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.

*     *     *

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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.

*     *     *

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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.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 26)

Chapter 6

Gael slipped away from Belzetarn’s main hall via the Lake Stair, the one most easily reached from his end of the high table. Night had fallen at last, and the torches illuminating the stairwell flared, casting golden light on the stone walls and making the embrasures of the arrowslits into seeming caves. Coolness poured through their dark openings, carrying the pure freshness of the night air.

Gael paused at the last embrasure before he had to exit the stairwell and cross the lower great hall via the curving balcony that led to his chambers. After the noise and brightness and smells of feasting, the solitude of the night called him.

He took the awkward step up to the embrasure’s floor and moved to the arrowslit at its far end. Leaning his elbows on the deep sill, he looked out.

The moon waning deichtain had just started today, so the moon shone large in the night sky, a gibbous lantern shedding silvery light across the landscape below. He could hear the lake lapping at the base of the cliff on which Belzetarn stood. Dark water spread toward the horizon and the silhouette of the mountains there, a wake of moonlight shivering across the broad expanse, pointing east.

The trolls who fished the lake drowned sometimes. Belzetarn’s hunters took their hounds when they chased dangerous game, but the fishers had no dogs to help them, unlike the fisherfolk of Hadorgol.

In Hadorgol’s rivers and bays, landseers brought fishing nets to shore, towed small dinghies, retrieved waterfowl for duck hunters, and rescued children who fell in the water or men tossed from capsized boats.

The king’s landseer, Morza, had rescued Gael in more ways than one.

The six guardsmen who had accompanied him to Hadorgol’s border carried his gear, steadied his faltering steps, cooked meals, and procured shelter so long as they were with him, but they departed all too soon. Without Morza, he would have perished. She carried his gear then, in a pack attached to a special harness. She guided him through the trackless wilderness. She hunted hares for his sustenance. And she lay close to him when he fell, keeping him warm in the cooling weather.

A lump rose in his throat when he thought of her: great hearted and generous, patient, steadfast.

Her sagacity preserved his afflicted body, but her love—dog-love though it was—preserved his soul. When he’d buried his face in his hands, despairing, she nudged her cold nose against his wrist until he looked up. When he stopped walking, wondering if there were any point to going on, she barked until he stepped forward again. And as summer changed to autumn, when he failed to build a fire in his evening’s camp, she fetched wood and stood over him until he arranged the sticks and lit them with his flint.

Through the long nights, she pillowed her head on his chest, where his searching hands could stroke her ears when he felt most alone. He was not alone—because of Morza.

On her last night, Morza met an ice panther’s charge, slowing it just enough for Gael to loose a bolt of energea before it reached him.

The beast fled snarling into the darkness, confused and defeated.

Morza bled to death in the snow, her noble head cradled in Gael’s arms. He’d wept then. Never had he wept for his truldemagar. Nor for Damalis’ dismissal. Not even for his king’s banishment.

But for Morza, Gael had cried.

A clatter on the stairs recalled him. Reluctantly, he returned to the stairwell, passed down the last steps to the landing, and exited onto the balcony above the lower great hall. Below him, scullions were carrying the table boards to adjacent storerooms, while others noisily stacked the trestles against the walls.

Gael hurried to his chambers, quickly changed into the scruffy knee-length tunic and trews he reserved for dirty work—a rarity—and hastened down the Regenen Stair toward the smithies.

Arnoll was no doubt wondering what was taking Gael so long.

Just as Gael wondered what mystery Arnoll sought Gael’s opinion on.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 25)

Gael’s eyes felt hot and dry, his chest tight.

He’d known he must set her free. He’d not dreamed that she would set him free. That she could be brought to do so without his urging. That she would want to do so.

Losing her love was worse than losing her. Was worse than losing his life. Worse than losing his humanity.

The ache in his chest strengthened, knife-like, and blackness washed over him once again. Suffocating, hot, and clamorous this time, rather than airy and cool as before. He drowned in it, desperate for a rescue that would never come, he knew.

The click of a door latch fetched him out of the stifling darkness.

Gael’s king strode deliberately across Damalis’ boudoir—his long velvet robes, aqua threaded with gold silk tracery, swinging—and sat in the chair vacated earlier by the lady. No longer dressed for battle, he wore the royal circlet on his brow, narrow gold set with topaz, and his dual rings of office. His face was grave.

Gael struggled to rise—this was his sovereign lord!—but got only his elbow under him before Heiroc shook his head. “Stay, Magus. You are but new recovered from your injury.”

His injury? Heiroc could call it that? The truldemagar?

Gael sank back upon the slanted end of his divan. “My king,” he murmured.

“You are yourself?” questioned Heiroc. “You have your memory?”

“I do.” Bitter memory. Bitter knowledge.

Heiroc’s face grew yet more grave. “You know you suffer the truldemagar?”

Yes.”

“You know that some of my neighboring kings execute their trolls.”

Yes, Gael knew that also.

“I shall not follow their example.” Heiroc frowned. “But neither will I forego tradition’s answer to my dilemma.”

Emotion—resentment? anger? hope?—surged in Gael’s breast. He fought it down, unidentified, but said, “Erastys forbore tradition’s answer.”

Heiroc nodded, unoffended. “And you see what came of it. Would you walk in Nathiar’s footsteps?”

The question possessed only one answer. Could only possess one answer. “No.”

“I thought not.” Heiroc sighed. “Although Erastys’ magus has now gone into exile, as he should have done some moons before. He departed via ship, to be set ashore in the Hamish wilds across the sea.”

“Shall I go thusly?” asked Gael. What exactly did Heiroc plan for him? How would his banishment be accomplished?

“No,” said Heiroc. “You will need help, my friend. Help which I cannot provide you, though your weakness calls for it.”

Gaelan’s tears. Would Heiroc banish him here and now? When his legs would surely fail to bear him?

“I cannot afford you the recovery time which my physician tells me you require.”

Seya’s son! He was being banished here and now.

“I have already pushed the decencies beyond what is reasonable.”

‘Decency,’ he called it? What could be decent about turning an invalid into the street?

Heiroc continued: “I shall push those conventions further yet by some deichtains, but it will not be enough for you, my friend.”

“Then how shall I go?” asked Gael.

“To my borders, you shall have companions. That much I may command.” Heiroc swallowed. “Beyond them . . . you shall have one, the only one within my power to procure for you.”

Gael could not envision how that might be brought to pass. What man unafflicted would willingly embrace exile at Gael’s side? The idea was ludicrous. And Heiroc would never deliberately afflict one of his servants with troll-disease, condemning him unjustly for Gael’s sake.

The tightness in Gael’s throat loosened. A warmth crept into his breast.

Heiroc’s evident struggle to provide for his magus came as balm after . . . the lack of struggle shown by . . . Gael could not complete his thought. It was too painful. But Heiroc’s loyalty to his old friend was welcome, even if it must prove futile.

“You do not understand me, do you?” said Heiroc. Was that a slight smile in his eyes?

Gael shook his head.

Heiroc stood, strode back across the boudoir and around the corner towards its door. Gael heard the sound of the latch, the sharp snap of Heiroc’s fingers, followed by a low whistle. The pattering click of nails on marble started up, then hushed abruptly on carpeting.

An instant later, a massive dog—noble-headed with gentle eyes, and long-haired, white with large black patches, and a sweeping feathered tail: a landseer—trotted into Gael’s view.

He knew her, of course. Morza was Heiroc’s favorite water retriever, so much so that she was not restricted to the mews with the other hunting dogs, but walked ever at her master’s heel.

Gael stretched a hand out to her as she wove her way carefully through the delicate furnishings.

Standing beside the divan, she snuffled his knuckles, then his wrist and forearm. Uttering a contented sigh, she sat close and laid her head on his chest.

Gael scratched the base of her loosely flopped ears, both black against the black patches on either side of her head. She sighed a second time.

Heiroc returned to his seat. “Well, my friend? What think you of my provision for your companionship?”

The warmth spreading in Gael’s chest swelled to a flood. “You cannot, my lord,” he protested. “You must not.”

The smile in Heiroc’s eyes traveled to his lips. “Morza loves you nearly as much as she loves me,” he said.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 24)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 24)

He’d floated on a sea of blackness in the aftermath of the Battle of Two Rivers, the rushing sound of moving water in his ears, a pulsing sensation in his body—too large, too small, too large—and no sight in his eyes.

Were they closed all that time—seven years ago?

Someone had washed him with cloths dipped in warm liquid. Someone wrapped warm silk around him. Someone spooned bone broth into his mouth and coaxed him to swallow.

He listened to a lullaby plucked on a lute. A woman’s voice, low and sweet, sang wordlessly. The faint scent of rose petals perfumed the air.

Gael felt the touch on his skin, tasted the mellow broth, and smelled the floral aroma, but he was not there. Not really. Were they dreams? Fevered hallucinations? Visions gifted by a saint?

He drifted, aware of sensation, yet unaware of self. He was the laving cloth, the liquid sustenance, the song. He had no existence apart from touch and taste and melody. He was the darkness, the rushing waves, the pulsing in and out.

How long he strayed from himself, he did not know. Days? Deichtains? Moons?

And when he returned, it was hazily.

The blackness ebbed so slowly he noticed it not, a dim pattern of green coalescing before his unfocused gaze, increasing in clarity.

He stared at it, wondering. A forest, deep shaded? A hart, half hidden behind a smooth-barked bole? White flowers pillowed on soft mosses?

It was a tapestry, he realized. He lay on his left side, on a divan, gazing at a tapestry that cloaked the wall.

I’m alive, he thought. I survived. But not unafflicted.

Why was he here, sheltered in a lady’s boudoir? Trolls were exiled. And . . . he was a troll now. That much he remembered. The truldemagar had fallen upon him, scourging his nodes and arcs. He should not be here, amidst civilization.

He turned over.

Transparent silk curtains, pale rose in hue, screened two windows. Tapestries—smaller than the forested one behind his divan—and miniature oil paintings adorned the dark-paneled walls. A freestanding mirror occupied one corner. Delicate chairs carved of dark wood and upholstered in brocades of blue and green clustered around a low table. A lady sat in one chair, gazing at the lute on her lap.

Still returning, Gael studied her.

She was beautiful, with dark eyes and translucent skin, her lips exquisitely molded. She looked sad. Folds of pale green silk formed her gown, close-fitting, outlining her full bosom and curving hips. One lovely ankle peeped from the lower hem. A loose-fitting robe of pale blue silk covered her arms and flowed down her back. One dark blond curl of her carefully coiffured hair fell over her shoulder.

She looked up, as though she felt his observation, and then he knew her, knew more of himself.

“Damalis,” he breathed. His beloved. His wife to be.

The shadow in her face lightened. “You know me?” Her voice was low and sweet. She had sung to him in his long eclipse, while her maid fed him, and her footman bathed him.

“I know you,” he answered. “I will always know you.”

Her smile was sad.

“How is it that I am here?” he asked. “With you.”

“Our sovereign would not cast off his loyal friend and servant so readily.”

His heart rose within him. As Gael had ever been staunch for Heiroc, so Heiroc would now be steadfast to Gael. Was it possible . . . that Gael might retain his place by the king’s side, within his court, amongst the nobility of Hadorgol? Surely not. He was truldemagar. And if Heiroc would sponsor him . . . Gael would not let him. He would guard his king even now.

Ever so slightly, Damalis shook her head. “He would not have you perish on the battlefield, in a welter of blood and mud, when you might live. And I . . . would not have it thusly either. He brought you to me.”

She seemed to be trying to tell him something other than what her words conveyed.

His heart ached for her beauty, for her sadness, for her.

A tear slid down the perfection of her cheek. “Oh, my love,” she whispered.

“I will not let him make such a sacrifice,” he said, referring to Heiroc. Or her either, though it hurt him to think it. He could not say it. He longed to draw her closer. He must set her farther away.

And, yet, she had suffered him brought here to her. Did she plan their wedding even now? Contemplate their marriage through the years? Envision children? Could she not see his affliction? Was it not visible to the outer sight? Yet?

He glanced at the mirror standing in the corner of the room, reflecting light in its perfectly polished bronze. He wasn’t sure he could rise from his divan and walk to survey himself in its surface, but a smaller mirror, made to hold in the hand, rested on a nearby shelf.

Gael gestured. “Will you bring it to me?”

Damalis’ face grew very still. What was she thinking? He’d always been able to read her thoughts on her face, but he could not read this thought. Was it a thought she’d never entertained before?

Her softly closed lips straightened, and she set aside her lute. How was it that she moved so gracefully? He loved to watch her step across a room, bend to take an item in hand, and straighten again. Her silks hushed as she knelt beside him.

“Lift it before my gaze,” he instructed her gently.

He examined his countenance in the hand mirror. The signs were slight, but present: his aquiline nose longer by a hair, his jaw longer also, and a faint tracery of new lines bracketing his eyes and mouth. The truldemagar had claimed him violently. No surprise, given the potent magery he’d worked at its onset. No surprise, given his long sojourn in darkness. He would not be one of those trolls who looked human for years, his disease visible only to the inner sight.

He girded himself to say the words that would unmake their betrothal and turned the mirror to reflect Damalis’ face, yet very still. Did he perceive resolution in her eyes? Distance?

His brows tensed.

Damalis drew in a shallow breath. “I am sorry,” she said. “I do not love you enough for this.”

Gael’s heart contracted painfully.

Damalis continued: “I rescind my promise to bind and oblige myself to you in marriage, Gael. Our betrothal is ended.”

He’d imagined her grieving her prospective loss. He’d imagined her resisting it, as did he resist it. He’d imagined her hoping for a way forward against all odds. But she didn’t; she wasn’t.

He searched her eyes.

She did grieve. But she grieved the telling of her choice more than she grieved the choice itself. And she grieved her future life at his side more than she grieved his loss of his humanity.

He’d thought she loved him. He’d thought she loved him . . . the way that he loved her, beyond all sense. The way he still loved her.

He hoped his tenderness showed in his eyes. His truldemagar-afflicted eyes. He would free her, since he could do naught else, formally—as had she—in the words he’d spoken to her in front of the priest and the altar.

“I renounce my faith and loyalty to you. I retract my aid and comfort to you in your necessities. I revoke my promise to do unto you all that a man”—he was not a man now; he was a troll—“ought do unto his betrothed.” He could not swallow down the choking ache in his throat. “Be free of me, love,” he whispered.

A shiver of heartbreak showed in her eyes. Had he misjudged her? Was there hope for him still?

Her gaze steadied. “Our king would speak with you.”

Damalis rose to her feet. “Goodbye, Gael.”

And she left the room.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 23)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 23)

Gael thought of the uppermost great hall as Carbraes’ hall, but it wasn’t. Or rather, it both wasn’t and was.

Only the elite of Belzetarn were invited to dine with Carbraes in his high hall, located just below the regenen’s chambers at the top of the tower. But Carbraes himself was as likely to dine in the main great hall or even the lower one. He believed in mingling with the trolls he led and protected.

This evening Carbraes had chosen the main hall, so Gael sat at the high table there on a dais below the vast bank of windows in a northern bay carved from the tower’s thick wall. Bright banners hung long on the bay’s sidewalls, which opened into the central space, an immense circular vault with curving balconies rising three high to each side. An ornate stairway curled around a massive central pillar.

Gael regarded that pillar with proprietary pride.

The pillar rose from the tower’s foundations through every level, eventually taking the form of a tall, flaring column at the center of the regenen’s terrace.

High into the air above Belzetarn, the pillar vented the fumes and smokes from Gael’s smithies.

A carved balustrade guarded the stairs circling around the outside of the pillar, and oil lanterns hung at intervals cast illumination. The stairs did not reach all of the tower’s levels. Only the venting pillar did that!

Beyond the stairway, a southern bay with another vast bank of windows flooded the hall with golden evening sunlight.

Altogether, Carbraes’ main hall was thrice the size of Heiroc’s banquet hall in Hadorgol.

The hubbub of five-hundred trolls feasting rose through the air—voices murmuring or exclaiming, the chink of two-tined fork against copper platter, the scrape of a serving tripod against the stone floor, the footfalls of the scullions carrying food from the kitchens and refilling mead bowls.

The sharp scent of a mustard sauce and the sweetness of a raspberry compote threaded the aromas of roasted meats and braised fish.

“Should you care to watch the first gladiatorial contest presented by my brother-in-arms Dreben?” asked Gael’s lefthand neighbor at table, the brigenen of the Ninth Cohort, one of three currently on rotation at the citadel. “I can procure you an invitation.”

“Bloodshed does not entertain me,” answered Gael, striving for an urbane tone. This was not the place for serious dissent. “Reserve your invitation—” He pressed his lips closed, before his voice could sharpen.

“Some will attend for their amusement, no doubt,” said the brigenen, “but Dreben possesses reasons besides entertainment for his enterprise.”

Gael lifted an eyebrow, skeptical.

“Our Ghriana foe wield magical weapons,” stated the brigenen.

“I’ve heard that rumor before,” said Gael.

“Ah, but it is no rumor. Ghrianan weapons are better than ours: sharper, faster, less prone to breakage, and dealing more damage. While our lord, in his prudence, shields us from the dangers of magery and the making of weapons with that magery, he exposes his warriors to greater danger on the battlefield.” The brigenen’s face held a knowing look.

“I wholly agree with the regenen and support him in his decree,” said Gael flatly. How dared the brigenen skate so close to criticism of Carbraes, while sitting at Carbraes’ own table, a mere two places down from him?

“As do I support him,” agreed the brigenen. “But if we are to be deprived of enchanted weapons of our own, we ourselves must be better, stronger, faster, and more ferocious. The gladiatorial ring will push our warriors toward supreme fitness.”

“I cannot approve something that pits troll against troll,” grated Gael. “We have enemies enough without bringing enmity into Belzetarn itself.” His urbanity was decidedly failing. He’d best change the subject.

“I am sorry you disapprove Dreben’s innovation.” The brigenen managed the necessary urbanity with no difficulty, but turned away to address his lefthand neighbor, one of the castellanum’s stewards.

Gael raised a spoonful of raspberry compote to his lips. The burst of strong flavor—sweet and floral with a hint of tartness—soothed his distaste. He was here to take the pulse of Belzetarn’s denizens, and news of Dreben’s gladiatorial ring had clearly spread.

To Gael’s immediate right sat the march, Dreas, commander of every warrior in Carbraes’ legions. Beyond the march sat Carbraes himself. The contrast between the march and the regenen was sharp, even while their similarities were strong.

Carbraes had changed his garb for the feast, donning gray suede sewn with sea pearls, but he projected his usual aura of calm power and confidence. His icy blue eyes were direct in their gaze. His ears lay neatly below the short, silver-threaded curls of his hair. Carbraes’ troll-disease rested lightly upon him.

March Dreas wore beige suede ornamented with bronze rivets and brown embroidery—simple garb in natural colors, like that of the regenen. His thinning white hair was clubbed back in a shoulder-length braid. His gray eyes looked straightly, and power flowed easily from him—also like the regenen.

But troll-disease bore hardly upon Dreas. A deathly pallor underlay the chapped redness on the surface of his skin. Deep furrows bracketed his eyes and his mouth. The flesh of his neck lay slack and folded. His ears were very large and deeply cupped.

The personality of the march must be immense to convey mastery—as it did—in the face of such physical infirmity.

Carbraes leaned forward slightly to address Gael across the march. “May I hope you will resume the use of your rightful quarters?” he asked. “Surely their greater comfort would be a solace in the present time.”

He was referring—if obliquely—to Gael’s new responsibility for the accursed gong, which not all here would know about, and to the fact that Gael’s chambers above the tally room were not his proper quarters. Carbraes’ four principal deputies—the castellanum, the march, the magus, and the secretarius—received luxurious apartments near the regenen’s own. But Gael had declined his, preferring the modest chambers convenient to his tally room and much nearer the smithies than the lofty tower top.

Carbraes had respected his wishes. And everyone did know that.

“Theron here”—Carbraes nodded at the castellanum seated beyond the magus on his farther side—“could order your suite freshened and furnished in a trice. By tonight, I dare say.”

Theron, garbed in brilliant robes of sky blue suede embroidered with shining copper thread, and engaged in close converse with the magus, caught both his name and the gist of Carbraes’ remark. He looked up, turning his disdainful face with its thin lips and elongated, but narrow nose toward Gael. His silver hair—straight and falling below his shoulders—added to his patrician mien. “The rooms should not go empty,” he said courteously. “Such a shame to waste their merits. Perhaps, if the Secretarius continues to scorn them, another might enjoy their benefits.”

The magus, attending to the castellanum, slewed around to face Carbraes.

Nathiar’s olive complexion was the same as when he, Erastys, Heiroc, and Gael had been friends in their youth. But his hair, now plaited in a myriad of thin braids, shone silver, his always-broad nose had grown broader still under the onslaught of his troll-disease, his green eyes were muddied, and his fleshy lips drooped unpleasantly.

“Knock a doorway through the wall of my receiving room,” he said flippantly. “I could use the additional space.” Despite the flippancy, his voice was deep and melodious.

The castellanum sniffed. “I had my principal steward in mind. He’s excellent and deserves to have his efficiency and his loyalty rewarded.” Theron’s voice chilled. “If you need a workroom, Nathiar, surely a less sumptuous chamber would be more suitable.”

The real issue—Gael knew—was that if Nathiar were granted the apartment of the secretarius in addition to his own, then the magus would possess quarters more grand than those of the castellanum. Theron could never abide it.

“No stairs to climb,” quipped Nathiar. “No need to dress, no need to shave. I like it!”

Carbraes raised a hand, stemming Nathiar’s gibes. “The chambers belong to Gael, whether he chooses to inhabit them or not.” His voice hardened. “I shall not bestow them elsewhere.”

Nathiar hid his smirk behind the sleeve of his robe, a garish scarlet ornamented with orange embroidery and copper rivets resembling rose blossoms.

Theron inclined his head graciously. “As you wish, Regenen. Naturally.”

Carbraes turned his back on them.

On an ornate saucer beside the regenen’s drinking horn, nested within green leaves of ground-elder, were two spoonfuls of rare fish roe—globules of glistening orange reserved for Carbraes alone.

The regenen scooped up half the minuscule heap on one of the leaves and offered it to the march. “Take this, my friend, it will do you good.”

Dreas demurred. “No more than it will nourish you. I cannot deprive you.” His voice was gravelly.

Carbraes said nothing, but his eyes smiled and his offering remained before the march. The pair locked gazes. Then Dreas gave way, accepting his regenen’s gift, conveying it immediately to his mouth. Gael noticed that the tremor in the march’s hand was larger than heretofore.

Carbraes ate the remaining roe simultaneously with Dreas. “Delicious, no?” he said.

“Surely it feeds something essential within the body,” answered Dreas. “How else could it satiate so uniquely?”

“You must share it with me every time my cook serves it,” declared Carbraes.

The corners of Dreas’ lips curled slightly, but he shook his head. “Did you know,” he asked, “that the poorest of the poor in the great city of Imster—those who survived on the leavings in the midden—sometimes ate earth? Especially the children.”

“No,” said Carbraes.

“I have seen it,” said Dreas. “It seemed that the food remnants could not nourish them sufficiently, and that the earth slacked some craving within.”

“We are not poor here in Belzetarn,” said Carbraes.

“No, but the affliction brings its own poverty, does it not? And its own cravings,” answered Dreas. “The roe heals, methinks.”

“Perhaps so. Perhaps so,” murmured Carbraes. Was that sorrow in his eyes? Or pity? Gael could not decide if it was either or neither.

Carbraes and Dreas had come to Belzetarn as young trolls, serving under a series of regenens in succession, always guarding one another’s backs, until they attained such rank as to make them unassailable. And even then they persisted in their mutual allegiance. Or so the rumors claimed.

Gael saw no reason to doubt it. It seemed likely that troll-disease would finish the march first. But not yet. And, meanwhile, Carbraes sought ways to delay the affliction’s hold on his friend.

This conversation between the two, conducted in lowered voices, had diverted its participants from the other conversation adjacent to them. Gael, however, heard both.

The castellanum had chosen to vent his further grievances against the secretarius into Nathiar’s ear.

“Always, he favors him!” Theron whispered. “He grants him two residences. He trusts his word in every particular. Even against my own testimony. Even in the face of contradictory evidence.”

Yes, well, there was reason for that. Carbraes knew perfectly well that Gael wanted nothing beyond what he already possessed: security in his office, control over his tally room, oversight of the smithies and weapons lodges, and the assurance of the regenen’s continuing regard.

Theron wanted much more. Control over the provisioning and maintenance of Belzetarn did not content him. He wanted leverage in the supply of Carbraes’ legions. He wanted a voice in the decisions that directed Carbraes’ military endeavors: which Ghriana strongholds to attack, which battlefields to hold, which camps to abandon. Theron wanted Gael’s own smithies under his purview.

Theron was willing to be unscrupulous in his means.

And Carbraes knew it.

“When Keir arrived in custody of the Fourth Cohort’s scouts,” continued Theron, “he should have been mine!”

Nathiar gave an encouraging grunt.

“I needed a new notary. Mine had succumbed to his affliction, and his successor had such a clumsy hand. Keir’s hand is so neat,” Theron mourned. “He would have added elegance to my office. He could have served me tea and berated the impudent scullions. But Carbraes refused to transfer him from the tally chamber. He should have been mine, and I still mean to have him.” Theron positively hissed.

Nathiar chuckled. “Surely not. The boy’s too pretty to be a notary at all. Make him magus penultimate, and I’ll find him uses in keeping with his comely face and neat ankles.”

Theron gasped. “The regenen would never let you!”

“The regenen would never know.”

Gael bit down hard on the spear of radish he’d raised to his lips.

The regenen might never know—although Gael would not bet on that—but the secretarius was damn mad. Nathiar, with his innuendo and carnal pranks and sensual preoccupations, disgusted him.

Well.

He’d dined in the great hall for a reason: to acquire news, maybe even learn secrets from the subtleties of expression and gesture. Now he had them with a vengeance. Most unpleasantly so, and with no subtlety at all.

Tangling with the lowliest in Belzetarn today—a lunch boy, a simple sweep—he’d suspected that it was the great ones who required his scrutiny.

Here were the great ones before him now.

The castellanum and the magus certainly possessed motive enough to make mischief in Gael’s tally room. Mischief, such as a theft would produce.

Nathiar hated Gael from their enmity of old. But Nathiar was too clever to leave evidence. If it were Nathiar stealing tin and bronze, the vaults would appear to be missing no ingots at all.

Theron, on his campaign to have all Belzetarn’s strings pass through his hands to the regenen’s, dearly wanted Gael’s tally room under his aegis and Gael’s smithies under himself as well. He envisioned Gael reporting to him, not directly to Carbraes. And, if he ever gained that, Gael would then be replaced with a troll Theron found more congenial.

But possessing motives for theft didn’t make a troll a thief. And how would Theron pull off such a theft? He was not clever.

Gael’s thoughts passed on to the other great ones present.

Would Carbraes have reason to steal from himself? It seemed unlikely.

Perhaps if the regenen pursued a secret project—something that contravened one of the rules he enforced rigorously amongst his trolls, such as forbidding the manipulation of energea. Could Carbraes be experimenting with weapons forged with the dangerous energea, the energea that glowed acrid orange instead of soothing blue?

Gael shook his head. That made no sense. If Carbraes were to pursue such a course, Gael would be the first one he’d involve. No, it couldn’t be Carbraes.

What of the march?

Even more ridiculous. Dreas would never betray Carbraes, not if he died for it. Although . . . how well did one troll ever know another?

Gael would rule none of them out at this time. But the magus and the castellanum would receive the brunt of his suspicion and scrutiny. They were more likely candidates for thievery, and—besides—they’d done the most to make tonight’s feast unpleasant.

Gael suppressed a quirk of his lips at this concluding irrationalism. He would find the true thief. He scorned to make either Theron or Nathiar a scapegoat, no matter the strength of his dislike for them.

The pair certainly fed his preference for dining alone in his chambers. But he’d learned back in Hadorgol that absence from the seat of power could be deadly.

The banquet hall of Hadorgol and the great hall of Belzetarn might appear very different. Belzetarn was colossal, fashioned on bold lines. Its banners featured simplicity: a black raven on a white field for the opteogint of the Ravens in the First Cohort; three yellow swords on a red field for the opteogint of the Triple Swords of the Eighteenth Cohort; a pair of red lynxes on a black field for the Twin Lynxes of the Seventh Cohort.

Hadorgol was elegant and intimate. Its banquet hall accommodated merely one hundred—not five—and featured delicate ivory embellishments, pastel murals, and exquisite intaglios. Even the heraldry tended toward complexity: a diagonal with a rose and green trellis pattern above, a blue and silver stripe below, and a white castle tower superimposed over both; a quartered field—with violet bells on a yellow ground in two quarters and red and blue diamonds in the other two—behind a white unicorn rearing.

But in the necessity of attendance, Hadorgol and Belzetarn were alike.

A Count Irvel had been a dearest friend of Heiroc’s father. The old count grew to prefer his home to court after his king died and the king’s son assumed his crown. No harm came of it for many years, but eventually another peer brought evidence of Irvel’s treason. After his execution, proof of Irvel’s loyalty surfaced, and then there was another execution: that of the lying peer.

None of it would have happened, if Heiroc had known Irvel well. Or if Irvel had gotten wind of the treachery soon enough. If Irvel had visited court more often.

Not that Gael had ever worried for himself in Heiroc’s court. His presence there was mandated by his position as the king’s magus, but motivated because he loved Heiroc, not because of the advantages that such a friendship might bring.

Belzetarn was less gentle than Hadorgol.

But it hadn’t been absence from his king that had finished Gael seven years ago. He remembered the last time he spoke with Heiroc all too well.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 22)

Dimness cloaked the tally chamber in the early eventide, its cabinets looming like forest menhirs in a shadowed dell, the gloom emphasized by the brightness of the air outside the glass casements.

Gael tucked the tally parchments in their proper niche and then hooked the inner shutters open, allowing a little more light to enter. Turning, he noted that Keir lingered at his own desk rather than sequestering the coffer keys in the box beside Gael’s desk where they belonged.

“Gael?” The boy stared at his feet, sounding uncharacteristically uncertain.

Gael leaned against the casement sill, studying his notary. What ailed the lad?

Keir straightened abruptly, his face troubled. “Do you ever wonder what you’re doing here? What we’re doing here? In Belzetarn?”

Gael’s brows tightened. “What do you mean?” He kept his tone noncommittal. Perhaps Keir would elaborate.

Keir swallowed. “It’s just that . . . all my life I was taught to hate and fear trolls. And I still hate them. Sometimes. A lot of times. My stomach feels sick with it. Especially when a bunch are gathered together in a mob. Even though I am a troll, I feel it. And I feel . . . divided. Like I’m betraying my people, the people of Fiors, just by being here. By helping Carbraes.”

Gael sighed. He knew that feeling all too well. His real purpose within Belzetarn was something he avoided thinking about whenever possible. He wasn’t sure he had any reassurance to offer.

“Some compromises are more difficult than others.” Gael’s words emerged slowly. “Dealing with the truldemagar is one of the most difficult.”

A strange hurt glimmered at the back of Keir’s eyes. “I’m not sure I should have compromised,” he said. “I thought about dying, when it first happened. And maybe I should have. But I didn’t. I chose something else.”

“You came here, to Belzetarn,” said Gael.

Keir said nothing at all in response, just standing there with that peculiar expression on his face.

A shiver of real worry quivered in Gael’s belly. It was dangerous to think too deeply, to probe too honestly, to plumb one’s conscience . . . here in Belzetarn.

“Keir”—he had to draw the boy back from this brink—“I cannot think it wrong to choose to live. And if a troll chooses to live, he must come eventually to some place of safehold—to Belzetarn or some other troll-citadel. To live is to compromise. It is only when we are very young that absolutes seem real.”

Keir’s mouth firmed. “Do you really believe that?” he asked.

Gael allowed his lips to curl slightly. “On most days,” he answered easily. “If you permit deep moral questions to preoccupy you . . . your daily responsibilities suffer and you forget that the larger picture is mostly made up of small choices. Do the next right thing, whatever it is, and you’ll do right in the end.”

A glint of amusement flashed in Keir’s eyes. “Is that another version of ‘make each tally mark strongly and the final count will be accurate’?” he asked.

Gael nodded. “Indeed.”

Keir’s eyes narrowed. “But surely the direction and results of one’s small choices must sometimes be assessed,” he insisted.

Gael repressed a sigh. The boy echoed his own concerns uncomfortably, which made it doubly hard to counter him. “As a troll, you do not possess that luxury,” he said.

“Luxury!” Keir’s voice rose slightly. “Morality is a luxury?”

“No.” Gael quelled his exasperation. “Taking too broad a view is a luxury, and you do not possess it.”

“What of the sick hatred in my stomach?” Keir’s tone grew pointed. “Did you ever feel it?”

Gael nodded. “I did. And, Keir—” he made his stare hard; sympathy would be fatal “—it will pass.” He hesitated, then added, “You’ve only been a troll for, what, two years? Give yourself time.”

Keir sniffed. “Time to become thoroughly hardened?” he jibed. A gleam of humor in the boy’s face softened his accusation.

“No,” answered Gael. “To find your balance. As Arnoll did.”

Keir’s face lightened all the way. “If we could all be Arnoll . . . Belzetarn would be an entirely different place,” he said.

Gael chuckled, and Keir looked his question.

“I was just imagining a horde of Arnolls thronging the stairwell,” Gael explained.

Keir’s laugh rang out. Had the dangerous moment passed? Gael was ready to be done with this conversation.

“Speaking of our smiths,” said Keir, “do you think Martell could have just lost an ingot? Knocked it off a counter, kicked it under an anvil?”

Gael allowed himself a silent sigh of relief. They’d moved on. And Keir’s suggestion about Martell’s missing ingot was a possibility. “We’ll have to check,” he said.

“After the meal?” suggested Keir.

Gael didn’t relish poking around all the odd corners of the privy smithy by the light of a carried candlestick. “Hells!” he growled, mimicking more anger than he actually felt in the wake of Keir’s atypical perplexity.

“I’ll do it,” Keir volunteered.

“No. Arnoll wanted to consult me about something. In his smithy. I’ll get him to help me.”

Keir looked surprised, in his familiar understated way. Thank Tiamar, the boy was back to normal. “In the smithy?” queried Keir. “Did he say about what?”

“We were interrupted. Never mind. Do you dine in the upper hall tonight?” As notary to the secretarius, Keir did possess that right, but he rarely exercised it, preferring to join one of his friends in a more informal setting.

“I’m headed for the hospital mess,” he answered. “Kayd invited me.”

Gael wished someone would invite him elsewhere. Or, better still, that he could simply dine alone in his chambers. He did so occasionally, but now—when he was scrounging for clues as to the whereabouts of his stolen tin—was not a good time to absent himself from the larger gathering.

“Do something outdoors after you eat,” he instructed Keir.

Keir lifted an eyebrow.

“You’ve had a long day, and the morrow may be longer. Extra sunshine will guard your health,” Gael explained.

“I thought I might do a preliminary reconciling of the tallies,” Keir said.

“I know you did,” said Gael. “So did I, but we’ll both be sharper when we’re fresh.”

Keir nodded, then glanced sharply at Gael. “I should have told you right away. Lord Carbraes does not wish an interim report on the gong. He said to see him when you have anything he needs to know, but not before.”

Gael had expected that, but it was well to hear it explicitly. The regenen dealt easily with his secretarius, and frequent communication would keep it so.

Keir returned the coffer keys to their box, and they parted: Keir descending to the yard, Gael ascending to his quarters to change his garb.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 23)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 21)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 21)

Chapter 5

In the cramped corridor outside the tin vault, Keir met them with pressed lips and a disgusted expression, but declined to give Martell the promised scolding. The scullions with the finished implements had peeled off toward kitchen storerooms and the stewards’ closet. Martell’s notary turned over his tally parchments to Gael, while Martell himself had only a few nuggets of leftover bronze, a failed bronze ladle, and a failed pair of scissors to hand in.

Keir frowned, padlocking the tin vault’s door. “No tin nuggets?” he queried.

“Today was all bronze,” answered Martell breezily. “Tomorrow I try the tin ornaments I plan for the edge of the regenen’s cape. I must start early, very early, to have time enough for such flourishes.”

Keir’s frown deepened. “Then shouldn’t you have a tin ingot left over?”

Gael was wondering the same thing.

Martell looked surprised. “I thought I did!” He rummaged in his sack, came up empty, scratched his head, then held up a finger. “Ha, ha! I have it! Foolish Martell! I made tin-lined sauce pots demanded by cook.”

Gael’s shoulders relaxed. Martell might be foolish—was foolish—but Gael was equally so, if he thought he could solve the mystery of his missing metals from anything Martell said. He’d need to go through his usual process of reconciling the tally sheets from the smithies with those of the tally chamber from this morning’s check-out. And that would have to be done tomorrow. Also as usual.

He’d hoped to get a quick look for discrepancies tonight, but Martell’s tardiness and his own appointment with Arnoll later in the evening meant it would have to wait.

Keir unlocked the bronze vault, right next door to the tin vault. The space occupied by Belzetarn’s bronze stores was equally constricted, but considerably more congested. A ledge along one wall held the coffers of bronze ingots and a balance. Bins for the broken swords and other weapons retrieved from the battlefields, as well as items that failed in their forging, lined the opposite wall, making the narrow aisle leading to the horn-paned window casement even narrower.

As Keir placed the privy smithy’s bronze remnants on the balance, Martell seized the scissors and brandished them under Gael’s nose, angrily.

“Look at these! The tracery of deer in the forest, so lovely! The warm sheen of the bronze, beautifully brushed in finish! But the metal failed to penetrate the mold fully!” Martell actually gnashed his teeth.

Gael took the scissors from the smith before he could do something extreme.

They possessed the usual design, two blades sharpened on one edge only and connected by a curving strap of bronze that acted as a spring. The mold for them had pour vents at the tip of each blade, funneling the molten metal down through the blade area to the spring strap at the very bottom.

In these scissors, the metal had failed to fill the spring strap completely, resulting in a circular occlusion right at the stress point.

Gael turned them over in his hands. The work was beautiful. He could understand Martell’s annoyance, but—

Gael’s brows knit, and he squeezed by both Martell and Keir to get into the dim light filtering through the window’s horn panes. He wrenched the casement open. The sun was on the opposite side of the tower and getting lower in the sky, but a good deal more light flooded through the unobstructed opening, along with a slight breeze and the scent of water off the lake.

Gael studied the bronze of the scissors, with its extraordinarily warm hue.

He turned abruptly.

“Surely the bronze in these scissors has fewer parts of tin than even you use, Martell?”

“Sometimes I forge in pure tin.” Martell sounded impressed with himself. “Sometimes I forge in pure copper.”

“But today, aside from the cooks’ tin-lined pots, you forged in bronze only.” Gael held the scissors out for Martell to look at them. “Surely this is a one-to-nineteen ratio bronze.”

Martell’s eyes widened. “You are right, my friend, you are right.” He tapped the flat of one blade edge, obtaining a dull ting from the metal. “I use but half the tin ingot for the lined sauce pans, which means this bronze should be one-to-twelve. Which it is not! Of course the pour went wrong!”

The smith brightened and his chest puffed out. “Ha ha! Am I not magnificent! The pour went right in all the rest! Even with barely any tin to calm viscosity!”

Martell’s excitement turned to bewilderment. “But Keir makes no mistake when he doles out copper and tin for Martell. And Martell makes no mistake when he compound his bronze. Wherefore does Martell’s one-twelve bronze transform to one-nineteen?”

Gael sighed. “That, I mean to find out.”

This could be his missing metals, right here in Martell’s apparently missing tin. According to the smith’s account, after he’d used half the ingot of tin to line the sauce pans, he’d melted one-and-a-half ingots of tin with eighteen ingots of copper to create his bronze. One-and-one-half to eighteen equaled three to thirty-six, which simplified into one to twelve.

Something had gone wrong, resulting in a bronze with one tin ingot and nineteen copper ingots. Or maybe even less tin than that.

Possibly someone had stolen tin right out of Martell’s smithy.

Possibly, but Gael didn’t think so. Probably Martell’s disorganization would just make it harder for Gael to pin down the real theft. Unfortunately.

Gael gestured for Martell to hand the scissors to a very thoughtful-looking Keir. Keir weighed them along with the ladle and the nuggets. Gael marked the tally of ounces on Keir’s parchments.

Gael sent Martell toward his dinner, while Keir locked the bronze vault’s door.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 22)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 20)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 20)

Keir was absent from the tally chamber.

Gael grimaced. He’d lost count of the times he’d climbed the tower’s stairs today, but his ankles had registered every last riser and both of them ached, not just the one more prone to it.

This trip from the yard, he’d followed the route taken by the oxhide ingots and the tin pebbles, when they arrived at Belzetarn from the mines: first the straight shot through the kitchen annex tunnel, then two-and-a-half twists up the Charcoal Stair to the place of arms behind the melee gallery, then ten twists up the Lake Stair. There he’d left the oxhide route, crossing the lower great hall to the Regenen Stair and its landing where the door to the tally chamber stood, closed and locked, as was proper when the chamber went unoccupied.

Gael could wish he’d occupied that tally chamber a good deal more today than he had. Although . . . he supposed he’d sat before his desk all the morning as usual. It was just the afternoon that had evaporated in traipsing up, and down, and then up again. And, and, and. He snorted.

And now he faced a climb of another ten spirals around the newel post of the Regenen Stair, for he knew where Keir was. The evening check-in had gone long, and Keir was still in the vaults marking the finished and partially finished swords in, marking the armor scales and the completed armor hauberks in, marking the ingots in, and weighing the metal remnants in.

Keir should have been done by now. Or had Gael forgotten how much longer the process took with one, not two, getting it done?

C’mon, old troll, he told himself, Carbraes probably takes an extra lap at day’s end, up and down the Regenen Stair one more time whenever he thinks he’s not gotten sufficient exercise.

But Carbraes performed a daily ration of handstand push-ups.

And I’m not Carbraes.

But he did need to learn how Keir’s first solo had gone and whether the tin discrepancy had given any sign of increasing—or diminishing. Which meant he’d best start climbing.

He took it slow and found Keir locking the individual coffers in the tin vault, frowning the while.

The boy looked up from his task as Gael arrived. “Martell is late,” he said, irritation in his voice.

Gael’s own brows drew down. “He’s yet in his smithy?”

Keir shrugged. “Apparently so.”

Now that was strange. Martell was always the last of the smiths to check in his materials at the end of the day, but even Martell was not this late. There had been too many departures from usual lately. The question was: which anomalies stemmed from the theft of Gael’s tin and bronze, and which from mere chance?

“Shall I lock the vault door?” Keir asked. “Or did you wish to await me here?”

“Where—?” Gael directed a questioning glance at his notary.

Keir’s jaw muscles bunched. Grinding his teeth? “I’m going to fetch Martell. And when I get him—I’m going to have some words with him.”

“Ah,” said Gael. “I believe I shall have words with Martell, but you may certainly add your words to mine.” He smiled, tightly, like Medicus Piar. “But I’ll fetch him up for you.”

“But sir!” Keir forgot his exasperation in surprise. “I’m the one who does the running, not you!”

Gael’s smile grew more genuine. “But you are doing my tallying for me. I’ll go.”

Keir was still protesting as Gael headed to the Lake Stair, which debouched nearer the privy smithy than did the Regenen Stair. Some part of Gael joined Keir’s protest. Was he really making another full descent to the tower’s roots, followed by a full ascent back up to the ingot vaults?

His ankle answered that question, unhappily. Yes. Yes, he was. Cayim’s hells!

Traffic on the stair was heavy: servers readying all three great halls for the evening feast, officers headed for the war room to give a last report to the march, artisans making for their quarters to tidy themselves before eating. Gael even noted a hunter—in his leather boots and breeches, game bag hanging from the strap across his back—leaving the stairwell for the lower great hall.

Really? A hunter? What was he doing away from the hunters’ lodge?

He was a healthy fellow, almost untouched by troll-disease. His ears and nose looked human, and his skin was firm, with a good color. He didn’t look like a troll at all, but of course he was one. Carbraes insisted that every newcomer be checked.

What was a hunter doing in the tower proper at this time of the evening?

Then Gael remembered that Barris had mentioned the castellanum was scattering favors more generously than usual. That must be it. This hunter was being rewarded with a meal in the lowest of the great halls for some praiseworthy deed. Supplying Theron with a superlatively tender haunch of oxen or some such thing.

Gael shrugged.

If he didn’t hoist Martell out of his smithy with dispatch, neither the secretarius nor the privy smith would have time to visit their respective chambers before sitting at table. Hadn’t Barris said that Martell was bidden to dine in the upper great hall? Or was that honor granted him the previous evening? If it was tonight, he absolutely had to change his sooty smith’s garb for more fitting garments.

As Gael paused on a landing between the main place of arms and the entrance place of arms, letting an urgent posse of messengers have the right of way, Martell, his notary, and his scullions rounded the newel post from below.

The smith spotted Gael immediately.

“Ah, ha! My friend, look at this!” Martell exclaimed.

Gael was in no mood to admire another product of Martell’s genius, but the smith did not seize the stem of the candelabrum poking out of one scullion’s sack. Instead he grabbed the rolled parchment carried by his notary, allowed it to unroll, and brandished it under Gael’s nose.

“All of it!” announced Martell. “Every last ounce! Every last tally! All of it is written!”

“Good.” It meant nothing. Martell always had confidence in his notary’s records, no matter how the smith hurried him and no matter how many times those tallies proved wrong. “But you are very late, my friend.” Gael would reserve his more serious reprimand for a private moment. Or . . . better yet . . . allow Keir to deliver the one he longed to. Perhaps Martell would respond well to Keir’s less genial manner. “All the other smiths are long gone, and Keir awaits.”

“Ah, ha! My friend, I know it! But you would not have me forego the castellanum’s candelabra?”

Gaelan’s tears! Was Martell going to drag it out after all?

“Or the decorative hooks for the opteon of the annex? Or the rivets for the magus?”

Gael knit his brows. “How many more things did you create after I spoke with you, my friend? I thought there remained but one.”

“Ah, I forgot.” Martell looked crestfallen for only a moment, then brightened. “But I completed all, all! And they are beautiful! The castellanum will be pleased!”

“If you dine with the castellanum tonight, you’d best hasten, my friend.”

Martell looked surprised. “But, no, he honors me but the once. Last night contents me! The ordinary great hall—” he glanced sideways uneasily “—is more comfortable. And the castellanum pours too much wine. Again and again he filled my cup.”

Gael hid the smile that wanted to sneak onto his lips. No matter how irritated he might grow with Martell’s lack of organization, the smith’s ebullience made Gael want to laugh. No doubt Martell preferred his cronies—who admired him—for dinner partners over the elite of the citadel. Martell repressed his boasting in the presence of the castellanum.

“Don’t keep Keir waiting any longer,” he advised, stepping toward the upward stairs and gesturing Martell to come with him. If he allowed the smith to determine when their conversation ended, they might stand here yet at midnight. And then Keir would be as irritated with Gael as he was with Martell.

Gael suppressed a second smile.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 21)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 19)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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