The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 7)

Keir disliked the tin vault.

It was narrower than either the copper or the bronze vaults, more like a corridor than a chamber. Only one arrowslit lit the space, and its casement possessed panes of translucent horn, not glass, making the light very dim. The flat smell of the tin hung in the air. The heavy stone groins holding up the arched ceiling were oppressive, the cramped space was oppressive, and Keir felt oppressed.

She could imagine herself buried deep beneath the earth in a blood wyrm’s cavern. The tin repository seemed more like a monster’s lair than a treasure vault located high in a fortified tower.

It was the very opposite to everything she’d known until two years ago: the flat salt marshes under a wide sky of clear blue, swept by gauzy clouds; the round reed huts clustered on the strand between marsh and ocean; the vast stretch of tossing waves, all the way to the distant horizon. Her home.

But she had a job to do here. Both the immediate one—the re-tallying of tin assigned by Gael—and the more comprehensive, longer term one she’d assigned herself.

Standing before the stone ledge that formed the base of the vault wall, she lifted the peaked lid of the first in a row of wooden caskets. Each casket was square and small—less than a foot in length, width, and height—and its lid echoed the shape of the ingots within it, slanting up on all four sides toward a flat, square top.

The ingots themselves, arranged in four nested stacks, had flat rims around their square bases, and one would fit in the palm of her hand.

There should be sixteen in this casket, four in each of the four stacks. She counted them out onto the ledge, each one weighing sixteen ounces—light individually, heavy when you stacked enough together. Heavy when you considered what they did: forming the weapons with which the troll horde had once—before she was born—assailed her people on their island home of Fiors. Her people, armed only with flint knives and flint-tipped spears, had stood no chance against the bronze-wielding truldemagar.

Without tin, the truldemagar would not have bronze. And tin was rare. So rare that even a small pebble of it was precious, while an entire ingot . . . an entire ingot might make a man—or a troll—wealthy.

Sixteen ingots of tin.

She counted four of them back into the casket. Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.

She marked four tallies on her parchment with her quill. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.

She counted the next four ingots into the casket, tallied them, and did the same for the next four and the last four.

Sixteen ingots. Sixteen tallies. There was no way error could explain the missing ingot. Keir was surprised Gael had even mentioned the possibility. His control of the tin—and the copper and the bronze—flowing through Belzetarn was absolute. That had been clear from the moment he’d taken her as his assistant and trained her in the systems he’d devised.

Each morning, Keir counted nine ingots of copper from the copper vault into the rucksack of the blade scullion sent to fetch metal for the blade smithy, while Gael tallied them. Then Keir put one tin ingot from the tin vault into that rucksack, and Gael tallied it.

When the scullion delivered the ingots to the blade smith, the blade notary tallied them. And, in the evening, when the scullion delivered the forged blades back to the bronze vault—ready for grinding and polishing the next day—Keir weighed them, and Gael tallied them. Then he tallied the one bronze ingot always poured—from excess metal—after the forging of eight blades, except on days when the blade smithy made arrowheads and spearheads and created no excess.

Similar checks and tallies controlled the metals flowing through the other smithies: the grinding smithy; the annealing smithy; the hilt maker; the armor smithy, where the scales and wire were forged for scale armor, as well as the greaves and helmets; and the privy smithy, where tools for the kitchens and the tannery and all the other offices were made. Every ounce of metal was tallied by Gael and Keir together.

Keir knit her brows.

Gael’s systems were flawless. But the trolls who used them . . .

The blade smith would never make an error, nor would he ever steal. Smithing was his calling, and bladesmithing was sacred. Keir found his obsession a little scary, but it meant he was trustworthy.

The grinding smith was a practical sort, matter-of-fact and phlegmatic. The annealing smith was precise. The armor smith . . . was kind. He and Gael were close friends.

All the smiths were reliable, except the privy smith. Martell was artistic and flamboyant, exploring the ornamental possibilities in household items, especially those used at the regenen’s table and in the regenen’s chambers or the castellanum’s. He tried varying mixtures of copper and tin. And his tallies were always in arrears.

But never by an entire ingot’s worth.

Well, that wasn’t true. Martell had been in arrears by as much as an ingot. Several times. But the tally chamber had always been able to track down the error.

And the privy smith was honest, despite his inexactitude. Martell would not have stolen an ingot, but he might have provided the opportunity for another troll to do so.

Keir locked the first casket of tin. She moved to the next, counting and tallying the ingots.

Sixteen.

Perhaps Gael had been thinking of Martell, when he spoke of error as the reason for the missing ingot. The privy smith had been caught in error before. Keir had caught him just in the last waxing moon. The weight of the ingots going into the privy smith had been less than the weight of implements and ingots coming out, and by more than the usual few ounces.

Why couldn’t Martell simply put the beakers and knives and nails he made on the blasted scale? But, no. He persisted in having his notary write the number of ounces each item should weigh next to that item on the list. Which had undoubtedly worked fine when he adhered to the standard designs. Since he’d begun pursuing his art—soon after Keir arrived at Belzetarn—the weights changed with his changing innovations.

His error last waxing moon?

Keir had noticed a ladle in the carry sack of the privy scullion headed to the kitchens, said ladle failing to appear on the list at all. She’d added it, along with its standard weight, and the privy smithy’s input and output had then matched, as much as they ever did.

If the privy smith had managed to use an entire ingot of tin without recording it—unlikely, given that Martell was experimenting with copper-rich mixtures far more than tin-rich ones—the tally room would never learn where that tin had gone. The products from the privy smithy dispersed too widely.

But Keir didn’t think it was error.

And she didn’t think Gael thought so either. Why was he pretending he did? Because he wanted to keep Keir out of the ugliness? To protect Keir?

She suspected that was it.

What in the North would Gael do if he learned Keir was not the boy he thought her, but a young woman? Or did he know already? He might. He was subtle enough to penetrate her secret and never let on that he knew it, even to Keir herself. And he was protective enough—claiming Keir’s youth as his reason—that knowing her gender might occasion no change in either his behavior or his demeanor.

In that respect—if in no other—Gael reminded her of her father.

Keir removed the tin ingots from the third casket and swallowed hard against the sudden tightness in her throat. Would she always miss her pater—her father? Their interchange had been such a mix of irritation and affection on her last day at home.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 8)

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

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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