Brine’s hand sank a little and, shortly there after, the corners of his mouth followed suit, slipping back down like an unfortunate mudslide on the landscape of his face.
     A part of him had always known this day would come, that the mental cracks in his teacher’s head would finally split wide and that the contents within would spill swiftly from his mind, Brine’s identity included.
     As a child, Brine had watched the gentle genius as he struggled to recall events from the previous day or facts from a certain lesson. And on other occasions, his teacher had gone so far as to forget Brine’s name, referring to him as Tim or Mark or you there.
     But that’s not what’s happening, said a voice within his mind, one that sounded very similar to his own. He’s not confused about anything right now and he’s not deep in thought. He’s just forgotten who you are, that simple. He heard everyone speaking to you—heard them use your name for Owndiah’s sake—and still he doesn’t remember who you are.  
    As if to confirm this assertion, the eldest of the advisers selected that moment to stoop down beside the halfling and say, “Who’s this, now?”
     Reets’ brown and blue eyes swelled to the size of titan fists. “It’s Brine!” he all but choked. “Yeh know Brine, yeh old goat!”
     A light flickered in Godfry’s eyes. “Ah, Brine,” he said, his caterpillar eyebrows lifting at last. “That’s right, that’s right,” he said, nodding triumphantly. “He was the one who went south to fight the old ones.”
     Brine’s hand sank a little lower and, beside him, Reets began to shake his head like a scabe-wolf with a rabbit in its jaws, the skin above his beard and below his hairline turning the dark crimson of an infected blister.
     “Actually, Godfry dear,” Mums said, stepping forward before the halfling erupted, “Brine went to study at Valley Rock, with the Amian elders.”
     “Amians,” Godfry breathed, lifting his gaze to the titan. “They slay old ones, do they?”
     Mums shook her shaggy mane. “Valley Rock is a monastery, Godfry. It’s where they train disciples.”
     “Disciples, you say,” said the old man blankly, repeating the name of the institution with the same dull expression. “No,” he said at last, “I can’t say I’ve heard of the place, but it’s still good to meet you,” he said, giving Brine a polite, yet detached grin. “Any friend of Reets is a friend of mine,” he explained, taking hold of Brine’s steadily sinking hand.
     Brine managed a weak grin, but didn’t speak—couldn’t speak.
     “So,” Godfry said, still pumping his hand, “what brings you to Onador?”
     “Godfry!” Reets barked, yanking out his pipe and poking him with the stem. The halfling clearly had more to say, but instead of saying it, he began coughing into his fist, having inadvertently sucked saliva down his windpipe.
     “Gariel dear,” Mums said, waving to the butcher’s daughter as she stepped between Reets and Godfry, “would you be so kind as to take Godfry back to his chair?”
     “Oh, yeah, sure,” the butcher’s daughter said, rushing over to take the old man by the arm. There was a moment’s hesitation as the eldest advisor asked the young lady who she was, but she quickly identified herself and the old man was on his way to the seats along the far wall, completely oblivious of the glum-looking disciple who was staring at the back his unkempt head.
     “Oh, Brine dear,” Mums said, blocking his view and laying a large hand on his shoulder, “it is so good to see you again.”
     “Yes,” Brine muttered, his eyes unfocused on the knots of hair at the titan’s midsection. When it finally dawned on him what she’d said and how he’d responded, he jumped with a start. “Oh, I mean…I’m sorry. My mind’s wandering.” He mustered a smile and patted the enormous hand on his shoulder. “It’s good to see you too, Mums. It really is. I’m just…,” his mind blanked on him and he was staring once more at her hairy gut. “I think I’m in shock,” he said, “that’s all.”
     With her heavy skin and thick fur, Mums had never been able to do much in the way of expression. So for her, each emotion had to be expressed through the nuances and inflections of her melodic voice, so that when she replied to the heartbroken disciple, he could hear every wrinkle in her sympathetic cheeks and see every line in her loving forehead.
     “I suppose ten ages will do that to a person,” she said, giving his shoulder a light squeeze. “If you weren’t at least a little taken aback by all of this, Brine dear, I would worry for you.” 
     Brine forced a grin and was surprised by the tears he felt welling his eyes. He supposed they were from the stress of his journey or perhaps from the emotional overload of this long-awaited reunion, but there was also a part of him that wondered if they weren’t there simply to remind him of why he’d made the trek.
     A moment later, as he opened his mouth to thank Mums for her kindness and to thank Reets for tending his gear, he became quite convinced of this fact. He’d opened his mouth to enunciate, had compressed his chest to exhale, but nothing happened.
     Seeing this, Mums gave him another squeeze and Reets patted him roughly on the side, but it did not help the words to form. The greetings had been said, the small talk had been exchanged, and now there was nothing left but the sad, sad purpose to which Godfry had already alluded. It seemed to be standing right there with them and waiting to be referenced. And as Brine searched the eyes of his friends, he saw that they sensed it, too.
     “I best check Brine’s gear,” Reets said, hurrying towards the back of the chamber without so much as a wave. Brine, however, was not offended. Reets had never been much for this sort of thing. He was perfectly comfortable carrying Brine’s bleeding body from the gardens or wrestling scabe-wolves with a knife wedged between his teeth, but don’t ask him to stick around when the emotion started to flow. 
     Following the halfling with his eyes, Brine said, “How long do we have?”
     “Not long,” Mums said, looking at the door in the back of the room, “the cycle of the amulet began yesterday, so I’m assuming tonight will be the end. It usually lasts a day.” She gave Brine a pat on the shoulder and slipped towards the exit. “Speaking of which, why don’t I just check on Kowin?” 
     Brine watched as she lumbered to the door in the back of the room, the door which stood in plain sight to all, but which no one seemed capable of seeing with their eyes or referencing in their conversation. It was the door through which Brine would be going when Mums returned, the door through which his long journey from the Rock must finally end.
     Secretly though, as he watched the titan reaching for the handle, he hoped the thumb latch would be locked or the hinges would be rusted. He did not wish to enter that dark and lonely place, did not wish to think about entering it. There was no telling what he would be forced to say in there and, even worse, there was no telling what he might be forced to hear in—
     Movement caught his eye, something on his right, something so slight as to barely qualify as movement. He turned his head to inspect—assuming that someone had passed before a candle or that a breeze had stirred one of the tapestries—but saw neither candle nor tapestry.
     Instead, he saw a balding old man in gray sleeping attire, one seated by the front door and craning his head at the roomful of guests. That was the movement Brine had seen, the slow craning of his neck from one advisor to next, so slow that had Brine not been staring in the same place for an extended period of time, the gradual shifting would never have registered. 
     Brine watched a little longer and the word vulture popped inside his head. It was a horrible thing to say about another human being—and it wasn’t very Amian, either—but it was true. Vultures were bald, and the man’s hands were resting on the cane between his legs, giving his folded arms the appearance of wings. Also contributing to this illusion was the man’s hunched back and crooked spine, a physical malady that caused the man’s neck to droop and his head to protrude.
     The strongest similarity, however, was his watchful nature, so furtive and sly that, until now, he’d gone completely unnoticed. Brine had walked right past the man, had spent quite some time greeting the others advisers, and the whole while this balding vulture-man had sat unobserved by the door.
     Frowning at him, Brine wondered why they’d not been introduced. Obviously, the vulture-man was one of the king’s advisers and a trusted colleague. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be allowed access to the room.
     Lathia, Brine realized at last. He’s the Lathian adviser, the only other kingdom, aside from Igus and Erinthalmus, from which Jashandar accepted diplomats.
     Bearing this in mind, it made sense that Brine hadn’t met the man. Brine had left Jashandar almost immediately following the Lathian war, and it was an age or two later before the two kingdoms had formed their allegiances and exchanged representatives. What did not make sense, however, was the way the other advisers acted as though they hadn’t met the man.
     Likewise, the vulture-man wasn’t making an effort to interact with his fellow advisers either. With all the chairs grouped around the rear exit, it appeared as though the Lathian adviser had purposefully dragged his chair to the hallway door, possibly so he could have a better view of his colleagues.
     So what am I missing? Brine wondered. None of the people the vulture-man was watching were dangerous, and yet the man continued to monitor them like a knot of spitting vipers, his impassive gaze constantly moving from Gariel to Mums, Mums to Reets, Reets to Godfry, Godfry to Brine, Brine to…
     The gaze stopped.
     Brine took a step back and nearly dropped his monocle. Reflex told him to look way, that he’d been caught in the act of being rude and that the polite thing to do was divert his gaze and give the impression that Brine, also, had been making a casual sweep of the room. But Brine couldn’t look away. He wanted to—wanted to very, very much, actually—but when he tried to avert his eyes, he found that his ocular ports resisted the command, found that the communication between mind and eyes had been abruptly severed and that hunchback’s gray stare seemed to be swallowing him whole.
     Then, oddly enough, Brine’s cold sense of loathing began to fade and, with it, his burning desire to look away. He knew this was wrong, of course, knew in his head that the hunchback was a scary man and not to be trusted, but very slowly that thought was being saturated with an emotion that said otherwise.
     This new emotion told him that everything was all right and that everything was going to be okay. He felt his apprehension for the vulture-man ebbing from his thoughts and his fear in general dissipating like smoke.
     Brine heard himself think: I mean, after all, he’s just a man, isn’t he? Just a pathetic old man with a greasy horseshoe of hair and a twisted array of vertebra. Just a decrepit old codger sitting way over there in the shadows and minding his…wait a moment…is he getting closer? He is getting closer, isn’t he? He’s…He’s gliding across the room or…or maybe the room is gliding passed me? I can’t really tell, but we’re definitely getting closer. I can’t feel my legs moving, and I can’t see his moving, but…but we’re definitely getting closer and we’re…we’re going to COLLIDE!—we’re going to CRASH! We’re going to—
     “Sam’s boy?”
     Brine jerked at his name, the distance between himself and the Lathian snapped back into place like a slap to the face, his vision blurring, his head feeling dizzy…and then he felt nothing.
     Looking around the room, he saw that everything was as it had been, the others gathered by the rear exist, their voices mixing and mingling, the hunched spectator surveying them from afar, turning from one to the other and acting as though he didn’t know the disciple was in the room.
     Knowing better than that, Brine watched him for a time, struggling to understand what had passed between them, but when the understanding failed to come and it became clear there would be no repeat occurrence of the strange connectivity, he gave up on the vulture-man and turned to face the person who’d addressed him.
     “Sam’s boy?” Godfry asked again, a look of recognition struggling on his face.
     Brine only stared, unsure of what to expect. After their previous encounter, it seemed Godfry was capable to saying almost anything and he didn’t know if he could bear another insulting remark, especially without Mums or Reets to intervene. But of course, if Brine said nothing, then they would end up staring at one another as he’d stared at the dreaded vulture-man of Lathia.
     Brine gave a mousy nod and forced a grin.
     “I knew it!” Godfry said, his beard lifting with one of those heartwarming smiles. “I knew it. I said, ‘That’s Sam’s boy, there. That’s my old student come back at last!’ And it is!” He extended his hand and, this time, when Brine took hold of it, the old man’s eyes were alive with recognition and, quite possibly, love. “My gracious, my gracious,” he breathed, “how long’s it been?”
     “Too long,” Brine said, his grin becoming a smile, and a natural one at that.
     “It has, it has,” Godfry said, placing a bony hand to Brine’s shoulder. “So,” he said, turning to the room and giving it the curious gaze of one who’d just arrived and who had no clue what was going on, “what brings you back?”
     Brine’s smile vanished from his face. He didn’t want to lie to Godfry—wanted nothing less in all the world—but at the same time he had two equally perverse fears circling over his head and the truth about his return to Onador might bring them both crashing down upon him.
     Brine’s first fear was related to the potential faux pas that might occur once his teacher realized what was happening in the room behind them. If Brine had nearly gone misty when Mums had tried to soothe him, what might he do if Godfry cracked wise? He just didn’t know.
     His second fear—which Brine considered to be the greater of the two—was that this new information about his return might shove his identity from the old man’s mind. If Godfry’s head was like a porcelain cup and information was like the tea, then how much could it hold before things began to slosh over the sides?
     And if the slosh involves my identity, he thought, grimly, I’m not sure I can suffer that a second time. I’m just not. It makes no sense, I know. But being forgotten by this charismatic old man was the worst part of the journey, worse even than the desert and the shepherd boy, the stranger and his—
     “Oh, hey,” Brine said, groping for the interior pocket of his robes and came out holding the note. It was still folded geometrically and bearing no wrinkles, despite the cramped conditions of his pocket and the many times he’d laid upon it. “I almost forgot,” he said, sounding winded.
     Godfry squinted at the missive. “Ah, what have you there, Sam’s boy?”
     “I don’t know,” Brine said, shaking the creamy white paper, “but it’s for you.”
     Godfry lifted his eyes from the note to the disciple. “You came all the way home for this?
     “No, no. Someone gave it to me along the way, to deliver to you.”
     Godfry boggled over the missive, then said, “And what is it, now?”
     Brine shook his head, staring at the note and watching the light play off its alabaster surface. He’d half-expected it to do something to his stomach as it had each time he tried to rid himself of it. But on this occasion, it did nothing. And in a queer way that Brine did not dare to understand, he thought that this because the note knew it had arrived.
     “It’s a message,” he said, shaking the thing a third time. “It’s from a man, a man named Olymun.” He glanced up, gauging the advisor’s reaction. “Do you know anyone by that name?”
     Godfry looked nonplussed, but managed to say, “I suppose I must.”
     “Well…,” Brine said, flinching as he shook the paper a fourth time.
     Oblivious to the disciple’s behavior, Godfry took the note and held it to his face, searching it front and back. “There’s no seal,” he said. “No name.” He flipped it over a few more times. “No address.” He lifted his head to Brine. “Where’d you say this came from?”
     But before Brine could answer, the hallway door clicked open and two more people entered the room.