First there were the sounds. Shouting. Footsteps running, heavy and quick. Hurried orders in a tense undertone. Metal dragged on stone, grating. And the heaving sobs of a man lost to grief.
“No, no, no,” came the choked mutters, threaded through the sobbing.
Keir wondered what had happened. She had a sense that she lay in the wake of disaster. The worst had happened, but she couldn’t remember, couldn’t grasp where she was and what had gone wrong.
“Pater?” she murmured as the blue sky coalesced in her vision, clear and very high above her, curdled with a line of thin clouds to one side. Was she lying on the firm sand of the cove below her hut? Had the orca bitten her? Was Pater running for help?
“Keir?” asked a concerned companion. Pater? But Pater’s voice was deeper than that.
Someone moved into her line of sight. Neatly made, with solid shoulders and muscular legs, he wore a suede tunic of sage green hue and matching trews. His dark hair—traced by a few threads of gray—hung straightly down to his collar bones. But—sweet Ionan!—he was a troll. Lines bracketed his hazel eyes. The firm, square bones of his jaw were blurred by slackened skin. And—most telling of all—his nose was elongated and hooked, exaggerated from its doubtless aquiline origin.
As Keir drew breath to scream, she noted the kindness in his eyes. Was he friend? Not enemy?
And then it all came back to her.
This was Gael! Her dear friend. Dearer than friend? How had she taken him for just ‘a troll’? His truldemagar had ceased to be the first thing she saw in him long, long ago. When her eyes rested on him, she saw her mentor, her protector, her steadfast companion.
Another sequence of memory dropped, and she sat up with a jerk.
The high terrace of Belzetarn reeled around her. Her stomach fluttered ominously, and her head ached. But the scene was all too clear. Dreas lay like clay upon the beautifully wrought bench of bronze, his skin gray and his eyes staring. Carbraes crouched at the march’s side, one arm gripping his friend desperately, his face buried in Dreas’ tunic, shoulders heaving.
As Keir stared, aghast, the regenen raised his head. His ice blue eyes glared, reddened by his loss as they never had been by his disease. He jerked his gaze away from Keir to address Gael.
“You will destroy that cursed thing on the morrow’s morning, or I will sever your head from your body personally!” he blazed.
Keir noticed that the gong was no longer present. Nor were Adarn and Uwen. Where?
Gael bowed to his overlord.
“Take yourself from my sight!” snarled Carbraes.
“Yes, my lord Regenen,” said Gael, his demeanor remarkably steady in the face of Carbraes’ grieving wrath. “If I may assist my notarius from your presence.”
Carbraes did not answer, merely turning away in disgust.
Gael knelt beside Keir. “Can you stand, if I raise you?”
Keir felt very wobbly, but she wasn’t sure if it was her shaken body or her shaken emotions that weakened her. Gael maneuvered to get his arm across her back, sliding his hands under her elbows. Keir shifted, awkwardly pulling her feet under her.
“Up with you,” breathed Gael, giving her a firm boost.
Upright, she swayed, glad Gael had kept a hold of her. Pulling her nearer arm across his shoulders, he helped her toward the closest door, the one into the regenen’s receiving rooms. The journey to the spiral stairs and down them to her quarters was a slow, arduous whirl through a dim stone corkscrew patched with oblongs of light from the arrowslits. She felt as though she descended into the bowels of some monstrous deformed beast out of legend.
When Gael eased her across the threshold of her own quarters, relief gave her strength enough to lurch unsupported toward her favorite divan, its cushions upholstered in pale aqua suede. She sat dizzily, drinking in the diffuse light and air. Her casements were open and unshuttered; she never shut them when the weather was fine. She needed every weapon she could deploy to combat the heaviness of the tower’s stones, the oppressive atmosphere they produced. She’d been so grateful when she discovered a tanner in the bailey willing to experiment with unusual dyes. The blues and greens he’d used for the leathers and suedes on her furnishings reminded her of the sea around Fiors on a bright sunny day, while the paler blue hangings on her walls echoed its skies. Sometimes she could forget where she was—what she was—when she took refuge here.
Gael closed the door behind himself and dragged a backless chair next to her divan.
“I’ve summoned Medicus Piar,” he said. “I think you should lie down until he arrives. You hit your head hard.”
Keir shook her head and then wished she hadn’t. It throbbed fiercely in response to the motion. But she couldn’t focus on herself now. Mustn’t. Too much else was at stake. Although what that ‘else’ was still eluded her. She was muddled. She had to get unmuddled, or the chance to shape events would pass her by.
“Gael, what happened?”
Gael’s lips pressed straight. “I am responsible for the miscarriage of our attempt to communicate our new knowledge to Lord Carbraes. Not you. Not Adarn.”
“I don’t think you are,” she murmured, still trying to string two thoughts together coherently.
Gael’s chin jerked. “I allowed myself to become abstracted and preoccupied in the aftermath of our discovery. Had I retained my wits—or taken two moments to regain them—I would have noticed that Adarn was tiring. And that his excitement made him unaware of his growing fatigue.” Gael’s lips pressed even straighter. “He did not tremble for nerves or enthusiasm.”
Keir pieced it together. “His grip slipped. He grabbed harder, which caused him to overbalance. And then he fell, taking the gong and Uwen with him.” She swallowed. “If I’d just been less afraid of offending Dreas’ dignity—or Carbraes’ idea of his dignity—I’d have had him lie on the terrace stones. And he’d be alive.” She fought down a sob. She’d not lost a patient before. Pater had said it would happen eventually. It had to happen, since humans were not immortal. Except she’d not lost Dreas. She’d killed him herself, ripping his heart node right out of his energea lattice.
Gael’s voice pulled her out of the sucking descent of her thoughts.
“Now is not the time to analyze where we went wrong or how to apportion blame. Thinking coherently in the immediate wake of disaster is not possible. It’s like doing a tally when the ingots are being issued. You must wait until all of the metal has gone out, and again until it has returned at day’s end, and then you may ascertain where you stand. Not before.”
She stared at him blankly. He was right, of course. He would be. He knew tallying. Had taught her. And he would know how the tallying of metals might apply to the tallying of responsibility. She could plumb her guilt later. Must plumb it later. Right now she must set it aside. If she could. There was another matter which must be sifted now, or it would not be sifted at all.
“Gael. Will you obey Lord Carbraes?”
Gael frowned. “What?”
“The regenen ordered you to destroy the gong. Are you going to do it?” She felt impatient with his slowness.
“You must not,” she insisted.
Gael’s vague gaze grew sharp. “I made the mistake of allowing events—and people—to hurry me. I will not make that mistake again.”
“You’ll delay then?” she probed.
“No. I will think, and then I will decide my next step.”
He interrupted her. “Keir. Stop.”
She bit her lip. She had to get him to agree to a delay. The second trial of the cursed gong had gone as wrong as could be—she swallowed down another incipient sob—but the boost the gong’s lodestone could give to a healer’s abilities was too valuable to sacrifice needlessly. It seemed she was a healer still, despite her truldemagar, despite the truldemagar of her patients. She could not bear to lose something so potentially useful, something that could never be replaced once it was destroyed.
She took a deep in-breath and forced her voice to come out steady. “If you do decide to destroy it, will you consult me before you do so? Please?” The last word escaped her control.
Gael’s eyes darkened. “I will promise nothing.” He read her too well. She had wanted him to promise. But Gael clung to reason when the world went topsy-turvy, precisely because he knew himself vulnerable to emotion. She knew this. She must approach him reasonably, logically. Which was her usual approach. A healer had to stay cool in the midst of turmoil, lest she make some grave error. As she had with Dreas.
Stop it, Keir, she told herself. Now, more than ever she must hold to clear thinking. She could not afford to become mired in guilt or grief.
“I do not ask you to promise,” she said. And she hadn’t, no matter how much she had wanted him to. “I ask you to consider rationally, and to weigh the loss of the good that must accompany the riddance of the bad.”
Before Gael could answer, a knock sounded on her door and Medicus Piar entered, tidy and efficient.
Keir’s concern for the fate of the gong evaporated abruptly for a nearer concern: if the physician examined her thoroughly, as a responsible physician should, he would discover the secret of her gender very quickly.
She glanced at Gael, silently willing him to perceive the danger.
He nodded back, and she admired the adroitness with which he guided Piar into checking her skull—bruised, but no more, the skin not even broken—and her eyes and reflexes and coordination. No feeling of the limbs, no tapping of the internal organs.
She was safe.
Piar prescribed an herbal draft, administered it, and then left her to rest.
“Shall I take over this evening’s tallying?” Gael asked her.
She hesitated, checking the sensations in her body. The bruises at her hip and shoulder had joined the throbbing of her head, but her weakness was passing. With a little sleep—and Pater had taught her how to catnap at will; a healer sometimes had long nights—she’d feel stronger still. “No. No, I’m feeling much better. Will you send a messenger to wake me when it is time?” Her lips twitched as she remembered when their roles had been reversed, Gael the injured one, and she the one urging care and caution. Did he perceive her as being as unreasonable as she had deemed him to be then?
His eyes narrowed. “You’ll lie abed and send the messenger back, if you discover that you need more rest,” he requested.
“I will,” she answered.
He nodded and stood. “Then I’ll leave you.”
At the door, he paused. “And Keir?”
She lifted a brow, trying not to show how shaken she remained.
“I promise to think over my decision regarding the gong most carefully.”
She knew she could trust him to do that. Gael would not have hurried to Belzetarn’s high terrace with the gong, nor allowed her to do so, had he faced that decision at any time other than the moment after his personal miracle—the restoration of his drifting nodes to their origin points. Gael would not have killed Dreas by accident.
She slept before she could cry.
The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 80)
The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 78)
Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)