The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 33)

The short and rather scrawny privy scullion came panting up, protesting innocence. “It wasn’t my fault! Really!”

Well, she’d heard that before from just about every boy who ever messed up, but she was curious what Jemer’s excuse would be.

“The castellanum stopped me on the stairs”—Jemer’s eyes went wide—“and said he had questions for me.”

Keir frowned. This was very peculiar. It was unlikely the boy was lying, because the truth of his assertion could be checked so easily. And he must know that Keir would check. But why would the castellanum detain one of the scullions personally? Especially this castellanum, who disdained the lowly.

“What did he ask you?” she said.

“What I did, if I was good at it, when the work at the forge started and stopped. Everything!” Jemer shook his head. “I don’t know why he wanted to know all that stuff, but I couldn’t hardly tell him to shove it, could I? I mean, he’s the castellanum.” The boy snorted. “I wanted to, though. He went on and on. Prying and scolding. I thought I’d never get away from him!”

That was decidedly odd. Keir’s frown deepened while she pulled ingots from the copper vault. Maybe she’d best accompany the boy on his descent to the smithy, rather than permitting him to go ahead.

Despite his small size, Jemer was wiry and strong. Even after Keir had loaded his carry sack with twenty-seven ingots of copper, four ingots of tin, the failed scissors and ladle, and a four-ounce nugget of remnant bronze—more than thirty pounds of metal—the privy scullion seemed prepared to scamper, eager to make up for his tardiness.

“Wait,” said Keir. “I’m coming with you.”

The boy bit his lip and bounced on his toes, impatient to be off. But he obeyed.

She finished recording the items disbursed to him from the bronze vault, then padlocked the vault door behind her.

It was hard to keep up with the privy scullion. Jemer had perfected the stride needed to allow him to positively run down the stairs, and he was gifted at dodging around anyone slower, which was most of the trolls in Belzetarn. Keir was relieved when the boy ducked into the servery for the regenen’s kitchen.

She’d intended to lean in the doorway, letting her presence urge Jemer to be quick, although the boy seemed scarcely to require such urging. But Gael was there, standing before the hatch talking with his friend, Barris the cook.

Gael looked weary, his olive skin paler than usual, the lines showing more prominently on his face, and his shoulders slumped. He’d clipped his shoulder-length hair back with a silver fibula, and the metal seemed to highlight the gray streaks among the dark strands. He must have been up late, hard on the track of his two mysteries.

The cook’s relative youth and good health made Gael look even more worn. The contrast . . .

Keir pushed down a sense of hurt, compressing her lips.

Barris’ short brown hair possessed no gray. His brown eyes shone with energetic enthusiasm. And his movements were sure and light: turning to toss an order to an underling, reaching to steady a platter of fruit leather on the edge of a work table, stepping away to stir one of the many pots on the massive hearth, and then returning to the hatch to continue his conversation with Gael.

Keir threaded her way amongst the kitchen scullions who were already bearing salt saucers and wooden trenchers from the storeroom toward the great halls for the morning meal. Jemer preceded her, shrugging out of his carry sack and thumping it down on the counter of the servery hatch, while greeting Barris.

“Hungry, young ’un?” The cook smiled at the boy, nodded to Keir, winked at Gael, and then bent to pull a tray of smoked fish tidbits from the shelves below the hatch counter.

“All well?” murmured Gael to Keir.

She nodded. “I have some . . . anomalies . . . to report to you.”

Gael’s face lightened. “Good.”

Keir’s brows tightened. Why would Gael regard things gone wrong as good?

Gael lifted an eyebrow, his eyes warm, and then Keir felt foolish. Anything unusual could be a lead on their thief.

Barris rested his tray atop Jemer’s carry sack, one hand steadying its rim, the other hand below it. The boy stuffed two tidbits of the smoked fish into his mouth and started chewing while he snatched two more.

The cook tilted his head to one side. “Gael? Keir? This batch is especially flavorful.”

Keir could tell. An appetizing aroma rose from the glimmering golden skin that topped each neat square of the smoked fish. She allowed herself to be persuaded. The skin crunched under her teeth, giving way to the velvety smooth flesh beneath and a burst of smoky richness on her tongue.

Barris smiled at her—relieved?—and she smiled back. Had he actually worried that she might not like the delicacy? She supposed that cooks did worry about things like that, but this was delicious.

“Another?” he suggested.

Keir took two more, noticing that Gael also accepted seconds, while Jemer went for fourths.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 34)

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