The Marvelous March to Completion: Day Six: The Art of Battle Tea

Dear Reader,

Below find my humble (and probably typo filled) first draft of Sebastian’s infamous invitation to tea with Aunt Elda, and about half of the chapter to follow.  I’ve included an lightly edited version of what was posted yesterday, with new content again separated by asterisks for easy browsing.  Only about three more chapters of new content to go before the draft is cohesive!  Then it’s continuity edits and submission!  Six more days to go!

battletea1

 

CHAPTER 5

In which Sebastian comes to tea

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, the sunlight glittering on the enormous jewel she always wore around her neck.  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.”

Sebastian knew Elda perhaps more intimately than most of the villager’s of Hilsbac, a fact I’m sure the careful reader has gleaned.  Of course he had more cause than most to interact with her, owing to the fact that his father was the village’s only truly skilled carpenter, and was commissioned, upon Elda’s arrival in town, coincidentally the same year that Sebastian himself was born, to construct the large manor home in which she now resided.  This construction had taken several years, and as a result, Sebastian had spent many of his earliest memories under Elda’s watchful eye.

But this was not the reason for Sebastian’s continued association with Hilsbac’s most eccentric resident.  The real reason was that Elda was Sebastian’s employer.

You may recall some chapters ago I mentioned that Sebastian was not allowed to participate in many of the productive and vital activities that other boys of his age were expected to help with for a variety of reasons mostly pertaining to his masculinity.  However, I did not intend that statement to lead you to believe that Sebastian was entirely without his own skills.  In fact, through his strange and twisted path through childhood, he had learned a fair few tricks and trades at passable levels of proficiency.  But it was Elda who, recognizing him as an unclaimed source of labor, had made the offer to retain his services from time to time, in regards to odd jobs and uncommon problems of any variety.  In the end, this saved Sebastian quite a lot of trouble, and so long as he was bringing in some coin, the village and his father were content to let him do whatever it was Elda had him do.

As Elda ushered Griot and Sebastian into the parlor, she waved a hand to an overstuffed two-seat sofa wedged into a tight corner next to a wide bay window, and said, “Please sit down.  I’ll fetch the tea.  And the milk.”

Griot was smiling as he sat down, and made no move to make room for Sebastian who was forced to wiggle into the small space left beside the old man.  The afternoon light pouring through the nearby window illuminated the cramped riot of color and shape that filled the room.  It seemed every inch of space was filled with unrelated and yet somehow harmonious objects who all looked at the same time well-used and untouchable.  Elda’s home was a museum exhibit only she could touch.

Sebastian had never been invited to sit in the parlor before.  He swung his legs nervously, feeling uncomfortably close to Griot on their small upholstered island.  He twitched randomly as the silence pinched him in various uncomfortable parts of his body, and finally could abide it no longer and said, “So, do you visit Elda every time you are in Hilsbac M-mr. Graybeard?”

He felt suddenly that addressing Griot formally was the only option.  Griot coughed once and then said, “The art of tea is ancient, Mr. Smith.  And the oldest rule of all is not to ask questions about the other guests.  It is the very foundation on which the practice is based.  If you could simply ask me, for instance, if I intended to crush your spice trade with a hired mercenary army, all the mystique would be gone.  Tea is a time for looking and listening to the things people don’t say.  Ah, and speaking of not saying…”

At that moment Elda came gliding back into the room.  Sebastian almost jumped up to help her, but marveled as she passed low end tables and shelves packed full of very fragile looking objects without disturbing a single mote of dust.  Each time Sebastian was certain she would drag an entire treasure trove of breakable bric-a-brac to the floor with her voluminous clothing, she would twist just ever so slightly and slide past perfectly.  Before he could unwedge himself from the sofa, Elda was placing a lightly clinking tray filled with cups and spoons and pots down on the low serving table, and assuming her place in a large chair facing the window.  She smiled and said, “Griot, will you be mother please?  Since I have no idea how to portion milk into tea, mind you.  I take tea like the barbarian hordes of Garnak.  Root and water and heat is good enough for the heart.”

Griot smiled pleasantly and sat forward, causing Sebastian to release a breath he had been holding in order to make himself small enough to sit on the tiny sofa.  He picked up the pot and began to slowly pour the hot brownish water into the three glasses.  When he had finished, he picked up a tiny porcelain cream pitcher and began to gently lighten the tea with generous dollops of dairy, saying as he did so, “Root and water and heat may be good for the heart, but sometimes the stomach needs something more.  Mother brings the milk, wouldn’t you agree Elda?”

Sebastian wasn’t sure about roots or body parts, but he was glad Griot was generous with the milk.  He didn’t care for tea much, and milk was the only way he could drink it without his stomach going sour in protest.  Not knowing what exactly he was expected to do, Sebastian bobbled his head up and down in a way he thought was courteous when Griot handed him the first cup.  He held it tightly despite the heat almost burning his palms until both Griot and Elda were served, and then he watched them both as they took a first sip, Elda in silence, and Griot with a deep a pleasured harrumph of triumph.  He sipped his own tea and tried to conceal a grimace.

As the three cups clacked against their respective saucers, Sebastian was alarmed to find both Griot and Elda staring at him.  He squirmed a bit, unsure what to do, until Elda said expectantly, “Well?”

Sebastian blinked twice, and Griot sipped his tea a second time.  Then Elda said, “Sebastian, dear, you said you had a reason for coming to see me.  Get on with it so that Griot and I can begin our tea properly.”

Sebastian almost jumped when he remembered his reason for being here was more than just surviving the beverage based battle of wits he had stumbled into.  He set his tea down and said quickly, “I was wondering if you’d let me spend some time in your library today Aunt Elda.”

Elda tilted her head to the side, the corners of her eyes crinkling just slightly as she considered Sebastian over the span of time it took her to take a second swallow of tea.  Finally she said, “Well I suppose since you can read, I have no fear you’ll abuse the words therein, but tell me Sebastian, whatever brings you all the way here just to find something to read?”

Sebastian knew his face flushed.  He knew it turned as red as the little glass apples on the crystal tree in Elda’s entryway.  His reason was ridiculous, and he felt like if he said it out loud the laughter of Elda and Griot might kill him on the spot.  But there wasn’t any other way he could think of to gain the access he needed.

That is, until Sebastian remembered that he was no simply visiting Aunt Elda.  He had come to tea.

Taking a long gulp of tea to settle his shaking nerves, Sebastian took a breath and leveled his gaze at Elda, trying to smile as he said, “Aunt Elda, the f-first rule of tea is…is…not to ask questions.  About guests I mean.  It…It’s the foundation of…of the practice.”

Sebastian immediately winced when the words finally finished stumbling out of his mouth.  He expected the village would never find him, with his body hidden as it was about to be in the endless maze of Elda’s manor home.  Instead, what he heard, was a bubbling sputter from Griot’s tea cup as the old man’s sudden snort wetted his whiskers with milk tea.  Sebastian opened one eye to look at Elda, and found that she had folded her hands in her lap, and seemed to be struggling to decide whether to widen her eyes in surprise or narrow them in suspicion.  For a woman as calm and collected as Elda was, it looked to Sebastian like she was having a convulsion.

Finally, the ripples of tension coursing over Elda’s face and neck subsided and she inclined her head towards the boy, saying, “Well, I certainly can’t argue with that, being as you are here, in my home, drinking tea.  Why don’t you finish up and run along.  I’ll expect you to make Theresa’s adjustments first, of course.”

As Sebastian began to inelegantly swig his from his cup in a desperate attempt to escape with his life while the arcane artform of tea still stayed Elda’s wrath, Griot set down his own tea and dabbed daintily at his beard with a small cloth handkerchief.  As he cleared his throat however, Elda spoke again, “One day, Sebastian, you simply must tell me who instructed you in your tea manners.  They’re so…impeccable, I would dearly love to thank that person properly.”

Sebastian slid off the sofa, having emptied his cup, and threw Griot a pitiful look as it was now the old man’s turn to squirm under Elda’s gaze.  He couldn’t afford to stop for sympathy though, only pausing long enough to tug Roland’s shirt free of the couch cushion cracks where it had become wedged in during Sebastian’s own wiggling.  With no further delay he made for the hallway as quickly as he could without actually breaking into a run.  As he rounded the corner, he heard Elda call, “Oh, Sebastian?  Lydia and Thomas are here as well.  Do be sure that Thomas is practicing won’t you?  I’ll find you after I’m finished with Mr. Graybeard.”

Without even pausing to acknowledge her last instruction, Sebastian bolted for the stairs, never in his life feeling more happy to abandon someone to their fate than he was to leave Griot and Elda alone to wage their private warfare of wit.  He tried to contain an alien emotion that was suddenly filling his chest to the brim, making his lungs feel tight and his heart beat fast.

Sebastian felt triumphant.

 

CHAPTER 6

In which Sebastian steals again

It is my earnest desire to report to you, dear reader, that Sebastian, having emerged from his first foray into the realm of beverage battles both unscathed and with unquestioned permission to carry out his own secret plans, would count himself very fortunate indeed and would have carried out Elda’s simple requests in good faith before claiming the literary spoils of his victory.  That is what you might expect of a good and grateful young man.

This is not what Sebastian did next.

Certainly, it was what he intended to do, and what he might, in fact, have done, if he hadn’t been so eager to escape that he made it fully halfway up the stairs before he remembered his sewing kit.  If he had not been as flush with fear and victory as he was, he would have naturally remembered to get everything he needed before going upstairs.  And he would have carefully completed his tasks, and retired for an interesting but ultimately fruitless search in Elda’s small library (which was truly merely a few bookshelves on one wall).

As it was though, as Sebastian’s brain caught up with his feet at the precise middle step, which creaked in protest at his sudden stop upon it, he realized what he had forgotten and very carefully turned to tiptoe back down to the small storage room on the main floor where his tools were kept.  This was an unfortunate moment for Sebastian’s virtue, but proved to be the very next step in the adventures he didn’t even suspect he had begun.

When he crept near to the doorway to the parlor, what he heard at that exact moment, spoken softly, was Elda saying, “Well Griot, he came for the book, just as your letter said he would.”

Sebastian froze in his tracks, all of the blood that would normally be used to move his limbs now rushing to his ears and throbbing with shock.  He hadn’t told anyone he was looking for a specific book.  He heard Griot’s tea-cup clink on the saucer and then the old man’s reply came, barely audible, “Still, all the same, did you do as I requested?”

Sebastian was as startled as if someone had crept up behind him when his shoulder grazed the hallway wall.  He hadn’t realized he was leaning into the conversation, curiosity and its dark twin suspicion now creeping into his shocked ears as Elda said, “Of course.  It was no trouble.  There were only two books on the subject in my collection at any rate.  One is just a common story book.  I’m quite sure it was the other you meant me to remove.  Rest assured, it is tucked safely under my pillow, the last place in the world anyone in this village would find themselves, wouldn’t you agree?”

Sebastian heard polite laughter pass between them and he felt impatient and angry that they wouldn’t speak more plainly.  As if hearing his request, Griot picked up again, saying, “Still, I told you.  Millicent’s death will change everything for a small town like this.  If it wasn’t her, it would be someone, and I’m afraid if the information that book details about dragons were to come to light, it will only delay the inevitable.”

Sebastian’s heart was pounding in his chest, and he flattened his back against the wall, crawling with his shoulder blades until just the slightest sliver of his ear was peaking past the threshold and into the secret rich air beyond.  Elda sighed, “I just don’t see what the problem is.  Information, in my experience, is always an aid.  Ignorance is what leads to bad decision making.  And besides, even if he had the book, so what?  You know the margins won’t give up their secrets to simple candlelight.  It requires wit to shine the right light on those words.  Even if every word were read, he’d only find himself with an artful critique of storybook dragons and their inadequate descriptions.  Which, by the way, I left the storybook in the library.  It’ll give him something to chew on, if you prefer him occupied that is.”

Sebastian tried to force his breath to come in small shallow gulps so that the rush of air wouldn’t snatch a single word from his hearing.  Presently Griot said, “A little information can give rise to arrogance though Elda.  And there is no easy way to give more than a little in the time we have left.  You know what a dragon is likely to do next.  We don’t have time for arrogance.”

Elda clucked her tongue in a way Sebastian was very familiar with and then said, “I suppose you’re right.  About the dragons at least.  Still…you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor beasts.”  Sebastian heard the sound of Elda sipping her tea before she added,  “I might ask you what else you have planned Graybeard the peddler, because I know you well enough to know that whatever your play is you didn’t come all this way just for a boy like Sebastian Smith.  And you certainly aren’t subtle enough to hide a book and run.  But…as someone pointed out recently, we’re at tea, and it’s rude to pry into a guest’s personal life at tea.”

Griot’s voice sounded like he was smiling when he replied, “After all you’ve seen Elda…all Able saw…you’d still refer to a boy as ‘just Sebastian Smith’?”

Elda sighed, “You know what I mean.  And speaking of just Sebastian Smith, what will you do if he asks for your help?  It seems as likely he’d turn to you for tales as it would he’d come to me.  You’ve got the reputation.”

Griot paused a long moment, which caused Sebastian’s stomach to turn somersaults, and then said, “Lie.  Of course.  What else is there to do? You’ve been around him all his life.  How clearly does he see things when the thought of saving people is on the table?”

Sebastian’s mind raced at the possibility that Griot thought people could be saved, and from the Dragon no less.  His ears burned with the effort of listening, when Elda said, “Well, let’s have one more pot and then I’ll got and check up on the lot.  If he hasn’t found the storybook, I’ll help him out and send him on his way.  The rest is up to you, old friend.  Whatever the rest is.  I suppose I don’t want to know really.  In your plans someone always dies.  Or someones.  If I’m a someones I’d prefer to be surprised.”

Sebastian didn’t hear the rest of the conversation; not because he was noticed, and certainly not because he was bored.  Rather, when Elda had informed him, inadvertently, that he had but a precious few cups of tea left in which to have an unsupervised access to her home, he knew without a doubt what he had to do.  He had to get into Elda’s bed.

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