As the chamber door thudded against its post and the metal latch clicked into its groove, Reetsle Baggershaft had his blue and brown eye fixed upon the floor. Some might have thought him studying knotholes that resembled faces, or seeking coins between the planks, but he wasn’t engaged in either of those activities.
     Reets kept his eyes upon the floor because of the man who’d just left the room, the man who ranked as captain in the Jashian military and who was currently leading the investigation into the happenings. Reets couldn’t stand the sight of him.
     Obviously, humans and halflings had different standards for masculinity, but upon one standard the two races tended to agree—beardedness—and it was there that Reets found the captain lacking. Women couldn’t grow beards and men could, so there you had it. Women were to have clean cheeks, men were to have shaggy cheeks, and any deviation from the standard was different and wrong and subject to social sanctions of the severest degree.
     And yet, this man—quote, unquote—who just left the room had one of the smoothest, cleanest faces that Reets had ever seen. And worse than that, this man had somehow been allowed to ascend the social and military ranks of the kingdom without the slightest bit of obstruction.
     In his homeland of Erinthalmus, Reets knew that a halfling with a face like that would have been beaten mercilessly, dragged to the edge of the village, and then tossed out on his ear. And had they found this same halfling wearing elk-skin boots—the kind of soft-skinned leather used in nurseries to swaddle infants—they’d have beat him for that, too.
     But Reets didn’t need to despise the good captain for his looks alone. He was perfectly willing—and able—to despise him for his actions as well. Take these lackluster reports for example. What exactly was Reets and the council to do with the sort of ignoramus nonsense the captain was bringing back? Typically, in an investigation, an officer went into the field to resolve questions about an incident, but not the fancy-man. He came back with a full report on what he didn’t know, what he hadn’t found.
     What really infuriated Reets, however—more so than fancy’s abysmal performance in the field—was the fact that Reetlse had known this would happen. And not only had he known it would happen, he had warned his fellow advisors that it would happen, had told them outright that unless the mission was to find an ale skin in a brothel house they were sending the wrong soldier.
     And how had they responded?
     Yes, Reetsle, they had said. We are aware of his scouting deficiencies, they had said. But his ability to scout isn’t really the issue, is it?
     Ain’t it? Reets had said. I thought we was lookin into them happenin’s?
     Well, Reetsle, they had said, if you’d been paying attention in our last meeting, instead of pacing the room and counting the splinters in the floorboards, you’d know that the happenings are of a secondary concern and that the health of the magistrate is our primary concern.
     That had been Mums. Only Mums dared to call Reets by his full name, an act—in Reets’ halfling country of Erinthalmus—akin to discussing a bowl movement at the supper table.
     But what did he expect? Mums was a stupid titan cow from the Dead Lands of Igus and he’d learned long ago to ignore anything that spewed from her stupid cow-like mouth. If she wanted to call him by his full name, let her. If she wanted to play blind-cow and pretend the fancy-man had hidden worth—‘specially after hearin that goat-puke of a report he’d jus laid on us—then she was one seriously damaged cow and Reets was better off bypassing the fancy-issue and pressing on to the larger matter at hand, which was the amelioration of the happenings and the restoration of the kingdom.
     Because whether or not the big-mouth titan wanted to admit it, fretting over the king’s health made absolutely no sense when the kingdom itself was crumpling out from under them.
     Meeting the far wall of the bedchamber, Reetlse wheeled back the way he’d come and said, “Did I not tell yeh this would happen? Did I not warn yeh about the man?” He limped along on his uneven legs and let his words reverberate. “Missin skin. Missin soldiers…Bunch’a giant handprints in the soil.” He shook his misshapen head. “That boy’s cockamamie reports ain’t nothin but murder on the ears—An’ yeh all know it.”
     He hobbled along on his twisted feet and waited for one of his colleagues to offer their support. But what he heard instead was a litany of other gutless sounds: One of them sipping nosily at her disgusting beverage, another snoring raucously at the ceiling, the last showing his disproval by making no sound at all.
     Cowards, he thought, detouring from his circuitous route and stopping before the furniture for which the chamber was named. He rose up on his crooked toes and peered across the tangled sheets of the mattress.
     “I doan’ reckon we need to hear no more’a Janu’ery’s forked tongue,” Reets said, using the fancy-man’s proper name and pronouncing it Jan-yery, despite the innumerable times he’d been corrected by both captain and council. “I reckon it’s purty-much clear what needs doin’.”
     In the shadows of one poorly-lit corner, the slurping noises came to a halt and the hidden slurper said, in a voice that flowed across the muddled, medicine-stinking air like audible streams of milk and honey, “And what, pray tell, would that be, my good Reetsle?”
     “We go to war,” Reets barked. “We mobilize them troops.”
     Shifting her weight in the gloom, Mums said, “Mobilize them against what, Reetsle dear?”
     Reets sighed, pulling his pipe and leaf pouch from the pocket of his shirt. “You heard Janu’ery same as me, Mums—An’ doan’ bother tellin me most’a what he said ain’t worth a bucket of goat swill, cause I ah’ready know it—” he pulled the ties of the pouch free with his teeth and dumped the contents in the bowl of his pipe “—but puke or no puke, what come through loud’n clear is that it ain’t just rivers and sheep no more. Our boys’ve been attacked.”
     Mums parted the shadows of the corner with an enormous shaggy hand and set what appeared to be a steaming bucket of liquid on the floor. “That does appear to be the case,” she said, sounding disappointed. “But again, Reetsle, did you happen to catch a description of the attacker?”
     “Nope,” Reets said, veering to the wall and plucking a candle from the sconce. “E’ry time we try an’ send our boys to get one…,” he tipped his pipe to the flame and sucked a yellow stripe of fire down the bowl, “…you an’ your big cow’s mouth gets in the way.”
     Mums hummed thoughtfully as she pretended to process this, but Reetlse was not fooled. They had covered this ground before—several times before—and she knew exactly what she was doing. After awhile, she said, “So this is reconnaissance you’re advocating.” And after that, “I’m sorry, Reetsle, I thought you mentioned war.”
     “I did,” Reets said, setting the candle back in its bracket and reminding himself that it wasn’t Mums’ fault she was a gutless coward. She was a titan, after all, and like all titans from Igus, she’d been raised in a culture of cowardice and taught to think without consulting their spines. “Yeh cain’t call it recon, Mumsy, not no more, not when people’s dyin. When they sta—”
     “Dying—Eh? What? What’s that?
     The voice was weak and raspy and riddled with panic, the sort of voice you’d expect from a desiccated corpse suddenly spooked from its grave. But as disturbing as that image might be, Reets did not leap for cover or spin for battle. He simply kept on limping, and wishing very hard that the owner of the voice would go back to sleep and allow the deliberation to continue.
     That did not happen.
     When Reets reached the far end of the room and performed his about-face, he could see the whole of the bedchamber sprawled before him, complete with tables and chairs, dressers and bureaus, even the enormous four-poster bed pressed back against the wall.
     Sitting in a chair on the other side of the four-poster—his wrinkled eyes bulging, his white brows raised—was the oldest living man that the halfling had ever seen. Admittedly, very little of the old man’s face was visible between his long wispy beard and his tangled head of hair, but what face was visible looked to be sagging and pale and lined with wrinkles.
     “Did it happen?” the old man asked, peering from the bedding beside him to the irritated halfling across the room. “Did he go? Did he?
     “No, Godfry,” Reets sighed, the bowl of his pipe bouncing up and down. “Everythin’s fine,” he said. “Why not go back to your book, huh?”
     Godfry’s massive brows moved further up his forehead and his lower jaw began to totter, signs that meant the old man had no intention of returning to his book. Reets groaned to himself and continued limping.
     Had it been anyone else disregarding the halfling’s command, Reets might have rushed them or cursed him or at least waved them an obscene gesture. But with Godfry, Reets knew the blatant disregard had more to do with the old man’s mind than his manners, so he let the matter go.
     Godfry was, after all, the most senior of the advisors—well into his nineties, or older—and if that didn’t contribute to a man’s senility, then Reetsle didn’t know what did. It also didn’t help matters that Godfry had been a bit of an odd duck even before the amnesia and dementia.
     For as far back as Reets could recall, Godfry had always been fond of those especially thick tomes with the egregiously long words, the ones with the eye-straining print and absolutely no pictures. Reets had flipped through one once, and it had taken the rest of the day to rid himself of the headache it had caused. And yet, every time he saw Godfry, the old man had one with him; the gardens, the council, headed to the privy.
    In Reets’ estimation, it was no wonder the man’s mind had finally gone. Every halfling knew that the brain was just like the body, and that if you overused it—or, in this case, abused it—it would eventually wear down.
     But at the same time, Reets had often wondered if aspects of Godfry’s mental illness had not been in place even before the tomes. Because surely it would have taken several decades of reading before a human mind deteriorated, and Godfry had been rumored to wear those ghastly outfits even in the days of his youth.
     Tonight, for example—after being summoned to the king’s bedchamber for yet another crucial meeting regarding the happenings—the local representative for Jashandar came sporting sunset-orange robes with tiny, red fishes sown into the fabric. The robes hadn’t seemed inappropriate to Godfry then, as he came hobbling into the room with his giant-sized book under one arm, and they didn’t seem inappropriate to him now, as he gave the wadded covers of the bed another worried glance and then turned his attention to the halfling, who refused to make eye-contact.
     “I could have sworn someone mentioned dying,” Godfry said, watching Reets hobbled across the floor. “Wasn’t you, Reets?” But again, the halfling gave the old man the cold shoulder, keeping his head down and his eyes unfocused.
     Giving up on the halfling, Godfry swung his bushy white head to the corner. “Mums,” he called. “Mums, did you hear something about dying?
     “No, Godfry dear,” the titan lied.
     “Really,” the oldest of the advisors said, twisting his enormous beard to the door and squinting at the stooped figure who sat there. “Balthus?” he cried. “Bal, did you say or…did you hear anything about someone dying?”
     Like the halfling before him, the hunched figure by the door did not reply. He just sat there and continued slumping in his chair, looking for-all-the-world like a drooping sculpture of mashed potatoes, one hand on the armrest—perhaps to hold himself up—and the other on the crooked line of his cane.
     “Can you hear me, Bal?” Godfry called, leaning forward and brushing back the hair on one side of his head. When the stooped man still made no reply, Godfry turned to the shadowy corner, then the hobbling halfling, and found that neither of them was speaking to him either.
     Reets was praying to Rendel again and Mums, more than likely, was chanting to her fates, both of them waiting patiently for the eldest of the advisors to notice the book in his hands, lower his face to the pages, and then slump heavily to one side.
     When the old man’s snoring finally resumed, Reets said, “Ah’right, where was we?”
     “I believe,” Mums clarified, her voice wafting from the darkness, “you were fabricating an enemy for us to declare war upon.”
     Reets snorted. “Ain’t me doin’ it,” he said. “It’s your boy, fancy, there. He’s the one makin up dead soldiers and marks in the soil. I’m jus tryin to fix a problem.”
     “By making it worse?
     “No, by—”
     “I would have thought,” Mums interrupted, “that after the tragedy that befell us at the end of the Lathian war, you’d have learned your lesson. But since you apparently have not, please allow me to reiterate that in warfare,” she said, sounding rather smug, “it isn’t always the enemy who suffers.”
     Reets rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I knows that, woman. But I also knows we’re sufferin ah’ready. Or did yeh miss the bit where that feller got himself skinned alive?”
     “I did not,” Mums answered, “but as awful as that is, Reetsle, until we have more information about the skinner, I don’t see the purpose of mobilizing our forces and putting even more lives at ri—”
     Reets missed a step and staggered, so taken aback he was by the sound of that voice, not so much because of the voice’s low and breathy tone, but because of the voice’s unexpected emergence in matters of Jashian counsel and governance.
     An’ he liked to never cut people off, Reets thought, turning so he could see both advisers at the same time, the outline of a Mum’s mane in the corner and the silhouette of Bal’s hunched back by the door. He watched as the two stared at each other for what he considered to be a very undiplomatic length of time.  
     Around them, the candles flickered and Godfry snored.
     “Muminofilous...,” the stooped figure breathed, “…what game do you play?”
     Mums lifted her steaming bucket from the floor and withdrew it to the shadows. “Why, Counselor Sneel,” she said, brightly, sipping at her drink, “I believe sitting over there by the door has severely affected your ability to hear.”
     Balthus leaned over the head of his cane, chapped lips peeling back to reveal rows of bent and yellowed teeth. He wasn’t smiling. He was simply parting his jaws so as to extend his yeast-coated tongue to his dry and flaking lips.
     “It is not an issue of hearing…,” he said, “…but an issue of believing.”
     “Balthus, dear,” Mums said, feigning offense, “are you accusing me of dissembling?”
     Still licking at his lips, the representative from Lathia said that he was.
     Mums drew a deep breath. “Well then, Counselor Sneel, if that is the case, then perhaps you wouldn’t mind elucidating for us the source of my mendacity.”
     Balthus withdrew his tongue. “As I understand…,” he sighed, reaching inside the pocket of his gray sleeping attire, “…the Mela is defiled…the Leresh is dry.” He withdrew a small square of cloth—originally white, but now stained red and brown—and cleared his left nostril therein. “The golden one is missing…,” he said, “…our livestock are hunted.” He cleared the right nostril, then wiped at his nose. “An element of risk…,” he said at last, “…is already upon us.”
     Oh, he’s got’er now, Reets cheered, spinning to the corner.
     “And if I concur, Counselor Sneel,” the titan asked cordially, “what then do you purpose?”
     Balthus stared impassively—appeared to have gone to sleep with his eyes open—then said, “I know of laborers to the south…men of skills and specialties.”
     “Or send our troops,” Reets interrupted. “Doan’ forget our boys, Mums.”
     “No, we certainly wouldn’t want to do that,” Mum said, dryly. “But let me see if I have this. These men—these mercenaries and soldiers—they’ll be entering the Bottoms, will they?” Without waiting for an answer, she said, “Well, naturally, they will. That is where the Mela flows and they will want to inspect every league of those banks if they hope to locate the infection.”
     Reets cleared his throat. “Well, I reckon—”
     “That’s assuming, of course,” Mums continued, “that the impurities in the river have fallen in from above. They very well may have infiltrated from below, which is a reasonable possibility considering what crawls through the slime of the Bottoms. But of course, there is no evidence the cause is even located in the Bottoms. It might very well lie several leagues to the east, in the uncharted lands of the Nameless.”
     “Or it might be in the Sway,” Reets said, rolling his pipe across his mouth. “You doan’ know.”
     “That is true,” Mums agreed, “but even if it is located in the Sway, and even if your men redeem it overnight, what of the other happenings? What of the Leresh?
     “What of it?” Reets barked. “It’s jus clo—”
     “It is not clogged,” Mums assert. “Think for a moment, Reetsle. If it were clogged—if a tree or obstruction had fallen across the shallows—it would have dwindled gradually. The debris and silt would have choked it over time. But as we both know, the water levels of the Leresh dropped over night. They dropped as swiftly as the waters of the Dell rose and as swiftly as the waters of Blue Hole turned warm and filmy. If this is not the work of yet another cave, I will be very much surprised.”
     “Well, get ready fer a surprise then, woman, cause Serit din’t see no cave.”
     “In the Promise, no,” she corrected, “but no search was made of the terrain to the north, the Harriun or the Dead Lands.” Sipping at her brew, she added, “Now, considering the noises and smells coming from the healer’s chambers, I can’t say I blame General Branmore for keeping his visit brief. Never the less, there could be any number of caves or sinkholes beyond the Fields of Arn. And if so, what would you have us do, Reetsle? What do you purpose if this time, instead of a subterranean pool spewing forth water and uglings, we have a precipice into the depths of the world?”
     “I reckon we could…,” Reets trailed off, searching the floorboards. “We could irr’gate, cou’nt we?”
     “And if the chasm is a league wide and, say, two across?
     Watching the wood knots pass beneath his feet, Reets struggled to imagine a split that large, let alone find a solution for running water across it.
     From the vicinity of the door, the Lathian counselor suggested an aqueduct.
     “A league wide?” Mums challenged, her lightless corner rustling with movement.
     “Well…maybe,” Reets said.
     “No,” Mums countered, “there is no maybe. A league of aqueduct is structurally impossible, so let us not waste time on fantasy. Tell me, instead, of the golden one. I want to know how you plan to corral the beast.”
     Reets glanced at the door, but Balthus offered no assistance, only blank stares. Dropping his eyes to the floor, the halfling said, “Well, we cain’t rightly say ‘til after tomorrow, woman. We gota have a report ‘fore we go to plan anythin.”
     “Oh, no we do not. You were the one who opened this discussion by pointing how we didn’t need another report. I believe your exact words had something along the lines of goat puke, but the essence was that we need not endure another failed report from Captain Janusery and that we were, in fact, going to war. So, please, Reetsle, share with us the war strategy necessary for procuring a man-eating old one.”
     Reets limped in silence. “I doan’ know,” he said, speaking the purest of truth. “We could lure it, I reckon.”
     “Lure it with what?” she demanded. “The only things the creature has ever showed an interest in were gold and prairie cows, and—I’m afraid—you have access to neither—Which,” she said testily, “brings me to the last happening your men shall be loosed upon: the tracking of the Sway killer. So tell me…,” she paused for a fine sip of the brew, “…how is it that your men plan to track and kill a creature that cannot be seen?”
     Reets shot a crooked finger in the air. “Here now!” he protested. “Yeh cain’t say that no more. We got prints.”
     “Not in the east, you don’t,” Mums countered. “The handprints were waged against Jashandar’s finest, who—by your definition—can take care of themselves. No, Reetsle, I’m talking about our poor, defenseless livestock in the southeast.”
     Reets watched his boots for awhile, then said, “We could move a few of the boys across the way.”
     “And do what?” Mums asked. “Look for clues that our finest scout could not find? And those were your words, were they not, Reetlse? Did you not label young Jaysh as the finest scout in all of Jashandar?”
     “I did,” Reets said, the feeling of painting himself into a corner rushing to his chest, “but there’s…if there were more of em…more heads and eyes…that’d help.” He was nodding now, pleased with his own improvisational thinking.
     Mums sighed. “Honestly, Reetlse, I have issue with that,” she said, “for the same reason I’d have issue with you flooding the Sway with blind men.” She took another sip. “But for the sake of argument, which army did you purpose to send?”
     “Which arm—?” Reets threw up his hands and spun on her, opening his mouth and preparing to scream that she knew good-and-bloody-well what army he purposed to send. Before he could, though, the adviser from Lathia cut him off.
     “Muminofilous…,” the Lathian croaked, “…we are all aware that the army withers.”
     “A fourth its regular size, is that not so, Blathus?”
     Ignoring the loaded question, the counselor said, “But this is not a question of man power…for if the general cannot spare his men…I am sure there are men to be hired.”
     “Yes, I’m sure there are,” the titan conceded. “I’m sure we could invite the whole of Lathia and set them up in tents, but if they know as little as our good Captain of tracking and hunting, then I’m afraid you’re still pursuing a dead-end street.”
     “Dead!” came a cry from the vicinity of the bed, this one followed by a startled snort and a flurry of pages. “Did he go?”