The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 88)

Chapter 19

Gael stared a little blankly at the closed door of his tally room and then at the copper ingot in his hand.

Right. He needed to secure the ingot behind a padlock and then check to see where Keir had left the evening tallies. Had she finished before Dreben’s warriors seized her? Had they found her at her desk, quill poised over parchment? Or did they drag her away from the vaults on the level above? Had they permitted her to secure the vault doors?

Shaking himself from his dazed numbness, he hurried for the steps up, following in Carbraes’ wake. Carbraes was likely climbing all the way to the regal chambers at the top of Belzetarn. Gael had merely eight twists around the newel post to go.

Outside the stairwell’s arrowslits, the sky shone a deep luminous blue, but the land below had fallen into dusky shadow. Boys called to one another in the artisans’ yard. The gate guard yelled a verbal salute to a superior officer passing from the yard into the bailey. The long summer evening was winding to its close.

Gael climbed.

What exactly had he hoped to achieve by revealing Theron’s thefts to the regenen? A stop to the thievery? He’d succeeded, if that were so. Theron would not be pilfering from the tally chamber again. Or—if the castellanum ignored Carbraes’ prohibition—his head would shortly be forfeit.

But the collateral damage—the disclosure and broadcasting of Keir’s secret, her imprisonment, Carbraes’ doubt of Gael’s loyalty and his demand for proof—made the entire confrontation a failure.

Even if Gael followed Carbraes’ requirements to the last tally, what would he win? The regenen himself had said that he honored Gael for his integrity. If Gael subdued the gong, as Carbraes ordered and which Keir opposed—well, Carbraes would entirely approve of that. But if Gael abandoned Keir to Carbraes’ judgment . . .

How was that different from life in Belzetarn in general? The fate of every troll within the citadel was—in the end—Carbraes’ to determine. Gael knew this, had always known it. Why did it feel so fraught now?

Because I don’t trust Carbraes. Not with this. Not with Keir, he realized.

So. The lack of trust ran two ways. And Gael could perceive no way to restore it.

If he abandoned Keir to Carbraes, then Carbraes would know that Gael put his regenen first, but he would also know that Gael would throw not merely a friend to the wolves, but a trusted underling who depended on Gael for protection.

The test Carbraes demanded for restoring his trust in Gael would also show Gael to be less trustworthy than before. Gael felt caught between a rock and a hard place.

The corridor outside the vaults was very dim, no doubt because all four doors were shut. They were also locked fast—good—when Gael checked. He unlocked the copper vault to return the ingot to its proper storage and found all in order there. Which indicated that Keir had at least finished checking in the products from the smithies before Dreben’s warriors came for her.

Gael re-locked the vault door behind him. Opening each of the other vaults in turn—just to be sure—he determined that Keir had indeed finished her duties here. He returned to the stairs, heading down again, still sorting out his thoughts. He needed to assess the status of the tally room. And he had some decisions to make, but he could not make them until his thinking was clear.

Regardless of what Carbraes’ test would do to Gael’s integrity or his safety, he could not abandon Keir. That much was a given. For the night, yes. He could trust that Carbraes’ precautions would keep her safe for so long. But for the long term . . . he would make her release a condition for his work on the gong. More than that, he would insist that Carbraes provide her a reliable escort to see her to one of the troll-queens in the northern wastes. She could not stay in Belzetarn. She required some other refuge.

And if Carbraes refused . . . ? Gael felt his jaw harden. He would free her himself. He’d once been a magus, with all the powers that a magus possessed. He would do whatever was necessary to preserve his notarius from Carbraes’ so-called ‘mercy.’ Since when had Carbraes ever been merciful?

The image of the beheaded Ghriana youth flashed before his mind’s eye.

So. He would free Keir, but he would be intelligent about it. Raw emotion and impulsive action would merely land him in the cell next to hers, doing her no good at all. In the morning, he would place his stipulation before Carbraes. And if the regenen acceded to it, then the matter was solved. If he refused . . .

Gael would pretend to meekness, subdue the gong, and then develop the careful plan that would get Keir out of Belzetarn. Her escape should not be impossible to arrange for a magus wielding his full powers.

The tally room, when he let himself in through its door, proved to be as orderly as the vaults: parchments rolled in their pigeonholes in the cabinets, ink bottle corked, quill cleaned and resting to one side of Keir’s desk. Apparently she had completely finished the evening tasks, although she’d left the glass-paned casements open. Through them the sky was darkening at last. Below, in the yard, a few trolls walking from the kitchen entrance toward the well carried torches.

Gael swung the casements closed and wrote a record of the returned copper ingot.

Tomorrow, after he dealt with . . . more than he wanted to contemplate right now; he was weary . . . he would need to supervise digging the rest of the ingots out of that clogged latrine. Were it not for the gong, he’d do it tonight. But the buried treasure would keep one more day. He wondered just how many ingots were hidden in the foul sludge. At least nine more, going by Barris’ tally, but the hunter would have added his loot to that count as well.

Tomorrow, he told himself, bringing his thoughts back to the fallout from his confrontation of Theron. Really he should have expected something like what had happened. Theron was expert at nosing out weakness, and scrambling back into Carbraes’ favor—or tolerance—over Keir’s vulnerability must have given him positive pleasure. That it also divided Gael’s interests from those of the regenen’s would have been a special grace note.

That was the real issue at hand here.

Carbraes had never needed to doubt Gael before, because Gael had always been in solid support of the regenen’s decrees. Had one of his friends—Barris, Arnoll—been in peril, Gael would have sought Carbraes’ protection for him. And received it.

But Theron had found a way to endanger Keir via Carbraes himself, taking advantage of the regenen’s hostility toward the one whose hand had slain Dreas. When Gael had sought protection for Keir, he’d sought in vain. Theron had created a divide in Gael’s loyalties, which seemed to grow ever wider without any effort at all on Theron’s part.

Except . . . was that really true?

Not really.

Gael’s loyalty had remained strong by dint of his carefully narrowed vision. He chose not to think about the war Carbraes prosecuted upon the unafflicted. He avoided dwelling on the violent discipline exerted within the ranks of Carbraes’ legions. He looked past the nasty back-stabbing that went on in the tower hierarchy under the castellanum’s aegis.

Occasionally, such as when the Ghriana spy was captured, the realities of Belzetarn intruded. He’d always managed to press his awareness back down once the incident was finished.

But Keir’s death—if Carbraes decided she must die—would not be something he could ever forget.

He cast a swift final look around the tally room. The cabinets loomed in its gloom, quiescent like standing stones in the forest. The warm scent of the parchment and the flat one of the ink wrapped him round like a comforting fleece. This had been his sanctuary, but it was all illusion. There was no true sanctuary to be had within Belzetarn.

He walked to the door, passed through it, and then turned to lock it behind him. He was done here for the night.

The torches were lit in the Regenen Stair. Climbing the spiraling steps toward his chambers—just one and two-thirds twists around the newel post—he thought back to his arrival at Belzetarn and Carbraes’ demand that he swear fealty or die. It seemed he was back at that choice again. Would he declare himself Carbraes’ ally and partisan, thus accepting such protection as the regenen offered, with all its limits? Or would he declare himself Carbraes’ enemy?

There was no middle ground.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 89)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 87)

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