Brine didn’t need to reach for his monocle to recognize the taller of the newcomers. He saw right away the additional plume of feathers on either shoulder plate—a military designation worn by only one member of the Jashian military—and he heard right away the familiar jangle of pendants and medals bouncing off his chest.
     Admittedly, there were several military officers who wore these honors beneath their mail, but only one wore enough to cover half his undershirt; silver disks of bravery, gold triangles of excellence, the former dangling from turquoise bands, the latter supported by lime ribbons.
     And that mustache, Brine thought, smiling at the distorted gray crescent drooping below his nose.  No one has a mustache like Serit.
     The man accompanying Serit, however—the one with the coppery-red beard and dark brown attire—Brine had no idea who this was. If he had to hazard a guess, he would have said scout, but that was purely conjecture.
     He could see a trail of mud and leaves littering the floor behind the man, so scout seemed as good a guess as any. Scout or runner, he amended, but definitely not a common field hand. With such delicate business at hand, Serit would not have held audience with the man unless he was some form of messenger. And even then, considering what was about to happen in the room behind them, it would have to be a fairly significant message. 
     But hadn’t something fairly significant taken place?
     Thinking back to what Stonyface had said after rescuing him from the Shungate cretins, he believed there had. The officer had apologized for the guards attempted assault on his wauk and explained that the castle was a bit shorthanded after the Westpost incident. What incident this was, Brine could only imagine, but it would certainly explain this filthy harbinger’s presence in the chamber.
     Watching the two men enter, Brine wondered if the incident were related to the Mela. That particular river did flow through the Western Sway—just north of Westpost, if memory served—and it had looked rather unhealthy as he crossed over at the East Bridge.
     But unhealthy or not, he argued, why would they empty the whole of the castle because of an impurity in the Mela?
     He was still struggling with that part. Granted, the river looked like a flowing black nightmare and the banks looked stricken with plague, but did that justify a reduction in castle security? And even if it did, wouldn’t king and council have sent their troops east rather than west? Upstream to the cause rather than downstream to the effects?
     Brine thought that they would. In fact, the longer he thought about an incident capable of depleting the defenses of the castle, the more he thought the incident would be related to whatever had frightened the shepherd boy, the thing in the sky that Brine had watched for as the young field hand caught up on his sleep.
     …there are less of us now… the boy had said…less than once were…
     Brine shivered at this, the back of his neck beset by a hoard of ice-spiders. It was not lost on him that his divine purpose might require him to stay in the city of his past and, if this were the case, he did not wish to bump into whatever it was the shepherd boy had seen.
     If he were lucky, the boy was simply a half-whit and no one had bothered to make him a sign. That’s all it would take to clear up such misunderstandings, a simple wooden sign like the one that hung around Stymie Croagmuck’s neck. Stymie had been the stable hand for the castle when Brine was young and the sign around his neck had proclaimed to all—as if the boy’s bizarre questions and incessant nose picking wouldn’t tip them off—that Stymie was a simpleton. 
     But even Stymie the feeb knew a doggy when one crossed his path. The doggy might have a long wormy tail and thick prominent teeth and it might live in the holes beneath the royal stables and eat grain from
horse pails, but when Stymie was telling you about his doggy, he hadn’t fabricated the creature.
     Brine rubbed at the imaginary ice-spiders on his neck and tried not to think about what the shepherd boy had spied in the southern skies, focusing instead on General Branmore and the grungy man who, Brine could now see, was not a runner.
     At this proximity, the disciple could make out the pack, bow, and quiver slung over the man’s leaf-strewn shirt. Runners kept their supplies strapped to their horses and—for the sake of speed and the fact they didn’t spend much time in the wild—there was very little to keep.
     On the surface, Brine wasn’t sure what difference this made, or if it made any difference, but he was sure about the conclusion: The man was a scout, pure and simple. He lived in the woods, traveled on foot, and apparently communed with nature. If Brine needed further proof, he needn’t look any farther than the furry creature cradled in the man’s dirty arms.
     Was it some breed of black-pelted ferret? Or maybe a cat? With the creature lying half-concealed in the scout’s arms and its head nestled against its rear flank, it was difficult to tell. Brine could see parts of its hindquarters and most of its back—where it was missing quite a lot of hair—but other than that, it was just fur and scars.
     Well, there you have it, Brine thought. You can’t be any more of a scout than that.
     Then, as if to heap even more evidence on the scouting side of the scales, Brine looked to the hall and spied the rest of the party, as in scouting party. And maybe not all scouts traveled in groups—surely, there were some that worked the woods alone—but he did know that there was no such a thing as a party of runners.
     He’d known a few runners at the Rock and, from what he’d gathered during their brief exchanges, they rode in solitude between checkpoints and handed their message to the next member in the chain. Thus, there was little need for them to travel in groups or pairs.
     Unless, he conceded, the message in question was extremely urgent and there was reason to believe one of them might be intercepted…
     But issues of urgency aside, he still did not believe the men in the hall were runners. One of them was much too large and the other one—the one with the long black hair and fashionable boots—appeared to be waving at him. With regard to former, for the same reason runners kept as little gear as possible on their steeds, they also tended to be slight of build. With regard to the latter…Well, to be honest, Brine didn’t know what to think of the latter. He was still trying to decide if the man was a member of the king’s royal army, let alone a runner. With such a jocular exhibition—especially at a time like this!—it seemed unlikely that the man was an emissary.  
     Brine shot the long-haired scout a dirty look and the man waved harder.
     The nerve of him, Brine grumbled, turning his attention to the general. Surely, Serit had told the scouts in the hall what was about to happen, because he’d certainly told the scruffy-looking scout beside him. Brine could tell by this scout’s shambling gait and reluctant pace, evidence that the man held an appreciation of the situation. In fact, it almost appeared as though the man was trying to break free of the general and return to the hall.
     Serit, of course, was having nothing to do with that behavior, prodding the nervous fellow in the shoulder each time he tried to turn around. For this reason, it took the two men quite some time to travel from the hallway door to where Mums and Reets stood waiting.
     And speaking of the advisers, Brine wondered, what was Reets doing with his mouth? Was he sneering at the fellow? Or was he—
     Brine nearly gasped. Reetsle Baggershaft—the halfling who used to greet him in the castle by grunting biological obscenities and asking if the boy had any chores—was grinning at the man. He was Honest to God grinning at him. Brine didn’t think the twisted adviser knew how.
     In fact, accepting for the moment that titans couldn’t move the thick features of their face, Mums appeared rather pleased with this scout as well. Or perhaps pleased was the wrong word, but she definitely appeared more relaxed. Rather than her usual stiff and proper stance—the stance naturally assumed by members of the ruling class in the presence of the groveling masses—she appeared to be at ease.
     Did everyone know him? Brine wondered, glancing beside him and finding that at least one of the advisers had no idea who the man was or, in any case, didn’t recognize him. Godfry was squinting at the fellow as if the scout and Serit were a couple of juggling harlequins who’d capered in with fresh fruit and flaming batons. He was also releasing an inquisitive—yet rather loud—hum each time the general prodded the scout in the arm and the scout flinched away from him.
     Brine leaned over to whisper in the old man’s ear and distract him from his unconscious throat sound—before the skittish scout heard one and took offense—but Godfry had already released his loudest hum so far and was tottering over for a closer look.
     No, no, no, no, no, Brine thought, starting swiftly after the local representative. He did not, however, grab hold of him. Despite the booming dismay reverberating in his head—and the image of what might unfold once the dizzy-headed adviser made his introduction—he did very little to impede his forward progress.
     Later, he would tell himself it was because he hadn’t wished to be rude by manhandling his former teacher, but he would be lying. The truth was that he wanted to know what was going on just as much as Godfry and, in all fairness, if his divine purpose was somehow related to this urgent matter, then he needed to know what was going.
     And it’s not like they’ll see me, he mused, ducking behind the old man’s billowing robes.
     In the same instant that he’d decided not to stop his nosey teacher, he had also decided not to be seen. Despite his burning curiosity and his indignant right to know, he had not been invited to this impromptu meeting and, thus, he made it a point to stay out of sight. He didn’t believe for one moment that Mums or Reets would ask him to leave, but he wouldn’t put it past them to alter the content of their speech, especially if they thought they were protecting him from the ails of the kingdom during this sensitive period in his life. In either case, it was best not to draw their attention.
     It was also best, Brine realized—peering out from behind the protective curtain of beard and cloth—not to draw the attention of the scout’s pet. The insane creature was either spooked by the advisers or was sensing its owner’s discomfort and reacting in kind.
     As Brine gawked around the side of Godfry’s ample robes, the little animal bucked and squirmed and acted as though it wished to kill them all. The scout was bobbing up and down and shushing the little fiend, but the writhing beast—which was neither cat, nor ferret, nor any member of the known animal kingdom—continued its furious tantrum.
     The disciple sank behind his teacher.
     Reets, on the other hand, rushed right in, completely ignoring the spitting beast and pausing only after realizing that both of the scout’s hands were occupied. With one hand stretched beneath the leaping cat-creature—holding it by the chest—and the other wrapped over the top of the thing, and fisted around a mug of thick dark syrupy, the scout was not able to shake hands.
     Not to be outdone, Reets grabbed the man’s elbow and shook it fiercely. “Look at yeh, now,” he said. “Finally got yeh out of the brush, huh.”
     Again, Brine was struck by the obvious familiarity expressed by the halfling’s body language and tone. Reets either knew this scout or, quite possibly, this was how heathens greeted one another. Reets, who’d been born and—for want of a better word—raised in the Hinterlands was a heathen himself, so perhaps this was nothing more than the usual backwoods kinship their kind expressed to one another. For all Brine knew, they were about to spit in each other’s hands and perform some secret handshake, or possibly slit each other’s tongues and make a blood pact. But as shocking as either of these acts might have been, what actually happened shocked the disciple even more. 
     Despite the warmth and kindness displayed by the usually-gruff halfling, the scout reacted with nothing but wintry defiance, reeling from the twisted adviser and recoiling from his grip, wrestling free of those disjointed fingers and stumbling back into the general’s ever-waiting hand.
     This, however, only served to send the scout forward again, this time sidestepping the halfling and colliding with Godfry. Seeing this, Brine raised his hands to chest height and prepared to catch the old man. But somehow Godfry managed to catch himself.
     There was a moment where the adviser appeared to be teetering at an angle—an impossible angle, really—and then he just righted himself. His arms never wheeled, his head never moved, his slipper-clad feet remained fixed on the slippery wooden floor, but none of this seemed to get in the way of his torso as it lifted into place.
     Ten ages of estrangement or not, Brine was ready to ask about that peculiar recovery. If it offended the old man, then the old man was going to be offended. However, as he opened his mouth to phrase the question, his teacher chose that moment to lean towards the halfling and say, “Who’s this, now?”
     And that was all it took.
     At the sound of the old man’s voice, the cat-thing—already irritated by the jostling it had suffered as Jaysh struck the adviser—went nuts. It took one look at Godfry’s offensive attire and decided its earlier instincts about this wretched place had been correct.
     Like a thing possessed, it began leaping for the floor, clawing at the air, spitting at the world. Brine stepped back and prepared to run. There was no chance the scout could contain the creature, not when it was behaving like a furry piston.
     Thankfully, though, as all eyes settled on the apoplectic creature—including those of its frantic-looking owner—no one saw the titan as she stepped in to help.