the letter, but there were always dangers.” She shrugged. “Immortal elk don’t die every day, child.”

Tala narrowed her eyes. “This sounds much more expensive than I agreed to.”

“I was contacted last night to alter the order. Your benefactor asked to remain anonymous. My mother was known to have worked with this material, and so they were content for me to do the work.” She nodded, smiling, then pulled out a tablet. “Your balance stands, though. One and one half ounces, gold.”

Tala sighed, then examined the tablet before pricking her finger and confirming the purchase. It was becoming very easy for her to withdraw both power from her scripts and the power of the ending-berries to enable the confirmation of contracts and purchases, trivially so.

Merilin pushed herself back to her feet. “Well, child, I hope to see you again. Do be sure to tell others where you got your clothing, yes?” She cackled a laugh as she left the room, not waiting for Tala to respond.

Tala stared after the woman for a long moment before shaking her head and quickly pushing the clothing into her belt pouch. “Thanks, Kit. I’ll organize later if you’re not up for it.”

The pouch did not respond.

Light was just beginning to build in the east as she left the room for the last time. It had been quite a comfortable place to stay, and she was a bit sad to leave it behind. A bit expensive, though. Lyn’s house would be a better long-term residence.

She smiled at that. It will be good to go home.

Tala walked into the dining hall, and immediately saw Renix stand and wave to her. “Mistress Tala!”

She smiled and waved, then pointed to the buffet laid out, laden with breakfast foods. He nodded and sat back down.

She loaded a platter high, downed one mug of coffee and got her allowed refill, and walked over to join Renix and Trent. “Where’s Mistress Atrexia?” It would be wonderful to get back on the road, back to coffee.

“She’s taken on another assignment.”

Tala frowned. “I’d thought she was contracted for the return trip.” Am I remembering right? No, she said she wasn’t coming on the trip back.

“She was pulled away.” Trent shrugged. “Happens sometimes when someone’s specialty comes into play. I suspect that was actually one reason she came here, the hope that that would happen.” He held up one hand. “Before you ask, no, I don’t know what’s happening, or precisely what her specialty is that got her called off.”

She shrugged. “Fair enough.” Tala dug into the food. It was good, just as it had been the previous days, but there was something about it that just wasn’t great. It was filling, fairly tasty, and at least somewhat nutritious. I’m getting spoiled.

Trent glanced at Renix, but the younger man was eating with gusto. Smiling slightly, Trent glanced back at her. “The new outfit looks nice.”

Tala glanced down at herself and smiled. “Thank you. Should work better on the road as well.”

Trent touched his own side. “Won’t the leather chafe?”

“A bit of a personal question, but no. This is…uniquely done. One side effect is that it won’t rub or pinch or pull.”

He shook his head. “Another benefit from your hand-based expressions. I’d never be able to wear something like that. At least a portion would be torn to shreds the first time I cast.”

That actually makes sense, now that I think about it. Most of those who can afford outfits like this, almost universally don’t want them. Tala shrugged. “There are some advantages.” She smiled slightly and took another bite.

Renix swallowed, glancing her way. “You really do look nice.”

“Thank you, Renix.” She glanced back to Trent. “Will you two be alone on the trip back?”

Trent shook his head. “No, we’ve another Mage joining us. He was actually a mageling under Master Grediv, though he’s carving his own path now. I think there will be a third too, but I’ll know soon enough.”

Tala waved a sausage on the end of her fork. “What’s your deal with Master Grediv? You two seemed to know each other.”

He smiled slightly. “He’s been mentoring me on my path towards Archon. He actually wants me to begin attempting a star, soon.”

Renix turned to his master, grinning widely. “Master Trent is amazing!”

Trent patted the young man on his shoulder. “And you should be a Mage in your own right.” He glanced to Tala. “Renix doesn’t like me to say, but he refuses to buy his own inscriptions and graduate from my tutelage. He says he still has too much to learn.”

Renix gave a frustrated look to Trent, then turned to Tala. “And he retaliated by starting with the basics, again and again.” He rolled his eyes. “I am picking up some new insights from the review, though.” He smiled. “Thank you, again, for the overview that you gave. Master Trent is right that new perspectives can shed fresh light on old ideas. Especially since the education for each of the four quadrants seems to be so varied.”

Tala nodded. “Happy to have helped.” Well, that explains a lot. I was a bit confused why my take was new to him. I wonder how much they didn’t teach me because I’m an Immaterial Guide?

They finished eating, exchanging small talk, and discussing the journey ahead. Trent and Renix each offered her their allowed coffee refill, and she thanked them profusely, draining the extra cups with gusto.

When they’d all finished, they cleared their table and gathered up their things.

Most of Trent and Renix’s belongings were in their wagon, with the caravan, but they’d each brought a bag to the inn.

Trent glanced around for Tala’s pack, then his eyes fell on the pouch. “Right, your Dimensional storage.”

She smiled and patted the bag. “Yup! Kit’s the best.”

Trent frowned. “Kit? You…named it?”

She stopped, feeling suddenly self-conscious. “Yeah, well… It seemed appropriate. She’s been really helpful.”

He opened his mouth to say something more, but Renix spoke overtop his master. “The drivers name their wagons sometimes. I think it’s nice to appreciate when an item works well for you.”

Trent rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I don’t see any inscriptions. Are they internal, or is it an artifact?”

“Artifact.”

He nodded. “That won’t be an issue to keep charged, will it? Along with the extra cargo-slots?”

She shook her head. There were going to be twenty cargo-slots, in two cargo wagons, on the way back. “Shouldn’t be an issue in the least.”

He shrugged. “Never liked artifacts myself, but Master Grediv seems to think they’re fine.”

“Why is that?”

Trent hesitated, then shrugged. “Always seemed too intelligent. It’s probably foolish, but I don’t really feel like items should be more than items.”

“Can’t say I agree, but fair enough.” She smiled to negate any implications in her response.

They walked from the dining hall together, towards the work-yard beside the northern gate. “So, who is the new Mage?”

“Never met him, myself, but I’ve heard good things.” Trent smiled. “He has to be something special to have been picked as a mageling beneath any Archon, let alone one of Master Grediv’s standing.”

“But you don’t know his quadrant, or anything like that?”

Trent shook his head. “All I know is that he’s considered very good.” He hesitated, then sighed. “He’s also considered a little strange.”

Tala grinned. “I’m a bit strange, myself. Maybe we’ll get along.”

Trent laughed. “Maybe you will at that.”

They entered the work-yard, and Tala broke away from the others and went to the cargo-slots for their final empowerment before departure. True to form, the cargo-slots were now loaded onto two wagons, ten slots each. Den was already working over the front wagon, and he greeted her.

“Mistress Tala! I trust you had a relaxing couple of days?”

“Thank you, Den. More productive than relaxing, but I like it that way. How about yourself?”

He smiled. “It was nice, yes. Glad to be getting back on the road, though. I miss the wife and kids.”

She nodded. “I can understand that. It’ll be nice to get home.”

She began empowering the cargo-slots, and Den went back to his work, not wanting to interrupt her. When she finished those in his wagon, a few minutes later, he noticed and turned back to her. “Do you need the box again?” He patted the large wooden container.

“I don’t think so, but I might take you up on it, later. Mind if I ride on the roof again?”

“Of course not! You’re welcome whenever you like.”

Tala smiled and gave a slight bow. “Thank you.” She glanced towards the other wagon. “I should get those, too.”

“You do your work, Mistress. I’ve enough of my own to be about. We can chat on the road, if it works out.”

She nodded. “I’d like that.”

Without further conversation, Tala walked over to the other cargo wagon, and moved through the empowerment process. She was halfway through the third cargo-slot, when she heard someone yelling, nearby.

“What are you doing? Get away from there!”

She didn’t think anything of it and simply finished empowering that cargo-slot, but as she moved to the fourth, someone placed a hand on her shoulder and spun her around.

“I said, ‘What are you doing!?!’ ”

Tala felt her eyes widen and her face color at the forceful contact, and she looked up at the man, towering over her in chainmail armor and heavy gambeson, noting the armaments hung about him. He had a Master Sergeant’s badge on each arm, and he was furious.

And, in truth, so was she.

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