The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 87)

The light outside the arrowslits of the Cliff Stair had grown very golden, contrasting strongly with the increasing dimness within the stairwell. The sun must be nearing the tree tops beyond the meadow at the bailey’s gatehouse. Gael, still standing in the latrine and wishing he were not, felt emptied out, as one might after a long day in the open, picking berries or swimming in the river or riding horseback. Except that the evening following a day of satisfying effort would bring a welcome lassitude. Gael felt hollow rather than replete.

Now that Theron had departed, would Carbraes permit Gael to speak?

The regenen gestured him to leave the latrine. Thank Tiamar, since his nose had not habituated to the stench. The air was not much cleaner immediately outside the latrine door, but swapping that close confinement for a sense of the depth to which the stairwell descended, and the equally great height to which it ascended, ushered in a degree of relief.

Carbraes, Gael noticed, lingered long enough to rinse the ingot he still held—as well as his hand—with water from the bucket located in the latrine’s wall niche. He shut the door as he exited. Nodding for Gael to accompany him, he started up the stairs.

“This isn’t the first time Theron has betrayed you,” said Gael, putting together the evidence dropped by Carbraes’ dealings with his castellanum.

“And you wonder why I continue to bear with him,” answered the regenen, climbing steadily.

“He’s skilled at managing the complexities of a large stronghold,” mused Gael. “But how many times may you threaten to cut his head off—and not deliver, given that his head remains attached—before your authority ceases to have meaning?”

“Oh, I delivered. Each time,” said Carbraes.

Gael’s brows twitched.

The next landing, with its passage to the place of arms, came into sight, a cluster of messengers milling about on it.

“My first threat was considerably less than beheading, of course, but it kept Theron in line for some time. As did my second, more serious threat. And my third, more serious yet. His next transgression must be his last.”

They arrived on the landing, and Carbraes sent one messenger to Dreben, another to the prison cells, and three more on various other errands. He directed the rest to precede him up the Regenen Stair. They scampered off through the passage to the place of arms, Carbraes following at a more measured pace and drawing Gael with him.

Bright stripes of sunlight crossed the stone floor of the warriors’ practice place, casting its high vault into deep shadow. The air was blessedly fresh as Gael breathed it in.

“I know Theron’s limits,” continued Carbraes, “and I can work with him so long as I do. I intend to receive his full worth.”

“Until your last punishment brings an end,” said Gael. He quelled a shudder as they entered into the shadow of the passage to the Regenen Stair. The torches were yet unlit, but it was not the dark that provoked the shiver. He knew Carbraes to be supremely practical. He’d seen that quality in action again and again. It was what made him so effective. But this instance of it seemed chillingly cold-blooded.

“I know Theron’s limits,” Carbraes repeated. “But I no longer feel I know yours. Do you?”

The question hit Gael like the gust from a stormfront. Not so long ago—the day before he discovered evidence of a theft in his tally room, in fact—he would have answered it with a ‘yes.’ He was loyal to Carbraes and all else must be subsumed to that loyalty. Now . . . if he had to choose between Carbraes and Keir, he did not know who he would choose.

Cayim’s hells and Gaelan’s virtues!

“Uh, huh,” responded Carbraes, seeing the reaction in Gael’s face, no doubt.

Or maybe Gael did know who he would choose. He would choose Keir. Except he could not. Not if he intended to live under Carbraes’ benevolence.

They emerged from the dark passage into the merely dim stairwell.

“Who will you choose, Gael?” said Carbraes.

He had to choose Carbraes.

“Let this be a test,” said the regenen, starting up the steps. “You will stay far away from the brig, which should be easy if you attend to your duties. You will trust Keir to my justice. And my mercy, in the event that it is required. And you will destroy that evil gong.”

“But—” Gael couldn’t stem that small sound of protest.

“And then I will know where you stand,” concluded the regenen.

Hells! He shouldn’t have been so smug when listening to Carbraes setting forth his requirements for Theron. The regenen had intended Gael to feel that justice would be upheld, and to see that Carbraes could neither be manipulated nor deceitfully swayed, yes. But he’d also intended his secretarius to see the castellanum’s disciplining as a foreshadowing of his own.

The scamper of the messengers’ footsteps echoed from above in the stairwell. Gael wasn’t sure where the rest of the normal traffic was. Had the great halls emptied out entirely while he and Theron and Carbraes clashed? Maybe.

“But if you lose both Keir and myself—” he hadn’t intended to speak the thought aloud.

“Then Arnoll will become my secretarius,” said Carbraes, unperturbed. Did he measure Gael’s limits even now? Undoubtedly.

“Arnoll would never—” blurted Gael.

“How do you think Arnoll’s survived this long?” asked Carbraes gently. “Of course Arnoll will do as I ask him.”

Gael climbed three twists of the spiral stair in silence, a silence of constriction and disquiet. Carbraes climbed beside him, equally silent, but inhabiting a silence of composure. When they reached the landing—the one right outside the tally room—Carbraes halted, and Gael perforce halted with him.

“I know you try to be a man of honor,” said the regenen.

But he wasn’t a man. He was a troll.

Carbraes shook his head, negating any disagreement he perceived. “You have never accepted your truldemagar, Gael,” he said.

The statement felt like a blow. It was true, but he’d also never admitted it to himself.

“I respect you for that,” said Carbraes. “I even honor you for it. Dreas also held to that standard,” he added quietly.

Gael hardly knew how to respond.

Carbraes handed him the copper ingot he still carried. The metal had completely dried, its washed surface gleaming softly in the dimness. “You’ll want to return this to its proper place,” he said.

Gael accepted it, grasping the truncated pyramidal shape firmly and wondering what it was he saw in Carbraes’ face.

“There are limits to honor when you dwell in a troll citadel, Gael,” said the regenen. “Choose yours wisely.”

After Carbraes turned to go, headed for the next flight of spiraling steps, Gael recognized what he’d seen in his regenen’s expression.

It was sadness.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 86)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 86)

Gael’s innards felt utterly chilled. Keir would be so vulnerable behind bars, guarded by troll warriors. So many awful things might happen to her there. He had to persuade the regenen to reverse his castellanum’s deed. Immediately.

Carbraes nodded. “Yes, that is well.”

“No, it is not well!” Gael exclaimed.

With effort, he brought his voice under control. “My lord Regenen, your castellanum—a self-confessed traitor and thief—is speculating and guessing. Permitting him to imprison an utterly innocent young woman is just . . . wrong. Please order her release immediately.”

Carbraes heard him impassively, but exhibited little sympathy. “Gael, this matter must be sifted. Someone used magery on those copper ingots and queued them to be distributed to my smithies as tin. Someone with the kind of access possessed only by you. And by Keir. If Keir is a traitor, she could do great damage left at large. It will do her no harm to spend a day or two in confinement.”

Theron said nothing, but his eyes gleamed.

Fine. Gael’s first argument had failed. He would try his second.

“But she suffered a head injury, my lord Regenen. It may well do her harm to bide in confinement, when she requires care in Belzetarn’s hospital under the oversight of a physician. Medicus Piar was attending her. Could you not consign her to him? A guard might be posted outside her chamber.”

One of his brows raised, Carbraes turned to Theron. “Were you aware that she was injured?” he asked.

“No, my Lord Carbraes,” answered the castellanum, veiling his gaze.

“Send a physician to the cells to treat her, along with a messenger to explain that the guards must grant him their full cooperation.” Carbraes glanced at Gael. “Will that do, my lord Secretarius?”

“Send Piar, please.” Gael trusted Piar.

“You hear?” said Carbraes to Theron.

“Yes, my lord Regenen.”

Hells. Gael was running out of persuasions.

“If the guards realize her sex, they will abuse her. I doubt the castellanum”—Gael glowered at Theron—“has been discrete. She may take great harm in this confinement.”

“Well, Theron?” said Carbraes. “To whom have you mentioned that Keir is a young woman?”

“To several trolls, my lord. It was necessary that they know.” He actually sounded prissy.

“And would you say that her guards know the truth?” Carbraes looked as though he agreed with Gael: of course Theron had told them.

“Yes, my lord Regenen,” answered Theron, not in the least shame-faced.

“You and Dreben will answer for the conduct of her guards,” Carbraes stated.

A hint of triumph passed over Theron’s countenance. “Yes, my lord Regenen.”

“Theron.” Carbraes’ voice held menace. “Whatever comes to her, shall come to you. Do. You. Understand.”

Theron stiffened. “Yes, my lord Regenen.” The utterance was sincere, where his others had been pro forma.

My messengers shall go to Dreben and to Keir’s guards, informing them of my decree.” Carbraes’ tone was pointed.

“Of course, my lord Regenen.”

Gael cudgeled his thoughts. What additional objection could he make? There had to be something. ‘It’s not fair.’ He’d tried that one. ‘It’s not safe. And there’s another alternative.’ That had been his second argument. ‘It’s really not safe.’ That hadn’t worked either.

‘You owe me’?

He shut Theron from his awareness to focus solely on his regenen. “Carbraes. I have served you faithfully for seven years. I have created accurate tallying methods for your tin and your copper and your bronze. Without my improvements, we would never have known that a thief peculated. We would never have known that copper was disguised as tin. I have shepherded your tin and copper in the process that makes them into the swords and the shields and the helms that arm and armor your legions. All my effort I have bent to your aims. Grant me a boon, Regenen.”

He’d have gone down on one knee, if it would have helped. But a troll-lord would not be moved by vulnerability. Gael must present strength, not weakness.

Carbraes looked Gael very steadily in the eye. “Gael. No.”

Gael drew breath to protest yet again. He would not take no.

Carbraes held up one hand. “Gael. No.”

Gael let his breath go. So. Carbraes would not even hear him. Not beyond the audience that the regenen had already extended.

Carbraes turned to his castellanum. “You will cease to meddle in my smithies and in the vaults and the tally chamber that supply them.”

“Yes, my lord.” Theron sounded diligent and reliable, as though thievery lay far below him.

“You will cease to trouble my Lord Gael in any way.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“You will attend solely and thoroughly to the regulation and the conduct of my citadel.”

“Of course, my lord.” Theron’s brows both rose in surprise.

“And if I detect any attempt by you to usurp my privilege—” Carbraes ceased speaking altogether, his face grim. “Your reach to pull the tally chamber and its offices under your control was usurpation, Theron. If you do so again, I will sever your head from your body. Personally.” The regenen’s grimness segued into a flat, emotionless expression that was even scarier. “Is. That. Clear.”

Theron’s complacency fled. His voice actually wobbled as he answered, “Yes, my Regenen.”

Carbraes nodded.

“M—may I go?” asked the castellanum.

“Go,” said Carbraes curtly. He stayed silent until Theron had disappeared, ascending around the newel post of the stair.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 87)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 85)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 85)

The regenen barged in, even though there was scarcely room for a third in the tiny latrine.

Gael twisted aside, and Carbraes’ charge took Theron solidly in the chest, knocking the castellanum back against the latrine bench forcefully enough that he lost his footing. He collapsed onto the seat, luckily not into the clogged hole. Carbraes loomed over him, breathing hard.

Gael studied his regenen’s suffused face and glaring eyes. He looked furious, and yet . . . not quite so furious as Gael had expected.

“Belm’s debt, Theron!” roared Carbraes, unheeding of anyone who might overhear through the still-open door. Not that the stair wasn’t empty at this moment. “Can’t you ever keep your hands on your own key ring! You’re a damn canny castellanum, but this preoccupation you have with ousting your peers is damn inconvenient! What do I have to do to make you behave!”

Now Gael knew what was wrong. Carbraes was angry all right, but angry in the way one was with a friend, not as a regenen to his erring vassal servant.

While Theron scooted farther from the latrine hole and Carbraes panted, Gael spoke. He needed to steer the situation, or Theron would scramble his way to favor in spite of his capital theft.

“Tell my Lord Carbraes what you did and why!” he commanded Theron. “I dare you!”

Carbraes regained his breath before Theron could answer.

“He need not tell me anything. I know him well enough to know exactly what and why.” The regenen stepped back to lean against the door jamb. “So, Theron, do I sever your head from your body?” he asked cordially. “Is that the only way to stem your hostility toward my march and my secretarius?”

Theron was recovering as well. He placed the dripping ingot of tin delicately next to the clogged latrine hole and rose to standing. Amazing how a troll with a hand covered in excrement could assume so disdainful a demeanor nonetheless.

Theron sniffed.

“No, my lord Regenen, you need merely replace your march and your secretarius and your magus with trolls I get on with, and there will be no trouble at all.” The castellanum managed to look down his thin nose, even though Carbraes stood a mere arm’s length away from him.

“I thought you ‘got on’ with my magus!” said Carbraes.

“Oh, I do, my lord Regenen,” replied Theron.

“But you do not ‘get on’ with Lord Dreben?” Carbraes inquired caustically.

“You know that I do, my lord Regenen.”

“Then who would I need to replace my Lord Gael here with to provide for your comfort complete?” Carbraes continued, irony strong.

“That would be for you to choose, my lord Regenen,” answered Theron smoothly, “but anyone would be better than Gael.”

“And yet I like and respect my Lord Gael,” declared Carbraes.

Hells! Gael’s beautifully orchestrated exposure of Theron as a treasonous crook was turning into edged banter between cronies.

He felt a touch foolish.

Just as Carbraes encouraged Gael to believe that between the two of them lay a special relationship—that of one honorable and competent troll to another—so the regenen must persuade others in his cortege to see their relationships with him as special. Carbraes and Theron shared the experience of ruling thousands: the castellanum controlling each and every artisan, apprentice, scullion, messenger, and porter; the regenen governing all of Belzetarn, its outlying camps, and his legions.

There had to be a way to remind Carbraes that the castellanum had pursued a prolonged and systematic series of treasonous acts against his regenen.

Theron frowned and took up the ingot that he had so carefully set down, turning the piece in both hands despite the fecal slime still clinging to the metallic surface.

“There’s something wrong with this,” he said and held the noisome object out to the regenen.

Carbraes looked his disgust and then took the ingot. “I see nothing wrong with it that a good scrubbing would not fix,” he said.

Gael was beginning to have his own suspicion about what was wrong with that ingot. But surely Theron knew that some of the stolen ingots were tin, while others were copper. Where was he going with this diversion? If Gael had anything to say—and he would—the fact of the disguised copper would fall against the castellanum, not the secretarius.

“There’s something wrong with this ingot!” Theron declared again. He took it back from the regenen, turning the piece over, and over again.

Good theater, thought Gael. Theron was really very convincing. Unless . . . was he really not acting?

A huff of irritation broke from the castellanum. “Someone must look at it energetically! It stands as proof—proof!—that the secretarius has not guarded your tin as he should!”

Gael frowned. Surely it stood as proof of Theron’s own further malfeasance?

Carbraes allowed one corner of his mouth to turn up. “Really, Theron. You were the one stealing my tin from my vaults. They are mine, I must remind you. I hardly think that the victim of your larceny—my secretarius—deserves the kind of censure that you do yourself.”

Gael stayed quiet. The regenen was going just where Gael would have guided him, and people always believed their own reasoning over that of others.

“Please, my lord Regenen,” said Theron. How did he manage to combine haughtiness with pleading?

“You know I hate magery!” snapped Carbraes.

“Just this once, sire,” beseeched Theron. Did he blush?

“Gah!” Carbraes stretched out his hand to receive the ingot back, and the castellanum relinquished it to him. The regenen shut his eyes, breathing slowly in and out. “Fah, it’s foul in here,” he muttered, and then fell silent. It was true the open door didn’t help the air much, although it meant they could see.

Carbraes’ brows knit above his closed eyelids. “Belm’s sin! What is this?”

Gael could guess what he was seeing; no doubt exactly what Gael had seen when he examined Arnoll’s ingot—the one meant for Dreas. Gael suppressed an inner twinge that the thought of Dreas produced.

As Carbraes turned the ingot in his hands, the metal under his fingers changed hue, flushing from cold tin to warm copper.

Tiamar on his throne! Carbraes had not merely opened his inner sight; he’d actually manipulated the energea to remove the ingot’s disguise.

The regenen’s eyes opened, and his gaze stabbed into Gael’s. “Explain!” he rapped.

“I cannot, my lord Regenen. I do not know who wrought this magery or why.” And he didn’t.

Theron touched Carbraes’ wrist with his cleaner hand. “He does and can. He merely will not, because he’s a traitor. Don’t you see it, Regenen? He and Keir between them intend to disrupt Belzetarn so thoroughly that it will fall!”

Surely Carbraes would not accept that on Theron’s mere say-so.

“I don’t believe it!” asserted Carbraes.

Nor should he, thought Gael.

“But imagine the turmoil in your smithies when tin is confused with copper! Had not my Lord Dreas, before his death”—Theron glanced significantly at Gael—“reported higher casualties on the field of battle due to weapon failure? I told you that the secretarius should operate under the oversight of the castellanum, did I not? Or the march, if you insist.” Theron’s voice was sweetly reasonable.

“I don’t believe it!” insisted Carbraes.

Carbraes might value Theron more than Gael had realized, but he was no fool.

Theron sighed. “No, I don’t either. He’s always been stupidly loyal. You are right. It cannot be Gael, however much I dislike him.” Theron paused—artificially to Gael’s perception; who knew what Carbraes thought. “But consider Keir. Surely you know that Keir is not so loyal as his master.”

Gael tensed. What?

“He did kill Dreas,” agreed Carbraes, “but it was a mishap.”

“Are you sure of that?” asked Theron.

This was ridiculous!

“No,” admitted Carbraes.

“This is ridiculous!” Gael burst out.

Theron raised his cleaner—but not clean—hand to his chin. He’d need a full immersing before the sauna at this rate. “But if Gael did not do the magery on this ingot—and who knows on how many other ingots—who did? It has to be Keir. And why would he do that unless to disrupt Belzetarn.”

“This is absurd,” said Gael.

“No, I do not think it can be Keir,” agreed Carbraes.

“My lord Regenen—” began Gael, judging the moment as propitious for turning Carbraes’ thoughts to how he intended to rein in his castellanum’s treasonous proclivities.

“But I do!” interrupted Theron. “And furthermore, I have already taken steps to secure both your safety and the safety of the citadel!”

“Oh?” said the regenen.

“First, my lord”—Theron had decidedly regained all his poise—“you should know that ‘he’ is not a he, but a she.”

Cayim’s hells! That ruined all. Even were Keir to be proven innocent of Theron’s awful accusation, she would never be safe in Belzetarn again. Theron would never keep such a juicy tidbit to himself. No doubt he’d already released it to his cronies. Every scullion would know the truth by the morrow.

“Hmm,” murmured Carbraes. Had he already known? Or guessed?

“You’ll admit he did the deception well,” said Theron. “Er. She did. And if she is so skilled at pretense, the possibility is high that she deceives in other things.”

“You know that is untrue,” interjected Gael, serious and steady. He could not let this point of Theron’s stand. “Any woman dragged to Belzetarn would do the same, and grow skilled fast or perish. I’ll wager anything you care to name as a stake that there is at least one apprentice somewhere who is female, and as utterly unsuspected as Keir was until a moment ago.” He gazed gravely at Theron. “You have done very ill, Castellanum, to strip Keir’s disguise from her.” As I know you have, he thought.

“But consider her unique position of trust,” pursued Theron, glancing slyly at Gael, no doubt thinking of their discussion of positions of trust en route to the latrine. “Consider that she did slay Dreas. And right under your nose, too.”

Did Carbraes pale? He was grieving. Gael realized his accusations when he learned of Dreben’s elevation had been unjust. Carbraes—unlike many mortals—would not allow his grief to derail his fulfillment of his responsibilities. And the ruling of a troll citadel came with many. Gael had always considered Carbraes as capable, supremely so. Now he was feeling in his marrow just how deeply that capability ran. Although . . . even Carbraes must suffer his judgment to be affected by sorrow, mustn’t he?

“So what have you done?” the regenen asked his castellanum.

“Thrown her in the brig!” boasted Theron. “Well, I desired Dreben to do so, and he obliged me.”

*     *     *

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Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 84)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 84)

Chapter 18

Gael waited on a landing within the dimness of the Lake Stair where the passage from the great hall debouched. The view through a nearby arrowslit showed the dark shadow of the tower stretching far out across the glittering sunlit waters of the lake, but Gael had his back to the opening. He stood directly in front of the steps leading up. He did not intend to let Theron have unimpeded access to the ascent to his quarters.

The brightness filling the feasting chamber—direct sun through its southwestern windows mingled with torchlight—did not reach so far as the stairwell, but the din of five-hundred trolls eating and conversing carried easily. A steady rumble of shifting chairs and shifting diners sounded beneath the cacophony of voices, while the occasional ting of a knife against a bronze serving bowl sang above it.

The scent of almond cakes made Gael glad that Barris had pressed a trio of meat tartlets upon him before he left the kitchen. Eating held definite appeal, but real hunger remained in abeyance.

Gael had located the castellanum quite simply.

The march’s quarters lay a mere three and one-third twists from the tower’s topmost level. Gael had retraced his steps after his interview with Carbraes, climbing to the battlements and then descending via the Lake Stair, checking each great hall as he went down.

The high table in the upper feasting chamber had lain bare and untenanted. The elite trolls dining at the flanking boards dined without their regenen, their secretarius, their march, or their castellanum—as they did whenever Carbraes chose to eat elsewhere.

The middle great hall had been equally barren of the four officers bearing Belzetarn’s highest prestige.

In the lower great hall, Theron presided alone at the high table, usurping the regenen’s chair and filling the neighboring seats with his cronies. Gael had been gratified to notice a hint of elated satisfaction in the castellanum’s demeanor as he gestured graciously to the steward beside him. Theron’s fall from favor—if one could call the regenen’s tolerance of his castellanum such—to disgrace would be great. As well it should be.

Having found his quarry, Gael had retreated from the passage mouth.

Theron would be the first to summon a server with basin, ewer, and cloths to wash and dry the castellanum’s hands; the first to rise; the first to depart the feast hall. He might invite a few guests to attend him in his quarters, but they would follow at a discrete interval, rather than accompanying him on the stairway. Nor would he retire to some other haunt within Belzetarn. Theron’s evening activities were quite predictable.

Gael raised his chin from his chest when footsteps sounded in the passage from the great hall—leisurely footfalls, those of a troll confident in his power and his position.

Theron rounded the corner a moment later. He reared back, nostrils flaring in his thin nose, when he spotted Gael.

“Really, Secretarius,” came the castellanum’s cultured voice, “I should not have to ask you to stand aside.”

“Walk with me,” answered Gael, gesturing down instead of up, as Theron likely would have preferred.

“Can it not wait?” asked Theron, coldly.

“I believe not,” said Gael, curious to see if Theron would assume that some official concern required his attention—something tangential upon Dreas’ death perhaps, which event Theron surely must know. Or not. It didn’t matter. Gael had additional promptings ready, should he need them.

But Theron fell in with the arc of Gael’s gesture, moving toward the steps down. Perhaps the castellanum’s sense of his own dignity disinclined him to stand brangling with the secretarius barring his way.

Gael took the outside position as they descended, the better to block the castellanum unobtrusively, if he should decide to change his mind.

“You occupy a position of great trust, Theron,” Gael began, a tinge of rigor in his tone. “You have in your keeping the keys to every chamber in this citadel. Except those to my tally room and my vaults, of course,” he added deliberately.

Did Theron quiver just the least bit? Gael knew it rankled in him that the castellanum did not possess those keys, too.

“And you send your boys into every chamber as well,” Gael continued. “I am not convinced that you deserve the faith placed in you.”

They had reached the first landing down from the great hall, one and two-thirds of a twist around the newel post. Gael was tallying—a tally he could make in his sleep, if need be—as he must time his provocations to their progress.

Theron sniffed. “Your own position of trust carries similar requirements. And opportunities.” His voice grew acerbic. “Are you certain that you have not abused those opportunities granted by it to you, Gael?”

Ah! Theron had given him the perfect straight line.

“You shall tell me,” said Gael. “But did not your boys abuse their position of trust? They entered my chambers while I travelled from Belzetarn to Olluvarde, and used their seclusion to pry into my padlocked storeroom. Or was it you abusing the chance offered by your keys and my absence? Did you order those boys to gain access to that gong? Had you nefarious plans for the artifact? Theron?”

They had reached the second landing, another one and two-thirds of a twist down.

“Don’t be a fool, Gael” replied Theron. “I’m no magus! But you once were.”

“The regenen is making changes in his stronghold,” said Gael. “He has appointed a new march.” Gael glanced at Theron to note whether he showed surprise or dismay at this tidbit. He didn’t, which was informative. “How if Carbraes were to appoint a new castellanum?”

Theron snickered.

They had reached the third landing, and Gael ushered Theron into the passage toward the place of arms.

“I wonder that you envision Carbraes replacing his castellanum,” said Theron. “Surely he would prefer to replace his secretarius! Think, my dear Gael! My boys committed a minor peccadillo; your underling killed a troll and perhaps not so innocently. Did you order him to kill Dreas? Your underling was far less trustworthy than were mine. Unless he did your bidding, of course.”

The place of arms was utterly empty, cleared of the practice butts and mats, no warriors lingering. Long rays of sunlight shone in the southwestern windows to their left, and the ornate stairway that wound around the massive center pillar—the channel for the smithies’ smokes—climbed into the shadows of the high vault.

Gael marched straight across the space toward the passage to the Cliff Stair, just a half-step ahead of his companion.

Theron continued with his own brand of poison. “I scarcely believe that Carbraes keeps faith with you, Gael, in the wake of the murder of his dearest friend!”

Gael paused before answering, giving them time to enter the passage. They paced side by side and then began their descent again, toward the next place of arms.

Gael spoke. “Carbraes and I remain solidly allied. I am just come from him, my dear Theron, and he assured me of his forgiveness and his continued support. The regenen will believe me, not you.”

They were nearing the first landing.

“The regenen showed every evidence of his mistrust in you when he presented his new march to me,” parried Theron. “And his new march—” Theron allowed himself a beat of silence “—Dreben, mislikes you in the extreme. I urge you: beware!”

They had reached their destination, two steps above the landing.

Gael stopped.

“I possess reins for Dreben,” countered Gael. He didn’t, but no matter. The surface, not the substance, counted here. “But you, my very dear Theron, are failing in your duties, and there is no redemption from an obligation ill-done. Or omitted altogether.”

Gael threw open the door in the curving wall of the stairway.

The stench from the latrine with the clogged outlet rolled over them. Theron flinched back, astonishment on his face.

“My dear Gael, really? A clogged latrine? Really?” Did the castellanum look the least bit nervous? Perhaps not.

Gael gestured Theron to enter the cramped space. After a momentary hesitation, he did so. Gael followed him closely, shutting the door behind them. The cranny was utterly dark.

Gael gestured with his wrist—a gesture very like the one Nathiar had made in quest of honey.

The pale blue glow of magelight sprang up, illuminating Theron’s pale face. Gael did not think the castellanum’s pallor due merely to the coolness of the radiance. Gleams of perspiration bedewed Theron’s brow. Below him, the latrine hole swam with muck.

“Ah, but it is not within the latrine that the problem lies,” said Gael, his voice genial. “The latrine presents a mere symbol of your foulness, my dear Theron. Smell it, Theron, smell it well! The stink is the stink that pervades your very energea.” Gael shifted from his false affability to pure aggression. “Did you truly believe that I did not know you’ve been stealing my tin ingots, which I hold in trust for the regenen, you vile dastard?”

“You’ll never prove it,” rasped Theron.

“But I have the regenen’s trust,” Gael reminded him. “And you . . . do not.”

This was the crucial moment. Had he rattled the castellanum enough that he would fail to leap immediately to what Gael’s objective must be? Just an instant’s lapse would be enough.

Theron’s voice was shaking—with rage, not fear. “Is he so trustful that he would believe in your innocence when he catches you in the act of counting ingots in your newly padlocked storeroom, that padlock ordered by you, not me? And those ingots stolen by you, not me? Think, you fool! Your underling killed Dreas this very afternoon!”

Theron laughed, an ugly sound, and continued.

“I need merely summon Dreben to beat you senseless, deposit you in your storeroom with the stolen tin, one ingot clutched in your unconscious hand, and summon Carbraes to view the scene. Tell me why I should not!”

Perfect!

“Ah!” breathed Gael, unheeding of the disgusting air. “But I don’t believe you possess those stolen ingots any longer. What if I discovered those ingots in their hiding place?” he drawled. “What if I removed them to their proper place in my vaults? How then will you achieve your careful little scenario? You hold no key to my vaults, and—believe you me!—their locks will fall to no petty energea wielded by a petty thief!”

Theron looked as though he might burst with rage.

The castellanum reposted: “You fool! You never knew where I stored them! I can see that right here!” He jerked his chin toward the brimming latrine hole. “Here, where I did conceal them. Here, where you did not find them. Here, where I have them still!”

In fury, the castellanum plunged his fair hand into the swimming wastes and yanked an ingot of tin out of the liquid ooze. He held the tin up triumphantly, a cruel smile on his lips.

Gael, having entered after Theron, remained close to the door. He rapped its wood sharply with his knuckles, letting the magelight die upon his knock.

Someone on the other side of the door wrenched it open.

The light from the stairwell caught Theron full on.

And revealed Carbraes, the door latch still gripped in his fist, his wrathful gaze fixed on his castellanum with the tainted tin held high.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 83)

As Carbraes turned back to Gael, Gael blurted, “You fill Dreas’ boots too soon!”

Carbraes’ icy blue eyes, already cold as they rested on his secretarius, grew colder yet. The good understanding Gael had enjoyed for so long with his regenen had not recovered from its recent extinguishing. “You forget yourself, Lord Gael. Every office within Belzetarn is mine to fill as I will and when I will.”

Gael knew he should drop the matter, but somehow he could not. He had liked Dreas himself, seeing in the march an older Arnoll, seeing himself and Arnoll in Carbraes and Dreas. The regenen’s swift recovery from the death of his friend seemed a betrayal of that friendship. Dreas had been honorable, loyal, almost a paladin, if any troll could aspire to such. Dreben was greedy, power-hungry, and violent. How could Carbraes set him in Dreas’ place?

“You defile Dreas’ memory by your choice of Dreben!” Gael snarled, appalled at his unwisdom, but unable to stay silent.

“Do you court your own death?” asked Carbraes, an edge to his calm tone. “For if you do, I am well able to supply it.”

Gael got a hold of himself. “I beg your pardon, my lord Regenen. My grief for Dreas makes my speech wild and overbold. And”—Carbraes had always valued frankness; surely he could not have changed so much—“Dreben and I have never been friendly.”

Carbraes directed a long unsmiling look at Gael.

Gael met it stubbornly. He was willing to retract a remark bordering on insult. He was not willing to retreat from his true convictions.

Carbraes’ expression softened. “All Belzetarn shall miss my best beloved. There was no one like him, never will be again,” he said gently. “Your sorrow at his passing does you credit, Lord Gael. You have my forgiveness.” Carbraes’ gaze sharpened, and his tone grew sharper with it. “I trust you will find yourself able to respect Lord Dreben, despite your former differences.”

Gael doubted it, merely because Dreben would not fail to push matters, but telling Carbraes so could bear no fruit. “Yes, my lord Carbraes.”

“Good. Good.” Carbraes nodded firmly. “Be about your affairs, Lord Gael.”

That was dismissal, but Gael had not broached his business with Carbraes, even though Carbraes had finished his with Gael.

“Your messenger did not find me to bring me before you,” said Gael. “I sought you on another matter.”

Carbraes stiffened. “You cannot destroy the gong on the morrow’s morn,” he said, disapproval in his voice, “is that it?”

Gael and Nathiar and Arnoll would not be destroying the gong. That lay beyond the heat of Belzetarn’s forges. They would merely disarm the artifact. But now was not the time to remind Carbraes of the distinction. “No, my lord Regenen. The procedure for muting the gong is well in train. I came upon another matter.”

“Oh.” Carbraes relaxed. “Tell me your matter then.”

“Do you recall that before I departed for Olluvarde, I informed you that a thief had been stealing ingots of tin from your smithies?” Gael thought of them as his own smithies, but his ability to be politic had returned.

Carbraes frowned. “That shall be your next duty when you’ve melted down that cursed gong. Catching the thief.”

“I’d prefer to catch him this evening,” said Gael. “It could be done.”

“Who is he?” demanded Carbraes.

“If you are willing to lend yourself to the trap I’ve devised, I shall show him to you,” said Gael.

Carbraes stared an instant, then nodded. “Tell me what you require,” he said, his whole demeanor more friendly than it had been during the entire previous interchange.

Gael went over his plan, explaining the few pertinent details, while avoiding mention of whom he intended to catch. The regenen seemed intrigued with Gael’s provisions and pleased with the chance to take direct action in the matter. Perhaps he tired of always telling others to act while never doing so himself?

“You understand that the timing is critical?” Gael asked, concluding with that question.

Carbraes smiled. “I do. On your knock, I’ll come in.”

“Then I shall see you shortly, my lord Regenen,” said Gael.

Carbraes sighed, a shortened huff of breath. “You were used to address me as Carbraes, Gael. From time to time.”

Gael directed an assessing glance at the regenen. Had he won his forgiveness? “I feared I had trespassed beyond your clemency, Carbraes,” he said, testing the informality.

“Dreas was the heart of my honor,” answered Carbraes. “I shall attempt to retain it in his absence, but already the challenge proves hard. You, too, value integrity, Gael. I’d . . . forgotten that. For an interval.”

Carbraes’ eyes hardened momentarily. “Though your notarius lacks your probity!” The regenen turned away to gaze out the open casement beside him, where a sliver of lake glimmered bluer than ever beyond the rampart below.

He glanced back over his shoulder at Gael again, his eyes softer in the wake of his surge of temper. “Forgive me?” he said, his voice matching his eyes.

Gael nodded, swallowing down the lump forming in his throat. The bulwark of the trust between himself and his regenen—missing from the moment of Dreas’ death—had returned, and it felt like when he’d stepped into his tally room this afternoon. It was Carbraes’ backing that made Belzetarn bearable.

“Go, Gael,” said Carbraes, surveying the view again. “Let us catch this thief!”

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 82)

The servery was clogged with scullions when Gael retraced his steps from Barris’ quarters. Boys pushed at the back of the crowd to get their turn at the hatch, boys jostled elbows at the hatch itself and scrambled to fill their trays, boys with loaded trays shouted and shoved their way through the mass to get to the Regenen Stair.

Gael dismissed a nascent idea of threading his way through the kitchens to access the deserted Lake Stair instead. He’d have every cook from the sauce master to the fruitery decanen yelling at him to get out, including even Barris, who was back at his command in the regenen’s kitchen. The evening feast was about to begin.

In any case he needed a messenger, and a clump of them waited by the door to the wood scullery, ready to run between the kitchens and the great halls as required by the cooks and the servers.

Gael tapped the nearest on the shoulder. “You! Boy!”

The lad’s eyes grew large when he realized who had accosted him. The press was too close about him to permit a bow, but he made one anyway, bumping into his annoyed cohorts with rump and head.

“My lord Secretarius!” he gasped.

Gael drew breath to give a message for the regenen, but then let it go without speaking.

Before his journey to Olluvarde, he might have sent this request by messenger. Even this noon, when he’d just returned, Carbraes would have welcomed Gael’s plea. But now, in the wake of Dreas’ death, Carbraes’ response . . . might lack the goodwill Gael required.

And Gael was late in waking Keir. Hells! He’d wanted to do that personally, but this messenger would have to go to Keir, not Carbraes. Gael must speak with Carbraes in person for the plan he was evolving to have any chance of success.

He gave the necessary instructions to the messenger, who provoked more complaint—from both his fellows and the kitchen scullions—when he followed his nod by ducking low enough to ram his way through the mob.

“Where does the regenen bide?” Gael asked the messenger cursing next to him. No doubt Carbraes would be making his way to one of the great halls, but there was no knowing which he had chosen.

“In Lord Dreas’ apartments, Secretarius.” This boy merely bobbed his head respectfully, more careful of his neighbors. “He dines in conference with the march.”

Apparently the march’s demise remained unknown as yet. That would not last, but he would not break the news.

“Thank you, lad,” Gael replied, turning to wade through the swarming boys.

Traffic on the Regenen Stair was as heavy as Gael had expected, and he dodged through the place of arms on the next level up, heading for the Lake Stair and collecting some curious glances from the warriors putting away their training mats and butts. Given that this time of the day normally saw him in the vaults, checking in the metals from the smithies, his presence elsewhere would occasion remark.

The Lake Stair was beautifully untrafficked, and the view from its arrowslits lovely. The angle of the evening sun—still fairly high in the sky, this being summer—made the blue of the water luminous and the green of the forested shores very rich.

This stairwell led to the castellanum’s quarters, making no connection with those of the march. Gael would need to ascend all the way to the battlements and cross back to the Regenen Stair in order to reach Dreas’ front door. Gael swallowed. No longer Dreas’ front door. But the deserted steps and the peace of the lake would pay for his detour.

Gael pondered as he climbed, mulling over Barris’ assertion that he had neither stolen copper ingots nor disguised them as tin. It seemed there must be a third malefactor under Theron’s thumb, one whom Gael had yet to identify. No matter. He had enough with which to confront the castellanum, provided the regenen was willing to play his part.

When Gael arrived in the foyer between the regenen’s apartments and those of the march, the march’s door was open, with two porters maneuvering a divan out through the portal. Another porter carrying a backless chair followed, and then a boy burdened with a chamberpot and a quilt rack.

Gael frowned and stopped the boy with the chamberpot.

“Is the regenen within?” he asked. He’d expected to find Carbraes alone and grieving. This parade of porters moving Dreas’ possessions disconcerted him.

“Yes, sir. You’re to go in to him, sir. He sent a messenger to fetch you, sir.” The boy craned his neck, apparently expecting to see said messenger conducting Gael into Carbraes’ presence.

“I’ve come on my own errand,” Gael reassured the boy. “I’m sure your friend will be along shortly.”

“Yes, sir!” The boy bowed, and his chamberpot wobbled.

Gael reached out a quick hand to steady it. “Get along with you now.”

The boy grinned and scampered toward the stairs in the wake of the porters. Gael passed through the two anterooms just inside the door—both strangely bare of furnishings—and on into the receiving room. This space still possessed its wall hangings, beautiful renditions of maps on leather, but nothing else. Carbraes stood next to an open casement overlooking the artisan yard’s rampart above the lake.

Beside the regenen stood a short, wiry troll with bowed legs. He wore a rust-colored tunic and a matching leather cap with a strap beneath his chin. His eyes glittered, very bright.

Dreben.

Dreben had organized a gladiatorial ring for his own pleasure. Dreben regularly beat his bastan to vent his own spleen. And Dreben had pounded Gael thoroughly in that stupid fight on the Cliff Stair.

Hells!

“My lord Secretarius,” called Carbraes, his gaze stern, “come meet the new march of my legions. My magus has already had that pleasure. Now it is yours.”

Gael contained the string of curses boiling up to lift from his tongue, instead walking composedly—he hoped it was composedly—across the room to bow and murmur, “My lord March.”

Dreben returned his bow and his greeting, “My lord Secretarius,” but his eyes gleamed with malice.

“Lord Dreben will be invested with his office on the morrow’s afternoon,” said Carbraes, deadpan, “but must take up his duties immediately. My warriors must not go leaderless for even a day.” He turned to the new march. “Go down to the First Bellatarius, my dear Dreben, if all is in train to your satisfaction here. He is expecting you.”

Dreben bowed deeply to the regenen. “I am satisfied and more, Lord Carbraes. I thank you for this honor!” He nodded at Gael, his glance scornful, and tramped from the room.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 81)

As Gael crossed the lower great hall, he saw that the tables and benches were already in place and the salt bowls set out. The afternoon was later than he’d realized, giving way to early evening. Scullions and porters thronged the Regenen Stair, bearing ornate chairs for the high tables, as well as trays of plates and serving spoons. The regenen’s servery was not yet clogged with servers, but it would be soon. The cacophony of clanging spoons and shouted orders coming through the hatch along with the aroma of roast fowl and caramelized cherries indicated the night’s feast neared readiness.

When he peered through the hatch, he saw that not only were all three hearths in use, but the broiling pit as well. Multitudes of boys turned more spits than Gael could count, while the decanens arranged beds of greens on platters to receive the roasted birds when they were done.

Relief washed through Gael as he caught sight of Barris, alert and well, cropped brown hair tidy, issuing directions to the almost constant stream of underlings that approached him and then veered away to obey his orders. Whatever dread consequence Theron planned for the cook, he’d not set it in motion yet.

Barris, despite the fever pitch of the kitchen, noticed Gael’s arrival almost immediately. He nodded across the bustling space, waved a decanen to take an opteon’s place between two of the hearths, and gestured for the opteon to stand in for Barris himself.

Gael studied his friend as Barris threaded his way to the door beside the servery hatch. When last he’d set eyes on the cook, Barris had been defeated, guilt-ridden, and slumping. He looked much better now, authoritative and confident, apparently unfazed by the sight of the friend he’d betrayed.

Gael forced the frown he felt gathering off his face. He’d thought he presented a calm front, but what had Barris perceived that caused him to break off from his most paramount duty to talk with Gael?

When Barris reached the door and opened it, he neither stood within its frame to begin conversation nor stepped out to the servery, but beckoned Gael within. Gael followed him along the kitchen wall, dodging around a decanen folding nut meats within croquettes of nut butter at a side counter, and then ducking through a small doorway on the endwall. They climbed a spiral stair so narrow that Gael’s right shoulder brushed the newel post, while his left touched the outer wall. One landing up, Barris unlocked another small door and gestured Gael through it.

The chamber within was a generous wedge-shaped triangle, the wall with glassed-in arrow slits very curving, like the outer rim of a pastry. A scattering of divans and chairs upholstered in dark brown suede clustered on pale green matting. Banner-like hangings of deep green leather framed rectangles of stone wall carved in abstract spiraling designs.

Gael felt as though he’d stumbled across one of the forest shrines erected and then abandoned by the ancient tribes who dwelt in the Hamish wilds before ever the Hamish folk came to them. So this was Barris’ receiving room. Gael had never entered the cook’s quarters. Somehow they’d done most of their conferring in the servery outside Barris’ kitchen or else within Gael’s sitting room. He wasn’t quite sure why, but so it had always fallen out.

Barris took up a stance beside one of the casements, the indirect light limning one cheekbone and the side of his upcurving nose, making the hidden tension in his face visible.

“Sit or stand as you please,” offered Barris, offhandedly. “I understand you may—” Breaking off, he shook his head.

Gael thought about standing, uncertain whether Barris doubted Gael’s forbearance—the obvious reason for his hesitance—or if perhaps Barris himself no longer welcomed Gael’s presence. Then he sighed and sat. It had been a long day and looked to continue even later.

Barris nodded, his stance softening a touch. “I’ve had time to think and to realize that Theron wasn’t just accumulating tin to use for bribes. He was targeting you, wasn’t he?”

“That seems likely. I intend to press him for explanations presently.”

Barris nodded again. “Then it’s as well that I make my confession now. The less leverage he has, the more you have, the better.”

“You are still my friend,” said Gael.

Barris’ jaw bunched and his shoulders stiffened. He moved away from the window casement, pacing impatiently to the next embrasure over, and then back again, his steps choppy and short. “Then you’re a better troll than I am,” he growled. His breath came hard through his nostrils. “You fool! I stole from you, lending myself to your enemy.”

“Then you owe me atonement,” said Gael composedly, “and the grace to accept my forgiveness, do not you think?”

“Hells!” Barris cursed.

“You are going to tell me the whole truth, are you not? Unlike last time?” Gael couldn’t quite keep the hint of sweet malice out of his tone.

Barris flinched and swallowed. Then swallowed again. Drawing a rasping breath, he finally pushed past his disinclination to speak, but his first words seemed rather beside the point to Gael.

“The castellanum tapped me to cook for the regenen early. My skill at the hearth stood out, and I prided myself on understanding the scullion boys better than the fusty old opteon then presiding over the kitchens. I thought I could manage the trolls better than he did and that I would present more subtle dishes for the regenen’s table.” Barris paused. “The castellanum thought so, too.”

“You’re talking of Theron? This was not before his time?” asked Gael.

Barris grimaced. “Theron was new come to his office as well,” he said. “Else he might have judged more aptly.”

Gael waited, letting the silence stand. If this room of green and brown with its impression of standing stones were indeed a shrine in the forest, there would be no breeze.

“I thought my sympathy for the boys would be enough, that they would attend well to their duties and obey me, because I liked them and they liked me. I didn’t understand . . . that even good boys can be impulsive, irresponsible, lazy. And I didn’t understand that I could grow so angry.”

Barris paused again before continuing. “They needed more rules than I gave them, and punishments for when the rewards failed. I didn’t realize that until after the most defiant of them baited me into beating him.”

Barris swallowed.

Gael repressed an abrupt desire to avoid what came next.

Barris continued, “We stood before the largest hearth, and he darted away from me blindly after the first lash—too heavy a lash—and fell. He tumbled into the flames of the new-built fire. It hadn’t had time to die down yet.”

Horror lurked in Barris’ brown eyes, as though he had just that instant let the lash fall on the shoulders of that poor scullion boy. Gael suspected a similar horror lurked in his own. His friend had intended to punish, not to maim. Or kill. Had the boy died? The burns must have been terrible.

Gael’s heart hurt as he considered the boy’s probable agony and Barris’ agony at his dreadful mistake.

“Gael, I’ve never deserved your friendship. Were Belzetarn not a troll stronghold, I’d have been banished for that innocent boy’s death. But Carbraes holds banishing the banished afresh to be redundant. His standards are less stringent. I doubt Theron even told him of the incident.”

Barris’ self-disgust had given way to sadness, but his gaze met Gael’s straightly. “But Theron would certainly have told you. That was his threat. And I didn’t want you to know. It was long before you arrived in Belzetarn.”

Gael struggled to find words that might comfort Barris, that would soothe the ache in his soul. But there were no words for that. He knew it only too well.

He made his own gaze as direct as his friend’s, determined to give truth for truth. “Earlier this afternoon, I sanctioned an experiment in healing that resulted in Dreas’ death. By accident.”

All the poisoned regret in Barris’ stance turned to rigid shock. “What!”

Guilt shivered through Gael’s belly. He should have prepared Barris for such news, but he’d been thinking of it as a way to convey his understanding and sympathy, rather than as the dire jolt it would be.

“Who will command the regenen’s legions?” demanded Barris.

Gael got to his feet. “I don’t know.”

“Sias in her labor!” swore Barris. “With Dreas gone, Carbraes himself could be unseated!”

Gael remembered the regenen’s recent threat to strike Gael’s head from his body personally. “I should not wager on that, if I were you,” he said.

Barris reined in his consternation, returning to the matter at hand. “Tell me what you wish from me,” he urged.

“How should I repudiate you for manslaughter when I am guilty of it myself?” said Gael, thinking of the Ghriana scout he’d condemned on the day he fought Dreben.

Impatience leaked into Barris’ voice. “For my betrayal of you, Gael.”

Gael suppressed another sigh. “You remain my friend. Do I remain yours?”

Barris’ eyes widened. “Of course, but—”

“Figure it out,” rapped Gael.

Barris swallowed. “You don’t want my regret? No, of course not,” he answered himself. “You already have that. What you want, what I want to give you”—he looked down, then back up—“is my assurance that I won’t do anything like it again.” He nodded. “Which I won’t. The next time someone tries to blackmail me, I’ll tell him to do his worst. Ah, hells, Gael! I’m a fool, and that’s being unfair to fools. Will you forgive me?”

Gael couldn’t help smiling. “Gladly.” Somehow, it was going to be all right. Somehow, he had forgiven Barris, even though he’d wondered if he could before. But there was one more thing he needed to know.

Barris nipped in first. “You know where Theron is keeping his stolen goods? I always handed them directly to him.” Barris’ brown eyes—normally light-filled, and light-filled now with relief—went flat. “Get that bastard dead, Gael. If you don’t get him, he’ll get you. He means to.”

“I know,” said Gael.

“That he aims to take your head? Or that you’ve got him?” asked Barris impatiently.

“Both,” said Gael. “The one thing I need to know is, why did Theron have you steal copper ingots, in addition to tin, and then disguise them energetically as tin?”

Barris frowned. “But he didn’t.”

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 80)

Gael hated to leave her.

Stepping from the light airiness of her chamber into the close stones of the Regenen Stair was like exchanging the pleasure gardens of Hadorgol for its catacombs. Except that the tunnels among Hadorgol’s tombs were superior to any place inhabited by trolls. But that wasn’t the cause of his reluctance. He wanted to assure himself that she did, in fact, sleep. That she didn’t brood. Dreas’ death was a terrible thing, and Gael could tell that Keir had not accepted his assertion that she was not at fault. She held herself to blame.

He’d wanted to stay and argue her into letting him shoulder the responsibility, but she needed rest. And she could not sleep and listen while he gave voice to his persuasions. He would talk with her later. When it was time to send that messenger to wake her, he’d go himself.

In the meantime, he needed to see how Arnoll’s preparations were proceeding. And he needed to decide what in Cayim’s hells he would do with that ill-fated gong. He pondered the matter as he descended the spiraling steps, down and down and down.

He understood Keir’s point of view. She was more a healer than she’d ever been a notary. He felt that in his bones as he’d not before. Indeed, he felt it literally, with his repositioned nodes tugging his inner framework to greater strength because of Keir’s work upon him.

He and Keir had wondered if the lodestone, embedded within the gong’s central boss, would still multiply a mage’s—or a healer’s—energea, the way it had before it was so embedded. Well, it did. They’d learned that thoroughly today, although at great cost.

Of course Keir would wish to heal others as she had healed him. And who was he to deny her the tool that would permit this? Who was he to deny others ailing that relief?

He almost had to accede to Keir’s wishes.

And yet.

How many others would die—or be seriously injured—as they learned the lodestone’s parameters, as they discovered what else might go wrong and how to avoid it? Already Carbraes had lost someone irreplaceable. The regenen would never again find a friend so dear, a friend he’d known from boyhood. Never again would Dreas eat beside Carbraes, sit beside him on the terrace, walk with him on the ramparts. That was the personal loss. The military loss was just as great. Who now would lead Carbraes’ legions?

Gael dodged along one of the balconies over the middle place of arms to the Lake Stair, wanting to emerge directly into the armor smithy, not the blade smithy. One of the opteogints was training, hacking at the butts with much shouting and clanging.

Keir’s dream of healing trolls was worthy, but she might kill more than she healed in pursuit of it. Searing memory brought Carbraes’ grief-ravaged face before Gael again. Hope was not the same as certain, reliable results. And if Gael were to decide that Keir was right, what then? He’d been given a direct order by his regenen. Along with a dire consequence should he fail to obey. How could he preserve Keir’s lodestone, if Carbraes executed him forthwith? A dead guardian was no guardian at all.

Leave it, he told himself. Let it settle. Your thoughts will clear if you don’t keep stirring them.

The glow of the forges in the dim vaults of the smithies, the smell of hot metal and burning charcoal, and the ringing of hammers comforted him when he strode out of the passage from the Lake Stair, but the rhythm of the smiths was subtly different. They had that finishing-up-the-last-project rush that should come later in the day. Arnoll had obviously succeeded in adjusting the schedule as required.

“All well here?” Gael asked as the armor smith bustled up.

Arnoll grimaced. “I thought the regenen had placed a guard on that damned thing.”

Gael’s heart skipped a beat. Had the gong’s resonance, when Uwen and Adarn dropped it, penetrated all the way from the tower top to the smithies?

“Were there injuries?” Gael demanded. Tiamar, he hoped not. Please not.

“We were lucky,” said Arnoll. “None this time, but why in Cayim’s hells was the gong out of your locked storeroom?”

Gael met Arnoll’s gaze warningly. “Not here,” he said.

Arnoll grunted. “Half the smiths and scullions want to watch tomorrow as we destroy the thing. The other half are requesting leave to visit Errkaleku”—an outlying camp—“so that they can be as far away as possible when we do the deed.” Arnoll snorted. “I can’t say I blame them.”

Gael checked a nod. “They have reason,” he murmured.

Arnoll peered at him searchingly. “Oh?”

“Not now,” Gael reiterated.

“Mm.” Arnoll scanned the area. “The smiths are wrapping up, as you can see. We’ll be using the blade smithy on the morrow, since Olix’s forge burns the hottest. I’ll have the scullions carry down one of the cedar tubs from the bailey sauna later.”

“We’ll be ready?” asked Gael.

“We’ll be ready,” Arnoll confirmed.

“Do you need anything from me? Anything that I can do?”

The smith’s lips quirked. “No. Go check on Nathiar.”

Gael repressed a smile. Arnoll was quite right, of course. The magus was his next destination.

A flicker of movement on the far side of the armor smithy, at the tunnel to the Cliff Stair, caught Gael’s eye. He frowned. No one used that stairway at this time of day. Did some troll playing truant from his proper duties lurk there? Watching others at work while one sat idle was always a popular pastime.

Gael leaned in close to Arnoll, muttering, “There’s a lurker spying on your smithy—or on us. I’m going to feint toward the annealing smithy and catch him.” He didn’t care about a shirker, but a spy . . . was another matter.

Arnoll’s brows rose. “The sooner we finish this business, the better.”

“Send word to me, if you encounter any hitch,” said Gael.

Arnoll nodded. “I’ll start the bladesmithy’s forge heating in the morning and send a boy to fetch you, another to bring Nathiar, when it is time to begin the real work.”

Gael clapped his friend on the shoulder—“Good”—and stepped away.

“Gael?” Arnoll called after him.

Gael paused.

“Get a night of sound sleep.”

Gael nodded, and moved off, threading his way among the anvils and counters toward the neighboring smithy. The various decanens greeted him as he passed. He smiled and waved, appreciative of their goodwill.

In the annealing smithy, he headed for the back wall. The annealing smith—a gruff troll with short black hair—followed him.

“My lord Secretarius, how may I help you?”

“Just passing through, Savren,” Gael reassured him.

The smith faded back as Gael reached the tower wall. Gael edged along it, glad of the massive pier that hid the opening of the passage to the Cliff Stair. If a troll did indeed lurk there, Gael could not see him. But neither could he see Gael.

Gael eased around the stone pier.

Right into the hunter standing in its shadow. He was a hunter, clearly, with his leather breeches, soft-soled knee-high boots, and the game bag across his back. He did not belong here. And knew it, too. He scrambled backward from the mild impact of Gael’s shoulder, hastening for the deeper refuge of the tunnel.

Gael put all of his authority into a low command. “Stop. Right. Now.”

The troll broke into a run, swift on his quiet footfalls, breaking into the light shed by a trio of arrowslits at the base of the stairwell.

Hells! The last thing Gael wanted was a chase, but only guilt would impel flight under the circumstances, and Gael needed to know if that guilt concerned the gong or the preparations in train for its subdual.

He pitched his voice to carry, still low, because he preferred not to involve the smithy scullions.

“You do not want me asking after you at the hunters’ lodge. Stop. Now.”

One foot on the lowest step, the troll halted abruptly, his whole carriage sagging. He turned as Gael came up to him, showing a visage twisted with fright, but showing no signs of the truldemagar: nose straight, eyes clear, skin firm. Was he human after all? A Ghriana spy disguised as a hunter? Gael frowned.

“Why were you spying on the armor smithy?” he asked.

The hunter’s lips parted, then shut as his jaw bunched.

Gael came closer, breathed, “I will know.”

The hunter hunched. “Wasn’t,” he mumbled.

“The bailey and the woods are the hunters’ preserve. Why are you in the tower?”

“I—I—I—”

Was that a wobble in the hunter’s voice? He couldn’t be a Ghriana spy. No spy would be so unprepared, nor so unnerved. Gael opened his inner vision to be sure—he was getting quite practiced at doing so in the flow of events—wanting to check the hunter’s nodes. That the nodes were adrift was immediately obvious, but Gael’s attention fastened on the anomaly sparkling on the hunter’s right hand.

Smeared across the curling arcs and demi-nodes was a lace of very familiar energea: the lattice left by Gael in a hidey-hole in the wall of a clogged latrine.

Gael’s own hand thrust out to grip the hunter’s bony wrist. “Open your inner sight,” he growled.

The hunter flinched, but his eyelids fluttered shut and his breathing slowed. In. Out. In. It took him a while. Gael watched the dust motes spiraling in the diffuse light from the arrow slits. The sounds from the smithies were muffled here at the foundations of the Cliff Stair.

The hunter’s eyes flew open. “What—where—how did that—?” he stuttered.

Gael smiled sourly. “I found the two ingots of bronze you stole. I replaced them in the vaults where they belong. And I left a . . . trap . . . in their place.”

So. One of his loose ends had come home to roost at a most inopportune time. He’d not precisely forgotten the matter of the theft, but all his focus lay elsewhere, gathered to cope with the gong and its complications. He did not welcome this intrusion of the older problem, but he could hardly neglect it in this moment.

“What is your name?” he demanded, still gripping the hunter’s wrist.

“H—Halko,” faltered the hunter.

Gael studied him. Halko’s build was slight and lean, his coloring dark. He might have seemed fierce had he not been shaking.

“You stole twice and looked to steal again this evening,” mused Gael. “Why? You are not a thief by nature.”

Halko swallowed, but did not answer.

“Someone forced you to it,” continued Gael, tallying the clues. “And that someone would have to be the castellanum.” It could be no one else.

Halko’s eyes widened. “How did you—how did you—?”

“I’ve been piecing this puzzle together for some time now,” said Gael. “I have nearly the full pattern of it, I believe. Suppose you help me with the last details.”

“What will happen to me?” asked Halko, his anxiety in no way abated.

“That depends”—Gael paused, the better to intimidate the troll—“on how much you help me and how well you convince me that I can trust you to follow my subsequent orders.” If he could dominate his thief through force of manner, he would not need to resort to harsher measures.

“I’ll—I’ll tell you everything,” stammered Halko.

“I think you will,” drawled Gael.

Halko’s nervous glance darted down the passage to the smithies.

Gael let the hunter’s wrist go. “Walk with me,” he said, starting up the stairs at an easy pace.

Halko hesitated, then hurried to catch up. “The—the castellanum said I must do as he said or I—I would be sorry. He—he said he would make the privy smith late and that I should take the tin then.”

“Tin! He said you were to take tin?” Gael probed.

Halko nodded. “And I did take it, just as he said. But—but I also took bronze, because I—I did not believe that I would be safe like he—he said.”

“And the bronze would make you safe?” asked Gael gently.

“No—no, but I knew I had to leave, and I—I thought that if I could—could bring bronze to a troll-witch in the—the wastes, she would—would treat me well.”

“Ah,” breathed Gael. He performed a rough tally on his fingers. “Twenty-five days ago”—the day before Gael found the first discrepancy in his tallies, the day before the gong arrived in Belzetarn—“Lord Theron made Martell late, and you stole one ingot of tin, one ingot of bronze. Then Theron made Martell’s scullion late, and you stole another tin, another bronze.” Or what purported to be tin, but was copper disguised. “But on the third day, there was no tin remaining in the evening.” And Keir would have been present, supervising Martell’s notary. “When you could not steal tin, you did not steal bronze.”

Halko nodded.

“Why not?”

“I—I—thought that I—I—could make the Lord Theron pro—protect me, if I—I were caught taking bronze and tin, be—because I could—could tell his theft of tin. All—also—the notarius was—was there. It—it—would have been hard—harder.”

So, Halko might be thoroughly in over his head, but he was not stupid. Gael wondered if the hunter would speak more smoothly, if he were not so scared.

Gael climbed in silence for an interval, pleased that his ankle had not started to click. He continued outlining his guesses: “When I departed the tower, Lord Theron told you to cease, much to your relief.” They reached another landing and moved across it. “But now that I am returned, and all Belzetarn knows me to be returned, Theron demands that you steal again. Am I right?”

“Y—yes,” Halko stuttered.

“Did Theron say how he would make you sorry? If you refused?”

“I—he—I—I’m not a troll. There was a mistake. If he told the regenen, he’d chop off my head like a spy.” Halko was nearly sobbing.

Gael halted abruptly before the next flight of spiraling steps. “And you believed this?”

“I—I—I—”

“The bronze was not for a troll-witch, was it? You imagined you might return from whence you came, and that the ingots would buy you a knight’s favor,” said Gael, wondering.

Halko gulped and nodded.

“Have you not seen your own drifting nodes?” asked Gael.

“I’m not—I’m not—” Halko could not finish his sentence.

“You are not practiced with either the inner sight or with the energea that it sees,” Gael finished for him. “And you have never even opened your inner vision once you became a troll, until I asked it of you just now.” Gael felt sick, imagining the terror Halko must have felt in the wake of the castellanum’s threats. Was still feeling now, confronted with his misdeeds by the secretarius.

“Open your inner sight now,” commanded Gael.

It took Halko longer this time, but Gael could tell when he at last succeeded, because his jaw dropped.

“Ooooooh,” breathed the hunter, opening his closed eyes.

“You see?” said Gael. “Theron lied to you.”

“My head.” Halko gulped. “No one will cut off my head.”

“No,” said Gael firmly.

“What . . . will you do now?” asked Halko.

“Do you usually give the ingots to Theron personally? Or to someone in his confidence?” Gael thought he knew where Halko had stashed Theron’s tin, but he needed to be sure.

Halko shook his head. “No. I put it where he told me.” The hunter’s voice was much steadier than it had been throughout all the preceding conversation, and he explained the usual procedure.

Gael nodded. So. His guess was correct. “Then he will not be surprised when he does not see you tonight?”

Halko shook his head again.

“Good. Then I think . . . you should go directly to your lodge in the bailey. And Halko?” Gael pinned the hunter with a direct stare. “Stay out of the tower. If Theron comes to you, seek your opteon. He can protect you, even from the castellanum.”

Halko’s shoulders straightened. He bowed awkwardly. “Thank you . . . so much, my lord Secretarius.”

The hunter appeared to be waiting for a formal dismissal.

“I will finish this business tonight,” Gael informed him. “You will be safe even without your opteon by the morrow. Although . . . keep away from my smithies! Or you will not be safe from me.” He allowed his lips to curve upward. “You may go.”

Halko stood not upon that permission, lengthening his stride to take the stairs two at a time. Gael was interested to note that the hunter chose the upward direction. No doubt he had a getaway route well planned.

Gael gathered himself and his thoughts.

He had about three different places he wanted to be right now, but only one could not wait. Theron possessed a gift for finding weakness and exploiting it. The threat he’d held over Halko’s head lacked validity, but whatever he was using to force Barris would be real. And it wasn’t the promise to abuse the kitchen scullions either, no matter Barris’ claims. It would be something much worse.

The only question was whether Theron, with his weasel’s nose for the undercurrents in Belzetarn, was already acting to enforce his threat against Gael’s friend.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 81)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 79)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 79)

Chapter 17

Keir returned to consciousness slowly.

First there were the sounds. Shouting. Footsteps running, heavy and quick. Hurried orders in a tense undertone. Metal dragged on stone, grating. And the heaving sobs of a man lost to grief.

“No, no, no,” came the choked mutters, threaded through the sobbing.

Keir wondered what had happened. She had a sense that she lay in the wake of disaster. The worst had happened, but she couldn’t remember, couldn’t grasp where she was and what had gone wrong.

“Pater?” she murmured as the blue sky coalesced in her vision, clear and very high above her, curdled with a line of thin clouds to one side. Was she lying on the firm sand of the cove below her hut? Had the orca bitten her? Was Pater running for help?

“Keir?” asked a concerned companion. Pater? But Pater’s voice was deeper than that.

Someone moved into her line of sight. Neatly made, with solid shoulders and muscular legs, he wore a suede tunic of sage green hue and matching trews. His dark hair—traced by a few threads of gray—hung straightly down to his collar bones. But—sweet Ionan!—he was a troll. Lines bracketed his hazel eyes. The firm, square bones of his jaw were blurred by slackened skin. And—most telling of all—his nose was elongated and hooked, exaggerated from its doubtless aquiline origin.

As Keir drew breath to scream, she noted the kindness in his eyes. Was he friend? Not enemy?

And then it all came back to her.

This was Gael! Her dear friend. Dearer than friend? How had she taken him for just ‘a troll’? His truldemagar had ceased to be the first thing she saw in him long, long ago. When her eyes rested on him, she saw her mentor, her protector, her steadfast companion.

Another sequence of memory dropped, and she sat up with a jerk.

The high terrace of Belzetarn reeled around her. Her stomach fluttered ominously, and her head ached. But the scene was all too clear. Dreas lay like clay upon the beautifully wrought bench of bronze, his skin gray and his eyes staring. Carbraes crouched at the march’s side, one arm gripping his friend desperately, his face buried in Dreas’ tunic, shoulders heaving.

As Keir stared, aghast, the regenen raised his head. His ice blue eyes glared, reddened by his loss as they never had been by his disease. He jerked his gaze away from Keir to address Gael.

“You will destroy that cursed thing on the morrow’s morning, or I will sever your head from your body personally!” he blazed.

Keir noticed that the gong was no longer present. Nor were Adarn and Uwen. Where?

Gael bowed to his overlord.

“Take yourself from my sight!” snarled Carbraes.

“Yes, my lord Regenen,” said Gael, his demeanor remarkably steady in the face of Carbraes’ grieving wrath. “If I may assist my notarius from your presence.”

Carbraes did not answer, merely turning away in disgust.

Gael knelt beside Keir. “Can you stand, if I raise you?”

Keir felt very wobbly, but she wasn’t sure if it was her shaken body or her shaken emotions that weakened her. Gael maneuvered to get his arm across her back, sliding his hands under her elbows. Keir shifted, awkwardly pulling her feet under her.

“Up with you,” breathed Gael, giving her a firm boost.

Upright, she swayed, glad Gael had kept a hold of her. Pulling her nearer arm across his shoulders, he helped her toward the closest door, the one into the regenen’s receiving rooms. The journey to the spiral stairs and down them to her quarters was a slow, arduous whirl through a dim stone corkscrew patched with oblongs of light from the arrowslits. She felt as though she descended into the bowels of some monstrous deformed beast out of legend.

When Gael eased her across the threshold of her own quarters, relief gave her strength enough to lurch unsupported toward her favorite divan, its cushions upholstered in pale aqua suede. She sat dizzily, drinking in the diffuse light and air. Her casements were open and unshuttered; she never shut them when the weather was fine. She needed every weapon she could deploy to combat the heaviness of the tower’s stones, the oppressive atmosphere they produced. She’d been so grateful when she discovered a tanner in the bailey willing to experiment with unusual dyes. The blues and greens he’d used for the leathers and suedes on her furnishings reminded her of the sea around Fiors on a bright sunny day, while the paler blue hangings on her walls echoed its skies. Sometimes she could forget where she was—what she was—when she took refuge here.

Gael closed the door behind himself and dragged a backless chair next to her divan.

“I’ve summoned Medicus Piar,” he said. “I think you should lie down until he arrives. You hit your head hard.”

Keir shook her head and then wished she hadn’t. It throbbed fiercely in response to the motion. But she couldn’t focus on herself now. Mustn’t. Too much else was at stake. Although what that ‘else’ was still eluded her. She was muddled. She had to get unmuddled, or the chance to shape events would pass her by.

“Gael, what happened?”

Gael’s lips pressed straight. “I am responsible for the miscarriage of our attempt to communicate our new knowledge to Lord Carbraes. Not you. Not Adarn.”

“I don’t think you are,” she murmured, still trying to string two thoughts together coherently.

Gael’s chin jerked. “I allowed myself to become abstracted and preoccupied in the aftermath of our discovery. Had I retained my wits—or taken two moments to regain them—I would have noticed that Adarn was tiring. And that his excitement made him unaware of his growing fatigue.” Gael’s lips pressed even straighter. “He did not tremble for nerves or enthusiasm.”

Keir pieced it together. “His grip slipped. He grabbed harder, which caused him to overbalance. And then he fell, taking the gong and Uwen with him.” She swallowed. “If I’d just been less afraid of offending Dreas’ dignity—or Carbraes’ idea of his dignity—I’d have had him lie on the terrace stones. And he’d be alive.” She fought down a sob. She’d not lost a patient before. Pater had said it would happen eventually. It had to happen, since humans were not immortal. Except she’d not lost Dreas. She’d killed him herself, ripping his heart node right out of his energea lattice.

“Keir.”

Gael’s voice pulled her out of the sucking descent of her thoughts.

“Now is not the time to analyze where we went wrong or how to apportion blame. Thinking coherently in the immediate wake of disaster is not possible. It’s like doing a tally when the ingots are being issued. You must wait until all of the metal has gone out, and again until it has returned at day’s end, and then you may ascertain where you stand. Not before.”

She stared at him blankly. He was right, of course. He would be. He knew tallying. Had taught her. And he would know how the tallying of metals might apply to the tallying of responsibility. She could plumb her guilt later. Must plumb it later. Right now she must set it aside. If she could. There was another matter which must be sifted now, or it would not be sifted at all.

“Gael. Will you obey Lord Carbraes?”

Gael frowned. “What?”

“The regenen ordered you to destroy the gong. Are you going to do it?” She felt impatient with his slowness.

“Oh.”

“You must not,” she insisted.

Gael’s vague gaze grew sharp. “I made the mistake of allowing events—and people—to hurry me. I will not make that mistake again.”

“You’ll delay then?” she probed.

“No. I will think, and then I will decide my next step.”

“Gael—”

He interrupted her. “Keir. Stop.”

She bit her lip. She had to get him to agree to a delay. The second trial of the cursed gong had gone as wrong as could be—she swallowed down another incipient sob—but the boost the gong’s lodestone could give to a healer’s abilities was too valuable to sacrifice needlessly. It seemed she was a healer still, despite her truldemagar, despite the truldemagar of her patients. She could not bear to lose something so potentially useful, something that could never be replaced once it was destroyed.

She took a deep in-breath and forced her voice to come out steady. “If you do decide to destroy it, will you consult me before you do so? Please?” The last word escaped her control.

Gael’s eyes darkened. “I will promise nothing.” He read her too well. She had wanted him to promise. But Gael clung to reason when the world went topsy-turvy, precisely because he knew himself vulnerable to emotion. She knew this. She must approach him reasonably, logically. Which was her usual approach. A healer had to stay cool in the midst of turmoil, lest she make some grave error. As she had with Dreas.

Stop it, Keir, she told herself. Now, more than ever she must hold to clear thinking. She could not afford to become mired in guilt or grief.

“I do not ask you to promise,” she said. And she hadn’t, no matter how much she had wanted him to. “I ask you to consider rationally, and to weigh the loss of the good that must accompany the riddance of the bad.”

Before Gael could answer, a knock sounded on her door and Medicus Piar entered, tidy and efficient.

Keir’s concern for the fate of the gong evaporated abruptly for a nearer concern: if the physician examined her thoroughly, as a responsible physician should, he would discover the secret of her gender very quickly.

She glanced at Gael, silently willing him to perceive the danger.

He nodded back, and she admired the adroitness with which he guided Piar into checking her skull—bruised, but no more, the skin not even broken—and her eyes and reflexes and coordination. No feeling of the limbs, no tapping of the internal organs.

She was safe.

Piar prescribed an herbal draft, administered it, and then left her to rest.

“Shall I take over this evening’s tallying?” Gael asked her.

She hesitated, checking the sensations in her body. The bruises at her hip and shoulder had joined the throbbing of her head, but her weakness was passing. With a little sleep—and Pater had taught her how to catnap at will; a healer sometimes had long nights—she’d feel stronger still. “No. No, I’m feeling much better. Will you send a messenger to wake me when it is time?” Her lips twitched as she remembered when their roles had been reversed, Gael the injured one, and she the one urging care and caution. Did he perceive her as being as unreasonable as she had deemed him to be then?

His eyes narrowed. “You’ll lie abed and send the messenger back, if you discover that you need more rest,” he requested.

“I will,” she answered.

He nodded and stood. “Then I’ll leave you.”

At the door, he paused. “And Keir?”

She lifted a brow, trying not to show how shaken she remained.

“I promise to think over my decision regarding the gong most carefully.”

She knew she could trust him to do that. Gael would not have hurried to Belzetarn’s high terrace with the gong, nor allowed her to do so, had he faced that decision at any time other than the moment after his personal miracle—the restoration of his drifting nodes to their origin points. Gael would not have killed Dreas by accident.

She slept before she could cry.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 80)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 78)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 78)

Keir had to question why she was hoping so hard for Dreas to convince Carbraes. Was it her healer’s oath to place her knowledge and skills in the service of the ill? But she no longer served as a healer in her community—she was a notary in Belzetarn—and she had sworn that oath to a human teacher regarding human patients. She owed no obligation of care and compassion to trolls. Indeed, the reverse.

And yet . . . if she could restore a troll’s nodes to their proper positions, was not that troll essentially human? And did she not owe a healer’s help—no matter her official status—to that ailing human?

No. She did not. Whether the nodes were in place or not, they were unmoored, making the individual a troll. She owed nothing to trolls. Save her enmity. The sick flash of it trembled within her for an instant, then passed.

And yet again . . . her enmity had become riddled with holes over the past two years, like a cheese nibbled by mice. Gael had earned—and received—her respect, her admiration, her liking. Even her affection. She flinched away from the admission, although Gael was not the only troll to earn her good opinion. She would save Dreas, if she could.

How did one maintain an enmity when it must include oneself? Her pater had said, “I love you. I’ll always love you. Never doubt me, in all the years to come.” And she had been heart-glad to hear him say so. If Pater could love her in her truldemagar, then could she make peace with it also? And if she made peace with her own disease, then how should she relate to that of others?

Despite her moral confusion—and despite Gael’s unease, which she noticed amidst her own turmoil—she felt glad when Dreas waved her forward.

Carbraes got to his feet slowly and stood, not like an old man, but like a massive tree just beginning to fall or a mountain shivering at the start of an earthquake. Like he’d taken a mortal wound, but did not know it yet. Or would not own it.

“My lord March is in your hands,” said the regenen, his tone somber. “Speak your needs in order that you may treat him well and draw him safely through the fire.”

Keir swallowed. Lord Carbraes in this dark mood was even more intimidating than when he emanated his usual authority.

“I need Lord Dreas to lie flat,” she said. “And then I will be able to arrange Uwen and Adarn so that the angles are right.”

Carbraes inclined his head. “Summon my messengers please.”

Keir glanced nervously back at the door through which they’d arrived on the terrace. Were the regenen’s messengers waiting there? And should she go get them? She certainly didn’t want to send Uwen or Adarn. And it didn’t seem right to send Gael.

“For pity’s sake!” exclaimed Dreas. “We’ve enough of us right here to manage things. No need to involve a passel of overexcited boys.”

Carbraes sniffed, but his eyes warmed.

Dreas hopped up, scuttered over to another cluster of bronze-forged terrace furniture, and started dragging a long, low bench into the clear. The metal legs grated on the stone. Keir’s momentary paralysis snapped and she rushed to his side to help. The sun felt warm on her back. Dreas grinned at her. “We’ve got this, lad! Cheer up!”

Keir felt abruptly better. She’d envisioned Dreas lying on the flagstones, the way Gael had lain on his sitting room floor, but she could make the bench work.

Gael’s voice came over her shoulder. “Please sit, my lord March. Keir and I can set this up.”

And it was simple, really. Since Dreas would be elevated above the terrace flagstones, Uwen and Adarn would need to be equally so. But there were plenty of furnishings to borrow for her purpose. She adjusted Dreas’ bench so that the sun would be in no one’s eyes. Then she set two chairs on one side of the bench, and instructed Adarn and Uwen to climb onto them while she and Gael held the gong. Adarn’s legs trembled slightly as he made the high step up. His hands trembled when she and Gael transferred the gong into his and Uwen’s grip. Small wonder he was nervous. This was the march. And they performed under the regenen’s observation.

Carbraes remained standing through the whole operation, looking down his nose at their efforts. “This all looks rather slipshod,” he complained.

Keir quelled her impatience. Once she allowed the regenen’s stature to fade from her awareness, his nerves were familiar. Just so had the brother or mother or dear friend of an injured patient back on Fiors criticized her preparations.

She went to him, smiling warmly.

“My lord regenen, the nature of the patient’s bed or room or blankets matters little. My skill as a healer will be the determining factor.” She carefully avoided mention of the energea that lay at the heart of the advanced techniques. That would not reassure the regenen. “My training was thorough, and Dreas will receive only my best.”

Carbraes grunted. “You did not train for this, surely. Or have I been misinformed about how Fiors treats its trolls?”

“Fiors banishes its trolls, of course,” she replied steadily. Now she must mention the element he hated, if she were to assuage his qualms. “But drawing energea through one’s nodes, and controlling its speed and direction, is the basis for every healing a healer performs. Using the gong’s lodestone to move Dreas’ nodes is a healing technique. I will not be doing anything foreign to my experience,” she concluded.

Carbraes’ tension eased. “May I watch?” he asked.

“With your inner sight?” she clarified. That was rather the whole point of this exercise, she’d thought.

“Yes.” Carbraes sounded oddly humble. “I wish to assure that—” he broke off.

Keir reminded herself again that he was more the anxious kin here than the ruling commander. Indeed, he’d probably agreed to this more because he could not bear to deny his friend—progressing fast in his truldemagar—than because he wished to understand what other marvels the gong might generate.

“Of course you may watch,” she said gently. “We would prefer that you do.”

She led him to the foot of the bench. The sun would be in his eyes, but that shouldn’t affect his inner vision.

“But,” continued Keir, speaking to Dreas, “my lord March, you must not open your inner sight. That would increase the resistance of your nodes, which would be counterproductive in what we wish to achieve.”

Dreas smiled at her. “Shall I lie down now?” he asked.

“Please,” she responded.

She helped him settle his arms comfortably at his sides. She noted that Gael came to stand beside Carbraes. Good. Carbraes could likely use a companion. She frowned at Adarn, whose hands and arms still trembled. The march might be higher in the regenen’s esteem than was Gael, but Gael was Belzetarn’s secretarius. Surely the boy should have accustomed himself to dealing with trolls of rank after running the tally room’s errands for two deichtains. He shouldn’t be that nervous.

She took her own place, standing opposite Uwen and Adarn. The gong was a touch low. She needed the boss to be heart high.

“Lift it just a little,” she directed.

Uwen and Adarn complied.

“Good.” She nodded. “Remember to be trees in the breeze, not rock on a mountain,” she admonished them. Then she closed her eyes, drawing in a long, easy breath.

The scent of sun-warmed stone surrounded her. The air was very still, any breeze shielded by the apartments ringing the space. Someone coughed. The terrace felt very hard under her feet. As she exhaled, her inner vision opened and the silvery arcs of Dreas’ energea sparkled in her sight, curling from and between his pulsing nodes.

The silver sphere of his root node had strayed far from its proper place, drifting almost to where the abdominal node should rest. Keir reached within herself, drawing power from deep within all her nodes through will alone, and channeled it out through her own heart node to splash on the living node of the gong’s lodestone. The cascade of sparking green raced through the lattices of the lodestone, turning corner after corner, before surging back toward Keir.

She raised her hands, using the demi-nodes in her palms to catch the stream and direct it onto Dreas’ root node. The green spate foamed against the pulsing silver, edging it back and back toward where it belonged. The curling arc connecting root to abdomen stretched in its wake.

Good.

Keir adjusted her palms to split the stream coursing from the lodestone, directing one stream to retain pressure on Dreas’ root node, aiming the other toward the softly pulsing white orb that formed his abdominal node, which was far too low.

Slowly, more slowly than the root node, the abdominal node eased toward its anchor point. When it arrived, Keir split the lodestone’s output into three streams. Two kept root and abdominal nodes in place. The third began the push against the pale green sphere of the plexial node.

The process felt smooth and natural, for all that she’d done it only once before. For Gael. But pulling energea, splitting it, directing it, healing with it was what a healer did. She’d been braiding streams of it for more than a decade. This was her calling, for all that she’d forsaken it when she came to Belzetarn.

Now for the heart node, vivid green like her own heart node, like the living node within the gong, but located above Dreas’ heart home.

Delicately, she lifted the energea splashing against Dreas’ root node. Would it stay where she’d placed it? Dreas was many decades further gone in his truldemagar than had been Gael.

Ah! Yes! The node quivered, but did not slip. She turned the freed stream of energea against the heart node, pushing it down and down to where it belonged.

She felt more confident lifting her energetic grip on the abdominal node in preparation for directing the stream to the aqua demi-node of the thymus. If the root node had stayed put—and it had—then the abdominal node should not slip either.

Deftly, she made the switch, holding the plexial and heart nodes steady with two gushing currents of energea, while using the third to push the thymus node. As the glowing aqua sphere glided slowly into place, the angle of the torrent spewing from the lodestone changed ever so slightly.

Keir raised her hands to compensate.

She had time to think damn it, Adarn! and then the angle skewed wildly.

The midst of an energetic working left the patient at his most vulnerable. Frantic, she reached high overhead, desperate to catch the moving stream. Her own heart’s fountain would not be enough. She had to have the lodestone multiplier.

Got it!

She folded the third stream into the one holding Dreas’ heart. Never mind the thymus. It could float. So long as his heart remained stable, all would be well.

But the lodestone stream was still moving.

She stretched higher still, catching it, catching it, and folding the plexial stream into the heart stream.

A deep booming sound roared in her ears. Her knees went weak, her arms felt like dead eels, and her stomach quivered. She felt every joint in her body failing.

I. Will. Not. Lose. Dreas.

Clamping onto her patient’s heart node, she fell.

And falling, she ripped his node right out of its energetic lattice.

Her knee, her right hip, her right elbow, and her shoulder hit hard stone with punishing force. Her head hit wrought bronze, and her vision went dark.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 79)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 77)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

*     *     *

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The Tally Master

 

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