The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 20)

Keir was absent from the tally chamber.

Gael grimaced. He’d lost count of the times he’d climbed the tower’s stairs today, but his ankles had registered every last riser and both of them ached, not just the one more prone to it.

This trip from the yard, he’d followed the route taken by the oxhide ingots and the tin pebbles, when they arrived at Belzetarn from the mines: first the straight shot through the kitchen annex tunnel, then two-and-a-half twists up the Charcoal Stair to the place of arms behind the melee gallery, then ten twists up the Lake Stair. There he’d left the oxhide route, crossing the lower great hall to the Regenen Stair and its landing where the door to the tally chamber stood, closed and locked, as was proper when the chamber went unoccupied.

Gael could wish he’d occupied that tally chamber a good deal more today than he had. Although . . . he supposed he’d sat before his desk all the morning as usual. It was just the afternoon that had evaporated in traipsing up, and down, and then up again. And, and, and. He snorted.

And now he faced a climb of another ten spirals around the newel post of the Regenen Stair, for he knew where Keir was. The evening check-in had gone long, and Keir was still in the vaults marking the finished and partially finished swords in, marking the armor scales and the completed armor hauberks in, marking the ingots in, and weighing the metal remnants in.

Keir should have been done by now. Or had Gael forgotten how much longer the process took with one, not two, getting it done?

C’mon, old troll, he told himself, Carbraes probably takes an extra lap at day’s end, up and down the Regenen Stair one more time whenever he thinks he’s not gotten sufficient exercise.

But Carbraes performed a daily ration of handstand push-ups.

And I’m not Carbraes.

But he did need to learn how Keir’s first solo had gone and whether the tin discrepancy had given any sign of increasing—or diminishing. Which meant he’d best start climbing.

He took it slow and found Keir locking the individual coffers in the tin vault, frowning the while.

The boy looked up from his task as Gael arrived. “Martell is late,” he said, irritation in his voice.

Gael’s own brows drew down. “He’s yet in his smithy?”

Keir shrugged. “Apparently so.”

Now that was strange. Martell was always the last of the smiths to check in his materials at the end of the day, but even Martell was not this late. There had been too many departures from usual lately. The question was: which anomalies stemmed from the theft of Gael’s tin and bronze, and which from mere chance?

“Shall I lock the vault door?” Keir asked. “Or did you wish to await me here?”

“Where—?” Gael directed a questioning glance at his notary.

Keir’s jaw muscles bunched. Grinding his teeth? “I’m going to fetch Martell. And when I get him—I’m going to have some words with him.”

“Ah,” said Gael. “I believe I shall have words with Martell, but you may certainly add your words to mine.” He smiled, tightly, like Medicus Piar. “But I’ll fetch him up for you.”

“But sir!” Keir forgot his exasperation in surprise. “I’m the one who does the running, not you!”

Gael’s smile grew more genuine. “But you are doing my tallying for me. I’ll go.”

Keir was still protesting as Gael headed to the Lake Stair, which debouched nearer the privy smithy than did the Regenen Stair. Some part of Gael joined Keir’s protest. Was he really making another full descent to the tower’s roots, followed by a full ascent back up to the ingot vaults?

His ankle answered that question, unhappily. Yes. Yes, he was. Cayim’s hells!

Traffic on the stair was heavy: servers readying all three great halls for the evening feast, officers headed for the war room to give a last report to the march, artisans making for their quarters to tidy themselves before eating. Gael even noted a hunter—in his leather boots and breeches, game bag hanging from the strap across his back—leaving the stairwell for the lower great hall.

Really? A hunter? What was he doing away from the hunters’ lodge?

He was a healthy fellow, almost untouched by troll-disease. His ears and nose looked human, and his skin was firm, with a good color. He didn’t look like a troll at all, but of course he was one. Carbraes insisted that every newcomer be checked.

What was a hunter doing in the tower proper at this time of the evening?

Then Gael remembered that Barris had mentioned the castellanum was scattering favors more generously than usual. That must be it. This hunter was being rewarded with a meal in the lowest of the great halls for some praiseworthy deed. Supplying Theron with a superlatively tender haunch of oxen or some such thing.

Gael shrugged.

If he didn’t hoist Martell out of his smithy with dispatch, neither the secretarius nor the privy smith would have time to visit their respective chambers before sitting at table. Hadn’t Barris said that Martell was bidden to dine in the upper great hall? Or was that honor granted him the previous evening? If it was tonight, he absolutely had to change his sooty smith’s garb for more fitting garments.

As Gael paused on a landing between the main place of arms and the entrance place of arms, letting an urgent posse of messengers have the right of way, Martell, his notary, and his scullions rounded the newel post from below.

The smith spotted Gael immediately.

“Ah, ha! My friend, look at this!” Martell exclaimed.

Gael was in no mood to admire another product of Martell’s genius, but the smith did not seize the stem of the candelabrum poking out of one scullion’s sack. Instead he grabbed the rolled parchment carried by his notary, allowed it to unroll, and brandished it under Gael’s nose.

“All of it!” announced Martell. “Every last ounce! Every last tally! All of it is written!”

“Good.” It meant nothing. Martell always had confidence in his notary’s records, no matter how the smith hurried him and no matter how many times those tallies proved wrong. “But you are very late, my friend.” Gael would reserve his more serious reprimand for a private moment. Or . . . better yet . . . allow Keir to deliver the one he longed to. Perhaps Martell would respond well to Keir’s less genial manner. “All the other smiths are long gone, and Keir awaits.”

“Ah, ha! My friend, I know it! But you would not have me forego the castellanum’s candelabra?”

Gaelan’s tears! Was Martell going to drag it out after all?

“Or the decorative hooks for the opteon of the annex? Or the rivets for the magus?”

Gael knit his brows. “How many more things did you create after I spoke with you, my friend? I thought there remained but one.”

“Ah, I forgot.” Martell looked crestfallen for only a moment, then brightened. “But I completed all, all! And they are beautiful! The castellanum will be pleased!”

“If you dine with the castellanum tonight, you’d best hasten, my friend.”

Martell looked surprised. “But, no, he honors me but the once. Last night contents me! The ordinary great hall—” he glanced sideways uneasily “—is more comfortable. And the castellanum pours too much wine. Again and again he filled my cup.”

Gael hid the smile that wanted to sneak onto his lips. No matter how irritated he might grow with Martell’s lack of organization, the smith’s ebullience made Gael want to laugh. No doubt Martell preferred his cronies—who admired him—for dinner partners over the elite of the citadel. Martell repressed his boasting in the presence of the castellanum.

“Don’t keep Keir waiting any longer,” he advised, stepping toward the upward stairs and gesturing Martell to come with him. If he allowed the smith to determine when their conversation ended, they might stand here yet at midnight. And then Keir would be as irritated with Gael as he was with Martell.

Gael suppressed a second smile.

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Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 21)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 19)

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

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The Tally Master