The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 87)

The light outside the arrowslits of the Cliff Stair had grown very golden, contrasting strongly with the increasing dimness within the stairwell. The sun must be nearing the tree tops beyond the meadow at the bailey’s gatehouse. Gael, still standing in the latrine and wishing he were not, felt emptied out, as one might after a long day in the open, picking berries or swimming in the river or riding horseback. Except that the evening following a day of satisfying effort would bring a welcome lassitude. Gael felt hollow rather than replete.

Now that Theron had departed, would Carbraes permit Gael to speak?

The regenen gestured him to leave the latrine. Thank Tiamar, since his nose had not habituated to the stench. The air was not much cleaner immediately outside the latrine door, but swapping that close confinement for a sense of the depth to which the stairwell descended, and the equally great height to which it ascended, ushered in a degree of relief.

Carbraes, Gael noticed, lingered long enough to rinse the ingot he still held—as well as his hand—with water from the bucket located in the latrine’s wall niche. He shut the door as he exited. Nodding for Gael to accompany him, he started up the stairs.

“This isn’t the first time Theron has betrayed you,” said Gael, putting together the evidence dropped by Carbraes’ dealings with his castellanum.

“And you wonder why I continue to bear with him,” answered the regenen, climbing steadily.

“He’s skilled at managing the complexities of a large stronghold,” mused Gael. “But how many times may you threaten to cut his head off—and not deliver, given that his head remains attached—before your authority ceases to have meaning?”

“Oh, I delivered. Each time,” said Carbraes.

Gael’s brows twitched.

The next landing, with its passage to the place of arms, came into sight, a cluster of messengers milling about on it.

“My first threat was considerably less than beheading, of course, but it kept Theron in line for some time. As did my second, more serious threat. And my third, more serious yet. His next transgression must be his last.”

They arrived on the landing, and Carbraes sent one messenger to Dreben, another to the prison cells, and three more on various other errands. He directed the rest to precede him up the Regenen Stair. They scampered off through the passage to the place of arms, Carbraes following at a more measured pace and drawing Gael with him.

Bright stripes of sunlight crossed the stone floor of the warriors’ practice place, casting its high vault into deep shadow. The air was blessedly fresh as Gael breathed it in.

“I know Theron’s limits,” continued Carbraes, “and I can work with him so long as I do. I intend to receive his full worth.”

“Until your last punishment brings an end,” said Gael. He quelled a shudder as they entered into the shadow of the passage to the Regenen Stair. The torches were yet unlit, but it was not the dark that provoked the shiver. He knew Carbraes to be supremely practical. He’d seen that quality in action again and again. It was what made him so effective. But this instance of it seemed chillingly cold-blooded.

“I know Theron’s limits,” Carbraes repeated. “But I no longer feel I know yours. Do you?”

The question hit Gael like the gust from a stormfront. Not so long ago—the day before he discovered evidence of a theft in his tally room, in fact—he would have answered it with a ‘yes.’ He was loyal to Carbraes and all else must be subsumed to that loyalty. Now . . . if he had to choose between Carbraes and Keir, he did not know who he would choose.

Cayim’s hells and Gaelan’s virtues!

“Uh, huh,” responded Carbraes, seeing the reaction in Gael’s face, no doubt.

Or maybe Gael did know who he would choose. He would choose Keir. Except he could not. Not if he intended to live under Carbraes’ benevolence.

They emerged from the dark passage into the merely dim stairwell.

“Who will you choose, Gael?” said Carbraes.

He had to choose Carbraes.

“Let this be a test,” said the regenen, starting up the steps. “You will stay far away from the brig, which should be easy if you attend to your duties. You will trust Keir to my justice. And my mercy, in the event that it is required. And you will destroy that evil gong.”

“But—” Gael couldn’t stem that small sound of protest.

“And then I will know where you stand,” concluded the regenen.

Hells! He shouldn’t have been so smug when listening to Carbraes setting forth his requirements for Theron. The regenen had intended Gael to feel that justice would be upheld, and to see that Carbraes could neither be manipulated nor deceitfully swayed, yes. But he’d also intended his secretarius to see the castellanum’s disciplining as a foreshadowing of his own.

The scamper of the messengers’ footsteps echoed from above in the stairwell. Gael wasn’t sure where the rest of the normal traffic was. Had the great halls emptied out entirely while he and Theron and Carbraes clashed? Maybe.

“But if you lose both Keir and myself—” he hadn’t intended to speak the thought aloud.

“Then Arnoll will become my secretarius,” said Carbraes, unperturbed. Did he measure Gael’s limits even now? Undoubtedly.

“Arnoll would never—” blurted Gael.

“How do you think Arnoll’s survived this long?” asked Carbraes gently. “Of course Arnoll will do as I ask him.”

Gael climbed three twists of the spiral stair in silence, a silence of constriction and disquiet. Carbraes climbed beside him, equally silent, but inhabiting a silence of composure. When they reached the landing—the one right outside the tally room—Carbraes halted, and Gael perforce halted with him.

“I know you try to be a man of honor,” said the regenen.

But he wasn’t a man. He was a troll.

Carbraes shook his head, negating any disagreement he perceived. “You have never accepted your truldemagar, Gael,” he said.

The statement felt like a blow. It was true, but he’d also never admitted it to himself.

“I respect you for that,” said Carbraes. “I even honor you for it. Dreas also held to that standard,” he added quietly.

Gael hardly knew how to respond.

Carbraes handed him the copper ingot he still carried. The metal had completely dried, its washed surface gleaming softly in the dimness. “You’ll want to return this to its proper place,” he said.

Gael accepted it, grasping the truncated pyramidal shape firmly and wondering what it was he saw in Carbraes’ face.

“There are limits to honor when you dwell in a troll citadel, Gael,” said the regenen. “Choose yours wisely.”

After Carbraes turned to go, headed for the next flight of spiraling steps, Gael recognized what he’d seen in his regenen’s expression.

It was sadness.

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Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 88)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 86)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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