The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 30)

Arnoll’s tallow dip flickered on the deep golden hue of the bronze ingots upheld by Gael and on the pale copper of the ingot in Arnoll’s other hand.

“Cayim’s nine hells,” swore the smith softly.

Gael was past swearing. Tonight he’d learned that his most trusted friend—Arnoll—had stolen from him. He’d discovered that someone was using forbidden energea to tamper with his ingots. And now he’d retrieved two bronze ingots, when only one should be missing, according to Keir’s latest tally of the bronze vault. How many more anomalies within his tally chamber and the smithies would he encounter? At this point, no unpleasantness seemed impossible.

Setting the ingots on the floor, Gael inhaled and then wished he hadn’t. His nose was no more accustomed to the stench in the latrine than when he’d first pulled its door open.

So. Had tonight’s fugitive hidden the bronze in the bucket niche? Or was it someone else? But that was not the important question. Who had hidden those ingots? Gael needed to know, preferably without alerting the thief. Which meant he couldn’t wake a scullion and assign him the duty of guarding the privy door and reporting every troll who approached it. The whole tower would soon know of Gael’s inexplicable concern with a clogged latrine, if he did that.

Fortunately—or unfortunately—he possessed another option.

Disciplining himself to defy the foul odor, he inhaled slowly and steadily. On an equally slow out-breath, he let his inner sight open. The lattice of energea humming within the stones of the bucket niche featured a slow, cold vibration of silver so dim it seemed a ghost of metal.

Gael reached inside himself, pulling on his heart node and guiding the resultant stream of power along his arcs, bright and sparkling. As the tiny stars leapt from his fingertips, he directed them to lattice intersections within the stone’s energea. Only when a hundred or more small lights winked and blinked in these new locations did he stop, sighing with weariness.

“Did you just do what I think you did?” asked Arnoll.

“My energea will cling to the hand of the next troll to reach inside this hidey-hole,” said Gael. “I doubt the thief will leave his plunder here indefinitely. Once he checks on it or attempts to move it . . .”

“He’ll be marked,” concluded Arnoll.

“Unless he leaves Belzetarn altogether, I’ll find him,” said Gael.

“You clever devil,” murmured Arnoll.

Gael stifled a snort. Grabbing up his bronze ingots, he replaced the loose stone in the sidewall of the bucket niche and pushed to his feet. His ankle protested, and he almost didn’t make it, his legs wobbled so. He replaced the bucket in the niche, retrieved the saucer of the guttered tallow dip from the floor, and stepped out into the stairwell. Arnoll closed the door behind them.

“What next?” said the smith.

Gael shook his head. “These go in my tally room for now. Then we’ll get you that tin ingot for Dreas. And then—I’m for bed. I’m not going to solve this tangle tonight.”

Arnoll grunted.

They took the stairs slowly this time, climbing past the place of arms where their fugitive had escaped and then onward to the lowest of the great halls. Moonlight glimmered through the tall embrasures on the southern curve of the circular space, shedding silver light across the cleared floor and casting an ominous shadow from the massive central pillar wrapped in its twining stair.

The Regenen Stair and its landing with the door into Gael’s tally room lay exactly opposite the Cliff Stair. Gael led the way across, his soft shoes noiseless on the stone, Arnoll’s boots thunking beside him.

Wordlessly, Gael unlocked the padlock on the tally room door and ushered Arnoll inside.

The moonlight was stronger within, flooding through the casements which Keir had unshuttered, illuminating the pigeonhole cabinets lining the walls, but casting the two desks—surrounded as they were by cabinetry—into deep shadow.

Gael lit two fresh tallow dips from Arnoll’s, which was nearly out.

Keir had left the parchments for the morning’s tally neatly stacked and properly ruled—ready—on his own desk. Gael marked one tin ingot (for Dreas) checked out on the sheet for the tin vault, placed the three recovered ingots—one copper and two bronze—atop the parchments, and wrote a brief note of explanation. That would do for now.

“Come,” he said to Arnoll.

The climb to the vaults was equal to that from the smithies to the tally room. Going slower with each twist of the stair around the newel post, they passed the passage to the first balcony and one to the second balcony, then the one to the great hall where Gael had dined that evening. The vaults lay above it.

Unlocking the tin vault and one of the coffers within it was a simple matter.

Arnoll turned the tin ingot in his hands while Gael locked up behind himself. This ingot possessed the right thickness and the right energea. Gael had checked.

“Come to me when you need another,” he said.

Arnoll looked at him ruefully. “I regret this.”

“But you would do it all again, if necessary.”

Arnoll’s expression firmed, but he did not answer.

Gael clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll keep the march’s secret.”

Arnoll looked down.

“Surely you knew I would,” Gael pursued.

Arnoll looked up. “Of course. But it was not my secret to tell.”

Well, Gael understood that. Hard as it was to accept that Arnoll had betrayed Gael with his theft, in another way Arnoll had proved his faithfulness thoroughly. The smith would not betray an older friend for a newer one. Gael could hold to that, must hold to that, even when a more thorough loyalty to himself might feel more welcome.

“Arnoll. I trust you.”

Arnoll placed his hand over Gael’s, still resting on his shoulder. “And I trust you,” he replied.

As they moved toward the stairs, Arnoll stopped again. “What did you want to consult me about?” he asked.

“Come to my chambers tomorrow evening,” said Gael, “and I’ll show you.”

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 31)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 29)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)