Tala stood just inside of the out-of-the-way entrance to a restaurant that she’d never have come across on her own, without directions.
It was the night before her departure for Makinaven, just a couple of hours after her trip to the library, and she was finally meeting her ‘minder,’ Mistress Odera.
Before her, the establishment’s interior stretched out, filling the inside of a small rise in the landscape in a very similar manner to the Archon complex, if much smaller. The layout hid and sheltered each table, offering privacy and seclusion, while maximizing the use of space.
Every single patron that she could see was a Mage, and most of the staff were at least inscribed. What under the stars do they need with inscriptions? There wasn’t a uniformity to them, as it seemed that each staff-member had something different augmented. Maybe, it’s just a declaration of station? She didn’t know enough to make a reasonable guess.
A few tables held parties of Archons, if she was guessing correctly, and Tala found herself feeling a bit of social fear for what felt like the first time since leaving the cliques and in-groups at the Academy.
What am I doing here…
She glanced down at her elk leathers.
Why am I wearing these?
She had nicer clothes. Why hadn’t she worn them? Why did I even buy them? She was getting too used to the elk leathers, and how they kept themselves in perfect, clean condition.
She had an almost overpowering desire to step back outside, drop into Kit, and change.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortuitously, a kindly gentlemen walked up to her and bowed. His inscriptions seemed to be around his ears, meant to amplify most sounds, while protecting his hearing in a similar vein to Tala’s own ear inscriptions, if more crudely implemented due to his lack of a keystone. It just constantly compresses the volume of sounds that reach his ears into a narrow range. A fascinating solution for his lack of a keystone. “Mistress Tala, I presume?”
Tala gave a slight bow in return, Terry shifting expertly on her shoulder as she bowed. “I am.”
He smiled. “Mistress Odera arrived before you and asked us to keep an eye out. Right this way?” He gestured for her to follow him and turned to lead her deeper in.
“Umm… Am I dressed appropriately?” She asked this as quietly as she could with any certainty of him hearing. She even took into account his enhanced hearing, making her words a very quiet whisper, indeed.
He paused and turned back towards her, regarding her with a critical eye. After a moment, he smiled, once again. “You look lovely, Mistress. We don’t have a dress-code, per se, but even if we did, you would be welcome as you are.”
She felt herself relax, even if just slightly, as he turned and led her from the entrance. Nothing for it in any case… I can’t go change, now. Even if I wanted to.
As they wandered through, she felt other diners glance her way, and she felt exceedingly glad that she’d taken the time to apply her iron-salve, earlier. She’d avoided doing so earlier in the week, given how she practically bathed in sand, involuntarily, every day. Rane is brutally effective…
The Mages they passed were of every quadrant. Tala even thought she saw quite a few bridging quadrants to some extent. The Archons all kept their auras under tight control, and what little of their spell-lines she could easily see with her normal vision, weren’t easy to decipher beyond the quadrant.
Tala, for her part, held her aura in with ease. In the last week, she’d only woken twice to find her aura unrestrained: the first night, and two nights later. After that, she’d been able to maintain her containment even while asleep. Grediv was exactly right to have me focus on strengthening my will and my soul. Lyn still occasionally slipped up, at least from what the woman had confided in Tala, but she was getting there. Neither of them doubted that she’d have the unconscious mastery well in place before Tala returned.
The result was that Tala’s iron-salve was now virtually impossible to detect. Her restrained aura seemed to lessen the effects of other Mage’s power reflecting back at them. Though, it didn’t eliminate it completely. I don’t know why my aura affects that, but it definitely seems to. The largest change was that her eyes and palms no longer glowed to her, or others’, mage-sight. At least, I don’t look like some crazy abomination anymore.
She was pulled from her contemplations when the server stopped beside an alcove, turning to gesture and indicating that this was Tala’s table.
Tala stepped around the corner and hesitated.
The woman, already seated, was clearly a Mage but not an Archon. Maybe she is, and she’s just perfectly hiding her aura?
Her dark skin caused the copper inscriptions to be incredibly difficult to see with mundane eyes, especially in the dim, atmospheric lighting. There were no other metals visible. She appeared much older than Tala, to the younger woman’s eyes.
The Mage’s hair was an almost silver-white, and she had deep smile lines, along with other, more subtle wrinkles that seemed to have been expertly accounted for by her inscriber. The style of those lines somehow did not seem like Holly’s work, though Tala couldn’t have defended the claim with any rationality. The other woman was an Immaterial Guide, just as Tala was, but she specialized in air and water. How does that make sense? Those are clearly material…
Tala’s mage-sight was straining to discern what the woman could do, and as part of that strain, Tala saw the barest hints of power across the woman’s face. Her mage-sight is active?
That didn’t make sense, there didn’t appear to be enough power to enact such a working. And if she was hiding her power, there should be none…
Something of her thoughts must have shown, because the woman smiled, a knowing glint in her eye. “Mistress Tala, welcome.”
Tala’s examination had taken less than a breath, but she still had the feeling that it had been a bit too long. Tala gave a slight bow. “Mistress Odera, I presume?”
“Just so.” Mistress Odera smiled to the server and gave him a nod, which Tala noted was more than Mistress Odera had given her. “Thank you, we should be ready to order in a few minutes.”
“Can I get you anything to drink, while you decide?”
Mistress Odera nodded. “Just water for me, please. No ice.”
Tala smiled at the man. “Same for me. Thank you.”
The server, for his part, gave an almost courtly bow before departing.
“Please, child, sit.”
Tala was almost offended; she did technically outrank the woman, after all. On the other hand, Mistress Odera would be her overseer, until the Mage determined such was no longer necessary. Tala decided to not make an issue of it for the moment, instead turning to examine the indicated chair.
“I’m aware of your…difficulties with furniture. That seat should bear you with ease, assuming you aren’t prone to rocking back on two legs.”
Tala quirked a smile and settled down. The metal creaked just slightly but otherwise held perfectly well. This is becoming more and more inconvenient… No, she was going to give it a good try, before deciding if the increased weight was worth the inconvenience. At least through the start of this contract.
Terry flickered to the table, examining Mistress Odera up close but still out of the woman’s easy reach. “You are a curious creature, aren’t you, tiny terror bird.”
Terry settled back, locking gazes with the woman.
“You can choose.” Her eyes never wavered. “Terry, yes?”
Terry gave a slight bob.
“We can be civil, and largely ignore each other, or you can attempt to attack me, and I will take one of your toes.”
Tala blinked at that, opening her mouth to object, but Mistress Odera’s eyes flicked to her for the briefest instant, and the look was so intense, and full of authority, that Tala’s mouth clicked shut.
Terry shifted between his feet for a moment, then glanced down, seeming to examine his toes. When he looked back up, his eyes narrowed, just slightly, then he flicked back to Tala’s shoulder, where he settled down.
Mistress Odera smiled, showing exactly how she’d earned those crow’s feet. “So, you are not only more intelligent than previously noted; you are also logical and reasonably civilized.”
Terry stiffened on Tala’s shoulder for a brief instant, and Tala found herself smiling too. “She’s going to be around us a lot, Terry. We figured you couldn’t pretend to be a hatchling forever, at least not without it becoming tedious.” She snorted a brief laugh. “Especially not after the display in the evaluation room.”
Terry opened one eye, giving her a calculating look, then opened his mouth.
Tala chuckled, then gave him a bit of jerky. She decided not to simply toss it to the side. No need to show all our cards. Not yet. “So, is your mage-sight active? I can’t quite tell.”
Mistress Odera nodded. “It is, as is yours.”
“You can see it?” Did I miss something in my salve application? Is my aura-restraint not as good as I thought?
“Yes, and no. I can see the ripple effects in the air in front of your eyes. Whatever you have on your skin as defense is quite effective against my level of power, not to mention your aura control.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “As to your defense, the ripples of power I’m feeling reflected off of it, from the other patrons here, is a bit disquieting.”
That opened so many questions. “How?”
Her smiled widened just slightly. “How am I activating my mage-sight with so little power? Perfect understanding of what it is doing on a level far more fundamental than most Mages ever bother to learn. How can I detect the immaterial effects of magic on the air, as well as the impressively minute reflections from your defense?” Her smile became slightly coy. “The answer is the same.”
“How are you not an Archon?”
Mistress Odera paused for a moment. “That is a bit of a rude question.” But she shook her head, when Tala opened her mouth to respond. “Not an unwarranted one, but I would recommend getting to know someone better, before asking that of others. Are we understood?”
Tala felt her cheeks heat. How is such a light reprimand hitting me so hard? “Yes, Mistress.” Tala? Are you ok?
“Very well, the question has been asked. I do not have the right kind of will-power to become an Archon. My master was very clear on that, and no Archon I’ve met since has disagreed.”
“What does that even mean?”
“To become an Archon, to win that fight over self, body, and soul, a Mage must not only desire power, and be willing to take borderline unhealthy risks to get it, but they must value their advancement over the good of others.”
“Now, wait a minute-” Tala felt her indignation rise, but again, Mistress Odera lifted a hand.
“It is a false choice, obviously, but it is still a choice. To become an Archon, you must deny your soul to the world. You must begin the process of forever sealing your power as your own, never to directly enrich the greater planet. We both know that an Archon can do much with their power to help others, but the power, itself, is not able to be used for such, directly. It is a subtle distinction that requires some fundamental characteristics in one’s will, and one’s soul, to overcome. I do not have that.”
Tala quirked an eyebrow. “So, you are telling me you are too selfless to become an Archon. Are you too humble as well?”
Mistress Odera barked a short, quiet laugh. “That is one way to look at it, and how it manifests in most. For me, however, I am too selfish.”
“How do you mean?”
“Why, my dear Mistress, if my power is suffusing the world, is my soul not, slowly, gaining dominion over it?”
Tala opened her mouth, thought about it, then closed her mouth again, frowning.
“My conscious mind would be gone, but my eternal soul, which is the real me, would gain a greater hold on this world than I could ever achieve otherwise.” Mistress Odera shrugged. “You see?”
Tala thought she understood, but it still didn’t make sense to her. “I suppose I understand in theory, but I don’t get it, practically. If that makes sense…but, if it was logical to me, I’d be in the same position you are.”
“Wait… how do you know all this? Isn’t knowledge locked to those who aren’t Archons?”
Mistress Odera waved that off. “I am Forbidden from advancing, for as long as I can resist. In order to resist, past a certain point, I have to know what and why. Forbidden are told the basics, after they turn fifty. That seems to be the tipping point for most. I have earned more knowledge, beyond that.”
Tala grunted, thinking about what Mistress Odera had said, in conjunction with what Ingrit had shared about all Mages making the attempt, eventually. So, she’ll hit that barrier in the end, and her soul will begin conquering the world. Tala didn’t really know how to feel about that.
Mistress Odera cleared her throat. “Now, we should get to ordering food.”
Tala glanced down at the paper resting before her on the table. Yeah… Food would be nice. She frowned. The prices were listed as simple numbers, no denomination mentioned.
“Do you have a question, Mistress?”
Tala looked up. “I suppose. The pricing doesn’t really make sense. Some things that I know are more expensive have a much lower number beside them, and I can’t tell what denomination the menu is in.”
“Ahh, I see. Did you notice the different ink?”
She hadn’t. Well, she had, but she’d simply thought it a stylistic choice. Now that she looked closer, and considered, the larger numbers were all written with a silvery ink, the smaller with gold. Oh… Her eyes widened. “Oh…I…uh…”
Mistress Odera held up her hand. “I invited you, child. It is an old tradition of mine, to eat a final meal, here, before I leave for a contract. I’ll not impoverish you to suit my fancy.” She smiled happily. “In truth, it costs me nothing. I did a job for the owner some…thirty?” She shook her head. “Fifty years ago.” She snorted a chuckle. “It’s changed owners since, of course, but they’ve all honored the agreement.” She nodded happily. “I get to eat here, for free, before I leave for any mission.”
“That was an expensive payment.”
Mistress Odera shrugged. “Their daughter had wandered off with a miner, and the miner had come back alone, dazed and clearly under compulsion of some kind.”
Tala felt her eyes widening, once again, and even Terry lifted his head to pay closer attention.
“It seems that they somehow wandered into an older tunnel that led outside the city’s defenses. The girl was a new Mage, and something decided to snap her up.”
“What happened? I know you are capable of thinking for yourself. What do you think happened?” Mistress Odera shook her head, returning her attention to the menu before her. “I went and got her back.”
Tala let out an irritated breath. “That’s not a very good retelling of what must have been a very harrowing adventure.”
“I’m not a bard, girl.”
“You could work on being a better storyteller.”
“I’m a great storyteller, but I’m hungry, and we need to order. Besides, you may be an Archon, but that doesn’t entitle you to all secrets.”
Typical. Even so, Tala huffed a laugh. “Fair enough. What do you recommend?”
“No idea. I’ve never seen you eat before.”
“…But what do you like?”
“Walks in the forest, under a cloudless, night-time sky.” Mistress Odera gave Tala an utterly serious stare. “Fictional tales of starships and plasma swords, and epics imagining worlds in which magic functions differently.”
“For food, Mistress. From the food offered here.” Is she purposely trying to be irritating? Testing me, for some reason?
“The bread is delicious.”
As if on cue, the kind gentleman returned with their waters, a basket of bread, a plate of butter, and two small plates. “Would you two care for some bread, while you’re deciding?”
I’m not sure I could balance all that, that well. It was impressive. Tala smiled and accepted. “Yes, thank you. What do you recommend from your menu?”
Mistress Odera silently accepted the bread as well, lathering hers with butter to what seemed an unhealthy degree.
“Well, Mistress, that depends. What type of food do you prefer?”
Tala almost snapped at the man, but realized that her irritation was with Mistress Odera, not their server. Instead, she took a deep breath. “I’m not partial to any form of fish or water-life. Other than that, I just enjoy good food.”
“Certainly. Are you looking for a light or a heavy meal, tonight?”
“The heavier and more filling the better, I think.” She smiled a bit self-consciously. “I eat a lot.”
“We have an endless soup and greens. Often, soup can be a light meal, but ours are of the richer variety, in general, and by virtue of being endless it should be quite filling.”
Tala perked up at that. “Oh? What soups are available?”
“Cheesy-Potato chowder. Tomato Basil. Broccoli Cheddar. Chicken Barley. White bean, chicken noodle, and…” He glanced down at a small notepad. “Ahh, yes, crawdad-bisque, which I imagine you wouldn’t prefer.”
“Oh…I don’t know how I would decide.”
“You don’t need to decide. You can have as much as you’d like of any or all.”
Tala felt immediately guilty. “That seems like a poor deal for you all. I can eat a lot.”
Mistress Odera reached out her hand and tapped the menu in front of Tala, causing her to glance down. “Oh…Alright then.” Mistress Odera had pointed out the price: ten silver ounces. Yeah. They usually pull a hefty profit…even I might struggle to get that much value from it. “Can I start with the chicken barley?”
“Very good, Mistress. And for you, Mistress?” He turned to Mistress Odera.
“I’d like the long pasta, with chicken and the white sauce, please. And a salad to start.”
The server got the particulars for their salads and departed.
“So, now that food is on the way. Will you tell me that story?”
“Maybe on the road. We’re going to be working together because of your previous…contracts. How about we start there? Tell me about the route to and from Bandfast.” Her smile was kindly, but there was an almost predatory glint in her eye.
“Alright, I suppose…”
The evening passed quickly after that. Mistress Odera asked penetrating questions but never pushed, if Tala showed any hesitation about sharing. The food was excellent, and Tala ate an almost insane amount of each kind of soup, except the crawdad bisque. The greens were also an amazing counterpoint, and Mistress Odera had been correct, the bread was to die for.
All in all, even while sharing her dangerous experiences and somewhat foolish choices, the dinner was a pleasant last meal, on her final day in Bandfast.