The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 44)

Chapter 9

Gael positively pounded down the Regenen Stair, squinting as he passed into the bright sunlight streaming through the arrowslits, blinking when he returned to the shadows that filled the inner loops of the spiraling descent. His ankle clicked more fiercely than ever, jabbing at each heavy footfall. But Gael didn’t care.

He had to talk with Barris and prove the cook innocent of his own suspicions. Or guilty. He could be guilty. That had been Gael’s first thought upon hearing Keir’s account of the tin ingot that disappeared from the privy scullion’s carry sack while the boy dashed from the vaults to the smithy.

But now Gael felt he’d been over hasty in leaping to that conclusion. Keir had believed the theft occurred in the stairwell, not the servery. And Keir had witnessed the scullion’s entire passage. Gael had not. In the wake of Arnoll’s betrayal, it was easy to fear that another friend might do the same. Easy, but not fair. So he would ask Barris straight out, and then judge his answer.

If the cook confessed to theft—Gael’s heart contracted at the possibility—that would be painful. If he lied about it, that would be worse. But Gael couldn’t believe that Barris would lie. Not Barris. And the likeliest thing was that Barris was innocent, and Gael’s suspicions utterly unjust.

But he had to know. And he couldn’t bear to wait.

He stumbled as he reached the servery, staggering a few steps toward the hatch before he caught his balance. Leaning against the hatch counter, he peered into the regenen’s kitchen.

Light flooded through the high eastern casements, illuminating every scorch mark and scuff in the lofty space. Scullions bustled about sweeping, mopping, and schlepping dirty pots away to the scullery. One cook consulted with another, no doubt planning the start of any evening courses that required long roasting. The morning meal was over, and the respite between its preparation and those for the night’s feast would be short.

Gael beckoned one of the scullions over.

“Where is your opteon?” he asked.

The boy blinked nervously, but before he could answer, one of the cooks gestured him furiously back to his broom. The other cook approached the hatch.

“How may I help you, my lord Secretarius?” he said.

“I have a question for Barris.”

“Ah!” The troll drummed his fingers on the counter. “The opteon was called away.” He shook his head. “Just at the height of the serving rush, too.”

“Do you know where he went?” asked Gael.

The cook called his colleague over from the storeroom. “It was one of the castellanum’s messengers who summoned Barris, was it not?”

“Yes, quite urgent about it, he was, too. I heard lots of ‘right away’ and ‘need an immediate decision’ and so on.” The troll frowned. “Odd timing.”

“Do you know when he’ll be back?” probed Gael.

Both cooks looked perplexed. “Should be back now,” said one.

That was worrisome: Barris unaccountably missing, mysteriously summoned away. Gael was tempted to search for him, but Belzetarn was a big place, with its tall tower, its artisan yard and all the lodges there, and its bailey with yet more of the offices: tannery, butchery, kennels, stables, and on and on. One troll searching alone would turn up . . . nothing and no one.

He thanked both cooks, asked them to tell Barris that Gael had a question for him when the opteon returned, and took his leave, feeling strangely bereft. All his impetus to confront his friend and know the truth reaching this deadend left him unenthusiastic about moving on to anything else. But he’d planned to interview both the castellanum and the magus, and the sooner the better.

Resolutely, he trudged back up the Regenen Stair. The castellanum would be in his headquarters off the main great hall at this hour, ordering his messengers here and there, the living strings by which he controlled the housekeeping of the vast citadel.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 45)

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The Tally Master, Interstice 1

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