Today wasn’t as productive as I wanted it to be. I wrote about half a chapter and realized it wasn’t going to work with the pacing, so shuffled some things in my outline around and wrote this much of what will work instead. Expect more tomorrow though!
Griot bobbed his head in a good natured way, and added a small, almost unnoticeable skip to their step, which Sebastian soon found had infected his own feet. As they made their way down the main street of Hilsbac in something passably resembling a frolic, Griot said with a practiced casual tone, “Since we have some time before we can lay this Elda business to rest at last, I was wondering if you would be so kind as to tell me what exactly happened with this poor Millicent Cobblestop business…”
Sebastian stumbled in his step, wincing as though Griot had just plunged a thick wiggling finger into an open wound on his chest. He slowed a bit, and found Griot instantly matched his pace. His mind felt sluggish, as though it was reluctant even to think of the most recent and tragic of events to befall the small seaside village of Hilsbac.
The maidens of Hilsbac (maiden being a word here used to describe a girl between the ages of ten and twenty) were gathered together five days prior to the shirt-centric beginning of Sebastian’s story, in the traditional square configuration, set just below a shoddily constructed platform. This raised wooden flooring served as a stage on the rare occasions the villagers in Hilsbac required one. At least, it was usually rarely needed. But it was the seventh time in the past month that Millicent Cobblestop had seen her father, the Mayor’s, ponderous girth hefted onto the creaking planks, her mother always right behind her waddling husband, hands extended to either side of him as though her twig-like arms would even slow the large man down if he did choose to tip unfortunately too far one way or the other.
Millicent Cobblestop tried not to look at her parents.
In fact, at the current moment, though she didn’t know why, her startlingly cool blue eyes were fixed on a young boy in the crowd. He wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting, just holding onto his father’s hand, eyes cast into the group of girls around her, no doubt looking for his sisters, just like every other person gathered behind the group of young women. But there was something that irritated her about the boy, and she fixated her gaze on him now without even realizing it. She looked at him as someone watching a fly buzz up against the glass of a window, dreaming with a lazy sort of malice about squashing it rather than just setting it free.
Millicent was staring at Sebastian Smith.
She knew that he had two sisters, one of whom was almost too old to be included here anymore. What was her name? Gwen, or Gerda? Gretchen. She was sure it was Gretchen. And there was a younger one too, though still older than Sebastian. A girl about her age. Lily was her name. She knew Lily well enough because she, like many of the girls in Hilsbac, fawned over Millicent Cobblestop endlessly, watching keenly to see what color dress she wore on Sundays, and how she braided her hair in the Spring, and whether she more often frequented the Baker’s or the Butcher’s shop.
Millicent couldn’t remember if she hated Lily Smith. She hated a lot of things, but not because she was hateful by nature. She found hate to be a pleasing relief from boredom, which was both her nemesis and constant companion. She glanced away from the gathered crowd of worried fathers, brothers, and mothers to scan the throng of teenaged girls for Lily’s face, hoping it would trigger some sort of reaction, a heart palpitation or gag reflex, but found the cow-like face of Tabith Thrushton filling her view all at once.
“Millie! Who do you think they’ll choose this time?”, said Tabitha. Millicent felt her throat tighten, a half-gag, and she consoled herself that at least the stress of the situation hadn’t dulled her social instincts.
She smiled at the brown-eyed peasant girl, who was, among other things, one of her two closest friends, “Tabitha, did you bring a shawl? I swear the least the dragon could do is choose a reasonable season to make us sit out in the open this often.” She laughed and patted Tabitha on the arm. She found touching people seemed to quiet them down, and she really was in no mood to play gossip with her.
Tabitha fingered the thin beige shawl her mother had given her for a moment before sighing and slipping it off. As she passed it to Millicent, she pressed, “But Millie! Who will they choose this time? It’s only a matter of time till…you know…one of the good girls has to go.”
Millicent sighed and rolled her eyes to the side, hoping that Tabitha would understand that when she looked away the conversation was over, but as she wrapped the younger girls offered shawl around her hands, pulling her own shawl tighter over her shoulders, she saw that Tabitha was still staring at her expectantly. She shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know Tabitha. It’s a lottery. Anyone could go.”
Of course Millicent knew that wasn’t really the case. When she was young, her mother had told her that the best families in Hilsbac stuck together. At the time she didn’t realize how literally her mother meant that. In reality, it was her mother who prepared the thin wooden strips on which the name of every eligible girl was written, and it was true enough that every girl was put into the pot. However, her mother used a certain special ink for certain special girls whose families were certain special friends of the Cobblestops which ensured that those wooden strips would stick to anything they touched. It make it simple enough for her father, who always drew the names, to make sure he was always selecting from the right group of people for sacrificing to dragons. He simply had to choose a free floating stick, and off would pop another dull peasant girl.
Millicent wondered idly if Tabitha would be next. What she said was, “Maybe they’ll pick Lily Smith this time.”
Tabitha, who was herself an insufferable and desperate gossip, who like her mother before her, made sure to always be the finger that pointed, never the one who was pointed at, leaned in closer to Millicent and said, “Oh do you think? She’s always so wretched isn’t she? Following us around…trailing sawdust behind her from that awful carpenter father of hers. It’d be fine by me if the dragon gobbled her up.”
As Tabitha let out her unmistakable laugh, which Millicent thought made her sound like a giggling donkey, the crowd around them seemed to fall into a hush as Mayor Cobblestop made his way toward the edge of the podium. Millicent was sure that she was the only one who noticed her mother swirling the pot of names vigorously behind the podium. It wasn’t a bad play, really. It liberated the wealthier families of money they weren’t using anyway, and did no harm to anyone at all, since the dragon hadn’t actually eaten anyone for basically a hundred or so years. Or at least twenty. At any rate, longer than she had been alive.
As her father cleared his throat to begin his traditional speech about bravery, stoicism, and the honor of sacrifice, Millicent felt Tabitha reach over and clutch at her arm. She was suddenly glad she had borrowed the shawl, which prevented Tabitha from digging ragged nails into her actual flesh. She tried to feign concern by inclining her head toward the obviously frightened girl, and realized as she did that the entire gathering seemed to be a lot more dour than it usually was. Now that she noticed it, everyone seemed outright terrified.
Tuning out her father’s voice, she looked around the crowd again, and mused that it probably was a little more frightening than usual to have to endure the ceremony of choosing so many times in a row, when normally it only happened two or three times in a decade. And of course, most of the people in the village didn’t have the comfort of knowing they couldn’t be chosen. But still, the way she saw it there wasn’t much risk either way. Sometimes she even questioned if there really was a dragon.