The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 81)

As Gael crossed the lower great hall, he saw that the tables and benches were already in place and the salt bowls set out. The afternoon was later than he’d realized, giving way to early evening. Scullions and porters thronged the Regenen Stair, bearing ornate chairs for the high tables, as well as trays of plates and serving spoons. The regenen’s servery was not yet clogged with servers, but it would be soon. The cacophony of clanging spoons and shouted orders coming through the hatch along with the aroma of roast fowl and caramelized cherries indicated the night’s feast neared readiness.

When he peered through the hatch, he saw that not only were all three hearths in use, but the broiling pit as well. Multitudes of boys turned more spits than Gael could count, while the decanens arranged beds of greens on platters to receive the roasted birds when they were done.

Relief washed through Gael as he caught sight of Barris, alert and well, cropped brown hair tidy, issuing directions to the almost constant stream of underlings that approached him and then veered away to obey his orders. Whatever dread consequence Theron planned for the cook, he’d not set it in motion yet.

Barris, despite the fever pitch of the kitchen, noticed Gael’s arrival almost immediately. He nodded across the bustling space, waved a decanen to take an opteon’s place between two of the hearths, and gestured for the opteon to stand in for Barris himself.

Gael studied his friend as Barris threaded his way to the door beside the servery hatch. When last he’d set eyes on the cook, Barris had been defeated, guilt-ridden, and slumping. He looked much better now, authoritative and confident, apparently unfazed by the sight of the friend he’d betrayed.

Gael forced the frown he felt gathering off his face. He’d thought he presented a calm front, but what had Barris perceived that caused him to break off from his most paramount duty to talk with Gael?

When Barris reached the door and opened it, he neither stood within its frame to begin conversation nor stepped out to the servery, but beckoned Gael within. Gael followed him along the kitchen wall, dodging around a decanen folding nut meats within croquettes of nut butter at a side counter, and then ducking through a small doorway on the endwall. They climbed a spiral stair so narrow that Gael’s right shoulder brushed the newel post, while his left touched the outer wall. One landing up, Barris unlocked another small door and gestured Gael through it.

The chamber within was a generous wedge-shaped triangle, the wall with glassed-in arrow slits very curving, like the outer rim of a pastry. A scattering of divans and chairs upholstered in dark brown suede clustered on pale green matting. Banner-like hangings of deep green leather framed rectangles of stone wall carved in abstract spiraling designs.

Gael felt as though he’d stumbled across one of the forest shrines erected and then abandoned by the ancient tribes who dwelt in the Hamish wilds before ever the Hamish folk came to them. So this was Barris’ receiving room. Gael had never entered the cook’s quarters. Somehow they’d done most of their conferring in the servery outside Barris’ kitchen or else within Gael’s sitting room. He wasn’t quite sure why, but so it had always fallen out.

Barris took up a stance beside one of the casements, the indirect light limning one cheekbone and the side of his upcurving nose, making the hidden tension in his face visible.

“Sit or stand as you please,” offered Barris, offhandedly. “I understand you may—” Breaking off, he shook his head.

Gael thought about standing, uncertain whether Barris doubted Gael’s forbearance—the obvious reason for his hesitance—or if perhaps Barris himself no longer welcomed Gael’s presence. Then he sighed and sat. It had been a long day and looked to continue even later.

Barris nodded, his stance softening a touch. “I’ve had time to think and to realize that Theron wasn’t just accumulating tin to use for bribes. He was targeting you, wasn’t he?”

“That seems likely. I intend to press him for explanations presently.”

Barris nodded again. “Then it’s as well that I make my confession now. The less leverage he has, the more you have, the better.”

“You are still my friend,” said Gael.

Barris’ jaw bunched and his shoulders stiffened. He moved away from the window casement, pacing impatiently to the next embrasure over, and then back again, his steps choppy and short. “Then you’re a better troll than I am,” he growled. His breath came hard through his nostrils. “You fool! I stole from you, lending myself to your enemy.”

“Then you owe me atonement,” said Gael composedly, “and the grace to accept my forgiveness, do not you think?”

“Hells!” Barris cursed.

“You are going to tell me the whole truth, are you not? Unlike last time?” Gael couldn’t quite keep the hint of sweet malice out of his tone.

Barris flinched and swallowed. Then swallowed again. Drawing a rasping breath, he finally pushed past his disinclination to speak, but his first words seemed rather beside the point to Gael.

“The castellanum tapped me to cook for the regenen early. My skill at the hearth stood out, and I prided myself on understanding the scullion boys better than the fusty old opteon then presiding over the kitchens. I thought I could manage the trolls better than he did and that I would present more subtle dishes for the regenen’s table.” Barris paused. “The castellanum thought so, too.”

“You’re talking of Theron? This was not before his time?” asked Gael.

Barris grimaced. “Theron was new come to his office as well,” he said. “Else he might have judged more aptly.”

Gael waited, letting the silence stand. If this room of green and brown with its impression of standing stones were indeed a shrine in the forest, there would be no breeze.

“I thought my sympathy for the boys would be enough, that they would attend well to their duties and obey me, because I liked them and they liked me. I didn’t understand . . . that even good boys can be impulsive, irresponsible, lazy. And I didn’t understand that I could grow so angry.”

Barris paused again before continuing. “They needed more rules than I gave them, and punishments for when the rewards failed. I didn’t realize that until after the most defiant of them baited me into beating him.”

Barris swallowed.

Gael repressed an abrupt desire to avoid what came next.

Barris continued, “We stood before the largest hearth, and he darted away from me blindly after the first lash—too heavy a lash—and fell. He tumbled into the flames of the new-built fire. It hadn’t had time to die down yet.”

Horror lurked in Barris’ brown eyes, as though he had just that instant let the lash fall on the shoulders of that poor scullion boy. Gael suspected a similar horror lurked in his own. His friend had intended to punish, not to maim. Or kill. Had the boy died? The burns must have been terrible.

Gael’s heart hurt as he considered the boy’s probable agony and Barris’ agony at his dreadful mistake.

“Gael, I’ve never deserved your friendship. Were Belzetarn not a troll stronghold, I’d have been banished for that innocent boy’s death. But Carbraes holds banishing the banished afresh to be redundant. His standards are less stringent. I doubt Theron even told him of the incident.”

Barris’ self-disgust had given way to sadness, but his gaze met Gael’s straightly. “But Theron would certainly have told you. That was his threat. And I didn’t want you to know. It was long before you arrived in Belzetarn.”

Gael struggled to find words that might comfort Barris, that would soothe the ache in his soul. But there were no words for that. He knew it only too well.

He made his own gaze as direct as his friend’s, determined to give truth for truth. “Earlier this afternoon, I sanctioned an experiment in healing that resulted in Dreas’ death. By accident.”

All the poisoned regret in Barris’ stance turned to rigid shock. “What!”

Guilt shivered through Gael’s belly. He should have prepared Barris for such news, but he’d been thinking of it as a way to convey his understanding and sympathy, rather than as the dire jolt it would be.

“Who will command the regenen’s legions?” demanded Barris.

Gael got to his feet. “I don’t know.”

“Sias in her labor!” swore Barris. “With Dreas gone, Carbraes himself could be unseated!”

Gael remembered the regenen’s recent threat to strike Gael’s head from his body personally. “I should not wager on that, if I were you,” he said.

Barris reined in his consternation, returning to the matter at hand. “Tell me what you wish from me,” he urged.

“How should I repudiate you for manslaughter when I am guilty of it myself?” said Gael, thinking of the Ghriana scout he’d condemned on the day he fought Dreben.

Impatience leaked into Barris’ voice. “For my betrayal of you, Gael.”

Gael suppressed another sigh. “You remain my friend. Do I remain yours?”

Barris’ eyes widened. “Of course, but—”

“Figure it out,” rapped Gael.

Barris swallowed. “You don’t want my regret? No, of course not,” he answered himself. “You already have that. What you want, what I want to give you”—he looked down, then back up—“is my assurance that I won’t do anything like it again.” He nodded. “Which I won’t. The next time someone tries to blackmail me, I’ll tell him to do his worst. Ah, hells, Gael! I’m a fool, and that’s being unfair to fools. Will you forgive me?”

Gael couldn’t help smiling. “Gladly.” Somehow, it was going to be all right. Somehow, he had forgiven Barris, even though he’d wondered if he could before. But there was one more thing he needed to know.

Barris nipped in first. “You know where Theron is keeping his stolen goods? I always handed them directly to him.” Barris’ brown eyes—normally light-filled, and light-filled now with relief—went flat. “Get that bastard dead, Gael. If you don’t get him, he’ll get you. He means to.”

“I know,” said Gael.

“That he aims to take your head? Or that you’ve got him?” asked Barris impatiently.

“Both,” said Gael. “The one thing I need to know is, why did Theron have you steal copper ingots, in addition to tin, and then disguise them energetically as tin?”

Barris frowned. “But he didn’t.”

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 82)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 17 (scene 80)

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