The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 78)

Keir had to question why she was hoping so hard for Dreas to convince Carbraes. Was it her healer’s oath to place her knowledge and skills in the service of the ill? But she no longer served as a healer in her community—she was a notary in Belzetarn—and she had sworn that oath to a human teacher regarding human patients. She owed no obligation of care and compassion to trolls. Indeed, the reverse.

And yet . . . if she could restore a troll’s nodes to their proper positions, was not that troll essentially human? And did she not owe a healer’s help—no matter her official status—to that ailing human?

No. She did not. Whether the nodes were in place or not, they were unmoored, making the individual a troll. She owed nothing to trolls. Save her enmity. The sick flash of it trembled within her for an instant, then passed.

And yet again . . . her enmity had become riddled with holes over the past two years, like a cheese nibbled by mice. Gael had earned—and received—her respect, her admiration, her liking. Even her affection. She flinched away from the admission, although Gael was not the only troll to earn her good opinion. She would save Dreas, if she could.

How did one maintain an enmity when it must include oneself? Her pater had said, “I love you. I’ll always love you. Never doubt me, in all the years to come.” And she had been heart-glad to hear him say so. If Pater could love her in her truldemagar, then could she make peace with it also? And if she made peace with her own disease, then how should she relate to that of others?

Despite her moral confusion—and despite Gael’s unease, which she noticed amidst her own turmoil—she felt glad when Dreas waved her forward.

Carbraes got to his feet slowly and stood, not like an old man, but like a massive tree just beginning to fall or a mountain shivering at the start of an earthquake. Like he’d taken a mortal wound, but did not know it yet. Or would not own it.

“My lord March is in your hands,” said the regenen, his tone somber. “Speak your needs in order that you may treat him well and draw him safely through the fire.”

Keir swallowed. Lord Carbraes in this dark mood was even more intimidating than when he emanated his usual authority.

“I need Lord Dreas to lie flat,” she said. “And then I will be able to arrange Uwen and Adarn so that the angles are right.”

Carbraes inclined his head. “Summon my messengers please.”

Keir glanced nervously back at the door through which they’d arrived on the terrace. Were the regenen’s messengers waiting there? And should she go get them? She certainly didn’t want to send Uwen or Adarn. And it didn’t seem right to send Gael.

“For pity’s sake!” exclaimed Dreas. “We’ve enough of us right here to manage things. No need to involve a passel of overexcited boys.”

Carbraes sniffed, but his eyes warmed.

Dreas hopped up, scuttered over to another cluster of bronze-forged terrace furniture, and started dragging a long, low bench into the clear. The metal legs grated on the stone. Keir’s momentary paralysis snapped and she rushed to his side to help. The sun felt warm on her back. Dreas grinned at her. “We’ve got this, lad! Cheer up!”

Keir felt abruptly better. She’d envisioned Dreas lying on the flagstones, the way Gael had lain on his sitting room floor, but she could make the bench work.

Gael’s voice came over her shoulder. “Please sit, my lord March. Keir and I can set this up.”

And it was simple, really. Since Dreas would be elevated above the terrace flagstones, Uwen and Adarn would need to be equally so. But there were plenty of furnishings to borrow for her purpose. She adjusted Dreas’ bench so that the sun would be in no one’s eyes. Then she set two chairs on one side of the bench, and instructed Adarn and Uwen to climb onto them while she and Gael held the gong. Adarn’s legs trembled slightly as he made the high step up. His hands trembled when she and Gael transferred the gong into his and Uwen’s grip. Small wonder he was nervous. This was the march. And they performed under the regenen’s observation.

Carbraes remained standing through the whole operation, looking down his nose at their efforts. “This all looks rather slipshod,” he complained.

Keir quelled her impatience. Once she allowed the regenen’s stature to fade from her awareness, his nerves were familiar. Just so had the brother or mother or dear friend of an injured patient back on Fiors criticized her preparations.

She went to him, smiling warmly.

“My lord regenen, the nature of the patient’s bed or room or blankets matters little. My skill as a healer will be the determining factor.” She carefully avoided mention of the energea that lay at the heart of the advanced techniques. That would not reassure the regenen. “My training was thorough, and Dreas will receive only my best.”

Carbraes grunted. “You did not train for this, surely. Or have I been misinformed about how Fiors treats its trolls?”

“Fiors banishes its trolls, of course,” she replied steadily. Now she must mention the element he hated, if she were to assuage his qualms. “But drawing energea through one’s nodes, and controlling its speed and direction, is the basis for every healing a healer performs. Using the gong’s lodestone to move Dreas’ nodes is a healing technique. I will not be doing anything foreign to my experience,” she concluded.

Carbraes’ tension eased. “May I watch?” he asked.

“With your inner sight?” she clarified. That was rather the whole point of this exercise, she’d thought.

“Yes.” Carbraes sounded oddly humble. “I wish to assure that—” he broke off.

Keir reminded herself again that he was more the anxious kin here than the ruling commander. Indeed, he’d probably agreed to this more because he could not bear to deny his friend—progressing fast in his truldemagar—than because he wished to understand what other marvels the gong might generate.

“Of course you may watch,” she said gently. “We would prefer that you do.”

She led him to the foot of the bench. The sun would be in his eyes, but that shouldn’t affect his inner vision.

“But,” continued Keir, speaking to Dreas, “my lord March, you must not open your inner sight. That would increase the resistance of your nodes, which would be counterproductive in what we wish to achieve.”

Dreas smiled at her. “Shall I lie down now?” he asked.

“Please,” she responded.

She helped him settle his arms comfortably at his sides. She noted that Gael came to stand beside Carbraes. Good. Carbraes could likely use a companion. She frowned at Adarn, whose hands and arms still trembled. The march might be higher in the regenen’s esteem than was Gael, but Gael was Belzetarn’s secretarius. Surely the boy should have accustomed himself to dealing with trolls of rank after running the tally room’s errands for two deichtains. He shouldn’t be that nervous.

She took her own place, standing opposite Uwen and Adarn. The gong was a touch low. She needed the boss to be heart high.

“Lift it just a little,” she directed.

Uwen and Adarn complied.

“Good.” She nodded. “Remember to be trees in the breeze, not rock on a mountain,” she admonished them. Then she closed her eyes, drawing in a long, easy breath.

The scent of sun-warmed stone surrounded her. The air was very still, any breeze shielded by the apartments ringing the space. Someone coughed. The terrace felt very hard under her feet. As she exhaled, her inner vision opened and the silvery arcs of Dreas’ energea sparkled in her sight, curling from and between his pulsing nodes.

The silver sphere of his root node had strayed far from its proper place, drifting almost to where the abdominal node should rest. Keir reached within herself, drawing power from deep within all her nodes through will alone, and channeled it out through her own heart node to splash on the living node of the gong’s lodestone. The cascade of sparking green raced through the lattices of the lodestone, turning corner after corner, before surging back toward Keir.

She raised her hands, using the demi-nodes in her palms to catch the stream and direct it onto Dreas’ root node. The green spate foamed against the pulsing silver, edging it back and back toward where it belonged. The curling arc connecting root to abdomen stretched in its wake.

Good.

Keir adjusted her palms to split the stream coursing from the lodestone, directing one stream to retain pressure on Dreas’ root node, aiming the other toward the softly pulsing white orb that formed his abdominal node, which was far too low.

Slowly, more slowly than the root node, the abdominal node eased toward its anchor point. When it arrived, Keir split the lodestone’s output into three streams. Two kept root and abdominal nodes in place. The third began the push against the pale green sphere of the plexial node.

The process felt smooth and natural, for all that she’d done it only once before. For Gael. But pulling energea, splitting it, directing it, healing with it was what a healer did. She’d been braiding streams of it for more than a decade. This was her calling, for all that she’d forsaken it when she came to Belzetarn.

Now for the heart node, vivid green like her own heart node, like the living node within the gong, but located above Dreas’ heart home.

Delicately, she lifted the energea splashing against Dreas’ root node. Would it stay where she’d placed it? Dreas was many decades further gone in his truldemagar than had been Gael.

Ah! Yes! The node quivered, but did not slip. She turned the freed stream of energea against the heart node, pushing it down and down to where it belonged.

She felt more confident lifting her energetic grip on the abdominal node in preparation for directing the stream to the aqua demi-node of the thymus. If the root node had stayed put—and it had—then the abdominal node should not slip either.

Deftly, she made the switch, holding the plexial and heart nodes steady with two gushing currents of energea, while using the third to push the thymus node. As the glowing aqua sphere glided slowly into place, the angle of the torrent spewing from the lodestone changed ever so slightly.

Keir raised her hands to compensate.

She had time to think damn it, Adarn! and then the angle skewed wildly.

The midst of an energetic working left the patient at his most vulnerable. Frantic, she reached high overhead, desperate to catch the moving stream. Her own heart’s fountain would not be enough. She had to have the lodestone multiplier.

Got it!

She folded the third stream into the one holding Dreas’ heart. Never mind the thymus. It could float. So long as his heart remained stable, all would be well.

But the lodestone stream was still moving.

She stretched higher still, catching it, catching it, and folding the plexial stream into the heart stream.

A deep booming sound roared in her ears. Her knees went weak, her arms felt like dead eels, and her stomach quivered. She felt every joint in her body failing.

I. Will. Not. Lose. Dreas.

Clamping onto her patient’s heart node, she fell.

And falling, she ripped his node right out of its energetic lattice.

Her knee, her right hip, her right elbow, and her shoulder hit hard stone with punishing force. Her head hit wrought bronze, and her vision went dark.

*     *     *

Next scene: coming March 10.

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 77)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 77)

They found Lord Carbraes on the stone terrace within the ring of elite apartments just below Belzetarn’s high battlements. The sun had moved westward enough to cast a crescent of shade outside the quarters of the magus. The flue column from the smithies—looming and massive—acted as a sundial, the finger of its shadow still blunt and stubby, but pointing northeast as the afternoon advanced. No smoke rose from its maw at this hour; the charcoal fuels in the forges would be well settled, emitting merely intense heat. The air quivered in a column above the flue.

Carbraes sat in one of the backless bronze chairs in the sunlight outside the march’s chambers, with Dreas in another chair next to him.

Gael almost hated to intrude. The regenen looked easy—even happy—laughing at something Dreas had said, his silver-blond head thrown back, his broad shoulders relaxed, his muscular legs stretched out before him. Dreas, too, conveyed an attitude of comfortable contentment. Despite the march’s thinning white hair, wizened face, and skinnier limbs, his truldemagar seemed less pronounced.

The regenen and the march lost some of their carefree demeanor when Gael and Keir emerged from Carbraes’ public rooms, conducted by a messenger boy. When Adarn and Uwen maneuvered the gong through the narrow doorway, the regenen resumed his normal taut alertness entirely.

The messenger announced the four petitioners—“The Secretarius Gael, the Secretarius Pro Tem Keir, the Peregrine Decanen Uwen, and the Notarius Pro Tem Adarn!”—and retreated.

Gael bowed and murmured, “Regenen.”

Keir, Uwen, and Adarn followed his example. “Regenen.” “Regenen.” “My lord Regenen.”

“There is a difficulty?” Carbraes’ tone was testy.

“There is . . . a complication,” Gael responded. He’d not been able to settle his mind enough during his climb to plan how he would present the new development.

Keir entered the brief pause after Gael’s statement. “The boss of this gong”—she gestured toward the artifact, held between Uwen and Adarn—“is formed of an ancient lodestone of Navellys. That lodestone retains many of its original properties, even in its present location, surrounded by energetic bronze. Without sounding the gong, the lodestone may be used to accomplish feats much more beneficial than the weakness produced by resonance. I used one of them just moments ago.”

“It heals trolls!” Adarn burst out. “Keir healed Gael!”

Dreas shifted in his seat, drew breath, but then subsided without saying anything.

Keir directed an exasperated glance at Adarn, but she did not correct him, waiting on Carbraes’ reaction.

Carbraes studied each of them in turn, taking his time. He gazed longest at Gael. “I see no change in him,” the regenen stated.

Keir nodded. “Over many months, the repositioned nodes will drag the physical structures toward health. Insufficient time has elapsed for that to have occurred yet.”

Carbraes’ nostrils flared. He scrutinized Keir’s sober face. “You are in earnest,” he concluded. “This is no chimera. And not trivial,” he added.

Keir dipped to one knee and bent her head. “No, my lord Regenen, not trivial in the least.”

Carbraes returned his attention to Gael. “Explain,” he said quietly.

Gael nodded. “Keir could best do that. He”—Gael narrowly missed saying ‘she’—“understood the energetic diagrams I brought back from Olluvarde and perceived their ramifications. He used his healer’s training to control the lodestone.”

“Very well.” Carbraes extended his hand toward Keir, allowing his fingers to open. “Tell me what I must know to understand your finding.”

Keir, still kneeling, bit her lip. “You know that when a mage attempts a magery too great for him, the riptide of energea roaring through his nodes tears them from their anchoring.”

Carbraes’ lips curved slightly. “I understand the root of the truldemagar, yes.”

“And do you also know,” continued Keir, “that no force of energea has been found adequate to re-anchor torn nodes. Nor, indeed, adequate to even return the drifted nodes to their correct positions without ripping the nodes of the healer who attempts it?”

“Ah, I confess I had not concerned myself with the technical details of the impossible,” replied Carbraes.

Keir swallowed. “It is a pertinent point, my lord Regenen.”

Gael understood Keir’s formality. She was about to upend Carbraes’ world. It was prudent to show respect in such an exercise.

“Used with the correct angles of force, the lodestone will supply a stream of energea fully equal to that the mage—or healer—pulls through his own nodes, thus doubling the power available without endangering the practitioner’s nodes,” said Keir.

Carbraes pursed his mouth. Given his disapproval of any manipulation of energea in Belzetarn, no doubt the contemplation of such a dynamic display as Keir described repulsed him.

Keir carried on, not acknowledging the regenen’s discomfort. “This doubling of the energea at my command allowed me to move the secretarius’ root node to its proper position and hold it there while I moved his abdominal node. I progressed upward through his nodes in a chain, holding the most recently repositioned node while moving the next malpositioned one. I urge you to open your inner sight, my lord Regenen, and observe the results within your secretarius.”

Carbraes’ lips pressed flat. He glanced at the march beside him. “Dreas? Will you?”

Dreas clearly did not share his friend’s disgust at Keir’s proposal. His eyes were alight, and he’d leaned slightly forward through all of Keir’s explanations, hanging on her words. At Carbraes’ request, the march nodded. He settled back in his chair, straightening his spine and lifting his crown. On a long, slow exhalation, he closed his eyes.

Gael wondered what he saw. Gael had not yet examined his own newly aligned nodes. He could feel their effect—still that subtle sense of rightness—but he had not seen with his inner sight.

When Dreas opened his eyes, some moments later, the march had let go his initial wonder, replacing it with a determination oddly similar to Keir’s when she realized what it all meant.

Dreas addressed Gael. “Your nodes yet float. They occupy their proper places, but will drift over time.”

“So I understand,” Gael answered.

“How does it feel?” asked Dreas, a wistful tone in his gravelly voice.

Gael groped again for words. “Like a swallow of water when you are thirsty. Like the folding of a cloak around your shoulders when you are chilled. Like sitting on a cushioned chair when your legs are weary. It feels . . . right, my lord March.”

Dreas turned to Carbraes, who was looking more sour than ever. “Carbraes! You must command Keir to perform this feat again.” Dreas glanced at Keir. “Are you able to repeat yourself at this time? Are your reserves too drawn down?”

“No, my lord March,” replied Keir. “I can oblige you with one more healing, although not two.”

Dreas continued to press the regenen. “While Keir does his deed, you shall observe it. You must. And I shall be Keir’s patient.”

Carbraes’ jaw pulsed with tension. Gael half expected the regenen to thunder his response, but he did not. Always Carbraes retained control of himself and those around him. The regenen spoke most mildly to Gael and his cohort. “Please give me privy conference with my lord march.” He waved a hand toward the crescent of shadow on the far side of the terrace.

Gael found his feet carrying him to obey Carbraes’ bidding almost without his own volition. Keir and Uwen and Adarn came with him, clustering in the shade and watching the interchange between the regenen and the march. They could hear nothing, but the emotion in the conversation was clear: Carbraes angry and vehement, Dreas pleading, but firm.

Keir stared, intent. Uwen—still gripping his side of the gong—studied his knees, but found his gaze drawn inexorably back to his arguing commanders. Adarn—also clutching his side of the gong—bounced on his toes, eager.

“Do you think he’ll say ‘yes’?” the boy whispered. “Oh, I hope he’ll say ‘yes’!”

Gael felt he was overlooking something, some important detail that would govern their success or their failure. This was all moving much too fast. Surely they should all sleep on it before coming to any decisions.

Across the terrace, Carbraes sat back, resignation in his posture. Dreas leaned forward and beckoned.

*     *     *

Next scene: coming March 3.

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 76)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 76)

As Gael locked the tally room door, his fibula of keys pinned to his waist once more, a muscular boy with curly chestnut hair and a sprinkle of freckles across his cheeks and nose rounded the newel post of the Regenen Stair.

“Adarn!” Keir exclaimed. “Good. I’m needing you.”

Ah. So Gael had remembered correctly. Adarn was one of the reformed bullies. Interesting that Keir had selected the boy as her messenger. And interesting that Theron had released him to the tally room. More of the castellanum’s courting of Gael’s notarius?

Keir swept Adarn along with her, murmuring explanations to the boy as she followed Gael up the nearly two spirals to the landing outside Gael’s chambers.

There Gael discovered a black-browed warrior in full regalia: bronze scale mail, bronze greaves, bronze helm, scabbarded sword and knife at his belt, brown tabard with a stooping golden bird of prey depicted on it. One of the Peregrine opteogint.

The warrior stood very straight and struck his chest with his closed fist as Gael stopped before him.

“Secretarius!” he barked.

Gael frowned, but returned the salute, allowing the warrior to lower his arm and stand easy.

Turning to Keir, Gael asked, “What is this?”

Keir grimaced. “When two locks were not enough to prevent meddling with the gong, the regenen ordered a guard placed. The whole tower learned what rests in your storeroom in the debacle with the cleaning scullions. Lord Carbraes does not want a repeat incident.”

Gael repressed a sigh. “Of course.”

Keir greeted the warrior. “All well here, Uwen? The boys have not recommenced tapping your mail?”

Gael’s eyes narrowed. “Scullions were baiting a warrior?”

Keir stifled a snicker. “On a dare. Yes.”

Uwen smiled, utterly changing the fierceness of his visage in repose to something genial, approachable. “Once the notarius granted me permission to be creative, the problem ceased.”

“And, ah, how were you creative?” asked Gael.

“The boys had not realized I was quick enough to catch their tapping fingers. Or strong enough to keep those fingers in my grasp, once caught. They found it quite embarrassing to sit at my feet simply waiting until I chose to let them go.” Uwen’s smile broadened into a grin. “I kept each tapper longer than the last. They stopped their prank quite resoundingly.”

“Indeed.” Gael gestured at his door. “May I?”

“We’ll be accessing the gong, Uwen,” clarified Keir, “so you’ll need to accompany us. And I’ll need your help with it, in any case.”

Uwen’s eyebrows rose, but he stepped aside.

Gael unlocked the portal to his chambers and passed within. The sitting room was very tidy, with the backless chairs and slant-end divans aligned precisely, the trays on their tripod stands exactly level, and the floors immaculately dustless. The glass panes of the casements showed the effects of rigorous cleaning, with both inner and outer shutters open and no smudges visible in the afternoon light. Someone had even removed the stain that had disfigured one of the leather hangings that covered the stone walls.

It should have felt like home. These chambers had been home for the past seven years. But Gael felt less relaxed in his private sitting room than he had in either the smithies or the tally chamber. Maybe it was just that he intended to tangle with the cursed gong forthwith. Or rather—to let Keir tangle with it.

Keir bustled about, closing the inner shutters, pulling a divan out from the wall, shoving several tripod tables out of the way, and generally arranging things to her liking.

“I’ll need you lying down, Gael,” she instructed.

Gael started to obey, sinking onto the divan. He stopped halfway to survey their presumed helpers. Uwen stood waiting beside the closed door, broad-shouldered, armed and armored, formidable. Beside him, Adarn—although a well-grown lad—looked nervous and very young, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. His head rose only to Uwen’s shoulder, if that.

Gael’s prolonged scrutiny gathered their attention. He waited a moment, then nodded and started the explanation he felt was due to them. “You know Lord Carbraes has consigned the gong of the ancients to my authority.”

Both the boy and the warrior nodded.

“Keir and I believe the gong may possess a power other than the weakness generated by its sounding. We are going to attempt to prove our surmise true or false. Now. In this room.”

Uwen frowned. Adarn swallowed.

“Your role, should you choose to accept it, will be merely to hold the gong at the angle Keir specifies. I do not expect you to be in any danger. But the gong is perilous, and I could be wrong in my assessment. I have the right, granted by the regenen, to require your duty in this trial. But I will not do so. You may choose freely to assist. Or not.”

Uwen’s frown deepened, and Adarn positively gulped. Keir—seen out of the corner of Gael’s eye—looked exasperated, but she said nothing.

“We will not be sounding the gong,” Gael added.

Uwen’s face lightened. “I do not fear your trial, my lord Secretarius. I am willing.”

“Good,” said Gael. “Adarn?”

The boy squirmed, glanced at Keir, then straightened his shoulders. “I am not afraid either,” he declared. “I’ll help.”

“Keir will not think the less of you, should you decline,” said Gael.

Keir’s look of irritation ebbed. “Indeed, I will not,” she confirmed. “You may choose freely. Indeed, you must choose freely.”

Adarn grinned. “No, I know. I want to help. Please?”

“Very well,” said Gael, handing his fibula of keys to Keir, leaning his upper body against the slanting end of the divan, and lifting his legs onto its long, flat end. The padlock on the storeroom clunked open. Then came a scraping sound—metal on stone—and footsteps. Uwen and Adarn stationed themselves to one side of the divan, the gong held between them, its metal glimmering in the shutter-dimmed light. Gael noticed that the grip of Adarn’s lower hand fell considerably lower on the disk’s bottom hemisphere than did Uwen’s, the same for their upper hands. Which meant that the boy bore slightly more weight than the warrior. Gael’s lips pressed flat. He wondered if he should intervene. Keir was directing them to raise the gong higher, focusing on the angles she needed. Was she paying any mind to the differing capabilities of her helpers?

“Gael, I’m going to need you on the floor. The angles aren’t right, and I need you flat anyway, not propped up,” came Keir’s clear voice.

They all rearranged themselves, Gael lying on a sheepskin, Keir seated on a backless chair, and Adarn and Uwen across from her, holding the gong just barely off the flagstones. Adarn showed no signs of strain, his eyes alight with curiosity and interest.

“Good. That’s perfect,” said Keir. “Try to keep those positions, everyone.”

Adarn’s muscles twitched. Was the boy trying to lock them in place?

“Not like a stone statue, Adarn,” chided Keir, “but like a tree. It’s all right to sway a bit.”

Gael could see the boy relax.

“That’s right,” said Keir. “Now,” she continued, “I’ll be working with energea, and Uwen and Adarn, you may watch, if you wish. I’d prefer to have witnesses other than myself.”

Adarn’s shoulders settled as the crown of his head lifted. Uwen’s adjustments were subtler, but Gael could tell that he too was preparing to follow Keir’s wishes. Gael allowed his own breathing to slow and his spine to lengthen. This promised to be very interesting.

Keir spoke again. “But, Gael, you must not open your inner sight. I need you utterly quiescent, and you won’t be if you are watching. In fact, I want your outer sight closed as well. Shut your eyes, please.”

Gael switched his gaze from Adarn and Uwen to Keir. She looked calm and confident. Gael closed his eyes. In the reddish black behind his eyelids, his awareness of his other senses deepened. The breathing of his companions in the silence of his sitting room sounded restful and relaxed. The scent of the leather wall hangings perfused the warm air. The sheepskin under him felt resilient and firm.

Even with both his inner and outer sight closed, he knew immediately when Keir began working with the energea of his nodes and arcs. A strange drawing sensation pulled at his root node, located just behind the source of a man’s seed. The tug strengthened and then subsided altogether, segueing into an inward pulsation. Then the drawing sensation started afresh in his belly.

Abruptly, Gael needed no sight to understand what Keir was doing. She’d moved his root node closer to its correct position, and now held it there while she pulled his belly node nearer to its ideal location. The one had been too high, the other too low.

The tugging sensations deep within him were not painful, but they were disconcerting. He kept his breathing very even, uncertain whether muscular tension would impede Keir or not. Surely relaxation could only help.

As she moved from node to node—belly to plexial node to heart and upward—Gael realized that he’d become so accustomed to the subtle tug of the drifting anchors of his energea arcs that it felt normal. But there was a rightness to the new arrangement that Keir imposed. This was where his nodes belonged. It was like coming home, only far more profound than a return to the smithies or his tally chamber. More satisfying than even an imagined return to Hadorgol. He was coming home to himself.

When Keir released her hold on his crown node, he felt utterly new.

“You may open your eyes now,” came Keir’s clear voice.

“Tiamar on his throne,” Gael breathed.

Uwen and Adarn looked awestruck. Keir looked merely serene, not weary precisely, but . . . drained?

“How do you feel?” asked Keir.

Gael shook his head. He wasn’t sure there were words to describe how he felt. Surely no one had felt like this since the ancients used their lodestones to heal trolls. “I feel well,” he said. “I feel . . . right.”

And then Adarn and Uwen and Keir were babbling. “Did you see . . . ?” “Did you notice . . . ?” “I can’t believe it!” “Can I go next?” “How was that possible?” “We have to show the regenen!”

That last was shouted by Adarn.

Keir nodded. “I do think Lord Carbraes needs to know of this.”

Gael tried to sort through his thoughts. He was still trying to understand the miracle that Keir had just wrought, to assimilate what had happened to him, to accept that his truldemagar had been rolled back by years. It was hard to think calmly, or at all.

Someone said, “Let us seek Lord Carbraes then.”

Only as he stood up did he realize that it was he who had spoken.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 77)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 75)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 75)

Chapter 16

Staring at Keir’s alarmed expression and dilated eyes, Gael felt a villain. He’d intended to keep his new knowledge of Keir’s gender to himself. For very good reasons. Why had he changed his mind? Keir undoubtedly knew quite well just how dangerous it was to be a woman in Belzetarn. And now her protective disguise was revealed.

What if Gael denounced her to Carbraes? Would the regenen banish her to the wilderness?

What if Gael announced her secret to the tower at large? What might the horde do to her?

What if Gael took advantage of her vulnerability, stuck as she was in a citadel of trolls, far from any defenders?

Tiamar’s throne! She must be wondering all those and more. So unlock your throat and reassure her, you fool! he admonished himself.

He forced himself to refrain from reaching to grip her shoulder. Or rising to fold her in a comforting embrace. Under the circumstances, any movement from him—any touch from him—would be the reverse of reassuring.

“I shall tell no one that you are a girl, a young woman,” he amended.

Keir’s white face flushed red. Her mouth opened, shut. She swallowed.

Gael continued, “I shall treat you just the same. As though you are the boy you pretend to be.” He nodded. “Although . . . how old are you? Perhaps I’d best recalibrate my expectations. You scarcely need parental guidance, do you?” He lifted an eyebrow, hoping his dry demeanor would help restore her equanimity.

“Gael, I’m so sorry!” gasped Keir.

“You needn’t be,” he said. “What else could you do, when the scouts dragged you here?”

She bit her lip. “That was it, of course.”

He nodded again. “Of course.”

“I’m twenty-five,” she said, a slight twinkle returning to her eyes. “Not fifteen. Or sixteen.” The twinkle became quirking lips, barely restrained from laughter.

Gael chuckled. “I quite missed the date on that one, didn’t I?”

“You did,” she agreed. “Gael—”

He tilted his head.

“I knew I could trust you. And I felt a little . . . strange, keeping it a secret from you. But I just thought . . . it would be safer if we didn’t have to worry about keeping our stories straight. Who knew and who didn’t. When I should act like a boy. When I didn’t need to.”

“Very sensible,” he concurred. “And we should continue in that way. For all intents and purposes, you are the boy you pretend to be. Go ahead and act the boy, even around me, so that you don’t slip where you shouldn’t.”

She nodded, then looked at the floor, her cheeks still slightly flushed.

Gael felt a touch awkward, too. What could he do to get them back on their old footing?

His gaze caught on his satchel. Of course. Olluvarde. He’d not planned on explaining the details of his scheme for the gong to Keir, but showing her his sketches of the ruin would distract her—and him—from their present embarrassment.

“I made renderings of most of the bas relief murals in the underground passage at Olluvarde,” he said. “But some of the energetic diagrams surrounding the first panel—the one depicting the creation of the lodestone from meteoric iron—didn’t make sense to me.”

He unfastened the satchel’s flap and pulled the top bunch of parchments out.

“I didn’t study the energetic vignettes that closely,” Keir confessed. “I was too enthralled with the amazing quality of the stonework at first. And then . . . the trolls captured me before I could retrace my steps to see more.”

“What do you make of these?” Gael handed her his sketches.

Like Nathiar, she paged through them in silence. Unlike Nathiar, her face held a look of appreciative wonder.

“These are beautiful, Gael. We should preserve them in a scroll, when you finish using them for a technical guide. Why do you not—?” She broke off, shaking her head.

“Why what?” he asked.

“I was going to ask why you do not make such drawings of your surroundings here, but”—she wrinkled her nose—“why would you want to immortalize a troll citadel.”

“There are other subjects than trolls here,” he said mildly. “But truthfully, I always associated sketching with the more tedious exercises set by my teacher. Perhaps I should reconsider my opinion.”

Her lips curved slightly, and then she returned her attention to his drawings. She went through them more slowly, a frown growing on her face. Her fingers traced a series of broad curves, then tapped on a tangle of intertwined fronds. Her frown deepened.

“This is the base pattern for any energetic pattern that addresses the root node,” she murmured. “Except those lopsided spirals indicate movement. This is very strange.”

She brought the sketch closer to her eyes, scrutinizing the details for a long moment.

Abruptly, she thrust five of the parchments toward Gael, fanning them out.

“Gael, do you realize what these seem to indicate?” she asked, her voice sharp.

He scanned the renderings. They were some of the energetic diagrams that had mystified him. He’d taken particular care with them, figuring they might be critical to Nathiar’s understanding of how the lodestone in the gong operated and thus critical to devising how to make the artifact harmless. But Nathiar had skipped over these diagrams lightly, referring almost exclusively to the ones from the seventh panel while they strategized.

“I didn’t understand how they pertained to the creation of the lodestone,” he admitted.

“That’s because they don’t,” said Keir, a certain intensity to her expression. “Look”—she brandished another set of drawings at him—“these show how the lodestone was adjusted and used to power a spinner’s spinning wheel, and these”—another set—“show how to make it lift a platform up the side of a tower.”

“And that first set?” asked Gael. He was not sure he wanted to know. Keir’s demeanor gave him pause—growing determination mixed with unease.

She placed all except one parchment on his desk and held that one out for his perusal. It was the scene depicting a healer and her patient.

“Don’t you see?” Keir persisted. “The man is not ill or injured, not in the typical sense. He’s a troll!”

How had Gael missed that? Were the curved and elongated noses, the enlarged ears, and crooked thumbs common in Belzetarn become so normal to him that he did not mark them any more? Perhaps so.

He glanced up from the drawing to meet Keir’s intense gaze.

“Those energetic diagrams”—she stabbed the stack of parchments on Gael’s desk—“show how to use a lodestone to move a troll’s nodes back to their proper positions. Gael—” she paused to take a breath “—I could heal you. I could heal Arnoll. I could heal Kayd. Gael—” she swallowed “—you cannot destroy the gong’s lodestone. You must not.”

“You could re-anchor floating nodes?” Gael felt breathless. It had been a tenet of the ages, from the beginning of the truldemagar—whenever that was—that troll-disease could not be healed. The nodes, once ripped from their moorings, could not be reattached.

“No.” Keir’s excitement ebbed, but her determination strengthened. “Not re-anchored. But think! Moving the nodes to their correct locations, and maintaining them there, would gradually drag the obvious physical deformations back to normalcy, and many of the other symptoms along with them. A troll maintained in this way might live to a normal old age. And die a normal, human death. Gael, this is an incomparable resource!” She sounded almost fearful. He felt fearful. This forgotten bit of lore from the ancient world . . . could change everything about their present world.

Or would it? Suppose Keir were to heal every troll in Belzetarn. What then? Would the humans re-admit trolls to their enclaves? Unlikely. Would the trolls even want to go? They’d made lives for themselves here. Would the Ghriana-folk—Belzetarn’s current foes—cease to attack? Would Carbraes cease to defend?

The lodestone contained within the gong—if preserved in its current configuration—might change the world eventually. But nothing would change immediately. Or even within a few years.

So what was he to do with this disconcerting piece of possibility?

He almost wished he’d not shown his sketches to Keir. Surely he could have come up with some other distraction. But if the healing properties of the lodestone were to be plumbed, it would have to be done immediately. The morrow, after Gael reforged the blasted thing—with the help of Nathiar and Arnoll—would be too late. The lodestone would have an altogether different configuration then, and its effects would either be nullified—his goal—or utterly changed.

If the lodestone could generate healing now . . . tomorrow it would likely no longer do so. If.

“We need to know whether the lodestone within the gong still functions as it did outside of the gong,” he decided aloud. “This could all be furor for naught.”

“Yes,” said Keir, her tone definite. Had she reached that conclusion ahead of him? “I’ll need two trolls to hold the gong at the right angle. And I’ll need”—she gulped—“a volunteer.”

“That will be me,” said Gael.

She opened her mouth, closed it.

“It cannot be you,” said Gael. “Or can it?”

She sighed. “No. Drawing energea through my nodes, as I must to perform healing, makes the nodes much more difficult to move. Even impossible to move. Another healer could use the lodestone to move my nodes, but I cannot do so. If the lodestone still works in this fashion. You are right that it may not.”

Gael continued, “I would keep this experiment between us two. And I have no healing skills. Indeed, even my magery is very rusty. Therefore, you shall be healer, and I shall be healed.”

“Gael, what if the lodestone does injury in its current configuration?”

“Then you will cease the instant you perceive the problem and repair it by normal methods, if that is possible.”

She looked at him, her gaze steady for a moment. Then she nodded, firmly.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 74)

Entering the smithies had felt like coming home. Entering the tally chamber felt like achieving sanctuary when a pack of wolves—or trolls—nipped at one’s tired heels.

The glass casements, as well as their inner and outer shutters, were open, admitting the sweet summer air and light—not the morning’s flood of brightness, the sun was already tilted around to the other side of the tower, it being early afternoon—but a softer radiance, welcoming and easy on the eyes. The dark wood of the pigeonhole cabinets looked mellow and sheltering, a harbor for their precious scrolls. The warm scent of parchment, laced by the flat odor of ink, wrapped Gael round like a velvet cloak. He felt his shoulders let go a tension he’d not been aware of.

Keir remained seated at her desk, head bent forward over her work, her straight, blond hair just touching the dark brown thistlesilk folds of her overly large caputum.

She didn’t glance up as Gael rounded the cabinets flanking the door, merely saying, “Yes? How did the bladesmith reply, Adarn?”

“Oh, did you select Adarn”—one of that crowd that had bullied the lunchboy, if Gael was remembering correctly—“as your messenger?”

The quill dropped from Keir’s fingers, spattering ink on her tally sheet. What was that slight jump about? Had the sound of his voice, when she’d expected the lighter tones of the boy Adarn, startled her so badly?

If so, she recovered quickly enough, turning easily around in her chair, a delighted—and genuine—smile on her lips, eyes shining. The tone of her greeting was calm, however, as she stood. “Gael! You look well!”

Gael found himself speechless for a moment. How had he ever thought her a boy? Her smooth skin, finely molded lips, even her strong chin and straight-gazing gray eyes, all spoke of the feminine. He’d been a fool. And yet . . . nearly all of Belzetarn took her for a boy. Maybe most folks saw what they expected to see.

“I am well, thanks to your good work before I departed,” he replied. “How goes it here?”

“Without hitch. Let me tidy this”—she gestured at the spilled ink—“and I’ll make a proper report.”

Gael went around to his own desk, pulling out its chair, while she busied herself with blotting sand and whisk. As he sat, she corked her ink jar, took a handful of papers from the shelf above her desk, and pulled her own chair nearer to him. Her proximity felt both strange, now that he knew her to be a young woman, and as comfortable as it had been for the past two years.

Gael lifted the satchel’s strap from his shoulder and placed the case on his desk. “I spoke with Arnoll just now, and he said that you’d encountered no lack of respect for your authority.”

One corner of Keir’s mouth turned up. “You’d think I was either a feared tyrant or everyone’s best friend. Every scullion in the tower was eager to run my errands, each smith addressed me punctiliously by my full title—Secretarius Pro Tem—and the castellanum insisted I take your seat at the high table every evening.”

Arnoll—as Keir’s opteon in potestas—must have done a superb job of terrifying the entire troll community. Gael smiled, saying nothing. Keir had clearly gotten over her qualms about occupying the role of authority. He’d seen her scruples in her face, misgivings that were now gone.

“Even Martell began giving his notary a chance without my doing or saying anything. In fact”—Keir looked a little guilty—“I stopped directly supervising the transfer of metals into the privy smithy. I was wasting my time and Martell’s.”

“But, indirectly?” Gael knew Keir too well to think he—she—had dropped the matter and its attendant concerns.

Keir grinned. “I told Martell that I would require that his notary give me an accurate report each evening as to the degree of support and cooperation he received from Martell.”

“I’m imagining you put it to Martell in such a way that you secured his enthusiasm.” Gael could almost hear Martell exclaiming, ‘But, yes, my dear Secretarius Pro Tem, you shall receive most excellent reports of Martell each night, and his notary shall be the envy of all!’

Keir face acquired a more serious cast, and she straightened her shoulders. “My report in brief is that all proceeded smoothly, with fewer than the usual small problems, no major ones, and no interference from the castellanum. But let me go over the details.”

She set her handful of parchments on his desk and started reviewing the contents. The works-in-progress and the ingots checked out to the various smithies were exactly as Gael had expected, save for one thing.

“How is it that Olix forges twelve blades instead of his usual eight each day?” asked Gael, somewhat astonished. Was Keir just that good? Was this what happened when newer, younger blood entered an established position? Should Gael think of retiring? What then would he do, in Belzetarn’s dark tower? A quiver of unease—similar to that he’d felt when he first stumbled upon evidence of theft—ran through him.

“You remember the quartermaster had wondered if we could speed production?”

Gael nodded. The official results from the quartermaster’s audit of the legions’ stores had not been complete upon Gael’s departure, but he’d suspected it would turn up a faster resupply rate in the swords being issued to the warriors. One could not tally for years without gaining a gut sense as to how the numbers were running.

Keir continued, “I met with him, but I took Opteon Olix with me.” Her eyes narrowed. “It turns out that the blade smithy has several decanens ready to move up to opteon, and many more scullions skilled enough to fill a decanen’s boots. They’re running two shifts now, the first starting a little earlier, and the second ending a little later, each producing six blades.”

Gael frowned. “Olix will tire and fall into error, if he maintains such a pace for longer than two deichtains. Does he intend to return to the old schedule at intervals?”

“Oh, Olix supervises only the first shift,” explained Keir. “His decanen confided to me that the opteon must be finding it difficult to fill his leisure time, because he usually hangs about the smithy for a while into the second shift.”

“Incidence of accident?” asked Gael, almost automatically.

“Down,” answered Keir.

“Well done, then.”

Keir smiled demurely. “Thank you, Secretarius.”

Gael drew his mind back to the here and now. Fascinating as improvements to the efficiency of the smithies might be, he had more immediate concerns.

“No thefts while I was gone?” he asked.

“No.” Keir looked troubled.

“And no annoyance to you from the magus?” After Arnoll’s assurances and Nathiar’s admissions, Gael was certain there had been no trespass, but he had to hear it from the party most nearly affected.

Keir smirked. “He’s one of the ones who seems almost afraid of me. He leaves a room, if I enter while he is present. And all those nights Theron insisted I dine at the high table? Nathiar dined in his own chambers.”

Studying Keir’s beaming face, Gael felt abruptly an idiot all over again. It was one thing to pretend to Belzetarn at large that he believed Keir to be the boy she pretended to be. But when they sat in close conference, she knowing herself to be a young woman, but keeping the pretense of boyhood, while he also knew her to be a young woman, also pretending he knew it not—it was too ridiculous.

He drew in a short breath.

Keir glanced at him inquiringly, her face innocently expectant, almost confiding.

“Keir,” Gael said abruptly, “I know.”

Keir’s face went white as a newly washed fleece.

*     *     *

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*     *     *

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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.

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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.

*     *     *

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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 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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