The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 69)

Gael retraced his steps to the very first mural in the sequence, the one depicting the magus at work creating his lodestone. He directed his accompanying torchbearers to stand on each side of him, their flambeaus positioned to cancel out the shadows cast on the bas relief images. He scrutinized the energetic diagram of the stone at the start of its transformation.

The octahedral structure of the energea was fully present, with its eight facets connecting at twelve edges and six points. What created the difference Gael perceived between this vignette and the one at the end of the sequence of energetic manipulations?

He edged along to that last vignette, pulling his torchbearers along with him.

Ah. With his conviction that a difference existed, the details became obvious. The octahedral edges were no longer uniform in thickness. The middles of each short span were thin, while the ends—where they anchored at the corner vertices—were more substantial. Additionally, each vertex elongated into a short spike.

But how had the transformation been effected?

He returned his gaze to the intervening vignettes, then shook his head at the advanced magery they depicted. His teacher, back in Hadorgol, had begun attempting original magical research when he found time enough between his duties to the king and his duties to his students. This lodestone of ancient Navellys looked to be the original research project of a ferociously gifted virtuoso. It was far beyond Gael’s understanding.

His suspicion that he would require Nathiar’s assistance became a certainty. Breaking an artifact might be infinitely easier than making one, but he would still need to have a reasonably accurate idea of what in the north he was doing.

Tomorrow . . . he would begin sketching all these energetic diagrams. With excruciating accuracy.

Beckoning to his torchbearers, he swung toward the stairway that would return him above ground.

His tent awaited him on the terrace, and he crawled into it gratefully. Someone had fetched wash water for him, so he was able to cleanse his hands, face, and teeth before changing into his nightshirt. The thick fleece beneath his suede blankets felt very, very soft. He couldn’t help comparing the comfort of this camp to the precarious unease of his bed of leaves under sky, following his exile from Hadorgol.

This was better, unquestionably so. Or was it? On that trip through the Hamish wilds, with Morza at his side, his body had throbbed with the pain of the truldemagar while his heart ached with his losses, but he possessed no regrets for his choices. Now . . . ?

He rolled over and turned his thoughts to present matters, considering Nathiar, his unavoidable partner in diffusing the cursed gong.

Had Gael judged him too harshly, back in Hadorgol?

They’d both been very young—raw boys—immature and prone to error. Had Heiroc proved a prankster, like Erastys, mightn’t he have led Gael in just the paths followed by Nathiar? It was strange how the prank that resulted in Nathiar’s troll-disease resembled the years-earlier prank that prompted Nathiar to throw Gael under the chariot wheels. Illusion, switched keys, fooling the victim into entering the wrong bedchamber. Clearly Erastys liked variations on the theme of amatory misadventure. Did Nathiar?

Gael rather thought not.

Oh, Nathiar talked most convincingly. He’d convinced Gael. But no recent deeds matched his verbal innuendo. Pranks aplenty transpired in Belzetarn, especially amongst the scullions, but none bore roots in the doings of the magus. Why had Gael failed to notice this? Was he so caught up in the running of his tally room? Maybe. But he suspected that it was sheer intellectual sloth. And prejudice. Why bother noticing that an old acquaintance had changed, when one would prefer to continue disliking him.

That was part of it, yes. But the other part was Gael’s habitual avoidance of his past. If one never thought of the past, then noticing that the present was subtly different—or not-so-subtly different—would be difficult.

Was it just the thefts of tin and bronze that had so stirred up his memories? Or was there another cause? And had Nathiar actually changed? Didn’t that boyhood prank encapsulate the very essence of the troll-mage? Or was there a feature to that prank that Gael had never noticed until now?

Nathiar had not sacrificed Gael merely for his own advantage. He’d done it for Erastys, and fairly cleverly, too.

Had Nathiar claimed to King Pevarys that he and Gael were the authors of the prank from the beginning, the king would never have believed him. He’d have jumped to the correct conclusion immediately—that Nathiar and Erastys had tricked Lord Omory into entering the wrong bedchamber. Only by leading the train of logic across the patently ridiculous idea that Heiroc and Gael were the guilty parties had Nathiar caused the king to accept the improbable to be true, thus succeeding in shielding Erastys.

Gael had wanted to shield Erastys, but Nathiar had done it. And he had done it even though Heiroc’s favor—as heir apparent—was surely more valuable than that of Erastys. He’d done it even though he’d forfeited Heiroc’s and Gael’s goodwill.

Gael wondered abruptly if he had let Nathiar down, by never noticing this before. There was Nathiar’s inexplicable behavior on that final battlefield—the last battle between the brother kings—to consider as well.

Nathiar could have slain Gael as he lay helpless in the mud at Nathiar’s feet. And because Nathiar had refrained, Erastys had surrendered to Heiroc. Had Nathiar simply found himself unable to murder his old friend in cold blood? Or had he assessed Gael as being so wounded that he could play no further part in the struggle? If so, he’d been mistaken; disastrously mistaken.

Perhaps Nathiar had estimated the relationship between the two royal brothers more accurately than had Gael. Gael had felt a mingled bitterness and relief when Erastys and Heiroc reconciled. Perhaps Nathiar had foreseen—or even engineered—their reconciliation.

But all of this was old history. What of more recent events?

Nathiar had defied Carbraes—treasonously—to create enchanted weapons in secret; weapons which would be used by trolls to defeat the unafflicted. How could Gael even think of working with such a troll?

And yet, there were other possibilities to consider there as well. Might it not be said that Nathiar upheld Carbraes’ interests most truly by enabling his warriors to prevail on the field of battle? Was it not Gael’s desire to preserve the unafflicted that was disloyal?

But, whether treasonous or true, slyly conscientious or authentically crooked, Nathiar alone possessed the skills Gael required to reforge the gong pulled from Olluvarde’s crumbling stones.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 70)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 68)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)