The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 50)

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

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

Gael frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what had Keir said?

“Dreben attacked me?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve seen Barris,” interrupted Keir.

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

“Where?” he produced after some struggle.

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

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

“He seemed just as usual,” said Keir.

“Good. That’s good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gael felt a little foolish.

“You’re right,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.” Keir’s face was crimson. “Oh.”

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

“I’m sorry,” said Keir, very simply.

“Don’t be,” said Gael.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.”

Why should I avoid him?” asked Keir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 49)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you not know?” he asked.

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

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

Still she’d missed his meaning.

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

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

“What will I do?” she’d asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not anymore,” said Pater.

“What can you mean?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 48)

Chapter 10

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

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

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

“Get Keir,” Gael mumbled. “Keir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not,” croaked Gael, “th’ hospital.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 47)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 46)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gael’s heart sank further.

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

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

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

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

“Is he a troll?” Carbraes demanded.

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

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

Carbraes nodded. “Do so,” he said.

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

“Well?” asked Carbraes impatiently.

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

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

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

“He is human,” Gael said.

The youth flinched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 45)

Gael encountered the castellanum much sooner than he expected: on the landing outside his own tally chamber. Theron had just turned away after rapping on the door. He looked very regal, garbed in robes of deep blue suede embroidered with silver. His straight silver hair glinted in the sunlight, almost silken, and he stared down his narrow nose.

“Ah. Secretarius.” He seemed displeased, even though he’d obviously been seeking Gael. But then—when had Theron ever been pleased to see Gael?

“What is it, Theron?” Gael felt less patient than usual.

“Perhaps in private?” suggested Theron, all delicacy in his tone. He glanced at the padlocked door to the tally chamber.

Gael crossed his arms across his chest, standing pat.

Theron sniffed. “As you will, then. I want your notary.”

Gael’s chin jutted pugnaciously. “Feel free to do so,” he said.

Theron’s eyebrows rose. “What? You’ll let him go? Just like that?”

“Not at all.” Gael’s nostrils flared. “You may wish to employ Keir as much as it pleases you to so wish. I shall not gratify your desire.”

“You’ll find I can compel you,” stated Theron.

“I doubt it.”

“Oh, yes.” Theron smiled thinly. “Your friend—what is his name? Barris?—yes, Barris works within my jurisdiction. I think I have some leverage there, do I not?”

Gael’s belly felt abruptly cold. Where was Barris? Summoned on some necessary errand? Or sequestered in a locked cell? Placed there at the castellanum’s command?

“What have you done to him?” he demanded.

“Done to him?” repeated Theron lightly. “Why nothing. Yet.”

“Where is he? Where have you put him?” grated Gael.

“Really, Secretarius. You’re so abrupt. Are these the manners you learned in Hadorgol?” Theron snickered.

“Any courtier can learn to lie sweetly,” Gael reposted. “Only a man or a woman of honor dare be blunt.”

“And we are all trolls here,” said Theron, ever so sweetly. “Yet surely a troll may be mannerly, even if honor lies beyond him.”

Gael reined in his emotion. The castellanum might delight in the exchange of poisonous nothings, but Gael had better things to do. “You’re forgetting I have the regenen’s trust,” he said gently.

“Ah, the regenen.” Theron chuckled. “I think you’ll find that his trust is not infinite.”

“You plan to shatter it, I take it? How, may I ask?”

“You may ask, my dear Secretarius, you may. But I shall not answer you. I shall show you.” Theron’s mocking gaze chilled. Gael’s ire cooled with it. He was abruptly in full control of himself. If Theron’s plan involved stealing Gael’s tin, Gael was on to him. If not, Gael would discover soon enough where Theron saw weakness. It was not his friendship for Barris nor his guardianship of Keir, whatever the castellanum might think. And in either case, Gael’s power within Belzetarn was not inconsiderable. Theron was bold to declare his enmity so openly.

“I shall look forward to your revelations, Castellanum.”

“You’ll rue them!” Theron snapped, whirling toward the stairs up.

Before the discomposed troll took another step, a young messenger dashed onto the landing and skidded to a stop in front of Gael.

“Secretarius! Secretarius!” the boy cried. “My lord Carbraes needs you at once! In the melee gallery!”

Gael resisted the sinking sensation within. Just so had Carbraes’ summons—delivered through Keir—reached Gael yesterday, depositing the unpleasant matter of the gong upon his shoulders. What might this summons gift him with?

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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, Interstice 1

Legend of the Mark of Gaelan

Long ago, in the dawn of time, there lived two brothers in the land of Erynis. They studied magery, and each vied with the other to be the most skillful, the most powerful, and the most creative magus in the north. Despite their rivalry, they loved one another as brothers do: strong affection mingled with equally strong jealousy.

Each boasted that his magery was better. And each laughed, because who was to judge between them?

The friends of Cayim, the elder brother, would surely say he excelled every other magus in the land, while the students taught by Gaelan, the younger brother, would choose their teacher as the best. And all the people of Erynis were either friends of Cayim or students of Gaelan.

Now it chanced that the twin gods of Erynis heard the boasts of the two brothers. Thelor, the god of cleverness and intellect, felt sure that his powers of reason could discern which brother was the more masterful magus. And Elunig, the goddess of wisdom, loved her twin and wished him to experience the enjoyment that exercising discernment would give him.

So, when next the holy hermit of Erynis sat in meditation, Elunig granted him a vision. In his vision, Gaelan and Cayim traveled to the hermit’s shrine and from there were transported to the heavenly home of the twin gods, where they would be judged. The superior brother would be offered the choice between two wondrous gifts.

When Cayim heard of the hermit’s vision, he longed for Thelor’s gift: the enchanting of a well such that the one who drank of its waters would always know whether a given fact be false or true.

And when Gaelan learned of the hermit’s vision, he yearned for Elunig’s gift: the enchanting of a spring such that the one who drank from it would always know whether a proposed action was wise or foolish.

On the eve of midsummer, the two brothers met and agreed to the trial of mastery. They journeyed to the hermit’s shrine and were brought to the twin gods’ home as the hermit’s vision had promised.

They received their welcome in a garden of surpassing beauty. Red poppies crowded the borders. White roses, heavy with scent, climbed the trellises. And a fountain splashed.

Elunig spoke the first words, her voice gentle. “You are safe here, but do not stray into the wilderness beyond the hedge, for it is perilous there.”

Thelor spoke next, his tone stern. “Nor should you leave the chambers to which we bid you in our house, for dangers lurk in unexpected corners.”

Gaelan, overwhelmed by the majesty of the twin gods, bowed reverentially. But Cayim delayed, curious to discover if he could understand more of the divine by scrutinizing these magnificent examples of it. While he stared, and while Elunig gazed affectionately upon Gaelan, Thelor laid a finger aside his nose and winked.

Then a servant brought them goblets of fruit nectar to quaff, and when they had quenched their thirst, led them indoors.

Gaelan bathed his face and hands in the basin provided and lay down upon the silken couch to sleep. But Cayim waited until his brother’s eyes closed and retraced his steps to the garden. There he found Thelor, seated on the steps below the fountain.

“Why did you wink?” Cayim asked.

“I wished to tell you that my sister longs for a babe, despite our great mother declaring that enough divine children have entered the world.”

“Why did you wish to tell me this?” asked Cayim.

“That I shall not tell you,” answered Thelor. And he dismissed the curious brother.

The next day, after they had broken their fast on cream and honey and peaches, the brothers were ushered into a great hall with white marble floors and pillars.

Gaelan performed his magery first. He summoned flame, which transformed to sunlight and then into ice. He built a palace of the ice, which melted to become a mountain lake in which brilliant fishes swam. One fish grew into a dragon, bursting from the surface of the water and soaring to the clouds. The dragon’s scales became rose petals, and the beast came apart in a shower of blossoms, falling through a rainbow.

Elunig clapped in delight when Gaelan finished.

“Beautiful! Beautiful!” she exclaimed.

Cayim’s performance was less elaborate, by far.

He spread a magical carpet of rich blue and green threads on the marble floor. He summoned a rush basket, intricately plaited, to rest upon the carpet. He caused the soft trills of a flute to sound. And then he laid an infant to rest within his nest.

Elunig rushed forward, catching the child in her arms and pressing it to her breast. “Oh!” she cried.

“She is a human child, not a divine one,” said Cayim, “and so I judge that the great mother cannot object. Neither can any human mother, for this child has neither mother nor father nor any kin to care for her. She is yours, if you will have her.”

“Oh!” cried Elunig again.

Thelor smiled. “You envisioned this trial of skill as a gift to me, sister. But now I make it over to you.”

Elunig kissed the babe’s downy head. “Cayim has won my heart, if he has not won your reason, my twin,” she said.

“Then Cayim shall be the master magus,” declared Thelor. And then, forgetting discretion, he winked in full view of both brothers.

Upon seeing Thelor’s wink, Gaelan guessed all that had hitherto been hidden to him. Jealous rage flooded through him, and he lashed out. Had he been arguing with his brother, he might have lashed out with words. Had he been wrestling with Cayim, he would surely have struck with his fists. But because he’d been performing magery, he assailed his brother with the energea of his magery. And because he was full of wrath, his magery lacked his usual control.

His energea cracked out as black lines of force limned with gold. Not blue or silver or green, all safe. But most perilous black and gold.

Cayim fell to the floor, dead.

Within Gaelan, his heart broke—for he loved his brother yet—and his nodes—the source of his energea—tore. So strong was the disruption that Gaelan’s inner damage manifested immediately in his outer form. His ears grew enlarged and cupped. His nose lengthened, curving up. His skin sagged, and his back hunched. His thumbs became crooked and long. The truldemagar claimed him violently.

The twin gods returned Gaelan to Erynis and then did penance for centuries. They had destroyed two worthy men.

Ever after, all who dwelt within Erynis called the truldemagar the mark of Gaelan. In other lands, some who heard the legend of Gaelan adopted that name as well.

And though the righteous hate Gaelan for his fratricide, the merciful grieve for Gaelan’s loss and revile Cayim for his trickery.

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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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