The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 70)

The forecasted storm blew through in the early morning, a lashing cataract of rain, but no accompanying thunder and lightning. Gael’s tent stayed dry within, but the edges of a great puddle crept under the side of another pitched too close to a low spot in the terrace. After the clouds passed off to the north, the dampened victims draped their wet belongings over various vertical bits of the ruin to begin drying, while their cook fried moose pemmican with wild onions for breakfast.

The washed blue sky looked very high and pale. A thicket of knotweed sparkled, its leaves bejeweled with raindrops, and the wet marble flagstones shimmered. Gael explored the above-ground complex, curious if he could decipher the original uses of the ragged spaces. He located the remains of a grandiose well with bas relief dolphins carved into the low balustrade guarding the shaft and columns adorned with garlands of seashells. Was this the abyss from which the cursed gong had been unearthed?

After his morning meal, he organized his next expedition below ground: flambeaus; stands for the flambeaus, so that his guards could try fishing the nearby stream instead of propping up Gael’s lighting; parchments, portable desk, quills, and ink; and a sheepskin to cushion his haunches while he sat on the hard passage floors, the latter provision much to the approval of the physician who’d accompanied him on the journey. Gael was healing nicely, and the physician wanted that state to continue.

If Nathiar—who had continued his practice of magery for the past seven years, while Gael eschewed it for tallying—was to provide his best help in the matter of the gong, Gael’s drawings would need to be very, very accurate and precise. Not for the first time, Gael thanked his old master for his tedious insistence that the hand-eye coordination required for sketching transferred directly to a magus’ control in his manipulation of energea.

Gael had hated the endless still lifes and landscapes and portraits he’d been assigned, but the skill came very useful over his next several days in Olluvarde. He required more than mere impressions or approximations of the energetic diagrams. He needed accurate copies, and he got them by measuring with calipers, never hurrying, and taking breaks so that fatigued wrist muscles—and sore sit bones—would not distort the exactitude of his renderings.

He tackled the vignettes around the seventh mural first, recording the entire progression of the lodestone into the central boss of the gong. Then he copied the main larger image. Next came the energetic vignettes of the first mural, showing the creation of the lodestone. And—when he finished those too late in the day to break camp and start for Belzetarn—he drew some of the most beautiful stonework, despite its lack of immediate utility for him: the vignette of the healer and the magnificent dolphin well, among others. It seemed a shame that so few people would ever see this artistry of the ancients.

That night the sky was very clear, and the stars shone bright above the fountain of sparks flying up from their campfire, while the trolls lingered over a potent fruit glögg. Gael sat apart from them, perched on a lone barrel section of column in the shadows, and staring at the constellation of the Swan just rising above the silhouette of the tree tops.

He’d come to accept that he would need Nathiar’s help—assuming he could persuade the magus to it, when he returned to Belzetarn. But would that be enough? The magus had just begun dabbling with marrying energea to metal. His expertise would be slim, and he knew little of the lore of metallurgy. Gael wished he could involve one of the smiths from the forges. Meticulous Olix, the efficient copper smelter, the dedicated tin smelter, or—best of all—steadfast Arnoll.

But these trolls possessed no experience in the use of magery in their smithies. Indeed, Carbraes had forbidden such adventures. For all their genius with copper and tin and bronze, Gael doubted his smiths could contribute much to the subdual of the gong. Towing them into a venture that might prove perilous—which it might; the weakness induced by its resonance remained vivid in his memory—and urging them to fight their regenen-ingrained reluctance to manipulate energea felt wrong to him.

But what if a third were truly necessary?

The energea-imbued weapons of Fiors came to mind; flint knives, flint spearheads, flint arrow heads. They had surrounded Keir all his young life before the truldemagar came upon him. And Keir had trained to heal using energea. In a sense, he was as much a magus as Gael—or Nathiar—fully adept in manipulating the energea, although with different goals. And unlike Gael, he’d been forgetting his skills for a mere two years instead of seven.

Although, to judge from Keir’s healing of Gael a deichtain ago, the boy had done precious little forgetting. And he was thoroughly familiar with the routines of the smithies and the methods used by the smiths.

With rising enthusiasm for the idea of Keir’s participation, Gael brought his notarius before his mind’s eye: Keir’s slim, straight person, the clean-cut bones of his face, his clear gray eyes, his jaw-length blond hair hanging smoothly. The boy always wore his belt low on his hips and his overlarge caputum long, its multiple folds draping over his shoulders almost to his elbows.

The memory of Keir’s abrupt, convulsive embrace upon Gael’s departure flashed within his thoughts: cool, long-fingered hands resting on Gael’s shoulders, the scent of herbal soap in his nose, the brush of Keir’s smooth cheek against Gael’s bristled jaw, and . . . a hint of softness against Gael’s ribs.

Abruptly, the scattered pieces of an unsuspected puzzle came together in Gael’s awareness.

Tiamar on his throne! Keir was a girl!

Surely not.

He struggled a moment, resisting the absurd conclusion. Belzetarn harbored only males, aggressive warriors seeking an able leader on new battlefields, desperate artisans needing a living in workshops open to trolls, ignorant boys hoping to find refuge in climes more temperate than the icy wastes farther north. Afflicted women could find no safety in Carbraes’ citadel. The regenen would offer them no harm, no, but even Carbraes could not keep so tight a rein on his followers as to stay rude, crude hands. Women taken by the truldemagar gave the tower wide berth, circling toward the troll-queens who reigned in the frozen arctic. Or so Gael had always presumed.

But he had not arrived at Belzetarn by choice. He’d been dragged there by Carbraes’ warriors. What happened to afflicted women intercepted thusly?

The unwelcome vision of a woman caught by enraged trolls and hacked to bits crossed his repelled mind’s eye. Or discovered by cruel trolls and tortured. Or noticed by sporting trolls and hunted. Or —or—or . . . the sickening possibilities were endless.

Why had he allowed himself to accept the comforting illusion that afflicted women—as well as more peaceable males—simply journeyed into the farthest north, eventually achieving their destination without mischance? He knew how heartache and confusion bewildered a new troll. He knew how difficult it was to travel alone through the Hamish wilds. He had nearly perished of cold and hunger and despair. Logically . . . most trolls must die before reaching refuge.

How many times had Carbraes’ scouts stumbled upon a troll corpse in the forest? Or killed a fleeing troll who resisted capture? How many times had Carbraes simply failed to mention such news in his conversations with Gael, just as Gael had failed to speak of that executed Ghriana spy to Barris?

Too many times.

But Keir—somehow Keir had survived.

Of course, Keir had survived. She was resourceful, clever, able to think clearly under pressure. But she was female. Gael found himself accepting that now. Having perceived her as a girl—more likely a young woman; he snorted softly at his uninformed idea of her age—he could not unperceive it, could not return to his previous duped ignorance.

Was this another betrayal by a friend? He didn’t feel betrayed. Shocked, perhaps? No, not shocked. Surprised? Indubitably. Delighted surprise? Surely not! Dizzy and disoriented? In the first moment of realization, perhaps. But the truth felt right, felt inevitable, felt . . . almost familiar? Had some dozing part of him known all along and stayed asleep deliberately, the better to protect Keir’s disguise?

Gael shook his head, impatient with himself and his lack of speed at reordering his world view in the wake of this new information.

So. Keir had doubtless adopted boy’s habiliments at the start of her exile. Very sensible. And seen the wisdom of retaining her disguise when Carbraes’ scouts detained her, as well as its utter necessity once she was brought to Belzetarn.

As notarius to Gael . . . well, two may keep a secret, so long as one lies in his grave. Keir was infallibly discrete regarding all matters of the tally room. Why should she be any less so with her own vital concern?

When he returned to Belzetarn, should he keep his new knowledge close? And . . . returning to the line of thought that led to his revelation, should he invite Keir to participate in the quelling of the cursed gong?

Gael had a deichtain to decide.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 71)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 69)

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