The scent of mint tea, the fragrance of toasted almond scones, and the sharp bouquet of pickled eggs entered with three tray-laden scullions. Nathiar leaned again on the slanting end of his divan, gesturing for the boys to serve him and his visitor.
As the scullions pulled various low tables into position and set out the dishes, Gael realized he was hungry. Too angry to be hungry earlier, he’d intended to spurn the suggestion that he break his fast along with Nathiar. Now . . . he decided he preferred to be sensible. He took a sip of the tea, enjoying its warmth and the contrast of its cool flavor against its temperature.
“The pepper sauce that accompanies the eggs is particularly good, my dear Secretarius,” said Nathiar. “Not overly spicy. Do try it!”
Suppressing a smile, Gael ladled sauce over his eggs. No doubt Nathiar wished to intimate that he would delay his story, hoping to irritate his audience. Nathiar loved irritating . . . everyone. Gael refused to be irritated. Nathiar would not have admitted that the old rumors were false, had he intended to remain silent about the truth.
The scullions filed out, closing the door behind them.
Nathiar spooned lingonberry jelly onto his scone and took a bite.
Gael permitted himself a smile, while Nathiar chewed.
“The ambassadress was indeed proper and prudish. She disliked Erastys on sight, and he reciprocated the sentiment,” said the magus.
Gael nodded. That fitted Erastys’ character much better than the story that he’d fallen in love. Or even in lust.
“It would have been better if the lady had simply left the day after she arrived, but she was determined to do her duty and stay for the full four deichtains as planned. Her disdain for Erastys grew with each passing day, and she troubled very little to hide it. The king devised a retaliatory prank to which I lent myself.” Nathiar’s lips curved. Apparently he still found the prank amusing, despite what must be its codicil.
“The lady was tricked into entering the king’s bedchamber—as though seeking amatory adventure—and infuriated when the court jester leapt up from Erastys’ bed while the courtiers emerged laughing from behind the wall hangings. She stormed out, encountered Erastys doubled over with mirth in the hallway, and . . . cursed him. Energetically.”
Oh. That was a far different tale. A far more dreadful tale.
“We’d thought the lady dabbled in the manipulation of energea, but we were wrong.” Nathiar’s eyes were uncharacteristically shadowed as he gazed into the past. “She was a most accomplished enchantress.”
Gael could see where this was going. “You tried to lift the curse,” he said.
“I had to,” said Nathiar. “I could not leave my king to suffer . . . that!”
Gael felt as though he heard himself recounting the events from the battle on the plain between the rivers. He, too, had felt that he could not suffer his king to go down to defeat and dishonor.
“What was the substance of the curse?” Gael asked.
Nathiar swallowed. “That he would lose potency whenever he lay with a woman.”
Ah. The ambassadress had chosen an exemplary revenge. Gael could think of nothing else that would punish Erastys so aptly.
“I brought every ounce of energetic strength to bear on the lifting of the lady’s evil scourge. And tore my nodes from their anchorages in the doing. And failed nonetheless.” Nathiar’s voice was low.
“You failed?” Gael had expected . . . a different result. “Erastys is cursed even now?”
“Unless he located a magus more powerful than I. Or persuaded the lady to recant.” Nathiar shook his head, forcing the bleakness from his gaze and a scornful smile onto his lips. “Don’t look so sorry, Gael. Much you ever cared for Erastys.”
“He was my friend. Before we all left boyhood.”
Nathiar chuckled. “Our boyhood was long ago, as are the years when Hadorgol and Pirbrant fought so bitterly. Leave it be.”
“Why did you stay with him?” asked Gael abruptly. “After the truldemagar came upon you?”
Nathiar’s brows lifted. “Have I not bored you enough with old history?”
Gael met Nathiar’s eyes steadily.
Nathiar sighed. “He begged me to.”
Ouch. Seeing his own loyalty to Heiroc in Nathiar’s loyalty to Erastys was painful. And a bit strange. He and Nathiar shared so few traits—or so Gael hoped—but loyalty to their respective sovereigns they held in common.
Gael finished his meal in silence, thinking. Perhaps Nathiar thought as well, for he did not speak either. The sunlight through the casements brightened, the spots of color on the carpets and furnishings intensifying.
“I cannot allow the regenen to remain in ignorance of your escapade with my tin and copper,” said Gael at last.
Nathiar’s mouth twisted with his typical humor. “Of course not, my dear Gael. What do you take me for?”
“But I will leave the telling to you, if you wish it.”
Nathiar went very still. “Will you now,” he said softly.
“I will tell him that you have something to inform him of,” said Gael sharply. “And—” he subdued his sharpness “—I’ll tell him that I perceive the force of your arguments.”
“I wish I may see it,” chided Nathiar. “Really, Gael, you know you’ve disliked me from even before I supported Erastys against Heiroc. Nor have I supported him so selflessly as you always supported your own king. I was always in it for my own gain. You can’t possibly like me now. Or agree with me.”
“I don’t,” snapped Gael, already regretting his rash pledge. “Understanding the issue need not reach so far as liking or agreement.” The horror was that he wanted to protect trolls such as Keir and Arnoll and Barris—and Carbraes himself—while also wanting to protect the unafflicted, such as that poor Ghriana boy who’d died just yesterday. And he could not do both.
Nathiar vented a loud bray of laughter. “That’s better,” he said.
Gael interrupted him. “I’ll be absent from Belzetarn for two deichtains on an errand for Carbraes,” he said abruptly.
“And?” said Nathiar, very much at his ease.
All Gael’s suspended anger returned. “While I am absent—” his gaze bored into Nathiar’s “—you will not even enter a room, if Keir is present within it.”
Nathiar broke into chuckles. “I thought I saw you eavesdropping on my conversation with the castellanum at the high table the other evening.”
“I could hardly avoid it,” said Gael drily. “We did share a table.”
“True, true,” replied Nathiar. “Why so protective of your notary?” he inquired. “One would think he were a maiden, not a lad, the way you go on.” Nathiar’s gaze held a knowing look.
“He is my notary, mine to protect. And he is young,” said Gael, hanging onto his calm demeanor with effort.
“Not so young as you think,” said Nathiar slyly.
“What in Cayim’s hells do you mean by that?” demanded Gael.
“Merely that the boy’s already given me a civil setdown.” Nathiar snickered. “Quite effectively, too.”
“Don’t make him give you a second one,” growled Gael.
“Oh, I won’t,” promised Nathiar. “Once was embarrassing enough, my dear Secretarius. I assure you.”
Gael’s lingering sympathy evaporated.
The Tally Master, Chapter 13 (scene 62)
The Tally Master, Chapter 12 (scene 60)
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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)
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