Brine realized he’d stopped walking and took a look around. He stood in a long corridor that stretched away in either direction, the darkness pushed back by soft pools of light. He saw that sometimes the light shown in wide stable swaths from the lanterns overhead, and sometimes in smaller unstable pockets from the candles on the wall.
     Behind him, he could see the end of the hall and a few doors set in the dusty gray wall. Up ahead, he could see the grainy wooden floor disappearing into the gloom, one end of a table jutting from the shadows.
     How did I get here?
     Thinking back, he remembered passing through the Shungate, then an ornately-decorated inner door—carved with the double-headed axe he knew so well—and then he was inside the castle, trudging along behind the stiffly-postured officer and wondering to himself if he hadn’t made a terrible mistake.
     His heart was pounding, his stomach churning, every nerve in his body wriggling like a worm. He remembered thinking that the castle was flooding him with memories and emotions, and that, in a way, the granite colossus was trying to kill him.
     He’d see the painting of a prairie setting and lightheadedness would beset him. He’d smell the scent of fresh cedar from a closet and found it difficult to breath. With every nostalgic sight and sound, he seemed as though he was torn from his present reality and plunged deeper into the one from his past, the one where the castle towers touched the sky and where the edge of Onador was on the other side of forever.
     But why had it stop? he wondered, turning back to the table in the gloom. Or why did I stop, come to think of it?
     As if in answer, a ghost-like voice whispered to him from the wall on his left, whispering in a voice so soft that, at first, he thought it was coming from a great distance, a distance defined in terms of time and not space, so far away that Brine couldn’t decipher the words.
     The spectral voice began to repeat itself, growing louder and more insistent and pushing through from its reality into his, speaking to him about paper of all things. But was it wallpaper or parchment paper, a paper trail perhaps?
     Brine turned to face the voice and found the stony-faced soldier standing directly beside him, his callused namesake so close that Brine couldn’t have slid a forefinger between the man’s nose and his own ear. Brine shied back from the red-faced man, noticed the man’s hand was extended—not thumb-up as if to shake, but palm-up as if to take—and Brine stared at it stupidly, wondering when it was that the Jashian military had begun to work on commission.
     “Your papers, sir,” the officer asked, sounding more than a little flustered.
     “Oh! Right.” Brine released the robes at his chest—wondering where, along the way, he’d decided to grab those—and handed the man his letter.
     The officer thanked him, although curtly, and gave the door set in the opposite wall a sharp and plangent rap.
     Brine blinked at the door. He’d been so focused on the journey that he’d missed the destination, completely overlooking it as he emerged from his stroll down memory lane. But this is it, he thought to himself, an icy sense of horror spreading through his core. This is definitely the right place.
     As he studied the doorframe—a garish piece of trim carved to resemble vines and thorns, a decorative style from the age of Fendly—it occurred to Brine that he’d only ever been here on a handful of occasions, none of which he recalled with any clarity. What memories he had of this room felt like somebody else’s dreams, as if he were looking at a painting on a wall that depicted somebody else’s life and somebody else’s time.
     The sound of steel grating on steel shook him loose of his thoughts and he looked up to see a small window slide open in the center of the door. On the other side of the rectangular slot, he could see a dark face pressed to the opening, its features backlit by flickering flames.
     “Pardon the interruption, Ma’am,” the officer said, poking the letter through the slit. A mellifluous reply came floating through the opening, so feathery soft that Brine found himself straining to see the speaker. He knew that voice, or had known it once upon a time. Then, the shutter scraped shut, a latch clicked, and the chamber door creaked slowly open. Candlelight danced into the hall and painted Brine’s sandals with light.
     Gesturing into the room, the lieutenant said, “They’re expecting you, sir.”
     “Thank you,” Brine said, sounding scared to death as he gave the man a cordial nod and stepped inside the flickering portal. He looked around the anteroom and could not believe his eyes.
     While reading the royal invitation in his dorm room, Brine hadn’t the slightest idea of what would greet him once he arrived. He had imagined the scene in his mind time and time again, praying that he would be prepared for the moment once that time had come, but never in his wildest imaginings had he pictured a setting like this.
     There were too many people in there for one thing; four or five at least, some of them standing, some of them sitting, some leaning casually against the walls. The other thing that set him off was the way they were acting. None of those he saw were behaving in the manner he’d suspected, all of them talking and laughing and acting as though they hadn’t a care in the world.
     Until he entered, of course. Once he entered, the room went dead.
     “Welcome home, Brine dear,” said a voice on his left. It was the feathery voice from the door slot, the one he’d heard from outside. Brine turned to face the speaker and found a large and shaggy creature loomed over him.
     “Mums?” he asked.
     The shaggy creature he had addressed as Mums made to answer him, but before she could, a bent and limping figure rushed forward, seized Brine by the hand, and proceeded to squeeze the life from his fingers.
     “Brine, ole boy!” the crippled figure greeted, pumping his arm. “Great Gala, but yeh’ve grown!”
     “Hel-Hello,” Brine said, not exactly sure who this was, but eager to show himself friendly, especially if it meant disengaging those vice-like fingers. “Is that you, Ree—”
     The rest of his question was lost as the shaggy creature behind him reached down with two beam-like arms and hoisted him from the floor. He was aware of the air evacuating his lungs, the hair and muscle smashing flat his face, and—at his back—something hard and twisted squirming against his legs.
     “Woman—!” the squirming thing yelled “—cain’t breath, Woman!
     The floor rose up beneath Brine’s sandals and the titan released him. He felt the gnarled creature at his back wriggling free and muttering curses.
     “Well, I’m sorry, Reetsle,” Mums said, “but you were being rude.”
     “I’ll give yeh rude,” Reets snapped, staggering back to the disciple, who was now doubled over and gasping for breath. “Look what’cha done, yeh daft cow!”
     Still panting, and staring at the floor, the disciple said, “No, I’m…I’m okay…”
     “Is he dying?” a new voice asked, this one permeated with confusion.
     “Nah,” the halfling said. “Mums just crushed im a bit.”
     “I was prying him away from those of us who have no manners,” Mums defended.
     “Looks like he’s dying to me,” the confused voice said.
     “He ain’t dyin,” Reets said, now disgusted. “He’s jus restin. Ain’t that right, Brine?”
     “Yes,” Brine said, righting himself and looking from one hazy face to the next, still a little lightheaded, but realizing it had nothing to do with the dearth of oxygen in his blood and everything to do with the swell of emotion in his chest. He knew each and every one of these blurry faces. They were, after all, the faces he’d peered into during the days of youth, the faces that had cheered when he’d competed, that had scolded when he’d been bad, that had soothed when he’d be scared.  
     “It’s so good to see you all,” Brine said, his voice tight with emotion, his vision blurred by tears. “I trust you’ve been well in His eyes?”
     From out of the sea of hazy faces, he heard their voices admitting that they had been well, then asking if the same could be said for him. He said that it could, and then went about distributing the perfunctory hugs and handshakes associated with such reunions. Until he came to a set of rather stiff and twisted fingers and realized they were pointing at him.
     From behind the fingers, he heard Reets say, “What’s with your head, boy?
      Brine brushed the stubble over his ears. “My, um…my what?
     “You’re hair, son,” Reets clarified. “Where’d it go?
     “Oh, that,” Brine said, still rubbing his head. “That’s an Amian tradition.”
     Moving behind the young man, Reets said, “Oh, yeah? Well, what’s that thing flappin round in the—Great Gala!
     Brine pulled the braid of hair over his shoulder and cradled it like a babe. “That’s my Wauk,” he said.
     “A walk?
     “Yes—I mean no.” Brine’s smile was altogether gone. “That’s how it sounds, but it’s actually spelled differently. It’s…it’s a symbol of the walk we take with Amontus, so that’s…that’s why we…um…,” he trailed off, suddenly unable to think, his mind flooded with feelings he’d not known in a very long time, feelings leaking from the castle and impairing his mind. He drew his eyes from the halfling and directed them at Mums.
     “You’re fine, Brine dear,” the titan assured him. “Reetlse is just being rude. As I’m sure you are aware by now, some things never change.”
     “Ceptin’ fer Brine’s head,” the halfling said.
     “Reetsle,” Mums suggested, “why not take Brine’s things?”
     “I can tell yeh this much,” Reets went on, “if’n Rendel ever tol’ me to shave my head and grow myself a ponytail, I’d tell the War God exactly where—”
     “The gear, Reetsle.
     “Ah’right! Ah’right!” he yammered, yanking up the bags and traipsing to the back.
     “Now, Brine dear,” Mums said, gesturing to what—in Brine’s ruined vision—appeared to be a purple drapery with a gray stain down its middle, “I’m sure you remember Godfry.”
     “Oh, yes,” Brine said, digging excitedly for his lens.
     “And this,” Mums said, moving the brown blur of her hand to the next figure—this one a pallid white, with tinges of green in the middle—“this is Gariel.”
     Brine glanced up and grinned amicably. He had no recollection of this Gariel-person, but he didn’t let it get him down. He was too excited about seeing Godfry, the one man responsible opening his mind to literature and philosophy and his deep love of learning. Unlike this Gariel-person, with whom he was supposedly acquainted, he could never forget Godfry.
     He shoved the circular glass in the socket of his eye, made to focus on his childhood mentor, and found his eyes inexorably drawn to the Gariel-person. Eventually, he spied the skimpy green outfit pulled taut across her chest and tugged high upon her thighs, but this was not before being slapped in the eyeballs by her creamy white flesh above and below.
     Forcing the monocle to the region of her head, Brine tried very hard to study her face, searching her broad smile and spiky orange hair for some semblance of familiarity. When he found none, he began to wonder if Mums had plucked the wrong person from the streets. Surely he’d have remembered those huge green eyes.
     “It’s Gariel…is it?” Brine asked.
     Gariel cocked her head to the side, feigning hurt feelings. “Oh, come on now, Brine. I know yeh ‘member me! Gariel,” she said, accusingly. “Gariel Morlique,” she insisted. “I used to play with yeh when them other boys wou’nt. Used to make em stop when they was chasin yeh with dead lizards and stuff. ‘Member?
     Through the seeing lens, Brine stared, his twisted mouth betraying any desire he had to agree with the woman. There had been a little girl from his youth that fit that description, one that had stood up for him when the other half of their posse was at its worst—which had been most days—but that little girl had been built like a beanpole and, if memory served, her locks had been long, sandy, and tangled in knots.
     As Brine recalled, that little girl hadn’t had a mother and her father, it seemed, had been too busy to take a comb to her hair. So ultimately, the poor little thing had just run around looking like a ragamuffin. Not that anyone had ever called her a ragamuffin. Perhaps it was her negligent parents or the harsh city streets, but in either case, the little girl that Brine remembered had been meaner than a snake.
     “Your father was a butcher?” he asked, watching her face light up. “And at the end of the day, he used to let us play with the, uh…the guts…and leftovers?”
     Grinning like an alligator, the woman with the pointy hair leaned in and hugged him, causing Brine to breaking several laws and mandates from the Words of the Good Living.
     “The very one!” Gariel beamed, holding him tight. “How yeh been, Brine? How yeh been! I ain’t seen yeh in a coon’s age.”
     “I’m well!” he said, trying to disengage the embrace without appearing to disengage the embrace. “I’m—I’m very well…very, very, very well.” He pried her arms away, pretending to do so in order to take a better look at her and finding this experience only marginally less profane than rubbing up against her. “So, um…how—how are you?
     “Well, as you can see,” she drew a proud breath, her emaciated chest bones cracking with the effort, “life’s been good to me, blessed me with health—Blessed both of us, I’d say.” Her eyes ran teasingly down his robes, violating him through the fabric. “They keep yeh fit down there in the desert, don’t they? Why if I didn’t have—”   
     Reets, having returned from depositing Brine’s gear at the door in the back of the anteroom, shoved the butcher’s daughter to one side and pulled Godfry to the fore. “Say hi to Godfry,” he said, giving the scantly-clad woman a querulous look. The scantly-clad woman gave the look right back and, for one fiery moment, appeared ready to curse the twisted adviser straight out the door.
     In the end, though, she did not. She waited until the warfare finished flashing in her eyes, folded her arms across her chest, and found the strength to do as Reets asked.
     Brine, however, saw none of this. He was staring fixedly at his beloved teacher and taking it all in: the thick book under his right arm, the drooping beard on his chest, the long and flowing gown pooling on the floor. As Mums had said, something never change, and in the book of definitions where that was written, he was sure there’d be a picture of Godfry drawn in the notations.
     His gown, Brine saw, was just as hideous as the ones from his childhood. If he had to guess, he would have said that this eye-watering color was a rotten-plum purple and that the seizure-inducing pattern was of a hundred pink frogs with their heads squashed in.
     But none of that matters in the scheme of things, not when the man inside is the kindest, most patient—most brilliant man in all of Jashandar.
     And so, giddy with excitement and nearly lightheaded with joy, Brine thrust out his hand, smiled until it hurt, and said, “Godfry!” Not the most eloquent of greetings, he had to admit, but it hardly mattered, not when the elderly recipient of the greeting was only going to stare at him like some strange and whistling fish.