Nearly a year ago, Theron—castellanum of Belzetarn—had decided it was time to get rid of that thorn in his side, Gael. Time to bring the smithies and their tally chamber under the castellanum’s control. Or maybe Theron had been dreaming of this ever since he took office, but only put his schemes into action when an old, cold murder by Barris came to his attention.
Whether a long-held desire or a new one, Theron blackmailed Barris into stealing tin ingots. Not too often, and not blatantly, lest Gael notice the thefts too soon. Theron planned to build up a substantial cache as evidence of Gael’s perfidy.
Nor was Barris a quiescent victim. Sometimes he refused, and Theron had to find opportunity to renew his threats against the cook, because acting on them would destroy Theron’s leverage against him.
But every four or five deichtains, Barris would steal a tin ingot from the carry sack of the chronically late scullion who transported the metals from the vaults to the privy smithy. And late at night, when most of Belzetarn slept, Barris would hand the fruits of his theft to the castellanum, who then secreted them in the clogged latrine that he insured was never cleared.
So had the pillaging of the tally chamber begun, and so it proceeded, a slow and quiet erosion of which Gael remained unaware.
But then another player entered the game.
Two moons before Gael discovered the arrears in his tallies, Nathiar—Belzetarn’s magus—visited the nearby copper mines, there to prospect a new seam of ore. He went at Gael’s behest and with Carbraes’ permission, but not all his activities were licit. For Nathiar longed to create magical weapons to counter those used by their enemies on the battlefields, although Carbraes forbade such risky experiments.
Nathiar located and mapped a rich seam of copper, but he also tinkered with the furnace on-site, ensuring it would develop a clog in its innards, which he would be called upon to clear.
Nathiar returned to Belzetarn most indirectly from the copper mines, detouring far out of his way to the tinworks, where trolls scraped graveled streams for pebbles infused with the valuable metal. He claimed to be assessing the ore content of the many tributaries, but in truth he was there merely to thrust his loyal porter Lannarc into the job of teamster, to guide the mule that carried sacks of tin nuggets to Belzetarn’s vaults.
Had Fintan—the teamster who’d accompanied the tin mule for years—broken his leg accidentally? Or had Nathiar helped that accident along? No matter. Fintan was sidelined, while Lannarc took over his duties, pilfering a nugget here and a nugget there, collecting them in a drawstring pouch with rose-shaped rivets and passing them to Nathiar in a glade outside Belzetarn.
The magus then had tin.
And when the tap in the furnace at the copper mines developed its pre-ordained clog, Nathiar had copper as well. When sent for, just as he had planned, the magus fixed the clogged tap, of course. But he also created a secret tap leading to a hidden pocket in the earth and a plunger whose action would open the secret tap.
Gael grunted. Really the better part of the thievery had occurred long before he ever grew aware of it. He sighed and opened his eyes. Thin beams of moonlight were sifting in through the louvers of the casement shutters. The moon must have risen.
He stifled a second sigh, turned over, and resolutely shut his eyes. His limbs felt utterly relaxed, and he was sleepy. Why wasn’t he slumbering? He wanted that good night’s sleep. And he didn’t want this involuntary stream of images passing before his mind’s eye. He knew what had happened. He’d uncovered each damning deed himself.
But the tale of the thefts flowed onward, fast and furious in the next interval.
Martell, the privy smith, was late starting his work the day before Gael discovered the discrepancy in his tallies, and Martell’s lateness gave Theron fresh opportunity. The castellanum invited one of the trolls from the Hunters’ Lodge to dine in the lower great hall for a deichtain’s worth of feasting, ensuring that no one would question his anomalous presence in the tower.
The hunter looked entirely human and, like most new-made trolls, wondered if there had been some mistake. Perhaps he was no troll at all. Perhaps he might return home. Theron showed him his error. There would be no returning home for Halko, whose humanity would see him slain in Belzetarn, were his secret discovered.
Halko lurked in the passage outside the smithies, waiting until all save the trolls in the privy smithy had departed. Then he crept through the shadows unseen, and swiped an unused ingot of tin—for the castellanum—and an ingot of bronze for himself, from the counter between the privy smithy and the armor smithy, where the scullions were gathering everything to go to the vaults.
The privy notary had already made his hurried tally under Martell’s harassment, incorrectly as it chanced, since the stolen bronze remained undetected when Gael reconciled the tallies the next day. The discrepancy in the tin, of course, would be glaring. It started Gael on the track of the thief.
Yet the events of that night—the night before Gael began his investigations—had barely started. Not only had Theron invited a hunter to take supper in the tower; he’d invited the privy smith to dine at the high table itself by Theron’s side, where the castellanum could pour spiked wine into Martell’s cup. Martell had been late to his work once. Theron wanted him late again. And he was.
But yet another player entered the game during this second tardiness, that morning of the day when Gael would find his first evidence of theft. The ingots for the privy smithy arrived long before the privy smith, and Arnoll took one for his friend, the March Dreas.
Gael swallowed down a lump in his throat and turned over again, remembering that Dreas would need no more tin. How had he forgotten? He hadn’t really; he’d just been focusing on other problems, as it seemed he was focused now, stringing the thefts together in their proper order, following from one to the next.
Why? Was there some error he’d made when filling in the gaps? Would passing the entire chain through his awareness show him where he’d gone wrong? Very well. Instead of fighting the play of scenes within his awareness, he would cooperate, let that willful knowing part of him show the unknowing part whatever secret it wanted revealed.
Or at least get to the end of the sequence, when—Tiamar willing—he might sleep!
So . . . Gael had discovered what seemed to him the first theft and sent Keir madly tallying the contents of all the vaults. Which had shown that an ingot of bronze was also missing.
Keir had interviewed all the smiths and confirmed that Martell—artistic, flamboyant, and impatient with record-keeping—was most vulnerable to a thief, and Gael made arrangements to safeguard the privy smithy going forward. But not quickly enough to prevent the further theft that evening, when the hunter took yet another tin and another bronze.
Later still, Gael confronted Arnoll with the ingot he’d taken that morning. And together they unearthed the cache in the wall of the clogged latrine.
So had ended the first day of Gael’s search for his thief.
On the second day of his search, Barris stole an ingot right under Gael’s nose in the morning. But the hunter Halko was foiled by Keir’s presence in the smithy in the evening. And Gael witnessed Nathiar at his illicit forging in the hours later still.
His third day of searching started with Nathiar’s confession, followed by another theft from Barris, this time from under Keir’s nose. And then the thefts stopped, while Gael was absent from Belzetarn.
Theron was ready, with plenty of ingots accumulated and a plan to stash them in Gael’s storeroom sometime after Gael’s return, when Carbraes might be summoned to discover his secretarius with the stolen metal in hand.
Gael had turned the tables on that plan. It had been Theron caught red-handed by Carbraes, not Gael. With unexpected repercussions . . . for everyone, alas.
And there lay the whole of it, from the first theft by Barris a year ago to the last theft—also by Barris—on the day Gael left for Olluvarde.
He straightened his nightshirt, which had become twisted with all his turning over, and pulled his coverlet up to his waist. His breathing had quickened under the mental onslaught. He slowed it deliberately. Perhaps now he could sleep.
Except he seemed to have reached that uncomfortable state in which the body was weary—weary enough to almost hurt—but the mind was alert, all sleepiness passed. Was there something he had missed in all that long sequence of theft after theft? Some pertinent detail?
A vision of Keir’s face, unnaturally white, flashed before his inner eye. She’d been utterly shocked when he’d pronounced the words, “I know.’ How maladroit he’d been in his timing. His reassurance that he would keep the secret of her sex should have preceded his accusation, thusly sparing her alarm. She’d blushed when he did reassure her. It seemed an odd response to relief.
What had she been thinking?
His revelation that he knew her to be a young woman had not been the only time she’d paled. What had he said that other time, to have caused such a reaction in one usually so self-contained?
He delved through his memories once more, a more haphazard stirring than had been his journey through the sequence of thefts. Was it the first day—? No. The second? Yes, that was it.
She’d gotten a report from a smeltery scullion, who’d seen Arnoll removing an ingot of tin from the privy smithy. She was worried by it. And he’d been explaining that she need not be, that Arnoll had been acting under orders from a higher authority. Arnoll’s purloining of an ingot was no cause for worry, although the fact that Arnoll’s tin had proved to be copper, disguised by magery, was.
And then she’d blanched.
He’d assumed she was reacting to the illicit use of magery. But was she?
The very same day that Arnoll took his ingot, Keir had sought Gael’s counsel about her lingering hatred for trolls. It had been an awkward conversation—since he had wished to ignore in himself the very same concerns that Keir raised—and disappointing as well. Gael had judged she was getting past the revulsion trolls provoked in her. The repulsed looks he’d noted on her face in her early days in Belzetarn had long since ceased. And the easy way she had with the scullions, the kind authority she’d exerted in the matter of the bullied lunch boy, had encouraged him to believe she’d adjusted, both to being a troll and being among trolls.
Her troubled questions had shown his hope to be misplaced.
Keir had not adjusted. She’d merely learned to conceal her loathing.
What might that loathing have prompted her to do? Was Keir the traitor who had used magery to cast illusion on the ingots harbored in Gael’s metal vaults?
Surely not! He could not believe it of her. And yet . . . he did believe it. His belly felt sick with it.
Unwillingly, he thought back further, to Martell’s failed scissors, forged of one-to-nineteen bronze or weaker.
Martell had been issued four ingots of tin that day, along with one of bronze and eighteen of copper. Arnoll had stolen one tin ingot in the morning. Halko had stolen one tin and one bronze in the evening. Which meant that Martell should have had two ingots of tin to work with. Half of one went to lining saucepans with tin. The remaining half went into the bronze for the day, along with the other full tin ingot—one-and-a-half ingots of tin plus eighteen ingots of copper—to create one-to-twelve bronze.
But those scissors were not one-to-twelve.
Because that last full ingot of tin was not tin. It was copper disguised as tin. The scissors were poured from bronze made of nineteen ingots of copper—not eighteen—and one-half ingot of tin. The bronze was not even one-to-nineteen, but one-half-to-nineteen or—more properly—one-to-thirty-eight.
And Keir had nattered on about half ingots and wondering how a thief could steal a half, distracting Gael from the metal ratios with her supposed confusion. Deliberately distracting him! Keir must have known all along, because she had sent the ‘tin’ ingot—which was really copper—to the privy smithy.
Keir was the one who had done it. Keir had disguised copper as tin. And he’d wager anything anyone cared to name that Keir had also disguised tin as copper, sending it to the blade smithy, where the blades that were made with it—two-eight bronze instead of one-nine—would be brittle and shatter more readily on the battlefield.
That was why she had blanched when he explained about Arnoll’s ‘tin.’ Not because of the use of magery, but because Gael had discovered its use. She’d been operating without the least suspicion raised. But once one disguised ingot came to light . . . it was only a matter of time until the whole traitorous substitution scheme would be revealed.
And when Gael had said, ‘I know,’ she’d assumed that he knew about the disguised ingots. Not about her sex, which was a lesser secret when set against treason. That was why she’d blushed at his reassuring words.
Hells! Hells! Hells! Hells!
He sat up, swallowing down his nausea.
His reasoning, the evidence, all hung together, and he did not want it to. He remembered Keir tending his hurts after his fight with Dreben. Keir hugging him when he departed for Olluvarde. Keir smiling at him when he returned. Keir vehement about her desire to heal trolls of their truldemagar.
How could that Keir—the Keir he knew, the Keir he’d worked with, taught, and protected, the Keir he . . . loved?—be the traitor who plotted and acted to ensure the deaths of troll warriors on the field of battle?
And yet . . . she was.
He had no doubt at all, despite his inability to reconcile his experience of Keir with his knowledge of what she must have done.
He felt worse than sick, and lay down again.
Was there any doubt? Any doubt at all? He wanted there to be doubt. Desperately wanted it. And could not find any grounds for it. None at all.
What would he do now?
He felt dizzy, as though someone had reached into his skull with a long-handled spoon and stirred. All his thinking had led him to this, but now he could not think at all. Could not reason his way to equilibrium, to clarity, to understanding. He felt lost.
Hells, Gael! Get a decent night’s sleep, said some still, small voice inside him—the force of habit perhaps. Obediently, he buried his head in the cushion beneath it. And against all expectation, sleep claimed him.
The Tally Master, Interstice 2 (Gael’s Dream)
The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 89)
Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)
Buy the book:
The Tally Master