As the cavalcade of horses and trolls ambled across the meadow fronting Belzetarn’s main gate, Gael drew in a deep breath. Was he relieved to be back? Or did he gather himself for the coming effort? Gael wasn’t sure, but the blue gentians, pink moss campion, and white dryas were all in bloom under the noontide sun, creating a subtle perfume of faint sweetness laced with sun-warmed green.
He considered his next steps: seeing his gear properly stowed, perhaps a visit to the sauna to clean his person, and then a thorough briefing from his notarius on the functioning of the tally room in Gael’s absence. Entering into his usual routines in a measured way held considerable appeal. He’d not missed home precisely—he still resisted the idea of Belzetarn as home—but he had missed his responsibilities, his orderly supervision of the smithies and the metals flowing through them.
When his mount’s hooves clattered on the cobblestones in the tunnel beneath the gatehouse, it became clear that his leisurely program for the afternoon would not occur. One of Carbraes’ messenger boys awaited him with the intent of conducting the secretarius immediately into the regenen’s presence.
Gael gave brief orders for the conveyance of his baggage to his quarters, abstracted his keyring and fibula from one saddlebag, and then followed the messenger up a narrow, twisting stair to the battlements of the gatehouse and out along the western curtain wall.
Carbraes, leaning between two merlons to scrutinize the trees that had grown too close to that side of the stronghold, turned when he heard their footsteps on the stone sentry walk. The silver threads in his blond hair gleamed brightly in the sunshine, as did the silver rivets on his white tunic, but the lines bracketing his eyes seemed deeper than ever.
“I’ve brought him, Regenen,” announced the messenger.
Carbraes nodded and directed the boy to wait on the gatehouse battlements—within sight, but not hearing—before he greeted Gael. “Secretarius.”
“Regenen,” replied Gael.
“Did you obtain the knowledge you sought in Olluvarde?” Carbraes’ voice was crisp.
“I did.” Whether that knowledge would suffice still remained to be seen, but Gael possessed everything Olluvarde had to offer, and there were no other sources of ancient lore. He patted the satchel of drawings hanging from the strap over his shoulder.
“How soon can you set to work?” Carbraes’ eyes grew intent.
Gael frowned. “There is reason to hasten?”
“There is.” Carbraes’ mouth thinned. “I’m sorry to inform you that the two scullions entrusted with sweeping your chambers proved less trustworthy than is required for their responsibilities.”
Gael’s frown deepened. That’s what came of a hurried departure. He should have given orders that the cleaning scullions skip his quarters. The floors would scarcely have accumulated much dirt and dust in his absence.
“The boys were intrigued by the new padlock securing your storeroom,” continued Carbraes. “Apparently they speculated upon what it might be guarding as they went about their work, and when they were finished, their mutual curiosity had reached such a pitch that they tested the lock.”
“I gave the key to no one!” Gael broke in.
“Indeed,” said Carbraes. “That is one of the worst features of the incident. One of the boys had quite a history of using his energea for trivial amusements before the truldemagar came to him. Using it to pick your padlock was a simple matter for him.”
“How badly were they hurt?” asked Gael. He was certain there were injuries. It had been only a matter of time before the gong’s curse harmed someone.
“One broken leg and one broken arm, respectively,” answered Carbraes.
The sinking in Gael’s stomach moderated. “I suppose they had to lift the thing from the floor and sound it, once they saw it,” he mused. “Resonance, concomitant weakness, the faltering grip, the desperate retrieval, the overbalance, the falling boys, the falling gong.”
Carbraes’ tension morphed into exasperation. “Yes, you have that tolerably correct. The boys will be fine once their splints come off, but the story of their adventure may as well be turned into a ballad and performed at the evening feast. I’d managed to limit talk of the thing, despite its sounding on the day of its arrival. Now the entire tower knows of the gong’s existence and the effect of its song.”
“Muting it will require more than one on the job,” said Gael, seizing the opportunity to make his request. “I’ll need Nathiar, if he can be persuaded to work with me.”
“Persuaded?” Carbraes snorted. “I’ve been holding him off the thing by main force. I should think he would rejoice.”
“No doubt he would, were I not involved. Old friends make the strongest enemies, you know,” said Gael. “But I suspect the artifact and the energetic puzzle it poses will persuade him. Have I your permission to invite the magus into it? Surely your concerns about him have not lessened.”
Carbraes stared out at the looming forest a moment before answering. “I would have been wiser to secure your initial cooperation regarding the gong without discussing the magus with you. I was . . . overly frank.”
“I shared your observations with no one, Regenen.”
Carbraes’ mouth twisted. “I know. It was not your discretion I doubted. Merely that I dislike reversing myself before you.”
“You intend to trust Nathiar? After he’s proven his willingness to defy your edicts? Stolen from your mines? Pursued treachery in secret?” Put like that, Gael wondered at his own—not better opinion of Nathiar, no—but his sense of fellow feeling for the magus. And his willingness, however reluctant, to work with him.
Carbraes swallowed, murmured, “I knew I should dislike this interview.”
Gael suppressed a wry smile.
“Shall we say,” continued Carbraes, “that now that I’ve granted Nathiar permission to continue his illicit experiments licitly, I possess a stronger hold on him than heretofore. That was his weak point. Now I control it.”
Yes, that made sense. Carbraes was nothing if not strategically and tactically adaptive. Some trolls he dominated by sheer force, others by strength of personality. But he was willing to use persuasion, manipulation, bribery, punishment, reward, whatever it took. Willing and able.
“I rescind any caveats I’ve expressed on this project,” Carbraes declared. “So long as you do it quickly, you may do it howsoever you wish and with whatever resources you require.”
Gael blinked. That was certainly comprehensive!
The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 72)
The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 70)
Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)