The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 54)

The rush lights flickered when Gael dipped his frayed birch twig into the water of the small tooth jar, dredged its tassel end in a saucer green powder, and started to scrub his teeth. The bitter flavor of the powder strengthened as he worked his way from the front of his mouth to the back. His initial distaste for the northern method of teeth cleaning had given way to liking once he’d grown accustomed to it. His mouth always felt immaculate and very fresh when he finished.

He’d wondered, traveling north, how the trolls brushed their teeth or whether they did. Did they fashion small wooden brushes studded with boar bristles like the people of Hadorgol? He knew they would not have access to the cloves and cinnamon that the trade caravans brought and that were crushed to make the tooth powder he’d once used. The idea of never cleaning his teeth again had disgusted him, and he’d been relieved when he discovered that the trolls made a powder from a certain lichen that was even more effective than his old clove and cinnamon mixture. The birch twigs, frayed into a tassel by multiple knife cuts, took a little more care to use than a boar bristle brush, but they worked.

Gael rinsed his twig in the tooth jar, then rinsed his mouth, spitting into the jar and covering it with its lid. The scullions would remove it in the morning.

As he removed his suede robe and the thistlesilk shirt beneath, he glanced around his sleeping chamber. It, too, was very different from his room at the court of Hadorgol. Animal hides covered stone flagstones instead of wool carpeting over polished wood boards. The pine chairs were simply carved, not ornate, and upholstered in sheepskins, not silk brocade. Hangings of stamped and carved leather covered the walls, instead of embroidered tapestries. And the ceiling was vaulted stone rather than coffered wood.

All of Belzetarn’s wealth went toward the machinery of war. And there were no women to spin and weave. The trolls who worked with the northern thistlesilk barely kept up with the demand for bandaging for the hospital, toweling for the kitchens, and shirts for the elite to wear under their suede garments.

For all the differences, Gael liked this chamber, and felt comfortable in it.

He poured fresh water into his bronze basin from the matching ewer and dipped his washing cloth into it. As he wrung it out, the herbal scent rising from his own skin gave him pause. It might be wise to let the infusion with which Keir had washed him work overnight. Although he hated to skip his ablutions. Going clean to his sleeping couch felt so much better.

He surveyed the bruises purpling his ribs, his breastbone, and upper abdomen. They had darkened considerably, but they hurt much less than before.

He dipped and wrung his washing cloth again with sudden decision. He’d avoid most of his torso. The herbal scent of the dried infusion was pleasant. But he’d scrub his arms and armpits, his groin, his legs, and his feet. He could be clean without interfering with Keir’s fine healing work.

After he’d finished, he reached for his nightshirt and paused again.

His fight with Dreben had occurred immediately after he’d checked the bronze thief’s hidey-hole in the latrine. His own lattice of energea had rested undisturbed. Then. What of now? The great halls were long empty of their dining trolls, and the Cliff Stair would have seen the last of them retiring to their chambers some time ago. He and Arnoll had lingered late over their meal. Arnoll would not approve of Gael going to check that hidey-hole now.

But Arnoll was not here. And Gael felt restless. He’d slept the afternoon away, and he was not sleepy. Indeed, with his evening meal had come increasing strength. The idea of a gentle stroll—even though it would involve stairs—held considerable appeal.

Gael pulled a fresh thistlesilk shirt and caputum out of a chest and put them on, along with hose, shoes, and the evening’s suede robe. From habit he pinned his fibula of keys at his waist.

He’d take it slow.

On impulse, he tucked the small suede bag with rose rivets—the one he’d confiscated from the tin teamster—into his sleeve.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 55)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 53)

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