The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 27)

The Regenen Stair was a good deal busier than the Lake Stair. It provided the most direct route between all three great halls—stacked above one another—and the kitchens. Scullions carrying leather bottles to the bottle scullery jostled scullions toting drinking horns to the horn scullery. Porters bearing broad laving basins sped past their slower brethren burdened by heavy bench cushions.

Gael had intended to descend via the Cliff Stair, which debouched directly into the armor smithy, but habit had directed him onto the more familiar route. He steadied a messenger boy who, tripping on a porter’s heel, threatened to tumble headfirst through a bunch of his ascending fellows.

“Thanks!” gasped the boy, dashing onward.

Gael chuckled.

The messenger boys of Belzetarn were just like the page boys of Hadorgol—eager to get where they were going, equally eager to leave once they arrived. It made no difference, at their young age, whether they suffered the truldemagar or not. Later, the disease would slow the afflicted ones, but not now.

Was exile really the right choice for dealing with trolls? They were no different from men . . . until they were. That was the difficulty: knowing when the madness would claim them. And when it did, all too often, they used the dangerous energea—acrid orange—to lay waste to their surroundings. A rare few hid their insanity, doing more subtle damage for a longer interval. Neither outcome—explosive destruction or subtle corrosion—yielded anything good.

There was no good answer. But Gael could not help wondering how his life might have gone, if Heiroc had chosen to keep his magus by his side in some other capacity. Gael had bent all of his intelligence and loyalty to Carbraes’ service for the last seven years. How if he had given it to Heiroc instead, to the benefit of humans, not trolls?

Gael shook his head. He’d thought down this road so many times before, and he knew its turnings too well. Heiroc had possessed no other real options for the disposal of his friend and magus, afflicted as he was by the truldemagar.

But Gael wished his king might at least have allowed Gael the grace of claiming the necessary exile, instead of thrusting it upon him.

No. That wasn’t true. Heiroc had been generous. Heiroc had thrust nothing upon him save his beloved landseer Morza. It was Damalis who’d leapt to repudiate Gael.

And, yet, what choice had she possessed? At least she’d been honest.

Gael wanted to blame her. To blame Heiroc. But his own reason prevented him. Thousands of trolls had been exiled before ever Gael was born, and thousands more would be exiled after his death. How should Heiroc—or Damalis—solve this desperate riddle of the ages?

The footsteps on the Regenen Stair—slow tramping mingled with swift rushing, irregular punctuated by steady—and the warning shouts—“Look out!”—faded rapidly as Gael took the tunnel from the stairwell toward the forges. The light faded with equal thoroughness.

The torches in the tunnel had been doused.

Gael suppressed a curse. Had he simply followed the same routine for so long that he’d forgotten how to operate when he did something different? He’d meant to take the Cliff Stair, not the Regenen. He’d meant to bring a tallow dip, expecting the smithies to be dark, and had not brought it.

Standing in the archway at the back of the blade smithy, he strained to see.

Was that a glimmer of light on the far side of the forges that clustered around the central flue?

He squinted. His eyes adjusted. And—yes—someone in the armor smithy—no doubt Arnoll—had remembered the need for lighting at this hour.

Gael stepped forward cautiously into the gloom. If he felt before him, he should be able to maneuver around the work counters in the blade smithy, the tool racks in the tin smeltery, and the anvils in the annealing smithy without more than a stubbed toe or a barked shin.

His eyes adjusted further as he moved forward, and the glow from the armor smithy strengthened.

Reaching the low wall on the far side of the annealing smithy, he paused.

Arnoll settled one haunch on a tall stool, his burly shoulders casting a large shadow. Two tallow dips flickered on the work counter beside him, lighting his face from below, accentuating the deformed curve of his troll nose and casting his eyes into darkness. The smith looked . . . evil.

He studied the object he held in his right hand.

An ingot of tin.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 28)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 26)

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