The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 46)

The castellanum accompanied Gael, even though only Gael had been summoned, and a most unpleasant companion did Gael find him. All the way down the Regenen Stair, Theron nattered on about the customs of the royal keeps in southern Istria and the duties of their seneschals and stewards and chatelains.

“When a sovereign possesses more than one stronghold—as does our Lord Carbraes—he gives the entire governance of each over to one personage. So much more efficient to do so,” said Theron fussily.

Gael paid little heed to him, his thoughts on what lay ahead. He had a bad feeling about the situation awaiting him in the melee gallery. He didn’t bother to correct Theron’s assertion that Carbraes ruled several citadels. The outlying beacon towers and war camps were paltry compared with the might of Belzetarn, even though only a fraction of the legions were rotated home at any given time.

The proportion of warriors to scullions might be reversed in the war camps, but Belzetarn’s fortifications stood unmatched.

“Dividing the responsibilities between four, who must then coordinate their efforts, is so inefficient,” complained Theron. “I believe the ancient Hamish found it so, as well, and concentrated authority in one senescalh. And this is a Hamish tower, after all. It would be proper to follow the old tradition.”

Gael couldn’t imagine why Theron believed Belzetarn to be Hamish in origin. The tower was far taller than any structure built by the Hamish-folk, even during the brief interval of years when they’d imported the sophisticated techniques of legendary Navellys. Belzetarn was a troll’s creation, drawn up out of the earth, stone by stone, using energea—the dangerous and more powerful kind, searing orange—and modified in after years by its various overlords. Carbraes had added the kitchen annex, using the muscle power of his followers, not energea. The troll before him had expanded the smithies.

“The magus, the march, and the secretarius should really fall within the purview of the castellanum’s office,” continued Theron, his voice in his most cultured modulations.

But Gael was no longer giving even a sliver of his attention to his irritating companion. They’d arrived at the melee gallery.

Shafts of sunlight shone down from the upper embrasures like holiness through a temple’s oculus or rays of heaven through a break in the clouds, the bright beams piercing the shadows below and illumining the vignette of a prisoner surrounded by troll warriors.

Gael’s heart sank further.

The prisoner—a Ghriana man from the western mountains—knelt on the stone floor, his hands shackled in bronze behind him, his head bent, face obscured by the hanks of his wooly black hair. His tunic had been torn from his shoulders, to hang at his hips over his trews, revealing his muscled back. Fresh blood gleamed on his cinnamon skin.

Gael’s footsteps echoed sharply as he surged across the court, leaving Theron behind.

The scent of sweat drifted to meet him, rising off the Ghriana, acrid with the man’s fear.

Lord Carbraes stepped out from amongst the clump of troll warriors, the butter yellow of his tunic abruptly lit like the sun itself as he left the shadows. His face was stern as his gaze turned to Gael.

“Is he a troll?” Carbraes demanded.

The weight dragging on Gael’s heart increased, pulling every part of him down, as though he might sink into Belzetarn’s very foundations and be buried there.

“I will inspect the configuration of his arcs and nodes, my lord,” Gael answered.

Carbraes nodded. “Do so,” he said.

Gael took the necessary long in-breath, followed by the slow out-breath. He couldn’t imagine relaxing under the circumstances—the usual prelude to opening the inner sight—but, despite his tension, the beautifully curving arcs of the prisoner’s energea kindled in his mind’s eye. So healthy. He knew what he would see next and dreaded it: from the clear violet node at the crown, through the aqua node at the thymus, to the pure silver node at the root, the Ghriana’s energea remained anchored. He was not afflicted. He was not a troll.

“Well?” asked Carbraes impatiently.

The Ghriana man looked up. Gaelan’s tears, but he was young, just emerged from his youth and clinging to courage in his desperate predicament, ferocity in the straight lines of his mouth and the fire in his eyes, belied by the stink of fear.

Hells! Gael delayed his answer to Carbraes’ question. He could lie, of course. And then what? When the Ghriana spy memorized the defenses of Belzetarn to carry back to his superiors, would Gael speed him on his way? For the prisoner was undoubtedly a spy; the mountain people sent them regularly behind troll lines. Even could Gael bring his mouth to utter the falsehood—‘he is a troll’—the matter would not end there.

Gael studied the Ghriana youth, so beautiful in his unafflicted grace, even when kneeling in the moment before his death.

“He is human,” Gael said.

The youth flinched.

Gael looked away as Carbraes’ warriors bustled around their prisoner, seizing his arms and unlocking his manacles, hacking away the longer locks of his hair to his chin, dragging a wooden block out of one of the storerooms.

Gael frowned. Where was Theron in all this? Not lingering in the passage from the place of arms, where Gael had left him. Not standing at Gael’s side. Not even moving graciously forward to give the regenen the benefit of his sagacious advice. Not anywhere in sight.

Gael stifled a snort. The castellanum was all show, with little substance. He wanted stature and honor, without understanding that such qualities must be earned to be real. He might receive the counterfeit of them, because he was castellanum, but he would never inspire real respect. Gael knew this, had known it almost from the first. Why had he expected that Theron might contribute here and now?

The troll warriors forced the Ghriana’s neck down onto the heavy block and locked his wrists to the shackles on each side at its base.

Gael forced himself to look as the brandished axe reached the top of its arc, forced himself to watch as the blade fell, forced himself to see as the severed head bounced on the floor and the blood spurted.

He would not pretend that he bore no responsibility in this, much as he wished that were so, much as he wished Lord Carbraes had summoned anyone other than him. Looking away would not lift this death from him.

*     *     *

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