“I am sooo proud of you,” Mums said, engulfing both scout and cat-thing in a shaggy embrace. There were groans of protest from within—not to mention a good deal of hissing—but the titan ignored these cries and continued to sway with her cargo, rocking them in her arms. “Just look at you,” she said, “all the way inside this time.”
     The scout grunted and cat-thing spit and, from the sound of them, Brine assumed they were both rather stunned by this sudden display. Even so, Brine doubted they were any more stunned than he was.
     Muminofilous—despite her bestial size and grisly appearance—was not a creature of the wild and, therefore, was not apt to greet this man as Reets had greeted him, unless she and the council had grown close to the scout over time. But even if she had, Brine still wasn’t sure that explained what he was seeing.
     Because if they’re so close to each other, he wondered, why isn’t the scout reciprocating? Why is he disgruntled over these affectionate displays?
     Case in point, Mums had no more than set the man down and the filthy fellow was stumbling back from her, showing no more love for the titan than he had for the general or halfling. On a positive note, the cat-thing did seem to have been subdued, but Brine did not believe this to be a sign of affection.
     From where the disciple stood crouched behind his teacher, the animal looked as though it was suffering from partial asphyxiation. The writhing and kicking had ceased and a new state of lethargy had settled over the beast, leaving it to lie in the scout’s bleeding arms with barely enough strength to glare at the titan.
     Taking notice of the look, Mums said, “Is your little friend not well?”
     The scout shook his head. “ee…ates-it…ere,” he said, speaking over something in his mouth.
     Blinking her huge, brown eyes, Mums said, “Was that, He hates it here?
     The scout frowned. “ot…ee,” he said, glancing at his angry cargo. “ephs’…a-irl.”
     “Oh, it’s a girl?
     The scout nodded that this was so and the titan went on to ask a number of other superfluous questions, questions that sent a mental monkey wrench slamming down into the spinning gears of Brine’s theory.
     If this scout visited the council on a regular basis, then wouldn’t Mums have known the creature’s gender? And if this precious little creature truly hated it here, wouldn’t the council have been used to its violent display? And come to think of it—judging by the way Reets had approached the man and by the questions Mums was asking—had they never seen this horrid thing before?
     It was possible the scout left the animal outside when he delivered his reports, but Brine doubted it. He could tell by the way the man was holding the creature that he cared immensely for her and, for that matter, if he were going to leave the little monster outside, this delicate occasion would have been the time to follow through.
     So, for the council to act as though they’d never seen her, the scout almost couldn’t be a regular emissary. And if that were the case, then why did they insist on treating him in such an intimate manner? Was it possible they knew him through someone el—
     From over his shoulder, the answer to that question came yelping up from behind: “Oh, baby! Baby! Honey! Oh, how are yeh, baby? Are yeh okay? Do yeh need anythin? Yeh need me to do anythin?
     Brine turned to see Gariel Morlique scampering across the room in direct route for the scout and, as had been the case with the advisers, the warmth displayed between them was decidedly one-sided. As the screeching woman bore down upon the man, arms reaching and tongue waggling, the scout actually winced and drew away.
     “mm…ine,” he said, moving arms and shoulders so she could not take hold. “mm…ine.”
     “But, baby, yeh know I don’t have to go out tonight. I—I can stay with yeh, I can. An’ we can talk or take a walk or…or whatever yeh want.”
     “M...,” the scout said, “…Ine!
     “What…What’s that, honey? I can’t…,” she wrinkled up her nose, grimacing at the bulge in his cheek. “What’s in your mouth, Hon?”
     Still bobbing up and down, still rubbing the creature hidden in his arms, the scout brought his lips to the mug in his hand and jettisoned a stream of black fluid. 
     “I said I’m fine.” 
      Gariel gawked at him. “You sure, baby?” And when he said that he was, she said, “But, Sweetie, I can…I can help yeh. I can take yeh home an’…an’ yeh know, talk an’ stuff.” She gave a nod at the word stuff that caused the others in the circle to look at the floor or ceiling, and even the scout, whose mouth had yet to fill with saliva, made it a point not to comment.
     Oblivious to the awkward silence around her, Gariel shot a baffled look at the door in the rear of the room and said, “Well, I…I jus thought you’d be upset, yeh know, bout goin’ in there. It ain’t gona be fun, baby, yeh know it ain’t gona be fun.” She turned back around. “I just thought, yeh know, when you was done we’d go home an’ talk or snuggle or—or I can make yeh some…I’ll make whatever yeh want, yeh like soup, baby? I can ma—”
     Gariel Morlique—who until that point had been leaning over the scout like a concerned mother hen—reared back as if struck in the face, the care in her eyes quickly replaced with a squinting abhorrence. “Uh…baby,” she said, trying to keep her voice from joining the caustic ranks of her face, “why—why yeh holdin that thing?
     The scout glanced down at the frightened creature in his arms.
     Gariel said, “Why doan’ yeh put it down, baby? Jus fer a spell, huh? Yeh doan’ wanna take it in with yeh, baby. Not in there, yeh doan’.”
     And again, the woman who’d once rescued Brine from the bullies of his youth made another glance at the door in the back of the room. Brine had seen the earlier look, as well as heard the earlier reference, but he’d been so shocked at the time—by her casual reference to carnal knowledge—that he completely failed to pay the comment much heed.
     This time, however, he paid the reference and glance ample heed. He even turned and searched the rear wall for another door to which Gariel might have gestured, because surely she did not mean the door Brine was to use. Surely, she had not implied this muck-encrusted scout had news so urgent as to warrant a journey through that door. But try as he might, he found nothing back there but a few dusty decorations and a handful of chairs.
     It was possible she’d made a mistake—Brine had about as much respect for this woman’s perspicacity as he did for that of a yipping dog—but none of the advisers had bothered correcting her. In fact, the only one among them who seemed to share the disciple’s astonishment—the one now giving the rear wall a similar look of concern—was the scout himself. When he finished, he took a step back and closed his arms over his pet.
     “Go where, now?” he asked, and then it was the butcher’s daughter who donned a look of confusion, this one, Brine thought, tinted with fear and worry and traces of panic.
     Gariel reached out for the retreating woodsman as if to answer his question with a caress, then seemed to remember the vicious cargo in his arms and drew back her hand, turning to the advisers and shaking her head. The scout, his own face wrinkling with growing alarm, was darting his eyes from adviser to adviser as well, settling finally on the one face that had brought him.
     After making another generous contribution to the mug, he said, “What’s she talkin bout, Serit?”
     The general appeared to be turning gray as he lowered his jaw to answer, the only sound emerging a repetitive, “I-I-I-I…,” that only grew worse as all heads turned to watch the epileptic display.
     Tilting her massive head forward, Mums said, “You did tell him, didn’t you, Serit?”
     “Well, yes, I told him,” Serit declared, brushing at the medals beneath his mail as the titan’s protuberant brown eyes bore steadily into him. “He wasn’t overly fond of the idea then either,” he concluded.
     “You told him what was expected once he reached the castle,” she said doubtfully, “and you failed to take his mug away?” She reached a shaggy hand for the receptacle. “I’m sorry, but a cup of bodily secretion is not—”
    “Eh, Mum,” Serit interrupted, raising one gaunt finger and giving her a sheepish look. “Before we ventured into the kitchen to fetch the cup, I’m afraid he was depositing his excess on the castle floor.”
     The titan stared at the thick, black contents of the steel container, then at the strained expression on the scout’s face. “You can keep the mug,” she said, grudgingly, “but if I were you, I would strongly consider removing that mass from your jaw and leaving it and the cup out here.”
     “ow…um?” the scout asked, his speech already thick with saliva.
     “Because very soon,” Mums explained, giving the general another accusatory glance, “Kowin will finish with his scribing and you will take the healer’s place, at which point you might find it useful if your tongue was not obstructed.”
     The scout’s squinting eyes shot to the door in the back of the room. He stared for a time, like a convict surveying the entrance to his cell, then shook his head.
     Mums cast another baleful look at the general, watched as Serit shrugged helplessly back, and then turned to the scout. “Listen,” she said, “I know that it won’t be pleasant for you in there and I know you can imagine a whole host of other activities you would rather pursue, but I also know,” she told him as sweetly as she could, “that you are one of the most resilient young men I have ever known and that you will survive.” She paused and made a face, possibly a smile. “And just remember that we would not ask this of you if it were not ab—”
     The rest of her message was lost as a loud snap broke from behind them. Brine, as well as everyone else, turned to face the door in the back of the room, all eyes watching as a second steely sound popped in the air.
     For a moment, nothing moved—the door and its trim seeming to stop the sands of time—and then, with a rusty scream of hinges and the ancient groan of wood, the rectangular barrier swung back into the wall and darkness filled the void.
     Brine dared not speak, nor breathe.
     Something was moving in the shadows, something squattish and black, its feet drowning in the hem of its black robes, its hands swallowed by the sleeves. It waddled further from the gloom and Brine thought he saw something squirm within the hollow of its cowl, something pink-eyed and pale that he suddenly recognized as a face…a face that he knew.
     It was the royal healer Mums had referenced earlier, the man whose chamber door used to sing with the screams of suffering animals and whose eating habits behind the stables sent a chill up Brine’s spine.
     There were, of course, other bizarre traits about this pale little man—some regarding his sleeping habits, others pertaining to the strange bulges in his robes—but none of them were on Brine’s mind at the moment. What was on the disciple’s mind now was the way the healer’s pink and beady eyes were narrowing on the scout.
     “You,” the healer barked, jabbing his colorless nail at the woodsman. “You comes, now.”  
     The scout didn’t move.
     “I say you—Comes Now!
     The scout, in the screaming silence of the room, leaned over his mug and, without taking his eyes from the healer, added to its contents.
     The healer had no answer for this. He turned his twitching right eye on the advisers. “What wrong him?” he said. “Purple most gone.
     Mums moved next to the defiant scout, made to lay a hand on his shoulder, then thought better of it and let her shaggy paw hover. She drew a bovine breath and searched her mind for an alternate means of changing the scout’s stance.
     “Listen,” she said, speaking to the scout as she stared at the disciple. “It’s not like you’ll be going in alone. Brine’s here,” she said, pointing to where the disciple stood crouched behind his teacher.
     The scout squinted at Brine as he had the door in the rear of the room. Whoever this man was, he did not appear convinced that the man with the ponytail was who the titan claimed. He shook his head at her.
     “Doan’ look like Brine,” he said, mildly.
     Mild or not, though, Brine felt a flush of heat spreading across his face. Maybe it was the fatigue he had accrued from his journey, or the fear of what lay in wait for him in the shadows of the back room, but this repeated questioning of his appearance by the rabble of this land—spooky shepherds, idiot guards, deformed halflings—had finally left a very bad taste in his already soured mouth, a taste he could not swallow. 
     Stepping from behind his teacher, Brine sneered at the dirty scout. “Well, I am. I am,” he said, his head nodding maniacally, “despite how I look, or what you think—or what anyone thinks—” he glared at Reets, “I am Brine, I am, so…so who are you, then? Hmm? I just want to know—Who do you think you are?”
     But rather than the scout, it was the titan who answered the disciple. She’d been closest at the time of Brine’s outburst and had stepped forward in the event of an escalation. She stared at him for quite some time and then said, in what Brine considered to be a somewhat embarrassed tone, “This is Jashandar, Brine.” And when Brine couldn’t stop himself from frowning, she added, “This is your brother.”