Tala finished eating her fourth Cheesy Little Caravan, to Rane and Lyn’s increasingly awed concern.
“How are you not distended?” Rane hesitated as Tala’s eyebrows rose, and Lyn gave him a horrified look. “What? I know you’re inscribed, but how does it fit? That’s way more than you ate at the noodle place.”
Tala looked down at her stomach, not a bulge in sight. “Stronger muscles? But, that’s a rude question, Master Rane.” She was kneeling beside the table, as she’d almost broken the chair when they’d first arrived. Thankfully, she’d been tentative in her sitting, and had immediately risen when the exterior-grade chair had started groaning.
Rane had eaten one, himself, and Lyn had gotten the smallest little caravan that this place sold. She’d still had trouble finishing it. Rane rolled his eyes, wiping his mouth. “For some people, I’m sure it is rude, but you’ll never get fat, so…” He shrugged. “Normal rules hardly apply.”
Tala snorted a chuckle, taking a long drink from the restaurant-provided earthen mug. I should get one of these to make drinking easier. No need to shoot water straight into my mouth… But it was probably an unneeded expense. Only a few copper? Budget tight now, live large later.
“So… How are any of my items still functional? True, they were starving, but four days should have utterly drained them.”
Lyn quirked a smile, speaking a bit slower than usual, likely due to her full stomach. “I practiced the void beside you.”
Tala nodded. “Raising the ambient magic in the room. Clever. And thank you. I cannot tell you how much it would have been rusting awful to lose Kit, and Terry here?” She patted the bird on the head and flicked a bit of jerky randomly away for him. “If his collar had lost all power, he’d have been obliterated by the city’s magics.”
Terry was giving her a hard look, even while he consumed the jerky.
Lyn nodded. “It was rough on Terry. He kept going to the edge of acceptable range and squawking in irritation. I think his collar was glowing red more than not for the first day you were back home.”
Tala met Terry’s gaze. “I’m sorry, Terry. You were stuck. If you fled, you’d be struck down. If you stayed, your collar could have run dry, then you’d be struck down.”
Terry let out a low, irritable chirp.
“I’ll try not to be incapacitated, again.”
He repeated his chirp.
Rane and Lyn shared a look. “Can she understand him?”
Lyn shook her head. “I’d think not, but with her? Who knows.”
Tala ignored them. “So, I need to drop through the work-yard? For my custom cargo-slots?”
Lyn glanced her way. “No, they’re at their guildhall.” She hesitated, then amended. “Well, likely in their private work-yard in the back.”
“And where would I find that?”
“I’ll take you.” She glanced to Rane, then back. “Master Rane tells me that you agreed to work with him, on your next assignment?”
“Yeah, seems like a good idea.”
“I agree. I think getting you back out of the city will help get you out of your own head and slow your pace to one of reasonable progress.”
“And get me paid.”
Lyn gave a half smile. “True enough. I’ll need to see the custom cargo-slots for myself, so I can confirm their use for an out-and-back run. Any preferences I should know about?”
Tala shrugged. “Leave in a week? Depending on when my Guild meeting is.”
Lyn narrowed her eyes menacingly. “Why then?”
“I promised Adam that I’d work with the guardsman class. I need to give them at least some time.”
She seemed a bit mollified at that. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do. This will be a longer haul, in all likelihood.” Lyn sighed. “Speaking of your meeting with a senior Guild member; Master Rane took the last few days to collect written statements on your behalf. He and I were just heading to the Caravanner’s Guild to file that paperwork, when you woke up.”
He was grinning. “We can drop by on the way to the wainwrights.”
Tala rocked back a little bit in shock. “That must have been a lot of work, Master Rane.”
He shrugged. “I have very little to do, while in the city, and like I said, I want to go on the next venture in your company. Can’t do that if they hamstring you for a time.”
She didn’t know what to say. “Well… thank you. I deeply appreciate that.”
“Not all the statements were favorable, but that’s likely better. The group will be accepted more readily if it at least has the appearance of balance.” Lyn smiled at Tala. “I’ve been officially told to not interfere or influence the meeting in any official capacity. I’ll still be your appointed point of contact, but as we’re sharing a residence, I’m no longer considered neutral enough to represent the Guild or comment on proceedings.”
“Fair enough. When will I be meeting them?”
“I had you scheduled for two days ago, but with you unconscious, I asked them to bump it back.” Lyn thought about it. “I was actually going to ask for another extension, when we dropped off this paperwork at the guildhall, but now I don’t have to.”
“Oh? When is the meeting?”
“Late this afternoon. We’ll come back to the Guild after we test your cargo-slots.”
Tala swallowed involuntarily. Today? Should she ask for a delay? No, Tala. Get it done and over with. She nodded, mostly to herself. “It sounds like we have a plan for the rest of today, then. We should be off.”
* * *
The stop through the Caravanner’s Guildhall had been uneventful, and Lyn had confirmed Tala’s appointment for late that same afternoon. It was also confirmed that Tala would have to attend alone, though Terry should be allowed.
As they walked, Tala had found her newer method of movement critical. By keeping her center of gravity so carefully controlled, she kept her steps from thundering against the ground. The few steps she took without that care caused tremors to reverberate through everything around her. If she was right in her guess, she was effectively close to nine hundred pounds, at the moment. Her reserves were still vastly below what they could and should be, so she expected her weight to rise.
During their meal, she’d almost flipped their sturdy table by resting her arms on it too aggressively. As a result of that and other incidents, she was being more careful than ever with her movements.
From the Caravanner’s Guildhall, the three went straight to the Wainwrights, where Master Himmal was called out to meet them.
“Mistress Tala! I’m so glad to see you well. Your handler was unwilling to explain why you were unavailable.”
Tala smiled back, a bit self-consciously. “Master Himmal, always a pleasure. It seems I was pushing too fast and rendered myself insensate for a few days.”
The man blinked a few times, processing what she’d said. After a moment, his face blossomed with power as his mage-sight came to bear. He took a step back. “Well.” He swallowed. “You're lacking whatever barrier you had in place before.” When his gaze met hers, his eyes narrowed. “Your mage-sight is always on?” He started laughing. “That’s amazing! How are you not braindead?”
Tala quirked a smile. “That is the question.”
“So, that is why you asked for the visible indication lights to be removed. You don’t need them, at all.” He was nodding as he examined her visible lines.
He can likely see something radiating out through my clothing, but likely no specifics.
“Your lines are the most intricate and delicate I’ve ever seen. Where did you find an inscriber with the patience and precision to do this work?” He hesitated. “I apologize, I’m forgetting myself and being rude.”
Tala waved him off. “You’re fine to ask and to use your mage-sight. Mistress Holly has some new methods.”
He nodded to himself. “It’s been a decade or so. About time she shook the world, once again.” He gave a little chuckle. His voice suddenly lost its mirth, and he was staring at her knife. “Mistress Tala. What have you done?”
Tala place a hand on Flow. “I soul-bound a knife. Apparently, it was a poor choice of timing.”
He was frowning at her. “You can create Archon stars, then? But no one explained that you shouldn’t bind the knife, first? Why haven’t you been guided to make another?” He smiled, then, though his confusion and concern was still evident. “I am glad you found your way to that spell-form. Please let me know when you are up for consideration, and I’ll happily give my hearty backing to the proposal.”
“That is very kind of you. As to your questions: I’ll just say that this,” She patted the knife. “This was a bit of an accident and an exception, though I should be able to form a star, soon.” Maybe tomorrow. She nodded to herself. After a moment, she shrugged. Why not tell him? “I’m going to be making an attempt, tomorrow, as the day after I have obligations.” Rane had agreed to go speak with the guardsman instructor and schedule the restarting of her participation two mornings hence. He’d go to do that directly after this visit with the Wainwright’s Guild.
“I see…” Master Himmal seemed to be contemplating. “Ambitious to attempt a star with such a short time available, without a-” he stopped, cleared his throat, and changed what he’d been about to say, “but it should be educational one way or another.” He smiled. “Do you have a quiet space to work? One should not be interrupted during an attempt.”
Tala glanced to Lyn, thinking to check with the woman about making the attempt at home, but found Lyn glaring fiercely. Tala took an involuntary step back. It wasn’t a careful step, as she’d become in the habit of making. Instead, it was a quick, heavy footfall that caused a tremor to ripple through the ground. “Lyn.” Tala held up her hands. “What’s wrong?”
Lyn thrust her finger at Tala. “You. You are supposed to be taking a break, going easy. Now, you’re planning on making a star?”
Tala glanced to Master Himmal for support, but found the Mage wide-eyed, mouth agape, staring at her. “Mistress Tala… Why are you shaking the ground with a step? I didn’t feel any magic in that vein, radiating from you, but the result was obvious.”
Great, two issues to address…
Tala addressed Master Himmal first, simply stating that her effective weight was now around a thousand pounds.
He seemed to take it in stride. “We’ll reinforce the carrier wagon for your cargo-slots, then. I presume your preference is still to ride atop that wagon, as you did on your recent journey?”
“It is, at least during the day.”
“Is your mass increased, or just your weight?”
“Just my weight.” She frowned. “Does it matter?”
He smiled. “Of course. With just your weight increased, we’ll have to reinforce vertically, but not horizontally, at least not to the same extent. In addition, there shouldn’t be extra strain on the oxen or harnesses, as they won’t be overcoming vastly increased inertia.”
That made some sense. She hadn’t really thought about the logistics of having increased weight, but not increased inertia. Hard to lift me, but not hard to push me? I suppose I’ll have more friction against the ground, due to the higher weight… It was something else to contemplate. Maybe, this wasn’t such a good idea… In either case, she’d give it a good effort, at the very least.
He nodded. “Neither would be insurmountable, but this is the easier to work with. It will increase the cost, even so.” He quirked a smile. “The bonus from the Caravanner’s Guild for especially large storage capacity will be tapped to pay for the difference.”
Tala sighed. “Fair enough.”
Lyn cleared her throat, possibly even more irritated, as she’d had to wait. “So? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I’ll be taking it easy, not stopping, Lyn.”
Master Himmal quirked an eyebrow at the lack of a title but didn’t comment. I guess he didn’t notice the first time. Rane either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“You nearly killed yourself. Please. Please. Don’t succeed?”
Tala gave a tired smile. “I won’t lock myself away. I know that my mistake cost me days of progress, and nearly killed me. Even though it didn’t, it could have damaged me enough to halt my growth entirely.”
Master Himmal cleared his throat. “Yes, that is not something you should do.”
She gave him an apologetic look. “I am doing my best to be careful.”
He grunted. “Make your star. Get yourself raised to Archon, and much will be made clearer.” He looked to Lyn, smiling slightly. “Truthfully, that is one of the safest things our young Mage, here, can do.”
Rane nodded. “Besides, I don’t want to rise to Archon alone.”
Everyone turned to regard him, and he grinned widely. “I finished my star, yesterday.”
Tala looked around but didn’t see any such thing on his person. “Oh?”
“It’s in a little iron box, I figured if you were going to be done soon, we could go through the rigmarole together.” He shrugged. “Paperwork and bureaucracy are always better with friends.”
Tala snorted. “You say the nicest things.” Then, she frowned. “That was fast, though…”
He shrugged again. “Master Grediv has been pushing me to make one for years, and though I refused to let him give me the spell-form, or to start training on the Ways, he still managed to trick me into preparing. The small shifts I was able to make, based on his letter, pushed me over the edge.” He was grinning.
Master Himmal cleared his throat. “As wonderful as this is.” He looked to Rane. “And it is wonderful: Congratulations, Master Rane.” He looked back to Tala. “Shall we test your cargo-slots?”
“That is a fantastic idea.” She smiled at him. Tala reached out and patted Rane’s shoulder as they began to walk after the elder Mage. “Good job, by the way.” She smiled. “It sounds like I still need to catch up.”
He grinned back. “You’ll be there sooner than you know.”
Lyn rolled her eyes. “You two are ridiculous.”
Rane glanced her way. “You’re one to talk. Didn’t you say you were going to be making an attempt, soon?”
Tala looked to her friend. “Lyn? Do you think five hours with your void will be sufficient?
She shrugged. “Maybe? From my master’s instructions, I’ll be close. I think I can maintain the spell-form through a rest, as well.” She smiled. “I’m not looking to make a splash.” She chuckled lightly. “I just want Mistress Holly off my back.”
Tala nodded at that. “She’s a scary lady.”
The group came out into sunlight, and Tala beheld the new creation.
Her eyes widened. “Beautiful.”
The cargo-slots were a dark, almost black wood with a unified matte finish over the entire surface. The handles for doors were black iron, lacquered to prevent rust or irritation for Mages. The rivers, streams, and swirls that composed the spell-lines were a polished, almost red, gold.
“Is that an alloy?”
Master Himmal seemed quite pleased with the product. “Proprietary information, my good Mage.”
Lyn was already walking around the constructs.
Tala walked up and examined the descriptive inscriptions. “These are four times the size of my last voyages’ cargo-slots.” Without a mental construct, this size took me twelve minutes in my initial testing.
“Precisely so. Though, with your increased capacity, we added several features we can only implement on occasion.”
“First of all, they are almost weightless, when active. The cargo-slots themselves have their mass negated to the point that they react as if they were roughly thirty pounds, apiece. We got much of the power for that by negating the indication lights.” He gave a small smile as he continued. “Mass isolation is in effect of course, so anything inside will have a perfectly smooth ride, and we have built the accoutrements to make one a dedicated, high value passenger transport, another a combination of venture resources and guard barracks, and two more into standard passenger carriers, as needed. We can even fit in Mages’ quarters into the barracks cargo-slot, as needed.” He was smiling happily. “With the specialized wagon to carry all the cargo-slots, I see no need for any other wagon on any caravan route, save the chuckwagon.” He nodded definitively, clearly proud of the work.
“So, there are fourteen?”
“The classic ten for a caravan load, and four for the purposes of personnel.”
She grinned. “Well, let’s see what I can do, then.” She walked forward and placed her hand against the activation point of the detailed, stunningly beautiful spell-lines. To reach it, she had to step up onto a stepstool already in place; the plate, itself, being on the top of the slot.
“Why is the activation conjunction on the top, by the way?”
“So that you can recharge them all from the wagon’s roof, even while the sides of most are covered by those in use for personnel and passengers.”
She nodded. That made a good amount of sense.
Tala turned back to the cargo-slot before her and carefully built the mental construct of what her power would do. Out, not up. More symmetrical than oblong. She imagined exactly how the power would flow through the script, and what it would do to the dimensionality of the space between the front and back panels.
It was similar to, but not identical to, the cargo-slots that she had been empowering.
She moved to create void channels, connecting to the inputs of the construct, but then glanced to Lyn.
Lyn had a suspicious frown on her face.
Tala sighed. Fine. She simply channeled her excess power accumulation through the mental construct and into the device, empowering it.
It felt painfully slow. Roughly twenty seconds later, the first indicator blossomed to her mage-sight.
“Remarkable improvement.” Master Himmal was talking to himself.
Tala fought not to roll her eyes. If I used my void-channels, I’d have it filled in two or three seconds. She might have been correct, but she’d not attempted to hold a mental construct with multiple through lines, before. This was safer. This was wiser.
It took her right around a minute to fully empower the cargo-slot. A twelfth of her previous attempt at a like-sized dimensional empowerment, and this endeavor hadn’t touched her reserves. She was utterly fresh, in mind, will, and power. How inefficient was I being, without a mental construct? It was a humbling thought. How inefficient am I still being?
Tala stretched back, then twisted, cracking her back. “Well, that wasn’t bad at all.” She grinned. “Thirteen more to go.”
Master Himmal cleared his throat. “Well, no. Not right now.”
She looked at him. “Oh…right. I don’t have a contract, currently.”
He smiled and nodded. “Exactly.” He opened the door, and they all walked inside, examining the cavernous space.
To Tala’s surprise, it wasn’t dark within. It wasn’t bright, by any means, but the sides and top of the space were mildly translucent, allowing in the sun from outside. “How does that work?” She pointed at the closest side wall.
“The sunlight that strikes that side of the device is allowed through and distributed evenly across the entirety of the expanded space.”
“Huh…that actually makes sense.”
Lyn was frowning. “No, it doesn’t.”
Tala waved her away. “It does to me, and that’s what matters here.”
Lyn sighed but didn’t comment further.
After they verified correct and complete empowerment, the four of them left the enlarged space, closing the door behind them.
Master Himmal reached out and tapped a portion of the script, sending power with an intricately constructed form into the point. The cargo-slot flared with power for a brief moment, and the magic bled away.
Tala looked between Master Himmal and the construct several times. Finally, she managed to stammer out. “But…that was gold!”
He was smiling mischievously. “Are you sure?” But he turned away before she could respond.
Lyn cleared her throat. “Secrets aside, Master Himmal: I’m not sure I can sign off on a spell-form that can be powered down. That would obliterate cargo and passenger alike.”
He waved her off. “It cannot be powered down if anything remains inside. Had we tracked too much dirt and dust in, I’d have had to order a cleaning crew to scrub the place before it could be deactivated. I assure you that it is perfectly safe.”
She gave him a hard look.
He sighed. “The Wainwrights will send a letter of assurance to the Caravanners as soon as you leave. We fully certify this design.”
Lyn nodded, satisfied. “Very well, then.” She looked to Tala. “I’m happy. You?”
Tala nodded, smiling broadly. “Oh, yes. This is going to be amazing.”
They all bid Master Himmal a good day and departed. Tala and Lyn set off towards the Caravanner’s main guildhall, while Rane made his way to talk with the Guardsmen. Tala’s primary tasks for the afternoon were almost complete.
I just have to talk with a senior Guild official, which will likely include a renegotiation of my contract. No big deal. It wasn’t like much was on the line.
Tala shifted uncomfortably as she walked.
Lyn, who was coming to the guildhall but not the negotiation, noticed. “Everything ok?”
Tala grunted. “It seems silly that so much could hang on a single conversation.”
Lyn smiled. “It’s why I have a job.”
Tala snorted. “Do you know who I’ll be meeting with? Any tips?”
“No, and yes. Know what you’re worth, know what you’re saving the Guild. The bonus for the custom cargo-slots is negotiated with, and goes through, the Wainwrights, so don’t bring it up. It shouldn’t factor into your discussion, from either side. They are going to be upset by your…extra-curricular dangers. After all, you did act recklessly quite a few times, but you also didn’t fail in your duties. Try to keep that in mind, both facets of it. Don’t let them push you around.” She shrugged. “Also, stop getting in so much danger. I don’t want you to die.”
Tala smiled, gratefully. “I’ll do my best.” She thought for a moment, then addressed a different aspect of the topic at hand. “So, don’t bring up the savings from the reduced wagons?”
“Oh, you should definitely do that, just not the fact that custom cargo-slots have been made for you. Your pay should go up for reducing the needed peripheries but should not go up because you can facilitate a larger cargo-load. Does that make sense?”
Tala was nodding. “I think so. I need to negotiate for my rate as a Mage Protector as well, right?”
Lyn looked hesitant. “No? Those rates are set per danger thwarted, with some modification based on specific route. It would be appropriate to note that by reducing the need for another Mage, you further reduce the peripheral requirements, though.”
“Got it.” She sighed. I hate money…No, that wasn’t right. I hate dealing with money… Again, that didn’t seem quite true. I hate having to make decisions that will greatly affect how much money I have? That seemed right.
“You seem lost in thought.”
Tala sighed. “Just deciding what, exactly, I hate about this.”
Lyn huffed a laugh. “Seems about right.”
Tala grinned. “Any generic advice?”
“They won’t kick you out, though they may offer to let you end your contract. If they can’t give you the amount you’re asking for, they will simply let their offer rest. Unless you are truly unprofessional in this meeting, they won’t forcibly eject you from the guild.”
“That’s good, at least.”
“That doesn’t mean you can simply say, ‘Give me your best offer.’ and expect such. You’ll probably still have a job, regardless, but you want to be paid as much as possible.”
“Don’t we all.”
Lyn grinned. “I’m quite satisfied with where I’m at.”
Tala rolled her eyes. “So I’ve heard.”
“You want as much freedom as possible in contract choices, but they are going to want to restrict you, somehow, to keep your…more dangerous actions in check. Consider the wisdom of letting them.”
Tala almost objected, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized that Lyn was right. Maybe I could use a steadying influence… Rane would not be a good source for that, even if she were willing to accept such advice from him. I’ll hear them out.
Lyn seemed to be contemplating something. After a moment, she shrugged, as if to herself. “Do something to take the official off their guard. Disarm them and put them on the back foot but not with anything overt.”
Tala frowned. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Be you? You really are quite odd, and most people don’t know quite what to do with you.”
“So… your advice is to be me?”
“Precisely, that’s why I wasn’t sure if I should say anything.”
Shortly thereafter, they arrived back at the guildhall, and Lyn bid Tala goodbye. She had work to do. “I’ll see you tonight, if not before. Good luck!”