The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 94)

Nathiar came and knelt beside Gael as he sat on the smithy floor at Arnoll’s side.

The magus had doffed his smith’s apron and left the gong on the curved surface of the massive stone block to finish its slow air cooling after its swift water quenching. The dying glow from the forge spilled over the scene, far less fierce than when fed by the bellows, although its coals still exuded a gentle heat.

Nathiar brushed Arnoll’s staring eyes closed and let his hand rest on Gael’s shoulder.

Gael straightened his friend’s body, shifting him from his side onto his back, placing his arms crossed on his chest. A certain dignity lay on Arnoll’s face, as though he confronted . . . what? A magistrate’s final assessment? His god’s judgment? Something like that.

A stab of pain twinged in Gael’s breast.

Nathiar spoke. “He saved your life, you know.”

Gael shook his head, said lowly, “No. I forfeited his. If I’d just discussed the ‘why’ of our proceedings more—” His voice cracked on that ‘why.’ He shook his head again. “He’d picked up so much in the course of dealing with trolls, I tended to forget he wasn’t a magus trained, had never had the basic grounding you and I received.”

“Gael—” Was there a trace of exasperation in Nathiar’s voice? “This was no undertaking in which a basic understanding might have helped. You’ve said you were operating beyond your own knowledge and expertise. I assure you I was far beyond mine.”

“If he’d known to pull from the thymus node or above, or even from the root node, to avoid the heart node—”

“No,” interrupted Nathiar. His hand on Gael’s shoulder pressed harder. “Were you able to see the path of the energea within the final explosive conflagration?”

He hadn’t. If he had—if he’d been quicker, more alert, would he have been able to get there first? To save his friend?

Nathiar continued. “The outward explosion masked it, but there was an inward explosion as well, compressing in as violently as it exploded out. That inward blast swallowed down the gong’s heart node, swallowed down Arnoll’s heart node—and, Gael—”

Gael looked up to see Nathiar’s eyes narrowing.

The magus’ nostrils flared. “The implosion dragged the entirety of Arnoll’s energetic lattice down into it. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d aimed his energetic strike with the crown node itself”—an advanced technique barely within Gael’s purview—“his energea would have been ripped from him nonetheless.”

Gael became aware that his fists were clenched in his lap. He unclenched them, started to reach for Arnoll—as though he still might drag him back from death—and then let his arms fall.

Arnoll had passed far beyond his reach.

“What happened with that pulsed violet energea of yours, there at the end?” asked Nathiar. “Were you able to subdivide the node before it exploded?”

Gael sighed heavily. “No,” he said dully, not caring. If he’d not taken time for that, if he’d been poised for the thymic strike against the gong’s node, he might have beaten Arnoll to it. Would it really be his own corpse lying on the smithy floor, if he had? He wasn’t sure he believed Nathiar.

The magus grunted and heaved to his feet. “I believe—” he bent to pluck something small from the layer of sand covering the flagstones “—I believe the node was subdivided, although not by you.” He handed a smooth teardrop of iron, about the size of a thumbnail, to Gael. “There are smaller splatters,” said the magus, “but this one alone holds an energetic lattice.”

Gael studied the metal teardrop bleakly. It remained very warm and strangely shiny, like polished silver. Gael found he didn’t really care whether it possessed a node or not. He just wished he’d done something different—anything different—whatever might have saved Arnoll. But Nathiar clearly expected Gael to care, so he opened his inner sight.

The node within the iron glowed gold and displayed the same open scrolls of gold that Gael had observed within the changed node now inhabiting the gong’s central boss.

Gael frowned. “It’s a troll node, isn’t it?” he said.

Over his years in Belzetarn, when Gael checked the energea of prisoners brought to the citadel, he didn’t bother to examine the fine structures within the nodes. A simple note of their location was enough to declare the captive human or troll. But the deep structures were different in the afflicted and the unafflicted. Human nodes possessed the tightly packed octohedrons that the gong’s node had possessed until a short time ago. Troll nodes, created when their moorings were ripped, adopted a more open configuration.

Gael glanced up at Nathiar. “I see it,” he said, his voice still leaden.

“Do you want it?” asked Nathiar. “Because if you do not, I do.”

Gael started to shake his head and hand the teardrop back to the magus, then checked himself. He didn’t want the damn thing. But Keir would. He knew she would. And Keir . . . still mattered. Even in the wake of Arnoll’s death.

He wanted to say nothing mattered. He felt nothing mattered. But the same inner knowing that told him to get a fresh sheet of parchment when his tallying grew cramped at the bottom margin, that insisted he get a good night’s sleep before he tackled a ticklish calculation, told him now that his choices would yet yield consequences—poor or good, depending on his decisions. He could not abdicate responsibility, no matter how powerfully his grief urged it.

“I do want it,” he told Nathiar.

“Then it is yours,” said Nathiar. The magus reached down a hand to Gael. “Up with you, my dear Gael.” His voice was kind, despite his resumption of his usual cadences.

Gael allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.

“I hope you know how to put the smithy to bed, my dear fellow,” said Nathiar, “because I do not!”

Gael hunched his shoulders.

Nathiar was right, of course. There was work to be done. And Gael would do it. But it felt wrong. It felt like everything should just stop.

“You’ll go for a physician?” he asked the magus.

Nathiar nodded, met Gael’s gaze for a long moment, and turned away.

He took a step, then turned back. “I am so very sorry for your loss,” he said. “For our loss. Arnoll was the best of all of us.”

Gael swallowed down the tightness in his throat. “He was my friend.”

“Yes,” said the magus, and then strode away toward the Regenen Stair.

Gael picked up one of the long-handled rakes beside the forge and began scattering the coals within it, dismantling the mound that concentrated the heat.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 95)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 93)

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