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.
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?
Next scene: coming August 4.
The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 98)
Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)
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The Tally Master