The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 5)

Chapter 2

Gael let the warriors lugging the artifact precede him, although he followed close.

It was a long, hot climb from the tower’s main gate to his chambers over the tally room. The stones of the walls and steps held their chill, welcome in summer, but the air flowing in through the arrowslits was too warm.

Gael pushed past the burn in his tiring leg muscles, ignoring the fierce click in his ankle, thinking. Was he as loyal as he’d assured the regenen?

Carbraes was right that Gael didn’t covet more power than he currently possessed. His position of secretarius was an exalted one, no question. But with more power would only come increased obligation to use it. The more powerful castellanum—Theron—governed all of Belzetarn: the kitchens and the cooks, the artisans and their yard, the messengers, the provisioners, the hunters, and more. It must be a tedious business, overseeing every last detail and all the disciplinary proceedings that were surely required to get the work done.

Theron seemed to enjoy it, and he certainly ranked above Gael in the hierarchy, but Gael shuddered at any possibility of stepping into his shoes.

Belzetarn’s march, Dreas, possessed power close to that of the regenen’s, commanding the regenen’s legions. But Dreas and Carbraes were like the fingers on one hand. They went back, way back, comrades before ever they came to Belzetarn, and comrades under the regenen who’d held the citadel before Carbraes.

The march would never betray Carbraes. Nor did Gael covet his job. It came too close to the realities of the troll stronghold that troubled Gael.

He was grateful to have this safe haven, grateful for Carbraes’ protection, grateful to have come to rest in peaceful waters after the turbulence of war under Heiroc, and then exile in a denuded wilderness when the truldemagar claimed him.

But although his tally room was peaceful, Belzetarn as a whole was not.

The citadel harbored warriors—troll warriors—and all the paraphernalia of war. It gave birth to war, standing opposed to near the entire North. As Carbraes once said: unless we carry the war to them, they will bring it to us. And what they bring will be defeat. Utter defeat. Annihilation.

The ‘they’ he referred to were the unafflicted, the healthy, those free of troll-disease.

There was no lawful place in all the world for the truldemagar. Only exile to the more inhospitable reaches that no one else wanted. The deserts of sand, rock, or ice that required magery to survive.

Trolls who hoped to survive more than mere months banded together under the strongest of their number they could find. The stronger, the better.

Carbraes was strong. He had to be.

But the unafflicted ones, the unmarked ones—

When Gael brought the faces of the undiseased into memory, he thought not of the king who had banished him, nor of the knights who backed that king. No. He remembered his littlest sister, with her mop of curly black hair and her trilling laughter. He remembered his mother, sweet-faced and low-voiced. He remembered his older brother patiently explaining the proper way to sharpen a quill pen. He remembered the innocent ones.

And the knowledge that Carbraes—and Belzetarn—brought blood and death to those who deserved protection bothered him.

There lay the weakness in Gael’s loyalty.

So long as he could ignore the reality that underpinned Belzetarn, Gael was loyal. Unshakably so. But if ever he had to choose between Carbraes and an innocent . . .

Gael frowned.

He’d arrived at the door to his chambers, a heavy bronze-bound affair, like all the doors in the citadel, and padlocked. The warriors, weighed down by the gong, were waiting for him to unlock it.

He did so and steered them through his sitting room—a dim, comfortable space with cushioned divans, wall hangings, and shelves packed with scrolls of ballads, epics, and legends—to the small storeroom off it. He would need to order a bronze padlock for the storeroom door. Tonight.

In the meantime, the outer door must suffice. At least every troll and his brother wouldn’t parade past the cursed gong as they would if he’d secreted it in some more frequented spot—the armory, where warriors were issued new weapons; the armor vestry, from which they were issued leather cuirasses or scale mail; or the oxhide vault, where the mule teamsters carried the large copper ingots from the mines.

These warriors used appropriate care in setting their burden down—flat on the floor—apparently as wary as he of the dreadful effects of sounding the resonant bronze.

Gael barred his outer door behind them, lit two tallow dips, and returned to scrutinize his unwanted prize. He’d promised Carbraes that.

No, he’d promised much more than that, but inspection was where he would begin. First he would look with his eyes, again, paying attention to detail, because outer form often hinted at inner structure. And then he would deploy the inner looking that Carbraes desired.

The metal disk was large. Were he to suspend it from straps or chains—using the pierced and beaded holes at its rim—and stand before it, touching one edge with his right fingertips, the other edge would reach his left shoulder. It was not flat, but curved like a great shallow bowl upended on the floor, the center rising three handspans from the flagstones with the central iron boss another handspan above that, and the bronze edges also furling up a handspan.

Its polished surface gleamed, bouncing the light of the tallow dips around the storeroom, creating strange patterns of shadow over the oddments stacked on the shelves and hanging from the wall hooks. The bronze possessed a warm, rosy tint—almost as though it were made of pure copper—but with a film over it, like frost.

Gael wondered if it were the arsenic in the bronze producing that effect or the forging technique used. His friend Arnoll would know.

He resisted the urge to descend to the smithies right now and fetch Arnoll out of his deep refuge to view this thing. That must come later, after Gael had done his duty by it.

Did he feel such repugnance because of the nature of the artifact itself? Or because of what it might require: the use of Gael’s magery?

Etched into the metal, abstract curves sprawled from rim to iron boss, creating a crisscrossing lattice that reminded Gael of the energea patterns that accompanied magery. Near the center, the design came together to depict a phoenix nesting in flames, its wings upraised to encircle the boss.

Was there significance to the image? Resurrection via ultimate loss and suffering? He’d not registered its presence during his first encounter below.

He crouched to study the composition. Did flames emanate from the boss, as though it were the sun? Or did the boss represent the egg from which the phoenix would be reborn? The latter, he thought. For within the thumb-sized dimples covering the black iron swirled deliberately irregular whorls, similar to those on peregrine eggs.

Gael’s ankle creaked as he straightened, and the flames of the tallow dips wavered, making the shadows dance. His next observance would take longer, and Gael refused to complete it with the aching joints that would follow poor posture.

He stepped out to his sitting room, noting the angle of the sunlight on the stones of the arrowslits beyond the glass casements. The day was passing, and he had still his regular work to do—counting this morning’s tallies and issuing orders to the various offices, plus hearing Keir’s report from the re-tally of the tin ingots and reviewing the discrepant tallies from yesterday.

He selected the thick fleece carpeting the floor in front of his favorite divan and hauled it into the storeroom, laying it next to the gong. Sitting crosslegged upon it, the wool cushioned and warmed his haunches. He leaned forward a little, then back, seeking that upright position that would let his tailbone drop while his crown rose. As unwelcome as this inner scrutiny of the gong might be—approaching close to the source of its enweakening groan—done properly, his body could benefit from breath linked to posture.

Ah! His shoulders lowered that last smidgeon as the old discipline claimed him. It felt good, even though it shouldn’t have.

He fell into the slow rhythm of breathing in while focusing on the lift in his crown and breathing out while noticing the relaxation at his root. In, for seven beats. Out, for seven beats.

The silver scrolls of his arcs unfurled in his mind’s eye, and his nodes—drifting—flushed with color. He directed his attention away from his own familiar lattice of energea to the gong that lay before him. He hissed. It, too, possessed a pattern of energea, but not the quiescent and linear lattice of normal bronze, like a board for the game of draughts, no. This bronze was active.

Curving scrolls of silver—distinctive of living organisms, not inert metals—followed the etchings in the bronze, flowing into and then out of a glowing green node at the central boss.

Tiamar on high! Did this artifact possess a heart node just like that of a man? Or a troll?

Gael focused his inner sight on that green lambency, wanting to discern its inner structure. The corona held a soft diffuseness, just as did the corona of a human node. The mantle within intensified, shining with greater brilliance. And, at the core, the light solidified around a faint pattern of closed diamonds—anchorage.

Tiamar’s throne! It was a human node.

Gael wasn’t sure if he beheld miracle or abomination.

So. He’d studied this thing, inside and out. He could report his findings to Lord Carbraes. And then . . . ?

Why did he hesitate? He longed to close his inner sight and get away from this curiously disturbing energea. But he had the sense that there was . . . One. More. Thing. One more thing he should do before he called his scrutiny complete.

Reluctantly, inner sight still open, he reached toward the furled bronze and tapped it with his forefinger.

A soft humming shivered on the air, pulsing in and out.

The scrolling arcs of the gong, leading from its edge to its center, brightened and quickened, sparks traveling inward along their curves. The gong’s heart node throbbed—incandescent, mellower, incandescent, mellower. Then the arcs flowing away from the gong’s center came to life, generating scrolls of blue energea that radiated off the metal into the world.

Gael’s own energea dimmed. His legs felt like lead, heavy and immovable. His spine slumped like a jelly, while his head alternated between painful density and dizzying dispersion. Crushing, expanding, crushing. He swallowed down nausea. Swallowed again.

Then the resonance ceased, and the gong’s energea quieted.

Gael’s strength returned. He heaved to his feet, tottered out to his sitting room, and closed the storeroom door firmly behind him.

Gaelan’s tears!

He didn’t think that draining hum had escaped his chambers. He hoped not. There was a balcony just the other side of the storeroom’s back wall. Cayim’s hell!

He half-fell half-sat on his favorite divan, leaning against its slanted arm. He could feel the suede buttons through the thistlesilk of his sleeve.

The warriors must have dropped the gong to produce the groan that had echoed through Belzetarn’s stairwell earlier, but the resonance from a finger tap was equally bad at close proximity.

He should check that balcony. Be sure no one had fallen. He really should.

And he would, as soon as he could gather his scattered . . . self.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 6)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 4)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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