The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 10)

Chapter 3

In the upper reaches of the Regenen Stair, numerous arrowslits brought in light during the hours when the sun shone. But the tower’s foundations were broader than its heights, which meant the lowest twists of the stair were too far from the outer walls to make arrowslits practical. There, torches burned even by day, black soot stains on the stone vaulting above each.

As Keir and Gael passed the wide archway into the servery for the Regenen’s Kitchen, a shout hailed them.

Gael halted on the landing. “Go ahead of me, boy,” he told Keir. “Best we arrive in the smithies separately anyway, to avoid giving undue importance to your inquiries.”

Keir nodded, quickly disappearing around the newel post.

“Gael!” came the shout again from the Regenen’s Kitchen.

Gael entered the servery, a spacious chamber that grew crowded and chaotic only when the scullions clustered there, intent on grabbing the multitude of dishes they would deliver to the great halls for the morning meal or the evening feast. Between meals, the servery remained empty, its peace disturbed only by echoes from the adjacent kitchen.

A wide hatch with a broad stone sill that served as a counter occupied the wall to Gael’s left. The scullions loaded their trays at this hatch. Right now, a lean troll—with short, straight brown hair and brown eyes—perched on its sill, apparently unworried that his clogs sullied its cleanliness. His nose possessed the characteristic elongation and upward turn, but his ears—revealed by his cropped hair—remained small and well-formed. Like those of their overlord Carbraes.

Various food stains marked the apron that swathed him.

“Barris!” Gael greeted him.

Barris’ brown eyes lit, and he swung himself down from the hatch to stand leaning against its sill.

“Ha!” he exclaimed. “I hoped you’d climb out of your tally room before it buried you! Where’ve you been, you slacker?”

Gael suppressed his grin. “Slaving in my tally room, of course. Mule-horse! Missed me, did you?” It was true that Gael usually exchanged at least a few words with Barris after the metals check out. Like Arnoll, Barris was his good friend.

This morning, he’d been determined to track down the error in his tallies. The error which had proved to be no error.

“Have you heard that Carbraes has caved at last?” said Barris.

What?

“Dreben’s getting his gladiatorial ring as soon as he cares to organize it.” Disapproval laced Barris’ usually insouciant tone. “Probably yesterday, knowing Dreben.”

“From whom did you learn this?” asked Gael.

Dreben was brigenen—first in command—of the First Cohort of Belzetarn’s First Legion. He was a short, tough troll with a mean streak. Gael had disliked him ever since he’d found the brigenen’s bastan huddled outside the armory, bruised and sobbing. Evidently Dreben had needed a punching bag as an outlet for his temper and decided the bastan would do fine. Gael gathered that it wasn’t so much the bruises as Dreben’s caustic tongue that had upset the boy, who refused all aid, scuttling away from Gael’s offers.

“From the castellanum’s prime notary to the kitchens’ notary to me,” said Barris. “Doubt it’s merely rumor.”

“Hells.”

Carbraes believed that drill kept the warriors fit, spit-and-polish duty kept them busy, and sparring kept them ready to fight. Dreben, continuously agitating for sparring with live bronze in addition to inert wood, claimed that only the risk of serious injury during practice bouts would keep a troll sharp. Why had Carbraes given in to him?

Barris shook his head. “Notarius Prime says—”

A scullion appeared on the kitchen-side of the serving hatch. “Sir? Opteon?” Unlike Keir, he was servile in getting his superior’s attention.

“What is it, lad?” Despite the interruption, Barris answered the boy kindly.

The scullion bobbed an anxious bow. “Sir, I’m to start the butter sauce, but I can’t remember if I add the dried sage with the flour, or if it goes in later. And I don’t hardly like to ask Fayn, sir.”

“No, no. I understand.” Barris smiled. “You’ll be using dried sage? Not fresh?”

“Yes, sir. The dried powder from the larder, not fresh leaves from the garden. Fayn said that especial.”

“No doubt he prefers the stronger flavor,” Barris explained. “Very well. Mix it in well with the flour, and be careful not to overcook the roux after you’ve added the flour mixture to the butter. Pour the milk the instant you smell that toasting scent coming off it.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

The scullion scurried away. Just before he left earshot, Barris called, “Be sure to swing the pot well to the side of the hearth once the sauce is done! It needs to stay warm, but shouldn’t be cooked past the finish!”

The boy nodded anxiously as he passed around the corner.

“I should be on my way,” said Gael.

“Stay a minute.” Barris’ geniality with his underling shifted to uneasiness. He lowered his voice. “Do you think Carbraes could be slipping?”

“Do you?”

“No. But—no.” Barris studied his clogs, then looked up again. “If Carbraes ever goes down, Belzetarn won’t be a reasonable refuge anymore. You know this.”

Gael didn’t nod, studying his own foot gear: soft leather, knotted thongs, the shoes of a troll who needn’t worry about cooking knives dropped or swords slashing in battle.

Barris touched Gael’s arm. “As secretarius, you see Belzetarn from the top. I don’t. Do you think Carbraes is weakening?”

Gael thought of Carbraes as he’d just seen him at noon: relaxed, powerful, and fully in control.

“No. Not at all.”

Barris’ breath whooshed out in a loud sigh. “That’s a relief.”

Gael’s mouth twisted up. “You know I’d warn you, if ever real risk approached.”

Barris stared at Gael. “Huh. You would, wouldn’t you?”

“Bet on it.” He clapped Barris on the shoulder.

“Oh, I do!” Barris was grinning again.

Time to change the subject. “Listen, I’m trying to track down an anomaly.” This was the real reason he’d stopped at Barris’ hail. “Maybe nothing serious; maybe serious, but only in my purview. If it’s what I suspect, there should be a string or two that leads under other doors.

“You’re an observant fellow, Barris. The other opteons in the regenen’s kitchens and the castellanum’s kitchens and all the other kitchens can’t see beyond their cook pots and menus. But you recognize that changes in orders to the kitchens reflect the concerns of the castellanum and of the regenen himself. All Belzetarn is reflected in the kitchen annex.”

Barris nodded, looking pleased.

“Have you observed anything unusual lately? Maybe something small or innocuous, but something different.”

Barris’ brows tensed. “There is one thing . . .”

“Yes?” said Gael.

“You know how we ‘peons’ are given various dainties as reward and incentive?” Barris’ sarcastic tone on the word ‘peon’ reflected his opinion of the practice. He was no peon, being one in the trio of chief cooks in the Regenen’s Kitchen.

But patronage was how the entire troll society within Belzetarn operated.

Gael had heard tales about the previous regenen, who preferred thrashings to motivate his followers. Carbraes granted extra sauna privileges or a cup of mead or an afternoon of rest when he was pleased, and his officers followed his lead. Much more effective, surely, and certainly more civilized.

Barris might not like being condescended to, but most trolls were happy to receive a treat. Gael lifted an eyebrow. “Was Theron especially gracious to you?”

The castellanum had learned that Barris gave only dignified thanks for presents and snarky backchat in response to a superior’s haughty disdain. Barris would never have kept his position, if he’d cooked in the Castellanum’s Kitchen instead of the Regenen’s.

Barris snorted. “Oh, it’s nothing to do with me.” His amusement faded. “But the castellanum is scattering his dainties with greater abandon than usual. He’s granted several trolls from the Hunters’ Lodge dining privileges in the lower great hall.” The hunters ate their meals in the Hunters’ Lodge not in the tower proper, just as the physicians ate in the dining hall of the hospital and the leatherworkers in the Artisans’ Lodge. Barris shifted impatiently. “Hells! He even invited Martell to join him at the high table.”

“The privy smith?” That startled Gael. A smith was no peon either. Indeed, a smith received honor equal to that of a brigenen of the legions. Or an opteon in the kitchens. But neither of those were candidates for dining at the regenen’s table with the castellanum, the march, the magus, and the regenen himself. Gael dined there. But he was the regenen’s secretarius, one of the four officers through whom Carbraes governed his troll horde.

Barris bit his lip. “Theron’s up to something.”

And that was the tip Gael was looking for.

* * *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 11)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 9)

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

 

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