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.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 19)

The physician addressed Hew. “I am Medicus Piar. Let me see your hand.”

Piar wore a crisp blue tunic of linen and presented an impression of controlled efficiency. The symptoms of his troll-disease were mild, save for his ears, which were large, with drooping lobes. Gael wondered that the medicus cropped his straight, dark hair so short. Many trolls preferred to hide their ears.

Hew, confronted with the request that he remove his arm from its sling, looked again at the bronze scissors and knives and calipers on the tray of tools, and shrank.

Piar, seemingly unfazed by his patient’s recalcitrance, turned to Gael.

“Secretarius, you’ve given him preliminary treatment?”

“I did nothing for the burn, I’m afraid,” answered Gael. “Merely for his pain.” Would Piar be jealous of his physician’s prerogative?

Apparently not, for he returned his attention to Hew, unperturbed.

“Did the ministrations of the secretarius hurt you?” the medicus asked.

Hew shook his head.

“Mine will not hurt either.” Piar’s smile was brief and tight, but it reassured Hew. He proffered his hand, sling and all.

Piar pushed the canvas back, took a swift glance at Hew’s oozing palm, and passed into manipulation of the energea without even an in-breath, merely closing his eyes. Were healing disciplines so different from other uses of magery? Or was Piar simply that practiced, that he needed no preliminaries?

Gael allowed his inner sight to open, curious about Piar’s methods.

Interestingly, Piar’s energea flowed from the tips of his fingers, not the palm, and it was violet, not blue. Was that why his troll-disease seemed so little advanced for his age, which Gael judged to be about thirty years? Gael noticed that Piar pulsed his energea, as well as giving it a buzzing vibration.

“Mm, mm,” mumbled Hew.

Gael closed his inner sight to check Hew’s wound with his outer sight. The red of the palm had faded to pink, and the broken skin no longer wept.

Someone rapped on the wooden frame of the open door.

Piar opened his eyes. “Come in,” he said, studying his patient’s hand.

A troll about Keir’s age entered the room.

“What is it?” asked Piar, touching each of Hew’s fingertips in turn and noting their response.

“Medicus, sir.” The young assistant shuffled his feet. “Rainar told me to deliver the sleeping draught now, but the herbalist says he’s not compounded it.” The boy’s voice rose with his distress.

Piar turned Hew’s hand, checking the motion of the wrist. Gael liked how thorough he was, not shorting his patient, despite the interruption.

“No. One night’s dose proved adequate. The order’s been canceled. Tell Rainar so, please,” instructed Piar.

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” The assistant stepped back through the doorway, and Gael heard him murmuring to someone else in the hallway, his voice growing fainter as they moved away. “The castellanum doesn’t want it anymore. Cancelled his order.”

Gael frowned. Theron had ordered a sleeping draught? How distinctly odd. The castellanum was autocratic, patronizing, jealous of his privilege, and patrician in his refinement, but never anxious. The idea of him suffering insomnia was . . . ludicrous.

Piar reached for a small stone jar and a narrow bronze spatula resting on the sideboard. With a swift, light touch he spread ointment on Hew’s burn, and began wrapping it with linen bandage. “How did this happen?” he asked.

Hew fumbled in his sash with his uninjured hand and drew out . . . a nugget of tin.

Gael choked. Cayim’s hells! Was everyone stealing his tin? Even the sweeps?

Hew’s face fell. “Oh,” he wailed. “It was so pretty! Like a falling star, all bright and shining! I tried to catch it, and I did.” He stared, heartbroken, at the lump of silvery gray metal in his hand.

Gael was beginning to understand. “Had you never swept the smithies before?” he asked.

Hew shook his head. “Samo said I done such a good job on the stairs, I could. As a reward! And then I saw such pretty stars, wasted on the floor. I saved one! But it’s gone dull!” His mouth trembled.

Gael stifled the hilarity that rose through his weariness. “Hew, the metal glows when it is very hot. It’s beautiful, but you cannot touch it then without serious injury. Do you understand? The brightness fades as the metal cools.”

Hew handed the lump of tin to Gael. “I didn’t know,” he said humbly. “I thought it was a star, and stars belong to everyone who can see, don’t they? But metal belongs to you.” He ducked his head. “I’m sorry.”

Gael accepted the tin and sighed. “You’re a good boy, Hew.”

Hew’s face brightened. “I am?”

“You are. You don’t steal. And you’ll know not to touch hot metal the next time you sweep the smithies, won’t you.”

Hew brightened still more. “I’ll sweep the smithies again? I’ll see the stars of hot metal?”

“I’ll request you especially,” Gael promised. “When you’ve healed. You cannot push a broom until your hand is well.”

Hew looked at his bandages in surprise as Piar rearranged the sling, slipping it back under the boy’s arm and hand.

“I’ll keep him here overnight,” said Piar. “Samo gives you your work?” he asked Hew.

Hew nodded, still scrutinizing his bandages.

Piar smiled his quick, tight smile, looking at Gael. “I’ll send word to Samo of what’s happened, so the boy does not get in trouble.”

The physician rose. “I think you’re done here, Secretarius.”

Indeed.

He now knew that Theron needed to give a better briefing to the scullions who cleaned the smithies. He knew Hew to be honest. And he knew he must seek his thief elsewhere.

Which was probably just as well. How could Belzetarn prosper, if even its lowliest denizens proved untrustworthy?

On the other hand . . . if the lowly were innocent, then the guilty one lived among the powerful.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 18)

The tunnel through the kitchen annex—a long, straight shot toward the outdoors—flared with fresh torches in the brackets. The banging of pots, cooks’ yells, and savory aromas boiled from the two open doorways—one on each side—as Gael steered Hew forward.

Then they were outside.

The golden evening light glowed through the grass strands of the upper yard like green flame. The still air felt soft and clear, and the sunshine fell warm on Gael’s shoulders. He turned his face up to the sky, blue and cloudless—a benison forgotten indoors.

Gael’s sense of oppression—the worrisome implications of a thief in the forges, his wariness about the cursed gong—lifted.

Hew stumbled.

Gael twitched his gaze back to their footing.

No, Hew hadn’t stepped off the edge of the gentle ramp that led from the annex door down to the yard. He’d been looking up, like Gael, and simply tripped on his own ankle.

Gael steadied the boy onto the cobblestone walkway that skirted the grass, passing along the flint-and-mortar fronts of the artisan workshops—woodcarvers, leather workers, the feltery, the armorers’ lodge. The smellier offices were relegated to the bailey, so the yard air smelled sweet, of grass pollen and warm earth.

Gael looked out over a retaining wall to the lower yard. A messenger dashed from the doorway of the scalding house toward the stone steps to the upper yard. Both upper and lower yards would soon throng with trolls at their leisure before the evening feast, but not quite yet. Most of the artisans were still finishing their day’s work inside.

An inner curtain wall bounded the lower yard. Beyond it, the bailey spread out across the hill, sloping down toward the west and the forest beyond the outer curtain wall. Faint baaing drifted from the flock of goats grazing near the gate. Nearer sounded the shouted orders of opteons drilling several decani of warriors.

Hew’s steps slowed, and Gael slowed with him. The illusion of peace was beguiling.

Gael pondered how easily, how naturally he’d just performed magery. Without a second thought. Had he not made a personal vow never to do so again? Had he not sworn to Lord Carbraes that he would eschew magery, as did every other troll of Belzetarn, save the healers? Did he not fear the performance of magery in the matter of the evil gong?

And yet, the instant a boy’s pain confronted him, he forgot all that. He’d drawn energea through his nodes as smoothly as when he’d been magus to Heiroc. And the energea had been safe—blue—not dangerous. It had felt soothing.

Was Carbraes correct in believing that manipulation of energea advanced troll-disease? Or did the troll-disease of Belzetarn’s magus, Nathiar, worsen more rapidly because he dabbled in the dangerous energea—scorching orange? Did he so dabble? Gael didn’t know, even though he might suspect.

Not that it mattered.

Despite his lapse, despite how satisfying it had felt, he had no intention of returning to magery. Unless rendering the gong harmless required it. And—if it did—he would perform only enough to get the job done.

Three shallow steps led up to the hospital portico. Gael guided Hew up them and through the heavy, brass-bound door to the interior.

Two notaries sat at a large table in the entrance foyer, one flipping through a stack of parchments, the other copying notes onto a blank sheet. Always there were records in Belzetarn—in the forges, in the kitchens, everywhere. Gael approved, although he knew many complained.

Unlike the chambers within the tower, those of the hospital possessed large, glass-paned windows and were flooded with light. The smooth wood floors gleamed with polish. Gael might have been jealous of their spacious quality did he not crave the security of his tally chamber. But he did crave it. And he had no desire to exchange tallying for healing.

The notary sorting the stack of parchments looked up as Gael and Hew came through the front door. He wasted no time, getting up immediately and walking around the table to approach them, studying Hew’s sling.

“Broken? Sprained?” he asked.

“Burned,” Gael answered. “Badly. I risked an energea lavage, else he’d be screaming yet, and unable to walk.”

The notary’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed! This way, please.” He ushered them along a short hallway and into an examining room. “I’ll get a medicus right away.”

Hew made a beeline for the tray of alarming tools resting on a sideboard, his eyes staring and his jaw dropping. “Uh! Uh! Uh!”

“They won’t use those on you,” Gael reassured him, then towed him away to a chair set before a window onto the courtyard garden at the heart of the hospital. He had the boy sit facing the outdoors, looking at four neat squares of herbs and flowers centered on a sundial and bounded by a colonnade. A scullion gathered leaves from a low-growing plant, while bees hummed in the taller blooms behind him.

At the sound of footsteps in the hallway, Gael turned.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 17)

The injured troll was a sweep—not one of the smithy scullions. Gael dredged his memory for a name. He knew this one, didn’t he? Hilan? Hyan?

Hew. The boy Gael spared a kind word for whenever he encountered him, because Hew was simple, in addition to suffering troll-disease.

Hew lay curled around his own right arm, groaning and weeping. Gael knelt beside him.

“What has happened?” Gael asked, his voice gentle.

Hew looked up piteously and held out his hand. “Hurts,” he sobbed.

Gael hissed.

Hew’s palm sported a red, blistered blotch with an open wound seeping clear fluid at its center and crusted black at its edges.

“Hurts, hurts, hurts,” pleaded Hew.

Gael took the back of Hew’s hand gently in his own. He was no healer, but he could ease the boy’s pain a touch before they got him to the hospital in the artisans’ yard. First, he needed to be sure Hew wouldn’t startle at the touch of energea.

“I can help you, Hew,” he said. “It may feel a little strange.”

“Hurt more?” asked Hew fearfully.

“It will not hurt,” Gael explained, “but it will feel different from what you are used to.”

Hew thrust his injured hand nearer.

Gael steadied the boy’s elbow. “Keep still,” he said. Upon Hew’s timid nod, Gael closed his eyes and took a long, slow in-breath. On the out-breath, equally long and slow, he opened his inner sight.

The silvery arcs connecting to the lesser node in Hew’s palm shuddered, jangled by the injury. The node itself pulsed more quickly than it should.

Gael drew on his own nodes, sending energea cascading along his arcs and out his palms. It sparkled blue—safe—as it flowed into Hew’s energea. The shivering of Hew’s arcs calmed, and their curvature relaxed and lengthened. Hew’s node pulsed less wildly. Gael heard Hew sigh.

He opened his eyes.

The boy had stopped sobbing, although the tears still stood on his cheeks.

“Better?” asked Gael.

Hew nodded.

“Good.” He saw Hew preparing to shift. “Don’t move!”

The boy subsided.

Gael glanced up to see the scullions still gathered around them, standing silently.

“I need something to make a sling.”

While the scullions turned to one another, muttering and gesturing and coming up empty, Arnoll pulled a canvas sack from beneath one of the counters and started ripping its side seams. A moment later he handed the large rectangle to Gael. Gael placed the center of the canvas under Hew’s arm, passed both ends up the boy’s chest and behind Hew’s neck, where he tied them.

Arnoll joined Gael to help Hew to his feet.

“Can you walk?” Arnoll asked him.

Hew was staring at his own hand, apparently amazed. No doubt the swift diminishment of the pain had bewildered him.

Gael turned to the nearest privy scullion to ask sharply, “Where’s Martell?”

The scullion flushed and looked at the floor. “Latrine,” he mumbled, and then started to explain how Hew had been injured.

Gael cut him off. “Never mind.”

He turned back to Arnoll. “I’ll take this boy to the physicians. Will you send one of your scullions to Keir, explaining that I’ve been detained.” He’d intended Keir to perform the morning’s check-out routine alone. It would hurt nothing for him to start with this evening’s check-in routine instead.

“I’ll take care of it,” said Arnoll. “Go!”

Gael nodded, gripped Hew’s good arm, and aimed the boy toward the cramped spiral stair at the back of the charcoal cellar. A half turn down and out through the kitchen annex would be the most direct route to the hospital.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 4 (scene 16)

Chapter 4

Climbing the Regenen Stair one more time, Gael’s thigh muscles burned, and his ankle protested. The flames of the half-burned torches flickered in the lower stairwell, creating moving patterns of light and shadow on the stone walls and treads.

In the higher reaches of the stairwell, the sunlight slanting in through the arrowslits would have acquired the golden tinge of early evening. Dark was yet a long way off—dusk came very late in the summer—but the day was winding to a close. So Gael pushed himself.

Preparation for the checking in of swords, armor, and ingots demanded his presence in the tally room, and then the vaults above. Soon. But he wanted to nail down one last detail, before performing his usual duties.

Emerging into the blade smithy, he saw the scullions wrapping the unmolded blades in soft suede.

Which meant it was later than he thought. Hells.

He slipped into the unlit storeroom to the right—that would be faster than dodging smiths and scullions in the smithy—and barked his shin on something. Had someone left a broken shovel loose, instead of placing it properly on a shelf or in a bin? He would tell one of the scullions to see to it.

The charcoal cellar beyond the storeroom presented no obstacles, and then he was in the armor smithy, its dim bays littered with anvils, forms, and work counters, limned but partially by the fraction of daylight filtering from the deep embrasures on the north tower wall. The smiths had lit tallow dips. Within their separate pools of light, they collected the myriad scales they’d poured and hammered that day—small rectangles of bronze measuring a finger in width, a palm in length—checking the edges for smoothness and the placement of the punched holes.

The scullions gathered at the forges, raking the coals apart for the night.

Gael spotted Arnoll laying out his work—platelet after bronze platelet—on a counter before his notary, who sat poised with parchment and quill. Gael hastened toward them. He could really only spare a moment here.

Arnoll looked up at his footfall. His eyes warmed when he saw who approached.

Gael suppressed a frown. That Arnoll should welcome his friend was unremarkable. But was that relief behind the welcome?

Arnoll spoke first as Gael halted beside him, his voice gravelly, but easy. Perhaps Gael had been mistaken about that hint of relief in the smith’s expression. “Gael! Excellent. I’ve something to consult you about, my friend. Though not this instant.”

Well, that was strange. Gael was here because he wanted to consult Arnoll. About the gong. Arnoll had been rolling around the north for many more years than Gael. He might know . . . something. Might have encountered some Ghriana magics—or ancient magics—that would shed light on the artifact.

“Meet me here in the smithy?” suggested the smith. “Immediately following the evening feast?”

Gael did frown at that. Why not in Arnoll’s quarters?

No matter. He could ask Arnoll to his own chambers from the smithy just as well as from Arnoll’s quarters. He nodded.

On his nod, shouting broke out in the privy smithy behind him.

“Ow! Ow! Ow!” someone howled. “It hurts! It hurts! Ow!”

Gael whipped around, and Arnoll surged forward.

As one, they strode to the knot of scullions gathered around a troll boy huddled on the smithy floor.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 15)

Two years earlier, on her last day at home, Keiran’s pater had allowed his daughter to unlace the straps of his peg leg and draw it off—as much a mark of his discomfort as his willingness to pause briefly at their circular reed hut before going to the shore.

The device was an ingenious one. Engis had made it himself.

Laced leather thongs secured a wide leather strap tightly around Engis’ thigh, just above his knee. Two bone braces with ratcheted bone gears at their tops connected the upper strap to a lower one that wrapped tightly around his stump just below the knee. The lower edge of the lower strap was sewn onto a hollow column—also carved of bone—ending in a leather tip covered in felt.

The leather tip and its felt covering were replaced when they wore out.

As clever as the physical design of the peg leg was, its hidden properties were cleverer still.

Engis had drawn on his magical skills for strengthening the flint knives and spearheads of the warriors to reinforce the device that permitted him to walk unaided with relative ease.

Keiran knew that if she looked at the peg leg with her inner sight, she would see a glowing green node within each of the gears beside Pater’s knee, each emanating scrolling arcs of silver that curved through the entire extent of bone and leather.

But her attention was not on the miraculous device this time.

Pater wrapped thin layers of lambswool around his own leg beneath each of the gripping straps of the peg leg. The upper layer of wrapping had developed a crease in its smoothness, creating an angry red line on Pater’s skin. Keiran hissed. No wonder he’d limped.

“Let me, Pater,” she said.

He lay semi-reclining upon the sheepskin on his divan, leaning against the curving wall of their one-room hut. The fire in the central hearth was banked—the earthy smell of the peat tickled Keiran’s nose—and shadows filled the space under the conical roof. Soft light, filtered by the overcast, drifted in through the open doorway. Neither Isolt—Keiran’s younger sister—nor Muirne, their old nurse maid, were home.

Keiran’s long braid fell forward over her shoulder as she reached for the small stone jar of goose grease.

“Keiran.” Pater’s voice held a cautionary note. She knew he wanted her to reserve her energea for the lesson he would give her later at the seaside.

“The skin will break, if all I do is rub ointment on it,” Keiran insisted.

He sighed and nodded, reluctantly.

If the skin broke, he would have to wait for it to heal before he could wear his peg, or else accelerate the wound’s healing with his own energea.

Keiran scooped a dollop of the milky grease from the jar and smoothed it over the red mark, letting her inner vision open. Ah! The silvery arc curling down from Pater’s root node shivered in response to his pain. With practiced ease, she directed energea from her own nodes along the arcs of her arms, out through her fingers, and into the disturbed arc of Pater’s thigh. It quieted in the stream of silvery sparks.

Good.

Her own arcs smoothed into more relaxed curves, and she felt her spine take its most natural and comfortable shape, hips slightly dropped, crown lifted. Healing with energea felt as good to the healer as it did to the healed.

“That’ll do,” came Pater’s voice.

Keiran checked the results of her inner work on the outer reality. The angry red welt had faded. So long as she wrapped fresh lambswool over it, the remaining mark would be gone by evening.

Pater dragged his peg leg off the floor of crushed shells, where Keiran had let it lie.

And Keir dragged her thoughts out of the memories of her last afternoon with her father.

Belzetarn, not Fiors, was her home now. And she’d arrived at the regenen’s door—very near the battlements at the top of the Regenen Stair.

Healing with energea felt good, but not so good that she would flout the prohibition against practicing magic in Carbraes’ citadel. Or work in his hospital healing the enemies of Fiors.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 14)

Some moments later, Keir was again climbing toward the upper reaches of the Regenen Stair. Sunlight and warmth poured through the frequent arrowslits, and the torches in their brackets rested unlit. A porter carrying a stack of folded table linens tramped upwards, passing her. Another, heading downward at speed, smacked palms and exchanged a grin with his fellow. They were readying the three great halls for the evening feast.

Keir was headed for the regenen’s chambers. Gael wanted Carbraes notified that Gael could deliver a preliminary report on the gong, if Carbraes so desired. Keir guessed the regenen would decline. He tended to give Gael a wide berth in which to manage the metals and the smithies. He would trust Gael to do equally well with the gong. Why give the artifact to Gael, if Carbraes were to peer continuously over his shoulder? But Gael remained punctilious in his loyalty to Carbraes.

Three messenger boys hurtled around the newel post above and swung wide around her.

Good. That made it likely that the regenen was indeed in his chambers, dispatching his orders as usual via flocks of runners.

Her thoughts returned to the scullion boy she’d just rescued.

Weit had admitted he was on the verge of leaving Carbraes’ protection entirely, striking out into the wilderness to get away from the bullies tormenting him. No doubt this latest incident was one of a long string, and Weit had reason for such an extreme course.

But why had the boy believed he could survive?

Had he stolen the tin—and the bronze—envisioning the ingots buying his way into some other stronghold? That of a troll-queen in the icy reaches of the farthest north?

Keir shook her head and frowned, alarming a boy sweeping the treads of the stairwell with broom and pan.

Weit possessed more freedom than many of the kitchen scullions. The opteon in the fruitery didn’t need his assistant at all times, so Weit delivered “lunches” to various trolls throughout the tower who required a snack sometime between the morning meal and the evening feast. Some of those lunching trolls worked in the smithies. Weit certainly possessed the opportunity to swipe ingots lying about the privy smithy during the working day.

But that was ridiculous. The boy’s eyes had been clear and untroubled when he took his leave of her with Adarn in his wake. Weit was not a thief.

She considered his tormentors. They’d been an ugly lot when she stumbled upon them, doubly so in the way they’d reminded her that it was trolls—trolls, not men—who inhabited Belzetarn. And yet she’d never doubted her ability to quell their aggression. They’d turned from a nasty mob into a handful of bewildered boys readily enough under her handling. Just like the human boys back home in the village.

Troll boys were not so different from human boys, it seemed.

But what if she’d blundered in amongst a pack of troll men tormenting a scullion? It happened, she knew it did. Against the strict orders of their opteons. Against the firm policy of the march. Against even the fierce prohibition of the regenen. With punishing corrections on offer. But it happened.

Keir could not have dominated such a band.

Her pater had lost his leg to such a band.

* * *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 13)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 13)

Striding through the dark, short passage connecting the smithies to the Regenen Stair, Keir settled the strap of her portfolio more firmly on her left shoulder and the portfolio itself more comfortably against her right hip. She’d discovered nothing she didn’t already know.

The blade smith was meticulous, and his notarius followed his lead. The grinding smith was methodical. The annealing smith, detail-oriented. The smelterer, practical and down-to-earth. The armorer, thorough and responsible.

The only denizen of the forges with an unreliable character was Martell, the privy smith. And he would not be a thief.

But the questions had to be asked, the missing tin tracked and found, the guilty party identified. The secretarius must regain control of Belzetarn’s—Carbraes’—metals.

Keir stepped under the archway at the passage-end into a patch of brightness in the Regenen Stair.

A torch flared in the bracket there, and the aroma of roasting meats, fragrant with herbs, drifted on the air. The Castellanum’s kitchens—all three of them—would be well into the work of creating the evening feast that would feed all quartered in the citadel: the three cohorts currently rotated home from the field, the full staff of the tower, and every artisan supplying the warriors and staff; nearly two thousand trolls, all told.

A sweet thread of scent—glazed parsnips—prompted Keir to lift her nose and draw in a deep breath. She loved the mild flavor of this root vegetable that had never grown at home. She’d not expected to find anything she loved in a troll stronghold.

But she had. Parsnips. And other things.

Keir bit her lip and started up toward the tally room. Gael wouldn’t be there yet—she’d heard his even tones mingled with the excited verbiage of Martell in the privy smithy—but he’d want her report immediately he arrived.

As she climbed, her shadow stretched up the treads ahead of her, cast by the torch at her back. Her thighs protested slightly with each riser. Would her muscles be sore, come sleep time, with all the extra trips she’d made up and down and up again today?

A loud metallic crashing echoed suddenly, followed by immediate loud shouting.

Had someone dropped one of the massive copper cauldrons in the Regenen’s Kitchen? What a commotion!

Keir suppressed a smile. The four main stairwells in the tower conducted sound so capriciously. One moment one heard the roaring of the smithy forges; the next, the shouts of warriors drilling in one of the three places of arms; and then the clatter of knives quartering potatoes against a chopping block. Always there were footsteps.

Keir paused as the next torch came into sight. Had she heard something less usual? Something from the depths, just before the clash of copper against stone? Something . . . not quite right?

Frowning, Keir swung abruptly round and started back down.

The shouting from above faded.

A murmur from below grew. Voices?

“I’ll strip your bedding and leave your pallet bare!” came a young, jeering yell.

I’ll strip it bare and make it up again with dirty linens from the hospital!” boasted another, higher voice.

Keir hastened her pace, from a swift lollop to a more headlong descent.

The murmur of voices beneath the jeers intensified as she passed the smithy level and then the castellanum’s kitchen, a mere half twist below it.

I know where to find spiders—poisonous ones—that’ll nibble your toes when you sleep!” said a mischief maker with more glee than menace.

“I won’t!” shrilled a cry of desperation. The victim? “I’ll leave the tower! Forever!”

Keir surged around the newel post and jerked to a halt above a half-circle landing full of jostling boys. Gathered en masse as they were, their troll-diseased features smote her almost physically. The deformed noses and enlarged ears seemed monstrous, and her stomach felt sick with hatred. They were trolls. They were monsters, monsters like the ones who’d lamed her pater. Like she was.

She swallowed, hard, and her perception shifted to her more usual viewpoint.

She’d been surrounded by trolls for two years now, and she’d grown accustomed to their anomalous faces and bodies. The trolls on this landing were boys, and their troll-disease not nearly so advanced as that of their elders. Just like unafflicted boys—human boys—their struggles within their hierarchy sometimes went too far. Thank Sias she was stationed in Belzetarn proper, not one of the outlying camps where few boys were present.

At the far wall of the stairwell, under the torch bracket, two of the larger boys shoved a very small one against the stones.

“Get it tonight!” growled one bully.

“Or else!” snarled the other.

“I can leave!” sobbed the small bullied one. Good grief, he looked only nine or ten years old.

Keir, standing two steps above the landing, pitched her voice to carry. “I suspect Lord Theron will not be pleased to learn that his scullions prefer fisticuffs to performing their duties in the maintenance of Lord Carbraes’ citadel.”

The two bullies turned, horror on their faces. A boy at the back edge of the crowd attempted to slip away past Keir.

Keir thrust out her arm to stay him.

“No.” She kept her voice crisp. “Each one of you will give me your name. Right. Now.”

The boys shrank from her. She recognized them now. They were not the kitchen scullions as she’d thought. Or, rather, only one of them—the young boy—hailed from the kitchens. The rest were the cleaning crew. That explained the threats regarding the kitchen boy’s bedding. The scullions who swept, scrubbed, and collected rubbish tended to forget that the kitchen boys were essential to the meals everyone ate. Why didn’t the kitchen folk clean up after their ownselves? That was their attitude.

“You!” Keir pointed. “Speak your name.”

The scullion—one in the middle of the bunch—scuffed his shoe and looked at the floor. “Dunnchad,” he mumbled.

Hells! That was a name of Fiors! Keir worked to keep her face cold and still. She hadn’t thought any from home, besides herself, had ever come to Belzetarn.

“You!” She pointed at a different lad with a crop of freckles on his cheeks.

“Adarn.” This one looked her in the face and added her honorific, “Notarius.”

The mood in the stairwell was changing, no longer shocked belligerence, not even the sheepish shame that had come instantly after, but relief. These were good boys, despite their lapse from the standards demanded of them. No doubt her authority felt good, reminding them that it was authority that kept them safe. Her authority controlled this moment. The castellanum’s authority governed their day-to-day tasks. And Regenen Carbraes’ authority ultimately secured the citadel.

Keir herself felt secure within this hierarchy of authority, although she did not like to admit it.

One by one, the boys spoke their names, the two oldest looking remorseful. As well they should! Just as the more powerful preserved them, so they owed a duty to protect those weakest in the citadel.

She indicated the kitchen scullion last.

He still fought tears, but managed to speak despite it. “Weit.”

“Good.” Keir nodded firmly and then recited the names back to them, slowly, looking at the individual who belonged to each name as she spoke it. They would not doubt that she could bring punishment home to them, if necessary.

“Now, what was this about? What were you demanding of Weit?”

The ease spreading through them vanished. They all looked at the floor. Keir almost chuckled.

“I will know.” She shook her head at Weit. Tears glassed the boy’s eyes, but he gulped valiantly, trying to answer her. “Not you, Weit. Your tormenters shall tell.” She surveyed them and fastened on the freckled boy. “You. Adarn. What did you want from Weit?”

Adarn met her gaze with effort, gripped his lower lip in his teeth, and swallowed. The boy had moral courage, and his facial features were almost human. “We wanted him to steal some of the dried lingonberries from the fruitery for a treat for us. Notarius.”

“That is your opteon’s prerogative, is it not?” she said coolly. “To reward you or not, as he deems you deserve the reward.”

Adarn winced. “Yes, Notarius.”

She took a moment to look each of the others in the eye. A ripple of ducked heads passed through them.

“Now, you will tell me what will come to pass after this attempted theft and battery.”

The boys looked puzzled.

“Notarius?” quavered Adarn.

“I shall consult your opteon, if need be, and he shall determine your punishment. But I will not tell your opteon, if you mete out an appropriate consequence to yourselves for this attempted deed of yours.”

One of the big boys next to Weit straightened and spoke up. “We shall watch out for Weit and protect him from other bullies from now on. We’ll make his bed with the best of the dortoire linens. We’ll invite him to join us when we swim in the lake.”

Thoughtful silence followed his suggestion, then hopeful glances and a few nods.

“Is that agreed amongst you all?” asked Keir.

More nods.

Freckled Adarn raised his hand. “I’ll make over the next treat my opteon grants me to him.”

Now Keir did smile. “I don’t think that’s necessary, Adarn. Protection and inclusion is sufficient in my tally.”

Adarn smiled back. “But I want to, Notarius. May I?”

“Yes, then.” Keir let her smile fade, growing stern. “I shall know if you fail of your promise. Make it good.” She paused. “Or else!”

The boys nodded more vigorously.

“Be about your tasks,” she dismissed them.

Adarn, the freckled boy, lingered, as the last save Weit trailed away up the stairs. “You were going down, weren’t you?” he queried.

Weit nodded. “Opteon sent me to get vinegar to make a lingonberry infusion.”

“I’ll come with. May I?” Adarn asked.

Weit smiled. “Sure!”

“Were you really going to leave Belzetarn?” asked Adarn. “How could you?”

“I’d have managed,” muttered Weit.

Keir realized he must be older than she’d thought. Fourteen, maybe, but small for his age. “Are you sorted?” she asked.

Weit flashed her a bright look. “Yes, Notarius! Thank you!”

He scampered for the steps down to the cellars, Adarn at his heels. As the boys disappeared below around the newel post, Gael came into sight above. He checked and slowed.

“Ah. Keir. You’ve handled it,” he stated.

The matter had been simple enough, but Keir wondered. Had she handled it? Or was there more to it than boys being boys? The missing bronze and tin gave an edge of uncertainty to even ordinary things.

* * *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 12)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 12)

In the copper smeltery, the sergeants were dusting the now-emptied ingot molds with chalk powder, while the scullions scattered the charcoal in the forge with their rakes, preparing it for the overnight cooldown.

The smith, a practical fellow with none of his neighbor Martell’s flamboyance, was examining the stack of copper ingots one by one, no doubt checking that they contained no inclusions where the metal had failed to penetrate the mold completely or where air bubbles had tainted the pour. Copper gave far more trouble than did bronze, although both required care and precision in their handling.

Gael rapped his knuckles on the waist-high counter between the privy smith and the copper smeltery.

The smeltery smith glanced up from his ingot stack, saw Gael, and beckoned him over.

“Keir told me of your schemes for greater efficiency yet,” he said. “Do you have similar plans for the mines?” The smith—Randl—looked skeptical.

“I know it is lack of raw materials that limits your output,” Gael assured him. “And, yes, I do have ideas for the mines.” That was actually true. The magus—his old friend and enemy, Nathiar—had visited the copper mines at Gael’s request, relayed through the regenen, and returned with news of a richer vein of ore, nearer to the surface. Gael had detailed one of the military engineers with determining how to safely access it, and the miners had switched to the new rock face last deichtain.

Randl nodded. “Welcome news, Secretarius.” He tilted his head. “Keeping quiet the clamor that echoed in all four stairwells earlier today would help, too. One of my sergeants landed in the hospital with severe burns because of it.”

Indeed. The copper smelter was already the most efficient of all the smiths, and a demon for work besides. There was a reason he moved over to the tin smeltery on the days that tin arrived in Belzetarn.

“I have another matter on which to consult you,” said Gael.

Randl gestured for him to continue.

“I need to melt down a disk of iron, roughly eight pounds in weight and”—Gael moved his hands—“two palms in diameter, half a finger in thickness, but with concavity of one palm’s depth.”

Randl knit his brows.

Gael continued. “The iron is inset within a disk of bronze of perhaps one hundred pounds and an ell in diameter.”

Randl shook his head. “I cannot melt the iron boss using my forges, Secretarius” he said.

Gael’s innards sank. “You cannot?”

“Tin melts easily,” said Randl. “Heat scarcely hotter than a bread oven takes it liquid.” Yes, Gael knew that. He wasn’t a smith, but one learned a great deal when managing smithies. Randl continued, “Bronze requires heat fourfold that of tin. And copper yet more again.”

Gael nodded. He knew this too.

“But iron . . .” Randl’s lips pressed straight. “I might be able to get the copper furnace hot enough to bend iron, but melting it to liquid . . .” Randl shook his head again “. . . would require more than sixfold the heat for tin. I could not do it.”

Randl intended his explanation to be discouraging, preventing his superior from wasting valuable time and effort on a wild gos chase, no doubt. But Gael’s heart rose at the smith’s words. Perhaps warping the gong would be sufficient to prevent its weakening effect. That was an avenue worth exploring.

“Bending the iron might be sufficient for my purposes,” said Gael. “Will you—”

A cacophony of shouts echoed from the stairwell at the back of the adjacent blade smithy—the Regenen Stair.

Gael and Randl frowned at one another.

The shouts grew louder.

Gael waved Randl back to his copper ingots, himself stepping away.

“I will speak with you more on this matter of iron,” said Gael.

Randl nodded, and Gael strode toward the shouts as their excited tenor gained hostility.

* * *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 11)

Gael paused in the passage at the bottom of the Regenen Stair.

Well, it wasn’t the uttermost bottom. The lowest levels of the kitchen annex, slabbed onto the southeast side of the tower, lay a few twists below the forges. But the smithies—his smithies—occupied the foundations of the tower proper.

So he stood a moment, listening to the roaring of the furnaces, the clang of hammers on metal, the shouts of the smiths, and the hissing of quenched bronze, all of it echoing off massive stone piers and heavy stone groins.

This was his realm as much as the tally room. His tally room governed these vast, dark, hot vaults, lit only by the white orange glow escaping the forges and the whiter orange incandescence of the molten bronze.

More often than not, the smiths blanketed the deep embrasures of the tower arrowslits with leather hides, not needing sunlight because of the brightness of the heated metals; not wanting sunlight, because the darkness allowed them to better judge the precise moment when the molten metal had reached the right color—and heat—for pouring; or when the annealed metal grew ripe for tempering.

The Regenen Stair debouched at the back of the blade smithy.

Gael could see the scullion at the twin bellows. The inflating and deflating leather sacks pulsed like beating hearts, pushing air over the forge coals at just the right rate to produce the right heat. The smith and his sergeants were checking the blade mold, assuring themselves that the straps holding it closed were tight and assessing its temperature. The mold required heating to ensure that the molten metal would flow into it properly and would come out of the mold—once solid—without damaging it.

The heat of the smithy had not yet penetrated Gael’s suede robes, but the dry air baked the skin of his face and hands.

Yet he was not here to question the bladesmith. Not this time.

To the left of the blade smithy lay the tin smeltery and the grinding smithy, the smeltery close to the center of the vault where the furnaces for refining the tin glowed, the grindery at the perimeter of the tower’s foundation.

The mighty piers holding up the ceiling arches and the waist-high walls separating the different smithies hid much of the tin smeltery from Gael’s gaze. The grinding smithy was entirely veiled by curtains of leather hide. Perhaps Keir stood within them now, talking with the notary there. Gael did not see the boy elsewhere.

The grinding smith needed all the sunlight pouring through the embrasures on his side of the tower, so that he could be sure each blade was polished to perfection, its edge sharp and perfect, without flaw. The leather curtains contained the sunlight which would otherwise overwhelm the white orange glow of the forges that every other smith depended upon.

To Gael’s right, the fully walled storage rooms blocked his view of the copper smeltery and the privy smithy where he was headed.

He took a moment more to savor the smoothly working operation that the smithies had become. The smiths, their sergeants, and their scullions moved with assurance. The ring of hammer on bronze formed a sort of music. And, most important, the metal ingots entered the smithies, moved through them, and exited in the controlled flow that Gael had introduced.

When Gael took over their management at Lord Carbraes’ behest, each smithy had used a different tallying system—not one of which matched the other. Each smith had requisitioned ingots haphazardly, and sometimes a smithy went dark for an entire waxing moon merely because the tin vault lay empty.

Gael knew that the sure supply of the metals they needed generated the calm demeanor of the smiths, which flowed in turn to their underlings. Despite the heat and the din—the roar of the fires, the ring of pounding hammers, the shouted orders—these smithies were as much a haven for the workers of metal as the tally room was a refuge for he who counted.

Gael edged along the side wall of the blade smithy—the wall dividing the smithy from the storage rooms—and then along the back wall of the copper smeltery. He reached the privy smithy as Martell flourished a bronze ewer overhead.

“Ah! Ha, ha! Look at it! Look! Is it not fine?” Martell turned, his beaky nose with its small ornamental ring gleaming, and caught sight of Gael. “Look at the scrollwork where the handle meets the vessel! And these—the flourishes at the top where the spout attaches!” The smith strode toward Gael to hold the ewer for his close inspection. “Say I do good work!” he demanded, grinning. Sweat stood out on his brow and dewed the frizzles of his hair, escaping from its braid.

Gael smothered the smile on his lips, but let it reach his eyes. “You do good work,” he agreed.

“This ewer! The serving platter I completed this morning! And this! This, too!” Martell rummaged in a heap of utensils—kitchen knives, roasting spit jacks, awls—seized on a graceful bowl, and drew it out. “Magnificent! All of it! And to you I owe it all!” he exclaimed. “Before, it was always Martell who went short when the tin lacked, when the bronze was insufficient. But now—now Martell makes beauty to soothe the soul, and all Belzetarn is better because of it!”

Gael laid a hand on the smith’s arm. “That is true, my friend. May I have a word?”

Martell looked surprised. He shrugged, handed the bowl and ewer to one scullion, and turned to issue instructions to another. The afternoon was getting late, but evidently the privy smithy would be pouring at least one more item before they put their forge to bed.

Martell drew Gael around the massive pier separating the privy smithy from the armor smithy to the deeper shadows. “You have trouble, my friend. I sense it, I, Martell. But tell me!”

This was awkward, but Gael had been dealing with Martell’s enthusiasm for years.

“The trouble, my friend, is you.”

Martell looked more surprised yet. “But, no! How could this be? Martell is your most ardent supporter.”

Gael let a dry chuckle escape him. “Well do I know it, my friend. But this is the old trouble. The trouble with the tallies from the privy smithy.”

“Ah! Yes! The ingots coming in to the privy smithy are not matched by the weight of the beauty leaving it! Ah! I know this trouble, I, Martell! But I have explained, my friend. Art is not precise! Art requires passion! The tallying—it is anathema to the creativity. You understand this, my friend! Yes?”

Gael suppressed another smile. The issue was serious—missing tin, so precious tin—but Martell always amused Gael, even gave Gael joy. For Martell was one of Gael’s successes. The privy smith had been morose when Gael first arrived. Now he was ebullient, even while he made absurd claims. Martell might say that art needed precision less than it needed inspiration, but his art—made in metal—required great precision and care in the percentages of tin versus copper and in the heat applied to both.

Martell might be sloppy with the tallies he permitted his notary, but he was not sloppy with his medium.

“I do understand, my friend, but your tallies have slipped further from true yet again. I can allow you a few ounces, even up to half an ingot. But a full ingot’s worth is too far.”

Martell’s mouth, mobile beneath his beaky nose, drooped. “But, no, my friend! Surely not!”

Gael nodded firmly. “It is so, my friend. And I will need your good will to set it straight.”

Martell’s eyes brightened. “Ah! Then, trouble there is none, for you have my best will and always will! Tell me, and we solve it all!”

“I hope so,” replied Gael. “Will your good will extend to my notarius? To Keir?”

“But of course! Keir, he is your right hand. Courtesy to Keir is naught but courtesy to you!”

“Good. Because Keir will come down to your smithy in the morning after all the smiths have received their metals, and you must not start until after Keir has counted and tallied your ingots after their arrival. Can you do that, my friend?”

Dismay crossed Martell’s face. “Keir shall count my ingots?”

There was no point in adjuring Martell’s notary to tally more carefully. Martell had him utterly subjugated and would snatch the metal away before the notary was half done. But Keir was more than a match for Martell.

“Will you let Keir be my hands? For me, my friend?”

“Ah! For you, yes! For you I will do any and all! Ah!”

Gael patted Martell’s shoulder. “Good. And then again in the evening, when the scullion is ready to carry the finished implements, the residual metals, and any unbroken ingots away, you must send another scullion to fetch Keir from the bronze vault. And Keir will weigh the exiting material.” Gael overrode the smith’s voluble response. “For me, my friend. Will you do it?”

“Ah, ha!” broke in Martell. “I see it now! You doubt my notary!”

Gael shook his head. “I doubt your notary not at all. It is your own enthusiasm and haste that is the culprit, my friend. And those will not be stemmed by your devoted notary. You know it is so.”

“Ah, ha, ha! It is so. You know me, my friend, you do!”

Gael took Martell’s hand and grasped it. “I do know you, Martell. Will you help me thusly? Will you hold to your promise tomorrow, even in the rush of your artistry?”

Martell’s hand returned the pressure of Gael’s. “I will do it, yes. I make you my promise!”

“Good!” Gael patted the smith’s shoulder once more, withdrew his clasped hand, and moved back around the sheltering pier toward the copper smeltery. Behind him, Martell burst into voluble instructions to his underlings.

* * *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 12)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 10)

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