The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 72)

Tracking down Nathiar took some effort.

Nearly every porter or messenger buttonholed by Gael knew that the magus was not in his quarters, not on its adjacent terrace with a noontide snack, not in the yard consulting with the artisans, not closeted with the march planning the interface between his magery and the legions’ newest battle tactics, not anywhere he might usually be found.

Gael sent a boy to the tally room to inform Keir that Gael had arrived in Belzetarn, was thoroughly tied up with Lord Carbraes’ urgent concerns, and would meet with Keir soon, before the close of the day, with any luck.

As the messenger scampered away on Gael’s errand, he exclaimed, “There’s Valdi!” and turned, running backwards for a few steps, to point at a short, red-haired troll. “I’ll bet he knows!”

Valdi—sharp lad—caught the interchange and adjusted his route, saving Gael the trouble of chasing after him.

“Secretarius! Shall I take you to the magus?” asked the redhead.

“Please,” answered Gael.

Valdi led Gael out of Belzetarn entirely via a small sally port on the western curtain wall and into the forest. They followed a narrow path threading between pale gray beech trunks as it twisted down the slope. The spicy scent of ferns breathed from the woodland floor, birds called and leaves rustled overhead, while sprinkles of sunlight danced through the air. Gael wished he could spend the afternoon rambling beneath the beeches, instead of organizing a distasteful task and talking with a troll he’d rather avoid.

They found Nathiar in a charming glade, ringed and roofed by cherry trees. A small spring bubbled at one edge, the start of a moss-banked brook. A few bees droned through the air. The magus, garbed in a suede robe of vivid purple, adorned with silver sequins and mica beads, looked quite out of place in his sylvan setting. His multitude of thin silver braids, hanging to his shoulders, shone as brightly in the dapples of sunlight as his sequins. He stood peering into the lower branches of one of the cherries. Looking for the fruits? Surely even Nathiar would know this was not the season for them.

“The secretarius, Magus!” announced Valdi.

Nathiar turned with a saturnine smile on his thick lips. “Gael!” His mellifluous voice was falsely welcoming atop its hint of sarcasm. “Had I guessed you would wish to see this exquisite dell—but of course you would wish to see it; how could you not?—I’d have brought you here myself.” He nodded at Valdi. “You may go, lad,” he said, abruptly kind.

Valdi looked anxiously at Gael, perhaps mistaking Gael’s irritation at the magus’ dulcet tones for a countermanding of Nathiar’s order. Poor kid. How did you decide which authority to obey, when two equal powers stood before you?

Gael echoed Nathiar’s nod, confirming the magus’ dismissal. “Thank you, Valdi,” he said.

The redhead darted away, no doubt resuming his interrupted errand.

Nathiar strolled toward Gael. “Yes,” the magus drawled, “this is the very spot where my porter Lannarc would stop to water the tinworks mule. And the very spot from which I retrieved my stolen tin, the tin I’d stolen from you, dear Gael.”

A mere two deichtains ago, Gael might have struggled not to rise to Nathiar’s bait. But his time at Olluvarde, sketching and deciphering and learning about the energea of the gong, had included remembering the past and shuffling old memories into more recent memories. He rather thought he’d gotten the magus better sorted in his mind: Nathiar was a troll who moved through his days annoying as many of the mighty as he could manage. With his viperish tongue. But his deeds were not nearly so malicious as his words.

Gael had to suppress a chuckle, and he wondered if he should fain irritation, so as not to deprive the magus of his fun.

“So this was the place?” he said blandly, instead.

“Indeed.” Nathiar circled Gael to investigate the low cherry—more a bush than a tree—behind him. “But I’ve conceived a fresh use for this delightful spot, now that I’m given what I prefer to steal. Can you guess it, dear Gael? Or shall I refrain from such games and merely tell you?”

Gael considered cutting the magus short. He did have much more to do before the day was done.

“A trysting spot, don’t you think?” continued Nathiar. “Now that you’ve returned, I need not avoid Keir. And the affair arranges itself!”

Gael’s sangfroid was a little harder to retain under this provocation, especially now that he knew Keir to be a young woman. But Nathiar didn’t know. Or did he? Gael couldn’t see his face, but the magus’ voice fairly beamed.

“Do you really savor boys?” Gael inquired dryly.

“Oh, decidedly, my dear Secretarius. I do,” answered Nathiar.

Gael couldn’t discern if Nathiar was serious or frivolling. That was the difficulty of dealing with someone whose words and deeds rarely matched. Usually the problem was that the deeds were nefarious, while the words were fair, but the reverse still obscured the truth. Gael wondered if he’d allowed Nathiar enough barbs that he’d be willing to settle down to business. The magus had moved on to inspecting another cherry.

“What are you looking for?” Gael asked.

“I shall show you when I find it, my dear Gael. Perhaps I shall even share it with you.”

“Do you think you could break your search to attend to something else for a few moments?”

Nathiar turned away from his tree to grin. “For you, Gael, I could do anything,” he cooed.

“This shouldn’t prove quite so onerous,” Gael assured him, making his own search for a possible seat, and finding a fallen log near the spring. Moving toward it, he said, “I want to show you something.”

Nathiar’s eyebrow rose. “Really, Gael, I didn’t think you cared for boys yourself. If I had known!”

This time Gael couldn’t repress his snort of laughter. He sat and busied himself opening the flap of his satchel and removing the pertinent parchments, not wanting to see Nathiar’s possible chagrin. Although . . . when had Nathiar ever shown chagrin? He’d likely just mount another jibe, if Gael gave him the chance.

But Nathiar said nothing, joining Gael on the log and holding out his hand for the parchments. Gael let him have them, waiting in silence while Nathiar perused the sketches, also in silence.

The magus looked through the sheaf once, fairly briefly, then started back at the beginning, going much more slowly, tracing certain patterns with his forefinger.

These,” he said, looking up, “would have been very helpful when I was devising my procedure for imbuing a sword with energea.” He swallowed. “I take it that Carbraes approves of my involvement with the neutralizing of that cursed gong? And that you, my dear Gael, are not entirely repulsed by the possibility of my participation.”

“The project is far beyond my experience,” Gael said bluntly. “I need yours.”

Nathiar’s eyes widened ever so slightly. Gael could see him formulate some suave, vexing thing to say, and then bite it back. Was Nathiar revising his opinion of Gael, just as Gael had revised his of Nathiar?

Surely not.

“You’ll need Arnoll as well,” said Nathiar, equally blunt. “The iron of the boss, the most critical area, where the node is anchored, will challenge even Arnoll, but at least he’s a real smith, with decades of metallurgy under his apron.”

The magus started looking through the sketches yet a third time.

Gael repressed his sigh of relief and resignation, mixed. He’d wanted Arnoll helping, but wanted just as strongly to shield him from the entire business. So be it. He’d check with his friend next. At least Keir need not be involved. Tapping Arnoll for the job would fill their necessary complement of three without her.

Nathiar began outlining possibilities for how to proceed with subduing the gong, and then he and Gael dove into detailed discussion, arguing, rebutting, agreeing, and shuffling through the parchments as required to prove their various points to one another. The magus was a surprisingly keen logician, and abandoned the verbal sparring and posing that dogged his social communication. Gael found himself enjoying the exchange. Learning energea together under old Korryn had been the original germ of their friendship when they were boys. Parsing this energetic puzzle with the grown troll . . . brought back pleasant memories.

“Did you note the discrepancy between the first mural and the seventh?” asked Nathiar.

Gael didn’t think he meant the difference between the geometric octahedron of energea worked by the lodestone creator and the spiky one manipulated by the trio of gong forgers. “Tell me,” he said.

“The potency of these living nodes is extraordinary,” said Nathiar. “Even the merest touch between the lattice of the node and the lattice of the magus can trigger a surge of energea so damaging that it brings the truldemagar or worse to an unafflicted magus.

“The creators of the gong clearly knew this, because their process included an energetic funnel to shunt the surge safely away. But the magus creating the lodestone in the first panel employed no such shunt.”

Gael’s eyes narrowed. “Did he become a troll then? Or”—Gael thought about the extreme age of the Olluvarde ruins and the even greater age of the Navellys legends—“were the sculptors merely guessing at how the lodestone was created, carving the events so long after they occurred?”

Nathiar shrugged. “There’s no knowing, but we will need an energetic shunt, Gael, and I will shape it.”

This was exactly why Gael needed Nathiar participating. He only hoped it would be enough. How many other similar and critical details would be required? And would Nathiar have sufficient familiarity and skill with them?

“How is it that healers can touch human nodes and not suffer for it, when such a node within a weapon or a shield is so perilous?” Gael asked. “Or do healers regularly use such shunts as you describe?”

Nathiar’s thick lips twisted. “I know little of healer’s techniques, Gael, but the nodes within my enchanted swords—and within the cursed gong—are not human nodes, you know.”

Gael frowned. “But . . .”

“They look human?” Nathiar finished for him.

Gael nodded. “Their green color is that of a human heart node, their structure possesses the octahedral facets. How are they not human, with those identical properties?”

“Think about it, Gael. You’re letting the similarities—which are admittedly startling—blind you to a crucial difference.” Nathiar sniffed.

Gael thought. And thought a bit more. “Human nodes possess much more depth,” he said slowly. “The gong’s node is very shallow.”

“Got it in one,” drawled Nathiar.

Gael repressed the tinge of annoyance that the magus’ tone provoked. Was Nathiar reverting to his usual manner? Gael hoped not. They had yet the finalizing of their plans to do.

“So the greater depth of a human node acts as a reservoir for varying energea in a way that a shallow one cannot,” Gael speculated.

“Starting your original magical research now, my dear Gael?” inquired Nathiar. “At this late date?”

His sardonic tone had definitely returned. With effort, Gael ignored it and directed the discussion away from energetic theory and back to the project at hand. Nathiar allowed himself to be so guided, and forgot his preoccupation with annoying Gael as they hammered away at their plan.

When they were done, Gael returned his sketches to his satchel.

Nathiar stretched his shoulders voluptuously, then his neck, and then paused to scrutinize something on the far side of the clearing. “Ah! Perfect!” he said, climbing to his feet. The annoying drawl was back in his voice once again.

Gael followed him warily across the turf to one of the larger cherry trees. A series of irregular shield-like layers of honeycomb hung down from a sturdy branch.

This is what I sought, when you so welcomely interrupted me, my dear Gael!”

Nathiar gestured, twisting his wrist in a sharp curve familiar to Gael—manipulating energea—and then reached to break off a piece of the hexagonally patterned wax. Not one of the bees buzzing around the hive stung—or even touched—Nathiar’s hand. The magus caught the dollop of honey oozing from the broken end of the comb onto the pad of his fleshy thumb, and brought it to his lips. His thick tongue curled around the sticky digit. His eyes glinted.

“Keir likes honey, does he not?” intoned the magus.

Gael observed Nathiar’s cognizant expression, remembering that same knowing look he’d noted on the magus’ face during their breakfast in the magus’ quarters two deichtains ago. Nathiar knew, damn him. Perhaps had always known that Keir was no boy.

“She”—Gael kept his emphasis on that pronoun very slight—“is not fond of overly sweet confections.”

“Figured it out at last, bright boy?” said Nathiar, rather nastily.

Gael refused to take offense. Nathiar might believe his insults adequate camouflage, but Gael could see through them now. The magus was worried for Keir. Gaelan’s tears!

“I preferred not to know,” admitted Gael, his voice easy. “And I’ll likely pretend yet that I do not. Two may keep a secret, et cetera,” he added.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” grated Nathiar, his tone still nasty.

“How do you mean?” asked Gael.

“Theron suspects. He may actually know.” Nathiar positioned himself below the wild hive where honey dripped in a long string from the breach, his face tipped up. He opened his lips to admit the golden stream.

“Cayim’s hells!” Gael cursed. He paced to the clearing’s center and back. “Then that’s why—”

Nathiar, several strands of honey glistening on his cheeks, glanced away from the sweetness he’d been guzzling, meeting Gael’s eyes. “Because Theron does believe I like boys. So, yes, my dear Gael. That’s why I speak of Keir as I do: to convince our dear castellanum that Keir is a boy. And, yes, I did perceive your rage that night at the feast. And, yes, I do realize you hold no surety as to whether I like girls or boys best. But it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Gael swore more comprehensively this time, a long chain of profanity. If Theron were to learn that Keir was a girl . . . it would be all over Belzetarn before the sun set on the castellanum’s revelation.

Nathiar stepped away from his bee hive, still unstung. “Just so, my dear Gael. I couldn’t agree more.”

The magus was too hellishly acute. And Gael couldn’t say he enjoyed his own slide from mere tolerance of Nathiar to respect—however grudging. Nathiar could be amusing in small doses, yes, but Gael found his continuous persiflage wearing, and he didn’t want to like the troll. Imagine having to wait on Nathiar’s dilatory willingness to be frank, every time you needed to sort something out with him.

But Nathiar had perceived Keir’s vulnerability. And had taken well-disguised action to protect her.

“You’ll guard her,” said Nathiar. “You’re the only one in a position to do so.” The magus actually sounded earnest.

“As best I can,” said Gael, his lips crimping.

“Without following her around like a dog. Which you cannot. Must not.” Nathiar looked as perturbed as Gael felt. Belzetarn was not safe for a woman, whether troll or unafflicted.

Gael swallowed. “I’ll see you at the forges on the morrow.”

The magus nodded and turned back to the wild beehive.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 73)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 71)

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