The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 47)

Gael pounded up the Cliff Stair even more furiously than he’d pounded down the Regenen Stair earlier in the morning. Only this time he was furiously angry instead of furiously worried.

His ankle clicked with the same fury that hammered through his veins, but if the joint hurt he didn’t notice. He wanted to hit someone. Or break something. Or batter his way upward without stopping, past the battlements, past the clouds, beyond the daylight at the top of the sky into night, far far away from this citadel of trolls.

Well, lacking wings, he’d have to stop. But there were more than thirty twists around the newel post of the Cliff Stair between the melee gallery and the quarters of the magus. And he’d need them all to be able to confront the magus with his wits about him.

He felt sick. He felt disgusted. He hated everything and everyone. So long as he dwelt in Belzetarn under Carbraes, he would be called upon to do deeds he deplored. To condemn heroes to death. To deploy the energea that he’d renounced before ever he entered Carbraes’ ban. Even—he faced it squarely now—to equip the troll legions that waged war on the innocent and unafflicted.

He hated himself. And he still wanted to hit someone, to batter some outer enemy to a pulp.

The stink of the latrines halted him three steps above the clogged hole in the wall where he’d found two of his missing bronze ingots last night. The impetus to keep going throbbed like his pulse, but he forced himself to be rational. He needed to know if his trap had been sprung . . . or not.

The stench rolled out as he opened the latched door. He swung it closed behind him reluctantly, shutting himself in with the smell. He couldn’t afford to let someone see him lingering in the stairwell while manipulating energea.

Opening his inner sight took almost no concentration. Was the practice yesterday and today making him faster? There was an unwelcome thought, amongst all the other unwelcome thoughts. But it was obvious that his trap remained undisturbed. He would check it again later.

Back out on the Cliff Stair, all his former fury descended afresh. He’d expected the hiatus brought by the discipline of observing energea might have yielded a lasting calm, but it did not. He’d set a trap for the troll who’d stolen his bronze, but Gael was the one who felt trapped. And enraged to be so. How dared life serve him up such wretched choices. To be a troll. To do evil to live. To be here. Gah!

He gnashed his teeth, just as the brigenen of the First Cohort—the one who rumor said had started a gladiatorial ring, Dreben—hurtled down around the newel post.

Dreben looked even more infuriated than Gael felt, his fists clenched and his jaw bunching. The brigenen was a little troll, shorter than Gael, but wiry and bandy-legged. His nose hooked down, like Gael’s, but more so. Lines bracketed his bright eyes. A brown leather cap secured by a chin strap framed his angry face. Matching leggings were tucked into his boots. His suede tunic was short and of a very dark red.

The instant he perceived Gael, Dreben screeched, “You foul skunk! Hiding in the regenen’s skirts to keep chambers that should go to the magus!” and aimed a punch.

Gael was ready for it. More than ready, he welcomed it, using the momentum of Dreben’s strike to drive his own fist home, once, twice, thrice. The ribs, the side, quick duck, the chin. He’d wanted to hit someone, and the meaty thunk of his blows connecting felt more than satisfying. Again! Again! And again!

Dreben must have mistaken his opponent for the restrained and mannered troll that Gael ordinarily presented himself as, one who sat at a desk far more than anything else, because the first few moments went entirely Gael’s way.

Once again! Twice. Thrice. Three more solid blows drove Dreben up a few steps and off balance.

As Gael leaped to seize his momentary advantage, one of Carbraes’ messenger boys came rattling down from above, legs pumping as he descended, but face turned over his shoulder, calling an answer to someone out of sight and on high.

Dreben’s foot went back and to the side as he struggled not to fall.

The messenger’s leading shin caught abruptly on Dreben’s calf, and the boy plunged head first.

Gael envisioned the sickening possibility of a fractured skull, a blood-spattered step, the blank, empty face of a dead boy, and his next act took no thought at all. He lunged for the boy, hands frantically grasping for something—anything—that would give him purchase and break the lad’s fall.

His fingers tangled in the folds of the messenger’s caputum—loose across his chest like Keir’s—and Gael gripped. Hard.

His momentum carried the boy up against the newel post, battering the messenger’s thin shoulders against the stone, but arresting his plummet downward.

Dreben hesitated no more than Gael had hesitated to save the boy. The brigenen’s blows smote Gael from behind, punishing in their precision: left kidney, right kidney, tailbone.

Gasping, Gael thrust the still teetering messenger upward and at an angle, allowing the boy to encircle the newel post with his arms, so that he would not topple when Gael let go. And then Gael pivoted, just in time to take Dreben’s next strikes on his ribs.

The impact of the brigenen’s fists packed more power than his spare size should have permitted. Gael felt bruises blooming in his flesh, a sharp jabbing in his guts, and a choking blow to his throat. He stumbled, then fell, rolling down uncounted steps to a landing, where his hip thudded against the wall painfully.

Before he could scramble to his feet, Dreben was on him again, seizing the neck of Gael’s tunic and hauling him up, then punching his gut brutally.

Gael started to reach for his energea, and then stopped himself. Just as a secretarius was no match for a warrior, so a warrior would be no match for a magus. And Gael had foresworn those skills. The regenen might prevail upon him to revive them. But for himself, when solely his own fate hung in the balance? No. Never!

A thunderous blow to his solar plexus deprived him of breath, and blackness crashed over him.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 48)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 46)

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