The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 73)

Finding Arnoll was a simple matter. He was at work in his armor smithy as usual.

When Gael emerged from the tunnel from the Lake Stair, the familiar sounds, sights, and smells enveloped him: the roar of the furnaces, the clang of hammer on bronze, the orange glow of the forges at the heart of the dim space, the long shafts of sunlight piercing the shadows from the deep embrasures on the west wall behind the annealing smithy, the warm scent of woodsmoke mingling with the sharper aromas of hot metal and cold stone. Now he felt like he’d come home.

Belzetarn . . . might signify the cruelty, the violence, and the instability of the truldemagar, but the tower’s smithies felt safe and comfortable and predictable. He had made them so.

Arnoll, the instant he caught sight of Gael, dropped his hammer and surged around his anvil to grip Gael’s shoulders, looking him up and down. “You’re well? You took no harm on your journey?” he questioned.

“None,” Gael reassured him, smiling slightly. “How goes it here?”

Arnoll refused to be hurried away from his concern, scrutinizing Gael’s face an interval before he nodded. “All is well here also,” he answered. “But stay a moment. If you will?”

“I need to confer with you as well,” said Gael.

Arnoll turned back to his anvil, directing one of the undersmiths to take over there. Then he drew Gael into the nearest of the four embrasures in the north wall at the back of his smithy, leading him along the stone channel all the way to the broad stone sill below the arrow slit looking onto the lake.

The sun sparkled on the blue water, and the forested hills rising from the many narrow inlets glowed green and verdant beneath the open sky, dark and mysterious under the patches of cloud. It seemed a shame that they must turn their backs on the magnificent scenery in order to sit on the sill, but Gael almost preferred the view of the smithy, there at the other end of the embrasure channel. Arnoll shifted himself sideways, leaning his shoulders against the wall and propping one foot nonchalantly up on the sill.

Gael studied his friend. Arnoll had been concerned for Gael’s well-being, but the smith was the elder, and a troll could age swiftly. Was Arnoll all right?

His sturdy form beneath his smith’s apron seemed as burly and strong as ever, his seated pose as relaxed as usual. His eyes were as warm a blue and no more tired than the early afternoon warranted. His curly gray was confined to a typical smith’s knot, to keep it out of the way.

Yes, Arnoll was well. Thank Tiamar.

Gael pushed down his momentary qualm.

“Keir managed superlatively while you were gone,” said Arnoll. “Nathiar left him strictly alone, and Theron—so far from encroaching, as we feared—gathered every last scullion and porter and messenger under his control in the artisans’ yard, so that he could harangue them on the necessity of showing Keir extra respect.”

Arnoll frowned. “The castellanum’s been too smooth, trying too hard. Too cordial to Keir.” The smith’s frown deepened. “He can’t possibly believe he could woo Keir from your service, could he?”

“No.” Gael was certain of that. Well, not certain of Theron’s intention, but certain of Keir’s allegiance. Theron might prod the tally chamber hard from many different angles, but he would never winkle Keir out from under Gael’s wing.

Arnoll darted a swift glance at Gael before looking back over the lake through the arrowslit.

The smith grunted. “You’ve heard what happened with the tower scullions and the gong? Theron was furious with the boys.”

“Is the story really all over Belzetarn as the regenen seems to believe?” asked Gael.

“Oh, yes.” Arnoll sighed. “Even the hunters out in the forest are gossiping about it, with wild variations depending on how accurate a tale was told by their messenger.”

“I was hoping Carbraes had exaggerated,” said Gael.

Arnoll cocked an eyebrow.

Gael sighed. “I know. Since when does Carbraes exaggerate about anything? He doesn’t. But he now feels pushed to nullify the gong as soon as may be. Tomorrow, if I can make it so.”

“Unfortunate,” murmured Arnoll. “Never a good idea to be hurried into a challenging and delicate undertaking.” Arnoll shared Gael’s preference for a methodical approach to important tasks. Perhaps all smiths did. Working with molten metal required method. Unless you were Martell.

“Will you help me?” said Gael. He’d meant to lead up to his request via logical progression. Why had he been so abrupt?

“What do you need me to do?” asked Arnoll.

That was why Gael had been direct. Apparently he’d gotten over his friend’s theft of an ingot completely. He trusted Arnoll to have his back. It was that simple.

“Are you willing to work with Nathiar?” Gael asked.

“The magus?” said Arnoll, as though there might be another troll of that name in Belzetarn.

“I compared his words to his deeds while I lay at Olluvarde,” said Gael.

“And?” Arnoll sounded skeptical.

“It’s a long story,” said Gael.

“And we have much to accomplish, if that gong is to be subdued tomorrow. I’ll take your word on Nathiar then. You’ll want the smithies emptied while we work?” said Arnoll.

Gael nodded, taking his sketches from his satchel.

“I’ll arrange for the smiths to wrap up early today, and I’ll proclaim tomorrow a day of rest for the forges,” declared Arnoll.

“Thank you.” It felt good to shift a vaultful of necessary chores onto Arnoll’s capable shoulders. “This is the program Nathiar and I have worked out for how to proceed.”

Arnoll added a few cogent suggestions as Gael made his explanations, both of them referencing the energetic diagrams from Olluvarde. The troll-smith might not be a mage, but he’d witnessed the slipped nodes and stretched arcs of countless fugitives entering Belzetarn, and he was a peerless metalworker.

“Any questions?” asked Gael as he concluded.

“I’ll have an apronful in the morning.” Arnoll grinned. “But you’ll review the entire sequence before we start, and I’ll ask them then.”

“Are you sure you want to join this mad venture?” Now that it was settled, Gael’s qualms rose anew.

Arnoll snorted. “I see the danger, Gael. Stop trying to coddle me, and get yourself up to the tally room. You’ll need to brief Keir, hear his report, and let the boy know that he’ll be doing your job for another few days yet. ” The corner of Arnoll’s mouth twitched. “You do realize the gong will keep you too busy for much else, do you not?”

Gael stifled a laugh. The tally room was where he’d intended to go next.

Arnoll was always a step ahead, which was why Gael wanted him in the fight against the gong’s curse.

*     *     *

Next scene: coming February 3.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 72)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 72)

Tracking down Nathiar took some effort.

Nearly every porter or messenger buttonholed by Gael knew that the magus was not in his quarters, not on its adjacent terrace with a noontide snack, not in the yard consulting with the artisans, not closeted with the march planning the interface between his magery and the legions’ newest battle tactics, not anywhere he might usually be found.

Gael sent a boy to the tally room to inform Keir that Gael had arrived in Belzetarn, was thoroughly tied up with Lord Carbraes’ urgent concerns, and would meet with Keir soon, before the close of the day, with any luck.

As the messenger scampered away on Gael’s errand, he exclaimed, “There’s Valdi!” and turned, running backwards for a few steps, to point at a short, red-haired troll. “I’ll bet he knows!”

Valdi—sharp lad—caught the interchange and adjusted his route, saving Gael the trouble of chasing after him.

“Secretarius! Shall I take you to the magus?” asked the redhead.

“Please,” answered Gael.

Valdi led Gael out of Belzetarn entirely via a small sally port on the western curtain wall and into the forest. They followed a narrow path threading between pale gray beech trunks as it twisted down the slope. The spicy scent of ferns breathed from the woodland floor, birds called and leaves rustled overhead, while sprinkles of sunlight danced through the air. Gael wished he could spend the afternoon rambling beneath the beeches, instead of organizing a distasteful task and talking with a troll he’d rather avoid.

They found Nathiar in a charming glade, ringed and roofed by cherry trees. A small spring bubbled at one edge, the start of a moss-banked brook. A few bees droned through the air. The magus, garbed in a suede robe of vivid purple, adorned with silver sequins and mica beads, looked quite out of place in his sylvan setting. His multitude of thin silver braids, hanging to his shoulders, shone as brightly in the dapples of sunlight as his sequins. He stood peering into the lower branches of one of the cherries. Looking for the fruits? Surely even Nathiar would know this was not the season for them.

“The secretarius, Magus!” announced Valdi.

Nathiar turned with a saturnine smile on his thick lips. “Gael!” His mellifluous voice was falsely welcoming atop its hint of sarcasm. “Had I guessed you would wish to see this exquisite dell—but of course you would wish to see it; how could you not?—I’d have brought you here myself.” He nodded at Valdi. “You may go, lad,” he said, abruptly kind.

Valdi looked anxiously at Gael, perhaps mistaking Gael’s irritation at the magus’ dulcet tones for a countermanding of Nathiar’s order. Poor kid. How did you decide which authority to obey, when two equal powers stood before you?

Gael echoed Nathiar’s nod, confirming the magus’ dismissal. “Thank you, Valdi,” he said.

The redhead darted away, no doubt resuming his interrupted errand.

Nathiar strolled toward Gael. “Yes,” the magus drawled, “this is the very spot where my porter Lannarc would stop to water the tinworks mule. And the very spot from which I retrieved my stolen tin, the tin I’d stolen from you, dear Gael.”

A mere two deichtains ago, Gael might have struggled not to rise to Nathiar’s bait. But his time at Olluvarde, sketching and deciphering and learning about the energea of the gong, had included remembering the past and shuffling old memories into more recent memories. He rather thought he’d gotten the magus better sorted in his mind: Nathiar was a troll who moved through his days annoying as many of the mighty as he could manage. With his viperish tongue. But his deeds were not nearly so malicious as his words.

Gael had to suppress a chuckle, and he wondered if he should fain irritation, so as not to deprive the magus of his fun.

“So this was the place?” he said blandly, instead.

“Indeed.” Nathiar circled Gael to investigate the low cherry—more a bush than a tree—behind him. “But I’ve conceived a fresh use for this delightful spot, now that I’m given what I prefer to steal. Can you guess it, dear Gael? Or shall I refrain from such games and merely tell you?”

Gael considered cutting the magus short. He did have much more to do before the day was done.

“A trysting spot, don’t you think?” continued Nathiar. “Now that you’ve returned, I need not avoid Keir. And the affair arranges itself!”

Gael’s sangfroid was a little harder to retain under this provocation, especially now that he knew Keir to be a young woman. But Nathiar didn’t know. Or did he? Gael couldn’t see his face, but the magus’ voice fairly beamed.

“Do you really savor boys?” Gael inquired dryly.

“Oh, decidedly, my dear Secretarius. I do,” answered Nathiar.

Gael couldn’t discern if Nathiar was serious or frivolling. That was the difficulty of dealing with someone whose words and deeds rarely matched. Usually the problem was that the deeds were nefarious, while the words were fair, but the reverse still obscured the truth. Gael wondered if he’d allowed Nathiar enough barbs that he’d be willing to settle down to business. The magus had moved on to inspecting another cherry.

“What are you looking for?” Gael asked.

“I shall show you when I find it, my dear Gael. Perhaps I shall even share it with you.”

“Do you think you could break your search to attend to something else for a few moments?”

Nathiar turned away from his tree to grin. “For you, Gael, I could do anything,” he cooed.

“This shouldn’t prove quite so onerous,” Gael assured him, making his own search for a possible seat, and finding a fallen log near the spring. Moving toward it, he said, “I want to show you something.”

Nathiar’s eyebrow rose. “Really, Gael, I didn’t think you cared for boys yourself. If I had known!”

This time Gael couldn’t repress his snort of laughter. He sat and busied himself opening the flap of his satchel and removing the pertinent parchments, not wanting to see Nathiar’s possible chagrin. Although . . . when had Nathiar ever shown chagrin? He’d likely just mount another jibe, if Gael gave him the chance.

But Nathiar said nothing, joining Gael on the log and holding out his hand for the parchments. Gael let him have them, waiting in silence while Nathiar perused the sketches, also in silence.

The magus looked through the sheaf once, fairly briefly, then started back at the beginning, going much more slowly, tracing certain patterns with his forefinger.

These,” he said, looking up, “would have been very helpful when I was devising my procedure for imbuing a sword with energea.” He swallowed. “I take it that Carbraes approves of my involvement with the neutralizing of that cursed gong? And that you, my dear Gael, are not entirely repulsed by the possibility of my participation.”

“The project is far beyond my experience,” Gael said bluntly. “I need yours.”

Nathiar’s eyes widened ever so slightly. Gael could see him formulate some suave, vexing thing to say, and then bite it back. Was Nathiar revising his opinion of Gael, just as Gael had revised his of Nathiar?

Surely not.

“You’ll need Arnoll as well,” said Nathiar, equally blunt. “The iron of the boss, the most critical area, where the node is anchored, will challenge even Arnoll, but at least he’s a real smith, with decades of metallurgy under his apron.”

The magus started looking through the sketches yet a third time.

Gael repressed his sigh of relief and resignation, mixed. He’d wanted Arnoll helping, but wanted just as strongly to shield him from the entire business. So be it. He’d check with his friend next. At least Keir need not be involved. Tapping Arnoll for the job would fill their necessary complement of three without her.

Nathiar began outlining possibilities for how to proceed with subduing the gong, and then he and Gael dove into detailed discussion, arguing, rebutting, agreeing, and shuffling through the parchments as required to prove their various points to one another. The magus was a surprisingly keen logician, and abandoned the verbal sparring and posing that dogged his social communication. Gael found himself enjoying the exchange. Learning energea together under old Korryn had been the original germ of their friendship when they were boys. Parsing this energetic puzzle with the grown troll . . . brought back pleasant memories.

“Did you note the discrepancy between the first mural and the seventh?” asked Nathiar.

Gael didn’t think he meant the difference between the geometric octahedron of energea worked by the lodestone creator and the spiky one manipulated by the trio of gong forgers. “Tell me,” he said.

“The potency of these living nodes is extraordinary,” said Nathiar. “Even the merest touch between the lattice of the node and the lattice of the magus can trigger a surge of energea so damaging that it brings the truldemagar or worse to an unafflicted magus.

“The creators of the gong clearly knew this, because their process included an energetic funnel to shunt the surge safely away. But the magus creating the lodestone in the first panel employed no such shunt.”

Gael’s eyes narrowed. “Did he become a troll then? Or”—Gael thought about the extreme age of the Olluvarde ruins and the even greater age of the Navellys legends—“were the sculptors merely guessing at how the lodestone was created, carving the events so long after they occurred?”

Nathiar shrugged. “There’s no knowing, but we will need an energetic shunt, Gael, and I will shape it.”

This was exactly why Gael needed Nathiar participating. He only hoped it would be enough. How many other similar and critical details would be required? And would Nathiar have sufficient familiarity and skill with them?

“How is it that healers can touch human nodes and not suffer for it, when such a node within a weapon or a shield is so perilous?” Gael asked. “Or do healers regularly use such shunts as you describe?”

Nathiar’s thick lips twisted. “I know little of healer’s techniques, Gael, but the nodes within my enchanted swords—and within the cursed gong—are not human nodes, you know.”

Gael frowned. “But . . .”

“They look human?” Nathiar finished for him.

Gael nodded. “Their green color is that of a human heart node, their structure possesses the octahedral facets. How are they not human, with those identical properties?”

“Think about it, Gael. You’re letting the similarities—which are admittedly startling—blind you to a crucial difference.” Nathiar sniffed.

Gael thought. And thought a bit more. “Human nodes possess much more depth,” he said slowly. “The gong’s node is very shallow.”

“Got it in one,” drawled Nathiar.

Gael repressed the tinge of annoyance that the magus’ tone provoked. Was Nathiar reverting to his usual manner? Gael hoped not. They had yet the finalizing of their plans to do.

“So the greater depth of a human node acts as a reservoir for varying energea in a way that a shallow one cannot,” Gael speculated.

“Starting your original magical research now, my dear Gael?” inquired Nathiar. “At this late date?”

His sardonic tone had definitely returned. With effort, Gael ignored it and directed the discussion away from energetic theory and back to the project at hand. Nathiar allowed himself to be so guided, and forgot his preoccupation with annoying Gael as they hammered away at their plan.

When they were done, Gael returned his sketches to his satchel.

Nathiar stretched his shoulders voluptuously, then his neck, and then paused to scrutinize something on the far side of the clearing. “Ah! Perfect!” he said, climbing to his feet. The annoying drawl was back in his voice once again.

Gael followed him warily across the turf to one of the larger cherry trees. A series of irregular shield-like layers of honeycomb hung down from a sturdy branch.

This is what I sought, when you so welcomely interrupted me, my dear Gael!”

Nathiar gestured, twisting his wrist in a sharp curve familiar to Gael—manipulating energea—and then reached to break off a piece of the hexagonally patterned wax. Not one of the bees buzzing around the hive stung—or even touched—Nathiar’s hand. The magus caught the dollop of honey oozing from the broken end of the comb onto the pad of his fleshy thumb, and brought it to his lips. His thick tongue curled around the sticky digit. His eyes glinted.

“Keir likes honey, does he not?” intoned the magus.

Gael observed Nathiar’s cognizant expression, remembering that same knowing look he’d noted on the magus’ face during their breakfast in the magus’ quarters two deichtains ago. Nathiar knew, damn him. Perhaps had always known that Keir was no boy.

“She”—Gael kept his emphasis on that pronoun very slight—“is not fond of overly sweet confections.”

“Figured it out at last, bright boy?” said Nathiar, rather nastily.

Gael refused to take offense. Nathiar might believe his insults adequate camouflage, but Gael could see through them now. The magus was worried for Keir. Gaelan’s tears!

“I preferred not to know,” admitted Gael, his voice easy. “And I’ll likely pretend yet that I do not. Two may keep a secret, et cetera,” he added.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” grated Nathiar, his tone still nasty.

“How do you mean?” asked Gael.

“Theron suspects. He may actually know.” Nathiar positioned himself below the wild hive where honey dripped in a long string from the breach, his face tipped up. He opened his lips to admit the golden stream.

“Cayim’s hells!” Gael cursed. He paced to the clearing’s center and back. “Then that’s why—”

Nathiar, several strands of honey glistening on his cheeks, glanced away from the sweetness he’d been guzzling, meeting Gael’s eyes. “Because Theron does believe I like boys. So, yes, my dear Gael. That’s why I speak of Keir as I do: to convince our dear castellanum that Keir is a boy. And, yes, I did perceive your rage that night at the feast. And, yes, I do realize you hold no surety as to whether I like girls or boys best. But it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Gael swore more comprehensively this time, a long chain of profanity. If Theron were to learn that Keir was a girl . . . it would be all over Belzetarn before the sun set on the castellanum’s revelation.

Nathiar stepped away from his bee hive, still unstung. “Just so, my dear Gael. I couldn’t agree more.”

The magus was too hellishly acute. And Gael couldn’t say he enjoyed his own slide from mere tolerance of Nathiar to respect—however grudging. Nathiar could be amusing in small doses, yes, but Gael found his continuous persiflage wearing, and he didn’t want to like the troll. Imagine having to wait on Nathiar’s dilatory willingness to be frank, every time you needed to sort something out with him.

But Nathiar had perceived Keir’s vulnerability. And had taken well-disguised action to protect her.

“You’ll guard her,” said Nathiar. “You’re the only one in a position to do so.” The magus actually sounded earnest.

“As best I can,” said Gael, his lips crimping.

“Without following her around like a dog. Which you cannot. Must not.” Nathiar looked as perturbed as Gael felt. Belzetarn was not safe for a woman, whether troll or unafflicted.

Gael swallowed. “I’ll see you at the forges on the morrow.”

The magus nodded and turned back to the wild beehive.

*     *     *

Next scene: coming January 27.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 71)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 71)

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Insight

Chapter 15

As the cavalcade of horses and trolls ambled across the meadow fronting Belzetarn’s main gate, Gael drew in a deep breath. Was he relieved to be back? Or did he gather himself for the coming effort? Gael wasn’t sure, but the blue gentians, pink moss campion, and white dryas were all in bloom under the noontide sun, creating a subtle perfume of faint sweetness laced with sun-warmed green.

He considered his next steps: seeing his gear properly stowed, perhaps a visit to the sauna to clean his person, and then a thorough briefing from his notarius on the functioning of the tally room in Gael’s absence. Entering into his usual routines in a measured way held considerable appeal. He’d not missed home precisely—he still resisted the idea of Belzetarn as home—but he had missed his responsibilities, his orderly supervision of the smithies and the metals flowing through them.

When his mount’s hooves clattered on the cobblestones in the tunnel beneath the gatehouse, it became clear that his leisurely program for the afternoon would not occur. One of Carbraes’ messenger boys awaited him with the intent of conducting the secretarius immediately into the regenen’s presence.

Gael gave brief orders for the conveyance of his baggage to his quarters, abstracted his keyring and fibula from one saddlebag, and then followed the messenger up a narrow, twisting stair to the battlements of the gatehouse and out along the western curtain wall.

Carbraes, leaning between two merlons to scrutinize the trees that had grown too close to that side of the stronghold, turned when he heard their footsteps on the stone sentry walk. The silver threads in his blond hair gleamed brightly in the sunshine, as did the silver rivets on his white tunic, but the lines bracketing his eyes seemed deeper than ever.

“I’ve brought him, Regenen,” announced the messenger.

Carbraes nodded and directed the boy to wait on the gatehouse battlements—within sight, but not hearing—before he greeted Gael. “Secretarius.”

“Regenen,” replied Gael.

“Did you obtain the knowledge you sought in Olluvarde?” Carbraes’ voice was crisp.

“I did.” Whether that knowledge would suffice still remained to be seen, but Gael possessed everything Olluvarde had to offer, and there were no other sources of ancient lore. He patted the satchel of drawings hanging from the strap over his shoulder.

“How soon can you set to work?” Carbraes’ eyes grew intent.

Gael frowned. “There is reason to hasten?”

“There is.” Carbraes’ mouth thinned. “I’m sorry to inform you that the two scullions entrusted with sweeping your chambers proved less trustworthy than is required for their responsibilities.”

Gael’s frown deepened. That’s what came of a hurried departure. He should have given orders that the cleaning scullions skip his quarters. The floors would scarcely have accumulated much dirt and dust in his absence.

“The boys were intrigued by the new padlock securing your storeroom,” continued Carbraes. “Apparently they speculated upon what it might be guarding as they went about their work, and when they were finished, their mutual curiosity had reached such a pitch that they tested the lock.”

“I gave the key to no one!” Gael broke in.

“Indeed,” said Carbraes. “That is one of the worst features of the incident. One of the boys had quite a history of using his energea for trivial amusements before the truldemagar came to him. Using it to pick your padlock was a simple matter for him.”

“How badly were they hurt?” asked Gael. He was certain there were injuries. It had been only a matter of time before the gong’s curse harmed someone.

“One broken leg and one broken arm, respectively,” answered Carbraes.

The sinking in Gael’s stomach moderated. “I suppose they had to lift the thing from the floor and sound it, once they saw it,” he mused. “Resonance, concomitant weakness, the faltering grip, the desperate retrieval, the overbalance, the falling boys, the falling gong.”

Carbraes’ tension morphed into exasperation. “Yes, you have that tolerably correct. The boys will be fine once their splints come off, but the story of their adventure may as well be turned into a ballad and performed at the evening feast. I’d managed to limit talk of the thing, despite its sounding on the day of its arrival. Now the entire tower knows of the gong’s existence and the effect of its song.”

“Muting it will require more than one on the job,” said Gael, seizing the opportunity to make his request. “I’ll need Nathiar, if he can be persuaded to work with me.”

“Persuaded?” Carbraes snorted. “I’ve been holding him off the thing by main force. I should think he would rejoice.”

“No doubt he would, were I not involved. Old friends make the strongest enemies, you know,” said Gael. “But I suspect the artifact and the energetic puzzle it poses will persuade him. Have I your permission to invite the magus into it? Surely your concerns about him have not lessened.”

Carbraes stared out at the looming forest a moment before answering. “I would have been wiser to secure your initial cooperation regarding the gong without discussing the magus with you. I was . . . overly frank.”

“I shared your observations with no one, Regenen.”

Carbraes’ mouth twisted. “I know. It was not your discretion I doubted. Merely that I dislike reversing myself before you.”

“You intend to trust Nathiar? After he’s proven his willingness to defy your edicts? Stolen from your mines? Pursued treachery in secret?” Put like that, Gael wondered at his own—not better opinion of Nathiar, no—but his sense of fellow feeling for the magus. And his willingness, however reluctant, to work with him.

Carbraes swallowed, murmured, “I knew I should dislike this interview.”

Gael suppressed a wry smile.

“Shall we say,” continued Carbraes, “that now that I’ve granted Nathiar permission to continue his illicit experiments licitly, I possess a stronger hold on him than heretofore. That was his weak point. Now I control it.”

Yes, that made sense. Carbraes was nothing if not strategically and tactically adaptive. Some trolls he dominated by sheer force, others by strength of personality. But he was willing to use persuasion, manipulation, bribery, punishment, reward, whatever it took. Willing and able.

“I rescind any caveats I’ve expressed on this project,” Carbraes declared. “So long as you do it quickly, you may do it howsoever you wish and with whatever resources you require.”

Gael blinked. That was certainly comprehensive!

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 72)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 70)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 70)

The forecasted storm blew through in the early morning, a lashing cataract of rain, but no accompanying thunder and lightning. Gael’s tent stayed dry within, but the edges of a great puddle crept under the side of another pitched too close to a low spot in the terrace. After the clouds passed off to the north, the dampened victims draped their wet belongings over various vertical bits of the ruin to begin drying, while their cook fried moose pemmican with wild onions for breakfast.

The washed blue sky looked very high and pale. A thicket of knotweed sparkled, its leaves bejeweled with raindrops, and the wet marble flagstones shimmered. Gael explored the above-ground complex, curious if he could decipher the original uses of the ragged spaces. He located the remains of a grandiose well with bas relief dolphins carved into the low balustrade guarding the shaft and columns adorned with garlands of seashells. Was this the abyss from which the cursed gong had been unearthed?

After his morning meal, he organized his next expedition below ground: flambeaus; stands for the flambeaus, so that his guards could try fishing the nearby stream instead of propping up Gael’s lighting; parchments, portable desk, quills, and ink; and a sheepskin to cushion his haunches while he sat on the hard passage floors, the latter provision much to the approval of the physician who’d accompanied him on the journey. Gael was healing nicely, and the physician wanted that state to continue.

If Nathiar—who had continued his practice of magery for the past seven years, while Gael eschewed it for tallying—was to provide his best help in the matter of the gong, Gael’s drawings would need to be very, very accurate and precise. Not for the first time, Gael thanked his old master for his tedious insistence that the hand-eye coordination required for sketching transferred directly to a magus’ control in his manipulation of energea.

Gael had hated the endless still lifes and landscapes and portraits he’d been assigned, but the skill came very useful over his next several days in Olluvarde. He required more than mere impressions or approximations of the energetic diagrams. He needed accurate copies, and he got them by measuring with calipers, never hurrying, and taking breaks so that fatigued wrist muscles—and sore sit bones—would not distort the exactitude of his renderings.

He tackled the vignettes around the seventh mural first, recording the entire progression of the lodestone into the central boss of the gong. Then he copied the main larger image. Next came the energetic vignettes of the first mural, showing the creation of the lodestone. And—when he finished those too late in the day to break camp and start for Belzetarn—he drew some of the most beautiful stonework, despite its lack of immediate utility for him: the vignette of the healer and the magnificent dolphin well, among others. It seemed a shame that so few people would ever see this artistry of the ancients.

That night the sky was very clear, and the stars shone bright above the fountain of sparks flying up from their campfire, while the trolls lingered over a potent fruit glögg. Gael sat apart from them, perched on a lone barrel section of column in the shadows, and staring at the constellation of the Swan just rising above the silhouette of the tree tops.

He’d come to accept that he would need Nathiar’s help—assuming he could persuade the magus to it, when he returned to Belzetarn. But would that be enough? The magus had just begun dabbling with marrying energea to metal. His expertise would be slim, and he knew little of the lore of metallurgy. Gael wished he could involve one of the smiths from the forges. Meticulous Olix, the efficient copper smelter, the dedicated tin smelter, or—best of all—steadfast Arnoll.

But these trolls possessed no experience in the use of magery in their smithies. Indeed, Carbraes had forbidden such adventures. For all their genius with copper and tin and bronze, Gael doubted his smiths could contribute much to the subdual of the gong. Towing them into a venture that might prove perilous—which it might; the weakness induced by its resonance remained vivid in his memory—and urging them to fight their regenen-ingrained reluctance to manipulate energea felt wrong to him.

But what if a third were truly necessary?

The energea-imbued weapons of Fiors came to mind; flint knives, flint spearheads, flint arrow heads. They had surrounded Keir all his young life before the truldemagar came upon him. And Keir had trained to heal using energea. In a sense, he was as much a magus as Gael—or Nathiar—fully adept in manipulating the energea, although with different goals. And unlike Gael, he’d been forgetting his skills for a mere two years instead of seven.

Although, to judge from Keir’s healing of Gael a deichtain ago, the boy had done precious little forgetting. And he was thoroughly familiar with the routines of the smithies and the methods used by the smiths.

With rising enthusiasm for the idea of Keir’s participation, Gael brought his notarius before his mind’s eye: Keir’s slim, straight person, the clean-cut bones of his face, his clear gray eyes, his jaw-length blond hair hanging smoothly. The boy always wore his belt low on his hips and his overlarge caputum long, its multiple folds draping over his shoulders almost to his elbows.

The memory of Keir’s abrupt, convulsive embrace upon Gael’s departure flashed within his thoughts: cool, long-fingered hands resting on Gael’s shoulders, the scent of herbal soap in his nose, the brush of Keir’s smooth cheek against Gael’s bristled jaw, and . . . a hint of softness against Gael’s ribs.

Abruptly, the scattered pieces of an unsuspected puzzle came together in Gael’s awareness.

Tiamar on his throne! Keir was a girl!

Surely not.

He struggled a moment, resisting the absurd conclusion. Belzetarn harbored only males, aggressive warriors seeking an able leader on new battlefields, desperate artisans needing a living in workshops open to trolls, ignorant boys hoping to find refuge in climes more temperate than the icy wastes farther north. Afflicted women could find no safety in Carbraes’ citadel. The regenen would offer them no harm, no, but even Carbraes could not keep so tight a rein on his followers as to stay rude, crude hands. Women taken by the truldemagar gave the tower wide berth, circling toward the troll-queens who reigned in the frozen arctic. Or so Gael had always presumed.

But he had not arrived at Belzetarn by choice. He’d been dragged there by Carbraes’ warriors. What happened to afflicted women intercepted thusly?

The unwelcome vision of a woman caught by enraged trolls and hacked to bits crossed his repelled mind’s eye. Or discovered by cruel trolls and tortured. Or noticed by sporting trolls and hunted. Or —or—or . . . the sickening possibilities were endless.

Why had he allowed himself to accept the comforting illusion that afflicted women—as well as more peaceable males—simply journeyed into the farthest north, eventually achieving their destination without mischance? He knew how heartache and confusion bewildered a new troll. He knew how difficult it was to travel alone through the Hamish wilds. He had nearly perished of cold and hunger and despair. Logically . . . most trolls must die before reaching refuge.

How many times had Carbraes’ scouts stumbled upon a troll corpse in the forest? Or killed a fleeing troll who resisted capture? How many times had Carbraes simply failed to mention such news in his conversations with Gael, just as Gael had failed to speak of that executed Ghriana spy to Barris?

Too many times.

But Keir—somehow Keir had survived.

Of course, Keir had survived. She was resourceful, clever, able to think clearly under pressure. But she was female. Gael found himself accepting that now. Having perceived her as a girl—more likely a young woman; he snorted softly at his uninformed idea of her age—he could not unperceive it, could not return to his previous duped ignorance.

Was this another betrayal by a friend? He didn’t feel betrayed. Shocked, perhaps? No, not shocked. Surprised? Indubitably. Delighted surprise? Surely not! Dizzy and disoriented? In the first moment of realization, perhaps. But the truth felt right, felt inevitable, felt . . . almost familiar? Had some dozing part of him known all along and stayed asleep deliberately, the better to protect Keir’s disguise?

Gael shook his head, impatient with himself and his lack of speed at reordering his world view in the wake of this new information.

So. Keir had doubtless adopted boy’s habiliments at the start of her exile. Very sensible. And seen the wisdom of retaining her disguise when Carbraes’ scouts detained her, as well as its utter necessity once she was brought to Belzetarn.

As notarius to Gael . . . well, two may keep a secret, so long as one lies in his grave. Keir was infallibly discrete regarding all matters of the tally room. Why should she be any less so with her own vital concern?

When he returned to Belzetarn, should he keep his new knowledge close? And . . . returning to the line of thought that led to his revelation, should he invite Keir to participate in the quelling of the cursed gong?

Gael had a deichtain to decide.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 69)

Gael retraced his steps to the very first mural in the sequence, the one depicting the magus at work creating his lodestone. He directed his accompanying torchbearers to stand on each side of him, their flambeaus positioned to cancel out the shadows cast on the bas relief images. He scrutinized the energetic diagram of the stone at the start of its transformation.

The octahedral structure of the energea was fully present, with its eight facets connecting at twelve edges and six points. What created the difference Gael perceived between this vignette and the one at the end of the sequence of energetic manipulations?

He edged along to that last vignette, pulling his torchbearers along with him.

Ah. With his conviction that a difference existed, the details became obvious. The octahedral edges were no longer uniform in thickness. The middles of each short span were thin, while the ends—where they anchored at the corner vertices—were more substantial. Additionally, each vertex elongated into a short spike.

But how had the transformation been effected?

He returned his gaze to the intervening vignettes, then shook his head at the advanced magery they depicted. His teacher, back in Hadorgol, had begun attempting original magical research when he found time enough between his duties to the king and his duties to his students. This lodestone of ancient Navellys looked to be the original research project of a ferociously gifted virtuoso. It was far beyond Gael’s understanding.

His suspicion that he would require Nathiar’s assistance became a certainty. Breaking an artifact might be infinitely easier than making one, but he would still need to have a reasonably accurate idea of what in the north he was doing.

Tomorrow . . . he would begin sketching all these energetic diagrams. With excruciating accuracy.

Beckoning to his torchbearers, he swung toward the stairway that would return him above ground.

His tent awaited him on the terrace, and he crawled into it gratefully. Someone had fetched wash water for him, so he was able to cleanse his hands, face, and teeth before changing into his nightshirt. The thick fleece beneath his suede blankets felt very, very soft. He couldn’t help comparing the comfort of this camp to the precarious unease of his bed of leaves under sky, following his exile from Hadorgol.

This was better, unquestionably so. Or was it? On that trip through the Hamish wilds, with Morza at his side, his body had throbbed with the pain of the truldemagar while his heart ached with his losses, but he possessed no regrets for his choices. Now . . . ?

He rolled over and turned his thoughts to present matters, considering Nathiar, his unavoidable partner in diffusing the cursed gong.

Had Gael judged him too harshly, back in Hadorgol?

They’d both been very young—raw boys—immature and prone to error. Had Heiroc proved a prankster, like Erastys, mightn’t he have led Gael in just the paths followed by Nathiar? It was strange how the prank that resulted in Nathiar’s troll-disease resembled the years-earlier prank that prompted Nathiar to throw Gael under the chariot wheels. Illusion, switched keys, fooling the victim into entering the wrong bedchamber. Clearly Erastys liked variations on the theme of amatory misadventure. Did Nathiar?

Gael rather thought not.

Oh, Nathiar talked most convincingly. He’d convinced Gael. But no recent deeds matched his verbal innuendo. Pranks aplenty transpired in Belzetarn, especially amongst the scullions, but none bore roots in the doings of the magus. Why had Gael failed to notice this? Was he so caught up in the running of his tally room? Maybe. But he suspected that it was sheer intellectual sloth. And prejudice. Why bother noticing that an old acquaintance had changed, when one would prefer to continue disliking him.

That was part of it, yes. But the other part was Gael’s habitual avoidance of his past. If one never thought of the past, then noticing that the present was subtly different—or not-so-subtly different—would be difficult.

Was it just the thefts of tin and bronze that had so stirred up his memories? Or was there another cause? And had Nathiar actually changed? Didn’t that boyhood prank encapsulate the very essence of the troll-mage? Or was there a feature to that prank that Gael had never noticed until now?

Nathiar had not sacrificed Gael merely for his own advantage. He’d done it for Erastys, and fairly cleverly, too.

Had Nathiar claimed to King Pevarys that he and Gael were the authors of the prank from the beginning, the king would never have believed him. He’d have jumped to the correct conclusion immediately—that Nathiar and Erastys had tricked Lord Omory into entering the wrong bedchamber. Only by leading the train of logic across the patently ridiculous idea that Heiroc and Gael were the guilty parties had Nathiar caused the king to accept the improbable to be true, thus succeeding in shielding Erastys.

Gael had wanted to shield Erastys, but Nathiar had done it. And he had done it even though Heiroc’s favor—as heir apparent—was surely more valuable than that of Erastys. He’d done it even though he’d forfeited Heiroc’s and Gael’s goodwill.

Gael wondered abruptly if he had let Nathiar down, by never noticing this before. There was Nathiar’s inexplicable behavior on that final battlefield—the last battle between the brother kings—to consider as well.

Nathiar could have slain Gael as he lay helpless in the mud at Nathiar’s feet. And because Nathiar had refrained, Erastys had surrendered to Heiroc. Had Nathiar simply found himself unable to murder his old friend in cold blood? Or had he assessed Gael as being so wounded that he could play no further part in the struggle? If so, he’d been mistaken; disastrously mistaken.

Perhaps Nathiar had estimated the relationship between the two royal brothers more accurately than had Gael. Gael had felt a mingled bitterness and relief when Erastys and Heiroc reconciled. Perhaps Nathiar had foreseen—or even engineered—their reconciliation.

But all of this was old history. What of more recent events?

Nathiar had defied Carbraes—treasonously—to create enchanted weapons in secret; weapons which would be used by trolls to defeat the unafflicted. How could Gael even think of working with such a troll?

And yet, there were other possibilities to consider there as well. Might it not be said that Nathiar upheld Carbraes’ interests most truly by enabling his warriors to prevail on the field of battle? Was it not Gael’s desire to preserve the unafflicted that was disloyal?

But, whether treasonous or true, slyly conscientious or authentically crooked, Nathiar alone possessed the skills Gael required to reforge the gong pulled from Olluvarde’s crumbling stones.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 68)

Gael could point to the exact day, the exact moment, when his dislike for Nathiar had bloomed. True, it had grown and deepened since then. But before that instant, they’d been friends and comrades. Uneasy ones perhaps, but on the same side. After it, no longer, so far as Gael was concerned.

It was twenty-one years ago, when Heiroc’s father still reigned, soon after Gael had turned seventeen. Late at night, he’d been walking along one of the cedar-scented corridors of the palace in Hadorgol, soft carpeting underfoot. The wicks of the oil lamps placed on the wainscoting ledge had been lowered, and the lighting was dim. Shadows clustered within a wall niche sheltering a miniature living pine and hung with a three-part tapestry depicting a mountain landscape.

Muffled giggles sounded from a narrow corridor opening opposite the niche.

Gael paused, frowning. He’d thought he traversed the palace wing to the west of the main courtyard. Had he gotten turned around somehow? Many did, especially courtiers who visited the capital infrequently. But he lived in the place year round, or nearly so.

If this were the western wing, that niche should hold a miniature willow, its shallow tureen placed before a tapestry showing a lazy river flowing through placid water meadows.

Another burst of stifled chuckles emanated from the corridor opposite the niche.

Gael swung into the narrow passage, quickening his stride.

The ornaments were wrong there, too, enameled theatre masks—happy, sad, furious, grinning and on through the whole panoply of stylized emotion—instead of the gallery of metal owls, fashioned of brass and gold; as though, again, this were the eastern wing, not the western.

But Gael was not turned around. This was the western wing. He stopped altogether, slowing his breathing and allowing his inner sight to unfurl.

Tiamar on his holy throne! The theater masks, the miniature pine behind him, even the cherry blossom branches worked in the carpeting underfoot—which should have resembled a flowery meadow, not a branch-laced sky—were the product of manipulated energea. It was all illusion. To what end?

As Gael jerked his head up, Erastys stumbled around the corner ahead, bent over, his arms wrapped around his middle as he shook with laughter. The prince was sixteen, newly come to broader shoulders and more muscular limbs, although he had yet more growing to do to reach full manhood. His face was very flushed, a few strands of his dark hair plastered across his sweaty jaw.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” gasped Erastys, holding in his chortles. He saw Gael. “Help me stop,” he pleaded in a whisper. “You have to see this! But we have to be quiet, or we’ll spoil it. I have to shut up!” The prince’s eyes streamed tears in his laughter.

A subdued series of thumps sounded beyond the corner just rounded by the prince, then a string of slurred curses, as though uttered by a drunk. Was that Lord Omory’s voice?

“What have you done?” demanded Gael, his own voice low. Lord Omory’s chambers lay off this very corridor—on the east of the palace, not the west. This was the west.

“S-switched the keys,” giggled Erastys. “He’ll trip over the quilt stand Myr Uram keeps just inside his door after nightfall and tumble into bed with the jester.” Erastys spouted another outpouring of suppressed giggles.

Gael’s lips pressed straight. He had to stop this. And there wasn’t time to explain—or argue about—why. He gripped the prince’s shoulder and yanked him along the corridor to a small door camouflaged by the ornate cedar paneling. Opening it, he bundled Erastys through, aiming him toward the servant’s stair located there, muttered “Go! Go!” urgently, and closed the door before Erastys could respond.

Then Gael leaped for the corner ahead, intent on stopping the prince’s prank before it reached its disastrous climax.

Erastys had always loved a joke. Hells! They all had, Gael included. But this joke was not likely to end the way Erastys—and Nathiar? Nathiar had to be involved, given the energea-created illusions—had envisioned. It was understandable that the prince had targeted Omory. The old lord traded on his long friendship with the royal family to scold the boy on every topic under the sun. If it was fun, Lord Omory disapproved. And his fondness for overmuch wine left him vulnerable to the prince’s pranks.

Gael hurtled around the corner just in time to see the door at the far end of the corridor swinging open under Omory’s shaking hand. The old man tottered through and tripped over the quilt stand, just as Erastys had predicted. Ankles wrapped in the jostled quilt, he lurched forward, arms flailing to avoid falling to the floor, and sprawled across the massive canopied bed beyond.

Nathiar—of course, Nathiar—burst from behind the great jade statue of a meditating saint that adorned the far end of the corridor. The apprentice magus pranced in glee, positively yelling his laughter.

An old lady’s piercing shriek interrupted Nathiar’s merriment.

“Wha’—wha’—wha’?” mumbled old Omory, thrashing about on the bed.

Gael halted in dismay.

And then the king’s great aunt arose from the cocoon of her sheets and blankets, thrusting Lord Omory violently from her person.

Gael started forward again, but it was too late, much too late.

“You!—you!—you!” screeched the dowager, breathless, her cheeks mottled.

A bustle of lordly authority approached behind Gael. He spun and bowed low. King Pevarys and his two highest ministers had arrived.

Silver-headed, all three, and garbed in heavy velvet robes, they made a somber trio. The king surveyed the scene, his astute gaze moving swiftly from Gael’s appalled face to Nathiar’s suddenly pale one, to his dowager aunt and Lord Omory, still entangled within the darkened bedchamber.

“See to it, Rikar” the king growled to his lefthand companion, jerking his head toward his great aunt.

Lord Rikar paced gravely forward, lifted Lord Omory smoothly to his feet, and bowed gracefully to the dowager, offering his arm. She took it, allowing the minister to support her out of the room altogether and down the hall. It might have been more suave still, if they’d managed to clear the doorway before Omory vomited messily on the carpet, instead of after, but Rikar gave no evidence of discomposure, murmuring as he guided the old lady around Gael, “I’ll conduct you to a fresh chamber, your grace, and send the lackeys to transfer your belongings.”

Meanwhile, the king and his remaining minister bent their attention to Nathiar, Gael, and Lord Omory.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded King Pevarys.

Gael clutched after his straying wits. He’d gotten Erastys away in good time. The king had never even seen him, need never know his younger son was present, if only Gael could come up with a plausible story. Fast.

Nathiar’s wits had apparently never strayed, because he spoke up immediately. “Your majesty, I make my abject apology.” Even in youth—he was seventeen, like Gael—his voice was deep and mellifluous. “I tried to stop them, but was too tentative, too tardy in my prevention.”

“What mean you?” asked the king sharply.

“My fellow apprentice”—Nathiar nodded at Gael—“dreamed up a scheme to discomfit the learned Omory, and . . . Heiroc liked the scheme, I regret to say. He found the idea of the prudish lord climbing into bed with Myr Uram exquisitely funny.”

Gael’s mouth dropped open. Was he really hearing this? That he had initiated the prank? For Heiroc’s amusement? That Nathiar had attempted to stop them? The lie was bald.

Nathiar continued, “I’ll admit my sympathies lie with Prince Heiroc in this, and had your lady aunt not arrived so unexpectedly this afternoon, had her usual rooms not suffered from the burst pipe, had the jester kept his usual apartment, I would not have intervened. As it was, I intervened too late.”

“My eldest son never lent himself to this!” King Pevarys snapped.

“It is unlike him,” agreed Nathiar mildly.

You were laughing sufficiently loudly, methinks,” the king observed, his tone skeptical.

Nathiar went down on one knee, dipping his head. “I was, my lord king, I plead guilty. My sense of humor is reprehensible, indeed. Pray forgive me, my king.”

The king’s lips flattened. He looked in exasperation at Nathiar, then turned aside to his minister. “For Tiamar’s sake, summon Lord Omory’s lackey to him.” Lord Omory had lost his balance after purging his stomach and was floundering amidst the floor skirts of the now-empty bed.

The minister exited the scene, no doubt in search of a page to run the necessary errands.

King Pevarys swung his attention back to the kneeling Nathiar.

“Get up!” the king ordered.

Nathiar rose smoothly to his feet.

The king glared at the apprentice magus, his royal eyes hard. “You’re lying.” The king’s voice matched his eyes. “You knew the dowager was given Myr Uram’s chamber. You knew, and you planned this disgraceful escapade accordingly. You and your fellow apprentice between you. My son”—the king corrected himself—“neither of my sons would distress my great aunt so foully.”

That was patently untrue, but it did not surprise Gael that Erastys’ father did not see the younger prince accurately.

“It’s despicable of you to palm off your misdeeds on another.” King Pevarys glared a moment longer at Nathiar. “You’ll report to the steward of the small chambers in the morning and clean latrines under his supervision for the next moon.”

Nathiar bent his head submissively, but his lips twisted in disgust when the king turned away from him.

Pevarys brought his vexed gaze to bear on Gael, saying nothing for an interminable interval.

Gael shut his mouth. It could all devolve into mutual finger-pointing at this stage: ‘but, he did it, not me’—‘no, he did it’—‘no, he did it,’ and so on. It could, but Gael declined to engage in such a pastime, especially since Erastys could still fall under suspicion.

Nathiar, behind the king, glanced mockingly at Gael.

“I’m disappointed,” said Pevarys. “I had expected better of you.” He held Gael’s gaze a long moment more. “You will attend upon the judge of the petty court for the next deichtain and then present an analysis of his rulings to me when the session closes.”

The king looked Gael sternly in the eyes for long enough to be sure of Gael’s obedience and then departed.

Gael looked equally long at Nathiar, who had the grace to blush.

“Really?” said Gael. He still found it hard to believe that his friend—however uneasy a friend he might be—had lied, and lied in creating a false accusation of his cohort. “Really?”

Nathiar shrugged. “I don’t want to hear it,” he said. “And you can afford his ill will more readily than I. You’ll win back his regard.”

It wasn’t Pevarys’ diminished opinion that rankled so strongly—although it did rankle—but Nathiar’s betrayal. “I . . . relied on you,” he said, after a brief fight for the right words.

“Oh, get over yourself, Gael,” said Nathiar. “Only milksops expect perfect fidelity.”

“Don’t you regret it?” asked Gael. “Wouldn’t loyalty feel better?”

“No,” laughed Nathiar, “and you don’t think so either or you wouldn’t be here now. Ha! C’mon, you know I’m more fun than prim and prissy Heiroc or even the unruly Erastys.”

Heiroc’s quiet steadfastness was hardly prunes and prisms, but never mind. Gael swallowed. ‘I do prefer Heiroc’ would make him a pruny prism. ‘I prefer you’ would make him a liar. “I agree with your expressed opinion of your humor,” he finally managed, and turned away, ignoring Nathiar’s chuckles at his back.

He’d intended never to speak of the incident again, but when Heiroc heard the varying tales via courtier rumors, the prince guessed the truth, knowing all concerned perfectly well. Heiroc didn’t say much, once he’d badgered Gael into confirming his guesses, for which Gael was grateful. Least said, soonest mended, although Gael’s trust in Nathiar would not mend. Nor had he wanted it to. ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’

Gael had retrieved himself fairly speedily in King Pevarys’ good graces. The king liked Gael, and favored his eldest son, who regarded Gael as his boon companion.

And on the surface, the doings between the four young men remained much the same. But beneath the surface, Gael and Heiroc grew apart from Erastys and Nathiar. So much so that thirteen years later, when Erastys, as king of Pirbrant, declared war on Heiroc, Gael was shocked, but unsurprised.

But now—now—Gael must consider trusting Nathiar to have his back in the smithy, when he tackled the defanging of the accursed gong.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 67)

As the sun was setting on their ninth day out from Belzetarn, the lead scout reported that Olluvarde lay within reach, if Gael cared to order the torches lit. The moon would not rise until half the night was gone, and starshine would provide light too scant for safe travel.

Gael and his escort of twelve had taken advantage of the long days, getting underway with the early dawn and continuing on through the bright evenings, stopping to make camp only with the late sundown.

Their pace had been easy, but trolls and horses both showed signs of weariness. It would be sensible to rest now at the usual time. They’d reach their destination before mid-morning on the morrow.

“Have you a preference?” Gael asked the decanen in charge of his accompanying guard.

The troll—a grizzled veteran—sniffed the air, scrutinized the sky through the tree branches, and spat. “Rain on the way,” he grunted. “You aim to set at the ruins some days, don’t you?”

Gael nodded.

“I’d ruther be under tent hide when the storm blows than either breaking camp or making camp in it.”

And so they lit torches.

Belzetarn’s chandlery fashioned magnificent flambeaus, each one featuring six wax or tallow rods as long as a troll’s arm and an inch thick, with a strand of braided thistlesilk at its heart as a wick. The rods were arrayed around the upper end of a wooden stave, tied securely at the base, middle, and upper ends, and welded together with yet more hot wax or tallow. When lit, they cast a brilliant globe of illumination.

The pack animals in Gael’s cortege carried an oversupply of the superior wax kind, as he would need many in Olluvarde’s underground precincts; and it would not be proper to employ magelight so profligately and publicly.

But surely he could spare a few to get them all under cover before the rain. The harness straps that buckled their fleece sheepskins around the barrels of the horses each bore clever bronze brackets in which two torch handles could be seated, one on each side.

One pair of flambeaus on every third mount proved adequate for lighting their way.

Gael rode tenth in the column, and his view of the flaring spheres of flame, pacing the contours of the darkening land ahead, evoked a strange wonder in his breast, as though he processed toward the ruin of a goddess’ tomb, from which they would draw forth her figure undefiled and raise her to new light and life.

The soft sound of the horses’ hooves, the squeak of their leather harness, the occasional snapping spark from a torch, and the low murmur of the trolls’ voices coalesced into an otherworldly music in Gael’s hearing. The movement of his horse under him, shifting balance and sliding muscles beneath the cushioning fleece, served as a rhythm to the mingled sounds. Each element stroking his senses—the glimmer of torch flames on the branches above, the fresh scent of the cooling air, the music of ordinary noises—seemed fraught with significance. He entered an exaltation utterly unfamiliar to him, riding unmindful of the passage of time.

When they wound their way up a broad hill and passed under a colossal marble arch adorned with statues of toga-draped warriors, he was surprised to realize they’d arrived at Olluvarde.

The troll guards unloaded the pack horses on a terrace beyond the arch and erected the tents. A few others gathered firewood from the surrounding woods. Another two dug latrines in an adjacent courtyard missing all its flagstones. The bustle yanked Gael from his fugue.

He halted a pair of torchbearers before they extinguished the last two flambeaus. “Come with me,” he instructed them.

Keir had described the location of the passage with the murals precisely. Gael led the way through a broken portico, tumbled columns, and ragged courtyards to where a curving stairway descended into a sunken square chamber. The treads were guarded by a heavy marble balustrade and curled around to debouch at the very center of the marble floor, just where a crack extending from one corner marred the stone.

A ponderous arch in the wall opposite the stairway had fallen, blocking any passage. Another to the left gave onto packed rubble. But the arch on the right wall lay open. Gael paced through it, his two torchbearers in his wake. He turned left, following the broad passage that seemed straight for an interval, then gradually curved to the right.

The first mural came into view. Gael’s breath caught. The artistry was beautiful, beautiful.

The magus depicted at his work seemed so lifelike that he might—at any moment—step out of his bas relief rendition to explain his methods to Gael in conversation. The vignettes surrounding the mural featured equally delicate detail, a mix of energetic diagrams and scenes of island living. Gael noted a spinner whose wheel was propelled by a small stone similar to that the magus crafted. In another, a laundress hung her washing on a line strung before a diminutive windmill, its sails also turned by a stone to waft a breeze across the wet linens. A healer clutched a stone in a third vignette, although her patient seemed uninjured and hale.

Gael pried himself away—he was not here to admire the ancient masons’ skill. He passed swiftly along the sequel murals: the tsunami threatening, the magnificent airship garnished with lodestones, the storm in the sky, the airship’s safe arrival, the ruined mooring tower, and—finally—the panel that Gael sought, the forging of the cursed gong.

One of the surrounding vignettes depicted the energetic structure of the lodestone, presumably before it was incorporated into the central boss of the gong. The lattice formed tightly packed octohedrons, with each edge of the eight-sided volumes marked by a heavy line of energea.

Gael frowned. Was this meteoric iron? Legend held that ancient Navellys had once been a much larger land mass, shattered and drowned by a falling star.

The next several vignettes showed a smith magus heating the great bronze disk that would become the gong with his energea, molding its shape, then floating a globe of molten iron into a central void in the glowing bronze.

Next the smith held the gong and its iron boss stable—suspended in midair; the bronze soft, but not molten; the iron fully liquid. Gael almost forgot to breathe, awed by the tremendous skill exhibited by the ancient man.

Two magi eased the lodestone into the molten boss, sustaining the configuration of the stone’s lattice of energea even while its metal dissolved.

The smith allowed the boss to cool a touch, transforming from liquid to a pliant solid that kept its shape, but could be molded. The two magi plucked the edges of the energea octohedrons from opposite sides, their vibration generating curling arcs, which they laced through the encircling bronze, forming rays that fanned outward.

The magi returned to the lattice of the central node to pluck the corner intersections of the energea octohedrons, drawing out yet another set of arcs that curled from boss to gong edge.

The main panel, large and impressive, depicted the instant when the energea array was complete, a sun emanating two separate sets of intertwining arabesques. More vignettes showed the smith’s further cooling of the metals while the magi supported the energea array.

So. This was how the cursed gong that now lay in his storeroom in Belzetarn had been created. It had required not merely two magi, but three, that third a smith as well.

Gael would not be creating a magical artifact. He would be ruining one. But could he do so alone? Or would he need a partner? He suspected he would need a partner. And there was only one candidate possessing suitable skills. A most unwelcome candidate, indeed.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 66)

Gael’s cavalcade of thirteen trolls and sixteen horses made good progress en route to Olluvarde. None of their mounts or pack animals fell lame, the weather stayed fine, and such luck as persisted among trolls permitted them to set up camp each evening without petty hindrance and to break camp in the dawning as swiftly.

The woodlands held the seasonal beauty of early summer, delicate and fresh. The pine groves at the start of their journey swished in the variable breezes, dispersing a resinous perfume. The glades of birch and alder farther south appealed even more to Gael’s inclinations.

Trees had been scarce in the riverine plain of Hadorgol, while these Hamish wilds featured nothing but hill after forested hill, laced by swift streams and dotted with frequent springs and lakes.

The white columns of the birch trunks stretched gracefully tall into the fluttering green coins of their leaves, the moving foliage spraying glints of sunlight and dapples of shadow across the forest floor below. The spicy scent of ferns mingled with the more elusive fragrances of shy flowers.

Gael drank the natural loveliness in, as much a medicine for his soul as Keir’s treatment of energea had been for his injured body.

Yet, all the while, as he rode and imbibed the land’s balm, he puzzled over the mystery of the thefts from his tally room: what he knew, and what he did not.

The first theft—not the first that occurred, but the first that Gael had noticed—would have been one of the ten Barris had confessed to, a theft ordered by Castellanum Theron.

The cook had claimed Theron had lately increased the frequency with which he demanded an ingot stolen. Three days before Gael had departed for Olluvarde, Barris had finagled an ingot out of the privy scullion’s carry sack. And Gael had discovered it the following day, when his tallies did not match. Or had he?

Why had his tallies matched after all the other—earlier—thefts by the cook, and only failed to match recently?

He knew a part of the answer. And could deduce the rest.

Barris’ thefts were accomplished in the morning. And, because the privy smith Martell grew especially impatient with his notary in the evenings, the poor scribe just made sure that his evening tallies matched his morning ones. Which told Gael something right there.

A yet-unknown thief—the one who must have caused the discrepancy that tipped Gael off—operated in the evening. After the privy notary finished his own tally.

No doubt that unknown peculator had acted just as had Arnoll, lurking, awaiting an opening, and then moving quickly to seize an unguarded ingot. Except . . . surely someone in the other smithies would have noticed him. Ravin, a tin smeltery scullion, had witnessed Arnoll’s theft, after all. And Arnoll, the most senior of the smithy opteons, possessed the right to intrude on any of the forges. Surely the mystery thief could not have moved unseen. Unless—

Gael remembered abruptly that Martell had lingered exceptionally late over his work for two nights running. Once when he himself had overslept extraordinarily. And again when the privy smithy scullion had been delayed by a long scolding—a very long scolding—from the castellanum.

A bird fluted on the hillside of birches through which Gael rode, and another answered. The wilds seemed so innocent, so untrammeled, in comparison to Belzetarn’s tower and Gael’s thoughts of the doings there.

The exchange he’d overheard at the hospital, while attending the burned sweep, returned unexpectedly to his memory. The castellanum had required a posset of sleeping herbs. And the castellanum had required Martell’s company at the evening feast, pouring wine into the smith’s cup again and again. Martell had complained of it and refused to accept the castellanum’s second invitation.

Could Theron have drugged the privy smith’s drink? Thus ensuring the smith would sleep late and provide another of the castellanum’s subalterns with opportunity? It fit what Gael knew of Theron that the castellanum would advance his aims—whatever they might be—via multiple prongs. What Gael wanted to know was: had Theron ordered his thief to steal tin? Or bronze? Or both? And why?

Gael’s mount stumbled on a thick root winding across the narrow path they followed. He exerted a slight tension on his rein, supporting the beast’s recovery. The sound of rushing water filtered up from a brook below, soothing to Gael’s ears.

Arnoll’s theft seemed a small misdemeanor when viewed against Barris’ more concerted and prolonged series of the same. It dwindled to complete insignificance when set beside the deliberate campaign prosecuted by Theron through Barris and—perhaps—another unknown troll.

In any case, Gael knew all the story of Arnoll’s doings and why. They were irrelevant to what mystery remained. As were the much more subtle purloinings practiced by the magus irrelevant. Nathiar, too, had explained what he’d done and why.

It was the castellanum—and his other minion or minions; there could be more than one—who Gael sought now.

And yet . . . he had a sense he was missing something, that some other agency was at work in the muddle of thievery and deceit and guile, some other villain who might yet escape retribution, were Gael to pin the remaining guilt on the castellanum alone.

Frowning, he withdrew his attention from circling his unsolved mystery, preferring to enjoy the fresh landscape through which he rode unshadowed by dark thoughts.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 65)

Keiran’s very first sight ever of the truldemagar had come as a shock.

In Olluvarde’s broad underground passage of bas relief murals, she’d just finished scrutinizing the last panel, her silvery blue magelight glowing about her, when the trolls burst around the far corner by the stairs. They saw her at once and gave a great shout, charging.

She stood paralyzed a moment—in horror. She’d planned to await their approach, but her plans were not what held her motionless.

The truldemagar’s war gear was famous. All the north-land peoples spoke of its beauty and excellence. Keiran had heard the tales, of course, and knew bronze to be superior to the leather coats and flint knives of Fiors’ warriors. But the ferocious glint and clink of shining scale mail surmounted by gleaming helms gave these trolls a presence more alarming than anything she’d imagined. With their forearms and shins encased in bronze greaves, they seemed monsters of metal, alien and terrifying, as they stormed forward.

Heart in her throat—pounding, pounding, like the trolls’ booted feet hammering Olluvarde’s marble floor—she stared.

The tales waxed eloquent on the grotesque faces and warped bodies of the afflicted. She’d known to expect the curving and elongated noses, usually strangely blunt, sometimes cruelly pointed; the enlarged, cupped ears; and the sallow, sagging skin framing watery, bloodshot eyes. She’d imagined the hunched shoulders and crooked arms. But the reality of their deformities combined with the vast power in their muscled limbs and the battle rage twisting their faces unnerved her wholly.

The oncoming scent of their sweat rolled over her.

She turned and ran.

Her pursuers gave another mighty shout, their voices deep and growling.

And her feet responded with a burst of speed.

What are you doing? What are you doing? she asked herself. You meant to stand and await them. You meant to turn yourself over to them.

But she could not make herself stop. Not here underground, hidden from the sight of the sky, where unspeakable things might be done to her, unwitnessed. And how foolish was that? Thinking the presence of the day eye over her might offer any protection.

No matter her panicked logic, she raced along the curving passage like a hare fleeing before hounds, darting around a piece of fallen wall like a startled minnow, vaulting over clumped rubble like a leaping deer, her magelight still illuminating her way, the troll horde pounding at her heels.

Sias! Oh, Sias! she prayed as she panted.

What in Cayim’s hells did she think she was doing? Where in Gaelan’s grief did she think she was going? She’d entered this passage by the stairs far behind her, the stairs behind her troll pursuers. Did she think to burst out through some crack in the earth to feel the free air on her skin along with warm sunshine? Almost certainly she’d be cornered instead in some caved-in dead end, severed from any escape to daylight and freedom.

But she ran, and ran, the passage curving always to her right.

Were the trolls farther in her wake? Was she faster in her sandals and suede tunic with its fringed hem? Were they slower in their mail and boots, with their terrible swords out and weighing their arms?

The passage turned an abrupt corner, slamming into a smaller hallway, on the left a tunnel plunging down narrow stairs into darkness, to the right—oh, blessings! oh, blessings!—a level scrap of corridor running toward a ragged opening in the hillside and cool sunlight.

Keiran whirled right, diving for the light like a seal caught too long underwater and diving up for air.

Six pounding steps later and she was out, carried by her momentum across cracked flagstones to the edge of the terrace, where a tree-studded slope slanted down toward the woodlands.

She doubled back, hurtling up broken steps before the truldemagar could emerge. Fleet as a mountain goat, up and up, she fled out of sight through the forest of columns at the top of the steps, and then ducked behind a crumbling statue into its niche in a fragment of wall.

She crouched there panting and panting, heart slowing from its frantic beat, and knowing she was safe.

The trolls roared, angry and puzzled, as they stumbled onto the empty terrace and saw their quarry nowhere in sight.

She was safe. They’d never find her. She was safe!

And her plans had all gone wrong.

She’d hacked her hair short with the flint knife tucked into her belt. She’d bound her breasts tight, thanking Iona that she was slight, that her facial features were clean cut, not soft, and that she could pass for a boy.

She’d been ready to be taken peaceably. But that mob had been no sane scouting party. They’d have hacked her to pieces, not taken her prisoner. She’d had to run, as her body had known, even while her head argued.

But how could she retrieve her—not lost—her never-offered moment?

Gazing out at the courtyard on which her hiding place fronted, she had an idea. Most of the ring of columns surrounding the space were toppled or become jagged stumps, but one remained whole, towering to thrice her height. She did not think the truldemagar would be good climbers, heavy in all their war panoply. But she—she who had climbed the sea cliffs at home in search of gulls’ eggs—could surely reach the flat capital of that lone stalk of still-standing marble.

She would have to be fast. She could hear the trolls spreading out from that lower terrace, searching as they moved uphill.

Prying herself out of her hiding place—which was not safe, despite her earlier assurances to herself, but which felt so—was impossibly difficult, but she did it. How ludicrous that she’d hunkered there for even a moment. The trolls would have smelled her fear, even if they’d not glimpsed a protruding elbow. And they would not have given up until they found her.

She hustled across the courtyard on cat feet—she must not be heard—and thrust her fingers into a horizontal crack circling the column just above her head, while wedging her toes into another at waist height. Could she climb in her sandals? She must. There was no time to take them off.

The column had been fashioned in great barrel-like segments, and—luckily—time had weathered and widened the joints where they came together.

Up she went, like the climbing monkeys of the south. Just as she pulled herself over the slight outward slant of the capital to stand on its level top, the first troll appeared from below. He was not looking up, but around him, and he did not see her.

Iona’s breath! If she crouched down and made herself small, they might never see her. They could search and search every piece of this ruined hilltop, every niche, every cranny, and never find her.

Her mouth went dry. The scent of pine from the trees ringing the ruins floated up to her, resinous and bracing, prodding her ingenuity alive. She had to get herself taken—alive, not dead—or her plan for her people, for her pater especially, would fail.

Why had that plan seemed so easy in conception? Why did it seem so hard, now? She made herself stand tall, with her arms outstretched.

“Oiyez! Oiyez!” she called in her loudest voice.

The lone troll spotted her instantly.

“To me! Come to me!” he yelled, and his fellows boiled up the slope, while he unshipped his bow and nocked an arrow.

“Stop! Stop!” she screamed, working to keep her voice from a woman’s higher register. “I am truldemagar. I am one of you!”

“You look human enough,” growled the marksman, aiming his arrow.

She got ready to duck low, if he should let that arrow fly.

“But I’m not!” she insisted. “Look with your inner sight. My nodes are ripped from their moorings!”

“Lord Carbraes forbids the inner sight,” answered the troll.

“Then take me to him, and let him check,” she yelled.

Slowly, he lowered his arm. “I suppose we could do that,” he allowed.

The other trolls had gathered around him. After some muttering among themselves and more shouted conversation with Keiran, still atop her column, they agreed to let her down unharmed.

For all that, the moment she came within reach, they plucked her from her handholds, yanked her arms up behind her, and dealt her three swift belly blows.

As she doubled over, retching, one said, “Why he’s nobut a boy!” in astonished tones. “What’s your name boy?”

“Keir—” not Keiran, that was a girl’s name, and she must be a boy “—my name is Keir,” she choked.

“From Fiors, huh?” her questioner said, and then fetched her a thunderous blow to her head.

Her senses reeled into darkness.

“Whups! Didn’t mean to get his pate. That was a welcome, a slap to the back,” said her assailant, as consciousness passed from her.

She was glad he’d sheathed his sword, before he’d attempted his gesture of greeting.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 64)

INTERLUDE

Olluvarde

Chapter 14

Soon after her arrival at Belzetarn, Keir had discovered that the sentry walk atop the curtain wall overlooking the lake was never patrolled. The enemies of the truldemagar had long since been driven out of the lowlands, retreating to their mountain fastnesses. Carbraes feared no waterborne attack on his citadel, and his march posted no lookout over the lake.

Most evenings Keir climbed a narrow straight stair located between the hospital and the feltmakers in the artisan yard, emerging from the shadows of the crumbling ascent into the sun on the wall top. Several of the shielding merlons had fallen, yielding a sweeping view of the water and its surrounding hills. Keir would clamber onto a smooth portion of stone and sit cross-legged, surveying the panorama.

The evening after Gael departed for Olluvarde, Keir sought her usual perch. The stones under her were warm from their day’s exposure, and the air was mild. The rays of the sun, slanting from behind her, shone long and golden. A riffle of clouds curdled white along the range of peaks on the horizon, and the lake—meandering away from her with a multitude of inlets—was very blue. Somewhere in the forest on the nearer shores, a dove cooed, soft and easeful. The scent of the water drifted upward, liquidly mellow and mixed with the aroma of sun-warmed pine.

She loved this high refuge for its solitude, its peace, and its beauty. The Hamish wilds were beautiful, but altogether different from Fiors, with its inland turf meadows, its coastal salt marshes, and its grass-fringed dunes, all overladen with the tang of the sea. But she didn’t want to think of home—which was home no longer. Not now.

The afternoon and evening had gone smoothly, despite Gael’s absence and despite whatever anxiety had prompted all his precautions. No additional ingots had gone missing. No one had challenged her authority. No one had threatened her person. Indeed, the castellanum had invited her to partake of an excursion on the lake when the next deichtain’s day of rest came around.

She’d thought about it, tempted.

She missed the vast sense of space one experienced at sea, with the waves stretching away forever to the horizon and the distant sky arching above. Even ashore on Fiors itself, the sky was far larger than here in the north with all its hills. Getting out on the water of the lake . . . might be a little like sailing off the coast of Fiors. And . . . even if it were not, she might gain some hint of Theron’s schemes against Gael.

In the end, though, she’d declined the invitation. What might happen to her out on the lake, wholly within Theron’s power, surrounded only by his hangers-on, out of reach of Arnoll or any other friend? How foolish she would feel to have rendered all of Gael’s safeguards futile.

She still thought his apprehension regarding the magus unnecessary. She’d managed perfectly well at holding Nathiar at bay long before Gael became aware that the magus required such restraint. As for the idea that the magus would grow more persistent following Gael’s departure, it was nonsense.

Three times had she almost encountered the magus this afternoon and evening, and each time he—not she—had taken decisive action to prevent the encounter: dodging away into a privy before they could pass one another on the Cliff Stair, turning the opposite way in the artisan yard, and actually leaving the high table when she entered the great hall for her supper.

A slight breeze arose from the water, blowing cool on her face.

Gael had asked her to check on Barris over the next deichtain or so.

The news that yet another of Gael’s friends had stolen from him had shocked her. Even surprised her. Once it wouldn’t have done so. She’d expected trolls to be violent and faithless before she’d ever met any. After living in Belzetarn for two years, after witnessing Arnoll’s unfaltering standards for the armor that would protect his fellows, after benefitting from Gael’s protection herself, she’d come to understand that trolls ranged across the entire spectrum of honor just as did the unafflicted. There might be more brutal trolls than there were brutal men, but trolls who were kind and generous and humane also walked under the sun. What an odd thought that was.

She’d not wanted to admit that it was so, but she could not avoid the conclusion. She had avoided thinking about it. She did not want to think about it now.

Gael’s voice had been dispassionate, phlegmatic even, as he reported Barris’ admission of guilt, as though he spoke of a change in the weather from fair to clouded, or the turn of the tide from outgoing to ingoing. Gael usually spoke calmly, and with composure. She expected that. She’d grown to depend upon it. But some tinge of the warmth and caring that lay beneath his rationality was always present. The deadness of his tone as he spoke of Barris made her hurt for him.

But she’d checked on Barris as he had wished her to.

The cook had babbled about the amazingly festal meal he planned in honor of the march’s upcoming sixtieth natal day. Almost too buoyantly. Keir couldn’t help suspecting that despondence hid beneath his ebullience. But he seemed to be doing as Gael had instructed him: keeping his head down in the kitchen.

She knew Gael worried for his friend. Gael might wonder if any friendship remained in his heart for Barris, but she knew Gael. He wouldn’t abandon a friend, even when that friend proved less reliable, less resolute than he’d believed him to be. She knew Gael, and she worried for him.

But the quick hug she’d given him upon his departure had been foolish. Just the briefest contact, her arms partially around his shoulders, but she shouldn’t have done it.

She was almost glad that he would be absent for nearly two deichtains. His well-being had come to matter too much, as had his opinion of her. She needed more distance, less feeling not more. Gael’s absence was helpful to that end. If only she did not worry for his safety. Her own memories of Olluvarde were too vivid for her to believe the ruins anything but perilous.

*     *     *

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