The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 99)

Gael hurried down the several short flights of stairs that connected the tower’s entrance to the bailey, noting that two mounds of wood were rising in the lower flat near the main gatehouse. Pyres for the morrow’s funerals: Dreas’ and Arnoll’s.

He grimaced. His task was to prevent the necessity of a third such heap of wood. Or was it?

He had to talk with Keir.

He’d realized the necessity of such a conversation too late last night to seek it then. This morning, his duty to Carbraes and the gong had been paramount. Then Arnoll’s death—Gael swallowed hard—had torn all his coherence asunder. And then Carbraes had required his presence.

If any other obligation or summons sidetracked him now—

His jaw clenched. He was going to Keir and nowhere else. He had to be sure that she was well, that Dreben’s brutal guards had not broken her arm. Or broken something else.

Except . . . if Keir were a traitor—and all his logic pointed to it—her fate would be far worse than a noisome cell, a broken arm, or even a violation of her person. And he should not be vowing that he would protect her.

He quickened his pace, striding across the top of the bailey, where the grass was worn a bit bare, then along the massive wall dividing the bailey from the yard, and then nipping in under the first portcullis of the upper gatehouse. The shadows beneath the stone vault were chilly, and the sunlight of the exit arch beckoned, but Gael turned aside at the heavy bronze-bound door in the tunnel wall that led into the guardroom of the prison.

The prison opteon sat behind a broad counter and barely had time to rise and bow before Gael swept past him, through the inner guard chamber—with its complement of guards—and into the stair hall. The spiral stair winding upward in the center of the space possessed steep risers and narrow treads, the better to hinder an escaping prisoner. Not that the brig was ever especially full.

Dreas had always encouraged the cleaning of latrines for punishment, the digging of trash middens, or even flogging, over imprisonment.

Gael barely noticed that his weak ankle failed to click, despite the demands of the stairway.

Keir’s cell was immediately obvious when Gael’s line of sight brought the upper level into view. Multiple arrowslits shed plenty of light into the square stair hall. From it led a dark and narrow corridor lined by locked doors. The nearer doors were solid bronze-bound wood. The farther ones each possessed a small square grating in the upper portion. Beyond them, another large square hall with arrowslits allowed light in. Only one door was flanked by two guards. The nearest one on Gael’s left.

Gael halted before the pair and gestured to the door. “Unlock it,” he ordered curtly. “I am come to inspect the prisoner’s well-being.”

The skinnier of the two gulped, his larynx bobbing. “We haven’t the keys, my lord Secretarius.”

Gael observed that fully three locks—all imbedded in the dark wood—secured the door.

“Then get them,” he said impatiently. This was what came of hurry: inefficiency and annoyance. In all likelihood, he should just return to the opteon in the front guardroom himself to requisition the necessary keys, rather than waiting for the guard to return—keyless—and then waiting for the guard to fetch the opteon.

But Skinny had already departed.

Gael shifted his weight from one foot to the other and glowered.

The remaining guard cleared his throat. “My lord Dreben cautioned us that the prisoner was not to have visitors,” he said.

“I am not a visitor,” said Gael flatly.

The guard frowned.

“I am an auditor, come to inspect your work.”

And then Skinny was back. With a keyring holding three keys. Apparently the opteon was wise, recognizing that there was nowhere Belzetarn’s secretarius could not go, if he so desired.

The locks were balky, their stiffness worsened by Skinny’s shaking fingers, but they surrendered soon enough. Gael pulled the door open, stepped through it, and gestured for the guards to close it behind him.

Keir was seated on the deep sill of the barred window, looking out. She turned. Even with the light behind her, Gael could see her face change, from cool intentness to something lighter. Relief? Gladness? Her tunic and hose were rumpled and grubby; her chin-length blonde hair slightly tousled; her face smudged. But that was not what Gael was seeing.

He noted her straight and undamaged limbs, the way her body moved easily and without hurt, how her confidence remained undimmed, evident in her composed gray eyes, the firm set of her finely curved lips, and the lift of her gracefully strong chin.

And then he realized that he hadn’t the faintest idea of what to say to her.

Are you well? Manifestly, she was.

Are you a traitor? Gaelan’s tears! How could he accuse her of such?

Can I trust you? Tiamar’s throne! What was the matter with him? Gods, but she was beautiful!

Keir apparently knew no such awkwardness. She stepped toward him, her hands held out, her expression changing still, from a mere lightening to positive happiness. Radiance?

“Gael! You saved it! You preserved it! Thank you!” she exclaimed.

Abruptly his tongue-tied speechlessness vanished under a flood of scalding rage. Keir was unharmed. No one had hurt her in any way. Thank Tiamar. But Gael now wanted a nice fresh switch of birch with which to apply ten swift strikes to the palm of one of her outstretched hands. The ridiculousness of the notion—Keir was no school child—merely increased his anger.

“I trusted you!” he grated.

All her glowing happiness eclipsed. Her hands dropped. Faint hurt dilated her eyes for an instant, and then she withdrew into chilly composure.

Gael ignored all these symptoms of distress. His own face felt like stone, adamant and condemning.

“The secret you feared I’d discerned was not the secret of your gender, was it, Keir?” His voice came out very flat. “You feared I’d learned of your treason, did you not?”

Keir paled, but said nothing at all. Her whitening skin, so like the other two times she’d blanched, goaded him anew.

“Did you not?” he ground out, repeating himself.

Keir lost some of her poise, her voice catching. “Gael, it’s not—I didn’t mean—Gael, I am loyal to you!”

How is it not?” he demanded savagely. “How did you not mean it? How are you in the least loyal to me?” His throat burned with his fury. “You stole tin ingots from my tin vault, disguised them to mimic copper, stowed them in my copper vault, and treasonously sent them down to my bladesmith, there to become weapons that would slay your fellows. You stole copper ingots from my copper vaults, disguised them as tin, secreted them in my tin vault, and funneled them into my privy smithy, thus to hide your perfidy. How is that not betrayal?”

He’d not thought she could pale further. She swayed, and he wondered if she would swoon.

Leaving her no opening in which to respond, he snapped, “Did you think my word to Lord Carbraes meant so little to me? Did you not realize that as my notarius your deeds became my deeds? Did you think my loyalty to my regenen of so little account that it could be ignored?”

His breath, labored and quickened, seemed not to bring enough air to his lungs.

“How dare you! How dare you!” he thundered.

Was that heartbreak in her eyes?

Stifling a gasp, she wrenched away from his accusing gaze to stare out through the bars of her window. Her shoulders hunched, but did not heave. Then her neck bent, and one hand went to her eyes. She stood, silenced and very still.

Gael reached one hand out to her—unseen—horrified. Through all her trials, she had passed undaunted, maintaining her composure upon capture, while concealing her sex, even while bilking the tally room at her utmost risk. Only now, confronted by Gael’s rage, had she broken. He had broken her.

His wrath slackened, permitting a glimmer of regret, and a realization that she’d not actually claimed either innocence or guilt. The guilt in her eyes had told him all he needed to know, but he needed to hear it from her lips. Or . . . not that exactly. He needed to know how she had brought herself to do . . . what she did do.

Keir still stood unmoving before her cell window.

Gael made himself draw in a long, slow breath, and let it out more slowly yet. He could not sort this matter through while in a molten rage.

“Keir . . . why?” he said, his voice cracking slightly.

She straightened, her back still to him, but did not turn.

He waited.

When she did turn, she did not speak, but studied him with a level gaze. Her clear gray eyes were not reddened, as he’d expected, nor did any trace of tears appear on her cheeks. So, even in desolation—he knew he’d not been mistaken in reading desolation in her stance—she disdained to cry. A reluctant admiration kindled within him, and he studied her in return.

The light touched the edge of her hair, causing it to gleam, and limned the curving line of her jaw. In his heart of hearts, he could not believe that she might be his enemy. He would always have her back, and she would have his.

But his mind and heart did not agree.

In the silence between them, he grew aware that the roil of feeling that had seethed within his breast since last night—doubt of her, trust in her, fear for her, and wrath toward her—had slackened, to simmer more quietly. Fear had marked his journey from the melee gallery to the brig. His anger had boiled over upon his arrival. But now he had a temporary interval of dispassion.

He and she must speak, if his inner conflict were to arrive at resolution.

His heart recoiled from reconciling the discrepancy. But it must be reconciled. He could not continue in his foolishness, no matter how devastating Keir’s truth—her whole truth—might be.

He drew in a short breath—for courage? for hope? to delay one moment longer?—and then put his question more collectedly than he’d managed heretofore. “Why did you disguise tin as copper and send it to the blade smithy, where Olix would make it into swords that shattered on the battlefield?”

She nodded slightly, and answered his question with her own. “Do you wish all the unafflicted slain? Or defeated and submitting to a troll overlord?”

He frowned. “Of course not,” he replied, his voice impatient.

“And yet you pledged your loyalty to Carbraes, who labors toward just that end,” she said. “He may not succeed. No troll has, since the centuries after the southern troll-kings. But what if he does? Would you be satisfied with your place in history?”

“Keir, we are trolls, and as such we have little choice where we stand in history,” he reminded her.

“I chose to make a choice anyway,” she said, lifting her chin. “I chose to fight for the people of Fiors.”

“And that worked so well for you!” His sarcasm discomfited him.

Her eyes flashed, but her tone remained even. “No, it has not worked well for me,” she agreed. “Not in the end. And I do not mean this—” she gestured toward the cell walls surrounding her.

“What do you mean then?” he asked, his moment of pique and mockery past.

“I have arrived at precisely the dilemma that confronts you, I believe,” she said.

Gael knit his brows, not following her reasoning. “How so?”

Her face softened. “You wish the unafflicted to live free and unthreatened by the troll-horde, but you cannot wish ill upon your friend Barris, the innocent boys in the kitchens and smithies, or even upon Carbraes himself. Can you?”

He looked at her silently. That was, of course, precisely the conundrum he lived with.

“Your loyalty is split. Which is what my own has come to,” she said. “I thought I could infiltrate the citadel of my enemies and work to weaken them for as long as it took them to reveal me and kill me. I did not understand that my enemies would come to be my friends.”

His heart went out to her, in wholly unexpected sympathy. He could not wish his personal difficulty on anyone, let alone her. And—against his will—he understood her choice.

He had chosen to ally himself with the troll-horde, even though they were his enemies. She had chosen to continue to fight the troll-horde, even though she herself was one of them. He could not but honor her for that. And yet . . . neither his choice nor hers could be sustained indefinitely.

They were both of them hard upon a dilemma. Or she was, at the least. He had managed to ignore his for seven years. He might manage to ignore it for yet seven more. But she could not do the same.

“What would you do now?” he asked. “Theron has told Carbraes of your treason, and the regenen will call for your death once that treason is confirmed, as it must be. I shall strive to gain his pardon for you, but—”

She finished for him, “—but he is unlikely to grant it. I know.”

“If I could gain his pardon for you, would you stay, as I have, in support of him?”

The muscles in her slim jaw shifted. “No.”

“Then I must try to secure your freedom—our freedom—and escort you to some other place of safety.” Except . . . where would such a place be found? He didn’t know, but he could not let her risk the Hamish wilds alone. Her summer journey had done her no harm, but autumn and then winter would come. And then what? Wolves, weather, and her seizure by another—more malignant—knot of trolls? A more disconcerting possibility barged across his worries. “Would you seek out a troll-queen to covertly undermine as you undermined Carbraes?”

“I shall neither support Carbraes in his warfare nor sabotage some other troll-sovereign. And you must not either.”

His brow creased slightly. “You have discerned a third path? One where we need not tally our betrayals, apportioning some to one side, more to the other, and all of them—” he knew it now, knew it in the marrow of his bones, in the inmost chamber of his heart: the corrosion of choosing between two utter wrongs “—all of them to ourselves.”

She nodded, her face lighting. “The gong, Gael. And the lodestone within it. The gong opens a door that has been shut ever since that artifact was lost.” Her words tumbled forth in her eagerness. “I was never so glad of anything when I knew you’d managed—chosen!—to preserve it! Without it”—she shook her head—“things would be dire. But with it! With it, we can change . . . so very much!”

Gael’s heart sank.

Keir’s enthusiasm faltered as she took in the expression he knew must be dragging at his features.

“But . . . I heard it sound!” she said. “It gave me hope!”

Gael swallowed. “Keir—”

Hells! How could he tell her?

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 98)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 98)

When the trolls who captured Keir in Olluvarde had first burst around the corner in that marble underground passage, she’d been terrified. They’d seemed savage, monstrous, and intent upon brutality.

When they’d plucked her from the base of the column where she’d sought temporary refuge, they’d seemed more clumsy and inept than vicious.

During the journey from Olluvarde to Belzetarn, their demeanor had changed yet again. They bantered, teased, and told jokes, including Keir in their camaraderie as though she were one of them, and boasting to her about all the amenities available to them in their troll home. The shift had surprised her, but she’d taken full advantage of it to insinuate herself in their good graces. She bantered back, participated in the rude insults they enjoyed, and even joined a pair of them in devising a prank that involved the blankets of the lead scout.

After more than a deichtain of traveling through forested hills, they emerged from the trees into the meadow before the gatehouse in Belzetarn’s curtain wall.

“Whadya think?” asked Irren, the troll who—upon first acquaintance—had accidentally knocked her senseless when attempting to slap her back in greeting.

The ruins of Olluvarde had prepared her a little for what she would see, merely because they intimated what was possible when building with stone. Her home on Fiors was a round hut constructed of woven withies, as were all the dwellings of her people. The grandmother who governed the tribe inhabited a more impressive structure, five conical huts connected together! Olluvarde had prepared Keir a little, but not enough.

Constructed of massive blocks of dark gray stone, the gatehouse loomed malevolently, huge and dark and brooding, buttressed by guardtowers and fanged with crenellation. Beyond it, a vast grassy bailey within the curtain walls sloped gradually upward to an inner wall, with yet another gatehouse on the right, and a terrifyingly tall tower of the same dark stone on the left.

A strange rounded bulk with conical roofs and hulking chimneys clung to the roots of the tower on one side—the kitchens, as she would learn later—but she barely heeded it, following the great height with her eyes, up and up and up to the four claw-like prongs on the top battlements and a central spire that breathed wisps of smoke or steam.

Fiors was flat. The Hamish wilds, she’d seen as she passed through them, were hilly, with mountains on the horizon to the northeast. But this tower . . . was it as tall as those mountains would be were she to stand at their foundations? It seemed so indeed. She hardly knew how to answer Irren.

When she entered the passage through the gatehouse with her escort, she learned yet more of the properties of stone edifices.

The passage itself was generously wide with a high, arching ceiling, but the trolls stopped right at its inmost point, with the entrance too far behind her, and the exit too far ahead. The dark stone seemed to weigh upon her, pressing her down, squeezing the air from her lungs.

Woven withies, though water-tight when fashioned correctly, possessed an airiness to them. And white marble illuminated by magelight was positively elegant. But dark granite—was this granite?—was suffocating.

The lead scout was asking a gate guard something. She couldn’t hear their words, but the scout’s reaction was clear enough. He tensed and acquired a jittery manner that communicated itself to his fellows. The two nearest Keir gripped her arms when they started forward, manhandling her into the bailey in a way they had not since they seized her from the base of that column in Olluvarde.

The bailey possessed numerous lodges and workshops and stables along its edges, but Keir was focused on the change in her escort. Had they received unwelcome news? Did it bode ill for her reception by this Carbraes they’d talked of? She was worried.

At the base of the impossibly tall tower, they dragged her up a wide flight of steps to a generous landing, then up another flight to the terrace before the entrance and under its barbed portcullis into a passage considerably longer and gloomier than the one below the curtain wall gatehouse.

Stained holes the size of her thumbs dotted the vaulted ceiling. What had dripped from them onto enemy heads? Arrowslits pierced the highest reaches of the walls. Did archers stand in them, ready to shoot her down?

Keir felt as if she might faint. The entire tower rested above her now.

Her faintness fled abruptly a few steps later when her escort halted before an aristocratic troll with a strangely thin straight nose—the scouts all had blunt noses with an exaggerated upcurve. The aristocrat’s lips were equally thin, his pale skin lined, and his shoulder-length hair silver. He wore gorgeous robes of turquoise suede embroidered with silver thread.

Keir was forced bruisingly down onto her knees, while the scouts bowed deeply.

Was this Carbraes? He was clearly very important.

The aristocratic troll sniffed, looking disdainfully down his thin nose. “What is this?” he asked contemptuously.

“A prisoner, m’ Lord Theron,” answered the lead scout. “He says he’s a troll, but we can’t tell by his looks, you know. He looks human. So, since th’ regenen is away with th’ legions, we brought him to you.”

Theron scrutinized Keir, his eyes very cold. He sniffed again.

“Of course he’s human. There can be no doubt.”

“Please, m’lord. Lord Carbraes wouldn’t want a death when there needn’t be one. Could you—would you check with th’ inner seeing?” said the scout.

Keir’s stomach chilled. This troll could order her death? Just like that?

Lord Theron lifted his chin slightly. “Really,” he drawled. “Do I hear defiance?”

The scout bent his head and shuffled his feet. “No, m’ Lord Theron. But I believe the boy. I think he is a troll.”

“I say he is not,” snapped Theron. “Kill him!”

The scout’s mouth opened, then closed.

“Do you understand me, sir?” barked Theron. “Sever his head from his shoulders!”

Keir began to shiver, her limbs trembling.

As the scout swallowed uncomfortably, another robed troll stepped from behind Lord Theron.

He possessed a similar demeanor of command, but in every other way he differed from the troll who had ordered Keir’s death. His suede robes were of a muted hue—sage green—and lacked any adornment, save for the bronze fibula at his waist which secured a hefty ring of bronze keys. His hazel eyes were kind above the fleshy blade of his nose—curving down like a beak, rather than up. His skin was a clear, pale olive, lined around the eyes and firm-lipped mouth. He was of a medium height, but sturdily built, with muscular shoulders. His shoulder-length hair was very dark, with a few strands of gray. Most importantly, his assurance seemed more thoroughly rooted, not depending on any display of power.

“I beg your pardon, my Lord Castellanum,” said this new entrant, calmly authoritative, “the lad is afflicted. Although his nodes occupy exactly their proper spots, they float unanchored. It will be several years before his affliction is visible in his lineaments.”

Lord Theron’s nostrils flared slightly. “Do you say so, my Lord Secretarius?” he asked, his tone unfriendly, but not actively adversarial.

“I do,” said the secretarius. “And I could use a notarius. The lad looks intelligent.”

Lord Theron’s lip twitched. “Very well, my dear Gael. You may have him.” He turned from Gael back to Keir. “You will take your oath of fealty to the regenen when he returns to Belzetarn. In the meantime, the Lord Secretarius will be answerable for your conduct.”

With that, the castellanum swept away.

And so had Keir come under Gael’s wing, the perfect place—as it chanced—to interfere with the weapons borne by the troll-legions.

She never did take the oath of fealty that Theron had mentioned, whether it was because Carbraes was a good four deichtains returning from the field and the formality was forgotten, or some other reason. Technically, Keir owed him no loyalty. But that was mere quibbling. She’d accepted his protection for two years. She’d accepted her quarters from him. She’d eaten the food provided at his table. In all honor, she did owe him . . . something.

And her sabotage of the swords wielded by his warriors was treason.

But if she could heal those warriors of their truldemagar, perhaps even heal Lord Carbraes himself . . . mightn’t that atone for her treachery?

She pulled herself out of her memories of the past, aware of movement in the bailey on the other side of the bars in her window, aware of the pressing stones of her cell behind her.

Was the gong yet intact? Had Gael preserved it? Could she persuade Lord Carbraes to let her master its usage, to let her try again to restore a troll’s nodes to their proper anchorages? She’d succeeded once, with Gael.

As she sat there wondering, a low throbbing swelled on the air, deep and groaning, reverberating across all of Belzetarn and into every nook and cranny.

Strength flooded Keir’s sinews, her very bones, and she felt triumph cresting on a wave of well-being. The gong flourished, and all she dreamed of might yet come to pass!

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 99)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 97)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 97)

Chapter 21

Keir sat on the deep sill of her cell window, looking out through its bronze bars across the sloping ground of the bailey below. The citadel’s prison was located within the thick wall dividing the artisans’ yard from the bailey, so the whole of that grassy enclosure spread before her view.

But although she was looking, she wasn’t really seeing.

The orchard of fruit trees rustling in the morning breeze along the eastern curtain wall—at Keir’s left—provided the most inviting prospect, with wildflowers dotting the shady patches and beehives situated in the sunny ones. The huntsmen’s lodge, the smokehouse, the hornery, and other workshops clustered near the main gate, as well as the stables and kennels along the western curtain wall, offered the more active scene, with tanners and grooms and warriors coming and going.

But Keir’s gaze clung to the free expanse of the sky above the bailey, pale blue streaked with gauzy wisps of cloud, attempting to block her claustrophobic awareness of the pinching narrowness of her cell.

It wasn’t that the cell was so small. She thanked heaven she’d not been put in one of the windowless ones. But the bare dark stones of the walls and ceiling seemed to press heavily inward, as though they would crush her. If only they’d been whitewashed, it would have helped. Or covered with hangings, which was a ludicrous idea. Why should a prisoner be so pampered?

But panic overcame her, if she looked too long on the lidded chamber pot in one inner corner, the pile of fleeces in one outer corner—her bed—or the wall niche with a leather cup and a leather bottle of water. And she could not afford to panic. She had to think.

So she gazed out over the bailey, pretending she sat atop the massive wall rather than within it, and considered her situation. She didn’t know why she was here.

Yesterday evening, Dreben and three warriors had intercepted her in the artisans’ yard, en route to the rampart over the lake. She’d craved its sunny openness and solitude.

“Take her,” the brigenen had ordered in clipped tones, and two of the warriors closed in to seize her by the arms, while the third stepped behind her to block off any potential escape.

“What?” she’d exclaimed, bewildered by the turn of events.

“Your larceny is discovered,” sneered Dreben. “Come along.”

“But—but—” she’d protested, stumbling between her captors.

“I’m putting you behind bars, Keir,” said Dreben. “The castellanum commands it.”

“The castellanum!” That didn’t square in the least with how Theron had been courting her approval for the past two deichtains. She came to a dead halt. “This is ridiculous. Unhand me, you!” she’d commanded the warriors.

They’d done nothing of the sort, of course, walking her to the gatehouse between the yard and the bailey, into the broad passage under the wall, and then through the portal of the prison located there. They’d conducted her up some stairs directly to this cell, thrust her within it, and locked the door on her.

The prison guard who’d brought her some boiled meat for supper refused to speak to her.

And Medicus Piar, who visited considerably later to check her head injury again, had known nothing.

“Tell Gael,” she’d begged him. “Or Barris or Arnoll, if you cannot gain access to the secretarius.”

“I will,” he’d promised. “But are you well, Keir? There has been some concern that the warriors who apprehended you were rough, or that they may have abused you in some fashion.”

She’d been impatient, focused on the why and wherefore of her captivity, not yet thinking of its potential risks. “Who is concerned?” she’d demanded.

“The regenen, as I understand,” he’d replied, flustered.

“The regenen!” she’d repeated, confounded. “But—!”

“I don’t know, Keir. I’ll try to find out,” he’d said as he departed.

But no one had come to her.

She’d managed to sleep a little, grateful for the night breezes passing through the bars of her cell window each time she awoke in the darkness. And she’d eaten the sausage patties garnished with pickled cabbage that they’d brought her in the morning.

Was it her slaying of Dreas that had prompted her incarceration?

If she’d purposefully done it, that would be murder—and treason—not larceny. But it had been mishap, not intention that caused his death. It had not even been incompetence on her part, as sometimes happened in the course of a healer’s career. There were some queer illnesses and injuries that cropped up, things that no healer had a chance to acquire practice in treating. Which made the likelihood of error stronger.

She could not say she bore no responsibility in Dreas’ death. She absolutely did. But it was the gong’s sounding that had been her—and Dreas’—undoing. Carbraes had been right there, and he’d not denounced her as a traitor.

Had he thought better of his restraint later? Or changed his assessment of what had happened?

Or was her imprisonment the result of further machinations of the castellanum?

She desperately needed information and contact with someone friendly to her.

A charge of larceny could not be for the slaying of Dreas. What if someone had figured out that all this past year, each morning, she had been swapping one ingot of the tin intended for the privy smithy with one ingot of the copper intended for the blade smithy, and using energea to disguise the swapped ingots?

If that was the root of her imprisonment, no information—and no friend—could help her then.

Was this the end for her?

She’d had a good run, but she’d known it could not last indefinitely. Someone would figure out why the warriors’ swords broke more often than heretofore—why they shattered with their greater load of tin—and when they figured it out . . . her luck would be over. She’d achieved what she wanted: a strike back at the troll-horde. Trolls had invaded Fiors in her grandmother’s day. A generation later, trolls had maimed her pater.

She’d known when she first set eyes on them in Olluvarde—shrieking and jeering, their deformed faces malevolent—that she had chosen rightly.

Pater had gotten her away from Fiors, no doubt believing that he’d preserved her, given her a chance to live, a chance even to live well. In pledging his faith, he’d said, “In all the years to come.” He’d imagined her as having years, decades of years.

But she’d had time to think as she sailed west under a hurrying sky, the wind at her back, the sea buoying her, the unknown before her. She could have fled further north. She could have fled to one of the troll-queens in the icy wastes. She could have carved out a life for herself in one of their enchanted palaces.

But she did not want to. Better to strike swift and hard at the enemy than to join them.

And so she’d evolved her plan to be taken in by the troll-lord of the Hamish lands and find a way to do him harm. And it had worked. She’d gotten what she wanted. But . . . now that she’d gotten it . . . she had to wonder whether she was glad of it. Did she rejoice? Had it been worth it? Had her choice been a right one? Mightn’t she have evolved some better goal?

The knowledge that she had healed a troll with the node in the cursed gong had her questioning everything. And, if she were honest with herself, it was not only that. She’d come to care about the people around her, if she dared call them so. Could trolls be people? At home on Fiors she’d never considered they might be. In Olluvarde, she’d known they were not. Now, after living among them for two years in Belzetarn . . .

Was fatherly Arnoll not a person? Energetic Barris with his bright brown eyes? Her new assistant, freckled Adarn, so diligent and eager? In her heart, she had to admit that she regarded them as fully human. Even though they were not.

Or were they?

Every troll in the north had been born human. The truldemagar took away their humanity, bit by bit, until there was none left. But where was the line between the two? Was there a line, a sharp demarcation? Or only a long, agonizing slide from human to monstrous?

Was young Adarn a monster? Was Gael? Was she?

She did not think so. We are only ourselves, she thought.

And if trolls were human . . . then who was the enemy?

We should not use the same word to describe our malady and ourselves, she realized. Truldemagar. The truldemagar takes us, but we are not truldemagar. We are human. And we suffer.

Sweet Ionan! If that were so, then she’d been fighting the wrong enemy for all the past two years. And never known it until the gong showed her a way to fight the real enemy: the nodes that moved out of true, farther with each use of energea, farther with each passing year, farthest of all with the use of the dangerous gold energea.

We are sick, she realized. Not evil. Although we become evil in time.

How had she not understood this? She was a healer. And the unafflicted commonly spoke of the truldemagar as a disease. But still she’d not regarded it as a disease.

So. Here she was, at the long end of her choices, with a net full of fishes she wished only to cast back into the sea.

She’d thought she could be a champion for the unafflicted, go where they could not go, do what they possessed no opportunity to do, strike at the trolls from the heart of a troll citadel. As though she herself were not a troll.

I am a troll, she told herself.

She’d never really accepted it.

I am a troll. The truldemagar claimed me. I am not a human in disguise.

That was how she’d acted, as though she were a human disguised as a troll. But she was not. No more than every troll was a human disguised as such.

She had to give up her vendetta.

No. She had given it up already, and felt empty in the wake of its departure. What would she do now? She might not need the answer to that question. She might not live. Carbraes might have ordered her execution even as she abandoned her covert attack on his legions. But if he had not, if she were declared innocent and released, what then?

I have to preserve that gong, and the lodestone within it. I have to. And I must learn to use it safely and reliably, so that I can heal every troll in this citadel, in every other troll stronghold, every troll in the north.

Was such an undertaking even possible?

It didn’t matter. If she restored only one troll, it was worth it. Two trolls, even more so. Each troll she healed was a strike against the true enemy.

She shook her head.

Just so had she regarded each disguised ingot slipped into the blade smithy: one strike, one more strike, and yet one more again. Which gave her pause. What if she should prove equally mistaken in this?

Perhaps it was time to recalibrate her approach. Instead of laboring to destroy an enemy, perhaps she should work to create allies. Pater had always said that a healer did not so much fight against injury and disease as reinforce the body in regaining and deploying its own strength.

Each troll healed would be . . . one person preserved from death and madness.

But for that to happen, the lodestone within the gong must be preserved.

What had Gael decided?

He’d not promised to preserve the gong. He’d only promised to think carefully about it. Would that be enough? Surely it would be enough. How could he think carefully and draw any conclusion save that the gong should not be destroyed? Or warped so thoroughly that it was essentially destroyed.

But Gael was not a healer. Nor had he used the gong himself to achieve something marvelous. And his most recent experience of the artifact was Dreas’ death.

What would he be weighing?

Against the gong lay the weakness it provoked in all who heard it. No, not all. Just trolls.

So. It weakened trolls. It had killed Dreas. Were there other disadvantages? Keir had to admit that there were. Lesser ones, but real. Carbraes could order every troll in Belzetarn to undergo healing, but how would she gain access to all the rest? And given that trolls and humans would continue to fight one another, wouldn’t it be wrong to strengthen the trolls?

I am not a warrior! I am a healer!

And healers healed. The day she started deciding who deserved healing and who did not . . . No. To do that was to encroach upon the territory of the gods. A healer treated all who came to her.

But how would Gael see it? He was not a healer, but neither was he a warrior.

Surely he would see that the chance to work steadily against the truldemagar that slowly turned humans into monsters was worth . . . almost anything. No matter the logistical difficulties, no matter the history of strife.

No. That was how she saw it.

If this were any other matter, she would have no doubt. Gael was probably working toward her release even now. Or if he could not gain her release, he was doing what he could to ensure her safety and a fair judgment from the regenen. She could trust Gael with her life.

She had trusted Gael with her life.

She would be dead and burned, her ashes scattered on the wind, had Gael not preserved her upon her entrance into Belzetarn.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 96)

Gael’s heart clenched within him when the messenger led the way through the tower’s entrance gate—all three of its portculli retracted into the ceiling vault—to the adjacent melee gallery. The scene awaiting him was all too familiar.

A Ghriana prisoner knelt before Carbraes, the two of them—regenen and captive—illuminated by shafts of sunlight from the upper southern embrasures. A cluster of warriors lurked in the shadows cloaking the edges of the space.

A few details differed from the last time. This Ghriana warrior was older, his physique burly with the muscles that only full maturity brought, his wooly hair grizzled gray. Nor did he droop, but glared Carbraes full in the face. This prisoner carried no false hope. He knew his death approached, and he defied it even as he accepted it.

Just behind Carbraes stood Uwen and another legionary of the Peregrine opteogint, each supporting one end of a pike from which the gong of Olluvarde hung on makeshift leather straps. The gleaming disk shone more silver than before.

Carbraes was quick to spot movement on his periphery, as always. The instant Gael stepped from the entrance passage into the greater space, the regenen turned to survey him.

Gael quickened his stride. The regenen did not look to be in a patient mood. The relaxed alertness of his stance possessed an edge of tension, and his face—Gael saw as he drew nearer—bore an uncharacteristic sternness.

Gael bowed. “My lord Regenen.”

Carbraes nodded, his gaze sharp. He gestured to the Ghriana, who knelt and glared. “Assess him,” he ordered curtly.

So. The first test of Gael’s oath to Arnoll’s memory was upon him already. So soon. So immediately. Would it ever be thus in a troll citadel?

Arnoll would have deemed the Ghriana man outside his protection, but Gael could not. He did not see an enemy, but a hero, a man brave enough to court the gravest risk in defense of his people, his home, his family. Gael could not participate in his destruction. He would not.

Carbraes might order the man’s execution. Likely he would. But it could not flow from Gael’s word.

“I cannot assess him, my lord Regenen,” Gael said.

Twin lines appeared between Carbraes’ eyebrows. “How is this? Have your endeavors at the forge so weakened your magery?”

There was a tempting excuse, but Gael would not take it.

“My apologies for my imprecision, my lord. I will not assess him,” Gael corrected himself.

“You will not?” said Carbraes, his voice grim. “Have you forgotten who you serve?”

“Not at all,” answered Gael. “You are my regenen, and I owe you my loyalty and my obedience. Which you have. But not in this.” He gave a tiny jerk of his head toward the Ghriana man.

“I gave you a test of your loyalty,” said Carbraes, sterner still.

“You did,” agreed Gael.

“Is this your answer?” demanded Carbraes.

“This was not the test,” said Gael. How reasonable might Carbraes be in this conflict? In the past, Gael could have predicted that Carbraes would indulge his secretarius. In this moment? Gael didn’t know. Too much had changed. But he would not fail in his duty to Arnoll now.

Carbraes scrutinized him. Nodded. “Very well. You make conscientious objection. Which I have allowed you before, although not in like circumstances.” He scowled at the Ghriana man, then beckoned two of his warriors forth. “Guard him,” he told them.

The pair thumped their chests with closed fists and took station to each side of the prisoner.

Carbraes turned back to Gael. “So. You deny me in my first request. Will you also deny me in a second?”

Gael refused to back down. “Speak it, my lord Regenen,” he said evenly.

“I wish to know the results of your labor over the gong. Is it harmless? Is it safe?” asked Carbraes.

Gael nodded. “I wish answers to those questions too,” he said.

Carbraes glowered at him. Gael was definitely courting the edge of the regenen’s tolerance.

“You know that the opteon-smith—Arnoll—died when he joined his magery to mine and Nathiar’s?” said Gael.

Did Carbraes’ expression soften? “It would take five trolls to accomplish all that Arnoll achieved, and I have not five of such quality,” said Carbraes, his voice low.

Gael swallowed hard. It seemed the regenen valued Arnoll almost as he ought.

Gael continued his caveat. “I believe that Nathiar, I, and Arnoll succeeded in our attempt, but I will not know certainly until I sound the gong. It could yet be dangerous. Or even more perilous than before. Would you wish me to risk all present?”

Carbraes’ lips straightened. “You are overcautious, Lord Gael.” The regenen’s nostrils flared slightly. “Test it,” he ordered. “And thoroughly.”

“Very well.” Gael stepped around Carbraes to where Uwen and his cohort stood, the gong between them. Carbraes swung around to face them as well.

Gael studied the artifact. He’d paid it very little heed to it in the wake of Arnoll’s death in the smithy. Not only was the silver sheen atop the bronze more prominent than before, but the etched traceries adorning the metal had changed. The phoenix was still present, but in place of the scrolling sun-like rays were fabulous beasts, prowling the curving bronze as though it were a meadow in Cayim’s hells. Gryphons served as escort to the phoenix, a sinuous dragon crawled the gong’s lip. And three noble fauves—hound-like and fierce—coursed the middle reaches.

Gael saw that Uwen held a leather-padded mallet in his free hand. The warrior proffered it to Gael.

“Be ready,” said Gael, accepting it.

Uwen nodded, his eyes tense.

Gael scanned the entire melee gallery. The stone floor and the stone walls were bare. A few of the clustered warriors leaned against the buttress below the inner portcullis.

“You there! Stand straight, or sit. And not below the portcullis,” ordered Gael. He didn’t think the gong’s resonance would affect the tower, but he didn’t want to take chances.

He turned back to the gong, measured his distance from it, and swung the mallet. The padded striking surface hit one of the fauves square on, and a deep resonance bloomed on the air. Deep and shimmering, near and far, near and far.

Along with the sound came . . . not weakness, no . . . but rather strength. Gael’s very bones felt unbreakable, his limbs as though he could lift Belzetarn itself, his courage so audacious that he could dare anything.

Behind him, he heard a heavy, meaty thud, horribly reminiscent of Arnoll’s fall. Belatedly he opened his inner sight.

The gong’s golden node fairly blazed, the open scrolls of its lattice almost blinding in their incandescence. Flows of amber sparks followed the courses of the gryphons and then the coiling dragon outward, feeding Gael’s nodes, feeding the nodes of every troll present.

Black-tinged sparks of red swirled inward through the jaws of the hunting fauves and into the gong’s radiant heart.

Gael traced the source of that black-edged tributary of red. The Ghriana’s anchored nodes overflowed, a glistening filigree of silver where the energea emerged, transitioning through pearlescent white to gold, and then to that deadly red-black.

The Ghriana was human—but Gael had known it was so—and the prisoner lay collapsed on the stone flagstones. Dead? Dear Tiamar, no! If he were dead, then Gael had refused to condemn him only to slay the man by his own hand.

As the gong’s resonance faded, the flow of energea ceased with it.

Gael saw that the Ghriana still breathed, though he seemed lost in a long faint.

Uwen and the other troll warriors wore a look of ebbing exaltation on their faces. Carbraes merely looked pleased.

“Well done, Gael,” said the regenen. “It would seem you’ve completely reversed the gong’s effect. Instead of draining trolls to strengthen . . . humans, I presume . . . it now drains humans”—he looked pointedly at the fainting Ghriana—“to strengthen trolls.”

Gael agreed with that assessment, but his lips curved down in a grimace. Rather than merely protecting the afflicted from danger, he’d given them another weapon against the unafflicted.

“I’ll dismiss you now,” said Carbraes. “No doubt you’d prefer to avoid my sentencing of the prisoner.”

Hells. Gael’s stand of principle had done absolutely no good there. Not that he’d expected to be able to save the man, but . . .

“The gong should still be secured behind locks,” asserted Gael. No longer a hazard, it was precious now. “Do you not wish me to usher it to safety, my lord?”

“One of the march’s quartermasters will see to it,” said Carbraes indifferently.

Hells. Hells. Hells! The idea of Dreben employing the artifact on the battlefield was far worse than the late Dreas doing so.

“When next I summon you, Gael, you will swear fealty to me anew,” said Carbraes. “Now go.”

Gael went.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 95)

Arnoll lay on a low bier amidst the herbs and flowers of the hospital’s courtyard garden. The spiky purple blooms of thistle nodded on their long stems beside the smith’s left cheek, while the yellow petals of buttercups tapped the toes of his boots. The drone of contented bees murmured in the sunlit space, and the green scent of crushed sage threaded the warm air. The physicians had tidied him, but Gael had insisted he retain his smith’s garb. Arnoll’s rank of opteon entitled him to ornate robes, such as those the castellanum wore, or even a warrior’s equipage.

Gael had declined such flourishes for his friend. A smith’s calling bore more honor by far than the legionaries who killed on the field of battle, the officers who commanded them, or the elite who ruled them.

Gael stood alone by the bier under the noontide sun, grateful for the moment of solitude.

He’d seen all tidy in the smithy, stationed the guard Uwen beside the still-cooling gong, and followed the hospital scullions carrying Arnoll on their litter.

Looking down at his friend—clothed in fresh tunic, trews, and apron; gray hair combed and rebraided; features composed—Gael perceived the same dignity and nobility of character he’d noted in the smithy. There was no better troll in all Belzetarn. No, in all the north. No, Gael would venture farther even than that. There was no better man.

I should be lying there,” Gael muttered. He’d not believed Nathiar’s assessment in the smithy, but he believed it now. If he’d beaten Arnoll to the strike that defanged the gong’s curse, it would have been him lying on this bier in the hospital herb garden. It should have been. Arnoll had preserved Gael’s life upon Gael’s entrance into Belzetarn. Now he’d done so again. Gael wished it were the other way round—that he’d saved Arnoll. Arnoll was the better of them.

But Arnoll was dead.

And Gael was alive.

He hated that. And hated almost as much that Arnoll’s legacy would be utterly forgotten. If only he could be buried with all honor in the crypts of Hadorgol, the story of the unswerving protection he granted to those he perceived as vulnerable engraved on a tablet beside the niche where his sarcophagus lay. But it was neither possible nor the way of trolls. Arnoll would receive a funeral pyre, honor enough in Belzetarn. Gael lay the bouquet of white roses the physicians had allowed him to pluck from their gardens on Arnoll’s breast.

Unlike Gael, Arnoll had found a way to an unbroken loyalty, perhaps because he assumed the mantle of protector, but accepted that some would lie outside his ability to protect. Arnoll had committed fully to the well-being of his immediate neighbors—the scullions and decanens under him in his smithy, his fellow opteons at the other forges and their underlings, then spiraling outward to include the denizens of Belzetarn and all the trolls under Carbraes—but no further.

Gael doubted he could ever achieve the integrity of his friend, but surely he could spend the rest of his life trying to. It remained the only real way—beyond funerary rites and empty ritual—to honor Arnoll, the only true way to continue his legacy.

“Whenever I must choose between the lesser of two evils, I will think of you, and seek a third way,” he vowed.

He bent to kiss Arnoll’s brow, and turned away.

Passing through the hospital, he thanked Medicus Piar for the opportunity to make his farewell to Arnoll in private.

Traversing the artisans’ yard, on his way to the bailey gatehouse and the brig—to Keir—he was snagged by one of the regenen’s many messenger boys.

“My lord Secretarius,” panted the boy. “The lord Regenen requires you to attend upon him instantly!”

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 94)

Nathiar came and knelt beside Gael as he sat on the smithy floor at Arnoll’s side.

The magus had doffed his smith’s apron and left the gong on the curved surface of the massive stone block to finish its slow air cooling after its swift water quenching. The dying glow from the forge spilled over the scene, far less fierce than when fed by the bellows, although its coals still exuded a gentle heat.

Nathiar brushed Arnoll’s staring eyes closed and let his hand rest on Gael’s shoulder.

Gael straightened his friend’s body, shifting him from his side onto his back, placing his arms crossed on his chest. A certain dignity lay on Arnoll’s face, as though he confronted . . . what? A magistrate’s final assessment? His god’s judgment? Something like that.

A stab of pain twinged in Gael’s breast.

Nathiar spoke. “He saved your life, you know.”

Gael shook his head, said lowly, “No. I forfeited his. If I’d just discussed the ‘why’ of our proceedings more—” His voice cracked on that ‘why.’ He shook his head again. “He’d picked up so much in the course of dealing with trolls, I tended to forget he wasn’t a magus trained, had never had the basic grounding you and I received.”

“Gael—” Was there a trace of exasperation in Nathiar’s voice? “This was no undertaking in which a basic understanding might have helped. You’ve said you were operating beyond your own knowledge and expertise. I assure you I was far beyond mine.”

“If he’d known to pull from the thymus node or above, or even from the root node, to avoid the heart node—”

“No,” interrupted Nathiar. His hand on Gael’s shoulder pressed harder. “Were you able to see the path of the energea within the final explosive conflagration?”

He hadn’t. If he had—if he’d been quicker, more alert, would he have been able to get there first? To save his friend?

Nathiar continued. “The outward explosion masked it, but there was an inward explosion as well, compressing in as violently as it exploded out. That inward blast swallowed down the gong’s heart node, swallowed down Arnoll’s heart node—and, Gael—”

Gael looked up to see Nathiar’s eyes narrowing.

The magus’ nostrils flared. “The implosion dragged the entirety of Arnoll’s energetic lattice down into it. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d aimed his energetic strike with the crown node itself”—an advanced technique barely within Gael’s purview—“his energea would have been ripped from him nonetheless.”

Gael became aware that his fists were clenched in his lap. He unclenched them, started to reach for Arnoll—as though he still might drag him back from death—and then let his arms fall.

Arnoll had passed far beyond his reach.

“What happened with that pulsed violet energea of yours, there at the end?” asked Nathiar. “Were you able to subdivide the node before it exploded?”

Gael sighed heavily. “No,” he said dully, not caring. If he’d not taken time for that, if he’d been poised for the thymic strike against the gong’s node, he might have beaten Arnoll to it. Would it really be his own corpse lying on the smithy floor, if he had? He wasn’t sure he believed Nathiar.

The magus grunted and heaved to his feet. “I believe—” he bent to pluck something small from the layer of sand covering the flagstones “—I believe the node was subdivided, although not by you.” He handed a smooth teardrop of iron, about the size of a thumbnail, to Gael. “There are smaller splatters,” said the magus, “but this one alone holds an energetic lattice.”

Gael studied the metal teardrop bleakly. It remained very warm and strangely shiny, like polished silver. Gael found he didn’t really care whether it possessed a node or not. He just wished he’d done something different—anything different—whatever might have saved Arnoll. But Nathiar clearly expected Gael to care, so he opened his inner sight.

The node within the iron glowed gold and displayed the same open scrolls of gold that Gael had observed within the changed node now inhabiting the gong’s central boss.

Gael frowned. “It’s a troll node, isn’t it?” he said.

Over his years in Belzetarn, when Gael checked the energea of prisoners brought to the citadel, he didn’t bother to examine the fine structures within the nodes. A simple note of their location was enough to declare the captive human or troll. But the deep structures were different in the afflicted and the unafflicted. Human nodes possessed the tightly packed octohedrons that the gong’s node had possessed until a short time ago. Troll nodes, created when their moorings were ripped, adopted a more open configuration.

Gael glanced up at Nathiar. “I see it,” he said, his voice still leaden.

“Do you want it?” asked Nathiar. “Because if you do not, I do.”

Gael started to shake his head and hand the teardrop back to the magus, then checked himself. He didn’t want the damn thing. But Keir would. He knew she would. And Keir . . . still mattered. Even in the wake of Arnoll’s death.

He wanted to say nothing mattered. He felt nothing mattered. But the same inner knowing that told him to get a fresh sheet of parchment when his tallying grew cramped at the bottom margin, that insisted he get a good night’s sleep before he tackled a ticklish calculation, told him now that his choices would yet yield consequences—poor or good, depending on his decisions. He could not abdicate responsibility, no matter how powerfully his grief urged it.

“I do want it,” he told Nathiar.

“Then it is yours,” said Nathiar. The magus reached down a hand to Gael. “Up with you, my dear Gael.” His voice was kind, despite his resumption of his usual cadences.

Gael allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.

“I hope you know how to put the smithy to bed, my dear fellow,” said Nathiar, “because I do not!”

Gael hunched his shoulders.

Nathiar was right, of course. There was work to be done. And Gael would do it. But it felt wrong. It felt like everything should just stop.

“You’ll go for a physician?” he asked the magus.

Nathiar nodded, met Gael’s gaze for a long moment, and turned away.

He took a step, then turned back. “I am so very sorry for your loss,” he said. “For our loss. Arnoll was the best of all of us.”

Gael swallowed down the tightness in his throat. “He was my friend.”

“Yes,” said the magus, and then strode away toward the Regenen Stair.

Gael picked up one of the long-handled rakes beside the forge and began scattering the coals within it, dismantling the mound that concentrated the heat.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 93)

He found Arnoll—and no one else—awaiting him in the blade smithy, as planned. Thank Tiamar that no curious spectators had come to watch. Or if they had, Arnoll had ushered them out.

Shadow dimmed the unpeopled vaults, and the charcoal within the forge glowed redly, illuminating the large cedar tub full of water standing before it, as well as a massive stone block with a smooth convex top and a thick layer of sand protecting the flagstone floor. The eastern wall of the smithies possessed no arrowslits through which the sun could slip its morning rays.

The silence of the space, broken only by the subdued hiss of the single forge, seemed wrong to Gael, but the familiar scent of burning charcoal reassured him.

He eased the gong from his back onto the stone, noting that the curve of the one matched the curve of the other. He’d chosen to transport the gong himself, tying a leather thong through the two holes pierced in the gong’s furled edge and slipping a leather strap through the thongs. That had given him sufficient grip to manage the thing. It was heavy, heavier even than an oxhide ingot, and had pressed uncomfortably into his shoulders, but was not so unwieldy as to require two to carry. He preferred to involve as few others in this business as possible.

He greeted Arnoll and gestured to the gong resting on the massive stone. “You do remember that Nathiar will suspend the gong midair with his magery, do you not?” he asked.

“Of course,” answered the smith. “But I deemed it wise to have a support available in case the magus slips. The swords he’s manipulated are considerably lighter than this gong.”

Gael nodded. “Good point.” He scanned the area. Arnoll had laid tongs and hammers ready to hand on a counter, along with two leather aprons and three pairs of smith’s gauntlets. The smith’s own apron already covered his tunic and trews.

“What of those questions you promised to have ready for me?” asked Gael.

They went over the procedure they planned to follow together. When Nathiar joined them in mid-discussion, Gael explained that he wished to pull a small droplet out at the earliest moment possible, with its lattice unchanged, before they proceeded with the steps that would quell the gong forever. That change in plan required a few adjustments, but nothing substantive.

Arnoll proved to have fewer queries than did Nathiar. It was not the magery that concerned the magus, but the interface between it and the rude physical implements of smithwork, especially since Arnoll’s suggestions—made after Gael’s initial consultation with Nathiar in the cherry glade—had all involved the forge and the timing and duration of its use.

Arnoll and Nathiar argued vociferously about how the gong would be removed from the forge, the smith asserting that he and Gael should lift it with tongs, while Nathiar insisted that manipulating the energea would be smoother if he took the gong from a steady bed of coals rather than from tongs held by potentially wobbling troll arms. Arnoll objected to the idea that his arms might wobble, but Gael interceded that his own probably would.

“Is the forge hot enough for us to begin?” Gael asked. He could feel the heat rolling from its glowing maw.

Arnoll narrowed his eyes, measuring the color of the light cast. Then he studied his companions. “The forge is ready, but you are not,” he said, jerking his head at the aprons and gloves.

Nathiar was wearing his usual long robes. Arnoll sniffed disapprovingly. Even Gael could see that a smith’s apron would reach merely to Nathiar’s knees, but at least the suede of his robes would protect his legs from any stray sparks or splashing metal. Not that they expected to be dealing with molten metal.

Gael had chosen the same shabby trews and short tunic that he’d donned to search Martell’s smithy for a misplaced ingot, twenty-five days ago. One of the leathers grooms had cleaned the soot from its worn suede far more effectively than Gael had deemed possible.

Nathiar permitted Arnoll to help him with an apron, but he declined the gauntlets, saying in an exasperated tone, “I’ll need the finest control of my fingers for this, and I have no intention of touching the heated gong with anything but magery, my dear Arnoll.”

Gael accepted both apron and gloves. Aside from the subdivision of the node, his part in this would be anything but delicate, and the bulky leather enclosing his hands would not impede him in the slightest.

Arnoll checked the forge again, and then took up one set of tongs, nodding for Gael to grab the others.

They positioned themselves on each side of the gong.

Gael scrutinized the artifact a moment. It looked just as it had when he first set eyes upon it, the wide and shallow curve of the bronze—a rosy golden shade under the frost of the arsenic—with its deep furled lip and the protruding central boss of black iron. The phoenix etched in the metal curled its wings around that boss, from which scrolling rays emanated, arcing outward like energea from a node, hinting at the energetic structure within.

Gael’s reason regretted what he was about to do, but a more primal instinct, remembering the weakness that shivered in his bones when the gong sounded, hungered for the artifact’s destruction.

Well, he would not be truly destroying it—turning it into a puddle of molten metal, as the word destruction implied to him—but his actions would diminish its present caliber.

With both hands, he maneuvered his tongs over the deep-furled lip and clamped them closed. Arnoll mirrored him and nodded. Together, they raised the convex disk from the stone where Gael had laid it.

It was far heavier held thusly, pinched between the business end of the tongs and secured there only by the strength of Gael’s double grip, the length of the tongs acting as an unfavorable lever. Gael clenched his fists harder and moved in sync with Arnoll toward the forge. The heat grew fierce at its maw, baking the unprotected skin of his face and drying his eyes.

He and Arnoll eased their burden through the slot of the forge’s opening—barely wide enough to accommodate it—and then released the grip of the tongs to push the gong into the heart of the glowing coals.

Gael backed away, eager to escape the inferno, but Arnoll lingered, apparently untroubled, rearranging the scattered charcoal with a shovel, restoring the disturbed pieces to a smooth mound. When he got it to his liking, the smith moved to the bellows at the side of the forge and began pumping. Shuff, shuff, shuff, whispered the bags of leather. Flames leaped up around the gong, and the roar of the furnace intensified.

Arnoll glanced over his shoulder to where Nathiar stood watching, quietly intent.

“Be ready,” the smith warned. “The bronze will heat much more quickly than the iron.”

Nathiar nodded, his face saturnine, lit from below by the glow from the forge.

Gael peered into the flames. The bronze was acquiring a deep red hue as it heated, but the central boss of iron remained black. He looked down to check that his leather apron hung straight and that his gauntlets fully covered his forearms. He would not be handling metal going forward, but he would need to come close to play his part, and he must stand ready to step in, should Nathiar falter.

As the heating bronze grew amber in hue, the black of the iron boss began to display a dark red tint. Nathiar would heat the iron to full pliancy, but using the forge to do the first stage of the work would allow the magus to reserve his strength for the demands of the critical later stages.

The amber glow of the bronze grew golden, while the iron’s dark red moved toward orange.

“Now,” said Arnoll.

Nathiar raised his arms, curling his fingers and straightening them.

The gong rose to hover above the burning coals amidst a shower of sparks, then slid from the forge’s throat when Nathiar beckoned. His arms pulsed, pulsed again, and went abruptly still while his fingers wove patterns. The gong stopped in midair, directly above the curved stone from which Arnoll and Gael had lifted it.

Gael allowed his inner sight to open, and his vision became much more complex.

Beams of green energea shot from Nathiar’s palms, mingling, and then widening to form a pillow beneath the gong. Intermittent needles of blue energea sparkled from the fingers of his left hand, jabbing into the gong’s central boss, while more languid curls of silver energea emerged from the fingers of his right hand to caress the bronze surrounding the iron boss.

The energetic structures within the gong itself shone amidst Nathiar’s working—the glowing green heart node and the silver arcs scrolling into and out of that heart.

The complexity of Nathiar’s magery was impressive. Gael would not have been able to manage the conflicting forces, but he understood what the magus achieved with his skill: support for the gong with the energea pouring from his palms, while increasing the friction—and thus the heat—in the iron with his left fingers, and drawing excess heat from the adjacent bronze with his right.

As the iron grew hotter yet, its orange glow brightening to amber and then fierce yellow, Nathiar added yet another gambit to his manipulation of the energea. Index and middle fingers on both hands continued to feed heat into the iron, while drawing it out of the bronze, but the other two fingers wove a horn-shaped funnel of green and aqua sparkles. This was the energetic shunt that would safeguard them at the moment of greatest danger.

Gael removed his attention from Nathiar’s superlative mastery, focusing instead on the gong’s heart node. There glowed its soft green corona; there shone its more intense green mantle; and there blazed its dense green core. Within the core, the octahedral lines of force grew brighter as Nathiar poured more and more heat-producing energea into them.

But Gael’s full focus rested on neither Nathiar nor the metal growing ever more pliable within the crucible of magery. It was the slow transformation of the octahedral lattice that would tell Gael when he must act. First the edges of the octohedrons grew thicker, brighter. Then those edges developed a curve, and the vertices—each formed where three edges came together in a point—extruded a needle-like projection.

Gael shivered, despite the heat rolling off the gong.

The spiky configuration of the node’s lattice depicted by Olluvarde’s murals had seemed beautiful in the delicacy of its stone traceries. Hovering before Gael’s riveted gaze as energea, the lattice emanated menace. It almost sizzled, fierce with power. Gael had not been wrong in assessing this proceeding as perilous. Every aspect of it held danger. Should Nathiar drop the gong, the softened metal would splash under the impact, burning all it touched. Should Nathiar loose control of his magery, Belzetarn itself might melt down, as had that outpost under the death throes of the old magus Fuwan.

But now that Gael confronted the enkindled lattice of the gong’s heart node, he knew that it posed a greater risk than any other facet of this business. And Nathiar’s shunt for excess energea, still in its formative stages, was nowhere near complete yet.

Gael became aware of hoarse breathing nearby. Was he panting in terror?

No, he stood poised, ready to bombard the node’s lattice with precisely measured pulses of his own energea, drawn from the violet of his crown node, modulated through the blue of his throat node and the aqua of his thymus node, channeled down his arms—deliberately avoiding his own heart node—and out through his fingers.

It was Arnoll who stood beside him, on Gael’s left, breathing heavily, no doubt observing the gong’s heart node through his own inner sight, and rightfully alarmed by what he saw.

Gael could spare none of his attention to reassure the smith. His moment approached rapidly.

The octahedral lines of force thickened and brightened. The spikes growing from the vertices elongated. The entire configuration flashed searing gold.

Now!

Gael pulled from his crown node, pulsing the pull in smooth undulations, creating the perfect flow of oscillating violet energea along the arc from crown to throat, from throat to thymus, and down the arms.

Just as the violet sparks jumped from his fingertips, the golden spikes of the lodestone’s octahedron thrust outward as though they were pikes wielded by heavy infantry, aimed at the hearts of their enemies.

Gael yanked his concentration from his crown node, dropping unregarded the delicate cascade of violet sparks—intended to tease out a hazelnut-sized sphere of iron, with its energea lattice intact.

He grabbed frantically for his thymic energy instead.

No matter that he’d not harvested his droplet, no matter that the energetic shunt was yet unready. He had to act now, or they were all dead.

He was not fast enough.

A gout of flaring green erupted from somewhere to Gael’s left.

Traveling ahead of Gael’s blaze of aqua and blue, the glaring emerald torrent slammed into the aching gold at the heart of the gong, ripping it asunder in an engulfing explosion of black-edged lightning.

Gael cursed.

The tumult of energea coruscated blindingly and then subsided, revealing the heart node of the gong to be entirely transformed. An open lattice of scrolling gold had replaced the tightly packed octohedrons, and the light glowing from the new lattice shone gold, not green. The silver arcs radiating from the node quivered slightly, adjusting their points of attachment.

It was done. The gong had been subdued.

But not by Gael.

He heard a pattering, as of raindrops falling on a beach, and then the thud of something heavy, meaty. His inner sight closed as his eyelids sprang open.

Arnoll lay crumpled at Gael’s feet, skin gray and eyes starting.

Gael fell to his knees, reaching for Arnoll’s neck to check his pulse, pressing his palm to Arnoll’s chest, desperate for a heartbeat, then cupping Arnoll’s face between his hands, patting his cheek.

“Arnoll! Arnoll!”

There was no response, no heartbeat, no pulse, no life.

“Dear gods!” Gael choked.

He’d lost his friend. His closest friend. His dearest friend. The friend he trusted the most.

He pressed his ear to Arnoll’s unmoving chest, praying he was wrong, praying to hear a flutter of breath, the renewed rhythm of a beating heart.

Nothing.

He crouched there, head resting on Arnoll’s chest, the aching spear of loss piercing his own heart. The vague sense that Nathiar still suspended the gong above him, still continued the magery needed to finish the operation they’d begun, barely brushed Gael’s awareness as the gong moved away, the radiance it shed dimming and then quenched utterly as the hissing roar of steam arose from the cedar tub of water.

Gael ignored it all, embracing the dead body of one he could not bear to let go.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 92)

Chapter 20

Gael emerged from sleep stunned and confused, still half under the influence of his dream.

Sunlight sifted through the inner shutters covering the glass-paned casements, sprinkling dots of gold across the deep sills, the flagstone floor with its hide rugs, and the backless chairs. The angle of the light was long and low. Dawn could not be too far past.

Gael sat up, swinging his legs around to rest his feet on the sheepskin beside his sleeping couch. He paused there, scrubbing a hand across his face and attempting to come more fully into the waking world.

His dream—it was a dream, was it not?—had made no sense.

Keir was no thief; that was Theron. And Arnoll, and Nathiar, and Barris, and Halko. Nor was she a boy. Nor had Gael delayed in the matter of the disguised ingots, withholding dangerous knowledge from those who needed it most. He’d been clueless with all the rest until last night. Nor had he given Keir up for execution.

Nearly every detail of his ‘confession’ failed to match the truth.

Save one thing. His guilt.

In his heart of hearts, he believed that his service to Carbraes, the ruler of Belzetarn’s troll-horde, was wrong. He wished no harm to the Ghriana foe they fought. And yet, at one and the same time, he believed that any failure of his to support the warlord who gave him and all the afflicted shelter and a home was wrong. He possessed no avenue toward a clear conscience.

Unable to heal the divide in his loyalty, he’d chosen the side that permitted him life. And so might he have continued to choose, had Keir never come to Belzetarn. Keir might be a traitor in deed, but Gael was one at heart. And today he would have to decide between Keir and Carbraes. There was no way to choose both.

Last night, before he slept, before he’d realized Keir’s treason, he’d planned to negotiate with Carbraes for her release. But she was guilty of exactly what Theron had accused her of. She’d disguised tin as copper and fed it to the blade smithy, making Belzetarn’s swords brittle. And she’d disguised copper as tin, so that the tallies would balance, feeding that disguised copper through the hands of the artistic privy smith.

Gael would not traduce her to Carbraes himself, of course. Not before he’d confronted her face to face. He still hoped, in some irrational backwater of his mind, that she was innocent. But he hadn’t the fortitude to petition on her behalf when he believed in her guilt.

It meant letting one opportunity to obtain Keir’s freedom go. Gael shook his head. So be it. He would just have to find another one. Or make one.

He rose. His body felt strong and rested, ready for action, ready for the day.

His mind and heart felt disquieted and vulnerable. He dreaded what might come.

But he had a lodestone to divide and a gong to quell. Hiding and quaking in his chambers would neither make his decisions nor fulfill his responsibilities. He must march upon his dilemma, for it would march upon him if he did not.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Interstice 2

Gael’s Dream

Sleeping, Gael dreamed.

Dreaming, he spoke, making confession to a young acolyte in training under Tiamar’s priest, back home in Hadorgol. But he spoke not in good faith. He sought to awe the young man rather than to clear his own conscience.

Within the dimness of the confessional booth, the dark wood smelled musty, as though it had been immersed in deep water and then allowed to dry imperfectly. The bench under Gael’s haunches pressed his flesh uncomfortably against his bones.

On the other side of the carved screen shielding his confessor from sight, the acolyte’s robes rustled faintly. Was the youth nervous in his unaccustomed role?

“I bear the mark of Gaelan on my face, as do my brethren,” intoned Gael. “Great curved noses, line-bracketed eyes, and sallow skin mar our visages. But I alone, amongst all in the legions under my lord Carbraes, bear Gaelan’s name. It is fitting, for I betrayed them to their deaths.

“I am Gael.

“I am kin-slayer.

“There in the bowels of the mad tower I crouched, listening to the scratching of my own quill pen. I tallied ingots of copper, ingots of tin—tin so rare. Who would believe the record keeper could be more lethal than the warrior?

“The stone foundations around me echoed the metallic beating of swords, of shields, of helmets. My lord Carbraes was winning this war. His trolls mined copper ore from veins beneath the ancient hills and smelted it with precious tin arriving from afar. Every ingot in received its mark in my ledger scrolls. Every ingot out—tin and copper married to make bronze—I tallied likewise.

“Who was to know that the bronze was brittle? Not the one part of tin to nine of copper demanded by the smith’s recipe, but two tin for eight copper. The blades hammered from these ingots would shatter, and how would the warrior who bore one fare then?

“Channeled by the tower’s tunnels, the roar of the furnaces deafened my thoughts.

“Whom would I betray? My troll-kin who brought Lord Carbraes victory? The peculator defiling the bronze?

“Oh? Did you think it was I? Secreting nuggets away in some fastness?

“No, ’twas another. Should I betray him?

“Or must I betray our enemies, crushed beneath Carbraes’ might? Our enemies—the unafflicted—those with pure faces, the ones from whom we come, trailing glory, before Gaelan marks us as his own.

“But you know I betrayed someone, else I would not now speak this confession in your ear.

“In the end, I betrayed them all.

“For a time, I kept silence, protecting the traitor and letting my silence reap the troll-warriors on the bloody fields. Blade after blade shattered, piercing the disarmed ones with their fragments or merely leaving them defenseless before the adversary, who slew without remorse.

“Then my conscience misgave me, and I betrayed the traitor to his death.

“‘Behold him,’ I pronounced, ‘the author of your defeats, the one who stole your lives! He defiled the bronze of your blades, and they failed you.’

“I watched as the executioner severed his head, and I wept. For he was my friend. And he bore the courage and singleness of purpose I possessed not, fighting for the unafflicted even amidst his truldemagar.

“And then I watched as the unafflicted fell upon the battlefields, assailed by the fierce weapons of the troll-horde and a strange, deep throbbing on the air and in the earth that stole the strength from their straight limbs.

“I am guilty in every way that guilt may be measured.

“I betrayed my comrades. I betrayed my lord. I betrayed my friend. I betrayed the pure ones, undefiled by Gaelan’s mark and deserving of my protection. Can any penance you devise wash clean my sin? I think not.”

Gael’s auditor began an answer, but the young man’s voice was wrong: an elder’s baritone, not a youth’s tenor. No acolyte pronounced judgment on Gael’s crimes, nor yet the head priest. The depth and power beneath that voice belonged to no mere mortal. This was Tiamar himself, puissant and all-knowing.

He spoke soothingly, reassurance in his tone, but Gael could not discern the sense of his words. It mattered not. Nothing the god might say could shake Gael’s condemnation of himself.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 90)

Nearly a year ago, Theron—castellanum of Belzetarn—had decided it was time to get rid of that thorn in his side, Gael. Time to bring the smithies and their tally chamber under the castellanum’s control. Or maybe Theron had been dreaming of this ever since he took office, but only put his schemes into action when an old, cold murder by Barris came to his attention.

Whether a long-held desire or a new one, Theron blackmailed Barris into stealing tin ingots. Not too often, and not blatantly, lest Gael notice the thefts too soon. Theron planned to build up a substantial cache as evidence of Gael’s perfidy.

Nor was Barris a quiescent victim. Sometimes he refused, and Theron had to find opportunity to renew his threats against the cook, because acting on them would destroy Theron’s leverage against him.

But every four or five deichtains, Barris would steal a tin ingot from the carry sack of the chronically late scullion who transported the metals from the vaults to the privy smithy. And late at night, when most of Belzetarn slept, Barris would hand the fruits of his theft to the castellanum, who then secreted them in the clogged latrine that he insured was never cleared.

So had the pillaging of the tally chamber begun, and so it proceeded, a slow and quiet erosion of which Gael remained unaware.

But then another player entered the game.

Two moons before Gael discovered the arrears in his tallies, Nathiar—Belzetarn’s magus—visited the nearby copper mines, there to prospect a new seam of ore. He went at Gael’s behest and with Carbraes’ permission, but not all his activities were licit. For Nathiar longed to create magical weapons to counter those used by their enemies on the battlefields, although Carbraes forbade such risky experiments.

Nathiar located and mapped a rich seam of copper, but he also tinkered with the furnace on-site, ensuring it would develop a clog in its innards, which he would be called upon to clear.

Nathiar returned to Belzetarn most indirectly from the copper mines, detouring far out of his way to the tinworks, where trolls scraped graveled streams for pebbles infused with the valuable metal. He claimed to be assessing the ore content of the many tributaries, but in truth he was there merely to thrust his loyal porter Lannarc into the job of teamster, to guide the mule that carried sacks of tin nuggets to Belzetarn’s vaults.

Had Fintan—the teamster who’d accompanied the tin mule for years—broken his leg accidentally? Or had Nathiar helped that accident along? No matter. Fintan was sidelined, while Lannarc took over his duties, pilfering a nugget here and a nugget there, collecting them in a drawstring pouch with rose-shaped rivets and passing them to Nathiar in a glade outside Belzetarn.

The magus then had tin.

And when the tap in the furnace at the copper mines developed its pre-ordained clog, Nathiar had copper as well. When sent for, just as he had planned, the magus fixed the clogged tap, of course. But he also created a secret tap leading to a hidden pocket in the earth and a plunger whose action would open the secret tap.

Gael grunted. Really the better part of the thievery had occurred long before he ever grew aware of it. He sighed and opened his eyes. Thin beams of moonlight were sifting in through the louvers of the casement shutters. The moon must have risen.

He stifled a second sigh, turned over, and resolutely shut his eyes. His limbs felt utterly relaxed, and he was sleepy. Why wasn’t he slumbering? He wanted that good night’s sleep. And he didn’t want this involuntary stream of images passing before his mind’s eye. He knew what had happened. He’d uncovered each damning deed himself.

But the tale of the thefts flowed onward, fast and furious in the next interval.

Martell, the privy smith, was late starting his work the day before Gael discovered the discrepancy in his tallies, and Martell’s lateness gave Theron fresh opportunity. The castellanum invited one of the trolls from the Hunters’ Lodge to dine in the lower great hall for a deichtain’s worth of feasting, ensuring that no one would question his anomalous presence in the tower.

The hunter looked entirely human and, like most new-made trolls, wondered if there had been some mistake. Perhaps he was no troll at all. Perhaps he might return home. Theron showed him his error. There would be no returning home for Halko, whose humanity would see him slain in Belzetarn, were his secret discovered.

Halko lurked in the passage outside the smithies, waiting until all save the trolls in the privy smithy had departed. Then he crept through the shadows unseen, and swiped an unused ingot of tin—for the castellanum—and an ingot of bronze for himself, from the counter between the privy smithy and the armor smithy, where the scullions were gathering everything to go to the vaults.

The privy notary had already made his hurried tally under Martell’s harassment, incorrectly as it chanced, since the stolen bronze remained undetected when Gael reconciled the tallies the next day. The discrepancy in the tin, of course, would be glaring. It started Gael on the track of the thief.

Yet the events of that night—the night before Gael began his investigations—had barely started. Not only had Theron invited a hunter to take supper in the tower; he’d invited the privy smith to dine at the high table itself by Theron’s side, where the castellanum could pour spiked wine into Martell’s cup. Martell had been late to his work once. Theron wanted him late again. And he was.

But yet another player entered the game during this second tardiness, that morning of the day when Gael would find his first evidence of theft. The ingots for the privy smithy arrived long before the privy smith, and Arnoll took one for his friend, the March Dreas.

Gael swallowed down a lump in his throat and turned over again, remembering that Dreas would need no more tin. How had he forgotten? He hadn’t really; he’d just been focusing on other problems, as it seemed he was focused now, stringing the thefts together in their proper order, following from one to the next.

Why? Was there some error he’d made when filling in the gaps? Would passing the entire chain through his awareness show him where he’d gone wrong? Very well. Instead of fighting the play of scenes within his awareness, he would cooperate, let that willful knowing part of him show the unknowing part whatever secret it wanted revealed.

Or at least get to the end of the sequence, when—Tiamar willing—he might sleep!

So . . . Gael had discovered what seemed to him the first theft and sent Keir madly tallying the contents of all the vaults. Which had shown that an ingot of bronze was also missing.

Keir had interviewed all the smiths and confirmed that Martell—artistic, flamboyant, and impatient with record-keeping—was most vulnerable to a thief, and Gael made arrangements to safeguard the privy smithy going forward. But not quickly enough to prevent the further theft that evening, when the hunter took yet another tin and another bronze.

Later still, Gael confronted Arnoll with the ingot he’d taken that morning. And together they unearthed the cache in the wall of the clogged latrine.

So had ended the first day of Gael’s search for his thief.

On the second day of his search, Barris stole an ingot right under Gael’s nose in the morning. But the hunter Halko was foiled by Keir’s presence in the smithy in the evening. And Gael witnessed Nathiar at his illicit forging in the hours later still.

His third day of searching started with Nathiar’s confession, followed by another theft from Barris, this time from under Keir’s nose. And then the thefts stopped, while Gael was absent from Belzetarn.

Theron was ready, with plenty of ingots accumulated and a plan to stash them in Gael’s storeroom sometime after Gael’s return, when Carbraes might be summoned to discover his secretarius with the stolen metal in hand.

Gael had turned the tables on that plan. It had been Theron caught red-handed by Carbraes, not Gael. With unexpected repercussions . . . for everyone, alas.

And there lay the whole of it, from the first theft by Barris a year ago to the last theft—also by Barris—on the day Gael left for Olluvarde.

He straightened his nightshirt, which had become twisted with all his turning over, and pulled his coverlet up to his waist. His breathing had quickened under the mental onslaught. He slowed it deliberately. Perhaps now he could sleep.

Except he seemed to have reached that uncomfortable state in which the body was weary—weary enough to almost hurt—but the mind was alert, all sleepiness passed. Was there something he had missed in all that long sequence of theft after theft? Some pertinent detail?

A vision of Keir’s face, unnaturally white, flashed before his inner eye. She’d been utterly shocked when he’d pronounced the words, “I know.’ How maladroit he’d been in his timing. His reassurance that he would keep the secret of her sex should have preceded his accusation, thusly sparing her alarm. She’d blushed when he did reassure her. It seemed an odd response to relief.

What had she been thinking?

His revelation that he knew her to be a young woman had not been the only time she’d paled. What had he said that other time, to have caused such a reaction in one usually so self-contained?

He delved through his memories once more, a more haphazard stirring than had been his journey through the sequence of thefts. Was it the first day—? No. The second? Yes, that was it.

She’d gotten a report from a smeltery scullion, who’d seen Arnoll removing an ingot of tin from the privy smithy. She was worried by it. And he’d been explaining that she need not be, that Arnoll had been acting under orders from a higher authority. Arnoll’s purloining of an ingot was no cause for worry, although the fact that Arnoll’s tin had proved to be copper, disguised by magery, was.

And then she’d blanched.

He’d assumed she was reacting to the illicit use of magery. But was she?

The very same day that Arnoll took his ingot, Keir had sought Gael’s counsel about her lingering hatred for trolls. It had been an awkward conversation—since he had wished to ignore in himself the very same concerns that Keir raised—and disappointing as well. Gael had judged she was getting past the revulsion trolls provoked in her. The repulsed looks he’d noted on her face in her early days in Belzetarn had long since ceased. And the easy way she had with the scullions, the kind authority she’d exerted in the matter of the bullied lunch boy, had encouraged him to believe she’d adjusted, both to being a troll and being among trolls.

Her troubled questions had shown his hope to be misplaced.

Keir had not adjusted. She’d merely learned to conceal her loathing.

What might that loathing have prompted her to do? Was Keir the traitor who had used magery to cast illusion on the ingots harbored in Gael’s metal vaults?

Surely not! He could not believe it of her. And yet . . . he did believe it. His belly felt sick with it.

Unwillingly, he thought back further, to Martell’s failed scissors, forged of one-to-nineteen bronze or weaker.

Martell had been issued four ingots of tin that day, along with one of bronze and eighteen of copper. Arnoll had stolen one tin ingot in the morning. Halko had stolen one tin and one bronze in the evening. Which meant that Martell should have had two ingots of tin to work with. Half of one went to lining saucepans with tin. The remaining half went into the bronze for the day, along with the other full tin ingot—one-and-a-half ingots of tin plus eighteen ingots of copper—to create one-to-twelve bronze.

But those scissors were not one-to-twelve.

Because that last full ingot of tin was not tin. It was copper disguised as tin. The scissors were poured from bronze made of nineteen ingots of copper—not eighteen—and one-half ingot of tin. The bronze was not even one-to-nineteen, but one-half-to-nineteen or—more properly—one-to-thirty-eight.

And Keir had nattered on about half ingots and wondering how a thief could steal a half, distracting Gael from the metal ratios with her supposed confusion. Deliberately distracting him! Keir must have known all along, because she had sent the ‘tin’ ingot—which was really copper—to the privy smithy.

Hells!

Keir was the one who had done it. Keir had disguised copper as tin. And he’d wager anything anyone cared to name that Keir had also disguised tin as copper, sending it to the blade smithy, where the blades that were made with it—two-eight bronze instead of one-nine—would be brittle and shatter more readily on the battlefield.

That was why she had blanched when he explained about Arnoll’s ‘tin.’ Not because of the use of magery, but because Gael had discovered its use. She’d been operating without the least suspicion raised. But once one disguised ingot came to light . . . it was only a matter of time until the whole traitorous substitution scheme would be revealed.

And when Gael had said, ‘I know,’ she’d assumed that he knew about the disguised ingots. Not about her sex, which was a lesser secret when set against treason. That was why she’d blushed at his reassuring words.

Hells!

Hells! Hells! Hells! Hells!

He sat up, swallowing down his nausea.

His reasoning, the evidence, all hung together, and he did not want it to. He remembered Keir tending his hurts after his fight with Dreben. Keir hugging him when he departed for Olluvarde. Keir smiling at him when he returned. Keir vehement about her desire to heal trolls of their truldemagar.

How could that Keir—the Keir he knew, the Keir he’d worked with, taught, and protected, the Keir he . . . loved?—be the traitor who plotted and acted to ensure the deaths of troll warriors on the field of battle?

And yet . . . she was.

He had no doubt at all, despite his inability to reconcile his experience of Keir with his knowledge of what she must have done.

He felt worse than sick, and lay down again.

Was there any doubt? Any doubt at all? He wanted there to be doubt. Desperately wanted it. And could not find any grounds for it. None at all.

What would he do now?

He felt dizzy, as though someone had reached into his skull with a long-handled spoon and stirred. All his thinking had led him to this, but now he could not think at all. Could not reason his way to equilibrium, to clarity, to understanding. He felt lost.

Hells, Gael! Get a decent night’s sleep, said some still, small voice inside him—the force of habit perhaps. Obediently, he buried his head in the cushion beneath it. And against all expectation, sleep claimed him.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 89)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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