The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 22)

Dimness cloaked the tally chamber in the early eventide, its cabinets looming like forest menhirs in a shadowed dell, the gloom emphasized by the brightness of the air outside the glass casements.

Gael tucked the tally parchments in their proper niche and then hooked the inner shutters open, allowing a little more light to enter. Turning, he noted that Keir lingered at his own desk rather than sequestering the coffer keys in the box beside Gael’s desk where they belonged.

“Gael?” The boy stared at his feet, sounding uncharacteristically uncertain.

Gael leaned against the casement sill, studying his notary. What ailed the lad?

Keir straightened abruptly, his face troubled. “Do you ever wonder what you’re doing here? What we’re doing here? In Belzetarn?”

Gael’s brows tightened. “What do you mean?” He kept his tone noncommittal. Perhaps Keir would elaborate.

Keir swallowed. “It’s just that . . . all my life I was taught to hate and fear trolls. And I still hate them. Sometimes. A lot of times. My stomach feels sick with it. Especially when a bunch are gathered together in a mob. Even though I am a troll, I feel it. And I feel . . . divided. Like I’m betraying my people, the people of Fiors, just by being here. By helping Carbraes.”

Gael sighed. He knew that feeling all too well. His real purpose within Belzetarn was something he avoided thinking about whenever possible. He wasn’t sure he had any reassurance to offer.

“Some compromises are more difficult than others.” Gael’s words emerged slowly. “Dealing with the truldemagar is one of the most difficult.”

A strange hurt glimmered at the back of Keir’s eyes. “I’m not sure I should have compromised,” he said. “I thought about dying, when it first happened. And maybe I should have. But I didn’t. I chose something else.”

“You came here, to Belzetarn,” said Gael.

Keir said nothing at all in response, just standing there with that peculiar expression on his face.

A shiver of real worry quivered in Gael’s belly. It was dangerous to think too deeply, to probe too honestly, to plumb one’s conscience . . . here in Belzetarn.

“Keir”—he had to draw the boy back from this brink—“I cannot think it wrong to choose to live. And if a troll chooses to live, he must come eventually to some place of safehold—to Belzetarn or some other troll-citadel. To live is to compromise. It is only when we are very young that absolutes seem real.”

Keir’s mouth firmed. “Do you really believe that?” he asked.

Gael allowed his lips to curl slightly. “On most days,” he answered easily. “If you permit deep moral questions to preoccupy you . . . your daily responsibilities suffer and you forget that the larger picture is mostly made up of small choices. Do the next right thing, whatever it is, and you’ll do right in the end.”

A glint of amusement flashed in Keir’s eyes. “Is that another version of ‘make each tally mark strongly and the final count will be accurate’?” he asked.

Gael nodded. “Indeed.”

Keir’s eyes narrowed. “But surely the direction and results of one’s small choices must sometimes be assessed,” he insisted.

Gael repressed a sigh. The boy echoed his own concerns uncomfortably, which made it doubly hard to counter him. “As a troll, you do not possess that luxury,” he said.

“Luxury!” Keir’s voice rose slightly. “Morality is a luxury?”

“No.” Gael quelled his exasperation. “Taking too broad a view is a luxury, and you do not possess it.”

“What of the sick hatred in my stomach?” Keir’s tone grew pointed. “Did you ever feel it?”

Gael nodded. “I did. And, Keir—” he made his stare hard; sympathy would be fatal “—it will pass.” He hesitated, then added, “You’ve only been a troll for, what, two years? Give yourself time.”

Keir sniffed. “Time to become thoroughly hardened?” he jibed. A gleam of humor in the boy’s face softened his accusation.

“No,” answered Gael. “To find your balance. As Arnoll did.”

Keir’s face lightened all the way. “If we could all be Arnoll . . . Belzetarn would be an entirely different place,” he said.

Gael chuckled, and Keir looked his question.

“I was just imagining a horde of Arnolls thronging the stairwell,” Gael explained.

Keir’s laugh rang out. Had the dangerous moment passed? Gael was ready to be done with this conversation.

“Speaking of our smiths,” said Keir, “do you think Martell could have just lost an ingot? Knocked it off a counter, kicked it under an anvil?”

Gael allowed himself a silent sigh of relief. They’d moved on. And Keir’s suggestion about Martell’s missing ingot was a possibility. “We’ll have to check,” he said.

“After the meal?” suggested Keir.

Gael didn’t relish poking around all the odd corners of the privy smithy by the light of a carried candlestick. “Hells!” he growled, mimicking more anger than he actually felt in the wake of Keir’s atypical perplexity.

“I’ll do it,” Keir volunteered.

“No. Arnoll wanted to consult me about something. In his smithy. I’ll get him to help me.”

Keir looked surprised, in his familiar understated way. Thank Tiamar, the boy was back to normal. “In the smithy?” queried Keir. “Did he say about what?”

“We were interrupted. Never mind. Do you dine in the upper hall tonight?” As notary to the secretarius, Keir did possess that right, but he rarely exercised it, preferring to join one of his friends in a more informal setting.

“I’m headed for the hospital mess,” he answered. “Kayd invited me.”

Gael wished someone would invite him elsewhere. Or, better still, that he could simply dine alone in his chambers. He did so occasionally, but now—when he was scrounging for clues as to the whereabouts of his stolen tin—was not a good time to absent himself from the larger gathering.

“Do something outdoors after you eat,” he instructed Keir.

Keir lifted an eyebrow.

“You’ve had a long day, and the morrow may be longer. Extra sunshine will guard your health,” Gael explained.

“I thought I might do a preliminary reconciling of the tallies,” Keir said.

“I know you did,” said Gael. “So did I, but we’ll both be sharper when we’re fresh.”

Keir nodded, then glanced sharply at Gael. “I should have told you right away. Lord Carbraes does not wish an interim report on the gong. He said to see him when you have anything he needs to know, but not before.”

Gael had expected that, but it was well to hear it explicitly. The regenen dealt easily with his secretarius, and frequent communication would keep it so.

Keir returned the coffer keys to their box, and they parted: Keir descending to the yard, Gael ascending to his quarters to change his garb.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 23)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 21)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)