The Tally Master, Chapter 8 (scene 38)

Chapter 8

The Charcoal Stair, buried within the wall between the tower and the kitchen annex, was one of the darkest passages in Belzetarn. No arrowslits brought light and air to the narrow well. It could as easily have been a mine shaft delving deep into the earth as an ascent from the cellars to a dortoire tucked under the annex roof. Flaring torches illumined its tightly twisting steps and knobbly newel post. Gael knew that Keir avoided it, misliking its claustrophobic confines. It was true that when one descended, if one met a troll going up, it was a tight squeeze to pass one another.

But Gael was headed to the artisans’ yard to meet the mine teamsters, and the Charcoal Stair provided the shortest route from the regenen’s servery. He’d slipped along the inner wall of the regenen’s kitchen and the regenen’s preparatory, marveling anew at the massive hearths feeding into the colossal stacks that vented their smoke, the high vaulted ceilings, the tiny spiral stairs—tighter even than the Charcoal Stair—giving access to opteons’ chambers emplaced within the thick upper walls, and the ranks of glassed casements providing light for the cooks to see what they were doing.

The kitchens were like smithies for food, impressive in their way, although Gael strongly preferred the metal forges under his own jurisdiction. Which was odd, now that he considered it. Surely feeding the twelve- to fifteen-hundred trolls dwelling in Belzetarn—depending on how many cohorts were rotated home—should be preferable to equipping ten-thousand troll-warriors with the arms and armor needed for battle against the unafflicted.

Did he love the beauty of the worked bronze so much? Enough to counter his antipathy toward the truldemagar who killed the unafflicted? Or was there some other reason he relished overseeing the metal smithies? A desire to rule would be satisfied as well by supervising the kitchens as by overseeing the smithies. No, it was not authority over others that Gael enjoyed. It was the tallying itself, and specifically the mathematical precision that tallying metals for forging required.

Tallying foodstuffs might be demanding, but he’d seen the approximations that Barris resorted to, that seemed to be part and parcel of cooking.

Tallying for the kitchens would never possess the symmetry of the matrices Gael constructed in his tally chamber as he monitored Belzetarn’s metals.

His legs felt better descending the Charcoal Stair than they had earlier. He’d awakened sore and stiff and tired. Pain stabbed up through his heels when he stood, and every joint protested while he dressed. He’d suppressed groans through each of the fifteen spirals down the Regenen Stair, but his discomfort had diminished as his muscles warmed. And his ankle did not click.

Despite his shortened sleep and aching body, his mind was clear. The previous night’s confusion must have stemmed from the shocks of the day. This morning, it seemed obvious that neither his investigation into the thefts of his ingots nor the muting of the cursed gong could be planned in one fell swoop. Each stage of the proceedings would be governed by what he learned as he went along.

Certainly, he must interview the castellanum and then the magus, assessing their potential as thieves while he distracted each with questions about their experiences yesterday when the cursed gong resounded throughout the tower.

He’d considered nabbing Theron when he encountered him on a landing of the Regenen Stair, but the castellanum had been in full spate, haranguing a dilatory scullion.

Gael frowned.

Not a tower scullion or a kitchen scullion, come to think of it, but a smithy scullion. Why would the castellanum feel it behooved him to scold one of Gael’s scullions? Gael would ask him that very question. He’d forborne to interrupt Theron amidst his diatribe. But he’d get an answer soon.

Keir was undoubtedly issuing ingots to the smithy scullions even now. The boy could handle most of the reconciling of yesterday’s morning and evening tallies as well, although Gael wanted to hear those results the moment they were done.

But after meeting with the mine teamsters, Gael would have time enough to question his suspects and time enough, too, to demonstrate the properties of the cursed gong to Arnoll. He would show Arnoll the blasted thing. He needed a smith to look at the gong with his inner sight. A smith might see something that a former magus could not. And Arnoll was the only smith in Belzetarn who Gael trusted enough to make such a request.

And yes—damn it—he still trusted Arnoll. Despite what his friend had done. Beneath his anger, he trusted. By choice and reason, as well as the unreasoning affection of his heart.

After he’d consulted Arnoll, he would devise the next step for the gong.

And after he’d interviewed the castellanum and the magus, he’d figure the next step in catching his thief. Or thieves.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 8 (scene 39)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 37)

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