The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 64)



Chapter 14

Soon after her arrival at Belzetarn, Keir had discovered that the sentry walk atop the curtain wall overlooking the lake was never patrolled. The enemies of the truldemagar had long since been driven out of the lowlands, retreating to their mountain fastnesses. Carbraes feared no waterborne attack on his citadel, and his march posted no lookout over the lake.

Most evenings Keir climbed a narrow straight stair located between the hospital and the feltmakers in the artisan yard, emerging from the shadows of the crumbling ascent into the sun on the wall top. Several of the shielding merlons had fallen, yielding a sweeping view of the water and its surrounding hills. Keir would clamber onto a smooth portion of stone and sit cross-legged, surveying the panorama.

The evening after Gael departed for Olluvarde, Keir sought her usual perch. The stones under her were warm from their day’s exposure, and the air was mild. The rays of the sun, slanting from behind her, shone long and golden. A riffle of clouds curdled white along the range of peaks on the horizon, and the lake—meandering away from her with a multitude of inlets—was very blue. Somewhere in the forest on the nearer shores, a dove cooed, soft and easeful. The scent of the water drifted upward, liquidly mellow and mixed with the aroma of sun-warmed pine.

She loved this high refuge for its solitude, its peace, and its beauty. The Hamish wilds were beautiful, but altogether different from Fiors, with its inland turf meadows, its coastal salt marshes, and its grass-fringed dunes, all overladen with the tang of the sea. But she didn’t want to think of home—which was home no longer. Not now.

The afternoon and evening had gone smoothly, despite Gael’s absence and despite whatever anxiety had prompted all his precautions. No additional ingots had gone missing. No one had challenged her authority. No one had threatened her person. Indeed, the castellanum had invited her to partake of an excursion on the lake when the next deichtain’s day of rest came around.

She’d thought about it, tempted.

She missed the vast sense of space one experienced at sea, with the waves stretching away forever to the horizon and the distant sky arching above. Even ashore on Fiors itself, the sky was far larger than here in the north with all its hills. Getting out on the water of the lake . . . might be a little like sailing off the coast of Fiors. And . . . even if it were not, she might gain some hint of Theron’s schemes against Gael.

In the end, though, she’d declined the invitation. What might happen to her out on the lake, wholly within Theron’s power, surrounded only by his hangers-on, out of reach of Arnoll or any other friend? How foolish she would feel to have rendered all of Gael’s safeguards futile.

She still thought his apprehension regarding the magus unnecessary. She’d managed perfectly well at holding Nathiar at bay long before Gael became aware that the magus required such restraint. As for the idea that the magus would grow more persistent following Gael’s departure, it was nonsense.

Three times had she almost encountered the magus this afternoon and evening, and each time he—not she—had taken decisive action to prevent the encounter: dodging away into a privy before they could pass one another on the Cliff Stair, turning the opposite way in the artisan yard, and actually leaving the high table when she entered the great hall for her supper.

A slight breeze arose from the water, blowing cool on her face.

Gael had asked her to check on Barris over the next deichtain or so.

The news that yet another of Gael’s friends had stolen from him had shocked her. Even surprised her. Once it wouldn’t have done so. She’d expected trolls to be violent and faithless before she’d ever met any. After living in Belzetarn for two years, after witnessing Arnoll’s unfaltering standards for the armor that would protect his fellows, after benefitting from Gael’s protection herself, she’d come to understand that trolls ranged across the entire spectrum of honor just as did the unafflicted. There might be more brutal trolls than there were brutal men, but trolls who were kind and generous and humane also walked under the sun. What an odd thought that was.

She’d not wanted to admit that it was so, but she could not avoid the conclusion. She had avoided thinking about it. She did not want to think about it now.

Gael’s voice had been dispassionate, phlegmatic even, as he reported Barris’ admission of guilt, as though he spoke of a change in the weather from fair to clouded, or the turn of the tide from outgoing to ingoing. Gael usually spoke calmly, and with composure. She expected that. She’d grown to depend upon it. But some tinge of the warmth and caring that lay beneath his rationality was always present. The deadness of his tone as he spoke of Barris made her hurt for him.

But she’d checked on Barris as he had wished her to.

The cook had babbled about the amazingly festal meal he planned in honor of the march’s upcoming sixtieth natal day. Almost too buoyantly. Keir couldn’t help suspecting that despondence hid beneath his ebullience. But he seemed to be doing as Gael had instructed him: keeping his head down in the kitchen.

She knew Gael worried for his friend. Gael might wonder if any friendship remained in his heart for Barris, but she knew Gael. He wouldn’t abandon a friend, even when that friend proved less reliable, less resolute than he’d believed him to be. She knew Gael, and she worried for him.

But the quick hug she’d given him upon his departure had been foolish. Just the briefest contact, her arms partially around his shoulders, but she shouldn’t have done it.

She was almost glad that he would be absent for nearly two deichtains. His well-being had come to matter too much, as had his opinion of her. She needed more distance, less feeling not more. Gael’s absence was helpful to that end. If only she did not worry for his safety. Her own memories of Olluvarde were too vivid for her to believe the ruins anything but perilous.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 65)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 13 (scene 63)

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