The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 66)

Gael’s cavalcade of thirteen trolls and sixteen horses made good progress en route to Olluvarde. None of their mounts or pack animals fell lame, the weather stayed fine, and such luck as persisted among trolls permitted them to set up camp each evening without petty hindrance and to break camp in the dawning as swiftly.

The woodlands held the seasonal beauty of early summer, delicate and fresh. The pine groves at the start of their journey swished in the variable breezes, dispersing a resinous perfume. The glades of birch and alder farther south appealed even more to Gael’s inclinations.

Trees had been scarce in the riverine plain of Hadorgol, while these Hamish wilds featured nothing but hill after forested hill, laced by swift streams and dotted with frequent springs and lakes.

The white columns of the birch trunks stretched gracefully tall into the fluttering green coins of their leaves, the moving foliage spraying glints of sunlight and dapples of shadow across the forest floor below. The spicy scent of ferns mingled with the more elusive fragrances of shy flowers.

Gael drank the natural loveliness in, as much a medicine for his soul as Keir’s treatment of energea had been for his injured body.

Yet, all the while, as he rode and imbibed the land’s balm, he puzzled over the mystery of the thefts from his tally room: what he knew, and what he did not.

The first theft—not the first that occurred, but the first that Gael had noticed—would have been one of the ten Barris had confessed to, a theft ordered by Castellanum Theron.

The cook had claimed Theron had lately increased the frequency with which he demanded an ingot stolen. Three days before Gael had departed for Olluvarde, Barris had finagled an ingot out of the privy scullion’s carry sack. And Gael had discovered it the following day, when his tallies did not match. Or had he?

Why had his tallies matched after all the other—earlier—thefts by the cook, and only failed to match recently?

He knew a part of the answer. And could deduce the rest.

Barris’ thefts were accomplished in the morning. And, because the privy smith Martell grew especially impatient with his notary in the evenings, the poor scribe just made sure that his evening tallies matched his morning ones. Which told Gael something right there.

A yet-unknown thief—the one who must have caused the discrepancy that tipped Gael off—operated in the evening. After the privy notary finished his own tally.

No doubt that unknown peculator had acted just as had Arnoll, lurking, awaiting an opening, and then moving quickly to seize an unguarded ingot. Except . . . surely someone in the other smithies would have noticed him. Ravin, a tin smeltery scullion, had witnessed Arnoll’s theft, after all. And Arnoll, the most senior of the smithy opteons, possessed the right to intrude on any of the forges. Surely the mystery thief could not have moved unseen. Unless—

Gael remembered abruptly that Martell had lingered exceptionally late over his work for two nights running. Once when he himself had overslept extraordinarily. And again when the privy smithy scullion had been delayed by a long scolding—a very long scolding—from the castellanum.

A bird fluted on the hillside of birches through which Gael rode, and another answered. The wilds seemed so innocent, so untrammeled, in comparison to Belzetarn’s tower and Gael’s thoughts of the doings there.

The exchange he’d overheard at the hospital, while attending the burned sweep, returned unexpectedly to his memory. The castellanum had required a posset of sleeping herbs. And the castellanum had required Martell’s company at the evening feast, pouring wine into the smith’s cup again and again. Martell had complained of it and refused to accept the castellanum’s second invitation.

Could Theron have drugged the privy smith’s drink? Thus ensuring the smith would sleep late and provide another of the castellanum’s subalterns with opportunity? It fit what Gael knew of Theron that the castellanum would advance his aims—whatever they might be—via multiple prongs. What Gael wanted to know was: had Theron ordered his thief to steal tin? Or bronze? Or both? And why?

Gael’s mount stumbled on a thick root winding across the narrow path they followed. He exerted a slight tension on his rein, supporting the beast’s recovery. The sound of rushing water filtered up from a brook below, soothing to Gael’s ears.

Arnoll’s theft seemed a small misdemeanor when viewed against Barris’ more concerted and prolonged series of the same. It dwindled to complete insignificance when set beside the deliberate campaign prosecuted by Theron through Barris and—perhaps—another unknown troll.

In any case, Gael knew all the story of Arnoll’s doings and why. They were irrelevant to what mystery remained. As were the much more subtle purloinings practiced by the magus irrelevant. Nathiar, too, had explained what he’d done and why.

It was the castellanum—and his other minion or minions; there could be more than one—who Gael sought now.

And yet . . . he had a sense he was missing something, that some other agency was at work in the muddle of thievery and deceit and guile, some other villain who might yet escape retribution, were Gael to pin the remaining guilt on the castellanum alone.

Frowning, he withdrew his attention from circling his unsolved mystery, preferring to enjoy the fresh landscape through which he rode unshadowed by dark thoughts.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 67)

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