The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 56)

Gael’s legs tottered as he took the last step up to the landing outside the entrance to his official quarters—the quarters of the regenen’s secretarius. He staggered under the archway into the adjacent anteroom and slumped against the wall, panting. Gaelan’s tears. He wasn’t sure he could make it over to unlock the door, let alone search the premises.

Thirty spirals up the Cliff Stair had required a much more significant effort than the mere eight spirals down to that latrine.

He’d known that it would, of course. And even now, near collapse, he didn’t regret his choice. It hadn’t been prudent, no. But some whisper of intuition told him he needed to be here, now. He’d hang on the wall, weak and limp. And when that grew too boring, he’d gather the strength from somewhere to go on.

He straightened, feeling his legs tremble beneath him, and moved forward. If he placed each foot carefully, he could do it. But if Dreben were to spring out of the shadows, aching for a rematch, the brigenen could knock Gael over with a breath. He wouldn’t need to lift a finger.

At the door—the one straight ahead, not the one to the right, which belonged to the magus—Gael fumbled one-handed for his keys, almost dropping them when he freed the fibula. All the locks on this level of the tower and the one above—with chambers for the secretarius, the magus, the march, the castellanum, and the regenen—were fitted into the wood of the doors. Which was a good thing. If he’d had to place his rush light on the floor, so that he could hold a padlock with one hand, while manipulating the key with the other, he’d have fallen and never gotten up again.

He inserted the key clumsily and twisted it. The metal clicked, raising the latch inside with a thunk. Gael pushed the door open, retrieved his key, and stepped through. As he closed the door behind him, the latch fell again, shutting him inside. He lifted his rush light.

He stood in a modest vestibule with a narrow, glassed window ahead, featuring a view of a circular terrace. The moon had risen while he climbed, and its silver light illuminated the generous stretch of flagstones, a cluster of backless chairs, and a massive bronze column at the exact center of the space. This was the flue to Gael’s smithies, looming like a giant of the forest, colossal in girth and rising beyond the ring of apartments. No vapors issued from its high maw while the forges slept. Indeed, in the absence of smoke, Belzetarn seemed to slumber, like a dragon at rest.

The vestibule itself was utterly empty.

Were the secretarius in residence—were Gael in residence—benches for petitioners and other visitors would line the stone walls. And the walls themselves would be covered with hangings. But Gael preferred the convenience and simplicity of the chambers right above his tally room, so this space lay bare.

His legs felt stronger as he passed through the vestibule into the receiving room.

The receiving room was not empty. Even though it should have been.

Suede hides reinforced the inner shutters shielding the window casements. A clump of sacks lay against the far wall, and to the left along that wall, on the other side of an open archway, sat a lump like a large upside-down bowl. A scatter of forging tools—tongs, crucibles, quenching bucket—occupied the center of the space. And was that—?

Gael had moved without realizing it. Yes, the crumple of leather in the corner was a smith’s apron and gauntlets. Tiamar on his throne!

He strode over to the sacks, bent, and rummaged inside. Tin pebbles! He felt breathless.

The upside down bowl proved to be a solid biscuit ingot of copper.

He was beyond cursing now.

So. Nathiar had inserted his porter into the tinworks and into the job of driving the mule that carried the tin to the tower. Thus allowing that porter to collect the odd pebble here and there into the small suede pouch which he hid behind the mule’s pack straps. Gael would bet anything anyone cared to wager that the magus met the pair—mule and troll—somewhere along the route through the forest to receive his stolen goods, and again later to return the empty pouch.

Although now that the regular teamster was back on the job, that particular leak was stopped.

Nathiar’s fix for the clogged oxhide tap at the copper mines? Gael would wager anything more than anyone cared to risk that this fix involved another tap, a secret one, that opened when the innocent furnace operator operated the ‘plunger’ that the magus averred kept clogs at bay.

Gael could imagine the interior of that furnace, the rough ore melting, the slag floating to the top. Then the slag tap would slide open, allowing the slag to run off. Next, the secret tap would open, diverting precious copper to a bowl dug in the earth and hidden by a flagstone. And last, the oxhide tap would open, the rest of the copper running into the oxhide mold.

A day later, Nathiar would visit the mines surreptitiously, lift the concealed flagstone, and remove his stolen biscuit ingot. Dastard!

That was why the copper teamster knew the copper vein to be rich—narrow though it was—while Nathiar had stated it was poor.

From the tools and materials present, Nathiar must intend on forging something. But how? With neither furnace nor anvil nor hammers present, how could he forge anything at all?

Gael’s borrowed strength—fueled by outrage and surprise—ebbed suddenly, and he fell to one knee. His innards twinged painfully at the jolt. A vision of himself, storming into Nathiar’s quarters with accusations and wrath, pulled him to his feet again. But assailing Nathiar’s door with a barrage of knocks and demanding entry required more resilience than he possessed right now. As did descending to the rooms over his tally room.

Feeling as slow as the flow of half-melted slag, he forced himself through the archway between the sacks of tin pebbles and the biscuit ingot of copper, following the short passage toward the archway at its farther end.

He lurched by a closed door on his right, and another—ajar—on his left. Within it loomed an old-fashioned bed cupboard like those the Hamish folk once slept in.

Tiamar be thanked! The furniture in this bastan’s chamber had not been cleared as had the rest of the apartment. He wouldn’t have to lie on the cold stone floor.

A chest in the corner disgorged a sheepskin. Gael grabbed it, stumbled over to the bed cupboard, and swung open its double doors. The pallet cushion was bare leather—no sheets, no pillows—but Gael didn’t care. He crawled in, closed the doors, and extinguished his rush light. Spreading the sheepskin over him, he fell headlong into sleep.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 57)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 55)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)