The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 76)

As Gael locked the tally room door, his fibula of keys pinned to his waist once more, a muscular boy with curly chestnut hair and a sprinkle of freckles across his cheeks and nose rounded the newel post of the Regenen Stair.

“Adarn!” Keir exclaimed. “Good. I’m needing you.”

Ah. So Gael had remembered correctly. Adarn was one of the reformed bullies. Interesting that Keir had selected the boy as her messenger. And interesting that Theron had released him to the tally room. More of the castellanum’s courting of Gael’s notarius?

Keir swept Adarn along with her, murmuring explanations to the boy as she followed Gael up the nearly two spirals to the landing outside Gael’s chambers.

There Gael discovered a black-browed warrior in full regalia: bronze scale mail, bronze greaves, bronze helm, scabbarded sword and knife at his belt, brown tabard with a stooping golden bird of prey depicted on it. One of the Peregrine opteogint.

The warrior stood very straight and struck his chest with his closed fist as Gael stopped before him.

“Secretarius!” he barked.

Gael frowned, but returned the salute, allowing the warrior to lower his arm and stand easy.

Turning to Keir, Gael asked, “What is this?”

Keir grimaced. “When two locks were not enough to prevent meddling with the gong, the regenen ordered a guard placed. The whole tower learned what rests in your storeroom in the debacle with the cleaning scullions. Lord Carbraes does not want a repeat incident.”

Gael repressed a sigh. “Of course.”

Keir greeted the warrior. “All well here, Uwen? The boys have not recommenced tapping your mail?”

Gael’s eyes narrowed. “Scullions were baiting a warrior?”

Keir stifled a snicker. “On a dare. Yes.”

Uwen smiled, utterly changing the fierceness of his visage in repose to something genial, approachable. “Once the notarius granted me permission to be creative, the problem ceased.”

“And, ah, how were you creative?” asked Gael.

“The boys had not realized I was quick enough to catch their tapping fingers. Or strong enough to keep those fingers in my grasp, once caught. They found it quite embarrassing to sit at my feet simply waiting until I chose to let them go.” Uwen’s smile broadened into a grin. “I kept each tapper longer than the last. They stopped their prank quite resoundingly.”

“Indeed.” Gael gestured at his door. “May I?”

“We’ll be accessing the gong, Uwen,” clarified Keir, “so you’ll need to accompany us. And I’ll need your help with it, in any case.”

Uwen’s eyebrows rose, but he stepped aside.

Gael unlocked the portal to his chambers and passed within. The sitting room was very tidy, with the backless chairs and slant-end divans aligned precisely, the trays on their tripod stands exactly level, and the floors immaculately dustless. The glass panes of the casements showed the effects of rigorous cleaning, with both inner and outer shutters open and no smudges visible in the afternoon light. Someone had even removed the stain that had disfigured one of the leather hangings that covered the stone walls.

It should have felt like home. These chambers had been home for the past seven years. But Gael felt less relaxed in his private sitting room than he had in either the smithies or the tally chamber. Maybe it was just that he intended to tangle with the cursed gong forthwith. Or rather—to let Keir tangle with it.

Keir bustled about, closing the inner shutters, pulling a divan out from the wall, shoving several tripod tables out of the way, and generally arranging things to her liking.

“I’ll need you lying down, Gael,” she instructed.

Gael started to obey, sinking onto the divan. He stopped halfway to survey their presumed helpers. Uwen stood waiting beside the closed door, broad-shouldered, armed and armored, formidable. Beside him, Adarn—although a well-grown lad—looked nervous and very young, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. His head rose only to Uwen’s shoulder, if that.

Gael’s prolonged scrutiny gathered their attention. He waited a moment, then nodded and started the explanation he felt was due to them. “You know Lord Carbraes has consigned the gong of the ancients to my authority.”

Both the boy and the warrior nodded.

“Keir and I believe the gong may possess a power other than the weakness generated by its sounding. We are going to attempt to prove our surmise true or false. Now. In this room.”

Uwen frowned. Adarn swallowed.

“Your role, should you choose to accept it, will be merely to hold the gong at the angle Keir specifies. I do not expect you to be in any danger. But the gong is perilous, and I could be wrong in my assessment. I have the right, granted by the regenen, to require your duty in this trial. But I will not do so. You may choose freely to assist. Or not.”

Uwen’s frown deepened, and Adarn positively gulped. Keir—seen out of the corner of Gael’s eye—looked exasperated, but she said nothing.

“We will not be sounding the gong,” Gael added.

Uwen’s face lightened. “I do not fear your trial, my lord Secretarius. I am willing.”

“Good,” said Gael. “Adarn?”

The boy squirmed, glanced at Keir, then straightened his shoulders. “I am not afraid either,” he declared. “I’ll help.”

“Keir will not think the less of you, should you decline,” said Gael.

Keir’s look of irritation ebbed. “Indeed, I will not,” she confirmed. “You may choose freely. Indeed, you must choose freely.”

Adarn grinned. “No, I know. I want to help. Please?”

“Very well,” said Gael, handing his fibula of keys to Keir, leaning his upper body against the slanting end of the divan, and lifting his legs onto its long, flat end. The padlock on the storeroom clunked open. Then came a scraping sound—metal on stone—and footsteps. Uwen and Adarn stationed themselves to one side of the divan, the gong held between them, its metal glimmering in the shutter-dimmed light. Gael noticed that the grip of Adarn’s lower hand fell considerably lower on the disk’s bottom hemisphere than did Uwen’s, the same for their upper hands. Which meant that the boy bore slightly more weight than the warrior. Gael’s lips pressed flat. He wondered if he should intervene. Keir was directing them to raise the gong higher, focusing on the angles she needed. Was she paying any mind to the differing capabilities of her helpers?

“Gael, I’m going to need you on the floor. The angles aren’t right, and I need you flat anyway, not propped up,” came Keir’s clear voice.

They all rearranged themselves, Gael lying on a sheepskin, Keir seated on a backless chair, and Adarn and Uwen across from her, holding the gong just barely off the flagstones. Adarn showed no signs of strain, his eyes alight with curiosity and interest.

“Good. That’s perfect,” said Keir. “Try to keep those positions, everyone.”

Adarn’s muscles twitched. Was the boy trying to lock them in place?

“Not like a stone statue, Adarn,” chided Keir, “but like a tree. It’s all right to sway a bit.”

Gael could see the boy relax.

“That’s right,” said Keir. “Now,” she continued, “I’ll be working with energea, and Uwen and Adarn, you may watch, if you wish. I’d prefer to have witnesses other than myself.”

Adarn’s shoulders settled as the crown of his head lifted. Uwen’s adjustments were subtler, but Gael could tell that he too was preparing to follow Keir’s wishes. Gael allowed his own breathing to slow and his spine to lengthen. This promised to be very interesting.

Keir spoke again. “But, Gael, you must not open your inner sight. I need you utterly quiescent, and you won’t be if you are watching. In fact, I want your outer sight closed as well. Shut your eyes, please.”

Gael switched his gaze from Adarn and Uwen to Keir. She looked calm and confident. Gael closed his eyes. In the reddish black behind his eyelids, his awareness of his other senses deepened. The breathing of his companions in the silence of his sitting room sounded restful and relaxed. The scent of the leather wall hangings perfused the warm air. The sheepskin under him felt resilient and firm.

Even with both his inner and outer sight closed, he knew immediately when Keir began working with the energea of his nodes and arcs. A strange drawing sensation pulled at his root node, located just behind the source of a man’s seed. The tug strengthened and then subsided altogether, segueing into an inward pulsation. Then the drawing sensation started afresh in his belly.

Abruptly, Gael needed no sight to understand what Keir was doing. She’d moved his root node closer to its correct position, and now held it there while she pulled his belly node nearer to its ideal location. The one had been too high, the other too low.

The tugging sensations deep within him were not painful, but they were disconcerting. He kept his breathing very even, uncertain whether muscular tension would impede Keir or not. Surely relaxation could only help.

As she moved from node to node—belly to plexial node to heart and upward—Gael realized that he’d become so accustomed to the subtle tug of the drifting anchors of his energea arcs that it felt normal. But there was a rightness to the new arrangement that Keir imposed. This was where his nodes belonged. It was like coming home, only far more profound than a return to the smithies or his tally chamber. More satisfying than even an imagined return to Hadorgol. He was coming home to himself.

When Keir released her hold on his crown node, he felt utterly new.

“You may open your eyes now,” came Keir’s clear voice.

“Tiamar on his throne,” Gael breathed.

Uwen and Adarn looked awestruck. Keir looked merely serene, not weary precisely, but . . . drained?

“How do you feel?” asked Keir.

Gael shook his head. He wasn’t sure there were words to describe how he felt. Surely no one had felt like this since the ancients used their lodestones to heal trolls. “I feel well,” he said. “I feel . . . right.”

And then Adarn and Uwen and Keir were babbling. “Did you see . . . ?” “Did you notice . . . ?” “I can’t believe it!” “Can I go next?” “How was that possible?” “We have to show the regenen!”

That last was shouted by Adarn.

Keir nodded. “I do think Lord Carbraes needs to know of this.”

Gael tried to sort through his thoughts. He was still trying to understand the miracle that Keir had just wrought, to assimilate what had happened to him, to accept that his truldemagar had been rolled back by years. It was hard to think calmly, or at all.

Someone said, “Let us seek Lord Carbraes then.”

Only as he stood up did he realize that it was he who had spoken.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 77)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 75)

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