The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 64)

INTERLUDE

Olluvarde

Chapter 14

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

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

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

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

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

She’d thought about it, tempted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Next scene: coming December 2.

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 13 (scene 63)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 13 (scene 63)

Gael had one more thing to do before he departed for Olluvarde. Something he had to know.

Descending the Regenen Stair, he barely noticed the clear morning light making bright rectangles on the treads where it shone in through the arrowslits. He navigated the clumps of messengers, porters, and scullions thronging the steps almost carelessly. He even failed to perceive that his ankle gave not one single click in his determined plunge toward the kitchens.

The joint should have clicked after his full descent from the top of Belzetarn to his tally room.

He’d met with the regenen on the uppermost battlements, the breeze stirring their hair, the sun warm on their shoulders, and all the Hamish wilds spread out below them: the pine-cloaked hills, rounded and cradling the shining blue of the long lake, with its myriad inlets; the snow-topped Fiorsmarn peaks to the east; the vast forest spreading across ever flattening terrain to the west.

He’d felt free on the battlements, beguiled by the light and the air, persuaded by Carbraes’ effortless authority and composure that all was well, as though they were sovereign and secretarius over a realm of unafflicted men and women and children. As though the truldemagar were nought but an evil nightmare.

If only it were so.

Diving into the traffic on the Regenen Stair—increasingly heavy as the day advanced—dispelled his illusion of freedom immediately.

Curved and elongated noses, line-bracketed eyes, and large cupped ears marred every last troll in the stairwell. Some possessed crooked shoulders, others crooked thumbs. Some pushed their way aggressively through the crowd, others went cringingly.

Gael saw them all afresh, as though he’d just come among them to live, pity and revulsion combined in his breast. Did he descend into one of Cayim’s hells, to be surrounded by gnarled imps?

No. He was one of them himself. This was home. And he wished it were not.

Nor did his errand—unsavory in nature—ameliorate his milieu any.

But he had to know.

He turned into the servery for the Regenen’s Kitchen, as Barris was setting a large tray of mussels—freshly winkled out of their shells—on an adjacent work table. Drifting through the hatch between the kitchen and the servery, the warm scents of roasting hazelnut scones mingled with the dense sweetness of dried cherries stewing and the sharp aroma of vinegar-soaked onions.

Barris looked up from his clams.

“Gael!” he shouted.

An instant later, the cook hurtled over the hatchery counter to grasp Gael by both shoulders, look him up and down, shake him, gasp “Thank Sias you’re okay,” yank him into a rough hug, cuff him on the upper arm, and demand, “What in Cayim’s hells happened to you?”

Gael couldn’t help laughing, in relief as much as surprise. Surely his suspicions were wrong. Unjust, too. How could he possibly accuse Barris of stealing? He would never have accused Arnoll. It had taken seeing Arnoll with a stolen ingot in hand to make Gael doubt him. Barris should be beyond his suspicion too. In fact, Gael never would have doubted Barris, if Arnoll had not proven . . . fallible.

Barris’ urgent concern for his friend was thoroughly reassuring.

And yet . . . despite his surety in Barris, Gael was not quite sure.

He opened his inner sight. Tiamar be praised! Neither of Barris’ hands bore the energea lattice that Gael had deployed in the hidey-hole of the clogged latrine.

“Sias in paradise!” Barris babbled. “We heard you’d picked a fight with the First Brigenen. We heard he’d picked a fight with you. The castellanum’s notarius said you’d been tapped as the first combatant in the brigenen’s gladiatorial ring. The scullions said you’d been pushed over the balustrade of the top balcony of the high great hall and killed. The march’s notarius said nothing had happened at all. The hospital scullions reported you’d been gravely injured. Sias, Gael! I’ve been worried!”

“I should have sent a messenger, of course,” said Gael. “But I was out of my senses at first, then being treated—most competently, I assure you—and then asleep. I do apologize.”

Barris jutted his chin. “The bruises on your neck tell me it wasn’t nothing,” he said.

“No,” Gael agreed. “We did fight, and I was injured. Rather badly, I’m afraid, but Keir fixed the damages. The boy was training for a healer before he came here, did you know?”

Barris started to reply, stopped, then said, “Wait right here.”

The cook nipped back into the kitchen through the door beside the hatchery, placed a decanter, a goblet, a covered dish, and a soup spoon on a tray, grabbed a tall stool, and returned to the servery with them. He set the tray on the hatch counter, placed the stool beside it, and gestured Gael to sit.

“You should still be resting, not clomping up and down the tower stairs,” he said almost angrily.

“I’m very well, Barris. Truly,” Gael assured him.

Barris just glowered, his brown eyes smoldering.

Gael smiled ruefully and sat. “You’re quite right, of course. I am healing well.”

“Um hm,” said Barris, pouring from the decanter into the goblet—was that knotberry mead? at this hour of the morning?—and removing the cover from the dish to reveal minced parsnips, celeriac, and tidbits of fish in a light broth. The fragrance of the steam rising from the chowder made Gael’s mouth water. He dipped his spoon full, inhaled blissfully, and brought the spoon to his lips. The first mouthful was delicious, warm and soothing, earthily sweet, and mellow.

“Dreben picked no fight with me,” Gael explained. “And I picked none with him. It was a mutual craving. I think.”

“Sias! What got into you?” breathed Barris, leaning against the hatchery side wall.

Gael considered his answer. He had no desire at all to describe the original provocation for his rage against the brigenen. If Barris had never seen the execution of a Ghriana spy, better he remain ignorant of the reality. And if he had, better he not be reminded.

Truly, it was the theft from the tally room that had Gael more vulnerable to his emotions—worry, discontent, wrath—than usual. And that theft was why he sat here now, sipping Barris’ wonderful fish chowder.

“Someone is stealing my tin,” he said abruptly.

Barris paled, his skin suddenly bedewed by a sheen of moisture, his eyes shifting and full of guilt.

Gaelan’s tears. It was Barris, after all.

Gael swallowed his mouthful, paused a moment, and then asked, very gently, “Barris, what really happened yesterday morning, when you fed smoked fish to me, to Keir, and to the privy smithy scullion?”

The cook seemed to be tongue-tied.

“It is best you tell me,” said Gael softly.

Barris moaned. “Thea, Iona, and all the handmaidens of Sias in paradise,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, Gael. I’m so sorry.”

“Say it,” Gael directed.

“I took it, so help me, I took your tin,” said Barris lowly.

“Why?” asked Gael. Gaelan’s grief, but he couldn’t imagine what might have provoked his friend to such an act, any more than he’d been able to understand Arnoll’s motivation before the smith had revealed it. What other secrets of Belzetarn was he about to uncover?

Barris choked, again speechless.

Gael glanced hurriedly around the servery. It was deserted at the moment, but a scullion was sure to enter soon, pursuing some errand. And if a scullion failed to materialize, one of the other cooks would poke his head through the hatch with a question.

“We should not be overheard,” murmured Gael.

Barris nodded, infinitesimally.

“Where can we go without drawing undue attention?” asked Gael, voice still low.

“Mead cellar,” said Barris, barely audible.

Gael picked up his goblet of knotberry mead, sipped, and then exclaimed quite loudly, outraged, “Opteon, your mead is vinegar! Has the cellarer failed to store the new barrels at the back, failed to bring the older ones forward?”

Barris made the expected reply. “Sias forfend!” he roared, voice steady enough despite the anguish on his face. “I’ll see for myself this instant!” Finding enough anger in his pretense, he stuck his head back through the servery hatch. “Lodis, take over for me for a bit, will you? I need to assay the latest opened cask in the cellars.”

Lodis yelled back, “I have the hearth,” and then Barris led the way down the Regenen Stair to its very bottom, where the last few treads formed a tight alcove beneath their surfaces, sheltering only dust and shadow.

The servery providing for the bottle scullery and the cellar was dim and very quiet. Barris crossed the narrow space in five swift strides, his clogs clopping on the cold stone as he pulled his fibula of keys from his apron pocket. A quick twist of his wrist, and he had the meadery door unlocked.

Gael allowed the cook to usher him through. He avoided glancing at Barris’ face—not wanting to see his friend’s likely discomfiture—as he walked into the vaulted space. It reached far, far back, lit by a series of barred, arched openings placed near the top of its outer wall. Great barrels rested in cradles throughout, while smaller casks occupied racks along the edges.

Barris walked around the first rank of barrels to where a low ledge protruded below one of the barred windows. The fragrance of scythed grass floated in from the artisans’ yard, along with the shouts of an opteon reprimanding a careless apprentice.

Barris hunkered down in the ledge like a scullion being disciplined, his elbows on his knees, staring at the floor. Gael lowered himself beside his friend. Now that they were here, now that they could speak freely, Gael found he didn’t want to speak at all, didn’t want to ask any questions, didn’t want to know . . . anything that Barris might tell him. If dwelling in a troll citadel inevitably resulted in broken loyalties, then Gael didn’t want to dwell in one. He rather thought he hated Belzetarn. But, then, he always had, hadn’t he? From the very beginning.

Reluctantly, Gael shifted sideways to better view his friend.

Barris still stared at his feet, his back hunched, and his hands clutching his hair.

“Well?” demanded Gael, his voice hard.

Barris jerked upright, and started to talk, his words low and dull.

“Theron threatened to hurt the kitchen boys, if I didn’t get him some tin. He said he needed it for leverage, bribes and such. I didn’t want to do it, but”—his voice cracked—“I couldn’t let the boys be harmed.”

Gael sighed. Of course Barris would protect his scullions. They were like sons to him, and like a father, the cook admonished them, guided them, pushed them, shielded them, and loved them. Barris knew boys—with all their impetuosity, irresponsibility, eagerness, and unthinking brutality. He understood them, and managed them well, but his care for his underlings had proved the weakness by which the castellanum could snare him.

Gael sighed again, listening to the hectoring from the yard, still murmuring through the opening in the wall above them. “Why didn’t you come to me?” he asked. “You know I have the regenen’s ear. I could have ensured the castellanum did nothing to the boys.”

Barris looked back down at the floor. “I couldn’t risk it. He’s too tricky. He’d sniggle through with bits of abuse somehow, you know he would.”

“So, instead you stole from me?” Gael could hear his pitch rising. Something didn’t add up. That Barris would do much to preserve his boys was consistent with his character, if the threat were sufficient. But that Barris would betray his close friend and his own integrity to save the scullions from a few whippings or overly forceful reprimands . . . that didn’t add up. “Really, Barris? Really?”

The cook buried his head in his hands. “I know. I know. I’m a ratfink. An arsewipe. A scumbucket. I hate myself.” His voice fell under his self-contempt, ringing true to Gael’s ear.

Gael abruptly felt very tired. What in Cayim’s hells was he going to do about this, just on the verge of his departure for Olluvarde? He’d have to tell Keir, of course. But the wise course for dealing with Barris eluded him. He heartily wished he’d left the matter until he returned.

“How did you manage it?” he asked wearily, almost against his will.

Barris sat back, slumped against the wall. “Jemer was always late, always grabbing a quick bite from me on his way from the vaults to the privy smithy. He would thump his carry sack down on the hatch counter. All I had to do was hold the tray of food over it, and rummage under the flap while Jemer stuffed his face.” Barris shook his head. “Hells, Gael. I’ll understand if you never want to speak to me again.”

“Don’t steal anymore. Hear me?” said Gael.

“Theron already said to wait until you were back before I took another ingot,” said Barris, defeat in his voice.

Gael pursed his lips, thinking. If the castellanum’s scheme—whatever it was—required Gael’s presence, then it seemed likely that its goal must be to Gael’s detriment, not the mere bribes and influence-peddling that he’d told Barris.

“How many have you taken thus far?” he asked. “And for how long?”

“Ten,” answered Barris, “starting last year. Theron stepped up the pace just this deichtain. I don’t know why.”

Hells! This was much worse than Arnoll’s one-time theft, confessed almost immediately after it transpired. Barris had been deceiving Gael for moon upon moon. How many more of his acquaintance would turn out to be stealing from the tally room? The next thing he knew, he’d be hearing Keir confessing. Except that was ridiculous. If it were Keir, the boy need only have fudged the tallies to ensure that Gael never learned there were metals missing at all.

“Did you only steal tin?” he asked. “Never bronze?”

“Bronze?” Barris frowned, looking puzzled. “No, never bronze.”

So. Gael had yet to find every last thief.

“Barris, I can’t see my way in this.”

“I’ve made a right mess for you,” said his friend bitterly. Was Barris still his friend? Gael had no idea how he felt about it at this point. He’d have to sort that out later.

“Don’t steal anymore,” Gael repeated. Barris had said he would not, but somehow Gael felt a need to emphasize that instruction. “Stay away from Theron as much as you possibly can. Just do your cooking. In fact, do even more cooking than you usually do. Plan immense feasts to celebrate . . . anything at all. And wait until I return from Olluvarde.”

Barris looked stricken. “No,” he said. “Turn me in. I deserve it. Carbraes will order me flogged. Or worse. And then I’ll rot in the brig until I die.”

Gael huffed an impatient breath. “I’m not turning you in, Barris. You’ve been my friend—a staunch friend—for years before you did this. Just . . . do right while I’m gone, eh. We’ll figure this out.”

Barris stared back at him, eyes haunted, saying nothing at all.

*     *     *

Next scene: coming November 25.

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 13 (scene 62)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 13 (scene 62)

Chapter 13

Keir woke early and went immediately to check on her patient, but Gael had already departed his chambers.

This was a good thing, she decided, indicating that his recovery was proceeding well. She wondered if she would encounter him during the routine of checking out metals to the various smithies and lodges supplied by the tally room, but she did not.

Another ingot of tin went missing from the carry sack of the privy smithy’s scullion somewhere between the vaults and the forges. Keir had almost expected it, especially as she didn’t keep the boy in sight for every moment of their descent down the Regenen Stair.

She darted aside to the tally room, hoping to find Gael—where was the man?!—and only caught up with the scullion just in time to supervise the unpacking of his sack. She fetched Martell another ingot of tin to replace the missing one—he needed it for the work he had planned—and tallied it properly on her parchment, making a note of the new theft.

By the time she finished ensuring that Martell gave his notary the chance to make his own tally of the privy smithy’s disbursement, she was . . . not truly worried about Gael, but concerned. Ordinarily, she’d trust him to be sensible, more sensible than she herself would be in like circumstances. He was the one who’d taught her that prudent rest and nourishment ensured accurate work, well done.

As a healer, she’d tended to focus on her patients at her own expense. Pater had chided her for it, but Gael had induced her to take the matter seriously, even though—or perhaps because—it was tally sheets, not the ill and injured, under her care.

But Gael had been less measured lately. The discovery that someone or some ones were stealing tin and bronze out from under him had unbalanced him a trifle. And then learning that his friend Arnoll was one of the thieves had knocked him further from his sensible ways.

She’d have felt more comfortable, if she’d seen for herself that his internal injuries were continuing to heal and that he’d been resting properly. Early rising was not a good idea in his present circumstances.

On her way back up the Regenen Stair, after delivering Martell’s replacement ingot, she chewed the dried cherries she’d wheedled from Barris. Tart and sweet at once on her tongue, they spurred her slowing steps and flagging thoughts. What would she do, if she again failed to find Gael in one of the usual places? Go searching for him, asking all and sundry if they’d seen him?

As it chanced, Gael was not in the tally room when she arrived there.

She considered summoning a porter and asking him to question all of his cohorts, as well as the messenger boys, to learn where and when Gael had last been seen by one of them.

No. She refused to imitate a mother hen, as though the secretarius were her lost chick. Clearly her dip into her old profession of healer had unbalanced her as badly as the ingot thefts had unbalanced Gael. Wrinkling her nose at the absurdity of it, she opened the inner casement shutters. The eastern sunlight streamed in to warm the air as she got out ink pot and stylus, and settled to tallying within the shelter of her cabinet-wrapped desk.

An indefinite time later, the latch of the tally room door clicked as it lifted.

The familiar act of transferring the smithy tallies to a master list had restored her usual tranquility. When Gael stepped beyond the cabinets flanking the doorway, she neither demanded to know what he’d been doing, nor that he allow her to examine his injuries. Such tactics had never worked well on Pater, who hated coddling, and they weren’t in keeping with her nature anyway. Senseless to begin unpleasant and needless nagging now.

“Ah. Keir,” Gael said, as he glanced her way. “Perfect.”

He looked trim and fresh, color good, moving easily. Buoyed by these observations, she sedately reported her own doings: checking out the metals, supervising Martell, noting the fresh theft, and beginning the day’s usual tally work.

Gael drew up his chair while she spoke, and nodded when she finished.

“I’ve tracked down another of our thieves,” he announced, “although this one stole directly from the mines, before ever the metals entered Belzetarn.”

“The magus?” guessed Keir. Gael had spoken of the magus poking illicitly around the mines.

“The magus,” he confirmed. “Performing illicit experiments to determine if it were possible to create weapons in Belzetarn that resembled those wielded by our Ghriana foes.” Gael frowned slightly. “Nathiar succeeded in forging a sword energetically and imbuing it with a living heart node. I don’t know if the blade would hold up under the stresses of battle.”

“Mark of Gaelan,” Keir exclaimed, blankly.

“Indeed,” agreed Gael. “I’d thought the rumors of extraordinary powers attributed to the Ghriana weapons were just that: rumors.”

“Hm.” Memories of the warriors of Fiors and the weapons they carried nibbled at the edges of her thoughts. “My people wielded flint knives, threw spears and shot arrows with flint heads.” Why did she speak of them as past? Surely they did those things yet. But they lay in her past.

“Yes?” said Gael.

“The flint knappers imbued the flint with nodes and arcs of energea,” she said.

“Interesting.” Gael’s left eyebrow lifted. “I wonder if secluded tribes throughout the north have developed such methods all unknown to the rest of us. Nathiar observed the Ghriana blades in action via his inner sight and confirms that they are indeed energetically enhanced.”

“You’ve spoken with him?” blurted Keir, startled.

“Confronted him at daybreak after I’d watched him at work in the receiving room of my official quarters,” said Gael.

Sias in paradise! Had Gael gotten any sleep at all? He must have, to look so spry.

“He admitted his guilt?” asked Keir.

“He did,” said Gael. “Furthermore, he’ll be admitting it to Carbraes himself. Likely has done so already, as he entered for his audience with the regenen just as I was departing.”

“You refrained from telling Carbraes?” questioned Keir.

Gael’s lips stretched in a wry smile. “I permitted Nathiar that honor,” he said.

Ah. No need to ask if the magus would follow through. With that smile, Gael was very sure that he would.

“The tally room was always so peaceful.” Keir sighed. “Now it feels like it’s under attack.”

“It is. It has been,” said Gael. “We just did not realize it until the day before yesterday.”

Keir bit her lip. That was true, of course, given that the magus had arranged to steal his metals at least a moon before, but she didn’t like accepting that her prized peace had been an illusion. Or admitting that she made her own contribution to disrupting that peace. But she wasn’t going to think about that.

“Which is why,” continued Gael, “I should particularly prefer not to be away from Belzetarn right now.”

A sinking sensation pervaded Keir’s middle. “You’re going to Olluvarde,” she said.

Gael nodded. “I must. Carbraes insists on all speed in resolving the risk presented by the cursed gong.”

“But did you tell the regenen of the ingot thefts?” asked Keir shrewdly, guessing that he had not.

“I did,” said Gael, surprising her. “He’s concerned, naturally, but feels the gong to be the higher priority.”

“He’s so certain you’ll sort out the thefts, he’s not worried,” Keir speculated.

Gael’s lips quirked upward. “Exactly.”

“Don’t you find the thievery disturbing?” she probed. “Too disturbing to let it be?”

“Were it my own choice, I’d settle the thieves before I departed,” Gael conceded. “But I’ve always preferred my tallies to match, whether in the tally room or in life. I don’t like anomalous loose ends.”

Keir frowned. She agreed with his personal assessment. His calm and ordered way of proceeding was one of the things she liked so much about him. Especially within the aggressive milieu that was the troll citadel of Belzetarn.

Gael continued, “I suspect that any sovereign—whether he rules over a kingdom of men or a stronghold of trolls—possesses more loose ends than resolved situations.”

Keir’s lips pressed together. “In other words, Carbraes is used to it,” she said, “and expects you to take it in stride.”

“Perhaps not quite that,” said Gael, “but he certainly expects me to attend to the more dangerous issue rather than the one that makes me personally uncomfortable.” Gael smiled at her, his expression unforced. “Which means, Keir, that I’ll need to get clearance to travel from either you or the physicians in the hospital. I do intend to guard my health.” His eyes warmed as he repeated her advice from the previous evening. “Do you have a preference as to which?”

And so she had her reward for fending off the lure of mother-henning that had assailed her so oddly.

Did she have a preference? Silly man. Of course she wanted to examine him herself and assure herself with direct evidence that he was healing well.

She led him into the room beyond the tally chamber—a generous space where they compounded inks and glues, as well as adhering the edges of individual parchments together to form scrolls—and gestured for him to lie on one of the large work tables.

She checked his innards with touch and sound first, auscultating his chest and abdomen carefully, relieved that her firmer taps produced no winces in him. Opening her inner sight, she noted that while his arcs still shivered a hint too rapidly, the pulsing of his nodes was steady and strong. Good. She sent a trickle of energea into his pale green plexial node and along the arcs radiating from it, before she closed her inner vision.

“So?” asked Gael, swinging his legs around so that he could sit.

Keir nodded. “Don’t fall off your horse, and you’ll be fine,” she said. “No jumping, running, or fisticuffs, of course.”

“Of course.” Gael smiled. “I’ve arranged to leave today, shortly after noon,” he said. “The scullions are packing for me now.”

Keir gulped. She’d been envisioning the morrow for his departure. “Taking things a bit for granted, aren’t you?” she chided.

“I felt good,” he answered simply.

Keir’s lips twitched up. “You’ve healed more swiftly than I thought you would,” she admitted. “You’re tougher than I realized.”

“Or you’re a more skilled healer than you realized,” returned Gael.

Keir sniffed, disdaining the compliment.

“The regenen has named you Secretarius pro tempore while I am away,” said Gael, “and Arnoll to serve as your opteon in potestas. You may choose your own messenger to accompany you about your duties.”

Keir felt her eyes widening. “This is all very official,” she murmured, resisting the sensation of uncomfortable responsibility descending. She didn’t want to rule Belzetarn’s metals. Someone who hated trolls shouldn’t rule Belzetarn’s metals.

“You’ll be fine,” said Gael.

“Do I really need a messenger?” she protested. “By my side at all times?”

“Couldn’t you have used one yesterday?” asked Gael.

She had to admit it would have spared her a few trips up and down the Regenen Stair.

“I’ve had you to run my errands and carry my messages. You’ll need someone. And we should probably keep him, even after I’ve returned.”

Keir nodded. “I’d best choose carefully then,” she quizzed, “if we’re to be stuck with him.”

“You’ll do fine,” repeated Gael.

“I suppose the regenen believes too many trolls are likely to step on my toes or crowd my prerogative. Thus Arnoll,” she said.

“You’re quite skilled at exerting authority, Keir. I’ve watched you,” said Gael. “And the regenen sees it too.”

Keir’s face heated.

“But I requested Arnoll for you, because I’d like you to have immediate recourse, should you need it.”

Keir straightened her shoulders and looked Gael directly in the eyes, pushing down a thread of unease. “I’ll keep the tally chamber sacrosanct for you,” she promised.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 12 (scene 61)

The scent of mint tea, the fragrance of toasted almond scones, and the sharp bouquet of pickled eggs entered with three tray-laden scullions. Nathiar leaned again on the slanting end of his divan, gesturing for the boys to serve him and his visitor.

As the scullions pulled various low tables into position and set out the dishes, Gael realized he was hungry. Too angry to be hungry earlier, he’d intended to spurn the suggestion that he break his fast along with Nathiar. Now . . . he decided he preferred to be sensible. He took a sip of the tea, enjoying its warmth and the contrast of its cool flavor against its temperature.

“The pepper sauce that accompanies the eggs is particularly good, my dear Secretarius,” said Nathiar. “Not overly spicy. Do try it!”

Suppressing a smile, Gael ladled sauce over his eggs. No doubt Nathiar wished to intimate that he would delay his story, hoping to irritate his audience. Nathiar loved irritating . . . everyone. Gael refused to be irritated. Nathiar would not have admitted that the old rumors were false, had he intended to remain silent about the truth.

The scullions filed out, closing the door behind them.

Nathiar spooned lingonberry jelly onto his scone and took a bite.

Gael permitted himself a smile, while Nathiar chewed.

“The ambassadress was indeed proper and prudish. She disliked Erastys on sight, and he reciprocated the sentiment,” said the magus.

Gael nodded. That fitted Erastys’ character much better than the story that he’d fallen in love. Or even in lust.

“It would have been better if the lady had simply left the day after she arrived, but she was determined to do her duty and stay for the full four deichtains as planned. Her disdain for Erastys grew with each passing day, and she troubled very little to hide it. The king devised a retaliatory prank to which I lent myself.” Nathiar’s lips curved. Apparently he still found the prank amusing, despite what must be its codicil.

“The lady was tricked into entering the king’s bedchamber—as though seeking amatory adventure—and infuriated when the court jester leapt up from Erastys’ bed while the courtiers emerged laughing from behind the wall hangings. She stormed out, encountered Erastys doubled over with mirth in the hallway, and . . . cursed him. Energetically.”

Oh. That was a far different tale. A far more dreadful tale.

“We’d thought the lady dabbled in the manipulation of energea, but we were wrong.” Nathiar’s eyes were uncharacteristically shadowed as he gazed into the past. “She was a most accomplished enchantress.”

Gael could see where this was going. “You tried to lift the curse,” he said.

“I had to,” said Nathiar. “I could not leave my king to suffer . . . that!”

Gael felt as though he heard himself recounting the events from the battle on the plain between the rivers. He, too, had felt that he could not suffer his king to go down to defeat and dishonor.

“What was the substance of the curse?” Gael asked.

Nathiar swallowed. “That he would lose potency whenever he lay with a woman.”

Ah. The ambassadress had chosen an exemplary revenge. Gael could think of nothing else that would punish Erastys so aptly.

“I brought every ounce of energetic strength to bear on the lifting of the lady’s evil scourge. And tore my nodes from their anchorages in the doing. And failed nonetheless.” Nathiar’s voice was low.

“You failed?” Gael had expected . . . a different result. “Erastys is cursed even now?”

“Unless he located a magus more powerful than I. Or persuaded the lady to recant.” Nathiar shook his head, forcing the bleakness from his gaze and a scornful smile onto his lips. “Don’t look so sorry, Gael. Much you ever cared for Erastys.”

“He was my friend. Before we all left boyhood.”

Nathiar chuckled. “Our boyhood was long ago, as are the years when Hadorgol and Pirbrant fought so bitterly. Leave it be.”

“Why did you stay with him?” asked Gael abruptly. “After the truldemagar came upon you?”

Nathiar’s brows lifted. “Have I not bored you enough with old history?”

Gael met Nathiar’s eyes steadily.

Nathiar sighed. “He begged me to.”

Ouch. Seeing his own loyalty to Heiroc in Nathiar’s loyalty to Erastys was painful. And a bit strange. He and Nathiar shared so few traits—or so Gael hoped—but loyalty to their respective sovereigns they held in common.

Gael finished his meal in silence, thinking. Perhaps Nathiar thought as well, for he did not speak either. The sunlight through the casements brightened, the spots of color on the carpets and furnishings intensifying.

“I cannot allow the regenen to remain in ignorance of your escapade with my tin and copper,” said Gael at last.

Nathiar’s mouth twisted with his typical humor. “Of course not, my dear Gael. What do you take me for?”

“But I will leave the telling to you, if you wish it.”

Nathiar went very still. “Will you now,” he said softly.

“I will tell him that you have something to inform him of,” said Gael sharply. “And—” he subdued his sharpness “—I’ll tell him that I perceive the force of your arguments.”

“I wish I may see it,” chided Nathiar. “Really, Gael, you know you’ve disliked me from even before I supported Erastys against Heiroc. Nor have I supported him so selflessly as you always supported your own king. I was always in it for my own gain. You can’t possibly like me now. Or agree with me.”

“I don’t,” snapped Gael, already regretting his rash pledge. “Understanding the issue need not reach so far as liking or agreement.” The horror was that he wanted to protect trolls such as Keir and Arnoll and Barris—and Carbraes himself—while also wanting to protect the unafflicted, such as that poor Ghriana boy who’d died just yesterday. And he could not do both.

Nathiar vented a loud bray of laughter. “That’s better,” he said.

Gael interrupted him. “I’ll be absent from Belzetarn for two deichtains on an errand for Carbraes,” he said abruptly.

“And?” said Nathiar, very much at his ease.

All Gael’s suspended anger returned. “While I am absent—” his gaze bored into Nathiar’s “—you will not even enter a room, if Keir is present within it.”

Nathiar broke into chuckles. “I thought I saw you eavesdropping on my conversation with the castellanum at the high table the other evening.”

“I could hardly avoid it,” said Gael drily. “We did share a table.”

“True, true,” replied Nathiar. “Why so protective of your notary?” he inquired. “One would think he were a maiden, not a lad, the way you go on.” Nathiar’s gaze held a knowing look.

“He is my notary, mine to protect. And he is young,” said Gael, hanging onto his calm demeanor with effort.

“Not so young as you think,” said Nathiar slyly.

“What in Cayim’s hells do you mean by that?” demanded Gael.

“Merely that the boy’s already given me a civil setdown.” Nathiar snickered. “Quite effectively, too.”

“Don’t make him give you a second one,” growled Gael.

“Oh, I won’t,” promised Nathiar. “Once was embarrassing enough, my dear Secretarius. I assure you.”

Gael’s lingering sympathy evaporated.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 12 (scene 60)

Neat and clean, Gael presented himself at Nathiar’s door with a smart rap on the wood. He’d recovered the anger he initially felt upon seeing the magus’ stolen supplies, but it was a cold anger, no longer heated.

Nathiar himself answered Gael’s knock. He looked remarkably fresh, given his late night and strenuous magery, his muddy green eyes without the typical redness in their whites, his thick lips firmly closed. He wore a robe of orange suede embroidered with purple arabesques and dotted with bronze rose-rivets. His silver hair hung in its usual multiple braids.

His brows rose when he saw Gael. “W-e-e-l-l,” he drawled. “Fancy meeting the secretarius just outside his proper chambers. Have you decided to occupy your official residence after all?” His voice was deep and mellifluous.

“May I come in?” answered Gael.

Nathiar’s brows lifted still higher. “Sabel’s gifts! To what do I owe this honor?”

Gael said nothing, and Nathiar ushered him inside.

The receiving room was richly appointed with textiles—so rare in the north—and intricately carved furniture. Wool carpets worked to resemble flowery meadows covered the floor, brocade tapestries depicting a magus at work hung from the walls, and divans upholstered in turquoise satin or yellow velvet or spring green damask provided seating. Delicate bronze figurines rested on low, red-lacquered tables. Spatters of colored light, cast by the stained-glass ornament edging the paned casements, dotted the surfaces erratically.

Gael’s lips tightened. All this wealth could only be spoils of war or pirate booty. Belzetarn’s artisans had little wool or linen or leisure for luxury work at their disposal.

“Have a seat,” said Nathiar. “The boys will be here with food soon. We shall break our fast together.”

Gael remained standing and proffered the rose-riveted pouch he’d brought with him the previous night. “I understand this is yours, Magus. I wish to return it to you.”

A gleam of humor sparked in Nathiar’s eyes. “S-o-o-o, where did you find it?”

“Tucked into the pack straps of the mule from the tinworks,” said Gael levelly.

“Goodness! How ever did it get there?”

“I’ll mention that it has tin dust within it,” said Gael. “I’ll further mention that I’ve been next door—in my chambers—and have seen what you store there.” Gael unclenched his jaw. “You have some explaining to do.”

Nathiar started to laugh.

“Well?” said Gael.

Nathiar’s laughter grew louder. The magus fetched out a purple handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped his eyes. “W-e-e-l-l, this is awkward,” he said, subsiding.

“For you,” said Gael. “I’m waiting, Nathiar.”

“Yes, I see you are. Dear me. Won’t you sit down? We may as well be civilized while we converse.”

Gael let his hand fall, the pouch still in its grip. “How is stealing the least bit civilized?” he inquired.

Nathiar started to laugh again, but repressed his merriment. “Very well, I’ll admit that I’m not the least bit civilized, but I do prefer comfort. You need not sit, if you do not wish to, but I shall!” He strolled over to a turquoise divan and lowered himself onto it, leaning one elbow on the upward slanting end.

Gael followed him, deliberately coming to stand too close, forcing Nathiar to crane his neck uncomfortably, should the magus wish to meet his eyes. Nathiar chose to study the nails on his left hand instead.

“How much do you know?” queried the magus.

“Assume I know it all, and you’ll be close,” grated Gael.

“And, yet, I’d rather not confess any small detail needlessly,” said Nathiar. “Why accept needless guilt?”

Gael shifted his stance impatiently. “Lannarc stole tin for you before it was weighed. You fashioned a covert ore tap in the oxhide furnace at the copper mines. You’re storing your stolen tin and your stolen copper and your stolen forging tools in my chambers.” Gael refrained from emphasizing ‘stolen’ and ‘my,’ just barely.

“I see,” said Nathiar. “No doubt you wonder what I am doing with all that?”

“No.”

Nathiar’s brows jumped again. “No?”

“I saw you hardening the edges of the enchanted sword you’d no doubt forged from the fruits of your thefts,” said Gael.

“W-e-e-l-l, my dear Secretarius.” Nathiar chuckled. “It would appear you do indeed know it all. I am in your hands, as they say.”

“I suppose I need not ask why.” Gael had expected to grow more angry once the magus had admitted to stealing. Instead, he felt merely jaded, his anger ebbing.

Nathiar sniffed. “Carbraes permits me magery on the battlefield. He encourages my magery when we besiege a Ghriana stronghold. He beseeches my magery whenever the tides of war turn against us. But he will not allow me to improve the weapons with which our warriors fight.”

“Is it so necessary?” asked Gael.

“You saw my work last night?” Nathiar looked up from his nails.

Gael nodded and took a step back, having mercy on Nathiar’s craning neck.

“With your inner sight as well as the outer?” asked the magus.

“Yes. I perceived the living heart node.”

“All the Ghriana warriors wield blades like that,” said Nathiar.

“I’d heard rumors . . .” said Gael slowly.

“Our trolls do not look with their inner sight, of course. They merely see the impossible agility with which those Ghriana blades strike. Thus the rumors. But when I take the battlefield, my inner sight is open, perforce. There is a reason why we lose more battles than we win.”

Gael had never expected that he might find himself at sympathy with any of his old enemy’s views. But if Belzetarn’s Ghriana foes all bore enchanted blades . . .

“Have you discussed this with Carbraes? Really sat down with him? Not merely flung your half-jesting insults at him in passing?”

Nathiar snickered. “Oh, yes.”

“You couldn’t convince him?” Gael wondered what Nathiar was not telling him. If Carbraes still believed Nathiar to be wrong about the need for improved weapons, the regenen would have good reasons behind him.

“Gael, think,” said Nathiar.

Hearing his name on Nathiar’s tongue took Gael aback. It had been so very long ago, but in his boyhood, he and his closest friends had been ‘Erastys’ and ‘Heiroc’ and ‘Nathiar’ and ‘Gael’ to one another. Only within Belzetarn had Nathiar and Gael become ‘Magus’ and ‘Secretarius.’ Longing for that earlier time pierced him. If only . . . if only . . . but neither youth nor health returned when the years and the truldemagar had claimed them. Nor did trust or good will.

“How many swords do your smithies complete each day?” demanded Nathiar.

“Eight. Sometimes ten,” answered Gael.

“And I could create but one in that time,” said Nathiar. “Would you have me train your smiths in weapons magery?”

“Few of them have skill enough with energea to be so trained,” admitted Gael. “Even were Carbraes willing.”

“Which he is not,” said Nathiar.

“But blades enough for the brigenens? The preceptorii? The bellatarii? Made by you alone?” suggested Gael.

Nathiar sighed, and Gael sat on the lemon velvet divan across from Nathiar.

“What do you imagine our battlefields are like?” asked Nathiar.

“I’ve stood on battlefields,” said Gael.

“Yes, you have. In Hadorgol.”

“Are the battlefields in the foothills of the Tahdfiarns and the Fiorsmarns so different?” asked Gael.

Nathiar flared the nostrils of his fleshy nose. “The march insists on drill and more drill, and it is well he does. The trolls devolve into a mob on the battlefield in spite of it. Without it . . .” The magus shook his head. “Without it, they’d fight each other as often as they fought their enemy.”

Gael followed this to where Nathiar was leading him. “With some trolls bearing superior weapons and others not, those-without would fight those-with to gain the better weapons for themselves.”

That was the curse of the truldemagar. Unafflicted men varied all the way from the supremely self-controlled to the utterly undisciplined. But most men occupied some middle ground. Among trolls, the disciplined were fewer, the unruly more numerous, and the middle ranks more heedless.

“Why bother with your secret experiments then? When there’s no use to them?”

“R-e-a-l-l-y, Gael. Why do you think?” drawled Nathiar. “I like energetic experimentation. Isn’t the sheer fun of it reason enough?”

Gael repressed a sniff, refusing to rise to the bait. Nathiar had always loved catching his acquaintances off balance. Gael couldn’t imagine why Nathiar hadn’t tired of it long since, but the magus hadn’t.

“Is that your only reason,” Gael inquired mildly.

Nathiar’s thick lips twisted. “I had some hope that showing Carbraes what is possible might persuade him to alter his position,” he admitted.

Gael sat back, concealing his surprise at hearing his old enemy confess to good intentions. As a youth, Nathiar had loved playing pranks a little too much, but he hadn’t been truly bad. After he’d reached manhood his predilection for mischief seemed to grow nastier, and his concern for his victims—always slight—grew less. He wouldn’t expect Nathiar, as a troll, to possess interest in anyone’s well-being save his own.

Could Gael have misjudged his colleague? It seemed unlikely.

Questions from the past—the distant past—stirred within him. “Why did you do it? Cast that mean-spirited glamour?” he blurted. It had been the glamour that brought the truldemagar upon Nathiar, hadn’t it?

The magus recovered his sardonic mien. “Really, the rumors were endless, my dear Gael. Which ones did you hear?”

“That the ambassadress of Solmundia was prudish. That Erastys fancied her in spite of that. Or because of it. That you coveted her amulet from ancient Navellys. That you attempted to gain your way with the lady—for the both of you—by magical force, and it ruined you.”

“Ah.” Nathiar straightened and glanced at the carpet, more uneasy than Gael could remember ever seeing him. “That was the version we encouraged to spread.”

“But it was not true,” said Gael quietly.

Nathiar swallowed, pursing his lips. “No. It was not true.”

The receiving room’s door swung open before Nathiar could say more.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 12 (scene 59)

As Gael opened the door onto the antechamber shared by the apartment of the magus and that of the secretarius (were he in residence there), a scullion emerged from Nathiar’s quarters. Carrying an empty tray, the boy took two casual steps toward the Cliff Stair and then stopped dead, eyes wide, at the sight of Gael. Unsurprising, given that Gael had never before spent a night (or even a day) in his official chambers.

“S-secretarius,” the boy stammered.

“Are you tower staff under the castellanum?” asked Gael, “Or one of Nathiar’s?”

“T-tower, sir.” The boy bobbed a bow.

“Could you fetch me a basin and a ewer of water?”

“Y-yes, sir! Right away, Secretarius!”

The boy started to scurry away.

“Will you have to go far?” asked Gael. “All the way to the well in the yard?”

“N-no, sir. Th-the castellanum insists that service be prompt. I’ll go to the closet on the next level down. And there are cisterns that supply water up here. S-sir.” The boy looked scared.

“What’s your name, son?” Gael made his voice gentle. He hadn’t meant to alarm the boy so.

“Alton, s-sir.”

“Well, Alton, there’s no need to be afraid. Are there more than merely basins and ewers in the castellanum’s supply closets? Could you fetch me a tooth twig and powder and jar in addition?”

“Of course, sir!” Alton looked surprised. Apparently the closets near the tower’s top held almost anything an important troll might desire. Gael wouldn’t know, since the chambers he occupied were considerably lower.

“What of a fresh shirt? Fresh socks and caputum?”

“I’ll get them right away, sir,” gasped the boy.

Well, those were welcome words. “Are you on an urgent errand for the magus? Or someone else important?”

“N-no, sir. I mean, yes, sir.” Alton didn’t seem to be sure if he were on his feet or on his head.

“Don’t neglect your other duties to administer to my needs,” said Gael.

Alton swallowed, then lifted his chin. “The magus is the only one who needs water so early, sir. I’d never neglect anything for any reason, sir,” he said earnestly. “I’d be honored to bring you whatever you need. Sir.”

Gael nodded. He wanted to get Alton in trouble no more than he’d wanted to startle the boy.

“I’ll await you just inside the door,” he said. “Knock when you return.”

“Yes, sir.” Alton’s stride was brisk rather than fearful as he hastened toward the stairs.

Back in the apartment of the secretarius, Gael scrutinized the receiving room. He’d prefer that the scullion not see the evidence of Nathiar’s illicit doings. He could simply relieve the boy of his burdens in the vestibule, but it would be more natural to allow him to carry the items through to the bastan’s room.

Gael bundled the smithing tools and gloves into the quenching bucket and carried them to the small room on the opposite side of the passage from the bastan’s chamber. It was empty. He left the bucket in a corner and then, returning to the receiving room, covered the biscuit ingot of copper with the leather apron, tucking in the strings so that it looked like a plain piece of hide. Did the ingot seem smaller than it had been? Just as he was checking the sacks of tin pebbles to be sure their openings were rolled well closed, Alton’s knock sounded on the front door.

Gael cast a swift look around—yes, the sacks and the concealed ingot were unremarkable—and went to open the door.

Alton’s eyes widened again when Gael ushered him into the bastan’s chamber to set down his loaded tray on the chest.

“You slept here, sir?”

Gael smiled. “Lord Carbraes urged me to reconsider occupying these rooms, but I haven’t decided if I will, which is why they possess no furnishings. The bastan’s bed was infinitely more comfortable than the floor, I assure you.”

Alton giggled, then flushed and looked at the floor. “I didn’t mean—”

“I intended you to laugh, Alton,” said Gael. “You were not disrespectful.”

“Oh, good,” gasped Alton.

“Is the castellanum very strict?”

“Oh, no, sir. I mean, yes, sir.” Alton pulled himself together with effort. “That is, he’s strict, but he’s fair.”

“Then why are you scared?” asked Gael. “You have done nothing wrong.”

Alton just stared at him, saying nothing.

“Is it because you do not know me? You’ve never served me before and don’t know what to expect?”

Alton nodded, eyes round.

“Have there been others who were unkind to you? Who hurt you?”

“The—the brigenen of the First Cohort. Sir.”

That was Dreben. Gael’s lips compressed, but he stayed silent. Anything he might say would only alarm Alton more.

“The castellanum won’t let any of us boys wait on the First anymore,” added Alton. “They have to manage for themselves. Lord Theron said to tell him if anyone else ever slapped us or threatened us, and he’d take care of him.” Alton’s shoulders had relaxed, and admiration shone in his face. “The castellanum protects us boys.”

Gael was glad to hear it. He might dislike Theron—he did dislike Theron—but he was relieved that the castellanum took care of the trolls under his authority.

“Well, I am not like the brigenen,” he said. “Do you believe me, Alton?”

The boy stood a little straighter. “Yes, sir.”

“Excellent.” Gael nodded. “So. I will perform my ablutions and change my dress and then depart. Do you have a way to enter later to clear away your tray and the chamberpot?”

“I’ll ask the steward for a key, sir.”

“And will there be trouble about it?”

“No, sir. The scullions sweep all the chambers regular.”

Gael had noticed that no dust had accumulated on the floors or in the corners.

“Then I will thank you and bid you depart upon your own business,” said Gael.

“Won’t you need anything else, sir? I can check back again, just in case,” suggested Alton.

Gael’s lip twitched. “You may check back, but do not be surprised if I am not present. My errand here is nearly complete.”

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The Tally Master, Chapter 12 (scene 58)

THIRD DAY

Conversations

Chapter 12

Daylight seeping in through the cracks around the bed cupboard doors woke Gael sometime after dawn. His mouth felt fuzzy, and the rest of him had that rumpled, grimy sensation that sleeping in one’s clothes always engendered. For a moment, he expected to see last year’s brown leaves beneath him and this year’s leaves—green and on their tree boughs—above him, as he had while wandering in the wilderness before he came to Belzetarn. He caught his hand reaching for Morza’s faithful canine head before he remembered where he lay: in a bastan’s chamber at the top of Belzetarn’s tower after witnessing the magus performing illicit magery.

Swallowing hard, he pushed the painful memory of the landseer down and opened the cupboard doors. The lone window in the room—glass-paned, narrow, and unshuttered—looked north over the lake, so the light flooding through it was cool and diffuse.

Gael surveyed the bastan’s room: stark stone walls, naked stone floor, the chest he’d delved into for the sheepskin, a lidded chamber pot beside the chest, and the cupboard bed in which he’d slept. He hoped these bare bones had been clad with better amenities when last a servant had occupied the space. If his bastan were living here—not that he possessed a bastan, but if he had—and he could have, if he’d wished to—he’d have insisted there be floor matting, wall hangings, a comfortable chair, perhaps a footstool. The unadorned room was very austere.

With effort, Gael recalled his thoughts from an unlikely might-have-been to the present. What would his next step be?

He’d watched Nathiar complete his magery on the energea-imbued sword last night. The magus had allowed the metal to cool enough that it no longer glowed, and then tidied up after himself by cool blue magelight. When the magus turned to depart, Gael had considered detaining him then. He’d wanted answers.

But the middle of the night was rarely a good time for sensible doings.

Just as he’d taught Keir to continue on a fresh sheet of parchment, when he ran out of working room at the bottom of the old sheet, so he’d also insisted on adequate sleep, early rising, and an end to the day’s labors well before the evening meal. Regular habits ensured error-free work and kept the worst symptoms of the truldemagar at bay. The more challenging a task, the more important that it be tackled in the morning, after a good night’s rest.

Tackling Belzetarn’s magus . . . would be a very challenging task indeed.

And so Gael had let him depart unimpeded.

Now, in the clear light of morning, he felt grateful for his self-restraint. In fact, looking back on his evening decision to check the hidey-hole in the latrine, and then his choice to climb nearly all the way to the tower’s upper battlements, he wondered at himself. What had he been thinking? Obviously, he hadn’t been thinking at all. Fatigue and injury had clouded his judgment.

But now that he was here . . . ? Now that he knew what he knew . . . ? What now?

He looked down at himself, assessing what he saw.

His shirt sleeves and caputum were badly creased and sweat-stained. His robe looked fine; suede rarely wrinkled. He’d love a thorough wash with basin and ewer, but they wouldn’t be forthcoming. At least there was a chamberpot. And he would finger comb his hair.

More important than his superficial appearance: how were his injuries?

He probed his ribs and breastbone gently. Tender still, but not badly so.

He stood up. His legs felt fine, ready for as much stair climbing as he might demand. Even better, his gut didn’t twinge at all with the change of position, and he felt no need to guard it with careful movement. No doubt leaping or hopping or falling would be a bad idea, but simple walking no longer posed a risk, even should he put a foot wrong.

So. Chamberpot. Finger comb hair. And then he would go confront the magus.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 57)

Gael awoke to splinters of brilliant light—amber edged with gold—darting through the cracks where the cupboard doors touched their frame. Groggily, he reached for his pillow to dive under it, but no pillow met his searching fingers. Pulling at his sheepskin covering, seeking darkness, he froze.

Was it energea—dangerous gold and orange—producing these coruscating scintillas?

He sat up abruptly, stopping himself again just before he banged the doors of this cupboard open.

An energea-wielding intruder could only be the magus. Was Gael fit for a confrontation—potentially a lethal one—with his old enemy? Seven years ago, he was Nathiar’s equal in magery. Now? Nathiar had brandished his energea all seven of those intervening years, while Gael had eschewed his own.

No. Confrontation would not be his best course. Especially because he really wanted to know what in hells Nathiar was doing, before he accused the magus of . . . Exactly. He needed to know what precisely his accusation should consist of, beyond stealing copper and tin from the regenen’s mines. Subtlety, not belligerence, would be the better part.

Sitting upright in the gold-spattered darkness, he checked his physical condition. The bruises on his torso remained tender to the touch, but his innards felt less delicate. Apparently he’d continued to heal in his sleep as Keir had promised. What of his legs? Would they bear him?

He eased the cupboard doors open.

The darting glints of light became a flood of it, flaring and dimming in an irregular flicker, and accompanied by a crackling hiss and the scent of heated bronze. What in the north?

He set his feet on the stone floor and stood. His legs felt fine, so long as he didn’t crouch. He stifled a groan as he aborted that particular test. Right. Standing, sneaking, no clever positions requiring crouching with the idea that he might stay better hidden that way. Noiselessness and stillness must suffice.

He crept through the room’s door, still ajar, and along the passage toward the receiving room. Pressing himself against the wall, he peered around the corner.

A silhouetted troll stood facing the outer wall with its window casements shuttered and leather-muffled. It was Nathiar. Even from the side and back, Gael recognized the magus’ stance, arms upraised in a flamboyant angle, fingers spread wide, the littlest flared forward, and his head flung back.

The light flowed from a sword hovering in midair, its metal not molten, but glowing cherry-red, flaring to amber as Nathiar twitched his fingers, dimming as the magus stilled his gestures.

So, it was heated bronze, not dangerous energea, that had awakened Gael, but Nathiar was performing magery.

Gael allowed his breath to sigh out, very softly, and then to flow back in, equally gently. His inner sight bloomed, and he stood amazed. A living heart node glowed green within the sword’s hilt—or what would become its hilt when the metal was riveted between carefully carved and smoothed wood. Silver traceries through the blade—living arcs—pulsed with the heart node’s rhythm.

Was Nathiar creating a cursed sword to match the cursed gong lying at this very moment in Gael’s storeroom? Why would he do such a thing? And how had he known it was possible without ever seeing the prize dragged from Olluvarde? For Nathiar had not seen it, Gael was sure.

Gael studied the array within the sword, trying to understand its configuration, to compare it to his memory of the gong’s configuration. Their shapes were so different, the one circular, the other linear. Were the differences in their energea lattices due to that? Or was there some other difference? He thought he perceived some other discrepancy, but could not identify it.

He allowed his attention to move to the energetic manipulation performed by Nathiar, for the magus was doing more than merely suspending the sword in midair. Each time the light flared and the metal hissed, a lance of energea bolted from Nathiar’s fingers—safe energea, aqua blue—to touch down along the blade’s edge, sometimes right at the edge, sometimes a short ways in.

Ah, this Gael recognized and understood. It also explained why Nathiar had not bothered with hammer and anvil. He was hardening the edge with blows of energea, rather than blows with a physical tool. Which made sense. Gael suspected the magus would make a poor smith, while his control of magery was superb. Clearly, given that he must have shaped the blade in midair as well, without any mold.

Gael returned his scrutiny to the weapon’s energetic lattice. The heart node throbbed rhythmically, pulsing silver sparks along the arcs toward their scrolling ends where they glittered. Ah . . . but there were no arcs flowing into the heart node, only those flowing out. What could that mean?

For the answer, Gael suspected he would have to ask Nathiar. But he definitely had better questions now than heretofore.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 12 (scene 57)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 56)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 56)

Gael’s legs tottered as he took the last step up to the landing outside the entrance to his official quarters—the quarters of the regenen’s secretarius. He staggered under the archway into the adjacent anteroom and slumped against the wall, panting. Gaelan’s tears. He wasn’t sure he could make it over to unlock the door, let alone search the premises.

Thirty spirals up the Cliff Stair had required a much more significant effort than the mere eight spirals down to that latrine.

He’d known that it would, of course. And even now, near collapse, he didn’t regret his choice. It hadn’t been prudent, no. But some whisper of intuition told him he needed to be here, now. He’d hang on the wall, weak and limp. And when that grew too boring, he’d gather the strength from somewhere to go on.

He straightened, feeling his legs tremble beneath him, and moved forward. If he placed each foot carefully, he could do it. But if Dreben were to spring out of the shadows, aching for a rematch, the brigenen could knock Gael over with a breath. He wouldn’t need to lift a finger.

At the door—the one straight ahead, not the one to the right, which belonged to the magus—Gael fumbled one-handed for his keys, almost dropping them when he freed the fibula. All the locks on this level of the tower and the one above—with chambers for the secretarius, the magus, the march, the castellanum, and the regenen—were fitted into the wood of the doors. Which was a good thing. If he’d had to place his rush light on the floor, so that he could hold a padlock with one hand, while manipulating the key with the other, he’d have fallen and never gotten up again.

He inserted the key clumsily and twisted it. The metal clicked, raising the latch inside with a thunk. Gael pushed the door open, retrieved his key, and stepped through. As he closed the door behind him, the latch fell again, shutting him inside. He lifted his rush light.

He stood in a modest vestibule with a narrow, glassed window ahead, featuring a view of a circular terrace. The moon had risen while he climbed, and its silver light illuminated the generous stretch of flagstones, a cluster of backless chairs, and a massive bronze column at the exact center of the space. This was the flue to Gael’s smithies, looming like a giant of the forest, colossal in girth and rising beyond the ring of apartments. No vapors issued from its high maw while the forges slept. Indeed, in the absence of smoke, Belzetarn seemed to slumber, like a dragon at rest.

The vestibule itself was utterly empty.

Were the secretarius in residence—were Gael in residence—benches for petitioners and other visitors would line the stone walls. And the walls themselves would be covered with hangings. But Gael preferred the convenience and simplicity of the chambers right above his tally room, so this space lay bare.

His legs felt stronger as he passed through the vestibule into the receiving room.

The receiving room was not empty. Even though it should have been.

Suede hides reinforced the inner shutters shielding the window casements. A clump of sacks lay against the far wall, and to the left along that wall, on the other side of an open archway, sat a lump like a large upside-down bowl. A scatter of forging tools—tongs, crucibles, quenching bucket—occupied the center of the space. And was that—?

Gael had moved without realizing it. Yes, the crumple of leather in the corner was a smith’s apron and gauntlets. Tiamar on his throne!

He strode over to the sacks, bent, and rummaged inside. Tin pebbles! He felt breathless.

The upside down bowl proved to be a solid biscuit ingot of copper.

He was beyond cursing now.

So. Nathiar had inserted his porter into the tinworks and into the job of driving the mule that carried the tin to the tower. Thus allowing that porter to collect the odd pebble here and there into the small suede pouch which he hid behind the mule’s pack straps. Gael would bet anything anyone cared to wager that the magus met the pair—mule and troll—somewhere along the route through the forest to receive his stolen goods, and again later to return the empty pouch.

Although now that the regular teamster was back on the job, that particular leak was stopped.

Nathiar’s fix for the clogged oxhide tap at the copper mines? Gael would wager anything more than anyone cared to risk that this fix involved another tap, a secret one, that opened when the innocent furnace operator operated the ‘plunger’ that the magus averred kept clogs at bay.

Gael could imagine the interior of that furnace, the rough ore melting, the slag floating to the top. Then the slag tap would slide open, allowing the slag to run off. Next, the secret tap would open, diverting precious copper to a bowl dug in the earth and hidden by a flagstone. And last, the oxhide tap would open, the rest of the copper running into the oxhide mold.

A day later, Nathiar would visit the mines surreptitiously, lift the concealed flagstone, and remove his stolen biscuit ingot. Dastard!

That was why the copper teamster knew the copper vein to be rich—narrow though it was—while Nathiar had stated it was poor.

From the tools and materials present, Nathiar must intend on forging something. But how? With neither furnace nor anvil nor hammers present, how could he forge anything at all?

Gael’s borrowed strength—fueled by outrage and surprise—ebbed suddenly, and he fell to one knee. His innards twinged painfully at the jolt. A vision of himself, storming into Nathiar’s quarters with accusations and wrath, pulled him to his feet again. But assailing Nathiar’s door with a barrage of knocks and demanding entry required more resilience than he possessed right now. As did descending to the rooms over his tally room.

Feeling as slow as the flow of half-melted slag, he forced himself through the archway between the sacks of tin pebbles and the biscuit ingot of copper, following the short passage toward the archway at its farther end.

He lurched by a closed door on his right, and another—ajar—on his left. Within it loomed an old-fashioned bed cupboard like those the Hamish folk once slept in.

Tiamar be thanked! The furniture in this bastan’s chamber had not been cleared as had the rest of the apartment. He wouldn’t have to lie on the cold stone floor.

A chest in the corner disgorged a sheepskin. Gael grabbed it, stumbled over to the bed cupboard, and swung open its double doors. The pallet cushion was bare leather—no sheets, no pillows—but Gael didn’t care. He crawled in, closed the doors, and extinguished his rush light. Spreading the sheepskin over him, he fell headlong into sleep.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 57)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 55)

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

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

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

Arnoll would definitely not approve of this excursion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gael stopped.

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

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

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

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 56)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 54)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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