The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 74)

Entering the smithies had felt like coming home. Entering the tally chamber felt like achieving sanctuary when a pack of wolves—or trolls—nipped at one’s tired heels.

The glass casements, as well as their inner and outer shutters, were open, admitting the sweet summer air and light—not the morning’s flood of brightness, the sun was already tilted around to the other side of the tower, it being early afternoon—but a softer radiance, welcoming and easy on the eyes. The dark wood of the pigeonhole cabinets looked mellow and sheltering, a harbor for their precious scrolls. The warm scent of parchment, laced by the flat odor of ink, wrapped Gael round like a velvet cloak. He felt his shoulders let go a tension he’d not been aware of.

Keir remained seated at her desk, head bent forward over her work, her straight, blond hair just touching the dark brown thistlesilk folds of her overly large caputum.

She didn’t glance up as Gael rounded the cabinets flanking the door, merely saying, “Yes? How did the bladesmith reply, Adarn?”

“Oh, did you select Adarn”—one of that crowd that had bullied the lunchboy, if Gael was remembering correctly—“as your messenger?”

The quill dropped from Keir’s fingers, spattering ink on her tally sheet. What was that slight jump about? Had the sound of his voice, when she’d expected the lighter tones of the boy Adarn, startled her so badly?

If so, she recovered quickly enough, turning easily around in her chair, a delighted—and genuine—smile on her lips, eyes shining. The tone of her greeting was calm, however, as she stood. “Gael! You look well!”

Gael found himself speechless for a moment. How had he ever thought her a boy? Her smooth skin, finely molded lips, even her strong chin and straight-gazing gray eyes, all spoke of the feminine. He’d been a fool. And yet . . . nearly all of Belzetarn took her for a boy. Maybe most folks saw what they expected to see.

“I am well, thanks to your good work before I departed,” he replied. “How goes it here?”

“Without hitch. Let me tidy this”—she gestured at the spilled ink—“and I’ll make a proper report.”

Gael went around to his own desk, pulling out its chair, while she busied herself with blotting sand and whisk. As he sat, she corked her ink jar, took a handful of papers from the shelf above her desk, and pulled her own chair nearer to him. Her proximity felt both strange, now that he knew her to be a young woman, and as comfortable as it had been for the past two years.

Gael lifted the satchel’s strap from his shoulder and placed the case on his desk. “I spoke with Arnoll just now, and he said that you’d encountered no lack of respect for your authority.”

One corner of Keir’s mouth turned up. “You’d think I was either a feared tyrant or everyone’s best friend. Every scullion in the tower was eager to run my errands, each smith addressed me punctiliously by my full title—Secretarius Pro Tem—and the castellanum insisted I take your seat at the high table every evening.”

Arnoll—as Keir’s opteon in potestas—must have done a superb job of terrifying the entire troll community. Gael smiled, saying nothing. Keir had clearly gotten over her qualms about occupying the role of authority. He’d seen her scruples in her face, misgivings that were now gone.

“Even Martell began giving his notary a chance without my doing or saying anything. In fact”—Keir looked a little guilty—“I stopped directly supervising the transfer of metals into the privy smithy. I was wasting my time and Martell’s.”

“But, indirectly?” Gael knew Keir too well to think he—she—had dropped the matter and its attendant concerns.

Keir grinned. “I told Martell that I would require that his notary give me an accurate report each evening as to the degree of support and cooperation he received from Martell.”

“I’m imagining you put it to Martell in such a way that you secured his enthusiasm.” Gael could almost hear Martell exclaiming, ‘But, yes, my dear Secretarius Pro Tem, you shall receive most excellent reports of Martell each night, and his notary shall be the envy of all!’

Keir face acquired a more serious cast, and she straightened her shoulders. “My report in brief is that all proceeded smoothly, with fewer than the usual small problems, no major ones, and no interference from the castellanum. But let me go over the details.”

She set her handful of parchments on his desk and started reviewing the contents. The works-in-progress and the ingots checked out to the various smithies were exactly as Gael had expected, save for one thing.

“How is it that Olix forges twelve blades instead of his usual eight each day?” asked Gael, somewhat astonished. Was Keir just that good? Was this what happened when newer, younger blood entered an established position? Should Gael think of retiring? What then would he do, in Belzetarn’s dark tower? A quiver of unease—similar to that he’d felt when he first stumbled upon evidence of theft—ran through him.

“You remember the quartermaster had wondered if we could speed production?”

Gael nodded. The official results from the quartermaster’s audit of the legions’ stores had not been complete upon Gael’s departure, but he’d suspected it would turn up a faster resupply rate in the swords being issued to the warriors. One could not tally for years without gaining a gut sense as to how the numbers were running.

Keir continued, “I met with him, but I took Opteon Olix with me.” Her eyes narrowed. “It turns out that the blade smithy has several decanens ready to move up to opteon, and many more scullions skilled enough to fill a decanen’s boots. They’re running two shifts now, the first starting a little earlier, and the second ending a little later, each producing six blades.”

Gael frowned. “Olix will tire and fall into error, if he maintains such a pace for longer than two deichtains. Does he intend to return to the old schedule at intervals?”

“Oh, Olix supervises only the first shift,” explained Keir. “His decanen confided to me that the opteon must be finding it difficult to fill his leisure time, because he usually hangs about the smithy for a while into the second shift.”

“Incidence of accident?” asked Gael, almost automatically.

“Down,” answered Keir.

“Well done, then.”

Keir smiled demurely. “Thank you, Secretarius.”

Gael drew his mind back to the here and now. Fascinating as improvements to the efficiency of the smithies might be, he had more immediate concerns.

“No thefts while I was gone?” he asked.

“No.” Keir looked troubled.

“And no annoyance to you from the magus?” After Arnoll’s assurances and Nathiar’s admissions, Gael was certain there had been no trespass, but he had to hear it from the party most nearly affected.

Keir smirked. “He’s one of the ones who seems almost afraid of me. He leaves a room, if I enter while he is present. And all those nights Theron insisted I dine at the high table? Nathiar dined in his own chambers.”

Studying Keir’s beaming face, Gael felt abruptly an idiot all over again. It was one thing to pretend to Belzetarn at large that he believed Keir to be the boy she pretended to be. But when they sat in close conference, she knowing herself to be a young woman, but keeping the pretense of boyhood, while he also knew her to be a young woman, also pretending he knew it not—it was too ridiculous.

He drew in a short breath.

Keir glanced at him inquiringly, her face innocently expectant, almost confiding.

“Keir,” Gael said abruptly, “I know.”

Keir’s face went white as a newly washed fleece.

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Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 75)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 73)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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The Tally Master