The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 44)

Chapter 9

Gael positively pounded down the Regenen Stair, squinting as he passed into the bright sunlight streaming through the arrowslits, blinking when he returned to the shadows that filled the inner loops of the spiraling descent. His ankle clicked more fiercely than ever, jabbing at each heavy footfall. But Gael didn’t care.

He had to talk with Barris and prove the cook innocent of his own suspicions. Or guilty. He could be guilty. That had been Gael’s first thought upon hearing Keir’s account of the tin ingot that disappeared from the privy scullion’s carry sack while the boy dashed from the vaults to the smithy.

But now Gael felt he’d been over hasty in leaping to that conclusion. Keir had believed the theft occurred in the stairwell, not the servery. And Keir had witnessed the scullion’s entire passage. Gael had not. In the wake of Arnoll’s betrayal, it was easy to fear that another friend might do the same. Easy, but not fair. So he would ask Barris straight out, and then judge his answer.

If the cook confessed to theft—Gael’s heart contracted at the possibility—that would be painful. If he lied about it, that would be worse. But Gael couldn’t believe that Barris would lie. Not Barris. And the likeliest thing was that Barris was innocent, and Gael’s suspicions utterly unjust.

But he had to know. And he couldn’t bear to wait.

He stumbled as he reached the servery, staggering a few steps toward the hatch before he caught his balance. Leaning against the hatch counter, he peered into the regenen’s kitchen.

Light flooded through the high eastern casements, illuminating every scorch mark and scuff in the lofty space. Scullions bustled about sweeping, mopping, and schlepping dirty pots away to the scullery. One cook consulted with another, no doubt planning the start of any evening courses that required long roasting. The morning meal was over, and the respite between its preparation and those for the night’s feast would be short.

Gael beckoned one of the scullions over.

“Where is your opteon?” he asked.

The boy blinked nervously, but before he could answer, one of the cooks gestured him furiously back to his broom. The other cook approached the hatch.

“How may I help you, my lord Secretarius?” he said.

“I have a question for Barris.”

“Ah!” The troll drummed his fingers on the counter. “The opteon was called away.” He shook his head. “Just at the height of the serving rush, too.”

“Do you know where he went?” asked Gael.

The cook called his colleague over from the storeroom. “It was one of the castellanum’s messengers who summoned Barris, was it not?”

“Yes, quite urgent about it, he was, too. I heard lots of ‘right away’ and ‘need an immediate decision’ and so on.” The troll frowned. “Odd timing.”

“Do you know when he’ll be back?” probed Gael.

Both cooks looked perplexed. “Should be back now,” said one.

That was worrisome: Barris unaccountably missing, mysteriously summoned away. Gael was tempted to search for him, but Belzetarn was a big place, with its tall tower, its artisan yard and all the lodges there, and its bailey with yet more of the offices: tannery, butchery, kennels, stables, and on and on. One troll searching alone would turn up . . . nothing and no one.

He thanked both cooks, asked them to tell Barris that Gael had a question for him when the opteon returned, and took his leave, feeling strangely bereft. All his impetus to confront his friend and know the truth reaching this deadend left him unenthusiastic about moving on to anything else. But he’d planned to interview both the castellanum and the magus, and the sooner the better.

Resolutely, he trudged back up the Regenen Stair. The castellanum would be in his headquarters off the main great hall at this hour, ordering his messengers here and there, the living strings by which he controlled the housekeeping of the vast citadel.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 8 (scene 43)

Standing beside the sea in the cove below her home, with Pater behind her, his hands warm on her shoulders, Keiran had been learning how to herd fishes.

She’d scarcely felt the brisk wind on her face or the cool sea spray against her shins. Scarcely tasted the salt on her lips. All her attention narrowed to focus on the dark and monstrous presence she’d encountered when she followed her energea out across the waves and then plunged deep beneath them.

The ominous swimmer turned and glided, lethal in intent, seeking to do violence with an implacable calm.

She’d caught him with a noose of energea, and now he came to her, surging shoreward with the muscular movements of his colossal body and powerful strokes of his mighty flukes.

On and on, he came, seeking his captor. Seeking her.

Keiran became aware of her pater shouting, his fingers gripping hard on her shoulders. “Release him! Release!” he bellowed.

But she couldn’t. The monster of the deeps that she’d snared had snared her, hooking her energea more strongly than she’d entangled his.

She began to struggle, flailing like a mackerel in a net and with as little effect. The behemoth of the sea reeled her in, reeling himself in, his aspect gaining distinct traits as he neared: sleek black skin, tall dorsal fin, conical teeth made for tearing, white underbelly.

On and on he came, cold hunger in his innards, colder rage in his eye.

Keiran’s pater released his grip on her shoulders to thrust her toward the dunes behind him.

And then she could see her monstrous captive, a gargantuan fish—shining black on his upper surfaces, gleaming white below—streaking between the two headlands of the cove, launching himself inland with his toothy maw opened wide.

Pictwhale. Sword of the sea. Hell-sent and wrathful.

Orca.

Keiran screamed.

And then she pulled—hard—on her energea, blasting it out to batter the fearsome creature as it plowed up the beach.

She felt something within her rip, and her energea flashed gold with black edges.

At that moment, the orca swerved, his belly grinding against the pebbles and broken shells in the surf before he regained the deeper waters of the cove, heading back out to sea.

Keiran fell, her backside thudding into the sand. Pater whirled, horror on his face.

He roared.

“Pater?” faltered Keiran.

“Stay here!” ordered Pater. “Stay right here.”

And then he left, limping, running. Pat, thump, pat, thump, pat, thump.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 8 (scene 42)

Keir looked around the oxhide vault, relieved to be tallying there instead of in the more cramped ingot vaults on the level above. The oxhide vault possessed two casements, and she’d opened both. Shouts from the artisan yard below arrowed in, along with the strengthening sunlight of the advancing morning, shining on the weighty copper oxhides leaning in stacks against the walls.

Keir sniffed the air. Before her sojourn at Belzetarn she wouldn’t have guessed that metal possessed any scent. Indeed, were she to hold one of Martell’s ladles up to her nose, she would smell nothing. But large stores of metal gathered together generated . . . something close to an aroma. Maybe it was the energea which produced it, but the tin vault and the pebble vault possessed that characteristic flat, dry odor which Keir found oppressive. This oxhide vault featured a much more pleasant, warm, and full flavor on the air.

She opened the flap of her portfolio to get out her tallying supplies of parchment, quill, and ink.

Gael had been apologetic that she must tally the oxhide vault and the pebble vault a full deichtain ahead of when they were due. She’d reassured him, saying, “No, we have to know if there’s another leak in the stream of metals besides in the privy smithy. I’m guessing we have more than one thief.”

Gael had looked down at that. She knew he hated the idea that someone (or more than one) within his acquaintance was stealing from him. She admired his fortitude in not shirking the idea. And she wondered how he felt about Arnoll taking that one ingot. He hadn’t really told her much about exactly what had happened.

She couldn’t forego disliking herself just a little for her own secrets, the obvious one of her sex, and the other one she had buried, not even letting herself think about it.

Gael had replied to her mention of the possibility of multiple thieves prosaically enough. “That’s it, of course. And if we have more than one thief, those thieves may pilfer from different sources. We have to know if we have more metal missing than we’re currently aware of.”

When she’d suggested tallying the bronze vault again, he’d agreed, although he obviously thought it less a priority. And then he’d hurried away without telling her where he was going, what he wanted her to do after she finished her tallies, or anything of his further plans for their day. Which was strange. Gael was ordinarily so punctilious about the work of the tally chamber.

Was he angry? Dismayed? Or just in a rush? It had something to do with her report of the tin ingot stolen from the privy scullion’s carry sack on the stairs, but it reminded her unnervingly of the last time her pater had hastened away from her.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 8 (scene 41)

Just a few steps inside the door to the tally room, Gael paused. He’d lifted the door latch softly, and Keir hadn’t realized his master had come in. The boy had opened not only the shutters, but the casements themselves, and bright sun along with cool air poured through the embrasures and across the stone floor. The shelves on each side of Keir’s desk made his working surface into a pocket of dimness, but Gael’s assistant sat very straight, his quill held between slim fingers at the correct angle, his blond head bent only slightly.

Young eyes, thought Gael, his affection for the boy welling from some place within. He could almost imagine his tally room as his old laboratory in Hadorgol and Keir as his apprentice learning magery. Innocent magery. Safe magery. The blue energea that purified water or encouraged a poisoned wound to heal. Not the searing and dangerous orange energea of the truldemagar.

Gael shook his head. This was Belzetarn, not Hadorgol, and his tally chamber had its own compensations.

He inhaled slowly, savoring the warm redolence of the parchment mingled with the dry scent of dust, and moved forward into the welcome quiet, broken only by the scratching of Keir’s quill.

The boy turned at Gael’s footfall and looked up, his jaw-length hair swinging back from his smooth face. “The tallies from yesterday all match,” he said.

“Even that of the privy smithy?” asked Gael, surprised.

“Even Martell’s,” said Keir. “Although, not in any way we would wish,” he added, laying down his quill and corking his ink jar.

Gael sighed and came farther into the room, drawing the chair from his own desk next to Keir’s. “Tell me,” he said.

Keir nodded. “The wastage from the smelteries was less than usual.” He smiled. “I think my pose that the tally room was seeking greater efficiency moved them to extra effort.”

Gael snorted. “Hardly needed.”

“No,” agreed Keir. “But those opteons pride themselves on wringing every last drop of ore from the oxhides and pebbles.”

Gael was well aware of it, but he said nothing. Keir would communicate his full report without prompting.

“The lodge tallies and those of the grinding, annealing, and hilt smithies all match exactly,” the boy continued. “The wastage from the armor smithy is normal.”

“But the blade smithy?” asked Gael, surprised again. The blade smithy never possessed anomalies.

“No discrepancies,” Keir assured him quickly, “but one of the blade pours failed.”

“Hells,” Gael swore softly. “Then how was the smith so calm when I saw him in the afternoon?”

Keir grinned. “He expected it to fail. He’s bringing one of his decanens along, and this was the fellow’s first blade.”

“Ah.” Gael looked skeptically at his assistant.

Keir’s grin faded. “But look at this.” He drew a parchment from the stack he’d been working on.

Gael leaned forward to get his face further out of the direct sun.

Keir tapped the first three items listed on the sheet. “Here are the ingots we issued the privy smithy yesterday morning: eighteen ingots of copper, four ingots of tin, and one ingot of bronze. That’s twenty-three pounds of metal.”

Gael nodded. Now they were getting down to it.

Keir continued. “And you’ll see that the items listed for the day’s work also add up to twenty-three pounds.” He tapped the bottom of the sheet. “But it makes no sense. And we both know why.”

“The privy notary is fudging the weights,” said Gael.

“We knew he was, Secretarius,” said Keir quietly, “but I had no idea how bad it was until I saw him myself this morning. Martell would have grabbed the ingots before his notary got anything at all tallied, and I’m sure he does the same in the evening. I thought there was some estimation going on, but it’s all estimation. You can see it right here!” Keir tapped the parchment again. “Look! We issued four tin, right?”

Gael nodded.

“And here are the tin-lined sauce pans that Martell used half an ingot on.”

“Yes,” agreed Gael.

“The rest of the list was all poured in the one-nineteen bronze that Martell thought should have been one-twelve bronze.”

Gael could see the problem. Martell thought he’d used one-and-a-half ingots of tin to make his bronze, but the bronze itself had shown that he’d used only one ingot of tin, maybe less. Since the privy smithy had received four ingots of tin, and Martell had used only one-and-a-half ingots of tin, where were the other two-and-a-half ingots?

Well, Gael knew where one of them had gone. Arnoll had taken it. And it had not been tin, but merely copper disguised to look like tin. But that still left one-and-a-half ingots utterly unaccounted for.

Keir had more to say. “Since Martell’s bronze for the day was made from eighteen ingots of copper, one ingot of bronze, and one or less ingots of tin, the most his output could have weighed would have been twenty pounds. Hells!” Keir never swore, but he was swearing now. “There would have to be some wastage. And, yet, here his notary claims twenty-three pounds of bowls, platters, and so on.” Keir poked the parchment savagely.

“That’s where our tin thief is getting his ingots then,” said Gael.

“But we’re no further ahead than we were before,” grated Keir. “We knew it had to be the privy smithy supplying the thief.”

This was a new side to Keir, displaying a touch of heat rather than his customary cool.

Gael straightened, squinting as the sun caught his eyes. “No, we suspected the privy smithy served as our thief’s source. We did not know it.”

Keir puffed a breath out. “Do we even know it now? We’re giving the other smiths the benefit of any doubt, based only on our assessments of their natures. We could be wrong. Should we observe them the way I’ve observed Martell?”

Gael suppressed a smile. Keir was nothing if not logical, and he did have a point. But the boy forgot that Gael had worked with these trolls for much longer than the two years Keir had known them.

“We’ll follow this lead for now. If it peters out, we’ll consider other possibilities, such as investigating the other smithies. But our lead is going somewhere, wouldn’t you agree?” said Gael.

Keir’s sudden spurt of energy abruptly congealed.

“What is it?” Gael asked quietly.

Keir bit his lip. “It mayn’t be anything.” The boy swallowed. “I hope it’s nothing.”

Gael frowned. “Yes?”

“Ravin, one of the tin smeltery scullions, saw Arnoll take an ingot of tin from the privy smithy yesterday morning,” blurted Keir. “He thought Arnoll was correcting a mistake, and I thought so, too, when he told me. But”—Keir shook his head—“Arnoll hasn’t told you or turned the tin ingot in, so it can’t be that, can it? Arnoll was stealing. Arnoll.” A slight flush colored Keir’s cheeks.

Gael relaxed. He’d been wondering how to keep Arnoll’s secret, while yet explaining the returned copper ingot. Keir’s disclosure meant Arnoll’s secret was already out—part of it—which meant Gael need not choose his words quite so painstakingly.

“Arnoll was following the directive of a higher authority when he took the ingot,” said Gael.

Relief chased across Keir’s features. “You knew?”

“He told me himself,” said Gael.

“But who? And why?” asked Keir.

That was something Gael still needed to conceal.

Keir’s brows drew down as he cogitated. “The regenen?” he guessed.

Gael had to stop that line of reasoning. Keir would unravel far too much if permitted to continue.

“I’m not free to speak,” Gael stated.

Keir’s eyebrows flew upward. “The regenen,” he said.

“Keir, Arnoll returned the ingot to me, because it was not tin. It merely looked like tin.”

Keir’s face went white.

Gael started to reach for the boy, but stayed the impulse. What ailed the lad? Gael hadn’t yet revealed the most troubling fact about that disguised ingot—that it had been disguised through the manipulation of energea. Something strange here, just as little strangenesses had emerged all through Gael’s initial probing into his two mysteries.

“Keir?”

Keir swallowed. “How—how could it look like tin, but not be tin?” he choked out.

“I think you already know what I was going to say,” answered Gael.

“Someone broke the regenen’s ban?” asked Keir.

“It was a copper ingot energetically disguised as tin,” confirmed Gael.

Keir swallowed again. “That’s—that’s bad,” he whispered.

Gael nodded. “Our thief is likely powerful, willing to defy Carbraes, and a practicing magus.”

Keir straightened his hunched shoulders. “So the copper ingot you left on my desk—”

“—was the ‘tin’ ingot Arnoll removed from the privy smithy,” said Gael.

Keir’s chin lifted. “But the bronze ingots! Where did those come from? And we were missing only one, not two.”

Gael cleared his throat. “I suspect that if you were to tally the bronze vault at this moment, you would discover that the return of the two ingots brings us to exactly the right number.”

Keir’s eyes widened and his lips parted. He seemed to be looking a long ways away.

Gael took the opportunity to recount his and Arnoll’s chase after a fugitive in the Cliff Stair and the finding of the bronze ingots in the bucket niche of the latrine.

Keir’s attention came back from whatever distant place his thoughts had carried him. He narrowed his eyes. “So Arnoll had one ‘tin’ ingot, but he’s not the troll we’re looking for. Someone else took two bronze ingots and hid them in the latrine. And someone else took one-and-a-half tin ingots—” the boy tilted his head “—how do you steal half an ingot anyway? But we don’t know where they are. And none of this hangs together.”

“It doesn’t,” agreed Gael.

Keir’s hand reached out to grip Gael’s wrist. “Secretarius, there’s one thing more.”

“Only one?” joked Gael. He felt immune to startlement at this point.

“I don’t know why I didn’t tell you it first.”

“I suspect the matter of Arnoll and the fudged privy smithy tallies distracted you.”

“They shouldn’t have,” said Keir. The boy seemed to be regaining his balance. “One of the porters or scullions on the Regenen Stair stole an ingot of tin this morning right out of the carry sack of the privy scullion.”

“Surely not,” said Gael.

“I tallied every last thing that went into his sack from the vaults,” declared Keir. “And I watched the privy notary tally each thing as it came out in the smithy. One ingot of tin was gone.”

A feeling of cold crept into Gael’s stomach, dousing the nibblings of hunger arising there. He usually broke his fast properly in the morning, eating much more than the snack he’d cadged from Barris on his way to the yard. “But you did not see the theft as it occurred?” he questioned Keir.

“I did not.”

Gael really did not like where this might be leading. In his mind’s eye, he could see Barris’ hand moving underneath that tray of smoked fish. Wasn’t it enough that one friend had betrayed him? Was a second to prove equally . . . fallible? Or had Barris merely been steadying that tray?

Keir was looking down at his lap. “But what would a mere scullion do with an ingot of tin anyway?” he asked.

Gael gripped his feeling of incipient loss—hard—and stuffed it down.

“A scullion might steal at the behest of another, and that is what I think has happened,” answered Gael. “I learned from the mine teamsters that the magus has been poking around both the copper mine and the tinworks where he has no business. And . . .” Was it wise to disclose this to Keir? Gael firmed his lips. Yes. Keir needed to know to be on his guard. “. . . the castellanum has always disliked me, as you know. Last night I discovered that he felt you should have come to him as notary rather than to me. And his resentment is the stronger thereby.”

Keir’s face went blank, and then he chuckled. “You think the castellanum might have bribed a kitchen scullion to steal tin, just because he hates you?”

“I did not say that Theron hated me,” chided Gael.

“He does, though,” said Keir.

“No doubt. But you should be wary of him, Keir,” said Gael.

Keir’s lips quirked.

Gael abruptly remembered other words spoken at the high table. Words spoken by Nathiar. “I’m serious, Keir.”

“Yes, Secretarius.”

“Be even more wary of the magus,” Gael added.

Keir’s chuckles evaporated. It seemed he took the magus at least more seriously.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 8 (scene 40)

After locking all three oxhide ingots in their vault, Gael trudged back down to the artisans’ yard. The morning sun had risen higher in the sky while the copper teamsters prepared to depart. The copper mines were close and they’d arrive there by midafternoon. The tin works lay more than a full day’s travel to the northeast, and the tin teamster had to camp in the forest en route.

The copper teamsters finished tidying their mules’ straps and moved off. Passing them, a single mule loaded with two capacious sacks emerged from the gatehouse between the bailey and the lower yard—troll companion striding lazily alongside, but with a slight limp. He wore a tunic of ragged shearling, fleeces outward. His grizzled hair, wild and woolly, fell to his shoulders.

“Fintan!” Gael called, waving a hand on high. He’d been expecting the new chap, not this old regular.

The tin teamster waved back, a cursory swipe at the air. He paused to say something to the gatehouse guard and then led his mule along the lodges lining the lower yard, following the gradual slope up to where the lower yard merged with the upper, and only then turning toward Gael.

A kitchen scullion scampered up the steep stairs between the two levels while Gael waited, but most of the traffic in the yard had ebbed away to a lodge mess or one of the great halls in the tower, there to break the night’s fast.

“Gael!” said Fintan, grinning as he approached nearer. He quickened his stride. His limp grew more pronounced.

Gael stepped to meet him, clasping both of the teamster’s forearms, feeling Fintan’s returning grip on his own.

“How is this?” Gael asked. “Surely the leg needed another deichtain of healing.”

“Nah. I’d coddled it too long, although Lannarc thinks like you.”

That was the troll who’d been accompanying the tin pebbles for the last two moons. Gael raised an eyebrow.

“He wants my job permanent,” Fintan explained, “But he’s not getting it, even if he does prefer walking through the forest over raking the gangue for missed nuggets of pure. The forest’s mine.” Fintan gave a short laugh. “Never mind that. Help me get these sacks off Hoopoh here.”

Gael patted the mule’s neck and then set to work on the straps securing the sack on one flank, while Fintan tackled the other. Both leather receptacles bore intact wax seals over their top folds. Gael braced himself to take the weight as he loosened the last buckle, letting the forty-pound sack slide to the ground.

A scrap of suede, dragged from its spot behind one of the straps, fell beside the full sack. Gael bent to pick it up. As he straightened, Fintan dragged his sack around to sit next to Gael’s.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” the teamster asked.

Gael turned it over in his hands; not a scrap, but a small drawstring pouch, ornamented with rivets resembling rose blooms. He frowned. There was something peculiar about the purse, but he couldn’t place it. “Isn’t it yours?” he replied.

“Nah. Never seen it before,” said Fintan.

Gael compressed his lips, shook his head. He still could not place . . . whatever it was. He whistled a yard scullion over.

“Fetch two tower porters and then water this mule,” he ordered.

“Yes, Secretarius!” The boy bobbed his head and dashed away.

Fintan protested, “One porter would be enough. I can carry my sack.”

Gael held back a smile. “No doubt you could, but I doubt your physician would say you should. How did you break the bone anyway?”

Fintan gave his short laugh. “Fell into a gangue trench like a boot. The medicus cursed me for a fool for climbing right back out again, but the damage was already done. He’d have made me lie abed for a deichtain anyway.”

“He kept you abed that long?” Gael couldn’t see it. Fintan was an active sort who stayed outdoors from the moment he awoke until fatigue sent him to sleep at night.

“Only by hiding my crutches,” explained the teamster.

Gael chuckled.

Fintan’s lips twisted. “I’d have come along with Hoopoh here”—he patted the mule’s rump—“if the magus hadn’t put forward his porter from the tower.”

Gael frowned again. Fintan meant Lannarc, the troll who’d taken Fintan’s place while his injury healed. Gael had forgotten Lannarc was tower, not mines. A porter . . . who had run a lot of Nathiar’s errands. But what had Nathiar been doing at the tin works?

“The magus was at the tin works when you broke the leg?” he probed.

“Oh, aye. Said he might as well check the tributary streams for tin while the regenen had him out of the tower surveying for metals. He’d just been at the copper mines. Said he didn’t care to make two trips. Best get it all settled all in one go.”

Gael nodded. It made sense, but he doubted it. Nathiar was up to something.

“Keep an eye on Lannarc for me, will you?” he said abruptly.

Fintan cocked his head. “Spy for the magus?” he asked.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Just . . . notice what he does. What he says. Who he talks to.”

“Will do,” Fintan agreed.

Gael looked again at the small suede pouch he held in one hand. He turned it inside out. Glints of tin dust sparkled in the leather’s nap. Tin. He turned it rightside out again and studied the decorative rivets, shaped like opened rose blossoms.

Hells!

The pouch belonged to Nathiar.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 8 (scene 39)

The copper teamsters were waiting for him in the upper yard, two of them wrestling a weighty oxhide ingot off the first pair of mules. Another, their opteon, stood some distance away, surveying the second and third pairs of mules, all four still burdened with their ingots, but dipping their heads to crop the lush green grass.

The sun had cleared the wall enclosing the yard, and morning light cast long shadows from the various artisan lodges. Scullions dodged in and out of their doorways, a few fetching water from the well, others carrying bundles of wood. One boy approached with a full bucket to water the mules.

Gael ambled down the ramp from the annex, shading his squinting eyes against the brightness.

The teamsters’ opteon, Emon, moved jerkily to meet Gael at the bottom of the ramp.

Emon was a small, wiry troll with a quick, anxious manner. His wizened face showed a mass of wrinkles, darting eyes, and was very tan. He wore the undyed suede tunic and trews of Belzetarn’s miners. Gael could smell the rock dust caught in the nap of the leather. The teamster greeted Gael—typically—with his latest worry.

“Ah’m not sure ’bout that new seam, Secretarius. It’s narrowin’ fast. Ah think it’ll play out soon. Ah think th’ magus was a wrong ’un ’bout his seam.”

Carbraes had sent Nathiar to the copper mine two moons ago at Gael’s recommendation. The old seam of ore-laden rock they’d been following since before Gael arrived at Belzetarn had been plunging ever deeper into the earth. Deep enough that the poor air supply was killing as many miners as the exploding rock—produced when they directed a stream of cold water on the fire-heated working face. Mining was dangerous, no question. They had to have the ore-rich rubble for shoveling into the furnace. Thus the heat, the sudden chill, and the resultant explosion were necessary. But poor air . . . would eventually extinguish the fire, as well as the miners.

“The magus traced the new seam precisely,” said Gael. “The map in my tally chamber shows it narrowing at the current location of the working face, but it will widen again once we get to the waxing moon.”

Emon shook his head. “It don’t have th’ look of a meander,” he insisted. “It’s thinnin’ down fast, like it’ll go to a trickle, then a thread, then nuthin’. We’ll have to go back to th’ old seam.”

“The magus won’t have been mistaken, Emon. But if this seam plays out, Carbraes will send the magus again to find another seam altogether. I’m not willing to sustain the casualties that the old seam produced.”

Emon nodded, reassured. “Wull, that’s good hearin’, Secretarius. But th’ new seam’s weaker than th’ old seam. And if th’ magus’ next seam’s weaker still, you’ll be gettin’ one oxhide ev’ry other day ’stead o’ three.”

Emon was definitely a worrier. His face was creased with it as he finished his pessimistic forecast.

“The magus did mention that this narrow neck in the seam was less rich than the wider areas before and after it,” Gael reminded him.

“But it isn’t. It’s narrow, but the rock is just as rich as rich. We should be gettin’ four ingots, not three!” he burst out.

“Surely not,” said Gael.

“The magus took a long look at our furnace,” said Emon. “Spent all day at it. But it’s workin’ worse than ever.”

“When?” asked Gael, surprised.

Emon frowned. “When what?”

“When did Nathiar examine your furnace?”

“Last waxin’ moon.” Emon was calming, even as Gael grew . . . concerned.

“A deichtain ago?” Gael probed.

“Aye. But it weren’t nuthin’. Just a clogged tap, and th’ magus worked out a plunger to keep it clear. Just after th’ slag rises to float on the molten copper, th’ furnace troll opens the slag tap to draw it off, then works th’ magus’ plunger—one, two, three—and then opens the oxhide tap.”

“I didn’t know the magus had visited the mines last waxing moon,” probed Gael.

“Oh, aye. We sent word for ’im when th’ tap clogged. And he fixed it good.” Having discharged his anxiety, Emon was wholly relaxed.

Gael was not. Nathiar’s second trip to the copper mine—unauthorized by Gael—would bear looking into.

The two teamsters wrestling the first oxhide ingot had finished rubbing down the pair of mules that had borne it. They hoisted the heavy metal to their shoulders, one fore and one aft, and started up the ramp to the annex. Gael followed in their wake, pondering the surest way of detaining Nathiar.

He was tempted to bump the interview of the magus ahead of the one he planned for the castellanum.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 8 (scene 38)

Chapter 8

The Charcoal Stair, buried within the wall between the tower and the kitchen annex, was one of the darkest passages in Belzetarn. No arrowslits brought light and air to the narrow well. It could as easily have been a mine shaft delving deep into the earth as an ascent from the cellars to a dortoire tucked under the annex roof. Flaring torches illumined its tightly twisting steps and knobbly newel post. Gael knew that Keir avoided it, misliking its claustrophobic confines. It was true that when one descended, if one met a troll going up, it was a tight squeeze to pass one another.

But Gael was headed to the artisans’ yard to meet the mine teamsters, and the Charcoal Stair provided the shortest route from the regenen’s servery. He’d slipped along the inner wall of the regenen’s kitchen and the regenen’s preparatory, marveling anew at the massive hearths feeding into the colossal stacks that vented their smoke, the high vaulted ceilings, the tiny spiral stairs—tighter even than the Charcoal Stair—giving access to opteons’ chambers emplaced within the thick upper walls, and the ranks of glassed casements providing light for the cooks to see what they were doing.

The kitchens were like smithies for food, impressive in their way, although Gael strongly preferred the metal forges under his own jurisdiction. Which was odd, now that he considered it. Surely feeding the twelve- to fifteen-hundred trolls dwelling in Belzetarn—depending on how many cohorts were rotated home—should be preferable to equipping ten-thousand troll-warriors with the arms and armor needed for battle against the unafflicted.

Did he love the beauty of the worked bronze so much? Enough to counter his antipathy toward the truldemagar who killed the unafflicted? Or was there some other reason he relished overseeing the metal smithies? A desire to rule would be satisfied as well by supervising the kitchens as by overseeing the smithies. No, it was not authority over others that Gael enjoyed. It was the tallying itself, and specifically the mathematical precision that tallying metals for forging required.

Tallying foodstuffs might be demanding, but he’d seen the approximations that Barris resorted to, that seemed to be part and parcel of cooking.

Tallying for the kitchens would never possess the symmetry of the matrices Gael constructed in his tally chamber as he monitored Belzetarn’s metals.

His legs felt better descending the Charcoal Stair than they had earlier. He’d awakened sore and stiff and tired. Pain stabbed up through his heels when he stood, and every joint protested while he dressed. He’d suppressed groans through each of the fifteen spirals down the Regenen Stair, but his discomfort had diminished as his muscles warmed. And his ankle did not click.

Despite his shortened sleep and aching body, his mind was clear. The previous night’s confusion must have stemmed from the shocks of the day. This morning, it seemed obvious that neither his investigation into the thefts of his ingots nor the muting of the cursed gong could be planned in one fell swoop. Each stage of the proceedings would be governed by what he learned as he went along.

Certainly, he must interview the castellanum and then the magus, assessing their potential as thieves while he distracted each with questions about their experiences yesterday when the cursed gong resounded throughout the tower.

He’d considered nabbing Theron when he encountered him on a landing of the Regenen Stair, but the castellanum had been in full spate, haranguing a dilatory scullion.

Gael frowned.

Not a tower scullion or a kitchen scullion, come to think of it, but a smithy scullion. Why would the castellanum feel it behooved him to scold one of Gael’s scullions? Gael would ask him that very question. He’d forborne to interrupt Theron amidst his diatribe. But he’d get an answer soon.

Keir was undoubtedly issuing ingots to the smithy scullions even now. The boy could handle most of the reconciling of yesterday’s morning and evening tallies as well, although Gael wanted to hear those results the moment they were done.

But after meeting with the mine teamsters, Gael would have time enough to question his suspects and time enough, too, to demonstrate the properties of the cursed gong to Arnoll. He would show Arnoll the blasted thing. He needed a smith to look at the gong with his inner sight. A smith might see something that a former magus could not. And Arnoll was the only smith in Belzetarn who Gael trusted enough to make such a request.

And yes—damn it—he still trusted Arnoll. Despite what his friend had done. Beneath his anger, he trusted. By choice and reason, as well as the unreasoning affection of his heart.

After he’d consulted Arnoll, he would devise the next step for the gong.

And after he’d interviewed the castellanum and the magus, he’d figure the next step in catching his thief. Or thieves.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 37)

Cold, gray clouds had blown up during that last afternoon with her father, and the breeze over the white surf of the small cove between two headlands had grown stiff.

Keiran stood barefoot on wet and shell-littered sand, looking out at the silver waves rushing in through the cove’s inlet and crashing around the tall rocks protruding within the smaller body of water. Pater stood behind her, his hands warm on her shoulders.

A rolling billow crashed on the shore and she felt its vibration through the cool, wet sand. The broken wave hissed up the beach toward her toes. A gull cried, blown sideways by a gust.

“Open your inner sight,” came Pater’s gravelly voice, “and direct it where the surf breaks.”

Keiran drew in a deep breath of the sea air—too brisk to carry the scent of salt and brine as strongly as when the breeze was gentle or absent—and held it, then let it slowly trickle out through her nose. She closed her eyes and let her inner perceptions unfurl.

Silver arcs of energea curled more wildly and more tightly in the ocean surf than she’d ever seen elsewhere. Flint and sand hummed with straight lattices. Grasses and reeds featured gentle, simple curves. People, sheep, and goats possessed complex arrays of arches that branched from one another. But the wind-tossed sea, powerful and furious, exhibited tangled spirals, ever changing and snarling.

“Follow the energea from the moment of impact up the beach,” said Pater.

Ah! The spiraling energea bounced against the lattice of the sand and uncurled, flowing in a current of loose spirals that grew ever straighter as they approached the farthest reach of the water. Where the wave ebbed, the energea ebbed with it, tangling anew in its retreat, save for a mist of softly undulating arcs flowing inland, under Keiran’s feet toward the dunes behind her.

“Let the sea energea enter,” Pater instructed.

Keir softened her knees and felt her feet relax, her toes letting tension flow out of them.

The next incoming wave broke, pounding the sand, and the energea surged up the beach. Keir felt the inland flowing mist tickle the nodes at the base of each toe, stroking her own energea into a slightly faster vibration.

“Good,” said Pater. Was he watching with his inner sight? No doubt.

Another wave came in, and another. Her feet seemed to buzz, warm despite their contact with the cold, wet sand. The vibration—still within the energea, not the flesh—mounted through her legs and on up through her torso. Her heart warmed, but the energea cooled as it fountained up her neck and then out through her crown.

“Now follow your own energea out to sea,” said Pater. Was that excitement in his voice?

Her awareness glided on the energea, easy and comfortable, just above the surface of the waves. At the mouth of the cove, she plunged downward, sensing the water in a way wholly different from the interaction of one’s body with the ocean. She was liquid and permeable, yet powerful, with glints of brightness flickering in her lucidity. She surged and flowed. She soared out to sea, through the sea.

The flickering glints within her lambency strengthened, definite and pulsing. Their brightness pierced her, and then she was their brightness, darting and fierce and free.

“Stay with them,” rumbled Pater.

She’d almost forgotten him in the sensations dominating her attention, but she obeyed.

As a hundred or more points of sharp brilliance, she turned and flashed and swooped. I am the fish, she realized dimly. And it was magical.

On and on she swam, one with the water, one with its denizens, one with being, one with all that was. How far had she travelled? How far would she go? How could she ever turn and return? Her larger self beguiled her.

And then her fish school darted forward to envelop a monstrous presence. Darker, more powerful still, with colossal flukes and a mighty tail. Its mood was heavy, remorseless, and compelling. Her awareness entered its shadow, slow and intense. She tightened . . . something. And then the monster was hers, bound to her and caught.

Or had it caught her?

She pulled.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 36)

Keir took the Cliff Stair, the least trafficked of all four and dim, with the sun over on the other side of the tower. She climbed, needing to retrieve her tally sheets from the vaults before retiring to the tally chamber to reconcile yesterday’s accounts. As she climbed, she thought about what she had learned this morning.

The privy smithy, with its laxness, was a clear source of metal for the thief. But was Arnoll the thief? Even hearing Ravin’s story, she couldn’t believe such a thing of Arnoll. He and Gael were thick as . . . hmm . . . thieves. But Keir was more inclined to believe, like Ravin, that Arnoll had taken the tin for a legitimate reason. Even though he had not returned it or reported it yet to the tally chamber.

She would see what Gael thought when she told him.

And she would tell him. If Arnoll were the thief, Gael needed to know. If Arnoll were innocent, then Gael would know what the smith was doing with that tin ingot, and she could cease to consider him a suspect.

The more worrying thing was this morning’s theft, somehow achieved right under her own nose. She supposed it must have happened in the stairwell, one of those times when Jemer plunged into a clump of trolls, with only a flash of his elbow or a bob of his head visible to Keir. Which meant that someone was very slick, winkling the tin out of Jemer’s carry sack within the few moments that the crowd hid him.

She didn’t remember seeing any warriors on the Regenen Stair. They mostly used the West Stair anyway. It had been the usual crowd of the castellanum’s scullions—going to set up the tables and benches in the great halls—and the kitchen scullions bringing bowls of salt and mustard to the tables.

What would motivate a scullion—or a porter—to steal a tin ingot? Surely there would be more trouble than benefit coming to him for such a theft. Unless . . . he was ordered to do it by a superior.

Keir found it easy to suspect the castellanum. She’d seen him looking at her almost covetously, and she’d never liked him. But what use would the castellanum have for tin? Honestly, what use did anyone in Belzetarn—save the smiths—have for tin?

She could see a warrior stealing one of the elite swords reserved for his superiors. Greater prowess in battle might tempt such a troll. She could see someone like the castellanum stealing a finely wrought chalice or a beautifully crafted table. Theron liked rich things. But he had no need to steal them; they were his already as a prerogative of his station.

She could see the scullions stealing food, especially the rarer stuffs served only at the high table.

But the only troll with a real use for tin and copper and bronze would be a troll-lord with legions at his command and smithies supplying them. Could one of the scullions possess such ambitions? The idea was ludicrous. The very nature of the mark of Gaelan—the truldemagar—tended to sort trolls by their innate power. Those with physical might became warriors, those possessing great force of character took leadership, and those with neither served their betters.

If one of the scullions had stolen that tin ingot, he’d done so for someone else.

Keir wondered who Gael suspected.

Had he already heard Arnoll’s account of the tin ingot taken from the privy boys? Had he been shocked? Or had he nodded prosaically, approving Arnoll’s action as proper? And with Arnoll in the clear, who else might Gael suspect?

Keir shivered. She was innocent of theft, but she had other secrets. Gael had always treated her like any other boy in Belzetarn, with fairness and precise instruction. And she’d felt no qualms about passing herself off as a boy. It had been necessary.

But what if the theft of his metals prompted Gael to scrutinize his assistant more closely than before? A cursory scan of the nodes of her energea, sufficient to discern that they were unanchored, had not and would not reveal her sex. But a more thorough scrutiny would. As would a more thorough scrutiny of her person. What if Gael discovered she was—not a boy, but a young woman? How would he respond? Would he feel betrayed by the lie that she’d enacted all this time? And what if he plumbed . . . other things?

Keir paused to lean into one of the arrowslit’s embrasures. Beyond the opening, golden sunlight lay on the forested hills. A thin mist rose from the trees. The northern sky was very clear, white near the horizon and shading to pale turquoise in the upper airs.

If Gael scrutinized Keir, it would be with an eye to his assistant’s actions, not his assistant’s person, she reassured herself. Although . . . her actions were not wholly above reproach either. But why did she care so much anyway? Gael was a troll. Every last denizen of Belzetarn was a troll. She herself was a troll. It wasn’t as though someone still human would be judging her. The way her father had judged her on that last day.

Pater’s opinion had been important.

No one’s thoughts of her here in Belzetarn—not even Gael’s—could matter as Pater’s thoughts had mattered that day.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 7 (scene 35)

The tin smelters must have laid and fired their charcoal early, long before their scullion fetched their pebbles from the vault, because they were already packing the unrefined tin into the weighty stone funnel at the top of the slanting upper surface of the forge. A stone trough extended from the funnel’s outlet and down across the slant. The smelters would keep the forge at just the right heat to melt the tin without melting the other impurities in the pebbles. The liquid tin would drip into the large crucible placed below the trough, while the solid impurities remained behind.

The smelters would pour the tin ‘hat’ ingots one by one, setting an empty crucible below the trough and moving the full one inside the forge to re-melt the congealed tin. When the characteristic golden skin formed on its molten surface, it would be ready to go into the mold.

Ravin saw Keir approaching and met her beside the massive pier dividing the tin smeltery from the annealing smithy. She forced herself not to look away from his truldemagar ravaged face. Was it truly hatred she felt? Or was it pity? She wished these flashes of emotion would cease taking her unawares.

Ravin stripped off his heavy gloves and started right in with his account, needing no prompting.

“The privy boys had started a game of blind-troll’s-buff. Tears, you should have seen them!” He shook his head. “Or maybe you shouldn’t have. The blindfolded one was stumbling into anvils and counters. The others were knocking over tool racks and sand buckets as they dodged.”

Keir pursed her lips.

Ravin wrinkled his nose. “Arnoll got involved when one of the boys, leaping away from his pursuer, knocked over the scullion raking the charcoal in the armor smithy’s forge.” Ravin shook his head. “He almost pushed him into the forge. Idiot. I doubt he knows how close he came to a beating, right there and then, from the smith himself.

“But Arnoll lowered his hand, marched the boy back to the privy smithy, and began directing them in their usual chores. He didn’t lecture, just gave orders, but they knew he was furious. Hells, even I knew he was furious a smithy away.”

“Go on,” said Keir.

“Once the boys were busy, Arnoll just stood watching them, leaning against the counter where their ingots and such lay. He pointed at something, maybe a sand bucket—I couldn’t really see—and then looked down at the counter. I think he shook his head, and then put a tin ingot in the sack he was carrying.

“He gave the boys a few more instructions, and then returned to his own tasks in the armor smithy.”

“What did he do with the tin?” asked Keir, wondering if pursuing that question was wise. Ravin seemed oblivious to the possibility that Arnoll might be in the wrong, and she preferred he remain so.

“Just laid it on the shelf under a counter. Why?”

“I’m trying to get the full picture, that’s all,” she replied.

Ravin scrubbed the back of a hand across his lined forehead. “There’s something wrong, isn’t there?”

Keir intended to continue following Gael’s instructions scrupulously on this one. She would not give confidential tally room information away. “You know we hope to find more efficiencies, Ravin,” she said patiently. “I doubt there are any to be found in the tin smeltery or the blade smithy, but the more complex undertakings—armor, blade grinding—might benefit from small changes. And the privy smithy surely needs something. Or many somethings.” She let the corner of her mouth turn up. “Any extra witnesses of privy smithy doings are useful.”

Ravin smiled. “Oh. Of course.” He started drawing his gloves back on. “My opteon will need me soon. Are you—may I—”

“Yes, thank you, Ravin. I’ve heard all I need.” Actually, she’d heard more than she wanted to.

He nodded and hurried toward the furnace, where the first bright droplets of molten tin were trickling down the canted trough.

*     *     *

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