Halfway to the guards, Brine shifted his gaze to the gateway looming in the distance and realized, with some irritation, that he could not recall its name. Now in the scheme of things, this was a trivial piece of information and would in no way impede his admission to the castle, but at the same time it irked him.
     He’d used this gate many times in the days of his youth and he knew he knew the name. It was like staring at the face of an old friend—the scrambled letters of their title etched deeply in the ancient canvas of his mind—and still failing to decode their name. He had a sneaking suspicion the name should have been something other than it was, something like Swaygate or Meadowgate, but that was all that came to him as—
     Shungate! It was the Shungate.
     He remembered this because, at some point during the Age of Development, the kings and council had taken it upon themselves to name it after the forest to the south, an act of pure insanity as far as Brine was concerned.
     Considering the gate lie nowhere near the Shun—was, in fact, separated from the Shun by at least half a league of lush pasture—Brine had felt the entryway would have been more aptly dubbed, Swaygate.
     Of course, the original architect—or rather, the Great Architect, as he was known—had done this with all four of the castle’s primary gateways. The fields of Arn’s Promise did not border Harvestgate, the banks of the River Mela were nowhere near Rivergate, and the peaks of the Kilashan were actually several leagues east of the Stonegate.
     “Shungate,” Brine muttered, indulging himself a bemusing little grin and shaking his head. It was no wonder he hadn’t remembered. “See,” he told himself, nodding at the gate, “I’m not crazy.”
     No, a small internal voice quickly answered, but if you keep grinning like a fool and talking to yourself, the gate guards will probably feel differently.
     Brine dropped his gaze to the two gray-green shapes on either side of the wicket gate. He’d been so obsessed with recalling the name of the gate that he’d completely forgotten the guards. From what he could tell, though, they hadn’t noticed his grinning, or his monologue.
     Without the monocle, they were still hazy shapes against the castle walls, little more than gray blurs of chain mail atop green smudges of pants, but he could tell they weren’t moving. Neither man appeared to be nudging the other in the ribs and pointing at the grinning lunatic walking towards them.
     On the contrary, the man on the left continued leaning on the long black pole tipped over his shoulder and, as far as Brine could tell, was staring at nothing. The man on the right appeared to be busying himself with a brown harp-like contraption and hadn’t bothered lifting his helmet once, which was fine with Brine. He had always hated those ugly things.
     Well, he didn’t hate the whole helmet. The insignias on the side weren’t too bad—the double-edged battleaxes—and the green feathers pluming from the top weren’t so scary. It was the face shield Brine had issue with, the ugly steel masks that had always reminded him of the misshapen faces people carved on gourds during harvest day festivities, an act of celebration that Brine had never quite understood.
     The face shields, on the other hand, he understood perfectly well. As an instrument of warfare, they were designed to strike fear and loathing into the hearts of the enemy. And they were working.
     But stay calm, he warned, watching in horror as both masked defenders finally heard his footsteps and slowly came to life, the one with the pole standing to attention while the one with the harp took a step forward. Just give them a greeting, he advised, give a greeting, state your purpose, and put these ugly things behind you, just like that. Easy as pie, right? Right. Now what was I doing? Oh, yeah. Stating my greeting and giving a pur—No, wait. That wasn’t it.
     The guard with the stringed contraption took another step forward.
     Brine stopped and opened his mouth, an inarticulate noise escaping his throat. “H-Hello,” he said, offering a jittering bow of respect to both staring helmets. “I trust you are well in his eyes.”  
     After what felt like an eternity of silence—both sets of eye-slits continuing to drill at his face—the helmet on the right panned around the city and said, “Someone watchin us?”
     “Oh, no. I’m sorry,” Brine said, giving his head a thorough shaking and waiting for the man on the right to stop scanning the streets. “That’s just an expression—a greeting really—it’s just a greeting.”
     “Ick-spreshun?” one of the steel masks spat.
     “Yes,” Brine said, his head volleying between the two masks, unsure who was speaking.
     “A spreshun, huh,” one of the men said, though Brine still wasn’t sure which one. He thought it was the one on the right—the one holding what he now saw was a crossbow—but it was difficult to tell. “This’a game, boy?” the man asked. “Yeh playin games, are yeh?”
     “N-No—No sir.” 
     “No games, huh.” The guard with the crossbow advanced further and looked Brine up one side and the down the other. “So what are yeh doin’, boy?”
     Brine tried to swallow. “I—I’m…I’m visiting.”
     Crossbow froze in his tracks, his flat and creepy visage fixed on Brine’s face. After a moment, he turned to the man against the wall—the man carrying what Brine now saw to be a pike—and exchanged an expressionless glance. Indistinct chuckling echoed from the pikeman, and Crossbow said, “Well, looky here, Rellin, got ourselves a vis’tor.”
     Pikeman—who was apparently known as Rellin—sniggered through his nose.
     “Got us a funny-lookin vis’tor,” Crossbow said, lifting his weapon and jabbing the bolt at the shorn sides of the disciple’s head.
     Flinching at the barbed bolt-tip, Brine said, “I-I have my letter…if you’d—”
     “Wha’ yeh reckon happened to his hair,” Crossbow asked, lowering his loaded weapon and pressing his eye slits into Brine’s face. “An’ why yeh reckon he keeps squintin at us? Yeh reckon he thinks we’re a couple’a maggots or somethin?”
     “The luh-letter is in my robes,” Brine said, not daring to reach for it. “I can show yo—”
     “Sweet Spawn of Sira!” Crossbow exclaimed, leaning behind Brine. “He’s got a ponytail!
     Rellin brayed like a donkey and leaned on his spear. Seeing this, Brine finally realized the mistake that he’d made. He shouldn’t have come here. He should have gone around to another gate, or scaled the mortar grooves in the wall, or even burrowed inside using his flute as a pick, but he should not have come near these two men.
     “It’s…It’s a Wauk,” Brine said, “but really, I don’t want to be a problem, I have the letter ri—”
     “Did he say walk, Rellin?” Crossbow said, pressing the grill of his helmet into Brine’s face. “Did he say he’s wearin a walk on the back’a his head?”
     Brine’s lower jaw tottered like a man freezing in the Dead Lands.
     “Did yeh, boy?” Crossbow asked, tapping Brine’s chest with the bolt of his weapon and tapping it so hard that Brine felt sure it had broke the skin. “Is that what yeh said?”
     Over the pikeman’s moronic guffawing, Brine heard himself say, “It represents my walk, my Amian walk, with Owndiah.”
     Crossbow’s steel grill hung frozen in the air. “Rellin,” he barked, “what’s a own-die-yee, yeh reckon?”
     Brine’s eyes widened as they had while staring at the sweatless old man in the F’kari. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was one thing to have never seen a wauk or to have never heard of Amontus, but Owndiah? They had to be playing with him. Crossbow had to be playing with him and this was just part of the game.
     But even if it’s a game, his inner voice chided, do you think Crossbow’s going to like it when you don’t play along?
     Seeing the wisdom in that admonition, Brine said, “He’s your God. Owndiah’s your God.”
     “D’jou hear that, Rellin?” Crossbow asked. “Boy says he’s got a god what makes him wear his hair like a woman.” Crossbow’s steel helmet shook in mock exasperation. “Well, I doan’ know about that,” he said. “I doan’ know if the boys inside’ll go fer a felluh with a ponytail.” Over his shoulder, he said, “Wha’ yeh think, Rellin? Think it’s safe fer a felluh with a ponytail to go inside?”
     Rellin filled his helmet with more muffled laughter and said, “He might…they might thinks him a woman, or…or one’a dem men what kisses on dem other men…what you calls dem?”
     “Pukes,” Crossbow said. “I calls em pukes. I calls em that, cause you’d have to be plum sick to step over a fair lass fer some felluh’s bushy beard.” His faceplate touched Brine’s nose. “You a puke, boy? Are yeh?
     Eyes scrunched shut and head tilted back, Brine managed to shake his head.
     Crossbow huffed. “See now, I din’t think yeh was. Smart-lookin boy like you. Now, turn round,” he said. “Turn round an’ face them buildin’s.”
     A bead of sweat ran through the stubble on the side of Brine’s head.
     “Wha’der yeh deaf, boy?” Crossbow shouted. “I said get your face round to them buildin’s.”
     From Crossbow’s lower body, there came the zip of steel leaving leather. Brine kept his eyes scrunched shut, daring not to look.
     “Turn roun’, boy. Turn roun’ or I’ll cut yeh.”
     Brine said, “I-I can go. I don’t ha—”
     A fiery needle of pain blossomed in Brine shoulder and he gasped, drawing back and grabbing his stinging flesh before the next blow could be dealt. He turned quickly around to face the southern buildings. Behind him, Crossbow’s breathing moved closer.
     “Pl-Please,” Brine whispered, listening to the sound of Crossbow’s namesake clattering on the cobbles, “I’ll go around…”
     “Rellin,” Crossbow said, “put your spear on this beard-lover.” On the cobbles behind, Brine heard the clomp of the pikeman’s boots and imagined the shadow of something long and thin beside him on the ground. “He moves,” Crossbow said, “you run im through.”
     Something jerked against Brine’s wauk and his head flew back, chin yanking up, lips parting. The pain in his hair follicles was like nothing he’d ever felt—like the scalp itself was being torn from the skull—but still he did not struggle. If he were lucky, they’d only cut off his wauk and let him go. But if he were unlucky…
     “Hold real still, now, puke,” Crossbow warned.
     Brine did, flinching only slightly as his wauk stiffened and the blade was brought to bear. After that, he knew only the anguish of his heart and the searing pain in his scalp, and he was pretty sure he was crying. It was impossible to tell with his eyes scrunched shut, but that’s how he felt.
     After that, he was vaguely aware of the wicket gate as its latch popped loose and its ancient hinges squealed on the frame. Then it felt like the stinging pressure at the back of his head was lessening and that the weight of his wuak had slumped against his back. And was he falling forward? He thought that he was, but before he knew for certain, he felt his knees strike the cobblestones. Then he was rolling to his side and opening his eyes, watching the shadow of the pike moving slowly away.
     Behind him, someone was yelling.
     “Oursler!” a voice bellowed from behind. “Rellin!” the voice added. “Those helmets on too tight or is there some reason I have to repeat your puss-wad names!
     Brine was terrified to turn around, but at the same time—with the screaming so loud and angry—he was also too terrified not to turn around. So, in order to compromise, he crawled forward a few paces and then turned his head to the ruckus behind, turning around to see a third soldier exiting the gate, this one dressed in the same gray mail and green pants.
     That having been said, Brine didn’t think this man was a guard. To Brine, the man looked more like an officer in the king’s army, indicated by the dented lines pressed onto his shoulder plates and by the way Crossbow and Rellin stood stone still as the man pressed his trembling cheeks in their faceplates and screamed himself red.
     “So,” the stony-faced officer was saying once the harangue had died to a roar, “do either of you puss-wads want to try explaining yourselves?
     Oursler shot up a hand and pointed at the disciple. “It were this—this beard-lovin puke, Sir! He come in here a-yellin an’ a-cursin an’ a-sayin he was—” 
     With fingers and palm straight as the castle walls, Stonyface held up his hand to Oursler and turned to Rellin. The pikeman jumped at first, recovered slowly, then said, “Da’s…Da’s right. We think’d him an, uh…an, uh…one’a dem men what tries to kill people in the—” The officer gave Rellin the palm, wincing at the private’s butchery of the Jashian tongue. He turned back to the lesser of the two linguistic evils.
     “An assassin?
     “Ye’sir!” Oursler said, nodding so hard his head rattled in his helmet. “So I tol’im, I said, ‘Push off, boy!’ I did! I tol’im. But he wouldn’t go! He jus kep a-cursin us! So—So I was jus about to take’im to the city limits, yeh know, get’im as fer from the king as I could, but then—”  
    “You saw fit to cut his hair?” the officer finished.
     Oursler balked. “Uh…no’sir. I mean, ye’sir, but that come after.” He glanced at Rellin for support, then said, “He turned wild on us, sir.”
     “Wild,” Stonyface said, his creek-pebble eyes disappearing in a scowl. “A wild assassin.”
     Daft silence emanated from his guards.
     Stonyface said, “Did either of you take the time to notice this man is unarmed?”
     Oursler never moved, but Rellin made the mistake of turning his helmet and inspecting the disciple, completely taken aback as his superior swatted him in the head and screamed, “Private-Rellin-can-you-tell-me-the-protocol-for-someone-seeking-the-king’s-audience?
     Reeling on his booted heels, Rellin said, “We puts the spear to’im,” and then he was grunting again as the officer swatted the other side.    
      Oursler said, “But, sir, yeh said the king’s sick. Yeh said no one was—”
     Stonyface whirled on him. “Protocol-Oursler!” he shouted.
     Oursler was leaning back so far that any further movement would have resulted in a fall.
     “Papers!” the officer screamed. “You ask to see papers! Whether the king’s ill, healthy, or on a banning holiday, you ask to see the papers—Always!” He backed out of the guard’s face. “So did you? Did you ask to see this man’s papers, Oursler?” 
     There was a pause, ever so slight, and then the guard said, “No’sir.”
     Stonyface’s eyes narrowed, eyelash to eyelash, his grim mouth froze in fuming contemplation and his shirt front heaving with the raging of his lungs. “I want both of you to pay very close attention,” he said, marching to where Brine was now standing with his wauk clutched to his chest. “Sir, what is your purpose here today?”
     Brine, who’d been watching the officer’s aggressive display with growing apprehension, stood speechless until it became clear he was not about to be swatted. “I…I have an appointment.”
     “With whom, sir?”
     “The…the king.”
     Without a hint of disdain, Stonyface said, “Considering the king’s current situation, that is highly unlikely, sir, but,” he added, with the air of someone trying to prove a point, “do you have the appropriate paperwork?” And as Brine began to dig for the letter, the officer turned and nodded to his guards, emphasizing the simplicity of their task. When he turned back, Brine handed him the letter.
     The man with the plumes fountaining from his shoulders took the missive, opened it, and ran his unfriendly eyes along its wildly-looping scrawl. Then slowly, at the corner of each eye, his features softened, and towards the body of the letter, he actually exposed his corneas to the air. Stopping in his reading, he jerked his head to Brine and gave him a scrutinizing look, his bulging eyes following the disciple’s robes from shaved head to sandaled toe. Afterwards, he consulted the letter and, while doing so, something must have clicked in his head because his face quickly assumed its previously granite cast.
     Folding the parchment in two, he said, “I apologize for the actions of my men, Sir. I’m sure you understand that we’re a bit shorthanded after the Westpost incident. Honestly, sir, had my best men not been deployed only yesterday, I’d never have these two anywhere near the general public. No offense taken, Sir? Or shall I have them flogged? Demoted?” He shook his head, seeking direction. “Exiled?
     Brine glanced at the two soldiers, then back to the officer. “That won’t be necessary,” he said. “I’m sure they’ve learned their lesson.”
     “Probably not, Sir,” he said. “But they will. I assure you that, Sir.” He handed the missive back to Brine. “Now, Sir, if you would follow me.”
     And Brine did, pausing only as the lieutenant stopped next to Oursler and Rellin and administer a healthy swat to the back of each man’s head.