The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 25)

Gael’s eyes felt hot and dry, his chest tight.

He’d known he must set her free. He’d not dreamed that she would set him free. That she could be brought to do so without his urging. That she would want to do so.

Losing her love was worse than losing her. Was worse than losing his life. Worse than losing his humanity.

The ache in his chest strengthened, knife-like, and blackness washed over him once again. Suffocating, hot, and clamorous this time, rather than airy and cool as before. He drowned in it, desperate for a rescue that would never come, he knew.

The click of a door latch fetched him out of the stifling darkness.

Gael’s king strode deliberately across Damalis’ boudoir—his long velvet robes, aqua threaded with gold silk tracery, swinging—and sat in the chair vacated earlier by the lady. No longer dressed for battle, he wore the royal circlet on his brow, narrow gold set with topaz, and his dual rings of office. His face was grave.

Gael struggled to rise—this was his sovereign lord!—but got only his elbow under him before Heiroc shook his head. “Stay, Magus. You are but new recovered from your injury.”

His injury? Heiroc could call it that? The truldemagar?

Gael sank back upon the slanted end of his divan. “My king,” he murmured.

“You are yourself?” questioned Heiroc. “You have your memory?”

“I do.” Bitter memory. Bitter knowledge.

Heiroc’s face grew yet more grave. “You know you suffer the truldemagar?”


“You know that some of my neighboring kings execute their trolls.”

Yes, Gael knew that also.

“I shall not follow their example.” Heiroc frowned. “But neither will I forego tradition’s answer to my dilemma.”

Emotion—resentment? anger? hope?—surged in Gael’s breast. He fought it down, unidentified, but said, “Erastys forbore tradition’s answer.”

Heiroc nodded, unoffended. “And you see what came of it. Would you walk in Nathiar’s footsteps?”

The question possessed only one answer. Could only possess one answer. “No.”

“I thought not.” Heiroc sighed. “Although Erastys’ magus has now gone into exile, as he should have done some moons before. He departed via ship, to be set ashore in the Hamish wilds across the sea.”

“Shall I go thusly?” asked Gael. What exactly did Heiroc plan for him? How would his banishment be accomplished?

“No,” said Heiroc. “You will need help, my friend. Help which I cannot provide you, though your weakness calls for it.”

Gaelan’s tears. Would Heiroc banish him here and now? When his legs would surely fail to bear him?

“I cannot afford you the recovery time which my physician tells me you require.”

Seya’s son! He was being banished here and now.

“I have already pushed the decencies beyond what is reasonable.”

‘Decency,’ he called it? What could be decent about turning an invalid into the street?

Heiroc continued: “I shall push those conventions further yet by some deichtains, but it will not be enough for you, my friend.”

“Then how shall I go?” asked Gael.

“To my borders, you shall have companions. That much I may command.” Heiroc swallowed. “Beyond them . . . you shall have one, the only one within my power to procure for you.”

Gael could not envision how that might be brought to pass. What man unafflicted would willingly embrace exile at Gael’s side? The idea was ludicrous. And Heiroc would never deliberately afflict one of his servants with troll-disease, condemning him unjustly for Gael’s sake.

The tightness in Gael’s throat loosened. A warmth crept into his breast.

Heiroc’s evident struggle to provide for his magus came as balm after . . . the lack of struggle shown by . . . Gael could not complete his thought. It was too painful. But Heiroc’s loyalty to his old friend was welcome, even if it must prove futile.

“You do not understand me, do you?” said Heiroc. Was that a slight smile in his eyes?

Gael shook his head.

Heiroc stood, strode back across the boudoir and around the corner towards its door. Gael heard the sound of the latch, the sharp snap of Heiroc’s fingers, followed by a low whistle. The pattering click of nails on marble started up, then hushed abruptly on carpeting.

An instant later, a massive dog—noble-headed with gentle eyes, and long-haired, white with large black patches, and a sweeping feathered tail: a landseer—trotted into Gael’s view.

He knew her, of course. Morza was Heiroc’s favorite water retriever, so much so that she was not restricted to the mews with the other hunting dogs, but walked ever at her master’s heel.

Gael stretched a hand out to her as she wove her way carefully through the delicate furnishings.

Standing beside the divan, she snuffled his knuckles, then his wrist and forearm. Uttering a contented sigh, she sat close and laid her head on his chest.

Gael scratched the base of her loosely flopped ears, both black against the black patches on either side of her head. She sighed a second time.

Heiroc returned to his seat. “Well, my friend? What think you of my provision for your companionship?”

The warmth spreading in Gael’s chest swelled to a flood. “You cannot, my lord,” he protested. “You must not.”

The smile in Heiroc’s eyes traveled to his lips. “Morza loves you nearly as much as she loves me,” he said.

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Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 26)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 24)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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The Tally Master