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)

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)

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.

* * *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 10)

Chapter 3

In the upper reaches of the Regenen Stair, numerous arrowslits brought in light during the hours when the sun shone. But the tower’s foundations were broader than its heights, which meant the lowest twists of the stair were too far from the outer walls to make arrowslits practical. There, torches burned even by day, black soot stains on the stone vaulting above each.

As Keir and Gael passed the wide archway into the servery for the Regenen’s Kitchen, a shout hailed them.

Gael halted on the landing. “Go ahead of me, boy,” he told Keir. “Best we arrive in the smithies separately anyway, to avoid giving undue importance to your inquiries.”

Keir nodded, quickly disappearing around the newel post.

“Gael!” came the shout again from the Regenen’s Kitchen.

Gael entered the servery, a spacious chamber that grew crowded and chaotic only when the scullions clustered there, intent on grabbing the multitude of dishes they would deliver to the great halls for the morning meal or the evening feast. Between meals, the servery remained empty, its peace disturbed only by echoes from the adjacent kitchen.

A wide hatch with a broad stone sill that served as a counter occupied the wall to Gael’s left. The scullions loaded their trays at this hatch. Right now, a lean troll—with short, straight brown hair and brown eyes—perched on its sill, apparently unworried that his clogs sullied its cleanliness. His nose possessed the characteristic elongation and upward turn, but his ears—revealed by his cropped hair—remained small and well-formed. Like those of their overlord Carbraes.

Various food stains marked the apron that swathed him.

“Barris!” Gael greeted him.

Barris’ brown eyes lit, and he swung himself down from the hatch to stand leaning against its sill.

“Ha!” he exclaimed. “I hoped you’d climb out of your tally room before it buried you! Where’ve you been, you slacker?”

Gael suppressed his grin. “Slaving in my tally room, of course. Mule-horse! Missed me, did you?” It was true that Gael usually exchanged at least a few words with Barris after the metals check out. Like Arnoll, Barris was his good friend.

This morning, he’d been determined to track down the error in his tallies. The error which had proved to be no error.

“Have you heard that Carbraes has caved at last?” said Barris.

What?

“Dreben’s getting his gladiatorial ring as soon as he cares to organize it.” Disapproval laced Barris’ usually insouciant tone. “Probably yesterday, knowing Dreben.”

“From whom did you learn this?” asked Gael.

Dreben was brigenen—first in command—of the First Cohort of Belzetarn’s First Legion. He was a short, tough troll with a mean streak. Gael had disliked him ever since he’d found the brigenen’s bastan huddled outside the armory, bruised and sobbing. Evidently Dreben had needed a punching bag as an outlet for his temper and decided the bastan would do fine. Gael gathered that it wasn’t so much the bruises as Dreben’s caustic tongue that had upset the boy, who refused all aid, scuttling away from Gael’s offers.

“From the castellanum’s prime notary to the kitchens’ notary to me,” said Barris. “Doubt it’s merely rumor.”

“Hells.”

Carbraes believed that drill kept the warriors fit, spit-and-polish duty kept them busy, and sparring kept them ready to fight. Dreben, continuously agitating for sparring with live bronze in addition to inert wood, claimed that only the risk of serious injury during practice bouts would keep a troll sharp. Why had Carbraes given in to him?

Barris shook his head. “Notarius Prime says—”

A scullion appeared on the kitchen-side of the serving hatch. “Sir? Opteon?” Unlike Keir, he was servile in getting his superior’s attention.

“What is it, lad?” Despite the interruption, Barris answered the boy kindly.

The scullion bobbed an anxious bow. “Sir, I’m to start the butter sauce, but I can’t remember if I add the dried sage with the flour, or if it goes in later. And I don’t hardly like to ask Fayn, sir.”

“No, no. I understand.” Barris smiled. “You’ll be using dried sage? Not fresh?”

“Yes, sir. The dried powder from the larder, not fresh leaves from the garden. Fayn said that especial.”

“No doubt he prefers the stronger flavor,” Barris explained. “Very well. Mix it in well with the flour, and be careful not to overcook the roux after you’ve added the flour mixture to the butter. Pour the milk the instant you smell that toasting scent coming off it.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

The scullion scurried away. Just before he left earshot, Barris called, “Be sure to swing the pot well to the side of the hearth once the sauce is done! It needs to stay warm, but shouldn’t be cooked past the finish!”

The boy nodded anxiously as he passed around the corner.

“I should be on my way,” said Gael.

“Stay a minute.” Barris’ geniality with his underling shifted to uneasiness. He lowered his voice. “Do you think Carbraes could be slipping?”

“Do you?”

“No. But—no.” Barris studied his clogs, then looked up again. “If Carbraes ever goes down, Belzetarn won’t be a reasonable refuge anymore. You know this.”

Gael didn’t nod, studying his own foot gear: soft leather, knotted thongs, the shoes of a troll who needn’t worry about cooking knives dropped or swords slashing in battle.

Barris touched Gael’s arm. “As secretarius, you see Belzetarn from the top. I don’t. Do you think Carbraes is weakening?”

Gael thought of Carbraes as he’d just seen him at noon: relaxed, powerful, and fully in control.

“No. Not at all.”

Barris’ breath whooshed out in a loud sigh. “That’s a relief.”

Gael’s mouth twisted up. “You know I’d warn you, if ever real risk approached.”

Barris stared at Gael. “Huh. You would, wouldn’t you?”

“Bet on it.” He clapped Barris on the shoulder.

“Oh, I do!” Barris was grinning again.

Time to change the subject. “Listen, I’m trying to track down an anomaly.” This was the real reason he’d stopped at Barris’ hail. “Maybe nothing serious; maybe serious, but only in my purview. If it’s what I suspect, there should be a string or two that leads under other doors.

“You’re an observant fellow, Barris. The other opteons in the regenen’s kitchens and the castellanum’s kitchens and all the other kitchens can’t see beyond their cook pots and menus. But you recognize that changes in orders to the kitchens reflect the concerns of the castellanum and of the regenen himself. All Belzetarn is reflected in the kitchen annex.”

Barris nodded, looking pleased.

“Have you observed anything unusual lately? Maybe something small or innocuous, but something different.”

Barris’ brows tensed. “There is one thing . . .”

“Yes?” said Gael.

“You know how we ‘peons’ are given various dainties as reward and incentive?” Barris’ sarcastic tone on the word ‘peon’ reflected his opinion of the practice. He was no peon, being one in the trio of chief cooks in the Regenen’s Kitchen.

But patronage was how the entire troll society within Belzetarn operated.

Gael had heard tales about the previous regenen, who preferred thrashings to motivate his followers. Carbraes granted extra sauna privileges or a cup of mead or an afternoon of rest when he was pleased, and his officers followed his lead. Much more effective, surely, and certainly more civilized.

Barris might not like being condescended to, but most trolls were happy to receive a treat. Gael lifted an eyebrow. “Was Theron especially gracious to you?”

The castellanum had learned that Barris gave only dignified thanks for presents and snarky backchat in response to a superior’s haughty disdain. Barris would never have kept his position, if he’d cooked in the Castellanum’s Kitchen instead of the Regenen’s.

Barris snorted. “Oh, it’s nothing to do with me.” His amusement faded. “But the castellanum is scattering his dainties with greater abandon than usual. He’s granted several trolls from the Hunters’ Lodge dining privileges in the lower great hall.” The hunters ate their meals in the Hunters’ Lodge not in the tower proper, just as the physicians ate in the dining hall of the hospital and the leatherworkers in the Artisans’ Lodge. Barris shifted impatiently. “Hells! He even invited Martell to join him at the high table.”

“The privy smith?” That startled Gael. A smith was no peon either. Indeed, a smith received honor equal to that of a brigenen of the legions. Or an opteon in the kitchens. But neither of those were candidates for dining at the regenen’s table with the castellanum, the march, the magus, and the regenen himself. Gael dined there. But he was the regenen’s secretarius, one of the four officers through whom Carbraes governed his troll horde.

Barris bit his lip. “Theron’s up to something.”

And that was the tip Gael was looking for.

* * *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 9)

Gael had returned to the tally chamber after talking with the quartermaster, and was preparing to descend to the smithies, when Keir came in. The boy was his usual collected self—unlike his previous entrance—but there seemed a hidden tautness in him.

Gael finished swinging the inner shutters of the casements open, and the golden afternoon light shone in, illuminating the dust in the air and casting circle-patterned rectangles of brightness on the pigeonhole cabinets. He leaned a hip against the stone of the casement sill and gestured for Keir to speak.

“Eighty-two ingots of tin,” Keir said. A hint of trouble shadowed his eyes.

“And . . . ?” said Gael.

“I re-tallied the copper vault and the bronze vault as well.”

Ah. That explained what had taken the boy so long.

Gael lifted an eyebrow.

“Four-hundred-twelve ingots of copper. Ninety-four ingots of bronze.”

Gael noticed his hand clenching into a fist and unclenched it. Ninety-four. Where there should be ninety-five. The bronze vault was not due for tallying until the waxing moon. That was clever of Keir to realize that if the tin count was off, so might the count be off in the other vaults. But not the copper vault. Just precious tin. And precious bronze.

“It is a thief,” Keir said. “Isn’t it?”

Gael nodded, reluctantly. He knew very well that trolls—like men—were not saints, but he’d wanted to believe that their worst lay outside Belzetarn on the battlefields, not within it.

“Should I re-tally the oxhide vault and the pebble vault?” Keir asked. He meant the stores of partially refined metals that came directly from the mines.

“That will need doing, yes,” answered Gael. “But first I want you to talk with the notaries of all the smithies. Take their signed reports from yesterday and the day before, and go over them with each. Ask them about how the smithing went, and determine if something unusual could have caused an error in their tallies.”

Keir moved to the cabinet on the right side of Gael’s desk and started taking the relevant parchments from a pigeonhole.

“Be indirect,” said Gael. “Keep the thief, if there is one”—he knew his hope that there might not be to be a forlorn one—“from hearing we’re onto his theft.”

Keir looked up from his parchments with an expression of slight disdain on his face. “I won’t even let on there’s a problem with the tally,” he said coolly. “As far as they are concerned, we’re looking at efficiency and ways to improve it.”

Gael felt his lip curl. He suspected Keir was better at concealing tally room business than was Gael himself.

“I’m headed for the smithies also, but before we go . . .”

Keir had been stuffing the parchments into his portfolio. His hands stilled.

Gael wasn’t quite sure where to begin.

“My lord Carbraes bade me examine the prize brought in by the Third Cohort.”

Keir’s face grew as still as his hands. Typical of him. Thusly was the boy’s most acute interest marked: by withdrawal rather than drawing nearer.

Gael continued, “I have performed that examination, and it is an evil thing, fashioned such that its resonance drains the energea of all within hearing. I am certain that the regenen will wish me to pursue the matter to some safer outcome, and I . . . wish it, too.” He felt surprise at his stated conclusion. His hatred for that gong, locked in his quarters, had only grown in the brief time since he’d left it. Why would he wish to tinker with it further? “Some method of rendering the thing harmless”—or of destroying it, he would dearly love to destroy it—“must be devised. And I . . . am likely the best choice to do so.”

“The magus?” asked Keir.

“Is not,” answered Gael.

“Because . . . ?”

“Because the magus would prefer that Belzetarn’s smithies forge magical blades to match those wielded by the mountain folk, the Ghriana. He forgets—or chooses to ignore—that the trolls who practice magery sink to madness and death that much faster.”

Keir swallowed, his cool demeanor troubled. Gael realized he’d never admitted his own negative opinions of his colleague so frankly before.

Then the boy bore up, lifting his chin. “You’ll require that I carry the tasks of the tally room forward, while you pursue the destruction of the gong.”

That was it in a nutshell.

“Yes.”

Keir flushed, most uncharacteristically. “Will you instruct me now?” he asked. “Or later, after check in?”

“You need no instruction.” That was blunt, but accurate. “You could run the tally chamber entirely without me at need.” Gael nodded. “On the morrow, in the morning, you’ll check the metals out to the smithy scullions and lodge scullions without me.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gael admired Keir’s ability to be respectful without a trace of servility. Not all the trolls possessed it.

“But we’ll do the evening checking in together. I want to know if any more ingots go missing.” He couldn’t keep the grim tone out of his voice. It infuriated him that someone had breached his control over the metals flowing through the tower. The thief—if thief it was—would be sorry when Gael found him.

* * *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 8)

The sky had been overcast, that summer noon two years ago, but the air moved less wildly than was usual on the island of Fiors, a mere warm breeze ruffling the shore grasses instead of whipping the knee-high strands.

Keiran—she’d been Keiran, not Keir, before she came to Belzetarn—stopped walking, turned her face up with closed eyes, and stretched her arms. The heat of the sun coming through the thin cloud cover felt good, as did the waffling of her light wool tunic against her midriff. Her long blond braid touched gently against her back. The hanging strings of her suede skirt had slapped her thighs as she strode, a happy rhythm lacking in colder seasons. But the soft leather of her right shoe—cut low and secured with two thongs across the bridge of her foot—had rubbed a blister on her smallest toe.

She didn’t care. She felt so free—free of constraint and free of care—on these warm days, with the salt scent of the sea in her nose and its salt taste on her lips.

“Keiran?” came the amused voice of her pater.

Keiran opened her eyes and grinned at him.

Engis stood some paces ahead of her, a big man with powerful shoulders and a craggy face—formidable in repose, but approachable when his eyes smiled as they did now. He wore an ankle-length robe of green wool, rather than the short tunic and trews preferred by most tribesmen. It camouflaged the peg leg that tended to disturb his neighbors.

“If magery could make me fly,” said Keiran, “I’d leave the ground right now, soaring.”

Pater’s laugh rumbled. “You did good work, back in Gullins, on little Peadar.”

The toddler had been her most complicated use of magery yet. He’d fallen in the estuary and been fished out unbreathing. Keiran had gotten his lungs clear of water, heart beating again, and then nursed him through a waning moon of lung fever, all under her pater’s supervision. He’d insisted she was ready when she’d attempted to hand little Peadar off to him in the crisis. And he’d been right. She’d just told the boy’s mother that Peadar was fully recovered and needed no more of Keiran’s attendance.

“Pater, why have you emphasized healing so much in my training?” she asked. “You spend more time strengthening the warriors’ knives and bucklers than anything else.”

His face hardened a moment, then relaxed. His lips quirked. “Come.” He beckoned. “This afternoon’s lesson will not be midwifery or chirurgery or even herbal preparation.” He turned away to follow the sandy path toward the dunes ahead. Step, thump. Step, thump.

Keiran studied his gait. Was it just a bit more uneven than usual? A little halting?

“Pater!” she called.

He kept walking.

She trotted to catch up to him. “Your stump is bothering you, isn’t it?”

She was close enough to hear his answering sigh. “It’ll keep.”

Keiran nibbled her lip. He wouldn’t thank her for coddling him, but she wished he were less stoic sometimes. She’d never noticed it when she was younger—taking his strength for granted—but all her healing knowledge informed her that he would fare better with more breaks for rest than he generally took.

The path widened, and Engis let her come alongside him.

“Aren’t you curious about what I’ll be teaching you?” he asked.

Keiran nodded.

“You’ll be summoning fishes and then sending them back to the deeps again when they come.”

“Why?” She could imagine such might be useful, if she fished for her living. But for a mage?

“If you can summon a fish and then dismiss it, you can learn to dismiss beings of greater power.” His voice grew edged. “I would have you strong enough to dismiss the afflicted, if need be.”

Keiran swallowed her annoyance and sympathy both. So many things came back to this, but how could they not? Engis had lost his lower leg to the attack of renegade trolls, and his hatred for the truldemagar was a personal thing, far sharper than that felt by the tribe as a whole.

Engis prepared for the next renegade band who would threaten him or his family, while the tribe prepared for the next time the troll horde migrated over the sea, inundating Fiors en route as it had done in Keiran’s grandmother’s youth.

Keiran stayed silent. There was nothing useful she could say that she hadn’t said before.

Her forbearance had its reward.

Engis sighed again. “I suppose we could stop at home first. Rub some goose grease into the scar before we go shoreward.”

The sea breeze, the rustling grasses, and the faint cry of a gull faded.

The shores of Fiors would never be her home again. She stood in the claustrophobic tin vault of Belzetarn, oppressed by its heavy stones, and counting tin.

She’d just tallied the last ingot, and there were eighty-two. Not eighty-three.

Who had stolen that eighty-third? And why? And—more importantly—how could she and Gael catch him, whoever he was?

These were questions currently without answers.

But Keir had an idea for what to do next.

* * *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 7)

Keir disliked the tin vault.

It was narrower than either the copper or the bronze vaults, more like a corridor than a chamber. Only one arrowslit lit the space, and its casement possessed panes of translucent horn, not glass, making the light very dim. The flat smell of the tin hung in the air. The heavy stone groins holding up the arched ceiling were oppressive, the cramped space was oppressive, and Keir felt oppressed.

She could imagine herself buried deep beneath the earth in a blood wyrm’s cavern. The tin repository seemed more like a monster’s lair than a treasure vault located high in a fortified tower.

It was the very opposite to everything she’d known until two years ago: the flat salt marshes under a wide sky of clear blue, swept by gauzy clouds; the round reed huts clustered on the strand between marsh and ocean; the vast stretch of tossing waves, all the way to the distant horizon. Her home.

But she had a job to do here. Both the immediate one—the re-tallying of tin assigned by Gael—and the more comprehensive, longer term one she’d assigned herself.

Standing before the stone ledge that formed the base of the vault wall, she lifted the peaked lid of the first in a row of wooden caskets. Each casket was square and small—less than a foot in length, width, and height—and its lid echoed the shape of the ingots within it, slanting up on all four sides toward a flat, square top.

The ingots themselves, arranged in four nested stacks, had flat rims around their square bases, and one would fit in the palm of her hand.

There should be sixteen in this casket, four in each of the four stacks. She counted them out onto the ledge, each one weighing sixteen ounces—light individually, heavy when you stacked enough together. Heavy when you considered what they did: forming the weapons with which the troll horde had once—before she was born—assailed her people on their island home of Fiors. Her people, armed only with flint knives and flint-tipped spears, had stood no chance against the bronze-wielding truldemagar.

Without tin, the truldemagar would not have bronze. And tin was rare. So rare that even a small pebble of it was precious, while an entire ingot . . . an entire ingot might make a man—or a troll—wealthy.

Sixteen ingots of tin.

She counted four of them back into the casket. Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.

She marked four tallies on her parchment with her quill. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.

She counted the next four ingots into the casket, tallied them, and did the same for the next four and the last four.

Sixteen ingots. Sixteen tallies. There was no way error could explain the missing ingot. Keir was surprised Gael had even mentioned the possibility. His control of the tin—and the copper and the bronze—flowing through Belzetarn was absolute. That had been clear from the moment he’d taken her as his assistant and trained her in the systems he’d devised.

Each morning, Keir counted nine ingots of copper from the copper vault into the rucksack of the blade scullion sent to fetch metal for the blade smithy, while Gael tallied them. Then Keir put one tin ingot from the tin vault into that rucksack, and Gael tallied it.

When the scullion delivered the ingots to the blade smith, the blade notary tallied them. And, in the evening, when the scullion delivered the forged blades back to the bronze vault—ready for grinding and polishing the next day—Keir weighed them, and Gael tallied them. Then he tallied the one bronze ingot always poured—from excess metal—after the forging of eight blades, except on days when the blade smithy made arrowheads and spearheads and created no excess.

Similar checks and tallies controlled the metals flowing through the other smithies: the grinding smithy; the annealing smithy; the hilt maker; the armor smithy, where the scales and wire were forged for scale armor, as well as the greaves and helmets; and the privy smithy, where tools for the kitchens and the tannery and all the other offices were made. Every ounce of metal was tallied by Gael and Keir together.

Keir knit her brows.

Gael’s systems were flawless. But the trolls who used them . . .

The blade smith would never make an error, nor would he ever steal. Smithing was his calling, and bladesmithing was sacred. Keir found his obsession a little scary, but it meant he was trustworthy.

The grinding smith was a practical sort, matter-of-fact and phlegmatic. The annealing smith was precise. The armor smith . . . was kind. He and Gael were close friends.

All the smiths were reliable, except the privy smith. Martell was artistic and flamboyant, exploring the ornamental possibilities in household items, especially those used at the regenen’s table and in the regenen’s chambers or the castellanum’s. He tried varying mixtures of copper and tin. And his tallies were always in arrears.

But never by an entire ingot’s worth.

Well, that wasn’t true. Martell had been in arrears by as much as an ingot. Several times. But the tally chamber had always been able to track down the error.

And the privy smith was honest, despite his inexactitude. Martell would not have stolen an ingot, but he might have provided the opportunity for another troll to do so.

Keir locked the first casket of tin. She moved to the next, counting and tallying the ingots.

Sixteen.

Perhaps Gael had been thinking of Martell, when he spoke of error as the reason for the missing ingot. The privy smith had been caught in error before. Keir had caught him just in the last waxing moon. The weight of the ingots going into the privy smith had been less than the weight of implements and ingots coming out, and by more than the usual few ounces.

Why couldn’t Martell simply put the beakers and knives and nails he made on the blasted scale? But, no. He persisted in having his notary write the number of ounces each item should weigh next to that item on the list. Which had undoubtedly worked fine when he adhered to the standard designs. Since he’d begun pursuing his art—soon after Keir arrived at Belzetarn—the weights changed with his changing innovations.

His error last waxing moon?

Keir had noticed a ladle in the carry sack of the privy scullion headed to the kitchens, said ladle failing to appear on the list at all. She’d added it, along with its standard weight, and the privy smithy’s input and output had then matched, as much as they ever did.

If the privy smith had managed to use an entire ingot of tin without recording it—unlikely, given that Martell was experimenting with copper-rich mixtures far more than tin-rich ones—the tally room would never learn where that tin had gone. The products from the privy smithy dispersed too widely.

But Keir didn’t think it was error.

And she didn’t think Gael thought so either. Why was he pretending he did? Because he wanted to keep Keir out of the ugliness? To protect Keir?

She suspected that was it.

What in the North would Gael do if he learned Keir was not the boy he thought her, but a young woman? Or did he know already? He might. He was subtle enough to penetrate her secret and never let on that he knew it, even to Keir herself. And he was protective enough—claiming Keir’s youth as his reason—that knowing her gender might occasion no change in either his behavior or his demeanor.

In that respect—if in no other—Gael reminded her of her father.

Keir removed the tin ingots from the third casket and swallowed hard against the sudden tightness in her throat. Would she always miss her pater—her father? Their interchange had been such a mix of irritation and affection on her last day at home.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 6)

Later, sitting before his desk in his tally room once again, he thought about what he’d observed.

Sounding the gong impelled its living energea to action, draining energea from—all who heard it?—funneling that energea into the gong’s heart, and then sending it out into the world to . . . where? Or whom? And why? He didn’t know, but he had to find out.

In the meantime, he’d checked the balcony outside his chambers, and no one had fallen from that height to the floor of the great hall below it. Thank Tiamar. He’d sent a messenger to the privy smithy, requesting a bronze padlock for his storeroom door to be ready immediately. Meaning tonight, before the privy smith put the forge to bed. And he still had this morning’s tallies to format for tomorrow’s review, as well as the rumor about sword breakage to follow up. (Was it really true that the breakage rate was up? He doubted it.)

In other words, he had his normal work to do.

It was almost automatic, after seven years of tallying and preparing compiled reports of his tallies. Dividing his attention, he could keep his quill sharp and filled with ink, transfer the rough tallies from their parchments to the comparison compilations without error, and sand the wet ink so it did not smudge, while another part of his mind entertained thoughts altogether unrelated to his tallying tasks.

His quill scratched, and the parchments rustled. Faint shouts drifted up from the artisans’ yard below, barely heard through the glass of his casements and the wood louvers of the inner shutters. Footsteps sounded in the stairwell outside the closed door—normal traffic—swift and pattering messengers, slow and tramping porters carrying heavy loads, decisive magnos climbing to attend the march. The tallow dips burned steadily in the still air.

Gael found himself considering again the matter of loyalty and how accurately any one man—or troll—could assess another’s loyalty. Carbraes had assessed Gael’s loyalty well. But who could match Carbraes’ acuity? Could Gael do so?

How well did Gael know even his friends, here in Belzetarn?

Take Arnoll, the armor smith. Gael had known him longest, right from the moment of his arrival in Belzetarn’s bailey. He’d never forget that moment, as he lay bleeding in the snow, more dead than alive and uncertain if he even wished for life.

The scouts of the First Cohort in the Second Legion had dragged him in—although he’d not known their status at the time—tossed him down, and summoned the regenen.

Gael had figured he was done for.

Certainly his wanderings in the wild—starving, cold, and lost—were over. Either the regenen would take him in (Gael didn’t think he wanted that) or the regenen would kill him. (Gael knew he didn’t want that. But what choice did he have?)

Carbraes’ icy blue gaze had felt as piercing as the scouts’ spears when they had captured him. “Check him,” the regenen ordered the troll standing beside him. Arnoll.

Ah, Arnoll.

Gael had barely noticed the smith’s burly shoulders, his curling iron gray hair, or the small char marks on his buff apron of calfskin, burned by sparks flying from his forge. Arnoll’s blue eyes were warm, where Carbraes’ were cold, and Arnoll’s tanned and leathery face was kind.

He’d knelt beside Gael, saying, “Fear naught, lad. You’ve come home, given I see what I expect to see.”

Arnoll’s gaze went distant as he consulted his inner sight. Then he nodded and rose. “Troll,” he said to Lord Carbraes.

“Get him up,” commanded Carbraes.

The scouts hauled Gael to his feet.

Carbraes faced him square, quite close. “Belzetarn is my citadel. All who dwell here obey me. Without exception. In return, I grant shelter, food, clothing, and my unshakeable defense. While you reside under me, none of my enemies shall strike you down unopposed.” The regenen paused, studying Gael a moment before he continued. “The unafflicted are my enemies. Every single one free of the truldemagar. Is that clear?” The regenen’s voice was crisp. His authority emanated from him like heat from the sun.

Gael shook his head, confused and in pain, but Carbraes seemed to take his ‘no’ for a ‘yes.’

“Swear loyalty to me now, and you will live and heal. Deny me, and you die.”

Gael wondered if he dreamed. The scene—a snowy bailey bounded by stone fortifications and paced by troll warriors, his own blood spotting the ice crystals, a tall black tower farther up the slope reaching toward the overcast sky—seemed unreal. And yet Carbraes’ words were real. Gael knew, deep in his gut, that Carbraes meant them.

“No,” he choked.

Carbraes nodded, unoffended by Gael’s refusal. The regenen lifted a hand, about to order Gael’s execution.

“Wait!” Arnoll caught his regenen’s arm. “Let the physician see to his wounds. Let me make cogent argument to him. This is a man who responds to reason, where he will not respond to bare force. My lord.”

How had Arnoll known?

Carbraes met Arnoll’s entreating gaze, his own stern. He turned to scrutinize Gael. “Very well. Summon me when you deem him ready to make that reasoned choice.” Had there been sarcasm in that word ‘reasoned’? Gael still didn’t know.

But Arnoll had convinced Gael. Not through reason, as things fell out, but through Arnoll’s almost fatherly care for the trolls for whom he forged armor in the smithy at Belzetarn’s roots. Arnoll was no enemy to the unafflicted ones, but he was a staunch partisan to the trolls.

“Would you exile a man because he contracted lung fever?” Arnoll argued. “Or because a blow to his head stole his wits? The afflicted deserve care and healing, not exile and death.”

Gael wasn’t convinced that was a fair comparison. He himself had contracted the truldemagar while dragging men into the earth by magery, there to suffocate. No innocence gilded his past. Surely many of Carbraes’ trolls had performed deeds equally foul to bring the disease upon them.

Not that Gael regretted his choice. He would protect his king, Heiroc, all over again in just the same way, had he to do the past over. But he was not innocent in the way a man sickened by plague or maimed by an accident was innocent.

Despite his lack of innocence, when Gael’s wounds had healed and Arnoll brought Carbraes to hear Gael’s oath, Gael had sworn fealty to the regenen. And, thus far, had not regretted it. Carbraes was . . . worthy of loyalty.

Gael shook his head, smiling, and pulled his thoughts away from the past. How was it that memory had claimed him so thoroughly? Twice, now. Was it the gong? Or something else that prompted him to visit what he normally avoided? Every troll learned that there was little profit to gain from remembering one’s losses. For every troll had lost his former life, the one he led before his vile transformation.

Enough.

The morning’s routine tallies were ready for the morrow. He shook the sand from the final parchment, laid it atop the stack, and set that stack in the low pigeonhole he reserved for the most recent records.

Where was Keir? Surely the boy should have finished re-tallying the tin.

Gael wanted to check that re-tally against the original before he visited the quartermaster about sword breakage and before he consulted the various smiths about melting down that injurious gong. Should he go in search of Keir? Or assume Keir would catch up with him when the re-tally was complete?

Gael brought his assistant before his mind’s eye: ash blond; gray-eyed; slim and slight, still more a child than a young man, and yet with the cool control and the cool logic of one fully grown. Coolly observant, too. Keir missed little.

Cool.

The word might have been coined to describe Keir. And yet Gael did not find the boy cold or heartless. He would swear that hidden beneath Keir’s collected demeanor lay the potential for heat, passion, and anger. Even vengeance.

Although . . . just as Gael knew nothing of Arnoll’s past—genial, protective Arnoll—so Gael knew nothing of Keir’s either. Just how well did he know Keir? How accurate were his perceptions of the boy?

Gael snorted in irritation with himself. Nothing wrong with thinking and assessing, but he was doing altogether too much of it this day. Enough of pondering hidden realities and secrets.

Keir was quick, focused, and diligent. And it was not like him to be late.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 5)

Chapter 2

Gael let the warriors lugging the artifact precede him, although he followed close.

It was a long, hot climb from the tower’s main gate to his chambers over the tally room. The stones of the walls and steps held their chill, welcome in summer, but the air flowing in through the arrowslits was too warm.

Gael pushed past the burn in his tiring leg muscles, ignoring the fierce click in his ankle, thinking. Was he as loyal as he’d assured the regenen?

Carbraes was right that Gael didn’t covet more power than he currently possessed. His position of secretarius was an exalted one, no question. But with more power would only come increased obligation to use it. The more powerful castellanum—Theron—governed all of Belzetarn: the kitchens and the cooks, the artisans and their yard, the messengers, the provisioners, the hunters, and more. It must be a tedious business, overseeing every last detail and all the disciplinary proceedings that were surely required to get the work done.

Theron seemed to enjoy it, and he certainly ranked above Gael in the hierarchy, but Gael shuddered at any possibility of stepping into his shoes.

Belzetarn’s march, Dreas, possessed power close to that of the regenen’s, commanding the regenen’s legions. But Dreas and Carbraes were like the fingers on one hand. They went back, way back, comrades before ever they came to Belzetarn, and comrades under the regenen who’d held the citadel before Carbraes.

The march would never betray Carbraes. Nor did Gael covet his job. It came too close to the realities of the troll stronghold that troubled Gael.

He was grateful to have this safe haven, grateful for Carbraes’ protection, grateful to have come to rest in peaceful waters after the turbulence of war under Heiroc, and then exile in a denuded wilderness when the truldemagar claimed him.

But although his tally room was peaceful, Belzetarn as a whole was not.

The citadel harbored warriors—troll warriors—and all the paraphernalia of war. It gave birth to war, standing opposed to near the entire North. As Carbraes once said: unless we carry the war to them, they will bring it to us. And what they bring will be defeat. Utter defeat. Annihilation.

The ‘they’ he referred to were the unafflicted, the healthy, those free of troll-disease.

There was no lawful place in all the world for the truldemagar. Only exile to the more inhospitable reaches that no one else wanted. The deserts of sand, rock, or ice that required magery to survive.

Trolls who hoped to survive more than mere months banded together under the strongest of their number they could find. The stronger, the better.

Carbraes was strong. He had to be.

But the unafflicted ones, the unmarked ones—

When Gael brought the faces of the undiseased into memory, he thought not of the king who had banished him, nor of the knights who backed that king. No. He remembered his littlest sister, with her mop of curly black hair and her trilling laughter. He remembered his mother, sweet-faced and low-voiced. He remembered his older brother patiently explaining the proper way to sharpen a quill pen. He remembered the innocent ones.

And the knowledge that Carbraes—and Belzetarn—brought blood and death to those who deserved protection bothered him.

There lay the weakness in Gael’s loyalty.

So long as he could ignore the reality that underpinned Belzetarn, Gael was loyal. Unshakably so. But if ever he had to choose between Carbraes and an innocent . . .

Gael frowned.

He’d arrived at the door to his chambers, a heavy bronze-bound affair, like all the doors in the citadel, and padlocked. The warriors, weighed down by the gong, were waiting for him to unlock it.

He did so and steered them through his sitting room—a dim, comfortable space with cushioned divans, wall hangings, and shelves packed with scrolls of ballads, epics, and legends—to the small storeroom off it. He would need to order a bronze padlock for the storeroom door. Tonight.

In the meantime, the outer door must suffice. At least every troll and his brother wouldn’t parade past the cursed gong as they would if he’d secreted it in some more frequented spot—the armory, where warriors were issued new weapons; the armor vestry, from which they were issued leather cuirasses or scale mail; or the oxhide vault, where the mule teamsters carried the large copper ingots from the mines.

These warriors used appropriate care in setting their burden down—flat on the floor—apparently as wary as he of the dreadful effects of sounding the resonant bronze.

Gael barred his outer door behind them, lit two tallow dips, and returned to scrutinize his unwanted prize. He’d promised Carbraes that.

No, he’d promised much more than that, but inspection was where he would begin. First he would look with his eyes, again, paying attention to detail, because outer form often hinted at inner structure. And then he would deploy the inner looking that Carbraes desired.

The metal disk was large. Were he to suspend it from straps or chains—using the pierced and beaded holes at its rim—and stand before it, touching one edge with his right fingertips, the other edge would reach his left shoulder. It was not flat, but curved like a great shallow bowl upended on the floor, the center rising three handspans from the flagstones with the central iron boss another handspan above that, and the bronze edges also furling up a handspan.

Its polished surface gleamed, bouncing the light of the tallow dips around the storeroom, creating strange patterns of shadow over the oddments stacked on the shelves and hanging from the wall hooks. The bronze possessed a warm, rosy tint—almost as though it were made of pure copper—but with a film over it, like frost.

Gael wondered if it were the arsenic in the bronze producing that effect or the forging technique used. His friend Arnoll would know.

He resisted the urge to descend to the smithies right now and fetch Arnoll out of his deep refuge to view this thing. That must come later, after Gael had done his duty by it.

Did he feel such repugnance because of the nature of the artifact itself? Or because of what it might require: the use of Gael’s magery?

Etched into the metal, abstract curves sprawled from rim to iron boss, creating a crisscrossing lattice that reminded Gael of the energea patterns that accompanied magery. Near the center, the design came together to depict a phoenix nesting in flames, its wings upraised to encircle the boss.

Was there significance to the image? Resurrection via ultimate loss and suffering? He’d not registered its presence during his first encounter below.

He crouched to study the composition. Did flames emanate from the boss, as though it were the sun? Or did the boss represent the egg from which the phoenix would be reborn? The latter, he thought. For within the thumb-sized dimples covering the black iron swirled deliberately irregular whorls, similar to those on peregrine eggs.

Gael’s ankle creaked as he straightened, and the flames of the tallow dips wavered, making the shadows dance. His next observance would take longer, and Gael refused to complete it with the aching joints that would follow poor posture.

He stepped out to his sitting room, noting the angle of the sunlight on the stones of the arrowslits beyond the glass casements. The day was passing, and he had still his regular work to do—counting this morning’s tallies and issuing orders to the various offices, plus hearing Keir’s report from the re-tally of the tin ingots and reviewing the discrepant tallies from yesterday.

He selected the thick fleece carpeting the floor in front of his favorite divan and hauled it into the storeroom, laying it next to the gong. Sitting crosslegged upon it, the wool cushioned and warmed his haunches. He leaned forward a little, then back, seeking that upright position that would let his tailbone drop while his crown rose. As unwelcome as this inner scrutiny of the gong might be—approaching close to the source of its enweakening groan—done properly, his body could benefit from breath linked to posture.

Ah! His shoulders lowered that last smidgeon as the old discipline claimed him. It felt good, even though it shouldn’t have.

He fell into the slow rhythm of breathing in while focusing on the lift in his crown and breathing out while noticing the relaxation at his root. In, for seven beats. Out, for seven beats.

The silver scrolls of his arcs unfurled in his mind’s eye, and his nodes—drifting—flushed with color. He directed his attention away from his own familiar lattice of energea to the gong that lay before him. He hissed. It, too, possessed a pattern of energea, but not the quiescent and linear lattice of normal bronze, like a board for the game of draughts, no. This bronze was active.

Curving scrolls of silver—distinctive of living organisms, not inert metals—followed the etchings in the bronze, flowing into and then out of a glowing green node at the central boss.

Tiamar on high! Did this artifact possess a heart node just like that of a man? Or a troll?

Gael focused his inner sight on that green lambency, wanting to discern its inner structure. The corona held a soft diffuseness, just as did the corona of a human node. The mantle within intensified, shining with greater brilliance. And, at the core, the light solidified around a faint pattern of closed diamonds—anchorage.

Tiamar’s throne! It was a human node.

Gael wasn’t sure if he beheld miracle or abomination.

So. He’d studied this thing, inside and out. He could report his findings to Lord Carbraes. And then . . . ?

Why did he hesitate? He longed to close his inner sight and get away from this curiously disturbing energea. But he had the sense that there was . . . One. More. Thing. One more thing he should do before he called his scrutiny complete.

Reluctantly, inner sight still open, he reached toward the furled bronze and tapped it with his forefinger.

A soft humming shivered on the air, pulsing in and out.

The scrolling arcs of the gong, leading from its edge to its center, brightened and quickened, sparks traveling inward along their curves. The gong’s heart node throbbed—incandescent, mellower, incandescent, mellower. Then the arcs flowing away from the gong’s center came to life, generating scrolls of blue energea that radiated off the metal into the world.

Gael’s own energea dimmed. His legs felt like lead, heavy and immovable. His spine slumped like a jelly, while his head alternated between painful density and dizzying dispersion. Crushing, expanding, crushing. He swallowed down nausea. Swallowed again.

Then the resonance ceased, and the gong’s energea quieted.

Gael’s strength returned. He heaved to his feet, tottered out to his sitting room, and closed the storeroom door firmly behind him.

Gaelan’s tears!

He didn’t think that draining hum had escaped his chambers. He hoped not. There was a balcony just the other side of the storeroom’s back wall. Cayim’s hell!

He half-fell half-sat on his favorite divan, leaning against its slanted arm. He could feel the suede buttons through the thistlesilk of his sleeve.

The warriors must have dropped the gong to produce the groan that had echoed through Belzetarn’s stairwell earlier, but the resonance from a finger tap was equally bad at close proximity.

He should check that balcony. Be sure no one had fallen. He really should.

And he would, as soon as he could gather his scattered . . . self.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 6)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 4)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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