The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 31)

Lying on his sleeping couch in his chambers, Gael found sleep eluding him. In his weariness, he’d forgotten to swing the shutters closed, and the moonlight shone brightly on the leather hangings, the scattered small tables and backless chairs. But it was not the light alone that kept his eyes open.

Every inch of him ached, his feet and legs from all the stair climbing of the day, his shoulders and neck from tension, and his head from his repellent discoveries.

Were it not so late, he would have visited the saunas in the yard to sweat the soreness from his body and the churning images from his thoughts: Martell aggrieved that any suspicion rested on him, the simple sweep grabbing for a drop of molten tin, the bullied lunch boy calmed by Keir, and—worst of all—Arnoll holding a stolen ingot.

Gael turned toward the wall, bright in the moonlight, and then got up to close the shutters. His legs protested, and returning to the soft sheepskins cushioning his couch felt good. But still he could not sleep. Even with the greater dimness.

Very well. If sleep refused him, he would think. What did he know?

When the theft of his tin first came to his attention during the tallying, he’d assumed an error had been made. That had proved incorrect. He’d suspected petty pilfering next. Perhaps a miserable scullion, hoping to barter it for better treatment, had impulsively swiped an ingot. Perhaps a simpleton had been attracted by the metal’s glossy sheen.

In retrospect, his suspicions seemed ludicrous. The metals flowing through Belzetarn were far too well monitored—by himself—for a lowly scullion to succeed with thievery. Only someone with more reach, more resources, and more ambition would or could arrange the intricate plans necessary.

And . . . tin was not shiny right out of the mold. It required careful polishing.

No, he was right to bend his scrutiny to the powerful.

And, yet, he’d been wrong in assessing the march as the one troll in the entire citadel who would never steal from his lord. Dreas had stolen tin. And he’d stolen it through Arnoll, the one friend Gael was certain possessed an unbreakable integrity.

Gael turned over yet again, unable to find a comfortable position.

He’d told Arnoll that he trusted him still. He wanted to trust him. But, in truth, his trust was shaken. He understood Arnoll. He suspected he would do the same as Arnoll in a like situation. But . . . he was not sure he could admit Arnoll to his deepest confidence in the immediate future.

Gael adjusted the pillow beneath his head. A stray moonbeam penetrated a chink in the shutters, illuminating a pattern of triangles stamped into one of the leather hangings.

Another unwelcome thought crossed Gael’s mind.

If the march could use Arnoll to steal tin, then surely the magus or the castellanum might also use another’s hands to reach into the smithies. Hells. The regenen himself could do so, although Gael still could not take that possibility seriously. The regenen would not stoop to steal from his secretarius—and thus from himself.

The castellanum seemed the most likely thief. Barris, in the kitchens, had mentioned that the castellanum was inviting many more underlings to the honor of dining in one of the three great halls. Gael himself had noted one of them. Could one of the castellanum’s guests be stealing for him?

The stray moonbeam vanished.

Gael wriggled a heavy fold of blanket off his toes.

What about the magus?

He remembered the rumors that had leaked from Pirbrant before the last battle on the plain between the rivers. Rumors that had subsequently proven true. How Heiroc’s brother Erastys had fallen in love with a very proper lady who spurned him. How the lady had possessed one of the talismans of ancient Navellys. How Erastys and Nathiar together had plotted to obtain what they wanted from the lady: Erastys, the lady’s passion; Nathiar, the lady’s artifact.

Her artifact was not one of the lodestones. Those were long lost, all five of them. The lady held one of the originally more numerous amulets, still very rare in this day and age.

Nathiar had cast the glamor that would steal both the lady’s virtue and the lady’s treasure as one.

But Nathiar’s magery had failed him, bringing the truldemagar upon him.

Nathiar had stolen honor and dignity and innocence before in the court of Hadorgol. Gael had witnessed it. Would he also steal metal, here in Belzetarn? Gael had no evidence to indicate that it was so.

He didn’t truly know much of anything. Suspicions and possibilities were not the same as real knowledge. It didn’t help that two competing concerns pressed him. He absolutely needed to get to the bottom of this thievery, but he also must resolve the dangers posed by the cursed gong brought in by the scouts of the Third Cohort.

As things stood, Gael had given neither problem sufficient attention.

Worse . . . the mere presence of the evil gong seemed to exert an insidious effect upon him. And he was all too aware that it lay close, with merely two doors between it and him.

After seven years of eschewing the manipulation of energea, he’d used his powers thrice today. First to ease the simpleton’s pain. Next to clear the disguised copper ingot of its tin mask. Thirdly to set a trap to catch his thief. Or one of his thieves. And . . . had either the retrieved bronze or the tin honestly given to Arnoll proved to be tainted like that disguised copper ingot, Gael would have cleansed it without a thought.

Was Carbraes correct in his belief that any use of energea worsened a troll’s affliction? Or was it merely the dangerous energea—the searing orange—that did so?

Gael thumped his pillow, irritated with himself. He had to get some sleep, or neither of his problems would receive even so much as the inadequate focus as he’d funneled into them today.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 30)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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Exercise in the Time of Coronavirus

My exercise routine has centered on the gym for many years.

I love my gym. The natural wood and stone of its foyer soothes my senses. The numerous large windows on the exercise floor and at the poolside let in floods of uplifting sunlight. I feel happy and content when I am there.

Nice as the environment is, it’s what I do there that keeps me healthy.

Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening, I lift weights with my son.

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I water walk, if I’m recovering from injury. If my joints are healthy, I swim.

Of course, right now my gym is closed.

I’d stopped going a week before it shut its doors, because I want to protect my husband, who is in three of the high risk categories for coronavirus.

I’ll confess that I didn’t immediately figure out what I would do to replace my gym attendance. I wasn’t yet thinking that far ahead and hadn’t envisioned being homebound for months and months.

But now that I’ve been inactive for too long, I’m determined to find a way to exercise safely.

My husband and daughter—lucky them!—can go on long walks. I wish I could go on walks, long or short. But I can’t. I love walking, and every time I try it in the amounts necessary for exercise, it trashes my right hip joint.

But never mind that. Aside from a bit of envy, I wasn’t considering walking. Instead, I had another idea.

Just before I stopped going to the gym, I attended a qigong class. I was hoping it would teach the qigong form that I learned (and subsequently forgot) roughly 12 years ago. I loved that form! Why did I ever stop doing it? Was I crazy? Who knows.

But I wanted to relearn it.

So I went to the class.

And was disappointed.

The class focused on a different form, one I didn’t like nearly as well, and one that was problematic for my body and its particular constellation of weak points.

However, I spoke with the teacher after class, and he was able to suggest which form I might be seeking. (I’d forgotten its name, as well as its content.)

Then along came coronavirus, and my attention went entirely elsewhere.

This week I’ve returned to pursuing physical fitness.

I googled the Eight Brocades of qigong, and—what do you know!—that’s the one.

So I am relearning it at home.

As I write this post, I’ve learned Supporting the Heavens, which is already doing wonders for my shoulders.

I’ve also learned Separating Heaven from Earth. I’m not seeing any immediate benefits from that one, but that’s not really the point for me. I’ll be delighted by any physical healing that comes my way, but I’m doing this as a way to exercise safely.

Well that, and because I enjoy it.

I am seeing that doing a qigong brocade as a break from writing works much better for me than just getting up to walk around the house. Strolling the house is dull, so I tend to put it off. Which means I sit for too long.

“I’ll just do one more paragraph. And one more. And just one more. Then I’ll get up.”

But I look forward to qigong, so when it is time to get up and move, I do.

Those of you who do not practice qigong yourselves might wonder what exactly are Supporting the Heavens and Separating Heaven from Earth.

Here’s the video I’m watching to relearn all this stuff:

Mimi Kuo-Deemer is very clear and has an enthusiastic and inviting demeanor, so I’m enjoying learning from her.

I remember the first time I learned the Eight Brocades, I formed a false impression from the first two brocades. “This is easy,” I thought.

Since I wasn’t then aiming for fitness with it, I wasn’t perturbed. I was learning the form simply because the teacher strongly recommended it as a pre-requisite for tai chi. That’s what I had set my sights on; I wanted to learn tai chi.

No doubt that played a role in why I dropped qigong when I discovered that my chronic hip injury would prevent me from trying tai chi for the foreseeable future.

(Okay, I was nuts. So what if I couldn’t do tai chi? Didn’t I realize I’d come to love the Eight Brocades for their own sake? Apparently not.)

But I’m digressing. Back to my point.

Supporting the Heavens is easy. But when you perform it 9 times, it grows harder. And when you perform it 24 times (I never have), I suspect it becomes quite challenging. Some qigong masters do indeed recommend 24 repetitions for each of the Eight Brocades. Start at 8 repetitions and then increase as you are able.

Just so you know: I’m currently doing 3 repetitions of each brocade as I learn it. My body tends to get injured far too easily. I plan to increase slowly and carefully.

Increasing the repetitions increases the exertion, but there’s more.

Drawing the Bow and Big Bear Turns to Side require horse stance! Some practitioners do Clenching Fists with a Fierce Gaze in horse stance as well. Horse stance is a killer! When I was 23, I could manage it for many minutes on end. Now? Not so much.

Right near the end of my earlier qigong career (before the kidney infection that drove the final wedge between me and qigong), my teacher guided her class through a complete Eight Brocades in which we performed 5 repetitions of each brocade. Believe you me, it was a workout!

So qigong builds.

It starts out easy and just gets more challenging as you become stronger.

Gotta say, I am excited about this. I hope that qigong will become a beloved part of my day, just like my morning daylight (when I sit on the porch and journal, or write scenes from the current short story) is a cherished part of my day.

Okay, I’ve been sitting for a good hour as I write this. Time to go do some qigong!

Before I leave you, let me share another video with you. I find the previous video (above) especially useful as a learning tool. But the video below, the Eight Brocades led by a master of Shaolin Temple Europe, inspires me.

Wow! That just blows me away. I wish I had the power, control, presence, and grace that he does!

*     *     *

Here’s the links to the videos, if you want to view them directly on You Tube:
8 Brocades of Qigong Practice
Ba Duan Jin from Shaolin Temple Europe

And here is a list of all 8 brocades:
Supporting the Heavens
Separating Heaven and Earth
Drawing the Bow
Wise Owl Gazes Back
Big Bear Turns to Side
Touch the Bubbling Spring
Clenching the Fists with a Fierce Gaze
Bounce the Heels

For more on health, see:
How I Rehabilitated My Sleep
Sunlight as a Source of Vitamin D

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 30)

Arnoll’s tallow dip flickered on the deep golden hue of the bronze ingots upheld by Gael and on the pale copper of the ingot in Arnoll’s other hand.

“Cayim’s nine hells,” swore the smith softly.

Gael was past swearing. Tonight he’d learned that his most trusted friend—Arnoll—had stolen from him. He’d discovered that someone was using forbidden energea to tamper with his ingots. And now he’d retrieved two bronze ingots, when only one should be missing, according to Keir’s latest tally of the bronze vault. How many more anomalies within his tally chamber and the smithies would he encounter? At this point, no unpleasantness seemed impossible.

Setting the ingots on the floor, Gael inhaled and then wished he hadn’t. His nose was no more accustomed to the stench in the latrine than when he’d first pulled its door open.

So. Had tonight’s fugitive hidden the bronze in the bucket niche? Or was it someone else? But that was not the important question. Who had hidden those ingots? Gael needed to know, preferably without alerting the thief. Which meant he couldn’t wake a scullion and assign him the duty of guarding the privy door and reporting every troll who approached it. The whole tower would soon know of Gael’s inexplicable concern with a clogged latrine, if he did that.

Fortunately—or unfortunately—he possessed another option.

Disciplining himself to defy the foul odor, he inhaled slowly and steadily. On an equally slow out-breath, he let his inner sight open. The lattice of energea humming within the stones of the bucket niche featured a slow, cold vibration of silver so dim it seemed a ghost of metal.

Gael reached inside himself, pulling on his heart node and guiding the resultant stream of power along his arcs, bright and sparkling. As the tiny stars leapt from his fingertips, he directed them to lattice intersections within the stone’s energea. Only when a hundred or more small lights winked and blinked in these new locations did he stop, sighing with weariness.

“Did you just do what I think you did?” asked Arnoll.

“My energea will cling to the hand of the next troll to reach inside this hidey-hole,” said Gael. “I doubt the thief will leave his plunder here indefinitely. Once he checks on it or attempts to move it . . .”

“He’ll be marked,” concluded Arnoll.

“Unless he leaves Belzetarn altogether, I’ll find him,” said Gael.

“You clever devil,” murmured Arnoll.

Gael stifled a snort. Grabbing up his bronze ingots, he replaced the loose stone in the sidewall of the bucket niche and pushed to his feet. His ankle protested, and he almost didn’t make it, his legs wobbled so. He replaced the bucket in the niche, retrieved the saucer of the guttered tallow dip from the floor, and stepped out into the stairwell. Arnoll closed the door behind them.

“What next?” said the smith.

Gael shook his head. “These go in my tally room for now. Then we’ll get you that tin ingot for Dreas. And then—I’m for bed. I’m not going to solve this tangle tonight.”

Arnoll grunted.

They took the stairs slowly this time, climbing past the place of arms where their fugitive had escaped and then onward to the lowest of the great halls. Moonlight glimmered through the tall embrasures on the southern curve of the circular space, shedding silver light across the cleared floor and casting an ominous shadow from the massive central pillar wrapped in its twining stair.

The Regenen Stair and its landing with the door into Gael’s tally room lay exactly opposite the Cliff Stair. Gael led the way across, his soft shoes noiseless on the stone, Arnoll’s boots thunking beside him.

Wordlessly, Gael unlocked the padlock on the tally room door and ushered Arnoll inside.

The moonlight was stronger within, flooding through the casements which Keir had unshuttered, illuminating the pigeonhole cabinets lining the walls, but casting the two desks—surrounded as they were by cabinetry—into deep shadow.

Gael lit two fresh tallow dips from Arnoll’s, which was nearly out.

Keir had left the parchments for the morning’s tally neatly stacked and properly ruled—ready—on his own desk. Gael marked one tin ingot (for Dreas) checked out on the sheet for the tin vault, placed the three recovered ingots—one copper and two bronze—atop the parchments, and wrote a brief note of explanation. That would do for now.

“Come,” he said to Arnoll.

The climb to the vaults was equal to that from the smithies to the tally room. Going slower with each twist of the stair around the newel post, they passed the passage to the first balcony and one to the second balcony, then the one to the great hall where Gael had dined that evening. The vaults lay above it.

Unlocking the tin vault and one of the coffers within it was a simple matter.

Arnoll turned the tin ingot in his hands while Gael locked up behind himself. This ingot possessed the right thickness and the right energea. Gael had checked.

“Come to me when you need another,” he said.

Arnoll looked at him ruefully. “I regret this.”

“But you would do it all again, if necessary.”

Arnoll’s expression firmed, but he did not answer.

Gael clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll keep the march’s secret.”

Arnoll looked down.

“Surely you knew I would,” Gael pursued.

Arnoll looked up. “Of course. But it was not my secret to tell.”

Well, Gael understood that. Hard as it was to accept that Arnoll had betrayed Gael with his theft, in another way Arnoll had proved his faithfulness thoroughly. The smith would not betray an older friend for a newer one. Gael could hold to that, must hold to that, even when a more thorough loyalty to himself might feel more welcome.

“Arnoll. I trust you.”

Arnoll placed his hand over Gael’s, still resting on his shoulder. “And I trust you,” he replied.

As they moved toward the stairs, Arnoll stopped again. “What did you want to consult me about?” he asked.

“Come to my chambers tomorrow evening,” said Gael, “and I’ll show you.”

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 31)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 29)

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

 

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Free on Smashwords

The hatches are battened down here at Casa Ney-Grimm, and so far we are healthy and safe.

Since my husband sits squarely in 3 risk categories, hunkering down is a high priority for us!

Of course, the entire country and much of the world are sheltering in place just like we are. Which means we all need new books to help mitigate the cabin fever. 😀

So I’m participating in the sitewide sale on Smashwords especially to provide some reads for lovers of the fantasy genre.

Note: The sale ends April 20.

All of my short works and one novel—The Tally Master—are free.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Most of my novels and novellas are 60% off.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Curl up with a good book and read!

 
 

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Now Solo! Tales of Old Giralliya

Tales of Old Giralliya is a small collection of fairy tales from my North-lands.

I released it first in the book bundle Might Have Been, with a promise that I’d make the collection available solo in a few months.

I’m delighted to announce that I’m now able to redeem that promise.

Tales of Old Giralliya is here as its own ebook and as a paperback. Its cover art is by John William Waterhouse, an artist strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. (I love the works of the Pre-Raphaelites!) 😀

*     *     *

A troll-mage rains death upon the land from his citadel in the sky. Who—if anyone—can defeat him? Despite the oracle’s prophecy, few believe the beggar’s son might be the people’s champion.

A magical plague infests the villages, the cities, and the lonely manors. Will the realm descend into ruin before a cure is found? Or could wizened, old Eliya convince the stricken that something improbable might save them all?

Three ducal brothers fight for the rule of their duchy, crushing fields and hamlets under their chariot wheels. Can young Andraia, kidnapped from her village, bring the destructive struggle to an end?

Instead of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, or the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Giralliyan Empire has Ravessa’s Ride, the Thricely Odd Troll, the Kite Climber, and more. Tales of Old Giralliya presents six of these fresh, new fairy tales for your enjoyment.

Adventure and magic in the tradition of The Red Fairy Book and the Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

*     *     *

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 29)

Crawling around the privy smithy bearing one of Arnoll’s tallow dips, Gael collected fully as much dirt and soot on his tunic and trews as he’d expected. The smithy scullions kept the forge area clean and tidy. The tower sweeps kept the floors and counters clear. But the odd corners, crevices between various fixtures and the wall, and the surfaces below the tool racks collected finely sifted ash ground into grease.

It had never occurred to Gael that he should squirm on his belly under the lip of the privy forge or squish between the counters and the back wall, but now that he had, he would develop a few additional protocols for smithy maintenance. He should probably first check the other smithies to see if they suffered the same pattern of encrusted dirt. They might not.

Arnoll found a set of elegant two-tined forks in an empty quenching pail. Who knew which day they were forged? Gael himself found nothing. And neither of them discovered any missing ingots.

When Arnoll closed the lid of a chest of sand with a snap, Gael shook his head. “I think we both knew there was nothing to find,” he said. “But I had to check.”

Arnoll surveyed the blackened knees of his trews ruefully. “The leather grooms are going to beat me senseless when I hand these over for cleaning,” he remarked.

Gael’s knees were no better. “Time to quit for tonight, I think,” he said.

Arnoll nodded and led the return to the counter in his smithy where the stolen copper ingot still rested. Gale collected it, and then they headed for the exit on the back wall where the Cliff Stair climbed to the magus’ quarters below the battlements.

Gael was glad for his tallow dip, burning low at this point though it was. The torches in the tunnel between the smithy and the stairwell were doused, as was usual at this hour. And so few trolls climbed the Cliff Stair at night that only every third landing was illuminated by a flaming torch. Gael wasn’t sure why Theron bothered to order any torches lit. The bright landings merely meant one’s eyes must work harder to adjust on the dark ones and all the dark steps in between.

In silence, Gael climbed side by side with Arnoll, past the place of arms adjacent to the melee gallery and on toward the place of arms on the next level. His thighs felt weak as pouring copper, and his left ankle stabbed fiercely each time he took the next tread with his left foot. He’d chosen the outer position, which required longer steps, to spare Arnoll. Now he wished he hadn’t. Arnoll hadn’t climbed up and down the tower all day the way Gael had.

As they rounded the newel post toward a landing that should have been bright with flickering torch flame, Gael put out a hand to check Arnoll.

The landing was dark.

Gael paused, listening.

The sound of a door closing softly somewhere above was followed by the click of a latch, a gasp, and then running footsteps, headed up. Someone—perhaps the someone who’d doused the torch—had noticed the glow of their tallow dips approaching.

Gael looked sharply at Arnoll. Arnoll looked back, nodded.

And then they were running, shoving their weary bodies upward with all the speed possible. Whoever it was had a guilty conscience. They’d catch him, question him, and find out why.

Reaching the dark landing brought momentary relief to Gael’s tiring legs—three full strides across a blessedly flat floor. Then they were climbing again, up and up, around and around.

Gael felt his pace slowing, heard the furiously echoing steps of their quarry drawing away. He pushed harder, but sheer will wasn’t enough to hasten his faltering feet.

The footsteps above quickened, then cut off altogether.

Gael cursed and halted, slumping against the outer wall of the stairwell. Arnoll stopped a few steps above him, equally winded.

“He’s left the stair,” panted the smith.

Gael nodded, bent with one hand on his knee, sweatily clutching his copper ingot, the other holding his tallow dip, lungs heaving.

“Hells,” said Arnoll. “A dozen deep-set doorways, the central stair, half a dozen dark embrasures, and the entrances to the three other stairwells. We’ll never catch him.”

That was a given, now that they’d broken off the pursuit. But Gael shared Arnoll’s unspoken conclusion. Their fugitive could be anywhere by now.

Gael hung there, catching his breath. His grubby tunic clung to his shoulders and back as though someone had dumped a bucket of quenching water over him. His ribs ached, and his arms wobbled almost as badly as his legs.

“Let’s go see what’s behind that door just above the dark landing,” he said at last, straightening. “A latrine, I think. But.”

Arnoll nodded.

Gael’s panting had slowed, as had Arnoll’s. They waited several moments more. Descending on wobbly legs would be worse than climbing.

“Come,” said Gael, starting down, taking the inside position this time.

Arnoll joined him with a grunt. “I almost wish I owned a cane,” he muttered.

Gael snorted a laugh. Arnoll with a cane was ludicrous, but Gael wanted one, too. Each step down to the next tread threatened to collapse his legs entirely. Had his troll-disease advanced another notch? Or did he merely sit too long every day at his tally desk?

When they reached the door located three steps above the dark landing that should have been bright, Gael eased it open. A powerful stench rolled out.

There was indeed a latrine behind that door, with the usual arrangement: a square of stone floor, a closed stone bench at the back, a round hole carved in the seat of the bench, and a slanting ceiling overhead.

So much was ordinary.

The wastes brimming at the lip of the latrine hole were not.

The latrines located off the Cliff Stair emptied into long channels descending through the walls of the tower, carrying their contents to the steep cliff located on this side of the citadel. The channel emptying this latrine—like several others—possessed a dogleg and required regular maintenance to prevent clogging. Such maintenance was always scrupulously provided, never neglected. Why had it been neglected now?

Gael reeled back, jostling Arnoll and nearly tumbling both of them down the two steps to the landing.

Somehow, Arnoll retained his balance, steadying Gael as well.

“Sias!” gasped Arnoll.

Gael surged forward to close the door. It didn’t reduce the stench much, and they retreated to the next landing up, where an arrowslit provided fresh air. Their tallow dips flickered wildly.

“What in hells?” said Gael.

Arnoll shook his head.

Gael pressed his lips with a forefinger, thumb beneath his chin. “Someone didn’t want to be discovered there.” He thought a moment, resisting what came next. “I’m going to check it thoroughly.” If only he’d not doffed his caputum when he changed his clothes. He could have pulled the fabric that covered his shoulders up over his mouth and nose.

“Wait here,” he told Arnoll, handing him the copper ingot.

The smith chuckled. “Oh, I’m coming with you,” he said.

“You need not.”

“Oh, I know, I know. But I’m curious, too.”

The stench outside the latrine door had not dissipated appreciably. It strengthened unpleasantly when Gael opened the door. He buried his mouth and nose in the crook of his elbow, held his tallow dip high with the other arm, and stepped inside, Arnoll hard on his heels.

Surprisingly, the floor was clean and dry, as was the surface of the bench.

Why had the castellanum’s scullions cleaned the latrine compartment thoroughly, but left the clog untouched? Surely they’d earn a birching that way.

Gael studied the slanting ceiling behind the bench, the small blocks of stone neatly fitted together, the mortar between them tidy. The side walls were similar. The front wall possessed a small arched niche to one side of the door, with a bucket of water resting within.

Gael removed the bucket, handing it to Arnoll, who set it down on the bench, well away from the brimming hole.

Gael crouched, hampered by the cramped space, peering into the empty bucket niche. His tallow dip flickered and went out, but he waved aside Arnoll’s offer of his, setting the extinguished saucer on the floor and probing the niche with his freed hand.

The mortar felt crumbly and loose. He worked a piece out, held it up in the dim light of Arnoll’s dip, then put it down to pick at the loose mortar again. Following the seam, he discovered a section lacking mortar altogether. His fingertips traced out a rough rectangle. He probed for purchase, then drew out the unmortared stone.

“Hah!” Arnoll exclaimed.

Gael stayed grimly silent, reaching into the now open cavity in the niche’s sidewall.

Somehow, he felt entirely unsurprised when he pulled out two nested ingots of bronze.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 30)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 28)

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

 

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Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 2

Whew! I seem to have created a really mean character. I didn’t realize just how mean she was until I typed the longhand draft into a computer file. When I finished, I wondered if I should maybe keep this lady under wraps!

I will tell you that I cheated while writing her scene.

Instead of putting myself in Zelle’s shoes, I put myself in the place of her victims and then had Zelle say things that would hurt me most.

Guess it worked! Because I cringed while typing.

So what have I been up to? Why the nasty character? What’s going on?

For those of you who missed last week’s post: I’ve been working my way through Lawrence Block’s awesome “seminar in a book,” Write for Your Life.

In the chapter “Your Most Unforgettable Characters,” Block assigns two writing exercises. The first, in which one creates a character, I shared last week. Check it out here, if you wish.

The second exercise goes as follows:

• Take a walk or do something similar that refreshes you and clears your mind.

• Then come home and sit as though you were going to meditate—comfortably. (I think comfortably is the key here.)

• For 10 or 15 minutes, envision your character going through an ordinary day. What do they eat, wear, do?

• Then grab pen and paper (or your computer keyboard) and write about the character for 15 minutes.

This writing can take any form that appeals to you. It might be a story, a letter from the character, a letter to the character, a poem, a scene fragment, whatever.

Don’t worry about style. Turn off the critical voice who likes to squelch you when you’re writing.

I felt drawn to writing a scene. I considered writing the arrival of the foreign caravan, but didn’t quite feel the pull.

I contemplated writing of an interaction between Zelle and the crone mage, in which Zelle was being her covertly annoying self and also struggling against her growing affection for the old woman.

That possibility did draw me. It still does, actually. But it felt more demanding than I was ready for. If I were to write the novel in which Zelle would appear, then I’d write this scene. For a writing exercise, I wanted something more straight forward.

I decided to write a scene in which Zelle ensures that someone is annoyed and discommoded.

To prepare, I made a list of things that I would find annoying. Here it is:

    item lost
    item misplaced
    item damaged
    reporting someone’s gossip to another
    food mis-flavored
    tripping hazard
    bed short sheeted
    locked out
    sent on false errand or to carry a false message
    instructions wrong
    supplies low or gone
    sink dirty
    dishes dirty
    picture crooked
    sandal strap broken
    talking behind someone’s back

The list inspired me, and I said to myself: “I think I will show her dirtying the washbasin of the crone mage, and then steering a novice to where she’ll overhear people discussing her unfavorably.”

Once I started writing, it got darker than that. Zelle is mean! Take a look at the scene as it evolved.

To Bruise the Soul

Zelle untwisted a kink in the topmost of the gold chains holding her vest closed and shook the cuffs of her bloused pants to a more graceful position on her ankles. She checked that her tail of red hair, falling from her crown to drift forward of her left shoulder, lay untangled.

Then, tray in hand, she breezed into the sleeping chamber allotted to the two junior-most of the crone mage’s handmaidens.

The youngest of the pair, Gasha, just fifteen, sprawled on the salt-silk banquette where she took her rest. Her vest and pants were rumpled. She lay scowling down at her toes.

“You’d think the crone mage might let me at least apply some healing salts to my own face. It’s not fair that any girl in the community, if her mother be provident, can have clear skin. While I go around with a face like a pox victim.”

Gasha was indeed much troubled with adolescent acne. Which would serve Zelle’s current purpose well. Adolescent vanity was exactly what she intended to trigger.

The dark-haired girl to whom Gasha spoke turned away from the chest into which she’d been stowing folded shifts of bright pattern. “You know you aren’t skilled enough yet to practice healing magery on anyone, let alone on yourself, which is far more demanding than casting on someone else.”

Miyla was two years older than Gasha and known for her serene demeanor. Zelle doubted the girl was so serene beneath that surface appearance however.

Gasha rolled onto her side to meet Miyla’s gaze, her jaw abruptly pugnacious. “Don’t you wish you could use magery on yourself?” Gasha demanded. “If your cheekbones were higher and your chin squarer, you could be the most beautiful girl in the domicile! In the community!”

This was true. Miyla’s eyes were an amazing ice-blue with a surprising intensity beneath dramatic brows like dashes of ink. Her nose was short and straight, her lips beautifully formed. But the excessive flatness of her cheeks and her receding chin removed all possibility of loveliness. Zelle suspected Miyla would have handled ordinary plainness much better than the potential for extraordinary beauty scuttled by a few problematic features.

Miyla’s mouth thinned. “Shut up!” she snapped.

Her lips parted to recriminate further, but then she noticed Zelle’s arrival, and her angry eyes went flat. She curtsied, murmuring, “Salt mother.”

Gasha’s sulks disappeared, too, and she lurched off the banquette to her feet to echo Miyla’s knee dip. “Salt mother!” she gasped.

Zelle ignored the girls’ discomfiture, handing a crystal vial from her tray to Gasha. “Here you go. The crone mage has approved your request.”

The vial contained the very mage-infused salts the girl had been complaining of. Her request had been approved with no resistance once Zelle conveyed it. But Zelle had delayed such conveyance for six moons. She’d needed Gasha feeling discontented and rebellious.

“Oh!” exclaimed Gasha. “Thank you! I thought—I thought—”

Zelle smiled. “You thought the crone mage desired your humiliation.”

“Oh, no!” protested Gasha. “I was humiliated. I am humiliated—”

“Don’t be,” said Zelle, and then added, her tone light, “Such a shame that your skin is not clear like Seliya’s. But no matter. These salts will take care of it, and when they are gone, you shall have more.”

Gasha’s delight fell from her expression. She looked confused, trying to reconcile her pleasure in receiving her desire with the pain of the gratuitous reminder that her acne was severe, while the newest of the crone mage’s handmaidens—Seliya—possessed naturally flawless skin.

Zelle concealed her inner amusement and turned away from Gasha, focusing instead on Miyla, who stood nervously twisting her fingers together.

“I accidentally overheard you talking with the herbalist yesterday, and I think the wish you expressed to her is reasonable.” It hadn’t been a wish. Zelle was well aware it had been an expression of frustration.

But hearing the girl’s frustration had inspired this entire scheme in Zelle’s imagination. Now that she was putting her plans in play, it was working beautifully, judging by the tension in the room.

She took up the stack of face veils from her tray, handing them to Miyla. “I think that you are quite right that if you assume the zavoj of an ascetic, you’ll gain a more favorable response from the people around you. If all they can see are your eyes . . .” Zelle trailed off, smiling kindly.

Miyla’s expression congealed. She looked a though she’d been punched in the stomach, but she accepted the face veils.

“I shouldn’t be surprised if strangers imagined you to be as beautiful as Seliya, and even your friends will forget in time that you aren’t.”

Miyla curtsied. “Salt mother,” she whispered, not meaning the respect the courtesy conveyed, but not withholding it either.

“Salt mother,” echoed Gasha.

Zelle breezed out as she had breezed in.

The next step was to fetch Seliya. She’d have the girl wait in the corridor outside Gasha’s and Miyla’s chamber, ready to accompany Zelle on an errand to a ague-stricken household on the edge of the community.

Seliya was wonderfully uncertain of herself, trying to fit in, trying to make friends. She should get an earful, listening to Gasha’s and Miyla’s verbal storms in the aftermath of Zelle’s provocation.

Zelle nodded.

While Seliya listened and grew even more lonely and unhappy, Zelle would have just enough time to weaken the buckle strap on the crone mother’s favorite sandals—it would break on her next sojourn outside the domicile. She could also pour dirtied water into the crone’s washbasin. The chamber maid should have just finished cleaning the crone’s water closet.

Zelle repressed a sigh of satisfaction. People were so simple-minded. They always assumed others meant well. Zelle never did. It was delicious.

*     *     *

For the first character assignment (that produced Zelle), see:
Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 1

For more flash fiction, see:
Ribbon of Earth’s Tears
Mother’s Gift

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 28)

Gael stared in shock.

Arnoll! Arnoll was the thief?

It was impossible. If any troll within Belzetarn could claim integrity, it was Arnoll. He told no lies. He avoided pretense and poses. He befriended those in need. He’d befriended Gael for no reason Gael could see, those seven years ago. He defended those who needed defense. He’d defended Gael.

Gael’s thief absolutely could not be Arnoll.

And yet, there Arnoll sat, examining an ingot of tin that he should not possess.

Gael’s feet felt glued to the stone floor, while his heart hammered.

He wanted to turn around, to retrace his steps—through time, as well as space—to go back to the moment before this one. To return to his chambers and not leave them. To avoid this instant of discovery altogether. To never see Arnoll holding the tin ingot. To not lose one more friend. To not be betrayed.

Gael stepped forward.

Arnoll looked up. His curly hair, iron gray, emerged from shadow, and his face lightened, losing the demonic aspect conferred by his frown and the lighting. He held the tin ingot out to Gael. “Look at this,” he directed matter-of-factly. “What do you make of it?”

Gael’s heartbeat slowed, and he tamped down his consternation. Of course there would be a reasonable explanation. Arnoll was exactly as he presented himself: trustworthy, solid, steadfast. Gael was a fool to even consider otherwise.

He took the ingot in his hand and immediately knew why Arnoll had perceived something amiss with it.

The flat rim, roughly two fingers in width, lay cool and smooth against Gael’s palm, filling it. The hollow pyramid rose at the normal angle from the rim, a dull and silvery gray, not yet darkened from its fresh forging to the blacker hue of old tin. The flat top was properly square. The ingot looked entirely normal, and it possessed the correct heft, neither too light nor too heavy.

But the metal was too thin.

Not by a lot. Not enough for an inexperienced troll to notice, perhaps. But to a smith or to one who tallied metals, it was significant. Belzetarn’s ingots of copper, tin, and bronze all weighed the same—one pound—and possessed identical width, length, and height. But the thickness of the sheet forming the ‘hat’ shape of the ingots varied. Dense copper was thinnest. Bronze, just a hair thicker. And tin—light and rare—was thickest of all.

This tin ingot possessed the thickness of a copper ingot. And Gael wanted to know why.

“Did someone use the wrong mold?” he asked, without really thinking.

“That would be the preferable explanation,” said Arnoll, his voice taking a sardonic tone. “But, no.”

Arnoll knew something Gael didn’t, evidently.

“What is it?” asked Gael.

“Look at it with your inner sight,” said Arnoll.

Gael’s calming pulse quickened again. Anything in Belzetarn involving energea posed the potential for unwanted complication. Gael especially wanted no complications in the smithies or, by extension, in his tally room. But complications were almost guaranteed, once he’d discerned the thefts of tin and bronze. He was awash in complications.

With almost as little preparation as the physician he’d observed in the afternoon, Gael closed his eyes and opened his inner gaze.

As he expected, a lattice of energea, criss-crossing to form diamond shapes, vibrated within the metal. But the diamonds were smaller, more closely packed than those of tin, while their vibration was less rapid than it should be. Small flickers of green shimmered within the lattice.

Someone had used energea to tamper with this ingot.

Gael compressed his lips. How dare anyone defile his tin. He reached for power within his heart node, guiding silver sparks along his arcs, and pushing them through the ingot, where they caught the green flickers and drew them out of the metal.

Arnoll cursed. “Cayim’s hells!”

Gael closed his inner gaze and opened his eyes.

The ingot resting in his palm now looked like what it was: an ingot of copper, warm-hued and shiny.

“Gaelan’s tears,” said Gael blankly.

He set the ingot down on the counter.

“Do you have any idea who might have done this?” asked Arnoll.

“No,” said Gael, even more blankly. He could imagine all sorts of reasons that someone might steal tin. It was valuable. But why in the north would anyone want to make an ingot of copper look like an ingot of tin? Something very strange was happening amongst Belzetarn’s metal stores.

“Neither have I,” said Arnoll. “Which was why—I did steal this ingot, Gael. And I hadn’t planned to tell you.” The smith grimaced and gestured at the ingot. “But you needed to know this.”

Gael’s teeth set hard. “Why?” His tone held an equally hard edge.

Arnoll did not mistake the direction of Gael’s question. The smith’s gaze fell, not in shame—because his face was just as set as Gael knew his own must be—but in some other uncomfortable realization.

Gael swallowed. What distressing revelation would come next in this string of bad to worse?

Arnoll looked up. “This is not my secret. Which was why I planned to keep you unknowing of it. But in the circumstances”—he nodded at the copper ingot—“you need to not have my theft mixed in with whatever else is going on.”

Arnoll settled more securely on his tall stool.

Gael glanced around, saw a stool around the counter’s corner, and snagged it to sit himself. If Arnoll was going to confess to stealing . . . Gael needed to be seated. This would not be pleasant hearing.

Arnoll nodded, grimly, and began. “The march sponsored me in Belzetarn thirty years ago. He was not the march then, of course, just one of the opteons. One of the better ones.” Arnoll’s lips straightened. “Ylian would have executed me else.”

“You?” Gael couldn’t imagine any regenen ordering Arnoll’s death.

“I held the same standard you did when you arrived here. I would not betray the unafflicted.”

“Dreas convinced you otherwise?” Gael knew that currently Arnoll believed trolls deserved protecting—thus his peace as armor smith—even while he also held that men deserved better than war with the troll horde. Gael could not slice his own loyalties so finely, but he understood Arnoll’s point of view.

“No,” answered the smith. “Dreas promised to secure me a post in which I would do no direct harm to Belzetarn’s enemies.” Arnoll sighed. “He kept that promise, not only at the beginning, but through the years.”

Gael could see where this led. “You owe him.”

“I owe him,” agreed Arnoll.

“But why tin? You thought it was tin, didn’t you?”

“The march’s troll-disease is advancing,” said Arnoll.

Gael’s belly felt abruptly cold. The truldemagar did advance. That was its nature. And in a citadel of trolls, there would always be a troll in whom it had advanced too far. But one didn’t like learning of it. And one especially didn’t like learning of it in a troll so key as the march.

“Seriously so?” asked Gael. “Requiring an end?”

“Not yet,” said Arnoll. “But Dreas sees his end, more clearly than before. And he wants to delay it. Not for himself, he says, but for Carbraes. Carbraes needs him. He says.”

Gael understood that. Carbraes and Dreas had held one another’s backs for decades. Dreas would not trust another to do so as faithfully as himself. But death waited on no one’s will, and the truldemagar less so than many hardships. How did Dreas think he could delay it?

“The march plans to follow Fuwan’s path,” continued Arnoll.

Gael’s cold belly grew colder yet.

Fuwan had been Belzetarn’s magus before Nathiar. Nathiar was already installed as magus when Gael arrived, but Gael had heard the stories. Fuwan was the oldest magus the citadel had ever possessed, and his body had shown it: spine so curled he could not stand straight, but craned his neck upward from his half-bent stance; ears so enlarged that the lobes brushed his shoulders; skin and eyes so yellowed he should have been too sick to climb out of bed.

Despite his physical deformities, Fuwan’s mind stayed clear and sound, most unusually so. But when his madness came, it came suddenly and thoroughly. One of Belzetarn’s outposts was a slagged heap of stone, melted by Fuwan’s potent and destructive energea in his death throes.

“There’s a way to follow Fuwan?” Gael demanded. “Why would Dreas want such an end? Why would you help him to such an end? Slaying hundreds of trolls—many of them young boys, no doubt—in his final conflagration? Arnoll—”

Arnoll gripped Gael’s forearm. “Hear me out,” he said.

Gael settled back, nodded.

“Dreas found Fuwan’s notes, which included his predecessor’s researches,” Arnoll explained. “Small amounts of tin ingested daily retard the truldemagar madness, but bring it on more violently when at last it comes. Dreas—eating powdered tin every morning, when he broke his fast—would outlast Carbraes. There would be no final conflagration for Dreas. Once Carbraes was gone”—Arnoll drew the edge of his hand across his throat, mimicking a knife on tender flesh—“Dreas would depart as well. By his own hand.”

Gael felt sick. The more he delved into the arrears in his tallies, the uglier it got. He could see where Arnoll’s story was going.

Gael spoke his thoughts aloud. “If Carbraes knew the march’s intention, he would forbid it. I can hear him now: ‘No troll knows the ultimate path of his disease. Let us take our chances, old friend, and live it as it comes.’ And while Dreas is willing to act against his regenen’s probable wishes, he’s not willing to disregard his expressed request.”

Gael shook his head, his lips twisting a little. “Thus, secrecy. Thus, you.” He glanced irritatedly at Arnoll. “And, thus, theft. Hells, Arnoll.” He felt disgusted, even while he sympathized.

Arnoll nodded. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

Gael’s breath huffed out. Where in the hells was he going to go with this? He’d located a thief, but not the thief who taken the ingots missing from yesterday’s tallies. Or had he?

“Was this the first ingot you stole from me?” he asked.

Now Arnoll looked exasperated. “This is the only ingot I’ve stolen. Ever. And I will not take another. I’ll ask you for the next straight out.”

Gael stared at Arnoll staring back at him.

“I understand your position,” he said finally. “But I don’t like the choice you made.”

Arnoll’s eyes continued to meet Gael’s. “I didn’t expect you would.”

Gael’s anger ebbed. Conflicting loyalties were unavoidable in Belzetarn. Or anywhere, really. He’d avoided splitting his own—thus far. But that assessment held true only if he kept his vision sufficiently narrow. Looked at with a wider gaze, Gael’s mere presence in Belzetarn represented a serious split in his faith—especially his presence as secretarius, the one who ensured that the warriors possessed weapons. He was loyal to Carbraes. Truly. And, yet, he remained opposed to the troll horde and still hoped for their ultimate defeat by the unafflicted.

Gael avoided thinking about that wider view, and now was not the time for it. He held the tin vault’s contents in trust for his regenen. He needed to decide how he would slice his loyalty within Belzetarn, between Carbraes and Arnoll.

Except that was already a given. He would never betray Arnoll, no matter how his loyalty to Arnoll nibbled at Carbraes’ interests.

Meeting Arnoll’s gaze again, he said, “Thank you for telling me. I’ll give you an ingot of tin—one untampered with—tonight.” And he would tally it properly.

“You’re missing other ingots?” asked Arnoll.

Gael nodded.

“And now this.” Arnoll gestured at the ingot of copper that had borne the semblance of tin.

“Yes.” It was three hells of a tangle. “Help me search the privy smithy. I doubt any ingots were accidentally kicked behind an anvil or under a counter, but you know Martell.”

Arnoll snorted. The armor smithy being adjacent to the privy smithy, Arnoll did indeed know Martell. And Arnoll was no fool. He likely sensed as surely as did Gael that something sinister stirred amongst the trolls of Belzetarn.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 29)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 27)

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

 

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Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters

I’ve been working my way through Lawrence Block’s book Write for Your Life, doing the assignments contained therein.

Why?

Well, first of all, Block has written over 100 novels and over 100 short stories. His career started in the 1950s, and he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1994. His accomplishments in the writing life command my admiration and respect. He’s someone I’m honored to learn from.

Secondly, I’ve read each of the four writer’s guides penned by Block, and I like the man’s approach to living as it comes through in his writerly advice. He’s down-to-earth, he’s real, and he has a lot of insight into being human.

And, thirdly, when I first read Write for Your Life (without doing the assignments), there was one passage which really caught my attention and made me vow to return, pen in hand and paper before me. The gist of it:

Do the writers who work the hardest achieve greater success? Not from what Block has observed. A certain threshold of work is necessary, but beyond that he has not seen correlation between effort expended and success achieved.

The biggest factors in success are the beliefs you hold about yourself, your writing, and the world. What you think is what you get. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

Therefore, you must learn what beliefs hold you back and confront them, so as to change them.

I am very interested in removing any internal blocks that stand in the way of my success.

Most of the assignments detailed in Write for Your Life are too personal to share in a blog. But the chapter titled “Your Most Unforgettable Characters” includes two assignments that are not personal at all. In fact, they are rather fun, so I thought I’d share the first of them right here and right now.

These were Block’s instructions:

• Seek out a public space.

• Take note of a stranger there, someone of whom you know nothing beyond what you can observe.

• Spend some time unobtrusively observing that person. How do they move, how do they talk, what do they wear? Don’t take notes; just get a good sense of them.

• Then go home, thinking about the stranger as you go. How might they react to events? What might they feel? Think?

ª Once home, get out pen and paper, give the person a name, and make a list of the person’s characteristics. Some items will be things you observed, some inventions, some a mix.

*     *     *

Since it was 9 pm as I was reading these instructions, and as I was already in my pajamas, I decided to make an adjustment to the assignment. I neither wanted to get dressed again and go out somewhere nor to wait until the morrow to do so.

Instead, I meditated upon my memory of a photograph I clipped from a magazine 30 years ago (now lost), because I found the image so arresting that I imagined myself (even then) writing a story about the woman depicted.

Rather than describing the photograph for you, I’m going to transcribe what I wrote for the assignment.

Zelle

She has copper-red hair, long and very straight. She wears it in a horse-tail at the crown of her head. Her skin is very pale, but it neither burns nor tans, no matter how much sun she gets.

She wears tangerine-colored harem pants and sandals with many straps, like the footgear of the ancient Roman soldiers.

She wears a peach-colored vest secured in front by chains of gold. The vest is short, so her midriff is exposed, just a few inches. The front edges of the vest do not quite meet, so her cleavage is visible, also her navel.

She lives in a salt desert in a residence built of salt bricks.

Her people “mine” the salt and sell it afar via caravan.

They possess something called “salt magic” which involves colored salts and can be used to repair both inert things and living beings.

Zelle holds a position of authority, but not the ultimate authority. I think she is the assistant to one of the crone mages.

She feels a sense of personal power when she argues with people or causes them to feel annoyance.

Her magical abilities were discovered when she was 5 years old, and she was taken away from her family to learn control of her gift in the palace from which the crone queen rules. Zelle felt very small, lonely, vulnerable, and lost at first.

She proved very talented, so she leaned into her magic as a way to feel secure.

She didn’t boast to her peers, because she somehow felt it would be undignified. Instead she learned to find small and unobtrusive ways to cause trouble for her cohorts, which made her feel strong.

She never helped her classmates, because being better at classwork made her feel good. But not boasting meant they did not realize just how good she was and thus did not marshall their resources to catch up. She studied all the time, except when she worked to create subtle pain and annoyance for others. Her teachers did recognize her excellence.

What does Zelle want?

I think she wants exactly what she has: enough authority, but less visibility. Ah! But she is beginning to feel affection for the crone mage she serves. She is unhappy about this, because she feels more comfortable with aggression and hostility.

There could be a story here.

What if a caravan of foreigners entered the salt lands instead of waiting on the caravans the salt landers send out?

The salt landers hate this invasion, Zelle included. But the assistant to the caravan master attracts her. And he seems more conscious of her than he should be.

But what if there is another element to events than this? There is water en route. Not overland, but as a storm approaching. The salt landers can see clouds building and building. When the deluge arrives, the flood will inundate the salt plan and dissolve the salt.

How do the salt landers manage in their salt desert? They use their magic to make glass utensils, pipes, basins, and even furniture.

Why is someone aiming a rainstorm at them?

*     *     *

Block speaks of this exercise not as the route by which to create characters in one’s stories, but as a way to gain access to areas of one’s own personality that might otherwise remain buried.

The next exercise in the chapter builds on this one. I’ll tell you about it next week! 😀
Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 2

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 27)

The Regenen Stair was a good deal busier than the Lake Stair. It provided the most direct route between all three great halls—stacked above one another—and the kitchens. Scullions carrying leather bottles to the bottle scullery jostled scullions toting drinking horns to the horn scullery. Porters bearing broad laving basins sped past their slower brethren burdened by heavy bench cushions.

Gael had intended to descend via the Cliff Stair, which debouched directly into the armor smithy, but habit had directed him onto the more familiar route. He steadied a messenger boy who, tripping on a porter’s heel, threatened to tumble headfirst through a bunch of his ascending fellows.

“Thanks!” gasped the boy, dashing onward.

Gael chuckled.

The messenger boys of Belzetarn were just like the page boys of Hadorgol—eager to get where they were going, equally eager to leave once they arrived. It made no difference, at their young age, whether they suffered the truldemagar or not. Later, the disease would slow the afflicted ones, but not now.

Was exile really the right choice for dealing with trolls? They were no different from men . . . until they were. That was the difficulty: knowing when the madness would claim them. And when it did, all too often, they used the dangerous energea—acrid orange—to lay waste to their surroundings. A rare few hid their insanity, doing more subtle damage for a longer interval. Neither outcome—explosive destruction or subtle corrosion—yielded anything good.

There was no good answer. But Gael could not help wondering how his life might have gone, if Heiroc had chosen to keep his magus by his side in some other capacity. Gael had bent all of his intelligence and loyalty to Carbraes’ service for the last seven years. How if he had given it to Heiroc instead, to the benefit of humans, not trolls?

Gael shook his head. He’d thought down this road so many times before, and he knew its turnings too well. Heiroc had possessed no other real options for the disposal of his friend and magus, afflicted as he was by the truldemagar.

But Gael wished his king might at least have allowed Gael the grace of claiming the necessary exile, instead of thrusting it upon him.

No. That wasn’t true. Heiroc had been generous. Heiroc had thrust nothing upon him save his beloved landseer Morza. It was Damalis who’d leapt to repudiate Gael.

And, yet, what choice had she possessed? At least she’d been honest.

Gael wanted to blame her. To blame Heiroc. But his own reason prevented him. Thousands of trolls had been exiled before ever Gael was born, and thousands more would be exiled after his death. How should Heiroc—or Damalis—solve this desperate riddle of the ages?

The footsteps on the Regenen Stair—slow tramping mingled with swift rushing, irregular punctuated by steady—and the warning shouts—“Look out!”—faded rapidly as Gael took the tunnel from the stairwell toward the forges. The light faded with equal thoroughness.

The torches in the tunnel had been doused.

Gael suppressed a curse. Had he simply followed the same routine for so long that he’d forgotten how to operate when he did something different? He’d meant to take the Cliff Stair, not the Regenen. He’d meant to bring a tallow dip, expecting the smithies to be dark, and had not brought it.

Standing in the archway at the back of the blade smithy, he strained to see.

Was that a glimmer of light on the far side of the forges that clustered around the central flue?

He squinted. His eyes adjusted. And—yes—someone in the armor smithy—no doubt Arnoll—had remembered the need for lighting at this hour.

Gael stepped forward cautiously into the gloom. If he felt before him, he should be able to maneuver around the work counters in the blade smithy, the tool racks in the tin smeltery, and the anvils in the annealing smithy without more than a stubbed toe or a barked shin.

His eyes adjusted further as he moved forward, and the glow from the armor smithy strengthened.

Reaching the low wall on the far side of the annealing smithy, he paused.

Arnoll settled one haunch on a tall stool, his burly shoulders casting a large shadow. Two tallow dips flickered on the work counter beside him, lighting his face from below, accentuating the deformed curve of his troll nose and casting his eyes into darkness. The smith looked . . . evil.

He studied the object he held in his right hand.

An ingot of tin.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 28)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 26)

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

 

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