The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 4)

With effort, Gael wrenched his thoughts from the old, painful memories.

Where he stood right now—in a dusty and cluttered storeroom full of wooden practice weapons, cutting butts, pillars, and mats—was a direct result of the events in those memories, but his attention needed to be on the present. Not the past.

One of the page boys in the cluster behind him murmured.

Gael’s gaze fell to the bronze gong resting on the stone floor between the two warriors. Its metal gleamed in the dim light, beckoning, inviting Gael’s scrutiny as his regenen had requested.

Lord Carbraes awaited Gael’s response, his stance relaxed within his aura of command, and his eyes steady. “Secretarius?”

Gael sighed. “Surely the magus is better qualified, Regenen. I renounced my magery when I entered your service. As you requested. As you request of all who dwell under your command.”

“You did.” Carbraes’ face did not change—composed. Waiting.

Almost did Gael submit. He valued his place here in Belzetarn. It was his home. He valued the reason and firm control Carbraes exerted over Belzetarn’s denizens. This refuge existed only because of Carbraes’ power and sanity. Gael had always been content—or almost always so—to give whatever Carbraes required of him.

But not now. Not this. Of all the trolls gathered in Belzetarn—who renounced magery at Carbraes’ command—there was one who still performed it. Also at Carbraes’ command.

“The magus would resent my usurpation of his prerogative,” Gael suggested.

A slight warmth entered Carbraes’ ice blue eyes. “No. He will resent my insistence that another share his privilege.” That was true. “Which is my privilege.”

Also true. But the magus of Belzetarn would add yet another grudge to those he already held against Gael, for the two were old acquaintances. Enemies? Maybe even enemies. At this juncture.

For the magus of Belzetarn had been the magus of Pirbrant, serving Erastys seven years ago.

Nathiar would yield no forbearance to Gael even when it was commanded by their mutual lord. Although . . . it was not Nathiar’s animosity that concerned Gael.

Many of the trolls seeking refuge under Carbraes renounced their magery reluctantly. Its power and convenience were seductive. Why hone one’s sword with whetstone and oil and labor, when magery would do it faster and better? Why fight with that sword on the battlefield, when magery could deliver far more devastating attacks?

But every troll in Belzetarn—or anywhere else—suffered the truldemagar because of magery gone wrong. They’d wielded magery too ambitious, too extreme, or too powerful for unafflicted arcs and nodes to withstand it and yet keep their healthy anchoring. And each time a troll pulled energea through his drifting nodes, those nodes drifted a little farther from true, farther from health, closer to deformity and madness.

Gael had renounced his magery willingly.

This artifact of Olluvarde threatened a return to his relinquished power. Why would Carbraes have Gael examine the sinister metal unless Carbraes intended Gael to meddle further with the gong? And Gael suspected that such meddling would require . . . magery. Not trivial magery either, but skilled and potent magery. The kind of magery that turned safe blue energea to lethal gold. There was a reason that Nathiar’s straight, shoulder-length hair shone silver now, while Gael’s black locks remained merely threaded with gray.

Abstinence from magery possessed great benefits, and Gael was not anxious to forego them.

“My skills are rusty,” he persisted. “The results will be more certain, if the more practiced magus—if Nathiar investigates this cursed thing and disposes of it.”

“Nathiar believes me wrong to eschew troll magery,” said Carbraes. “Would you believe me wise to tempt him to it, beyond strict necessity?”

Gael widened his stance and stood taller.

He would be blunt. Carbraes never faulted a man for stating his position, even when that position differed from his own. Just as Nathiar could be quite frank about his preference that Carbraes use more magery in his operations, so Gael would now be frank about his own distaste for it. “No, you would not be wise to give Nathiar more cause to do magery than he already possesses. But just as Nathiar craves magery, so do I detest it. And just as you request that I take responsibility for this gong, so do I request that you give it to someone else.”

He jerked his chin in an abrupt nod.

One corner of Carbraes’ mouth quirked up, and he relaxed his stance further, which surprised Gael. He’d expected the regenen to match his own tension with a ramping up of power, not a diminution of it. But the regenen often departed from one’s expectations. That was a good part of why he remained regenen over the aggressive and prone-to-rage trolls who obeyed him.

Carbraes gestured to the pages—standing very quietly, no doubt shocked—behind Gael. “Leave us,” he said. “Await me at the west stair.”

The pages shuffled off, and then Carbraes turned to the warriors standing guard over the gong. “I would speak with the secretarius alone. Restrain the pages from too much horseplay and return to me when I call.”

Both bowed and departed.

Carbraes stepped closer to Gael, placed an arm over his shoulders, and drew him away from the gong to a front corner of the storeroom. “There is another matter in question, Gael,” he murmured. “I trust you. But I have reason to doubt your old friend.”

Gael sometimes wondered at Carbraes’ ability to hold the loyalty of his troll followers. It was true that their lack of welcome elsewhere might compel them to remain true. But the very problem that drew them close—their disease—made them quarrelsome, unruly, and drawn to violence. Yet Carbraes mastered them.

Gael wouldn’t have expected a traitor amongst the most privileged, however. “Wherein lies your lack of trust?” he inquired.

“Nathiar remains in Belzetarn purely for his own advantage. And I can use him so. But only if I do not give him too much.” Carbraes gripped Gael’s shoulder. “Surely you see this? You were never a fool.”

“Mm.” Gael conceded the point reluctantly.

“But I think it is different with you,” continued Carbraes. “You are here, because . . . where else should you be? But you would not betray me for mere gain, even substantial gain. Is it not so?”

How in Cayim’s hell did one answer a question like that? Yes, I would betray you for substantial gain? Although he wouldn’t. Carbraes was right about that. No, I would never betray you? Gael couldn’t be sure of that.

“I am loyal, Regenen,” he said, his tone even, hiding his irritation.

Carbraes touched his shoulder again. “I know it. I think you might betray me to preserve your own life, but not for less cause, and maybe not even then. Is it not so?”

“Should your warriors rise against you, I suspect I would be better served defending you than seeking to save my own skin by joining them,” he answered dryly. “I doubt I should like such a regime as rebel trolls would create.”

Carbraes chuckled. “I press you unreasonably. But, Gael”—he straightened—“I trust you. And I must not trust Nathiar. Help me with this foul artifact of Olluvarde. It bears an evil taint, and you were a skilled magus before you came here.”

Gael stifled another sigh. He’d known it would come to this in the end. Command, guile, persuasion. Carbraes had them all and knew when to use each.

Gael glared at the gong—so like a shield, but not one—glimmering in the dimness.

“Bid the warriors carry it up to my chambers. I want the hellish thing behind double locks.”

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Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 5)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 3)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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The Tally Master