The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 50)

Gael lay comfortably in the aftermath of Keir’s healing treatments, a light thistlesilk blanket pulled to his chin, watching as the boy tidied various used cloths into a sack, the bottles of several tinctures onto a tray, and the remaining pale green fluid in the basin into a leather bottle.

Someone had closed the inner shutters on the casements of his room, and the light was dim and soothing. Keir moved surely, but without hurry, between the tripod tables that he’d pressed into service. Gael felt relaxed, glad to be tended in his own chambers, not those of the hospital. Especially because the physicians there would likely have kept him overnight in their zeal. An unnecessary caution; he felt . . . not fine, but merely very stiff and very sore and very tired. There was no need for him to forego his interview with the magus, although he’d have to push himself to get it done. So be it: he’d push.

Gael frowned.

That had been his intent, had it not? When he’d been so furiously climbing the Cliff Stair?

His frown deepened as he recalled the reason for his fury: the death of the Ghriana boy and his own part in it. It all seemed a little unreal now, but it wasn’t. He’d declared the boy unafflicted, Carbraes had pronounced his sentence, and the warriors had executed him. It had all been very ugly indeed.

“Gael?” Keir had drawn near, no doubt misliking the disturbance he saw on his patient’s face. “Are you in pain again?”

“No.” Gael had no intention of sharing the cause of his frown. He’d protected the boy from the worst of Belzetarn for two years, and he wasn’t about to falter now. He’d shove the memory under, just as he’d shoved other repulsive truths under, and go on. It was the only way to manage, living among trolls and contributing to the community as necessary.

He might take that thought out and re-examine it . . . later. But not now. Not when he had stolen tin and forbidden enchantments to track down. When he had a cursed gong to subdue.

“Do you remember why Dreben attacked you?” asked Keir.

Gael started to shake his head, but stopped after the slightest twitch of his muscles escalated the ache in the flesh to throbbing agony. Evidently he felt merely sore and stiff and tired only so long as he lay perfectly still.

But what had Keir said?

“Dreben attacked me?” he asked.

“You do not remember the fight?” said Keir.

Gael probed his memory. He’d punched someone, he could remember that. It had felt . . . satisfying. Was it Dreben he’d hit? Yes, he rather thought so. Nasty, verminous thing that the brigenen was. And the brigenen had punched back. Much more effectively than had Gael. But it had still been worth it. Gael shifted on his sheepskin, provoking another blaze of agony. Maybe it hadn’t been worth it. He’d always avoided Dreben in the past. Why had he confronted him now? And how had he drummed up an excuse to hit him?

Maybe the boot was on the other foot, and Dreben had manufactured an excuse to hit Gael. But he’d better answer Keir’s question.

“It’s coming back to me,” he said, “but I don’t remember how it started. What did Dreben say?”

Keir sniffed. “Nothing at all. He stood like a statue, outraged, while we readied you for the litter, and then had the gall to dismiss us formally as the porters lifted the litter to move you out.”

Gael sighed, noting with some relief that breathing seemed not to hurt, despite the bruises he could feel on his ribs.

“I was climbing to the magus’ quarters to interview him,” said Gael.

“That,” said Keir, “will have to wait.”

“I . . . just realized that,” said Gael.

Keir’s lips twitched in a flickering smile. “When you shook your head and shifted your position, eh?”

Gael stifled a chuckle. He could tell that laughing, unlike mere breathing, would hurt. Then he sobered. He hated to be tied to his sleeping couch while his enemies—enemies? yes, enemies—were free to pursue their schemes.

“It’s not just the magus,” he explained. “I’m worried about Barris. He’d been summoned on some ridiculous errand by one of the castellanum’s boys, right at the peak of the morning rush—an absurd time—and hasn’t been seen since. I want to check on him. Make sure Theron hasn’t locked him away in a hidden cell somewhere.”

“I’ve seen Barris,” interrupted Keir.

Gael’s breath punched out in relief, and then he grimaced, riding another wave of pain.

“Where?” he produced after some struggle.

“In his kitchen,” Keir answered. “I stopped by for a morsel after I finished tallying the oxhide and pebble vaults. Right before I got word that you’d been injured, as it chances.”

“He didn’t say anything? He didn’t seem—” Gael wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask.

“He seemed just as usual,” said Keir.

“Good. That’s good.”

“If you’d tell me the angle you wanted me to take, I could interview Nathiar for you,” said Keir.

Gaelan’s tears! Nathiar? Whose face at the evening feast had said he’d have removed the boy’s tunic on the spot, if only Keir had been present, and do who knew what to him right then and there? Who’d told the castellanum that he’d find a better use for the boy’s prettiness than mere notarizing?

“No!” Gael jerked to sitting, almost passed out from the pain, fell back onto his pillow, and then did go under, when the impact raised his agony beyond what he could stand.

He came to with Keir’s energea spiraling into his aching belly, silver and soothing, carrying healing on its delicate sparkles. Tears, but the boy was good. Gael wondered if the medicus Piar would want Keir in his hospital, just as every other troll in authority seemed to want Keir transferred to his jurisdiction.

Gael’s pains had subsided by the time Keir closed off the flow of energea and opened his eyes.

“Gael, you must stay still,” the boy reprimanded.

“I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Or move at all,” apologized Gael. “I didn’t mean to undo all your good work.”

Keir smiled. “Oh, you didn’t undo my work. You merely did a smidgeon more of damage, which I have now repaired.”

“Thank you.” Gael’s voice sounded meek in his own ears. That was appropriate, he decided. He felt meek. Almost. Should feel meek. But he still would not allow Keir to seek Nathiar out in the magus’ quarters, and be alone with him there, in order to interview the troll.

“If you’ll nap until evening,” said Keir patiently, “and allow the effects of my healing to work while you sleep, you should be able to get up for dinner, you know.”

No, he hadn’t known. “Then I can dine with Arnoll, as I’d planned,” he blurted. He wouldn’t have to forego all of his plans for the day.

Keir’s lips firmed. “Sitting quietly, yes. Eating moderately, yes. A few steps to your chamber pot, yes. But nothing more. No stair climbing. No trotting about the citadel. No arguing.” His voice grew severe. “No sounding that accursed gong.”

Gael’s face fell. He’d specifically wanted to sound the gong while Arnoll observed it with his inner sight.

Keir shook his head, exasperated, and apparently knowing exactly what Gael was thinking. “Gael. Arnoll can sound the gong himself—out of your earshot, please—and observe the effects without your presence. And then he can return to your table and tell you his observations.”

Gael felt a little foolish.

“You’re right,” he said.

Keir laughed. “Good, then. I’ll make you a proper patient, even if it’s only for an afternoon.”

“But,” said Gael sternly, returning to the point that had started this entire detour, “you will avoid the magus as though he were one of the troll invasion that swept over your home island three generations ago.”

Keir grew very still. “You know about the ruin of Fiors?”

Gael’s brows drew down. “How did you think I would not?”

Keir swallowed. Then swallowed again. “I—I—Fiors is so small. No one from the mainland ever comes there. Well, hardly ever. I thought—”

“That Fiors had no place in history?” asked Gael.

“How would anyone, save ourselves—the people of Fiors, I mean—know what had happened, when no mainlanders visit us? And no islanders visit the mainland?” Keir’s voice sounded very small.

Gael thought a moment. He’d known that Keir came from Fiors, but they’d discussed the boy’s past no more than they’d spoken of Gael’s past. Which meant that Gael had not really thought about the ramifications before. Fiors was a small, pastoral place, isolated. Whereas Hadorgol . . . saw trading vessels docking every deichtain. Keir was so discerning, so sophisticated in his understanding, that Gael tended to forget—not that he’d really known—that Keir’s knowledge all pertained to a much narrower slice of life than Gael had experienced.

Keir knew human nature, human politics, human failings. And Keir knew the details of daily living. All that, despite the boy’s youth. But he did not know the civilizations of the north and their history. He would not and could not know Fiors’ place on the world stage.

So . . . how to respond without bruising Keir’s pride?

“The ruin of Fiors was part of the ruin of the north,” Gael said, at last. “We mainlanders did not witness the ravages of your island, but we experienced our own, and we would not believe that you had escaped it. The exodus of the truldemagar from the continent was”—devastating, immense, prolonged; yes, all those and more—“comprehensive. We knew. All of us. We couldn’t not know.”

“Oh.” Keir’s face was crimson. “Oh.”

Yes, it was embarrassing when one realized that one had believed one’s own disaster unique, and it wasn’t. Gael had done that a time or two himself.

“I’m sorry,” said Keir, very simply.

“Don’t be,” said Gael.

Keir frowned, pulling his head back. “Why?”

“Keir.” Gael sighed. “You’re young. We haven’t spoken of it, and we need not. But I would guess you are scarcely fifteen or sixteen. And no one has perspective at that age. Even someone as knowledgeable and sophisticated as you are.”

Keir’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then said, “You think I’m sophisticated?”

“Your breadth and depth of understanding are remarkable for a lad your age,” responded Gael.

“Th—thank you,” gulped Keir. “I think.”

Gael laughed, then winced. It hadn’t hurt to laugh, not the way he’d thought it would, but it wasn’t comfortable either.

“But don’t go near Nathiar,” he insisted.

Keir glanced sharply at Gael. “I’d forgotten,” he said.

“I’d almost forgotten, too,” said Gael. “But it’s important.”

Keir nodded. “Very well. I’ll avoid him.”


Why should I avoid him?” asked Keir.

Hm. That was difficult. “I’d rather not state my suspicions,” he qualified.

Keir’s swift smile flashed out. “You know you’re right, but you have no proof,” he said.

Gael smiled back. Keir knew him well, indeed, and it felt surprisingly good. Really, this entire interlude—conversing, consulting, and advising; not his foolishness in sitting up—had felt good. Something had shifted between them. Gael was still the elder, the one more likely to know and give advice. But Keir had moved beyond the role of mere protegé. Keir had his own area of expertise and was qualified to advise within it. And Gael would rely on the boy’s judgment, going forward.

Gael knit his brows, realizing the end point of that thought. It meant that Gael would sometimes be wrong, while Keir was right. Well . . . so be it. Everyone was sometimes wrong. Gael could scarcely avoid that condition. In fact, he suspected he’d been wrong not too long ago.

“I shouldn’t have insisted on avoiding the hospital,” he said. “I signed you on as my notary, not my nurse. I’m sorry, Keir.”

Keir tilted his head, looking at Gael in exasperation. “Gael, I didn’t bring you here and tend to you because you told me to. I did it because I wanted to. Because my approach to healing was better suited to your injuries than I felt the healing offered by the hospital’s physicians to be.”

“Oh.” Gael imagined his face must be as red as Keir’s had been a few moments ago. “Oh.”

Keir smiled very serenely. “It felt very natural to attend to you, Gael. Please don’t apologize.”

“I didn’t mean to be a burden to you,” Gael said.

“You weren’t,” said Keir. “You aren’t.”

Gael smiled back at the boy. He’d been an excellent protegé, but he was going to be an equally good friend and colleague.

“Now,” said Keir, crisply, “this is how I think the afternoon should go. I will do the business of the tally chamber. I saw you’d made some notes about inquiring into the breakage rates of the spearheads and arrowheads, as well as the repair curve on the scale armor, and comparing them to the sword breakage rates.”

Gael nodded, then froze, wishing he had not. Ouch. Obviously he needed to sleep simply so that he could refrain from moving. It was damned difficult to stay absolutely still when awake.

“Yes. I don’t have the final numbers yet on the sword blades, but it’s my impression that the breakage there is up. And I want to see how it compares to the other implements of war. Has the press of battle been fiercer, resulting in more breakage for everything? Or is there a discrepancy?”

“Right. So I’ll meet with the quartermaster to explain, if you wish.”

“Yes, thank you.”

“And I’ll mix up another batch of ink,” continued Keir, “as well as gluing last moon’s parchments into scrolls and checking those rods we were dubious about. Oh, and—”

Gael interrupted him, smiling. “You’ll handle the business of the tally chamber. It’s all right, boy, you needn’t list it all out. Just keep track, so that you can get me up to speed when I return to it.”

Keir nodded, smiling in turn. “Very well. I’ll just remind you that my extra supervision of the privy smithy—which I plan to continue—means I’ll leave a few of the lesser items undone.”

Gael’s smile went lopsided. “That’s always the way of it, you know. Once you’re in charge, you make extra work for yourself as fast as you finish the essentials.”

Keir’s smile, however, did not fade. “So. That is what I will be doing. You will be sleeping, if you can at all manage it. And if you can’t, at least rest. Please.”

Gael couldn’t help grinning. “I won’t make extra healing work for you this time, Keir. I promise.”

“See you don’t,” the boy said, rising from his position by Gael’s bed and heading toward the door.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 51)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 49)

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