The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 55)

Sauntering along the balcony overlooking the lower great hall was just as he’d envisioned it, relaxing and enjoyable. It felt good to move.

He’d brought a tallow dip, but didn’t need it, as the kitchen scullions were still at work—the torches lit—sweeping the floors after they’d stacked the trestles and benches in the adjacent storerooms. Perhaps it was not so late as he’d thought.

Descending the Lake Stair required more concentration. His legs were tired, even if his mind was not, and wanted to let him bump from tread to tread. He needed a more controlled progress to avoid jarring his innards.

Arnoll would definitely not approve of this excursion.

Supping with his friend had felt just as usual, casual and comfortable. He’d enjoyed Arnoll’s understated sense of humor, his sensible outlook, and his intelligent commentary. Yet underneath his ease had lurked the awareness that Arnoll had stolen from him. That deed had changed things between them. Not on the surface, but down in the foundations of their friendship.

And still . . . despite the change, they’d lingered companionably after eating. They’d not spoken of the worrisome things, the big things, after Arnoll had agreed to guard the prerogative of the tally room while Gael was gone. It was the little things—a scullion’s innocuous mistake in the armor smithy, Arnoll’s visit to a charcoal burner’s hut in the forest, Gael’s boat trip to the center of the lake in one of the fishing boats—with which they’d beguiled the evening.

Perhaps the bruise to Gael’s trust in Arnoll would heal in time.

Gael was glad of his rush light when he crossed the place of arms to the Cliff Stair. The legion’s warriors were done with the scrubbing their opteons required of them at the end of the day when the training sessions were over, and the torches were extinguished. The moon had yet to rise, so the vast space lay in darkness.

No practice butts or matts arrested Gael’s progress. He reached the Cliff Stair and started down.

The torch on the landing below the latrine was lit, as it was supposed to be, so Gael was not surprised to discover that his lattice of energea remained undisturbed. Disappointed, yes. He’d hoped to be able to search for a troll marked by it tomorrow morning. Or, better yet, to see that his friend Barris was not marked by it.

The clog also remained undisturbed, and Gael shut the door on the stench with some relief, retreating from the residual smell.

It was just here—a few steps above that clogged latrine—that he’d encountered Dreben. Fought Dreben. Been bested by Dreben.

What was it that Dreben had screeched when he caught sight of Gael? Something about keeping chambers that should go to the magus?

Gael stopped.

He’d been on his way to question the magus, when Dreben interrupted him. But maybe . . . what needed investigating were his own official chambers. Why would Dreben—a sycophant of the magus—be so angry about those empty chambers, unless . . . there was something to be angry about? Something more than thwarted pride and prestige.

Gael rubbed his chin, a bit bristly and in need of shaving.

He could visit the chambers in the morning, of course. But if he visited them now, with no witnesses, with no warning, what might he discover?

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 54)

The rush lights flickered when Gael dipped his frayed birch twig into the water of the small tooth jar, dredged its tassel end in a saucer green powder, and started to scrub his teeth. The bitter flavor of the powder strengthened as he worked his way from the front of his mouth to the back. His initial distaste for the northern method of teeth cleaning had given way to liking once he’d grown accustomed to it. His mouth always felt immaculate and very fresh when he finished.

He’d wondered, traveling north, how the trolls brushed their teeth or whether they did. Did they fashion small wooden brushes studded with boar bristles like the people of Hadorgol? He knew they would not have access to the cloves and cinnamon that the trade caravans brought and that were crushed to make the tooth powder he’d once used. The idea of never cleaning his teeth again had disgusted him, and he’d been relieved when he discovered that the trolls made a powder from a certain lichen that was even more effective than his old clove and cinnamon mixture. The birch twigs, frayed into a tassel by multiple knife cuts, took a little more care to use than a boar bristle brush, but they worked.

Gael rinsed his twig in the tooth jar, then rinsed his mouth, spitting into the jar and covering it with its lid. The scullions would remove it in the morning.

As he removed his suede robe and the thistlesilk shirt beneath, he glanced around his sleeping chamber. It, too, was very different from his room at the court of Hadorgol. Animal hides covered stone flagstones instead of wool carpeting over polished wood boards. The pine chairs were simply carved, not ornate, and upholstered in sheepskins, not silk brocade. Hangings of stamped and carved leather covered the walls, instead of embroidered tapestries. And the ceiling was vaulted stone rather than coffered wood.

All of Belzetarn’s wealth went toward the machinery of war. And there were no women to spin and weave. The trolls who worked with the northern thistlesilk barely kept up with the demand for bandaging for the hospital, toweling for the kitchens, and shirts for the elite to wear under their suede garments.

For all the differences, Gael liked this chamber, and felt comfortable in it.

He poured fresh water into his bronze basin from the matching ewer and dipped his washing cloth into it. As he wrung it out, the herbal scent rising from his own skin gave him pause. It might be wise to let the infusion with which Keir had washed him work overnight. Although he hated to skip his ablutions. Going clean to his sleeping couch felt so much better.

He surveyed the bruises purpling his ribs, his breastbone, and upper abdomen. They had darkened considerably, but they hurt much less than before.

He dipped and wrung his washing cloth again with sudden decision. He’d avoid most of his torso. The herbal scent of the dried infusion was pleasant. But he’d scrub his arms and armpits, his groin, his legs, and his feet. He could be clean without interfering with Keir’s fine healing work.

After he’d finished, he reached for his nightshirt and paused again.

His fight with Dreben had occurred immediately after he’d checked the bronze thief’s hidey-hole in the latrine. His own lattice of energea had rested undisturbed. Then. What of now? The great halls were long empty of their dining trolls, and the Cliff Stair would have seen the last of them retiring to their chambers some time ago. He and Arnoll had lingered late over their meal. Arnoll would not approve of Gael going to check that hidey-hole now.

But Arnoll was not here. And Gael felt restless. He’d slept the afternoon away, and he was not sleepy. Indeed, with his evening meal had come increasing strength. The idea of a gentle stroll—even though it would involve stairs—held considerable appeal.

Gael pulled a fresh thistlesilk shirt and caputum out of a chest and put them on, along with hose, shoes, and the evening’s suede robe. From habit he pinned his fibula of keys at his waist.

He’d take it slow.

On impulse, he tucked the small suede bag with rose rivets—the one he’d confiscated from the tin teamster—into his sleeve.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 53)

Chapter 11

“I’ve got to go to Olluvarde!” Gael exclaimed. That seventh panel—the one in which the stone of the magus was fashioned into the boss of the cursed gong, the one which Keir had passed over—might hold exactly the arcana he needed.

Keir’s unfocused gaze, looking into his past, sharpened abruptly. “Not now,” he said coolly.

“Of course not now,” said Gael. Or not immediately. But soon. He itched to study the energetic diagrams adjacent to the scene of the forging of the gong. Energea remained energea, whether in the present or hundreds of years ago, or even thousands. Surely he’d be able to divine from those diagrams the method that set a living node within the gong boss. And if he learned the techniques of its creation, he could deduce the means of its destruction.

“Gael.” Keir knew him too well. “You will be as tough and resilient as ever in a deichtain’s time. But if you should suffer a blow or a fall or anything which jars your internal organs while you are healing, you could hemorrhage and die.”

“I’m more likely to stumble and fall on the everlasting stairs of Belzetarn than out on level ground,” Gael argued testily.

Keir stared at him, exasperation in his gray eyes.

Before the boy could generate further reprimands, someone knocked on the outer door in the other room. The click of the latch followed, and Arnoll’s gravelly voice called, “May I come in?”

“Yes, do,” returned Gael, raising his voice to carry and pushing to his feet. His ankle took his weight without clicking and without pain, but his gut felt tender as his torso muscles engaged.

Keir darted another annoyed glance at him, but said nothing, going with him into the sitting room. The shutters on both casement windows were open, and the mellow light of evening filled the space, engoldening the divans, the backless chairs, and the tripod tables, as well as the stamped leather hangings on the walls.

Arnoll had donned one of his less ragged robes—dark amber suede adorned with jet beading—in honor of his private supper with the secretarius, and his curling iron-gray hair was freshly brushed and braided into a neat plait down the back of his neck.

“Gael! You look a little worn around the edges.” Arnoll’s gaze stopped at the bruises Gael knew were still visible on his neck, then the smith stepped forward to grip Gael’s upper arms. “You’re well? No lasting harm done?” he questioned.

Gael smiled. “Keir here patched me up good as new.”

Arnoll’s grizzled brows rose. “You have healing skills in your quiver then, lad?”

“It was my profession before I came to Belzetarn,” answered Keir, a slight distance in his manner. No doubt the boy remained irritated at Gael.

“Good as new, eh?” said Arnoll, scrutinizing the healer and the healed. “But needing a deichtain of bedrest. Am I right, young Keir?”

Keir’s reserve softened under Arnoll’s friendly shrewdness. “You have that precisely right, sir,” he said. “Perhaps you will add your persuasion to mine that the secretarius guard his health properly, instead of racing off to Olluvarde in the morning.”

“Olluvarde?” said Arnoll, startled.

Keir’s lips quirked, acknowledging Arnoll’s reaction, and then the boy started to tell the smith all about it, pausing momentarily to insist that Gael sit on one of the divans.

Gael stayed out of the discussion, merely watching as the two conversed and reflecting that Arnoll’s ease and understanding of the young was very appealing. Unlike many in authority in Belzetarn—Theron, for one—Arnoll recognized that boys were impulsive and often illogical, but he liked them anyway, or perhaps because of it. He knew how to be firm with them, but kindly. And he protected the smithy scullions from the rigid disapproval exhibited by the tower opteons, as well as the angry aggression of the warriors.

Barris was like that, too, setting a tone of fairness and restraint in the regenen’s kitchen that spread to influence all the offices in the annex.

Gael admired them both, his friends Barris and Arnoll. And modeled himself after them, aiming to deal with the lesser trolls in Belzetarn—especially the young ones—calmly and protectively, looking out for their interests.

He would have liked to have taught an apprentice magus, had the truldemagar never fallen upon him. He suspected he would have enjoyed rearing a son—or a daughter—if things had been different. As things stood . . . he would do neither, although training Keir in the ways of the tally chamber had resembled the coaching of a young magus.

Arnoll and Keir finished up their exchange with Keir’s suggestion that the smith examine the accursed gong before his meal rather than after. “That way I can ensure the secretarius is out of range of its resonance.”

“A gong, is it?” said Arnoll slowly. “So that was the source of that infernal bellowing yesterday in my smithy.”

“Gael wishes you to sound the thing while observing it with your inner sight,” explained Keir.

Gael nodded, confirming Keir’s words.

“Mind you tap it softly,” the boy added.

“Where is it?” asked Arnoll.

Gael pointed to his storeroom door, secured with its new padlock.

“I’ll take the secretarius up to my chambers,” interjected Keir.

Gael glanced sideways at him. He was certainly assiduous in his healing duties, almost worse than Medicus Piar would have been.

“The key?” said Arnoll.

Gael detached it from his fibula, handed it over, and then allowed Keir to usher him out onto the Regenen Stair. One and two-thirds twists up at a deliberately slow pace, they arrived at Keir’s quarters. The boy started to open his door and then had second thoughts. “I’m not convinced this is far enough,” he muttered, and led Gael up another twist, across the main great hall, and along the passage to the West Stair.

“How will we know when to go back?” asked Gael, hiding a sneaking amusement.

Keir frowned. “I will go back. You will stay here. Until I return for you.”

“Very well,” said Gael gravely.

Keir took three hurried steps and then paused, looking over his shoulder. “You will wait?” he said.

Gael settled onto the sill of the nearest embrasure, its surface a convenient height to use as a seat. “I will wait,” he promised Keir.

The boy was gone for some time, but Gael felt no impatience. The setting sun shone strongly through the arrowslit at the far end of the embrasure, warm on Gael’s back. He’d concealed the fatigue that merely climbing from his quarters had produced, but he was happy simply to rest.

When Keir reappeared, the boy said, “Arnoll tapped the gong three times to get a good look. You didn’t feel it, did you?”

Gael had felt nothing beyond the languor of relaxing in the evening sun, he reassured his diligent notarius-turned-nurse.

At the door to his chambers, Gael asked, “Will you check with the cook about the supper to be served?”

“The first course has already arrived,” said Keir.

“Ah. Good.” Gael was tempted to invite the boy to stay, but that would preclude the frank request Gael wished to make of Arnoll. “Then I shan’t need you further.”

Keir nodded, but insisted on shepherding Gael to a divan and recommending that his patient avail himself of the slanting end rest, before the boy took his leave.

Arnoll was reclining on another divan across the tripod table where a tray held an earthenware carafe and two drinking bowls. The smith poured a stream of pale golden liquid into each, lifted his to his lips and swallowed a long draught, then sighed.

“That’s a nasty instrument you’ve got locked in your storeroom, Gael,” he said. “It’s full clamor produced several visits to the hospital yesterday. Two hammered thumbs, a sliced palm, and—I believe—a burned sergeant.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Gael. “All the strength drained out of my limbs when it sounded.”

“Why did you wish me to examine it?”

Gael sipped from his drinking bowl, and a bright, sparkling sweetness burst on his tongue. Ah, knotberry mead. It was delicious, but he’d better ration himself to just one bowl. It was potent.

“I spoke with Randl, the copper smelter, about melting down the iron boss, and he said it could not be done, that none of Belzetarn’s forges produced sufficient heat.”

Arnoll nodded. “That is so.”

“But it occurred to me that a lesser damage might suffice. You saw the living node within the metal and the arcs connected to it, did you not?” said Gael.

“I did,” replied Arnoll.

“How if we heated the iron enough to bend it, to warp it? Would that be possible?”

Arnoll scratched his chin. “I’m nearly certain that could be achieved, but would it serve?”

“What are you thinking?” asked Gael.

“I’m not and never have been a magus, Gael,” answered Arnoll, faint annoyance in his voice.

“But you have an opinion, and I value it,” said Gael.

Arnoll sighed. “You want to break the energetic lattice, correct?”

Gael nodded.

“Then, when the metal bends, will not the lattice merely bend with it?”

“But if the iron were on the verge of liquidity?” probed Gael.

“Perhaps so,” said Arnoll, “but it won’t be. Not in our forges.”

“Hells,” Gael cursed. “I feared it was so. Now I really will need to travel to Olluvarde.”

“Thus guarding your health?” said Arnoll, his tone ironic.

“Think it through, Arnoll,” replied Gael. “I doubt Keir has. No blame to the boy,” he added. “He’s been performing his duties as notarius all afternoon, plus mine as secretarius, plus his self-imposed ones as my nurse—for which I am grateful—without much leisure for pursuing tangents.”

“I thought Keir had a point,” said Arnoll.

“Keir envisioned me plunging into the wilderness willy nilly and alone,” said Gael acerbically.

“Ah.” A slight smile on his lips, Arnoll shook his head. “You’ll go with a retinue. Of course.”

“And amongst my retinue will be a physician, Carbraes willing. And I won’t depart at all until I’m stronger than I appear to be tonight.” Gael’s jaw tightened briefly. “The short climb to where Keir deemed me safe from the gong took it out of me,” he confessed.

“Keir was imagining himself in your shoes, wasn’t he? Young and eager and on the track of a new and alluring piece of information.”

Gael laughed. “That’s it.” Arnoll was astute regarding youth. “Although, to be fair, Keir might have wanted to dash off this very night—were he in my shoes—but he wouldn’t have done so.”

“No?” Arnoll drew another long draught from his mead bowl. “No, I suppose he wouldn’t.” The smith directed a curious glance at Gael. “The boy has entirely too much sense for his age.”

“I shouldn’t say that,” Gael started to object, but was interrupted by the arrival of two kitchen scullions entering with the next course. The aroma of herb-crusted fish along with the sweetness of roasted onions lifted from the trays of food. A third scullion brought in a compote of honeyed rhubarb and a platter of fragrant hazelnut scones.

The boys served the food and departed.

Gael confined himself to eating for an interval, noticing that Arnoll, too, showed a fine appetite. The flesh of the fish was delicate beneath its crisp crust of herbs, and the onions featured a delicious buttery flavor. Only when he moved on to the tart-but-sweet rhubarb did Gael speak again.

“Keir can do all the work of the tally chamber, but we both know there is more to my position than the actual labor.”

Arnoll grimaced. “Holding firm against encroachment by those who seek any advantage in a lapse of authority.”

“Precisely,” agreed Gael. “Keir will likely be effective there, too, more effective than you might expect, but against certain individuals”—Theron, Dreben, Dreben’s opteons—“he’ll need more age and experience than he possesses.”

“Or someone behind him, possessing those attributes.” Arnoll nodded.

“Will you do that for me, Arnoll?”

“Of course, but you’d better make it official, for it to do the most good.”

“I’ll mention it to Carbraes, when I explain the necessity for my travel.”

“That’s all right then,” said Arnoll. “Do you think you’ll be leaving on the morrow?”

“With a little luck, by afternoon.”

Arnoll grunted. “You do know you’re pushing yourself?”

“I know. But prudently.”

“Eh. Only the old are ever prudent, and even they grow imprudent when something precious lies at stake.”

Gael’s eyebrow lifted.

“Never you mind. You’ll understand what I mean in another twenty years or so.”

Arnoll was in his sixties. Gael suspected that his own thirty-eight years sometimes seemed scarcely more than Keir’s likely sixteen to the older troll.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 52)

Standing on that smooth passage floor in Olluvarde, the cold smells of rock and earth permeating the dimness, Keiran had called up a pale silvery light with her energea, to create a splash of illumination around her in the shadowed subterranean space. Underfoot, a mosaic of black, white, and gray tiles depicted swans afloat on a river. Overhead, roses carved into the stone vaulting created the illusion of a garden pergola.

But it was the murals on the lefthand wall that had captured Keiran’s attention.

She studied the bas relief panel before her, a marvel of finely carved white marble. It depicted a magus of the ancients at work.

The artist had chosen to render the curls of energea streaming from the magus’ fingers in traceries of stone, as though the viewer were looking with the inner vision of a magus, rather than the outer vision that could not see the safe blues and greens and silvers.

The ancient magus strove to enchant a smooth pebble just large enough to fit in the palm of his hand. Vignettes incorporated in the moldings around the scene depicted arcane diagrams—perhaps instructions for the method the ancients used to manipulate energea?—as well as portrayals of life on the island. A healer at work. A spinner.

Keiran’s footsteps echoed faintly as she moved on to the next bas relief mural, this one depicting a vast tsunami rolling across the sea to bear down on an isle with a city sprawling down the slope of its central mountain peak to its harbor. The wave seemed to tower over the small scrap of land. Keiran shivered.

She’d been fortunate in her own crossing from Fiors to the Hamish coast. A brisk following wind had pushed her west with speed. It was only after Fiors had disappeared over the horizon behind her that she’d remembered the fishermen’s talk of a gigantic whirlpool haunted by the spirit of a murdered mer-king. But she’d encountered nothing like that, merely the expected northerly current as she drew near her destination at the dawning of the next day. She’d come ashore in a heavy sea, but the approach to the beach, although steep, had been clear of rocks. She’d arrived safely, if weary.

The next mural showed the ancient magus again, affixing his magical stone and its twin to the gondola of a magnificent airship, while children of all ages bade tearful farewells to their maters and paters before hurrying across the gangways to board.

Pater had put Keiran aboard a vessel of the sea, not a vessel of the sky, but he’d wept just like the paters of that threatened, mythical island. If it was mythical. Keiran had heard stories of the ancient airships, and always classed them as legend. Seeing one rendered in such loving detail—the polished wood of the gondola with its bronze fittings, the varnished oblong of canvas that shielded the airbags—made her wonder if they were merely history so ancient as to seem legendary.

In the fourth mural, the gusting winds of a storm smashed one airship out of the sky and into the thundering sea, while another—the vessel with the magical stones affixed to its gondola—sailed untouched through the tumult.

The next mural saw the airship docked at a mooring tower and the children disembarking, greeted on the far side of the gangway by their rejoicing parents.

Would her pater rejoice, if she were to return to him?

At sea, when the full realization of her troll-disease fell upon her, she’d remembered the repugnance on her pater’s face and the long time he’d left her alone on the sands of the rocky cove. Had he hated her then? Her people hated the troll horde for the ravages done them during the ruin of Fiors. And Pater hated trolls more personally as the authors of his maiming. How must he have felt when his daughter became a troll?

But he’d spoken no words of hate to her, there at the last.

“I love you. I’ll always love you. Never doubt me.”

She would trust that he’d spoken true, that he might have felt shock and horror and grief at what had come to pass, but never hatred for her, never disgust for her. He’d said he loved her, and she would hold to that.

A faint mutter of sound murmured on the air of the buried passage as she advanced to the next carved mural—the sixth. The breeze outside must have shifted, carrying the rush of the nearby cascade to her ears.

In the sixth bas relief scene, the mooring tower of the earlier mural lay in ruins. Beside it, the great airship had also fallen to earth, and a beautiful woman plucked the enchanted stones from its moldering gondola.

Keiran frowned. The first five panels formed a tight sequence, depicting events that had surely followed one immediately after another. But this sixth . . . was it decades later? Centuries? Perhaps the abstract patterns carved into the walls between the murals was the writing of the ancients, telling of the events rendered in stone, but she could not read it.

The seventh mural depicted the firing of one of the two stones enchanted by the ancient magus, transforming it into the central boss of a mighty gong. More of the energetic diagrams—like those adjacent to the very first mural in the sequence—surrounded the scene.

Keiran, uninterested in the magical forging techniques of old, walked to view the eighth and last mural. The bas relief portrayed a battle between the troll horde and the knights of a Hamish queen. The dead of both sides littered the blood-soaked ground. The troll warriors brandished warhammers and maces. The queen’s knights charged forward with pikes. Behind the knights, a giant of a man held the magical gong, while a slighter man beat upon its metal with his mallet.

Once again the unknown sculptor rendered the arcs of energea, curving out from the gong to fill the air. And where they fell upon one of the troll horde, that warrior grimaced in pain, his weapon falling from his grip as he sank down.

Keiran stared at the gruesome tangle of severed limbs and broken blades beneath the dying trolls. Was this how it had been on Fiors in her grandmother’s day, when the troll horde descended? On Fiors, the trolls had won, although they had not remained to savor their victory, but passed onward to the Hamish lands.

How might it have gone differently, if her people had possessed the wondrous gong wielded by these Hamish defenders? Could Fiors’ ruin have been averted? Would renegade trolls have avoided Fiors ever after as the place of their downfall? Would pater never have lost his leg?

Keiran shook her head. The flint knives and spears carried by Fiors’ fighters bore enchantments of energea, but Fiors had never possessed anything like this Hamish artifact. She tried to imagine it: resonance that brought trolls to their knees.

But she was a troll now. It would be she who fell when the mallet beat upon the brazen gong, if some phantasm were ever to bring it out of the lost past.

As she stared, the murmur of the nearby cascade strengthened to a rapid pattering and then a pounding. This was not water she was hearing, but footsteps racing across stone, many footsteps.

She twisted abruptly, placing her back to the wall and feeling for her hunting knife.

A band of trolls burst around the curve of the passage in which she stood.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 51)

Keir found her thoughts returning to Gael all through the afternoon as she ran the errands of the tally chamber, consulted with three quartermasters, and jotted notes to herself so that she wouldn’t forget important details. Was Gael resting as she’d bade him to do? Was his pain subsiding? Would his healing proceed apace, as she hoped, or would there be complications?

It had been two years since she’d inhabited the healer’s role, and it had felt like coming home to herself to perform healing again. Almost did she wish that she’d asked for a place in the hospital when Belzetarn had taken her in. Almost. For her own satisfaction, it would have been ideal. For the accomplishment of her ultimate goal, it wouldn’t have done at all.

As she prepared parchments to be used on the morrow, she wondered again why Gael had preferred her healing to that offered by the hospital physicians. It made sense that she would trust her skill; she knew her own history. But Gael did not. She didn’t think he’d even been aware that she was a healer. So why had his first words to the porters who’d pulled Dreben off of him been, ‘Get Keir’?

She’d ask him when he was more recovered.

In the meantime, she needed to focus on tallying, not healing. And not on her patient.

She smiled to herself. Life as a troll had not been quite as she’d imagined it.

Later, checking in all the work of the smithies and the lodges associated with the making of weaponry and armor, she had no difficulty keeping her mind on her work. She wanted to do it right, especially since doing it right was critical to finding the thief troubling the tally room.

Later still, when all the vaults were locked down, she found it very natural to turn toward the door to Gael’s chambers—just under two twists of the stair up from the tally room, instead of the three-and-a-bit twists to her own apartment.

With the sun over on the other side of the tower—the west—Gael’s sitting room was dim, the divans and tables mere concentrations of shadow within the warm, golden glow emanating from the casement embrasures.

The sleeping room, with its inner shutters closed, was dimmer still.

Keir paused just within the door, wanting neither to stumble over an unseen footstool nor to startle Gael.

“Keir?” came Gael’s voice.

He was no longer reclining on his couch, she saw as her eyes adjusted, but sitting in a chair near the windows, leaning against the wall with a cushion at his back.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Quite well,” he replied.

“May I assess your healing,” she asked, “as a physician might?” She especially wanted to see how the internal injuries were faring. But would he respect her authority as a healer, now that he felt better? He was accustomed to telling her what to do, not to acquiescing to her orders for him.

His lips turned up, wryly. “Please,” he said.

Interesting. Apparently he was not going to be difficult.

“I’ll need you to disrobe,” she said.

“Ah . . .” Was he blushing? She had to admit it was a little awkward. When he was grievously injured and unconscious, she’d found it no problem to instruct the porters to lay him on his couch, strip him, and cover him with a light blanket.

But as the secretarius and his notary, they were modest with one another. And, perforce, she’d made it a point to visit the smallest of the saunas where she could be completely alone, if she timed it properly. Had she been male, she might have enjoyed the sauna in company with Gael. As it was . . . no.

“I will wait in your sitting room. Call when your clothing is off and you lie under the thistlesilk blanket on your couch,” she said.

Thank you.” His tone held utmost gratitude.

She nodded and went into the other room, well away from the doorway. And he was quick. Mere moments later, he called to her.

She’d learned to move the coverings of a patient quite adeptly in her training under her pater, revealing only the body part that she needed to examine, and she fell into the rhythm of it easily. The strangest thing was that her pater did not stand in the corner looking on, while she auscultated Gael’s chest and abdomen, listening carefully to what the sounds told her. She’d not performed so many examinations solo as to be accustomed to working without supervision.

Opening her inner sight, she received confirmation of what she’d perceived. Intricate spirals of silver and aqua energea intertwined as they should, but displayed a slight shiver in their pulsing. The spleen and liver had resumed their full integrity, but remained delicate. So long as no one pummeled them further, the organs would be entirely healed in a deichtain.

Gael’s surface bruises were already fading.

Keir pulled the thistlesilk up to recover Gael’s torso and let her inner vision lapse.

“Your injuries are healing well,” she told him, “but I think you already know that.”

He nodded. “I can move. Unlike before.”

She nodded. “I’ll let you dress, and then we’ll discuss how best to ensure your full and swift recovery.”

He was equally quick in donning his robe while she waited in the sitting room. And her subsequent instructions for him were simple and straight forward: rest, move slowly and carefully, seek his sleeping couch early, and avoid jolting blows to the body.

“May I resume my duties in the morning?” he asked, sitting forward from the wall at his back.

“Let me assess you when you wake,” she said, “but, most likely, yes.”

He looked relieved.

She reached up from where she sat to swing open the nearest inner shutter. Golden evening light flooded the chamber, illuminating the curious leather hangings, with their carved designs, and the small chests resting against the walls below.

“I haven’t reconciled the morning tally sheets with the evening ones,” she said, changing the subject.

The worry left Gael’s face. “Of course you haven’t. That takes half the morning. There’s a reason we do the reconciling the day after.”

Keir smiled. “Fatigue leads to error,” she recited.

Gael’s eyes gleamed, sharing her amusement.

“But, Gael, maybe we should—I should—do the reconciling in the evenings while we’re tracking our thief. We didn’t need to know of any discrepancies so immediately when we were just managing the ordinary flow of metals. But now—”

Gael sighed. “Pushing your limits works when it’s only for a short time, and I see the temptation in the current situation. But we don’t know how long this will take us, Keir. I hope we’ll catch the thief in a day or two, but we might not. And doing the reconciling in the evenings regularly will lead to errors. Which will then require additional time and effort to find and correct, while potentially leading us astray, because we think the error is yet more evidence of theft, when it isn’t.”

Keir pressed her lips together. He was right, of course. But she wanted to get to the bottom of the missing metals now, even if it meant skipping sleep to do so.

“After I locked the vaults, I did a rough reconciling of the privy smithy only,” she confessed.

“And?” said Gael.

“Aside from the tin ingot that was stolen en route to the smithy, the morning and evening tallies matched perfectly, with only the normal wastage.” Keir snorted. “Martell was in a hurry, once he’d started the closing down of the forge, just as he’d been at the start of the day. He would have piled everything in the scullions’ carry sacks willy nilly, making his poor notary tally pure fiction.”

Gael nodded. “We’d assumed the discrepancies in the privy smithy were due to Martell’s lack of cooperation with his notary. And it would seem that your presence shut down the thief’s opportunity to take advantage of Martell’s sloppy record keeping, except”—Gael paused.

“Except we still had a theft,” finished Keir.

“Which likely means that your presence in the smithy, both morning and evening, shut down one thief, but didn’t stop the other,” said Gael.

“Are we making any progress?” asked Keir.

The corner of Gael’s mouth twitched. His eyes seemed to look off into some unseen distance, as though his thoughts went somewhere Keir could not follow. Then his gaze refocused. “Oh, yes,” he answered. “Not as swiftly as I would prefer, but we’ve certainly ruled out several possibilities.”

He leaned back against the cushion behind him. “Is the kitchen still prepared to serve a supper in my chambers?” he asked. “They didn’t cease their preparations when they heard of my injuries, did they?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” replied Keir. “No doubt rumors ran wild among the scullions, but the opteons know their business. Even did they pay any heed to the rumors, they’d check with real authority before they changed their orders.”

“Would you check to be sure? When you depart for your own meal?” asked Gael. “I’d hate for Arnoll to arrive at an empty table.”

“I’ll check,” said Keir. “What do you hope Arnoll will tell you about the gong anyway?”

“Did you see it? When the regenen asked you to fetch me?” asked Gael.

“Just a glimpse,” she said. “But one of the warriors tapped it with his scabbarded sword, when he moved incautiously, and I felt the peculiar weakness that its sounding produces. Not so strong as in the tally room.”

She could remember all too vividly that groaning echo in the stairwell, as though Belzetarn itself cried out in agony. Followed by the strength draining from her limbs, the nausea that had arisen in her belly, and the way her thoughts congealed in her mind. Had the regenen actually ordered that they test the effects of a solid blow to the gong? Or had they dropped it?

“Where did they find the dreadful thing anyway?” she asked. She rather wished they’d not found it, that it had remained buried and unfound—lost—forever.

“In the Hamish ruin of Olluvarde,” said Gael.

A jolt of shock rose through her. “Olluvarde!” she exclaimed.

Gael frowned. “Yes.”

“But that’s where—”

Gael touched her wrist, where it lay on her knee. “What’s wrong, Keir?” His voice was gentle.

“It was in Olluvarde that Carbraes’ scouts found me and brought me to Belzetarn. I—” She swallowed.

“You need not speak of it. I suspect it was not a pleasant encounter,” he said.

“No. No.” She drew in a deep breath. “But that’s not it. It’s what I saw there. I think it might be . . . relevant.”

“What do you mean?” asked Gael.

“The ruins are extensive,” she explained. “Not so much above ground. Above ground, they’re a jumble of fallen columns, collapsed walls, and broken paving. But in the tunnels and vaults below, the damage is less. And every surface there is covered with murals. In this one broad, curving passage, there’s a sequence of bas relief murals that seem to recount a legend or a history.”

Gael leaned forward. “Tell me,” he said.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 50)

Gael lay comfortably in the aftermath of Keir’s healing treatments, a light thistlesilk blanket pulled to his chin, watching as the boy tidied various used cloths into a sack, the bottles of several tinctures onto a tray, and the remaining pale green fluid in the basin into a leather bottle.

Someone had closed the inner shutters on the casements of his room, and the light was dim and soothing. Keir moved surely, but without hurry, between the tripod tables that he’d pressed into service. Gael felt relaxed, glad to be tended in his own chambers, not those of the hospital. Especially because the physicians there would likely have kept him overnight in their zeal. An unnecessary caution; he felt . . . not fine, but merely very stiff and very sore and very tired. There was no need for him to forego his interview with the magus, although he’d have to push himself to get it done. So be it: he’d push.

Gael frowned.

That had been his intent, had it not? When he’d been so furiously climbing the Cliff Stair?

His frown deepened as he recalled the reason for his fury: the death of the Ghriana boy and his own part in it. It all seemed a little unreal now, but it wasn’t. He’d declared the boy unafflicted, Carbraes had pronounced his sentence, and the warriors had executed him. It had all been very ugly indeed.

“Gael?” Keir had drawn near, no doubt misliking the disturbance he saw on his patient’s face. “Are you in pain again?”

“No.” Gael had no intention of sharing the cause of his frown. He’d protected the boy from the worst of Belzetarn for two years, and he wasn’t about to falter now. He’d shove the memory under, just as he’d shoved other repulsive truths under, and go on. It was the only way to manage, living among trolls and contributing to the community as necessary.

He might take that thought out and re-examine it . . . later. But not now. Not when he had stolen tin and forbidden enchantments to track down. When he had a cursed gong to subdue.

“Do you remember why Dreben attacked you?” asked Keir.

Gael started to shake his head, but stopped after the slightest twitch of his muscles escalated the ache in the flesh to throbbing agony. Evidently he felt merely sore and stiff and tired only so long as he lay perfectly still.

But what had Keir said?

“Dreben attacked me?” he asked.

“You do not remember the fight?” said Keir.

Gael probed his memory. He’d punched someone, he could remember that. It had felt . . . satisfying. Was it Dreben he’d hit? Yes, he rather thought so. Nasty, verminous thing that the brigenen was. And the brigenen had punched back. Much more effectively than had Gael. But it had still been worth it. Gael shifted on his sheepskin, provoking another blaze of agony. Maybe it hadn’t been worth it. He’d always avoided Dreben in the past. Why had he confronted him now? And how had he drummed up an excuse to hit him?

Maybe the boot was on the other foot, and Dreben had manufactured an excuse to hit Gael. But he’d better answer Keir’s question.

“It’s coming back to me,” he said, “but I don’t remember how it started. What did Dreben say?”

Keir sniffed. “Nothing at all. He stood like a statue, outraged, while we readied you for the litter, and then had the gall to dismiss us formally as the porters lifted the litter to move you out.”

Gael sighed, noting with some relief that breathing seemed not to hurt, despite the bruises he could feel on his ribs.

“I was climbing to the magus’ quarters to interview him,” said Gael.

“That,” said Keir, “will have to wait.”

“I . . . just realized that,” said Gael.

Keir’s lips twitched in a flickering smile. “When you shook your head and shifted your position, eh?”

Gael stifled a chuckle. He could tell that laughing, unlike mere breathing, would hurt. Then he sobered. He hated to be tied to his sleeping couch while his enemies—enemies? yes, enemies—were free to pursue their schemes.

“It’s not just the magus,” he explained. “I’m worried about Barris. He’d been summoned on some ridiculous errand by one of the castellanum’s boys, right at the peak of the morning rush—an absurd time—and hasn’t been seen since. I want to check on him. Make sure Theron hasn’t locked him away in a hidden cell somewhere.”

“I’ve seen Barris,” interrupted Keir.

Gael’s breath punched out in relief, and then he grimaced, riding another wave of pain.

“Where?” he produced after some struggle.

“In his kitchen,” Keir answered. “I stopped by for a morsel after I finished tallying the oxhide and pebble vaults. Right before I got word that you’d been injured, as it chances.”

“He didn’t say anything? He didn’t seem—” Gael wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask.

“He seemed just as usual,” said Keir.

“Good. That’s good.”

“If you’d tell me the angle you wanted me to take, I could interview Nathiar for you,” said Keir.

Gaelan’s tears! Nathiar? Whose face at the evening feast had said he’d have removed the boy’s tunic on the spot, if only Keir had been present, and do who knew what to him right then and there? Who’d told the castellanum that he’d find a better use for the boy’s prettiness than mere notarizing?

“No!” Gael jerked to sitting, almost passed out from the pain, fell back onto his pillow, and then did go under, when the impact raised his agony beyond what he could stand.

He came to with Keir’s energea spiraling into his aching belly, silver and soothing, carrying healing on its delicate sparkles. Tears, but the boy was good. Gael wondered if the medicus Piar would want Keir in his hospital, just as every other troll in authority seemed to want Keir transferred to his jurisdiction.

Gael’s pains had subsided by the time Keir closed off the flow of energea and opened his eyes.

“Gael, you must stay still,” the boy reprimanded.

“I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Or move at all,” apologized Gael. “I didn’t mean to undo all your good work.”

Keir smiled. “Oh, you didn’t undo my work. You merely did a smidgeon more of damage, which I have now repaired.”

“Thank you.” Gael’s voice sounded meek in his own ears. That was appropriate, he decided. He felt meek. Almost. Should feel meek. But he still would not allow Keir to seek Nathiar out in the magus’ quarters, and be alone with him there, in order to interview the troll.

“If you’ll nap until evening,” said Keir patiently, “and allow the effects of my healing to work while you sleep, you should be able to get up for dinner, you know.”

No, he hadn’t known. “Then I can dine with Arnoll, as I’d planned,” he blurted. He wouldn’t have to forego all of his plans for the day.

Keir’s lips firmed. “Sitting quietly, yes. Eating moderately, yes. A few steps to your chamber pot, yes. But nothing more. No stair climbing. No trotting about the citadel. No arguing.” His voice grew severe. “No sounding that accursed gong.”

Gael’s face fell. He’d specifically wanted to sound the gong while Arnoll observed it with his inner sight.

Keir shook his head, exasperated, and apparently knowing exactly what Gael was thinking. “Gael. Arnoll can sound the gong himself—out of your earshot, please—and observe the effects without your presence. And then he can return to your table and tell you his observations.”

Gael felt a little foolish.

“You’re right,” he said.

Keir laughed. “Good, then. I’ll make you a proper patient, even if it’s only for an afternoon.”

“But,” said Gael sternly, returning to the point that had started this entire detour, “you will avoid the magus as though he were one of the troll invasion that swept over your home island three generations ago.”

Keir grew very still. “You know about the ruin of Fiors?”

Gael’s brows drew down. “How did you think I would not?”

Keir swallowed. Then swallowed again. “I—I—Fiors is so small. No one from the mainland ever comes there. Well, hardly ever. I thought—”

“That Fiors had no place in history?” asked Gael.

“How would anyone, save ourselves—the people of Fiors, I mean—know what had happened, when no mainlanders visit us? And no islanders visit the mainland?” Keir’s voice sounded very small.

Gael thought a moment. He’d known that Keir came from Fiors, but they’d discussed the boy’s past no more than they’d spoken of Gael’s past. Which meant that Gael had not really thought about the ramifications before. Fiors was a small, pastoral place, isolated. Whereas Hadorgol . . . saw trading vessels docking every deichtain. Keir was so discerning, so sophisticated in his understanding, that Gael tended to forget—not that he’d really known—that Keir’s knowledge all pertained to a much narrower slice of life than Gael had experienced.

Keir knew human nature, human politics, human failings. And Keir knew the details of daily living. All that, despite the boy’s youth. But he did not know the civilizations of the north and their history. He would not and could not know Fiors’ place on the world stage.

So . . . how to respond without bruising Keir’s pride?

“The ruin of Fiors was part of the ruin of the north,” Gael said, at last. “We mainlanders did not witness the ravages of your island, but we experienced our own, and we would not believe that you had escaped it. The exodus of the truldemagar from the continent was”—devastating, immense, prolonged; yes, all those and more—“comprehensive. We knew. All of us. We couldn’t not know.”

“Oh.” Keir’s face was crimson. “Oh.”

Yes, it was embarrassing when one realized that one had believed one’s own disaster unique, and it wasn’t. Gael had done that a time or two himself.

“I’m sorry,” said Keir, very simply.

“Don’t be,” said Gael.

Keir frowned, pulling his head back. “Why?”

“Keir.” Gael sighed. “You’re young. We haven’t spoken of it, and we need not. But I would guess you are scarcely fifteen or sixteen. And no one has perspective at that age. Even someone as knowledgeable and sophisticated as you are.”

Keir’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then said, “You think I’m sophisticated?”

“Your breadth and depth of understanding are remarkable for a lad your age,” responded Gael.

“Th—thank you,” gulped Keir. “I think.”

Gael laughed, then winced. It hadn’t hurt to laugh, not the way he’d thought it would, but it wasn’t comfortable either.

“But don’t go near Nathiar,” he insisted.

Keir glanced sharply at Gael. “I’d forgotten,” he said.

“I’d almost forgotten, too,” said Gael. “But it’s important.”

Keir nodded. “Very well. I’ll avoid him.”

“Good.”

Why should I avoid him?” asked Keir.

Hm. That was difficult. “I’d rather not state my suspicions,” he qualified.

Keir’s swift smile flashed out. “You know you’re right, but you have no proof,” he said.

Gael smiled back. Keir knew him well, indeed, and it felt surprisingly good. Really, this entire interlude—conversing, consulting, and advising; not his foolishness in sitting up—had felt good. Something had shifted between them. Gael was still the elder, the one more likely to know and give advice. But Keir had moved beyond the role of mere protegé. Keir had his own area of expertise and was qualified to advise within it. And Gael would rely on the boy’s judgment, going forward.

Gael knit his brows, realizing the end point of that thought. It meant that Gael would sometimes be wrong, while Keir was right. Well . . . so be it. Everyone was sometimes wrong. Gael could scarcely avoid that condition. In fact, he suspected he’d been wrong not too long ago.

“I shouldn’t have insisted on avoiding the hospital,” he said. “I signed you on as my notary, not my nurse. I’m sorry, Keir.”

Keir tilted his head, looking at Gael in exasperation. “Gael, I didn’t bring you here and tend to you because you told me to. I did it because I wanted to. Because my approach to healing was better suited to your injuries than I felt the healing offered by the hospital’s physicians to be.”

“Oh.” Gael imagined his face must be as red as Keir’s had been a few moments ago. “Oh.”

Keir smiled very serenely. “It felt very natural to attend to you, Gael. Please don’t apologize.”

“I didn’t mean to be a burden to you,” Gael said.

“You weren’t,” said Keir. “You aren’t.”

Gael smiled back at the boy. He’d been an excellent protegé, but he was going to be an equally good friend and colleague.

“Now,” said Keir, crisply, “this is how I think the afternoon should go. I will do the business of the tally chamber. I saw you’d made some notes about inquiring into the breakage rates of the spearheads and arrowheads, as well as the repair curve on the scale armor, and comparing them to the sword breakage rates.”

Gael nodded, then froze, wishing he had not. Ouch. Obviously he needed to sleep simply so that he could refrain from moving. It was damned difficult to stay absolutely still when awake.

“Yes. I don’t have the final numbers yet on the sword blades, but it’s my impression that the breakage there is up. And I want to see how it compares to the other implements of war. Has the press of battle been fiercer, resulting in more breakage for everything? Or is there a discrepancy?”

“Right. So I’ll meet with the quartermaster to explain, if you wish.”

“Yes, thank you.”

“And I’ll mix up another batch of ink,” continued Keir, “as well as gluing last moon’s parchments into scrolls and checking those rods we were dubious about. Oh, and—”

Gael interrupted him, smiling. “You’ll handle the business of the tally chamber. It’s all right, boy, you needn’t list it all out. Just keep track, so that you can get me up to speed when I return to it.”

Keir nodded, smiling in turn. “Very well. I’ll just remind you that my extra supervision of the privy smithy—which I plan to continue—means I’ll leave a few of the lesser items undone.”

Gael’s smile went lopsided. “That’s always the way of it, you know. Once you’re in charge, you make extra work for yourself as fast as you finish the essentials.”

Keir’s smile, however, did not fade. “So. That is what I will be doing. You will be sleeping, if you can at all manage it. And if you can’t, at least rest. Please.”

Gael couldn’t help grinning. “I won’t make extra healing work for you this time, Keir. I promise.”

“See you don’t,” the boy said, rising from his position by Gael’s bed and heading toward the door.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 49)

Keir dipped the cloth in the pale green liquid, let a few drops fall back into the basin, and then gently stroked the infusion across the purpling flesh of Gael’s ribs. The bruises were mere surface hurts, but without attention they might fester. And she would spare Gael the long recovery time, in any case.

She’d already tended his inner hurts, dangerous contusions to the liver and the spleen, relieving their congestion with a flow of energea and repairing their broken boundaries. Medicus Piar had arrived in the midst of her energetic curative. Assessing that she had it well in hand, he’d simply closed the inner casement shutters to dim the brightness of the noontide daylight, set out the tinctures and infusions she’d need after the energetic treatment, and observed her technique.

“I could use you in my hospital,” he’d murmured before he left. Gael’s condition was stable by then, and Keir’s heart had quieted from its earlier panicked knocking.

She’d never forget the horrible moment when she first saw Gael on that stairwell landing, a bloody huddle of garments, like a gull smashed against the rocks, a welter of bedraggled feathers amidst the scent of death.

She’d leaped the last few steps in one bound and fallen on her knees beside him. Her relief, when she saw he still breathed, made her feel faint. But she initiated the rescue sequence of energea almost without thinking, exactly as she’d been trained by her pater, ignoring the burst of shocked chatter from the messenger boys who had fetched her.

She’d nearly wept when Gael roused enough to speak. Why did she care so much? He was a troll. She hated trolls. Surely no troll deserved such loyalty. And yet she did care. She’d been relieved again when he repudiated the hospital. The physicians there were good, she knew. But the regenen discouraged them from using energea in their healing rites as frequently as she believed they should. She’d wanted to tend Gael herself. Which she had done.

As she dipped her cloth again and moved on to the bruises on his throat, she realized his eyes were open and he was looking at her. His face held sense, in place of that dreadful bewilderment that had marked his first moments of returning consciousness. She blinked to prevent tears from escaping her own eyes. He was all right. He was himself. She needn’t fear for him any longer, thank Ionan!

Was this how Pater had felt when he’d returned to her on that awful day? When she’d hooked the orca with her energea and been hooked by it in turn. Pater had been so long about his errand, whatever it was, that she’d wondered if he would return.

She’d felt sick and dizzy, not herself, lying on the silky cold sand above the waterline of the cove, with the gray clouds hurrying overhead and the salt breeze blowing across her. She’d not been able to think clearly, had not understood what had happened. She only knew that something was grievously wrong. Had that been repudiation—repugnance—she’d seen in his face? Why had Pater left so abruptly? Where had he gone and why? When would he be back? Would he be back?

And then he was back, seated beside her, scooping her into his lap and wrapping her in a blanket. Holding her close and weeping.

“Pater,” she’d said. “Pater! What is it?”

“Do you not know?” he asked.

She shook her head. She hadn’t known, hadn’t understood, even then.

“Your nodes are unanchored,” he’d told her. “You are afflicted.”

Still she’d missed his meaning.

He couldn’t bring himself to say it straight out. “You bear the mark of Gaelan,” he evaded.

Then she understood, with a shock like the first breath after the wind had been knocked out of one. “I’m a troll,” she’d said, burying her face in Pater’s shoulder. She felt him sob.

“What will I do?” she’d asked.

“You must leave, make for the Hamish lands of old, to the west,” he’d answered.

“But how?” She could not swim so far. No one could, save the fishes.

“I’ve made provision,” he said. “Come.”

But once they were standing—difficult for him with his peg leg, difficult for her in the aftermath of the truldemagar—he’d delayed.

“I love you,” he said. “I’ll always love you. I’ll always remember you. I’ll always miss you. Never doubt me, in all the years to come.”

Then he’d led her over the western headland to the broad beach of the harbor where the village lay at a distance along the sweeping curve of the shore. A small sailing boat awaited them, drawn up on the sands, its sails fully reefed. Several wicker hampers sat in the cockpit against the gunnels.

“But this is Coinac’s Merrily Run,” she exclaimed.

“Not anymore,” said Pater.

“What can you mean?” she asked.

“He’s made her over to me in exchange for certain concessions,” Pater answered.

At last she comprehended that this was farewell, farewell to her pater, farewell to her home, farewell to everything she knew.

“You know how to sail a boat,” Pater reminded her.

Yes, she did, but she did not want to sail away from him.

“Here, eat something first. That will help.” He rummaged in one of the hampers, bringing out a packet of smoked eel and feeding it to her, bite by bite. The rich taste of it on her tongue revived her. She’d been allowing Pater to direct her, to guide her. Only now did she recognize that he was right. She could not stay on Fiors, to be hounded into exile or killed when she refused to go.

She hugged Pater one last time before checking the lines and rigging of the Merrily Run. Then she shoved the bow into the water, calm in the lea of the headland. Pater bade her climb aboard as he pushed the boat into deeper water. She obeyed, putting the rudder down and tightening the sheets.

And then she was underway, sailing toward the harbor mouth and glancing over her shoulder to where Pater stood waist deep in the salt sea, tears on his face as he waved to her.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 48)

Chapter 10

The blackness roared in Gael’s ears like a blizzard’s winds or a storm at sea or a cataract plunging over the brink. He felt dizzy and disoriented. Everything hurt: his ribs, his chest, his neck, and most of all his gut. He couldn’t remember what had happened. Had he tumbled down a flight of steps? Been kicked by a cavalcade of mules? Been rolled over the rubble of boulders after falling in a river?

Slowly, an unfamiliar troll’s face came into focus out of the darkness along with an anxious voice.

“My lord? My lord Secretarius? How badly are you hurt?”

“Get Keir,” Gael mumbled. “Keir.”

And then he was descending into the roaring dark again, spiraling like a stairway in a tower or a vulture soaring down to a carcass. Or was he once again a small child—unafflicted—spinning on shorn grasses? As Gael sank, bewildered and aching, he wondered why he’d asked for Keir. Why not one of his older friends? Why not Barris? Or, even better, Arnoll? Arnoll, who had saved him. Arnoll, who had guided his early days in Belzetarn. Arnoll, who would never betray him.

“Gael?” That was Keir’s voice, cool and assured. “Can you hear me, Gael?”

He tried to nod, but wasn’t convinced that he managed it. But Keir was with him. That was good. He felt glad. Now that Keir was present, everything would be all right. Gael would be all right. Keir would do everything and anything that needed doing. Keir would do it well.

Other voices—not Keir’s—muttered. Something about straightening the poles and smoothing the wrinkles out of the leather. They must have a litter nearby.

“Medicus Piar said to move him carefully” someone said.

Gael tried to speak, but no sound issued from his mouth. He tried again. “Not,” he managed.

Someone’s hand touched Gael’s cheek, cool and soothing. Keir’s hand.

“You need healing, Gael,” said Keir quietly.

“Not,” croaked Gael, “th’ hospital.”

Keir’s breath sighed softly. “Very well.”

A moment later Gael heard his assistant at a distance. “Send to Medicus Piar to meet us in the Secretarius’ chambers over the tally room. Tell him to bring compresses, salves, and herbal infusions for congestion of the blood and thready pulse.”

Then Keir was beside him again. “We must lift you, Gael. It will likely hurt.”

Gael couldn’t imagine how his pains could worsen until they gripped his shoulders, legs, and feet, and hoisted. He thought he screamed, but the turbulent darkness swallowed him so quickly he couldn’t be sure. He seemed to hear a great, sonorous bell clanging, vibrating his bones with each stroke of its clapper. Were there hoarse yells between each resounding stroke? Or the deep, coughing snarls of ice tigers?

A swirl of snowflakes spiraled out of the darkness, gleaming silver and flowing along a shallow arc. The ache in Gael’s gut subsided as another stream of glinting sparks joined the first, soothing his pains and silencing the clamorous chaos of the strange space that had devoured him.

He became aware that he lay on his own sleeping couch, sheep skins cushioning his tired limbs, an herbal scent rising around him, and warm, damp cloths sponging the tenderness away from his bruised flesh.

Keir’s face swam into focus above him. The boy had tied a band around his head to keep his chin-length hair out of his face, emphasizing his graceful jawline and elegantly molded cheekbones. His gray eyes held a grave expression in their depths, but his lips turned up faintly.

“Your bones are all whole and unbroken,” said Keir, “and the infusion of aliseta will help the surface bruising to heal.”

That must be the source of that herbal smell, thought Gael.

“Now I want you to swallow this tincture of Istrian pennywort,” said Keir.

A shallow bowl with a narrow spout appeared within Gael’s limited field of vision. It tipped, and a thin stream of dark liquid pored onto Gael’s tongue, bitter, but laced with mint. As he swallowed, a comforting warmth spread through his belly.

He’d been right. With Keir at his side, all would be well, Gael himself would be well, and everything that needed doing would be done.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 49)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 47)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 47)

Gael pounded up the Cliff Stair even more furiously than he’d pounded down the Regenen Stair earlier in the morning. Only this time he was furiously angry instead of furiously worried.

His ankle clicked with the same fury that hammered through his veins, but if the joint hurt he didn’t notice. He wanted to hit someone. Or break something. Or batter his way upward without stopping, past the battlements, past the clouds, beyond the daylight at the top of the sky into night, far far away from this citadel of trolls.

Well, lacking wings, he’d have to stop. But there were more than thirty twists around the newel post of the Cliff Stair between the melee gallery and the quarters of the magus. And he’d need them all to be able to confront the magus with his wits about him.

He felt sick. He felt disgusted. He hated everything and everyone. So long as he dwelt in Belzetarn under Carbraes, he would be called upon to do deeds he deplored. To condemn heroes to death. To deploy the energea that he’d renounced before ever he entered Carbraes’ ban. Even—he faced it squarely now—to equip the troll legions that waged war on the innocent and unafflicted.

He hated himself. And he still wanted to hit someone, to batter some outer enemy to a pulp.

The stink of the latrines halted him three steps above the clogged hole in the wall where he’d found two of his missing bronze ingots last night. The impetus to keep going throbbed like his pulse, but he forced himself to be rational. He needed to know if his trap had been sprung . . . or not.

The stench rolled out as he opened the latched door. He swung it closed behind him reluctantly, shutting himself in with the smell. He couldn’t afford to let someone see him lingering in the stairwell while manipulating energea.

Opening his inner sight took almost no concentration. Was the practice yesterday and today making him faster? There was an unwelcome thought, amongst all the other unwelcome thoughts. But it was obvious that his trap remained undisturbed. He would check it again later.

Back out on the Cliff Stair, all his former fury descended afresh. He’d expected the hiatus brought by the discipline of observing energea might have yielded a lasting calm, but it did not. He’d set a trap for the troll who’d stolen his bronze, but Gael was the one who felt trapped. And enraged to be so. How dared life serve him up such wretched choices. To be a troll. To do evil to live. To be here. Gah!

He gnashed his teeth, just as the brigenen of the First Cohort—the one who rumor said had started a gladiatorial ring, Dreben—hurtled down around the newel post.

Dreben looked even more infuriated than Gael felt, his fists clenched and his jaw bunching. The brigenen was a little troll, shorter than Gael, but wiry and bandy-legged. His nose hooked down, like Gael’s, but more so. Lines bracketed his bright eyes. A brown leather cap secured by a chin strap framed his angry face. Matching leggings were tucked into his boots. His suede tunic was short and of a very dark red.

The instant he perceived Gael, Dreben screeched, “You foul skunk! Hiding in the regenen’s skirts to keep chambers that should go to the magus!” and aimed a punch.

Gael was ready for it. More than ready, he welcomed it, using the momentum of Dreben’s strike to drive his own fist home, once, twice, thrice. The ribs, the side, quick duck, the chin. He’d wanted to hit someone, and the meaty thunk of his blows connecting felt more than satisfying. Again! Again! And again!

Dreben must have mistaken his opponent for the restrained and mannered troll that Gael ordinarily presented himself as, one who sat at a desk far more than anything else, because the first few moments went entirely Gael’s way.

Once again! Twice. Thrice. Three more solid blows drove Dreben up a few steps and off balance.

As Gael leaped to seize his momentary advantage, one of Carbraes’ messenger boys came rattling down from above, legs pumping as he descended, but face turned over his shoulder, calling an answer to someone out of sight and on high.

Dreben’s foot went back and to the side as he struggled not to fall.

The messenger’s leading shin caught abruptly on Dreben’s calf, and the boy plunged head first.

Gael envisioned the sickening possibility of a fractured skull, a blood-spattered step, the blank, empty face of a dead boy, and his next act took no thought at all. He lunged for the boy, hands frantically grasping for something—anything—that would give him purchase and break the lad’s fall.

His fingers tangled in the folds of the messenger’s caputum—loose across his chest like Keir’s—and Gael gripped. Hard.

His momentum carried the boy up against the newel post, battering the messenger’s thin shoulders against the stone, but arresting his plummet downward.

Dreben hesitated no more than Gael had hesitated to save the boy. The brigenen’s blows smote Gael from behind, punishing in their precision: left kidney, right kidney, tailbone.

Gasping, Gael thrust the still teetering messenger upward and at an angle, allowing the boy to encircle the newel post with his arms, so that he would not topple when Gael let go. And then Gael pivoted, just in time to take Dreben’s next strikes on his ribs.

The impact of the brigenen’s fists packed more power than his spare size should have permitted. Gael felt bruises blooming in his flesh, a sharp jabbing in his guts, and a choking blow to his throat. He stumbled, then fell, rolling down uncounted steps to a landing, where his hip thudded against the wall painfully.

Before he could scramble to his feet, Dreben was on him again, seizing the neck of Gael’s tunic and hauling him up, then punching his gut brutally.

Gael started to reach for his energea, and then stopped himself. Just as a secretarius was no match for a warrior, so a warrior would be no match for a magus. And Gael had foresworn those skills. The regenen might prevail upon him to revive them. But for himself, when solely his own fate hung in the balance? No. Never!

A thunderous blow to his solar plexus deprived him of breath, and blackness crashed over him.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 48)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 46)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 46)

The castellanum accompanied Gael, even though only Gael had been summoned, and a most unpleasant companion did Gael find him. All the way down the Regenen Stair, Theron nattered on about the customs of the royal keeps in southern Istria and the duties of their seneschals and stewards and chatelains.

“When a sovereign possesses more than one stronghold—as does our Lord Carbraes—he gives the entire governance of each over to one personage. So much more efficient to do so,” said Theron fussily.

Gael paid little heed to him, his thoughts on what lay ahead. He had a bad feeling about the situation awaiting him in the melee gallery. He didn’t bother to correct Theron’s assertion that Carbraes ruled several citadels. The outlying beacon towers and war camps were paltry compared with the might of Belzetarn, even though only a fraction of the legions were rotated home at any given time.

The proportion of warriors to scullions might be reversed in the war camps, but Belzetarn’s fortifications stood unmatched.

“Dividing the responsibilities between four, who must then coordinate their efforts, is so inefficient,” complained Theron. “I believe the ancient Hamish found it so, as well, and concentrated authority in one senescalh. And this is a Hamish tower, after all. It would be proper to follow the old tradition.”

Gael couldn’t imagine why Theron believed Belzetarn to be Hamish in origin. The tower was far taller than any structure built by the Hamish-folk, even during the brief interval of years when they’d imported the sophisticated techniques of legendary Navellys. Belzetarn was a troll’s creation, drawn up out of the earth, stone by stone, using energea—the dangerous and more powerful kind, searing orange—and modified in after years by its various overlords. Carbraes had added the kitchen annex, using the muscle power of his followers, not energea. The troll before him had expanded the smithies.

“The magus, the march, and the secretarius should really fall within the purview of the castellanum’s office,” continued Theron, his voice in his most cultured modulations.

But Gael was no longer giving even a sliver of his attention to his irritating companion. They’d arrived at the melee gallery.

Shafts of sunlight shone down from the upper embrasures like holiness through a temple’s oculus or rays of heaven through a break in the clouds, the bright beams piercing the shadows below and illumining the vignette of a prisoner surrounded by troll warriors.

Gael’s heart sank further.

The prisoner—a Ghriana man from the western mountains—knelt on the stone floor, his hands shackled in bronze behind him, his head bent, face obscured by the hanks of his wooly black hair. His tunic had been torn from his shoulders, to hang at his hips over his trews, revealing his muscled back. Fresh blood gleamed on his cinnamon skin.

Gael’s footsteps echoed sharply as he surged across the court, leaving Theron behind.

The scent of sweat drifted to meet him, rising off the Ghriana, acrid with the man’s fear.

Lord Carbraes stepped out from amongst the clump of troll warriors, the butter yellow of his tunic abruptly lit like the sun itself as he left the shadows. His face was stern as his gaze turned to Gael.

“Is he a troll?” Carbraes demanded.

The weight dragging on Gael’s heart increased, pulling every part of him down, as though he might sink into Belzetarn’s very foundations and be buried there.

“I will inspect the configuration of his arcs and nodes, my lord,” Gael answered.

Carbraes nodded. “Do so,” he said.

Gael took the necessary long in-breath, followed by the slow out-breath. He couldn’t imagine relaxing under the circumstances—the usual prelude to opening the inner sight—but, despite his tension, the beautifully curving arcs of the prisoner’s energea kindled in his mind’s eye. So healthy. He knew what he would see next and dreaded it: from the clear violet node at the crown, through the aqua node at the thymus, to the pure silver node at the root, the Ghriana’s energea remained anchored. He was not afflicted. He was not a troll.

“Well?” asked Carbraes impatiently.

The Ghriana man looked up. Gaelan’s tears, but he was young, just emerged from his youth and clinging to courage in his desperate predicament, ferocity in the straight lines of his mouth and the fire in his eyes, belied by the stink of fear.

Hells! Gael delayed his answer to Carbraes’ question. He could lie, of course. And then what? When the Ghriana spy memorized the defenses of Belzetarn to carry back to his superiors, would Gael speed him on his way? For the prisoner was undoubtedly a spy; the mountain people sent them regularly behind troll lines. Even could Gael bring his mouth to utter the falsehood—‘he is a troll’—the matter would not end there.

Gael studied the Ghriana youth, so beautiful in his unafflicted grace, even when kneeling in the moment before his death.

“He is human,” Gael said.

The youth flinched.

Gael looked away as Carbraes’ warriors bustled around their prisoner, seizing his arms and unlocking his manacles, hacking away the longer locks of his hair to his chin, dragging a wooden block out of one of the storerooms.

Gael frowned. Where was Theron in all this? Not lingering in the passage from the place of arms, where Gael had left him. Not standing at Gael’s side. Not even moving graciously forward to give the regenen the benefit of his sagacious advice. Not anywhere in sight.

Gael stifled a snort. The castellanum was all show, with little substance. He wanted stature and honor, without understanding that such qualities must be earned to be real. He might receive the counterfeit of them, because he was castellanum, but he would never inspire real respect. Gael knew this, had known it almost from the first. Why had he expected that Theron might contribute here and now?

The troll warriors forced the Ghriana’s neck down onto the heavy block and locked his wrists to the shackles on each side at its base.

Gael forced himself to look as the brandished axe reached the top of its arc, forced himself to watch as the blade fell, forced himself to see as the severed head bounced on the floor and the blood spurted.

He would not pretend that he bore no responsibility in this, much as he wished that were so, much as he wished Lord Carbraes had summoned anyone other than him. Looking away would not lift this death from him.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 47)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 45)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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