The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 24)

He’d floated on a sea of blackness in the aftermath of the Battle of Two Rivers, the rushing sound of moving water in his ears, a pulsing sensation in his body—too large, too small, too large—and no sight in his eyes.

Were they closed all that time—seven years ago?

Someone had washed him with cloths dipped in warm liquid. Someone wrapped warm silk around him. Someone spooned bone broth into his mouth and coaxed him to swallow.

He listened to a lullaby plucked on a lute. A woman’s voice, low and sweet, sang wordlessly. The faint scent of rose petals perfumed the air.

Gael felt the touch on his skin, tasted the mellow broth, and smelled the floral aroma, but he was not there. Not really. Were they dreams? Fevered hallucinations? Visions gifted by a saint?

He drifted, aware of sensation, yet unaware of self. He was the laving cloth, the liquid sustenance, the song. He had no existence apart from touch and taste and melody. He was the darkness, the rushing waves, the pulsing in and out.

How long he strayed from himself, he did not know. Days? Deichtains? Moons?

And when he returned, it was hazily.

The blackness ebbed so slowly he noticed it not, a dim pattern of green coalescing before his unfocused gaze, increasing in clarity.

He stared at it, wondering. A forest, deep shaded? A hart, half hidden behind a smooth-barked bole? White flowers pillowed on soft mosses?

It was a tapestry, he realized. He lay on his left side, on a divan, gazing at a tapestry that cloaked the wall.

I’m alive, he thought. I survived. But not unafflicted.

Why was he here, sheltered in a lady’s boudoir? Trolls were exiled. And . . . he was a troll now. That much he remembered. The truldemagar had fallen upon him, scourging his nodes and arcs. He should not be here, amidst civilization.

He turned over.

Transparent silk curtains, pale rose in hue, screened two windows. Tapestries—smaller than the forested one behind his divan—and miniature oil paintings adorned the dark-paneled walls. A freestanding mirror occupied one corner. Delicate chairs carved of dark wood and upholstered in brocades of blue and green clustered around a low table. A lady sat in one chair, gazing at the lute on her lap.

Still returning, Gael studied her.

She was beautiful, with dark eyes and translucent skin, her lips exquisitely molded. She looked sad. Folds of pale green silk formed her gown, close-fitting, outlining her full bosom and curving hips. One lovely ankle peeped from the lower hem. A loose-fitting robe of pale blue silk covered her arms and flowed down her back. One dark blond curl of her carefully coiffured hair fell over her shoulder.

She looked up, as though she felt his observation, and then he knew her, knew more of himself.

“Damalis,” he breathed. His beloved. His wife to be.

The shadow in her face lightened. “You know me?” Her voice was low and sweet. She had sung to him in his long eclipse, while her maid fed him, and her footman bathed him.

“I know you,” he answered. “I will always know you.”

Her smile was sad.

“How is it that I am here?” he asked. “With you.”

“Our sovereign would not cast off his loyal friend and servant so readily.”

His heart rose within him. As Gael had ever been staunch for Heiroc, so Heiroc would now be steadfast to Gael. Was it possible . . . that Gael might retain his place by the king’s side, within his court, amongst the nobility of Hadorgol? Surely not. He was truldemagar. And if Heiroc would sponsor him . . . Gael would not let him. He would guard his king even now.

Ever so slightly, Damalis shook her head. “He would not have you perish on the battlefield, in a welter of blood and mud, when you might live. And I . . . would not have it thusly either. He brought you to me.”

She seemed to be trying to tell him something other than what her words conveyed.

His heart ached for her beauty, for her sadness, for her.

A tear slid down the perfection of her cheek. “Oh, my love,” she whispered.

“I will not let him make such a sacrifice,” he said, referring to Heiroc. Or her either, though it hurt him to think it. He could not say it. He longed to draw her closer. He must set her farther away.

And, yet, she had suffered him brought here to her. Did she plan their wedding even now? Contemplate their marriage through the years? Envision children? Could she not see his affliction? Was it not visible to the outer sight? Yet?

He glanced at the mirror standing in the corner of the room, reflecting light in its perfectly polished bronze. He wasn’t sure he could rise from his divan and walk to survey himself in its surface, but a smaller mirror, made to hold in the hand, rested on a nearby shelf.

Gael gestured. “Will you bring it to me?”

Damalis’ face grew very still. What was she thinking? He’d always been able to read her thoughts on her face, but he could not read this thought. Was it a thought she’d never entertained before?

Her softly closed lips straightened, and she set aside her lute. How was it that she moved so gracefully? He loved to watch her step across a room, bend to take an item in hand, and straighten again. Her silks hushed as she knelt beside him.

“Lift it before my gaze,” he instructed her gently.

He examined his countenance in the hand mirror. The signs were slight, but present: his aquiline nose longer by a hair, his jaw longer also, and a faint tracery of new lines bracketing his eyes and mouth. The truldemagar had claimed him violently. No surprise, given the potent magery he’d worked at its onset. No surprise, given his long sojourn in darkness. He would not be one of those trolls who looked human for years, his disease visible only to the inner sight.

He girded himself to say the words that would unmake their betrothal and turned the mirror to reflect Damalis’ face, yet very still. Did he perceive resolution in her eyes? Distance?

His brows tensed.

Damalis drew in a shallow breath. “I am sorry,” she said. “I do not love you enough for this.”

Gael’s heart contracted painfully.

Damalis continued: “I rescind my promise to bind and oblige myself to you in marriage, Gael. Our betrothal is ended.”

He’d imagined her grieving her prospective loss. He’d imagined her resisting it, as did he resist it. He’d imagined her hoping for a way forward against all odds. But she didn’t; she wasn’t.

He searched her eyes.

She did grieve. But she grieved the telling of her choice more than she grieved the choice itself. And she grieved her future life at his side more than she grieved his loss of his humanity.

He’d thought she loved him. He’d thought she loved him . . . the way that he loved her, beyond all sense. The way he still loved her.

He hoped his tenderness showed in his eyes. His truldemagar-afflicted eyes. He would free her, since he could do naught else, formally—as had she—in the words he’d spoken to her in front of the priest and the altar.

“I renounce my faith and loyalty to you. I retract my aid and comfort to you in your necessities. I revoke my promise to do unto you all that a man”—he was not a man now; he was a troll—“ought do unto his betrothed.” He could not swallow down the choking ache in his throat. “Be free of me, love,” he whispered.

A shiver of heartbreak showed in her eyes. Had he misjudged her? Was there hope for him still?

Her gaze steadied. “Our king would speak with you.”

Damalis rose to her feet. “Goodbye, Gael.”

And she left the room.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 25)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 23)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)