Today Sebastian encounters Aunt Elda, and the strange art of tea at her house. This is the first half or so of the chapter. The back and forth between Griot and Elda took me quite awhile to suss out! At any rate, conclusion to follow tomorrow!
In which Sebastian steals again
By the time Sebastian finished his own retelling of the frightening and unprecedented events which led to the sacrifice of Millicent Cobblestop, he and Griot had passed through the northern town gates and walked the half mile to the enormous iron gates the surrounded the manor home of Aunt Elda. As they slowed in front of the white rock wall, covered now in browning ivy, Griot unlaced his arm from Sebastian’s and patted him twice on the shoulder and said, “Well, I believe we have arrived at the house of Elda or Elda. I do hope you’ll tell me a little bit more later Sebastian…for instance a little about how the Doctor who is now facing his execution came to be involved in this mess. But for now, we should focus our minds. You have to be of sharp wit to take tea with an Elda of any stripe.”
Sebastian nodded, feeling a little numb inside after speaking about that frightening night at such length. He smiled weakly up at Griot and walked towards Elda’s familiar gate to unlatch it for the old man. As his fingers touched the cool metal, Griot said softly, “I am sorry for Millicent, Sebastian.”
Sebastian hesitated, and then spoke without turning, “Yeah. I…didn’t always get along with her. But I don’t think she deserved to get eaten by a Dragon.”
As he turned the latch and opened the heavy gate on squealing metal hinges, he looked back to Griot and found his bearded face twisted in a silly sort of smirk. When he furrowed his eyebrows, Griot held up a hand, “Oh, don’t mind me. I just suppose that being eaten by a dragon might not be as bad as some other fates I can think of.”
Sebastian wondered how Griot could be so good at telling stories and also so bad at cheering people up. So he shrugged his shoulders and indicated the house with his chin, “Well c’mon. Aunt Elda…”
A voice from the porch, strangely rich and mellow, interrupted Sebastian, “Aunt Elda does not like the sound of a gate creaking without also the cheery hi-hellos of invited guests, Sebastian Smith.”
Sebastian cringed involuntarily and turned to find the unmistakable and enormous figure of Elda standing on her porch, filling the doorway to her home with volumes of rich lavender fabric. It was nearly impossible to tell how much of Elda was actually Elda herself and what was fabric and hoop skirts and formality. He was never positive, no matter how many times he visited, if she would decide to scoot to the side and make room for him in her elegant and enormous world. What he said at that particular moment was, “Sorry Aunt Elda! I was bringing you a visitor I think you invited…”
Griot stepped forward just then and stroked his beard, remarking, “Well Sebastian, she certainly looks like the Elda I remember, but really how can we be sure?”
Sebastian looked back to the old peddler and frowned, “If you recognize her then…”
But Elda interrupted once more in her strangely rich voice, “An invited guest knows the way, Sebastian. That is the first rule of invited. The knowing of ways.”
Sebastian turned back to Elda and opened his mouth to reply, but found Griot immediately said, “An invited guest may make invitations of his own between the being invited and the arriving. The first rule of inviting is that inviting is for later, elsewise it would be welcoming. And welcoming is a thing which this house could learn a thing or two about.”
To illustrate his point Griot pushed the gate further open, the sudden, sharp grating sound of metal seeming now to be an accusation of disuse rather than a reality of rust. Sebastian wanted to duck out of the way, but found himself frozen between the two as Elda said, “Welcoming is offered at the time of arriving, that is true. But arriving is after announcing, which seems to be a task those loose lips seem oddly too tight to accomplish.”
Sebastian had never heard anyone dare to speak to Elda as Griot was now speaking. He wanted to caution the poor old man, to make him aware how dangerous it was to talk to Elda that way. At least, Sebastian certainly felt like he was in danger. But Griot was already replying with not a single pause, “Announcing causes arriving, but announcing is merely annoyance if the arriving it occasions is not at the point of invitation.”
Sebastian ducked the latest verbal volley from Griot and heard Elda mutter almost inaudibly, “Not half as irritating as your whisker muffled words…”
He nearly leapt off his feet when Griot clapped his hands together sharply and hooted, “You do know it’s me then! I can see it in your scowl! Admit it!”
Elda sighed, and Sebastian watched her swivel her shoulders back and forth as if adjusting a heavy wait before she said, “Oh very well. You carry the first round. We’ll have milk with the tea afterall. But when did you know it was me in your heart?”
Sebastian looked to see that Griot was smiling broadly, and he placed one hand over his heart as he said, “Why, my dear, never has a gate been as pretentious and unnecessary as this one. I knew it was you from the moment your architecture irritated me.”
Sebastian stood staring back and forth between the pair, and after a moment he said, “So you do know each other?”
Griot’s shuffling steps made the gravel crackle as he passed Sebastian and began to mount the porch stairs. He reached out a hand to Elda, who took it and smiled in a bright way Sebastian had never seen before, and then said, “Why we suspected of course. But there is really only one way to be sure you’ve met an old friend and not some terrible changed someone or something else.”
When Sebastian said nothing, Elda clucked at him, “Why it’s obvious. Irritation. Anyone can make you feel good. That’s easy. And hurting can happen even between strangers. Only a true friend can irritate you deep down in your heart without injuring you. I’d hate to invite my good friend Griot to tea only to find he’s become someone pleasant and boring.”
Griot bobbed his head along with what Elda was saying as if it made all the sense in the world, but Sebastian still felt confused and a little upset. He walked towards the house, deciding just to move on past this strange pre-tea ritual altogether and to change the subject by asking, “Aunt Elda…I’m glad Griot got here. But I wasn’t just showing him the way. I was coming to see you too.”
Elda’s warm smile seemed to fade a little bit. She was actually looking at Sebastian in the way she always did, which was not unkindly, but having seen the warmth of Griot’s friendship in her eyes made her kindness seem cold by comparison. She nodded, “Well, I suppose that is fine. I was going to send for you tomorrow or the next day anyway. Theresa needs some more adjustments.”
Sebastian made his way up the stairs, nodding as he went, pausing while Elda retreated into her own parlor, the fabric of her dress rustling as she seemed to fold in on herself and become smaller, like a flower closing its petals at dusk. He followed Griot inside then, and dutifully closed the front door behind him.
Sebastian had come to tea.
Elda, or Aunt Elda as she was called by all the residents of Hilsbac, was one of the towns few enduring enigmas. She wasn’t a mystery like a cave or a secret passageway. You could see almost everything there was to see about Elda the instant you laid eyes on her. She was an unusually tall woman, who dressed in unusually broad and needlessly ornate dresses whatever the weather. Her hair was always combed or curled into tight, neat, styles so flawless that children often dared one another to attempt snatching the whole of her bun from her head simply to see if it was a wig or perhaps a fantastic animal sleeping on her head.
And everyone, from the very young to the very old, believed Elda had access to fantastic odds and ends of every variety, wig animals included. If you didn’t believe it, all you would have to do is ask her for some implausible object or item. She would cough into one gloved palm and then say, “Oh heavens yes dear, I believe my husband Able, Gods rest his soul, happened upon one of those when he was charting the Lost Falls of Emperor Tol’thak the Second” or “Why it’s so interesting you ask about that. I just found the one my husband Able, Gods rest his soul, brought me for our seventh wedding anniversary, all the way from the Hidden Garden of Rangoon.”