The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 68)

Gael could point to the exact day, the exact moment, when his dislike for Nathiar had bloomed. True, it had grown and deepened since then. But before that instant, they’d been friends and comrades. Uneasy ones perhaps, but on the same side. After it, no longer, so far as Gael was concerned.

It was twenty-one years ago, when Heiroc’s father still reigned, soon after Gael had turned seventeen. Late at night, he’d been walking along one of the cedar-scented corridors of the palace in Hadorgol, soft carpeting underfoot. The wicks of the oil lamps placed on the wainscoting ledge had been lowered, and the lighting was dim. Shadows clustered within a wall niche sheltering a miniature living pine and hung with a three-part tapestry depicting a mountain landscape.

Muffled giggles sounded from a narrow corridor opening opposite the niche.

Gael paused, frowning. He’d thought he traversed the palace wing to the west of the main courtyard. Had he gotten turned around somehow? Many did, especially courtiers who visited the capital infrequently. But he lived in the place year round, or nearly so.

If this were the western wing, that niche should hold a miniature willow, its shallow tureen placed before a tapestry showing a lazy river flowing through placid water meadows.

Another burst of stifled chuckles emanated from the corridor opposite the niche.

Gael swung into the narrow passage, quickening his stride.

The ornaments were wrong there, too, enameled theatre masks—happy, sad, furious, grinning and on through the whole panoply of stylized emotion—instead of the gallery of metal owls, fashioned of brass and gold; as though, again, this were the eastern wing, not the western.

But Gael was not turned around. This was the western wing. He stopped altogether, slowing his breathing and allowing his inner sight to unfurl.

Tiamar on his holy throne! The theater masks, the miniature pine behind him, even the cherry blossom branches worked in the carpeting underfoot—which should have resembled a flowery meadow, not a branch-laced sky—were the product of manipulated energea. It was all illusion. To what end?

As Gael jerked his head up, Erastys stumbled around the corner ahead, bent over, his arms wrapped around his middle as he shook with laughter. The prince was sixteen, newly come to broader shoulders and more muscular limbs, although he had yet more growing to do to reach full manhood. His face was very flushed, a few strands of his dark hair plastered across his sweaty jaw.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” gasped Erastys, holding in his chortles. He saw Gael. “Help me stop,” he pleaded in a whisper. “You have to see this! But we have to be quiet, or we’ll spoil it. I have to shut up!” The prince’s eyes streamed tears in his laughter.

A subdued series of thumps sounded beyond the corner just rounded by the prince, then a string of slurred curses, as though uttered by a drunk. Was that Lord Omory’s voice?

“What have you done?” demanded Gael, his own voice low. Lord Omory’s chambers lay off this very corridor—on the east of the palace, not the west. This was the west.

“S-switched the keys,” giggled Erastys. “He’ll trip over the quilt stand Myr Uram keeps just inside his door after nightfall and tumble into bed with the jester.” Erastys spouted another outpouring of suppressed giggles.

Gael’s lips pressed straight. He had to stop this. And there wasn’t time to explain—or argue about—why. He gripped the prince’s shoulder and yanked him along the corridor to a small door camouflaged by the ornate cedar paneling. Opening it, he bundled Erastys through, aiming him toward the servant’s stair located there, muttered “Go! Go!” urgently, and closed the door before Erastys could respond.

Then Gael leaped for the corner ahead, intent on stopping the prince’s prank before it reached its disastrous climax.

Erastys had always loved a joke. Hells! They all had, Gael included. But this joke was not likely to end the way Erastys—and Nathiar? Nathiar had to be involved, given the energea-created illusions—had envisioned. It was understandable that the prince had targeted Omory. The old lord traded on his long friendship with the royal family to scold the boy on every topic under the sun. If it was fun, Lord Omory disapproved. And his fondness for overmuch wine left him vulnerable to the prince’s pranks.

Gael hurtled around the corner just in time to see the door at the far end of the corridor swinging open under Omory’s shaking hand. The old man tottered through and tripped over the quilt stand, just as Erastys had predicted. Ankles wrapped in the jostled quilt, he lurched forward, arms flailing to avoid falling to the floor, and sprawled across the massive canopied bed beyond.

Nathiar—of course, Nathiar—burst from behind the great jade statue of a meditating saint that adorned the far end of the corridor. The apprentice magus pranced in glee, positively yelling his laughter.

An old lady’s piercing shriek interrupted Nathiar’s merriment.

“Wha’—wha’—wha’?” mumbled old Omory, thrashing about on the bed.

Gael halted in dismay.

And then the king’s great aunt arose from the cocoon of her sheets and blankets, thrusting Lord Omory violently from her person.

Gael started forward again, but it was too late, much too late.

“You!—you!—you!” screeched the dowager, breathless, her cheeks mottled.

A bustle of lordly authority approached behind Gael. He spun and bowed low. King Pevarys and his two highest ministers had arrived.

Silver-headed, all three, and garbed in heavy velvet robes, they made a somber trio. The king surveyed the scene, his astute gaze moving swiftly from Gael’s appalled face to Nathiar’s suddenly pale one, to his dowager aunt and Lord Omory, still entangled within the darkened bedchamber.

“See to it, Rikar” the king growled to his lefthand companion, jerking his head toward his great aunt.

Lord Rikar paced gravely forward, lifted Lord Omory smoothly to his feet, and bowed gracefully to the dowager, offering his arm. She took it, allowing the minister to support her out of the room altogether and down the hall. It might have been more suave still, if they’d managed to clear the doorway before Omory vomited messily on the carpet, instead of after, but Rikar gave no evidence of discomposure, murmuring as he guided the old lady around Gael, “I’ll conduct you to a fresh chamber, your grace, and send the lackeys to transfer your belongings.”

Meanwhile, the king and his remaining minister bent their attention to Nathiar, Gael, and Lord Omory.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded King Pevarys.

Gael clutched after his straying wits. He’d gotten Erastys away in good time. The king had never even seen him, need never know his younger son was present, if only Gael could come up with a plausible story. Fast.

Nathiar’s wits had apparently never strayed, because he spoke up immediately. “Your majesty, I make my abject apology.” Even in youth—he was seventeen, like Gael—his voice was deep and mellifluous. “I tried to stop them, but was too tentative, too tardy in my prevention.”

“What mean you?” asked the king sharply.

“My fellow apprentice”—Nathiar nodded at Gael—“dreamed up a scheme to discomfit the learned Omory, and . . . Heiroc liked the scheme, I regret to say. He found the idea of the prudish lord climbing into bed with Myr Uram exquisitely funny.”

Gael’s mouth dropped open. Was he really hearing this? That he had initiated the prank? For Heiroc’s amusement? That Nathiar had attempted to stop them? The lie was bald.

Nathiar continued, “I’ll admit my sympathies lie with Prince Heiroc in this, and had your lady aunt not arrived so unexpectedly this afternoon, had her usual rooms not suffered from the burst pipe, had the jester kept his usual apartment, I would not have intervened. As it was, I intervened too late.”

“My eldest son never lent himself to this!” King Pevarys snapped.

“It is unlike him,” agreed Nathiar mildly.

You were laughing sufficiently loudly, methinks,” the king observed, his tone skeptical.

Nathiar went down on one knee, dipping his head. “I was, my lord king, I plead guilty. My sense of humor is reprehensible, indeed. Pray forgive me, my king.”

The king’s lips flattened. He looked in exasperation at Nathiar, then turned aside to his minister. “For Tiamar’s sake, summon Lord Omory’s lackey to him.” Lord Omory had lost his balance after purging his stomach and was floundering amidst the floor skirts of the now-empty bed.

The minister exited the scene, no doubt in search of a page to run the necessary errands.

King Pevarys swung his attention back to the kneeling Nathiar.

“Get up!” the king ordered.

Nathiar rose smoothly to his feet.

The king glared at the apprentice magus, his royal eyes hard. “You’re lying.” The king’s voice matched his eyes. “You knew the dowager was given Myr Uram’s chamber. You knew, and you planned this disgraceful escapade accordingly. You and your fellow apprentice between you. My son”—the king corrected himself—“neither of my sons would distress my great aunt so foully.”

That was patently untrue, but it did not surprise Gael that Erastys’ father did not see the younger prince accurately.

“It’s despicable of you to palm off your misdeeds on another.” King Pevarys glared a moment longer at Nathiar. “You’ll report to the steward of the small chambers in the morning and clean latrines under his supervision for the next moon.”

Nathiar bent his head submissively, but his lips twisted in disgust when the king turned away from him.

Pevarys brought his vexed gaze to bear on Gael, saying nothing for an interminable interval.

Gael shut his mouth. It could all devolve into mutual finger-pointing at this stage: ‘but, he did it, not me’—‘no, he did it’—‘no, he did it,’ and so on. It could, but Gael declined to engage in such a pastime, especially since Erastys could still fall under suspicion.

Nathiar, behind the king, glanced mockingly at Gael.

“I’m disappointed,” said Pevarys. “I had expected better of you.” He held Gael’s gaze a long moment more. “You will attend upon the judge of the petty court for the next deichtain and then present an analysis of his rulings to me when the session closes.”

The king looked Gael sternly in the eyes for long enough to be sure of Gael’s obedience and then departed.

Gael looked equally long at Nathiar, who had the grace to blush.

“Really?” said Gael. He still found it hard to believe that his friend—however uneasy a friend he might be—had lied, and lied in creating a false accusation of his cohort. “Really?”

Nathiar shrugged. “I don’t want to hear it,” he said. “And you can afford his ill will more readily than I. You’ll win back his regard.”

It wasn’t Pevarys’ diminished opinion that rankled so strongly—although it did rankle—but Nathiar’s betrayal. “I . . . relied on you,” he said, after a brief fight for the right words.

“Oh, get over yourself, Gael,” said Nathiar. “Only milksops expect perfect fidelity.”

“Don’t you regret it?” asked Gael. “Wouldn’t loyalty feel better?”

“No,” laughed Nathiar, “and you don’t think so either or you wouldn’t be here now. Ha! C’mon, you know I’m more fun than prim and prissy Heiroc or even the unruly Erastys.”

Heiroc’s quiet steadfastness was hardly prunes and prisms, but never mind. Gael swallowed. ‘I do prefer Heiroc’ would make him a pruny prism. ‘I prefer you’ would make him a liar. “I agree with your expressed opinion of your humor,” he finally managed, and turned away, ignoring Nathiar’s chuckles at his back.

He’d intended never to speak of the incident again, but when Heiroc heard the varying tales via courtier rumors, the prince guessed the truth, knowing all concerned perfectly well. Heiroc didn’t say much, once he’d badgered Gael into confirming his guesses, for which Gael was grateful. Least said, soonest mended, although Gael’s trust in Nathiar would not mend. Nor had he wanted it to. ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’

Gael had retrieved himself fairly speedily in King Pevarys’ good graces. The king liked Gael, and favored his eldest son, who regarded Gael as his boon companion.

And on the surface, the doings between the four young men remained much the same. But beneath the surface, Gael and Heiroc grew apart from Erastys and Nathiar. So much so that thirteen years later, when Erastys, as king of Pirbrant, declared war on Heiroc, Gael was shocked, but unsurprised.

But now—now—Gael must consider trusting Nathiar to have his back in the smithy, when he tackled the defanging of the accursed gong.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 69)

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