The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 36)

Keir took the Cliff Stair, the least trafficked of all four and dim, with the sun over on the other side of the tower. She climbed, needing to retrieve her tally sheets from the vaults before retiring to the tally chamber to reconcile yesterday’s accounts. As she climbed, she thought about what she had learned this morning.

The privy smithy, with its laxness, was a clear source of metal for the thief. But was Arnoll the thief? Even hearing Ravin’s story, she couldn’t believe such a thing of Arnoll. He and Gael were thick as . . . hmm . . . thieves. But Keir was more inclined to believe, like Ravin, that Arnoll had taken the tin for a legitimate reason. Even though he had not returned it or reported it yet to the tally chamber.

She would see what Gael thought when she told him.

And she would tell him. If Arnoll were the thief, Gael needed to know. If Arnoll were innocent, then Gael would know what the smith was doing with that tin ingot, and she could cease to consider him a suspect.

The more worrying thing was this morning’s theft, somehow achieved right under her own nose. She supposed it must have happened in the stairwell, one of those times when Jemer plunged into a clump of trolls, with only a flash of his elbow or a bob of his head visible to Keir. Which meant that someone was very slick, winkling the tin out of Jemer’s carry sack within the few moments that the crowd hid him.

She didn’t remember seeing any warriors on the Regenen Stair. They mostly used the West Stair anyway. It had been the usual crowd of the castellanum’s scullions—going to set up the tables and benches in the great halls—and the kitchen scullions bringing bowls of salt and mustard to the tables.

What would motivate a scullion—or a porter—to steal a tin ingot? Surely there would be more trouble than benefit coming to him for such a theft. Unless . . . he was ordered to do it by a superior.

Keir found it easy to suspect the castellanum. She’d seen him looking at her almost covetously, and she’d never liked him. But what use would the castellanum have for tin? Honestly, what use did anyone in Belzetarn—save the smiths—have for tin?

She could see a warrior stealing one of the elite swords reserved for his superiors. Greater prowess in battle might tempt such a troll. She could see someone like the castellanum stealing a finely wrought chalice or a beautifully crafted table. Theron liked rich things. But he had no need to steal them; they were his already as a prerogative of his station.

She could see the scullions stealing food, especially the rarer stuffs served only at the high table.

But the only troll with a real use for tin and copper and bronze would be a troll-lord with legions at his command and smithies supplying them. Could one of the scullions possess such ambitions? The idea was ludicrous. The very nature of the mark of Gaelan—the truldemagar—tended to sort trolls by their innate power. Those with physical might became warriors, those possessing great force of character took leadership, and those with neither served their betters.

If one of the scullions had stolen that tin ingot, he’d done so for someone else.

Keir wondered who Gael suspected.

Had he already heard Arnoll’s account of the tin ingot taken from the privy boys? Had he been shocked? Or had he nodded prosaically, approving Arnoll’s action as proper? And with Arnoll in the clear, who else might Gael suspect?

Keir shivered. She was innocent of theft, but she had other secrets. Gael had always treated her like any other boy in Belzetarn, with fairness and precise instruction. And she’d felt no qualms about passing herself off as a boy. It had been necessary.

But what if the theft of his metals prompted Gael to scrutinize his assistant more closely than before? A cursory scan of the nodes of her energea, sufficient to discern that they were unanchored, had not and would not reveal her sex. But a more thorough scrutiny would. As would a more thorough scrutiny of her person. What if Gael discovered she was—not a boy, but a young woman? How would he respond? Would he feel betrayed by the lie that she’d enacted all this time? And what if he plumbed . . . other things?

Keir paused to lean into one of the arrowslit’s embrasures. Beyond the opening, golden sunlight lay on the forested hills. A thin mist rose from the trees. The northern sky was very clear, white near the horizon and shading to pale turquoise in the upper airs.

If Gael scrutinized Keir, it would be with an eye to his assistant’s actions, not his assistant’s person, she reassured herself. Although . . . her actions were not wholly above reproach either. But why did she care so much anyway? Gael was a troll. Every last denizen of Belzetarn was a troll. She herself was a troll. It wasn’t as though someone still human would be judging her. The way her father had judged her on that last day.

Pater’s opinion had been important.

No one’s thoughts of her here in Belzetarn—not even Gael’s—could matter as Pater’s thoughts had mattered that day.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 37)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 35)

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