The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 53)

Chapter 11

“I’ve got to go to Olluvarde!” Gael exclaimed. That seventh panel—the one in which the stone of the magus was fashioned into the boss of the cursed gong, the one which Keir had passed over—might hold exactly the arcana he needed.

Keir’s unfocused gaze, looking into his past, sharpened abruptly. “Not now,” he said coolly.

“Of course not now,” said Gael. Or not immediately. But soon. He itched to study the energetic diagrams adjacent to the scene of the forging of the gong. Energea remained energea, whether in the present or hundreds of years ago, or even thousands. Surely he’d be able to divine from those diagrams the method that set a living node within the gong boss. And if he learned the techniques of its creation, he could deduce the means of its destruction.

“Gael.” Keir knew him too well. “You will be as tough and resilient as ever in a deichtain’s time. But if you should suffer a blow or a fall or anything which jars your internal organs while you are healing, you could hemorrhage and die.”

“I’m more likely to stumble and fall on the everlasting stairs of Belzetarn than out on level ground,” Gael argued testily.

Keir stared at him, exasperation in his gray eyes.

Before the boy could generate further reprimands, someone knocked on the outer door in the other room. The click of the latch followed, and Arnoll’s gravelly voice called, “May I come in?”

“Yes, do,” returned Gael, raising his voice to carry and pushing to his feet. His ankle took his weight without clicking and without pain, but his gut felt tender as his torso muscles engaged.

Keir darted another annoyed glance at him, but said nothing, going with him into the sitting room. The shutters on both casement windows were open, and the mellow light of evening filled the space, engoldening the divans, the backless chairs, and the tripod tables, as well as the stamped leather hangings on the walls.

Arnoll had donned one of his less ragged robes—dark amber suede adorned with jet beading—in honor of his private supper with the secretarius, and his curling iron-gray hair was freshly brushed and braided into a neat plait down the back of his neck.

“Gael! You look a little worn around the edges.” Arnoll’s gaze stopped at the bruises Gael knew were still visible on his neck, then the smith stepped forward to grip Gael’s upper arms. “You’re well? No lasting harm done?” he questioned.

Gael smiled. “Keir here patched me up good as new.”

Arnoll’s grizzled brows rose. “You have healing skills in your quiver then, lad?”

“It was my profession before I came to Belzetarn,” answered Keir, a slight distance in his manner. No doubt the boy remained irritated at Gael.

“Good as new, eh?” said Arnoll, scrutinizing the healer and the healed. “But needing a deichtain of bedrest. Am I right, young Keir?”

Keir’s reserve softened under Arnoll’s friendly shrewdness. “You have that precisely right, sir,” he said. “Perhaps you will add your persuasion to mine that the secretarius guard his health properly, instead of racing off to Olluvarde in the morning.”

“Olluvarde?” said Arnoll, startled.

Keir’s lips quirked, acknowledging Arnoll’s reaction, and then the boy started to tell the smith all about it, pausing momentarily to insist that Gael sit on one of the divans.

Gael stayed out of the discussion, merely watching as the two conversed and reflecting that Arnoll’s ease and understanding of the young was very appealing. Unlike many in authority in Belzetarn—Theron, for one—Arnoll recognized that boys were impulsive and often illogical, but he liked them anyway, or perhaps because of it. He knew how to be firm with them, but kindly. And he protected the smithy scullions from the rigid disapproval exhibited by the tower opteons, as well as the angry aggression of the warriors.

Barris was like that, too, setting a tone of fairness and restraint in the regenen’s kitchen that spread to influence all the offices in the annex.

Gael admired them both, his friends Barris and Arnoll. And modeled himself after them, aiming to deal with the lesser trolls in Belzetarn—especially the young ones—calmly and protectively, looking out for their interests.

He would have liked to have taught an apprentice magus, had the truldemagar never fallen upon him. He suspected he would have enjoyed rearing a son—or a daughter—if things had been different. As things stood . . . he would do neither, although training Keir in the ways of the tally chamber had resembled the coaching of a young magus.

Arnoll and Keir finished up their exchange with Keir’s suggestion that the smith examine the accursed gong before his meal rather than after. “That way I can ensure the secretarius is out of range of its resonance.”

“A gong, is it?” said Arnoll slowly. “So that was the source of that infernal bellowing yesterday in my smithy.”

“Gael wishes you to sound the thing while observing it with your inner sight,” explained Keir.

Gael nodded, confirming Keir’s words.

“Mind you tap it softly,” the boy added.

“Where is it?” asked Arnoll.

Gael pointed to his storeroom door, secured with its new padlock.

“I’ll take the secretarius up to my chambers,” interjected Keir.

Gael glanced sideways at him. He was certainly assiduous in his healing duties, almost worse than Medicus Piar would have been.

“The key?” said Arnoll.

Gael detached it from his fibula, handed it over, and then allowed Keir to usher him out onto the Regenen Stair. One and two-thirds twists up at a deliberately slow pace, they arrived at Keir’s quarters. The boy started to open his door and then had second thoughts. “I’m not convinced this is far enough,” he muttered, and led Gael up another twist, across the main great hall, and along the passage to the West Stair.

“How will we know when to go back?” asked Gael, hiding a sneaking amusement.

Keir frowned. “I will go back. You will stay here. Until I return for you.”

“Very well,” said Gael gravely.

Keir took three hurried steps and then paused, looking over his shoulder. “You will wait?” he said.

Gael settled onto the sill of the nearest embrasure, its surface a convenient height to use as a seat. “I will wait,” he promised Keir.

The boy was gone for some time, but Gael felt no impatience. The setting sun shone strongly through the arrowslit at the far end of the embrasure, warm on Gael’s back. He’d concealed the fatigue that merely climbing from his quarters had produced, but he was happy simply to rest.

When Keir reappeared, the boy said, “Arnoll tapped the gong three times to get a good look. You didn’t feel it, did you?”

Gael had felt nothing beyond the languor of relaxing in the evening sun, he reassured his diligent notarius-turned-nurse.

At the door to his chambers, Gael asked, “Will you check with the cook about the supper to be served?”

“The first course has already arrived,” said Keir.

“Ah. Good.” Gael was tempted to invite the boy to stay, but that would preclude the frank request Gael wished to make of Arnoll. “Then I shan’t need you further.”

Keir nodded, but insisted on shepherding Gael to a divan and recommending that his patient avail himself of the slanting end rest, before the boy took his leave.

Arnoll was reclining on another divan across the tripod table where a tray held an earthenware carafe and two drinking bowls. The smith poured a stream of pale golden liquid into each, lifted his to his lips and swallowed a long draught, then sighed.

“That’s a nasty instrument you’ve got locked in your storeroom, Gael,” he said. “It’s full clamor produced several visits to the hospital yesterday. Two hammered thumbs, a sliced palm, and—I believe—a burned sergeant.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Gael. “All the strength drained out of my limbs when it sounded.”

“Why did you wish me to examine it?”

Gael sipped from his drinking bowl, and a bright, sparkling sweetness burst on his tongue. Ah, knotberry mead. It was delicious, but he’d better ration himself to just one bowl. It was potent.

“I spoke with Randl, the copper smelter, about melting down the iron boss, and he said it could not be done, that none of Belzetarn’s forges produced sufficient heat.”

Arnoll nodded. “That is so.”

“But it occurred to me that a lesser damage might suffice. You saw the living node within the metal and the arcs connected to it, did you not?” said Gael.

“I did,” replied Arnoll.

“How if we heated the iron enough to bend it, to warp it? Would that be possible?”

Arnoll scratched his chin. “I’m nearly certain that could be achieved, but would it serve?”

“What are you thinking?” asked Gael.

“I’m not and never have been a magus, Gael,” answered Arnoll, faint annoyance in his voice.

“But you have an opinion, and I value it,” said Gael.

Arnoll sighed. “You want to break the energetic lattice, correct?”

Gael nodded.

“Then, when the metal bends, will not the lattice merely bend with it?”

“But if the iron were on the verge of liquidity?” probed Gael.

“Perhaps so,” said Arnoll, “but it won’t be. Not in our forges.”

“Hells,” Gael cursed. “I feared it was so. Now I really will need to travel to Olluvarde.”

“Thus guarding your health?” said Arnoll, his tone ironic.

“Think it through, Arnoll,” replied Gael. “I doubt Keir has. No blame to the boy,” he added. “He’s been performing his duties as notarius all afternoon, plus mine as secretarius, plus his self-imposed ones as my nurse—for which I am grateful—without much leisure for pursuing tangents.”

“I thought Keir had a point,” said Arnoll.

“Keir envisioned me plunging into the wilderness willy nilly and alone,” said Gael acerbically.

“Ah.” A slight smile on his lips, Arnoll shook his head. “You’ll go with a retinue. Of course.”

“And amongst my retinue will be a physician, Carbraes willing. And I won’t depart at all until I’m stronger than I appear to be tonight.” Gael’s jaw tightened briefly. “The short climb to where Keir deemed me safe from the gong took it out of me,” he confessed.

“Keir was imagining himself in your shoes, wasn’t he? Young and eager and on the track of a new and alluring piece of information.”

Gael laughed. “That’s it.” Arnoll was astute regarding youth. “Although, to be fair, Keir might have wanted to dash off this very night—were he in my shoes—but he wouldn’t have done so.”

“No?” Arnoll drew another long draught from his mead bowl. “No, I suppose he wouldn’t.” The smith directed a curious glance at Gael. “The boy has entirely too much sense for his age.”

“I shouldn’t say that,” Gael started to object, but was interrupted by the arrival of two kitchen scullions entering with the next course. The aroma of herb-crusted fish along with the sweetness of roasted onions lifted from the trays of food. A third scullion brought in a compote of honeyed rhubarb and a platter of fragrant hazelnut scones.

The boys served the food and departed.

Gael confined himself to eating for an interval, noticing that Arnoll, too, showed a fine appetite. The flesh of the fish was delicate beneath its crisp crust of herbs, and the onions featured a delicious buttery flavor. Only when he moved on to the tart-but-sweet rhubarb did Gael speak again.

“Keir can do all the work of the tally chamber, but we both know there is more to my position than the actual labor.”

Arnoll grimaced. “Holding firm against encroachment by those who seek any advantage in a lapse of authority.”

“Precisely,” agreed Gael. “Keir will likely be effective there, too, more effective than you might expect, but against certain individuals”—Theron, Dreben, Dreben’s opteons—“he’ll need more age and experience than he possesses.”

“Or someone behind him, possessing those attributes.” Arnoll nodded.

“Will you do that for me, Arnoll?”

“Of course, but you’d better make it official, for it to do the most good.”

“I’ll mention it to Carbraes, when I explain the necessity for my travel.”

“That’s all right then,” said Arnoll. “Do you think you’ll be leaving on the morrow?”

“With a little luck, by afternoon.”

Arnoll grunted. “You do know you’re pushing yourself?”

“I know. But prudently.”

“Eh. Only the old are ever prudent, and even they grow imprudent when something precious lies at stake.”

Gael’s eyebrow lifted.

“Never you mind. You’ll understand what I mean in another twenty years or so.”

Arnoll was in his sixties. Gael suspected that his own thirty-eight years sometimes seemed scarcely more than Keir’s likely sixteen to the older troll.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 54)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 52)

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