Neat and clean, Gael presented himself at Nathiar’s door with a smart rap on the wood. He’d recovered the anger he initially felt upon seeing the magus’ stolen supplies, but it was a cold anger, no longer heated.
Nathiar himself answered Gael’s knock. He looked remarkably fresh, given his late night and strenuous magery, his muddy green eyes without the typical redness in their whites, his thick lips firmly closed. He wore a robe of orange suede embroidered with purple arabesques and dotted with bronze rose-rivets. His silver hair hung in its usual multiple braids.
His brows rose when he saw Gael. “W-e-e-l-l,” he drawled. “Fancy meeting the secretarius just outside his proper chambers. Have you decided to occupy your official residence after all?” His voice was deep and mellifluous.
“May I come in?” answered Gael.
Nathiar’s brows lifted still higher. “Sabel’s gifts! To what do I owe this honor?”
Gael said nothing, and Nathiar ushered him inside.
The receiving room was richly appointed with textiles—so rare in the north—and intricately carved furniture. Wool carpets worked to resemble flowery meadows covered the floor, brocade tapestries depicting a magus at work hung from the walls, and divans upholstered in turquoise satin or yellow velvet or spring green damask provided seating. Delicate bronze figurines rested on low, red-lacquered tables. Spatters of colored light, cast by the stained-glass ornament edging the paned casements, dotted the surfaces erratically.
Gael’s lips tightened. All this wealth could only be spoils of war or pirate booty. Belzetarn’s artisans had little wool or linen or leisure for luxury work at their disposal.
“Have a seat,” said Nathiar. “The boys will be here with food soon. We shall break our fast together.”
Gael remained standing and proffered the rose-riveted pouch he’d brought with him the previous night. “I understand this is yours, Magus. I wish to return it to you.”
A gleam of humor sparked in Nathiar’s eyes. “S-o-o-o, where did you find it?”
“Tucked into the pack straps of the mule from the tinworks,” said Gael levelly.
“Goodness! How ever did it get there?”
“I’ll mention that it has tin dust within it,” said Gael. “I’ll further mention that I’ve been next door—in my chambers—and have seen what you store there.” Gael unclenched his jaw. “You have some explaining to do.”
Nathiar started to laugh.
“Well?” said Gael.
Nathiar’s laughter grew louder. The magus fetched out a purple handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped his eyes. “W-e-e-l-l, this is awkward,” he said, subsiding.
“For you,” said Gael. “I’m waiting, Nathiar.”
“Yes, I see you are. Dear me. Won’t you sit down? We may as well be civilized while we converse.”
Gael let his hand fall, the pouch still in its grip. “How is stealing the least bit civilized?” he inquired.
Nathiar started to laugh again, but repressed his merriment. “Very well, I’ll admit that I’m not the least bit civilized, but I do prefer comfort. You need not sit, if you do not wish to, but I shall!” He strolled over to a turquoise divan and lowered himself onto it, leaning one elbow on the upward slanting end.
Gael followed him, deliberately coming to stand too close, forcing Nathiar to crane his neck uncomfortably, should the magus wish to meet his eyes. Nathiar chose to study the nails on his left hand instead.
“How much do you know?” queried the magus.
“Assume I know it all, and you’ll be close,” grated Gael.
“And, yet, I’d rather not confess any small detail needlessly,” said Nathiar. “Why accept needless guilt?”
Gael shifted his stance impatiently. “Lannarc stole tin for you before it was weighed. You fashioned a covert ore tap in the oxhide furnace at the copper mines. You’re storing your stolen tin and your stolen copper and your stolen forging tools in my chambers.” Gael refrained from emphasizing ‘stolen’ and ‘my,’ just barely.
“I see,” said Nathiar. “No doubt you wonder what I am doing with all that?”
Nathiar’s brows jumped again. “No?”
“I saw you hardening the edges of the enchanted sword you’d no doubt forged from the fruits of your thefts,” said Gael.
“W-e-e-l-l, my dear Secretarius.” Nathiar chuckled. “It would appear you do indeed know it all. I am in your hands, as they say.”
“I suppose I need not ask why.” Gael had expected to grow more angry once the magus had admitted to stealing. Instead, he felt merely jaded, his anger ebbing.
Nathiar sniffed. “Carbraes permits me magery on the battlefield. He encourages my magery when we besiege a Ghriana stronghold. He beseeches my magery whenever the tides of war turn against us. But he will not allow me to improve the weapons with which our warriors fight.”
“Is it so necessary?” asked Gael.
“You saw my work last night?” Nathiar looked up from his nails.
Gael nodded and took a step back, having mercy on Nathiar’s craning neck.
“With your inner sight as well as the outer?” asked the magus.
“Yes. I perceived the living heart node.”
“All the Ghriana warriors wield blades like that,” said Nathiar.
“I’d heard rumors . . .” said Gael slowly.
“Our trolls do not look with their inner sight, of course. They merely see the impossible agility with which those Ghriana blades strike. Thus the rumors. But when I take the battlefield, my inner sight is open, perforce. There is a reason why we lose more battles than we win.”
Gael had never expected that he might find himself at sympathy with any of his old enemy’s views. But if Belzetarn’s Ghriana foes all bore enchanted blades . . .
“Have you discussed this with Carbraes? Really sat down with him? Not merely flung your half-jesting insults at him in passing?”
Nathiar snickered. “Oh, yes.”
“You couldn’t convince him?” Gael wondered what Nathiar was not telling him. If Carbraes still believed Nathiar to be wrong about the need for improved weapons, the regenen would have good reasons behind him.
“Gael, think,” said Nathiar.
Hearing his name on Nathiar’s tongue took Gael aback. It had been so very long ago, but in his boyhood, he and his closest friends had been ‘Erastys’ and ‘Heiroc’ and ‘Nathiar’ and ‘Gael’ to one another. Only within Belzetarn had Nathiar and Gael become ‘Magus’ and ‘Secretarius.’ Longing for that earlier time pierced him. If only . . . if only . . . but neither youth nor health returned when the years and the truldemagar had claimed them. Nor did trust or good will.
“How many swords do your smithies complete each day?” demanded Nathiar.
“Eight. Sometimes ten,” answered Gael.
“And I could create but one in that time,” said Nathiar. “Would you have me train your smiths in weapons magery?”
“Few of them have skill enough with energea to be so trained,” admitted Gael. “Even were Carbraes willing.”
“Which he is not,” said Nathiar.
“But blades enough for the brigenens? The preceptorii? The bellatarii? Made by you alone?” suggested Gael.
Nathiar sighed, and Gael sat on the lemon velvet divan across from Nathiar.
“What do you imagine our battlefields are like?” asked Nathiar.
“I’ve stood on battlefields,” said Gael.
“Yes, you have. In Hadorgol.”
“Are the battlefields in the foothills of the Tahdfiarns and the Fiorsmarns so different?” asked Gael.
Nathiar flared the nostrils of his fleshy nose. “The march insists on drill and more drill, and it is well he does. The trolls devolve into a mob on the battlefield in spite of it. Without it . . .” The magus shook his head. “Without it, they’d fight each other as often as they fought their enemy.”
Gael followed this to where Nathiar was leading him. “With some trolls bearing superior weapons and others not, those-without would fight those-with to gain the better weapons for themselves.”
That was the curse of the truldemagar. Unafflicted men varied all the way from the supremely self-controlled to the utterly undisciplined. But most men occupied some middle ground. Among trolls, the disciplined were fewer, the unruly more numerous, and the middle ranks more heedless.
“Why bother with your secret experiments then? When there’s no use to them?”
“R-e-a-l-l-y, Gael. Why do you think?” drawled Nathiar. “I like energetic experimentation. Isn’t the sheer fun of it reason enough?”
Gael repressed a sniff, refusing to rise to the bait. Nathiar had always loved catching his acquaintances off balance. Gael couldn’t imagine why Nathiar hadn’t tired of it long since, but the magus hadn’t.
“Is that your only reason,” Gael inquired mildly.
Nathiar’s thick lips twisted. “I had some hope that showing Carbraes what is possible might persuade him to alter his position,” he admitted.
Gael sat back, concealing his surprise at hearing his old enemy confess to good intentions. As a youth, Nathiar had loved playing pranks a little too much, but he hadn’t been truly bad. After he’d reached manhood his predilection for mischief seemed to grow nastier, and his concern for his victims—always slight—grew less. He wouldn’t expect Nathiar, as a troll, to possess interest in anyone’s well-being save his own.
Could Gael have misjudged his colleague? It seemed unlikely.
Questions from the past—the distant past—stirred within him. “Why did you do it? Cast that mean-spirited glamour?” he blurted. It had been the glamour that brought the truldemagar upon Nathiar, hadn’t it?
The magus recovered his sardonic mien. “Really, the rumors were endless, my dear Gael. Which ones did you hear?”
“That the ambassadress of Solmundia was prudish. That Erastys fancied her in spite of that. Or because of it. That you coveted her amulet from ancient Navellys. That you attempted to gain your way with the lady—for the both of you—by magical force, and it ruined you.”
“Ah.” Nathiar straightened and glanced at the carpet, more uneasy than Gael could remember ever seeing him. “That was the version we encouraged to spread.”
“But it was not true,” said Gael quietly.
Nathiar swallowed, pursing his lips. “No. It was not true.”
The receiving room’s door swung open before Nathiar could say more.
* * *
Next scene: coming November 4.
The Tally Master, Chapter 12 (scene 59)
Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)