The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 85)

The regenen barged in, even though there was scarcely room for a third in the tiny latrine.

Gael twisted aside, and Carbraes’ charge took Theron solidly in the chest, knocking the castellanum back against the latrine bench forcefully enough that he lost his footing. He collapsed onto the seat, luckily not into the clogged hole. Carbraes loomed over him, breathing hard.

Gael studied his regenen’s suffused face and glaring eyes. He looked furious, and yet . . . not quite so furious as Gael had expected.

“Belm’s debt, Theron!” roared Carbraes, unheeding of anyone who might overhear through the still-open door. Not that the stair wasn’t empty at this moment. “Can’t you ever keep your hands on your own key ring! You’re a damn canny castellanum, but this preoccupation you have with ousting your peers is damn inconvenient! What do I have to do to make you behave!”

Now Gael knew what was wrong. Carbraes was angry all right, but angry in the way one was with a friend, not as a regenen to his erring vassal servant.

While Theron scooted farther from the latrine hole and Carbraes panted, Gael spoke. He needed to steer the situation, or Theron would scramble his way to favor in spite of his capital theft.

“Tell my Lord Carbraes what you did and why!” he commanded Theron. “I dare you!”

Carbraes regained his breath before Theron could answer.

“He need not tell me anything. I know him well enough to know exactly what and why.” The regenen stepped back to lean against the door jamb. “So, Theron, do I sever your head from your body?” he asked cordially. “Is that the only way to stem your hostility toward my march and my secretarius?”

Theron was recovering as well. He placed the dripping ingot of tin delicately next to the clogged latrine hole and rose to standing. Amazing how a troll with a hand covered in excrement could assume so disdainful a demeanor nonetheless.

Theron sniffed.

“No, my lord Regenen, you need merely replace your march and your secretarius and your magus with trolls I get on with, and there will be no trouble at all.” The castellanum managed to look down his thin nose, even though Carbraes stood a mere arm’s length away from him.

“I thought you ‘got on’ with my magus!” said Carbraes.

“Oh, I do, my lord Regenen,” replied Theron.

“But you do not ‘get on’ with Lord Dreben?” Carbraes inquired caustically.

“You know that I do, my lord Regenen.”

“Then who would I need to replace my Lord Gael here with to provide for your comfort complete?” Carbraes continued, irony strong.

“That would be for you to choose, my lord Regenen,” answered Theron smoothly, “but anyone would be better than Gael.”

“And yet I like and respect my Lord Gael,” declared Carbraes.

Hells! Gael’s beautifully orchestrated exposure of Theron as a treasonous crook was turning into edged banter between cronies.

He felt a touch foolish.

Just as Carbraes encouraged Gael to believe that between the two of them lay a special relationship—that of one honorable and competent troll to another—so the regenen must persuade others in his cortege to see their relationships with him as special. Carbraes and Theron shared the experience of ruling thousands: the castellanum controlling each and every artisan, apprentice, scullion, messenger, and porter; the regenen governing all of Belzetarn, its outlying camps, and his legions.

There had to be a way to remind Carbraes that the castellanum had pursued a prolonged and systematic series of treasonous acts against his regenen.

Theron frowned and took up the ingot that he had so carefully set down, turning the piece in both hands despite the fecal slime still clinging to the metallic surface.

“There’s something wrong with this,” he said and held the noisome object out to the regenen.

Carbraes looked his disgust and then took the ingot. “I see nothing wrong with it that a good scrubbing would not fix,” he said.

Gael was beginning to have his own suspicion about what was wrong with that ingot. But surely Theron knew that some of the stolen ingots were tin, while others were copper. Where was he going with this diversion? If Gael had anything to say—and he would—the fact of the disguised copper would fall against the castellanum, not the secretarius.

“There’s something wrong with this ingot!” Theron declared again. He took it back from the regenen, turning the piece over, and over again.

Good theater, thought Gael. Theron was really very convincing. Unless . . . was he really not acting?

A huff of irritation broke from the castellanum. “Someone must look at it energetically! It stands as proof—proof!—that the secretarius has not guarded your tin as he should!”

Gael frowned. Surely it stood as proof of Theron’s own further malfeasance?

Carbraes allowed one corner of his mouth to turn up. “Really, Theron. You were the one stealing my tin from my vaults. They are mine, I must remind you. I hardly think that the victim of your larceny—my secretarius—deserves the kind of censure that you do yourself.”

Gael stayed quiet. The regenen was going just where Gael would have guided him, and people always believed their own reasoning over that of others.

“Please, my lord Regenen,” said Theron. How did he manage to combine haughtiness with pleading?

“You know I hate magery!” snapped Carbraes.

“Just this once, sire,” beseeched Theron. Did he blush?

“Gah!” Carbraes stretched out his hand to receive the ingot back, and the castellanum relinquished it to him. The regenen shut his eyes, breathing slowly in and out. “Fah, it’s foul in here,” he muttered, and then fell silent. It was true the open door didn’t help the air much, although it meant they could see.

Carbraes’ brows knit above his closed eyelids. “Belm’s sin! What is this?”

Gael could guess what he was seeing; no doubt exactly what Gael had seen when he examined Arnoll’s ingot—the one meant for Dreas. Gael suppressed an inner twinge that the thought of Dreas produced.

As Carbraes turned the ingot in his hands, the metal under his fingers changed hue, flushing from cold tin to warm copper.

Tiamar on his throne! Carbraes had not merely opened his inner sight; he’d actually manipulated the energea to remove the ingot’s disguise.

The regenen’s eyes opened, and his gaze stabbed into Gael’s. “Explain!” he rapped.

“I cannot, my lord Regenen. I do not know who wrought this magery or why.” And he didn’t.

Theron touched Carbraes’ wrist with his cleaner hand. “He does and can. He merely will not, because he’s a traitor. Don’t you see it, Regenen? He and Keir between them intend to disrupt Belzetarn so thoroughly that it will fall!”

Surely Carbraes would not accept that on Theron’s mere say-so.

“I don’t believe it!” asserted Carbraes.

Nor should he, thought Gael.

“But imagine the turmoil in your smithies when tin is confused with copper! Had not my Lord Dreas, before his death”—Theron glanced significantly at Gael—“reported higher casualties on the field of battle due to weapon failure? I told you that the secretarius should operate under the oversight of the castellanum, did I not? Or the march, if you insist.” Theron’s voice was sweetly reasonable.

“I don’t believe it!” insisted Carbraes.

Carbraes might value Theron more than Gael had realized, but he was no fool.

Theron sighed. “No, I don’t either. He’s always been stupidly loyal. You are right. It cannot be Gael, however much I dislike him.” Theron paused—artificially to Gael’s perception; who knew what Carbraes thought. “But consider Keir. Surely you know that Keir is not so loyal as his master.”

Gael tensed. What?

“He did kill Dreas,” agreed Carbraes, “but it was a mishap.”

“Are you sure of that?” asked Theron.

This was ridiculous!

“No,” admitted Carbraes.

“This is ridiculous!” Gael burst out.

Theron raised his cleaner—but not clean—hand to his chin. He’d need a full immersing before the sauna at this rate. “But if Gael did not do the magery on this ingot—and who knows on how many other ingots—who did? It has to be Keir. And why would he do that unless to disrupt Belzetarn.”

“This is absurd,” said Gael.

“No, I do not think it can be Keir,” agreed Carbraes.

“My lord Regenen—” began Gael, judging the moment as propitious for turning Carbraes’ thoughts to how he intended to rein in his castellanum’s treasonous proclivities.

“But I do!” interrupted Theron. “And furthermore, I have already taken steps to secure both your safety and the safety of the citadel!”

“Oh?” said the regenen.

“First, my lord”—Theron had decidedly regained all his poise—“you should know that ‘he’ is not a he, but a she.”

Cayim’s hells! That ruined all. Even were Keir to be proven innocent of Theron’s awful accusation, she would never be safe in Belzetarn again. Theron would never keep such a juicy tidbit to himself. No doubt he’d already released it to his cronies. Every scullion would know the truth by the morrow.

“Hmm,” murmured Carbraes. Had he already known? Or guessed?

“You’ll admit he did the deception well,” said Theron. “Er. She did. And if she is so skilled at pretense, the possibility is high that she deceives in other things.”

“You know that is untrue,” interjected Gael, serious and steady. He could not let this point of Theron’s stand. “Any woman dragged to Belzetarn would do the same, and grow skilled fast or perish. I’ll wager anything you care to name as a stake that there is at least one apprentice somewhere who is female, and as utterly unsuspected as Keir was until a moment ago.” He gazed gravely at Theron. “You have done very ill, Castellanum, to strip Keir’s disguise from her.” As I know you have, he thought.

“But consider her unique position of trust,” pursued Theron, glancing slyly at Gael, no doubt thinking of their discussion of positions of trust en route to the latrine. “Consider that she did slay Dreas. And right under your nose, too.”

Did Carbraes pale? He was grieving. Gael realized his accusations when he learned of Dreben’s elevation had been unjust. Carbraes—unlike many mortals—would not allow his grief to derail his fulfillment of his responsibilities. And the ruling of a troll citadel came with many. Gael had always considered Carbraes as capable, supremely so. Now he was feeling in his marrow just how deeply that capability ran. Although . . . even Carbraes must suffer his judgment to be affected by sorrow, mustn’t he?

“So what have you done?” the regenen asked his castellanum.

“Thrown her in the brig!” boasted Theron. “Well, I desired Dreben to do so, and he obliged me.”

*     *     *

Next scene: coming April 28.

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The Tally Master, Chapter 18 (scene 84)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)