When Gael stepped through the doorway into his chambers, he took one of the rush lights left inside for him by the tower scullions and lit it from the nearest stairwell torch. Then he locked the door behind him, crossed to his bedroom, and kindled two more rush lights.
The stamped leather of the hangings and the golden wood of the chests along the walls looked warm and welcoming in the mellow light, but Gael did not feel the sense of homecoming that both the smithies and the tally room had evoked. These chambers were his, and very comfortable, very pleasant, but they lacked something, he wasn’t sure quite what.
The quick wash at his ewer and bowl, however, together with cleansing his teeth, lacked nothing. After a morning spent in the saddle and an afternoon of alarm and exertion of a different order, it felt wonderful to be clean. Clean and weary, with his inviting sleeping couch awaiting him.
He paused in the act of donning his nightshirt, looking down the compact, olive-skinned length of his body. He did enough shifting of the heavy oxhide ingots in the course of his tallying to keep strength in his arms and pectorals, and he climbed Belzetarn’s stairs with sufficient frequency—even when no ingot thief needed to be tracked down and stopped—to do the same for belly and legs. So what was different?
The bruises from his fist fight with Dreben had faded entirely, but that wasn’t it.
His breath caught on a hope he’d not dared indulge.
What might Keir’s re-positioning of the nodes in his energea lattice do over time?
Shivering slightly, even though the air was mild, he threw his nightshirt on over his head, closed the inner shutters of his casements, blew out the tallow dips, and lay down upon the fleeces cushioning his sleeping couch, suddenly not weary—and no longer sleepy—at all.
With a gentle in-breath, his inner sight opened on the curling silver scrolls of his arcs and the glowing spheres of his nodes—violet through blue and green down to white and silver. They still held their new positions, their proper positions, and they were subtly pulling his arcs into their proper configurations as well.
That was the difference he’d discerned in his body, the flesh and bones of which were governed by these secret flows of energea. Keir was right. The differences might be so small now that no one save he himself could see them. But over time, in his face especially, where his troll-disease was pronounced, he would come to look human again.
Until his nodes drifted anew under the influence of the truldemagar and began pulling his arcs into deformity.
He let his inner sight fade, thinking. He could not destroy the gong, the one thing in the north that might reverse the dread decline of the truldemagar. Keir was right about that too. And yet Carbraes had ordered him to do so. On pain of death.
He must injure the gong. He mustn’t injure the gong. Was there some way to reconcile this paradox?
He brought the panel in Olluvarde to mind—the one showing how the ancient smiths melded the lodestone of Navellys into the gong’s central boss, encouraging the node’s unusual energea to spread throughout its hemisphere. He thought about the structure of healthy nodes versus that of diseased ones, the pattern of each repeated, not only from boundary to boundary, but at depth. Within each lone energetic diamond in a healthy node could be found a further array of diamonds, if only you could look close enough. And within those smaller diamonds were ones yet smaller still. The structure of a healthy node had no real end.
The ancient smiths had devised a way to make the lodestone’s node larger. He was almost certain that a large node could be made smaller, with its integrity intact. Could one also subdivide it? Create two smaller nodes of identical energetic pattern? Or, even better for his purpose, one large node—slightly diminished—and one tiny node?
He reviewed his knowledge of energetic theory from the days when he studied under Korryn. He was almost certain that could work! And if it did . . . there was his solution. When the iron grew soft enough, but before he and Nathiar wrought the necessary destructive transformation, he must separate a droplet from the whole, preserving its lattice of energea intact. Once the droplet cooled sufficiently to crystallize its energea—only a moment or two—he could proceed with the dismantling of the gong’s lattice without harm to the separate miniature node.
If that were feasible, he could serve both Carbraes’ and Keir’s opposing goals for the artifact, without compromising on either. The small droplet, with its lattice of energea preserved intact, could be used to heal trolls in Keir’s hands. While the energetic lattice within the lodestone at the heart of the gong could then be torn asunder, rendering the gong’s resonance harmless as Carbraes wished.
But was that indeed his best course?
Were there any alternatives?
He envisioned stealing the gong—now, in the dead of the night, absconding with it into the wilderness—and snorted. Where would he go? Where could he take the artifact that it would be safe? How would he elude the scouts that Carbraes would surely send after him? It was a ludicrous scheme.
Could he hide the thing within the confines of Belzetarn?
Flee south with it to Hadorgol, hoping to beat his pursuit, hoping King Heiroc would welcome him back?
No, fleeing with the gong intact, or hiding it, was mere fantasy. He could not safeguard the thing unscathed. Subdividing it to preserve the healing lattice apart in a small fragment was his only real option.
But if his attempt to subdivide the node on the morrow failed, what then? Would he destroy it and Keir’s hope—which he shared—for healing trolls along with it?
He would halt the subdual of the gong, giving him time to evolve another plan to preserve the lodestone’s lattice. Nathiar would be annoyed at the abort, and Arnoll bewildered. Carbraes would be seriously angry. But he was certain he could effect the delay and weather the consequences. Better that than destroying the one thing that could reverse—even if only for a limited time—the truldemagar.
With his decision made, all his weariness returned. He pulled his thistlesilk coverlet up over his legs and drifted toward sleep.
The fleeces under him cushioned his torso and limbs. His coverlet caressed his hands like warm air, soft and light. The leather hangings exuded their familiar and comforting aroma. The silent darkness of his room soothed his ears and his closing eyes. His sleeping couch was wonderful, so much more easeful than a bedroll on the forest floor.
But as he hovered there, just at the edge of sleep’s release, welcoming it, sleep did not come.
Instead, each episode in the plundering of his tally room—discovered and revealed almost in reverse order by him—arranged itself in his mind for his review, the whole sequence from start to finish.
The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 90)
The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 88)
Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)