Gael had returned to the tally chamber after talking with the quartermaster, and was preparing to descend to the smithies, when Keir came in. The boy was his usual collected self—unlike his previous entrance—but there seemed a hidden tautness in him.
Gael finished swinging the inner shutters of the casements open, and the golden afternoon light shone in, illuminating the dust in the air and casting circle-patterned rectangles of brightness on the pigeonhole cabinets. He leaned a hip against the stone of the casement sill and gestured for Keir to speak.
“Eighty-two ingots of tin,” Keir said. A hint of trouble shadowed his eyes.
“And . . . ?” said Gael.
“I re-tallied the copper vault and the bronze vault as well.”
Ah. That explained what had taken the boy so long.
Gael lifted an eyebrow.
“Four-hundred-twelve ingots of copper. Ninety-four ingots of bronze.”
Gael noticed his hand clenching into a fist and unclenched it. Ninety-four. Where there should be ninety-five. The bronze vault was not due for tallying until the waxing moon. That was clever of Keir to realize that if the tin count was off, so might the count be off in the other vaults. But not the copper vault. Just precious tin. And precious bronze.
“It is a thief,” Keir said. “Isn’t it?”
Gael nodded, reluctantly. He knew very well that trolls—like men—were not saints, but he’d wanted to believe that their worst lay outside Belzetarn on the battlefields, not within it.
“Should I re-tally the oxhide vault and the pebble vault?” Keir asked. He meant the stores of partially refined metals that came directly from the mines.
“That will need doing, yes,” answered Gael. “But first I want you to talk with the notaries of all the smithies. Take their signed reports from yesterday and the day before, and go over them with each. Ask them about how the smithing went, and determine if something unusual could have caused an error in their tallies.”
Keir moved to the cabinet on the right side of Gael’s desk and started taking the relevant parchments from a pigeonhole.
“Be indirect,” said Gael. “Keep the thief, if there is one”—he knew his hope that there might not be to be a forlorn one—“from hearing we’re onto his theft.”
Keir looked up from his parchments with an expression of slight disdain on his face. “I won’t even let on there’s a problem with the tally,” he said coolly. “As far as they are concerned, we’re looking at efficiency and ways to improve it.”
Gael felt his lip curl. He suspected Keir was better at concealing tally room business than was Gael himself.
“I’m headed for the smithies also, but before we go . . .”
Keir had been stuffing the parchments into his portfolio. His hands stilled.
Gael wasn’t quite sure where to begin.
“My lord Carbraes bade me examine the prize brought in by the Third Cohort.”
Keir’s face grew as still as his hands. Typical of him. Thusly was the boy’s most acute interest marked: by withdrawal rather than drawing nearer.
Gael continued, “I have performed that examination, and it is an evil thing, fashioned such that its resonance drains the energea of all within hearing. I am certain that the regenen will wish me to pursue the matter to some safer outcome, and I . . . wish it, too.” He felt surprise at his stated conclusion. His hatred for that gong, locked in his quarters, had only grown in the brief time since he’d left it. Why would he wish to tinker with it further? “Some method of rendering the thing harmless”—or of destroying it, he would dearly love to destroy it—“must be devised. And I . . . am likely the best choice to do so.”
“The magus?” asked Keir.
“Is not,” answered Gael.
“Because . . . ?”
“Because the magus would prefer that Belzetarn’s smithies forge magical blades to match those wielded by the mountain folk, the Ghriana. He forgets—or chooses to ignore—that the trolls who practice magery sink to madness and death that much faster.”
Keir swallowed, his cool demeanor troubled. Gael realized he’d never admitted his own negative opinions of his colleague so frankly before.
Then the boy bore up, lifting his chin. “You’ll require that I carry the tasks of the tally room forward, while you pursue the destruction of the gong.”
That was it in a nutshell.
Keir flushed, most uncharacteristically. “Will you instruct me now?” he asked. “Or later, after check in?”
“You need no instruction.” That was blunt, but accurate. “You could run the tally chamber entirely without me at need.” Gael nodded. “On the morrow, in the morning, you’ll check the metals out to the smithy scullions and lodge scullions without me.”
Gael admired Keir’s ability to be respectful without a trace of servility. Not all the trolls possessed it.
“But we’ll do the evening checking in together. I want to know if any more ingots go missing.” He couldn’t keep the grim tone out of his voice. It infuriated him that someone had breached his control over the metals flowing through the tower. The thief—if thief it was—would be sorry when Gael found him.
The Tally Master, Chapter 3 (scene 10)
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 8)
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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)
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The Tally Master