The Marvelous March To Completion: Day Eight: Secrets, Sweat and Statues

Dear Reader,

I am currently on a bit of a writing bender looking to make my upcoming deadline.  However, I finished up today’s chapter and wanted to post it for you all to enjoy.  As before, this post will include the previous half of the chapter which preceded it, with the new content separated by asterisks for easy skimming.

(UPDATE:  The next chapter has been added as well, so if you read already, read some more!  It was also completed on Day Eight, but later)

Today’s chapter was a little more poetic, and I haven’t proofread it yet, so if you spot errors don’t hesitate to drop me a line!

Enjoy!

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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.

With as much speed as stealth would allow him, Sebastian darted up the stairs, sewing kits forgotten in his desperation.  He panted when he reached the top of the stairs and was immediately greeting by the sharp voice of Lydia, who managed to sound angry no matter what she said, “Sebastian!  That’s a relief!  Tell Theresa there isn’t any such word as sig-hot!”

Sebastian felt like he had slammed into an invisible social wall and all his secret urgency had tumbled to the ground around him like dropped marbles.  He stammered and looked around the upstairs sitting room, spotting Lydia first, her brown hair caught into a loose ponytail as always, sitting on a wooden chair turned backwards, so that her legs spread around the chairback.  Somehow she managed to make this openness seem accusatory, in a vague challenging-the-room sort of way.

From Lydia it wasn’t hard to find Thomas, whose feet were snuggled under the girl’s left thigh. He was using the butt end of an old violin bow to stir the coals in the small upstairs fireplace while cradling the violin itself in the crook of his raised knees, which were pressed together almost daintily, a reverse image of Lydia’s aggressive chair straddling.

Theresa, who was several years older than Lydia, Thomas, and Sebastian, was lounging on the long sofa against the far wall, her feet kicked up onto the cushioned arm, her face covered by an open book and both her arms resting over the sizable lump of her belly.  Her voice was muffled but her irritation was not when she said, “How would you know if sig-hot is a word Lydia!  You haven’t even bothered to learn your letters, much less how to read!”

Sebastian opened his mouth, desperate to share his burning secret with the only three people in the world he could possibly share a secret with, but Lydia pounced on Theresa’s reply, “You don’t have to know how to read to know how to speak, Theresa!”

Theresa plucked the book off her face and snapped it shut for effect, “Yea well making fun of the person reading your dumb knight stories to you isn’t a great way to get the person to keep reading is it, Lydia?!”

Theresa almost shouted her response, and Sebastian danced back and forth between his feet, waiting for a change to intervene, but it was Thomas’ turn to slide into the conversation, his feathery soft voice somehow slipping into the air just a hair faster than Sebastian, “You two should stop fighting…you’re gonna upset Valerian.”

Lydia gaped at Thomas, “Val-what now?”

Thomas rolled his eyes and picked up the violin from his knees, idly fiddling with the tuning pegs, “I’ve decided to call Theresa’s passenger Valerian.  After the great bard.  You know?  Valerian the wise?”

Theresa stroked the bulging curve in her belly and sighed, “Thomas, we have no way to know if it’s a boy or a girl.”

Thomas shrugged his shoulders and plucked one of the strings on the violin which made a high pitched tink and said, “I guess he kicks like a boy to me.”

Lydia socked Thomas on his knee and said, “Hey!  Girls can kick just fine.”

Sometimes when the conversations between his friends steamrolled past him Sebastian didn’t mind at all.  It gave him time to work quietly on Theresa’s clothes, which Elda had hired him to make alterations on in order to accommodate her changing body.  Or he could sit and read through a passage in the next book he planned to have Theresa read aloud, picking out tricky words to make sure and listen for.  For while Elda was concerned with her wardrobe, Theresa wanted to alter her mind, so that when the baby was born she had a useful skill to teach it.  And reading was, for the very first time, becoming an important skill in the growing nation of Gregoria.

But now, Sebastian felt strangled by the casual ease with which the friends bickered and jibed one another.  He felt like every word was a tick on an enormous clock counting down the seconds he had left in which to accomplish his goal.  So as Thomas, now rubbing his punched knee, began a whining protest, Sebastian almost screamed, “Stop!”

All three turned to stare at Sebastian, who never shouted ever.  They collectively blinked as Sebastian looked from face to face, suddenly unsure exactly where to begin.  What he said was, “There’s a book about dragons!”

Lydia sniffed, “Has it got any knights in it?”

Sebastian crinkled his nose, “No.  Or, I mean, I don’t know.  That’s not…”

Theresa sat up on her elbows, swinging her legs down from the sofa arm, “Is it the next book you want me to try reading?  Cause I’m barely through this one and it’s pretty hard…”

Sebastian huffed and clenched his fists, which prompted Thomas to say, “Girls, let him speak.  What is it that’s got you so worked up Sebastian?”

Sebastian, the youngest of them by at least a winter, felt even younger as tears of frustration made the corners of his eyes dewy.  He blinked twice and took a breath and said, “Elda has a book on dragons.  In her room.  I want to get it.”

Lydia, who was nominally kept on as a housekeeper by Elda, but was really only here, like everyone else, because the old wealthy woman had little else to do with her fortune in the small town besides employ misfits, still felt it was her duty as a member of the staff to offer, “Oh, Elda doesn’t let anybody in her room.  Have you thought about just asking her for it?”

Sebastian shot Lydia a look which normally would have started at least a squabble if not an outright fight with the girl as he said, “I can’t ask her for it!”

Lydia snorted, “Sure you can.  It’s easy.  You say, Aunt Elda can I have your dragon book, the one in your bedroom please?”

Thomas, who spent time at Elda’s because she had approached his father about the boy’s infuriating obsession with the music produced by stringed instruments (instead of learning the family blacksmithing trade) and offered to pay him a stipend to develop his talents, still played the peacekeeper as he placed a hand on Lydia’s arm and said, “Slow down Lydia.  How come you can’t just ask her Sebastian?”

Sebastian’s shoulders slumped a little as he said, “Because she doesn’t want me to have it.”

Theresa, who had come to stay with Elda at the behest of some distant relative, who naturally wanted her current condition to resolve itself away from the prying eyes of friends and closer family, felt a twinge of concern, being the eldest, and as she sat fully upright on the sofa she frowned, “Why doesn’t she want you to have a book on dragons?”

Sebastian leaned against the banister and shot a glance down the stairs towards the room where he imagined Elda and Griot gulping down their last pot of tea.  He sighed, “Because Graybeard the peddler told her about my plan, I guess.  Which is ridiculous cause I haven’t told anyone about my plan!  I didn’t even know I had a plan really, till now.  Ohh…this is hopeless!  I just need that book!”

Lydia, who knew Graybeard mostly for his excellent renditions of the heroic deeds of seemingly countless knights, perked up at the mention of his name, “Graybeard is here?  That’s news!  He normally visits in the spring.”

Thomas, again patting Lydia, said, “And what’s all this about a plan Sebastian?  You certainly haven’t mentioned it to us…”

Theresa, always thinking practically, and feeling at that exact moment like her bulging baby belly would practically burst right out of her shirt, interjected, “Oh, is that an altered shirt Sebastian?  You can tell us all about your plan while I try it on for size.”

Sebastian felt his palms flush with a sudden cold sweat as his cheeks flashed suddenly bright red.  He took the crumpled blue shirt out from under his arm, and twisted it in his hands, “Oh..uh…no, this isn’t for you Theresa.  I…I was gonna make some alterations for you later.  But, wait, listen, we don’t have much time!”

Lydia, growing irritated with Sebastian’s indirect ramblings hopped up quickly, clearing the back of her backwards chair in a single bound and quickly snatching the shirt from the boy’s embarrassed hands, “Oh!  Hey…I know this color blue.  Doesn’t this shirt belong to…what’s his name?  Roland Baker!”

She threw a conspiratorial glance over her shoulder to Thomas, who rolled his eyes and set the violin down on the non-fireplace side of his own chair.  Sebastian made a desperate grab for the shirt, which Lydia both expected and saw out of the corner of her eye, allowing her to easily dance towards the middle of the room, saying with a gleeful tone, “So is Roland Baker’s shirt part of your plan to?”

Sebastian jumped up to try and grab the garment, saying, “Give that back Lydia!  That isn’t the point!  C’mon!  We have to hurry!”

Lydia, now laughing hysterically, and rather enjoying the rambunctious game of keep away she had started, lobbed the shirt at Thomas, who looked as if he were more likely to duck than catch the garment.  Sebastian watched the wadded blue fabric sailing both at Thomas and at the glowing embers of the fire behind him.  For that one instant he forgot about Elda and the dragon book, and could only stretch out his arms in vain towards the stolen shirt.

Fortunately for Sebastian, Thomas’ violin proved more adept at catching than he did, and Roland’s shirt snagged one sleeve on the neck of the instrument, halting its likely fatal fall into the fire.  Thomas, picking up the shirt and holding it out to Sebastian with a sour look turned towards Lydia, said, “Calm down Sebastian.  Lydia, be nice!  Now you’ve got to tell us what this plan is!”

Sebastian, while wadding the shirt up and shoving it once more safely under his arm, said a bit more loudly and simply than he imagined he would, “I wanna do something about the dragon!”

For the second time that day, and indeed, in their entire friendship thusfar, all three teenagers stared silently at Sebastian.  Finally, Thomas let out a hissing breath, and Theresa began to stroke her stomach as if trying to soothe the babe inside.  Lydia actually spoke first, saying, “The Dragon?  The ancient maiden eating Dragon of Hilsbac?  The one that barbequed Millie Cobblestop?  Why would you want to do something about it.  If you ask me, it’s roasting all the right people.”

Lydia, who was as unwelcome as Sebastian was in all the traditionally male activities of the village but because of her extreme and threatening talent at such things rather than Sebastian’s own incompetence, was a favored target of Millicent Cobblestop’s bored hatred.  Lydia was not troubled at all that the Dragon had left little more of her to bury than ash.  Thomas, more practically added, “Sebastian…what can you do about something like the Dragon?  Be sensible.  Nobody can do anything about the Dragon.”

Sebastian stuck out his chin, “I know nothing has worked in the past, but…but…the Dragon is acting weird now.  And I got to thinking about how some animals act weird if they are sick or hurt or in heat.  And I wondered if the Dragon might be that way now.  And if it is, and we figure out what the problem is…maybe we can use that knowledge to help out!  Plus, the Dragon hasn’t ever really killed before.  He just takes our stuff.  If he’s killing now…well what if…what if one of my sisters gets picked?  Or…or Lydia?  I’ve just gotta try!”

Lydia sat back down, a frown on her face.  She hadn’t really thought of the next choosing.  Now that she did, she felt the bottom drop out of her stomach.  Theresa, being exempt from the choosing since she was both with child and not from the village itself, asked, “What kind of information were you hoping to find?”

Sebastian looked up and shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know.  But I figured if anybody would know something special about dragons it’d probably be Elda.  She had that adventurer husband and all.  And…and!”  Here Sebastian stepped forward, “Listen to this!  Graybeard found me in an alley…I…well I was getting beat up by Gregor and his friends.  But anyway, that isn’t the weird part.  When I left to come up here, I happened to hear Elda and Graybeard talking, and Graybeard sent Elda a letter and told her I’d come looking for a book on dragons, and told her to hide it so I wouldn’t get any information.  And Elda told him she hid the book under her pillow!  Now they’re drinking one more pot of tea, and that’s all the time I’ve got to get that book!”

There was a long pause in which nothing and no one, not even the air, seemed to move in the room.  Then, all at once, Thomas got up off his chair, picked up his violin and ash-stained bow and began to walk towards the stairs.  Sebastian moved instinctively to bar his path, “Wait, where are you going?”

Without pausing, Thomas replied cooly, “One pot of tea is hardly enough time for Lydia to pick the lock on Elda’s bedroom.  I’ve been practicing a sonata that will take at least a few minutes to perform.  That’ll give you extra time.  Elda likes to show me off anyway.  If I start playing the Knight’s Ballad though, it means they’re done, so listen and be quick.”

Lydia jumped to her feet, “Hey wait a second!  Who said anything about picking locks?”

Thomas’ words floated back up the long staircase as he descended, “Are you saying you aren’t good enough to pick a lock?”

Sebastian felt his heart suddenly swollen and heavy with gratitude, and for the second time in an hour he felt the corners of his eyes moisten with tears.  He would have called down a thank you to Thomas, but the soft-spoke musician was already nearly all the way down, and he didn’t want to give anything away to Elda.  He looked over to Lydia and said, “You will help, won’t you?”

Lydia looked over at Theresa, who shrugged her shoulders helplessly, and then stomped towards the hallway on the other side of the stairs, “Well c’mon.  I won’t have Thomas pouting all week just because he had to show off for Elda for no reason.  You know how he gets.”

***************************************

From her perch on the sofa, Theresa said, “Here, at least let me hang onto Roland’s shirt.  You’re probably about to have your hands full.”

Sebastian glanced to Theresa suspiciously and then sighed and walked over to her, extending the shirt to her, finding it odd how difficult it was to let go of something he hadn’t even dreamed of possessing until a few hours ago.  When he let it go, from downstairs, the sad and beautiful strains of  Thomas’ violin began to waft through the staircase opening.  Sebastian looked to Lydia and nodded once, as the pair began to creep down the upstairs hallway.

Elda’s bedroom was a large room situated at the far end of a short hallway which led one direction away from the staircase.  The four friends had often thought it must consume the lion’s share of the upstairs space because the other hallway which led in the opposite direction to the quarters Theresa now occupied and which Lydia or Thomas might also sleep in on occasion were cramped to the point of seeming miniaturized.  Sebastian’s father, who had built the house, had tried to convince Elda to create a more equitable division of square footage, but she had been insistent.

Much of Elda’s house, though stuffed to the brim with a fascinating and dizzying array of artistic items, was actually, if you looked closely, in need of some improvements.  The baseboards were slowly squeezing themselves off the wall with every contraction which the cold of winter brought on.  The floorboards creaked and groaned in protest, needing more than just a carpenter’s nail to ease their pains.  And if you were ever to have occasion to move one of the heavy picture frames from its proper place on the wall, you would discover that while the house still generally looked to have white walls, they were more certainly nowhere near as blindingly bright a white as when they had first felt the kiss of a brush.

The sorry state of the rest of the house is what made the door to Elda’s private chambers so hard to miss.  It was the only thing which seemed to have weathered the storm of time unchanged.  The brass nob shone as brightly as if it had never been turned, and the wood was smooth and the paint silky white.  It always made Lydia feel naked and dirty, and on the few occasions she had actually done the job she was paid to do, she felt like the door’s perfect cleanliness was a direct criticism of her own dusting powers.

As she walked up to the door, Sebastian hot on her heels, Lydia felt her palms being to sweat.  She wasn’t worried about the job itself.  Of course she knew how to pick a lock.  Not because she was a thief (that was, in fact, turning out to be Sebastian), but because it was the sort of thing a knight needed to know how to do when saving vilalgers from goblin slave pits or the dungeon of an evil wizard.  Lydia, like most girls her age, was in love with the idea of knights and their ever-shining armor.  However, unlike most girls her age, Lydia could care less about the man inside that armor and title, and would happily have evicted him from his metal residence, windswept golden hair and charming white teeth be damned.

What worried Lydia the most was how forbidden Elda’s chambers were.  She had never seen anyone, ever, come or go from them but Elda herself.  And even though she felt very welcome, and even at home in the otherwise large manor, the hallway leading to that perfectly clean door made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.  As she reached out to touch the brass nob, testing it out of habit to see if it was perhaps unlocked, she paused and said to Sebastian, “Listen…I’ve never been in here before.  Nobody goes in but Elda, near as I can tell.  But…sometimes when I’m cleaning…I hear these, I dunno, noises from under the crack in the door.  They’re kind of like a snuffling, and some growling, like a dog or something.  So I dunno if she has a secret dog in there, but…well…I just wanna make sure this is worth getting in a dog fight over.”

Sebastian looked down, and then back up again almost as quickly and nodded his head only once, but in a way he hoped appeared heavy.

Lydia only nodded, then put her finger to her lips and fished around in her trouser pocket until she withdrew two small metal rods.  She began to tease out the tumblers inside, working by feel since Thomas’ necessary deception with the violin made it impossible to listen for the delicate metal movements directly.  Sebastian twisted his fingers together behind her, wanting to beg her to hurry, but unwilling to risk the sound.

A single drop of sweat formed at Lydia’s hairline and slide in an agonizingly creeping trail down her face, like a salty snail worming along the curve of her skull.  It rumbled happily over the crinkled flesh at the corner of her eye, causing her to blink, but was spared the crushing swipe of her forearm because she was concentrating so hard.  As it gently rolled into the crevice between her cheek and her left nostril, tickling her with invincible glee, it reveled in the knowledge that it would soon, with only the aid of its staunch ally gravity, experience the one true joy that a bead of sweat can experience in its short life, which is to fly free of skin and fabric, to crest through open air catching light in its moist embrace and finally end it all in a final explosion of fetid evaporation on the great ground below.

Sweat drops lead more interesting and robust lives than tears.

It was an achievement no one standing at that doorway could then appreciate that it took Lydia only the lifespan of a single drop of sweat to cause the brass lock to abandon its sacred metal duty.  In fact, it was just slightly less than a single lifespan, which the exhilarated droplet soon discovered as it cruised happily past the left corner of Lydia’s lips, picking up steam for its climactic finale, and found like so many a road weary traveler, that the lock had turned and Lydia’s tongue was immediately awakened and snaked out with impossible speed (for a pink meaty mass that seemed so large), and swooped it into a hideously embarrassing end diluting into saliva and soaking shamefully into the gooey remnants of Lydia’s breakfast cake, which lodged stubbornly in her molars.

However, Sebastian and Lydia shared none of the despair of sweat drops as Lydia turned the unlocked brass doorknob with a trembling hand.  Sebastian pressed a fist to his mouth to stifle a whoop of triumph.  As Lydia slowly pressed the bedroom door inward, she was relieved to note that the hinges were as flawlessly kept as the rest of the door and made neither squeaks or groans as they carried their wooden passenger along it’s familiar course.

Sebastian struggled to see past Lydia into the dim interior beyond.  The darkness seemed to seep out into the hallway, and brought with it the sweet smell of jasmine.  The odor was like a shout in the sterile hallway, and Sebastian and Lydia both found themselves crowding into the room, trying to silence the smell and prevent it alerting Elda to their intrusion.

As the door clicked shut behind them, Sebastian noted that the sound of Thomas’ music cut off as if his violin were abruptly smashed to pieces.  He swallowed once, and found Lydia pressing her shoulder blades into the interior of the door, a look of dismay on her face.  When she made eye contact with him, she straightened up though and stuck out her chin, “J-just get the b-book!  We g-gotta get outta here fast.”

Sebastian nodded slowly, his heart thudding like a drum in the otherwise silent stillness of the large room.  He immediately noticed that there was no bed in the room, and that the room itself had at least two doorways leading out of it.  It wasn’t a bedroom.  It was a whole wing of the house.  He swallowed a lump in his throat and slid his shoe across the hardwood floor, taking a few steps forward.  He looked back and found Lydia, still straight backed, and still pressed to the door.  He motioned with his head to follow and she hesitated and shook her head, whispering, “N-no…y-you go.  I…I’ll stay here in case…in case they’re coming…or…or…I have to go for help.”

Sebastian wished she hadn’t added the last part, but he could do nothing but nod, and move forward into the half-light with arms braced around his stomach, as though the forbidden mystique of these secret rooms were a gale-force wind blowing him backwards.  He huddled against the ominous stillness and pressed onward.

From what he could see the only light sneaking into the room was around the edges of heavily curtained windows.  Though it wasn’t enough to see colors exactly, he immediately noticed how much wide and empty space the first room had.  It was as though  Elda had simply grown sick of her life one day and shoved it out the door and into the other rooms of the house to crowd where it could.  There was a single chair here, wooden with no cushion, and a tall square table opposite it with a mirror mounted above it.  Sebastian caught sight of himself and quickly averted his gaze, as if seeing his reflection let the room see him too.

Without any assurance what to do he made his inching way to the far wall where a doorway led forward and another to the left.  Neither opening had any visible doors.  The same dingy light revealed shadows of objects in the room directly ahead, but the room on the left was inky with inscrutable darkness.  Slowly he leaned his head into the room on his left, squinting in the shade, but found no drop of sunlight to help him see by.  Hoping the bed was not hidden in that total blackness, he moved into the room ahead instead.

Within a minutes time he had navigated the whole of the room, and found two more chairs, this time padded, and a low table between them.  The room seemed otherwise as barren as the first.  He ducked back into the main room and found Lydia staring at him with relief, as if she hadn’t been sure he would ever return.  She opened her hands questioningly like a book and he shook his head.  He looked into the left hand room now and took a deep breath, holding out his hands in front of him.  He pushed into the dark like a curtain, aware of every brush of stirring air on his hands and face.  He had only inched a few ways into the room when he staggered over a box.

He stifled a surprised yelp, and froze, trying to still the trembling in his body.  He reached down and felt the heavy wooden sides and lid of the box, no, trunk below.  He straightened up and twisted at the waste, brushing his arms from side to side.  Immediately and on either side he felt fabric on his arms and on his fingertips.  He sighed and backed out of the room, again facing Lydia.  He whispered, “Closet.  Big closet.”

He looked again around in the light of the first room, which seemed far brighter after even a brief dip into the shadows of Elda’s closet.  He scanned the walls for a darkened doorway he had missed, but saw only the smooth paneling.  With no other discernible feature to guide him, he found himself shuffling towards the tall table and mirror, which was the only break in the uniform blankness around him.  When he reached it, he leaned on it and stared into his own reflection, until Lydia finally hissed, “What are you doing?!  Where is the book?!”

Sebastian said in a voice that was almost audible, “She said it was under her pillow on her bed…”

Lydia ground her teeth so hard Sebastian could hear them creaking before she said, “So go find her bed!”

Sebastian, feeling frustration and despair overwhelming him, turned sharply towards Lydia and said, “Don’t you think…”, but froze in midsentence as the table he had used to pivot towards his accomplice banged loudly against the wall behind it, rattling the mirror above.  The sound itself was heartstopping, and Lydia had immediately gripped the brass doorknob, prepared to bolt for it, call it all a bad mistake, and curl up by the fire in the upstairs sitting room where she could once more suck bravery from the crackling frames.

But though Sebastian shared Lydia’s fear, the particular sound the table made sent a spark racing from the part of his brain dedicated to solving mysteries and into the area of the mind responsible for caring for memories.  In that one tiny moment of interconnectedness a single experience was sent crashing into the back of his eyeballs with such force he actually gripped his temples.

What Sebastian remembered was playing with a red ball on wooden floors covered in sawdust.  He remembered the voice of Aunt Elda, and the sound of his father’s hammer thunking against something hard with a steady comforting rhythm.  Elda was speaking to his father.  He couldn’t grasp what Elda was saying, but he remembered the sound of irritation in his father’s reply, “It’ll be too heavy!  No one would be able to move it!” And then again after Elda’s voice spoke again, “Then at least let me make it hollow.  It’ll still be too heavy…but…”

The sound which caused that spark was of course the sound of the table knocking against hollow wood.

Immediately Sebastian dropped to the floor, hidden instincts from a lifetime spent listening to the steady hammer heartbeat of his father’s carpentry welling up inside him, giving him ideas pounding in his brain.  Lydia tapped her toe on the floor, as though it was the loudest possible sound she could bring herself to make and said breathily, “Let’s go!  They had to have heard!  Sebastian!  What’re you doing?!”

Sebastian began to run his fingers slowly along the top of the baseboard of the wall, fingers straining against every nick and sliver of wood.  Finally, he found what he was looking for.  He gestured frantically to Lydia, who hesitated then almost skipped to him, as though the floor of the room itself were scalding hot.  She stood panting over him and said, “What?!”

Sebastian pushed his shoulder up against the wall where his fingers had stopped, and he dug his heels into the floor, looking up at Lydia and saying, “Listen, my Dad knows how to conceal the seams in wood panels…you can’t even see them at all.”  He grunted as he started to push his shoulder into the wall, “And he can do it with any wood really, long as you’re looking at it straight on, no cracks.  But if you can get up above the wood you can see the seam.  Or…feel it!”

Lydia was beginning to suspect that Sebastian had gone mad.  Stolen shirts, aspirations of dragon slaying, and now invisible wall cracks?  She squatted down and stuck her hand out to feel Sebastian’s forehead, causing him to toss his head and grunt again, “Cut it out Lydia and help me!”

Lydia crossed her arms over her chest, “With what?”

However, it was at that precise moment that Lydia, while staring piteously at Sebastian, saw a bright slice of orange light cleave its way up the wall from floor to ceiling exactly above where he was squatting.  She didn’t say another word.  She stood up, rubbed her palms together and did as her own father, a sailor by trade, had always taught her.  She put her back into it.

With both of them heaving themselves against the wall, as silently as they could, a symphony of gasps and open mouthed puffs of frustration, the crack of light on the wall soon became a wedge of illumination on the floor, as fully half the long empty wall in Elda’s Spartan sitting room began to creep inward, away from the room itself, ponderously and with great effort from Sebastian and Lydia.

His father’s estimations of weight seemed very accurate to Sebastian.  He couldn’t possibly imagine how Elda, even as unnaturally tall and broad as she was, could ever move this by herself.  With a final shove, the wall made unmistakably solid contact with whatever lay beyond.  Sebastian found that the further they pushed the wall, the smaller the light became, as if it were a moon, waxing and then waning, little by little first one way and then the other.  The hole in the wall was now as black as the closet.  He looked at Lydia and said, “Stay here.  I’m going inside.  If the wall closes I need you out here to help push ok?”

Sebastian, feeling only the urgency of time now, stood up and dusted off his knees and then slid into the small gap in the wall.  He felt a solid panel against his fingertips almost immediately, and two more on either side.  His heart sank as he felt along the tiny hole he’d stumbled into.  But it was then that he remembered the growing and shrinking light, and he turned around to face the gap back into the main room and said, “OK, let go Lydia.  Let’s close the wall…”

Lydia frowned and said, “Sebastian…”, but found the boy’s smaller hands pushing against hers insistently, and she sighed and stepped back.  Slowly the wall sank back into place, the flickering orange light growing and then fading again to the tiny crack in the wall.  Lydia leaned against the concealed door just hard enough to keep that crack visible.

When the wall began to close, Sebastian saw that a hallway continued on behind it, and that it quickly opened into a room illuminated by candle or firelight.  He strode quickly towards the new opening and saw nestled there in the most secret heart of the house Elda’s enormous, elegant, and perfectly appointed bedroom.  The whole room felt huge and snug at the same time, as if it were not a large bedroom for a human, but a cozy one for a giant instead.   The floor covered, entirely by a thick carpet littered with ornate designs that made Sebastian dizzy.  There were large fat candles burning in every corner which filled the room with a pungent sweet smell like nothing Sebastian had ever smelled before.  The room had a writing desk, with two feather quills, a half dozen brass inkwells, and a neatly stacked ream of cream colored paper.  On the opposite side of the room was an ornate table with a gilded mirror attached, scattered with various feminine objects that were, as yet, a mystery to Sebastian.

And then there was the bed itself.  It was twice the size of any bed Sebastian had ever seen, and to his dismay, it was covered with dozens and dozens of pillows.  The enormous headboard was a thick shelf onto which several slender darkly colored and unlit candles were placed, as well as an assortment of golden colored metal objects unfamiliar to Sebastian, but which reminded him of mapmaker’s implements, or the navigation devices on a ship.

He moved quickly into the room, trying to shake of the feeling of awe the secret opulence had caused in him.  He moved for the head of the bed and immediately slid his hands under the first set of pillows, feeling between each one.  He leaned over, trying his best to leave the thick blankets undisturbed.  His toes inched beneath the ruffled bed skirt as he sucked in his stomach to reach further over without touching the bedding itself.

He was so focused on feeling for any hard or paper like sensations in the pillows, that when his toes encountered solid resistance under the edge of the bed, he thought nothing of it.

Until the solid resistance was suddenly gone.

Sebastian froze and didn’t know why at first.  When his feet finally finished relaying their message to his brain however, he jumped back, and ducked down on all fours, lifting the bed skirt to look under the bed with the imagined snarling jaws of Elda’s mystery dog filling his thoughts.  However, the only thing he saw was the wall on the opposite side of the room through the small gap between the floor and the unlifted bed skirt beyond.  The under bed was completely empty.  He frowned, and stood up, smoothing his shirt down, as much to calm his ruffled nerves as anything.

He resumed his searching until he could reach no further towards the center of the bed.  He still hadn’t felt so much as a lump, much less a book.  Carefully he inched his way around the bed to begin on the other side.  It was then that he noticed another strange object sitting on the headboard.  A small gray stone statue was nestled between two of the slender dark candlesticks, sitting like a lump in the middle of the headboard like a rock in a nest.  Sebastian only noticed it now because the candlelight glinted off two enormous black glass sheets on either side of the little statue’s head, which seemed to represent eyes.  They were bulbous and far too large for the little statues head, which was, now that Sebastian looked at it, also too large for the tiny body beneath it.  The whole thing looked pretty detailed if distorted, as if the head were a wineskin someone had squeezed all the wine into one end of, leaving the little torso shriveled underneath.

When Sebastian reached the far side of the bed, he realized he had been watching the black glass eyes of the statue the entire way around, the flickering points of candle flame reflected within seeming to shift with him.  He shook his head, and supposed weird statues went with the territory for a woman like Elda, who was, afterall, hiding a book on dragon secrets under her pillow.

He immediately resumed his search through the pillows, this time with a little more haste and a little less caution.  Once more he found himself stretched as far as he could over the bed, and not a single work of literature, draconic or otherwise, had presented itself.  He looked across the great expanse of bed and realized there was only one place left to look.  Dead center.  He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, then put both hands on the tall bed and carefully drew himself up onto the mattress, prancing like a cat on all fours as he did.

He found his eyes once against drawn to the little statue, as he began his careful movements towards the center of the bed.  From this distance he noticed that the stone figure’s shriveled little hands were open and that each finger sported a ridiculously long and slender black claw, which seemed to be made of the same shining material as the glass eyes.  The claws were splayed out all around the creature, like spokes on a bicycle wheel.  The claws were certainly slender, even needle like, because Sebastian was certain he could have noticed them from the foot of the bed.  But the candlelight wasn’t really bright.  It just seemed that way after the darkened antechambers.

Shaking his head to clear it of his musings on the tiny statue once more, Sebastian looked down and saw that he could easily reach the center grouping of pillows now.  With shaking hands he began to root almost frantically in the soft colored squares.  Still finding nothing, he bent down so that his arms were buried to the elbow.  He lowered his shoulders and bent his head backward so he could reach further back, his tongue caught between his teeth.  From this angle he could almost kiss the little stone statue.  He hadn’t noticed before that the creature’s oversized head was also split by an impossibly wide and toothy grin.  As he stretched his fingers further he couldn’t stop himself from noticing that the teeth in that mouth were also made of the black glass, and each tooth was almost as slender as the claws, but they all fit together in a seamless ridged curved plate of pointiness.

Just as he was about to start unconsciously counting the black teeth slivers, his fingers touched something deep in the pillows that was not sheet, or stuffing, or softness at all.  It was the dry smooth feel of leather, and just below it the crusty sharp ruffle of pages.  Sebastian couldn’t stop himself from lunging headfirst into the pillows, scattering them everywhere as he withdrew an enormous and heavy tome, whose cover, even in the false twilight of candle flames, he could clearly see was covered in the emblazoned image of a twisting dragon with glittering green gemstones for eyes.  He wanted to cheer out loud, but instead could only bring himself to let out a choked sound like a sob.  He looked up to the statue and smiled a nasty smile, “I got it!  They didn’t…”

But the statue was gone.

CHAPTER 7

In which Teatime comes to an unusual end

Sebastian barely had the time for his smug smile to fade from his face before a sound unlike anything he had ever heard before hit him.  And it did, indeed, feel as though it hit him.  It rattled his ribs and chattered his teeth in his head.  It was a sound that was at the same time a piercing high shriek and a deep bellowing moan, like the wind blowing past the mouth of a cave.

But it wasn’t both sounds at once.  It was as if the sound were a missing link in the world of sound, existing as a bridge between the highest twitter of a finch and the sounds so deep only the earth itself could muster them from its belly.  It froze and burned and only got louder and louder.  Sebastian wanted desperately to slam both his hands over his ears, but he found that neither hand was willing to let go of that precious and hard won book.  He fell backwards on the bed, and writhed like a fish on the shore of a creek, gasping and crying.

It was in his thrashing that he caught sight of the statue again, hanging it seemed by those needle like claws, which had no trouble sinking into the ceiling above.  It’s mouth was open, and though the impossible sound was seemed to be coming from all around him, there was no doubt in his mind it started in the open black mouth of that statue.  He tried to right himself, but found the sound sunk into his skin and turned his bones to jelly, so that no matter how his muscles strained they never had anything solid to shove against.

Sebastian watched the statue even as he struggled, its movements slow and deliberate.  It seemed to be shifting from, hanging upside down with its enormous head pointed down towards him.  He realized it was positioning itself, like a hideous feline.  He began to crush his lungs in and out with all of his might, and as the creature released half of its claws and swung free, a gurgling scream ripped its way painfully up his throat, “Lydia!”

He immediately regretted the shout, even as he heard Lydia’s instant and explosive response, the sound of her small body slamming into the hollow wood echoing like a gong in Elda’s secret bedchamber.  Now she would face this horror as well.  The creature, if it was possible, looked surprised, and snapped its jaws shut, as it released its other claws and plummeted off the ceiling at Sebastian’s head.

However, the soft yielding boyflesh the creature was expecting to land on was not at all what it found when it struck the bed.  Instead, what it discovered was that the bed rudely slid sideways, as it thumped indignantly into a wall, which seemed to come from nowhere.  As it righted itself on its spindly claws the statue saw the boy clambering off the edge of the bed, large book clutched as a shield in one hand.  The boy had struck it with the book, like a sports ball.

Sebastian was panting, legs flailing rapidly to shove him over the bed.  He fell hard onto one shoulder and rolled onto his side, facing away from the creature.  As his body jerked wildly in his attempts to bring the terrifying whatever-it-was into view again, a greater pain than he had ever experienced before claimed his right leg.

He screamed.

It was a blood curdling and unashamed sound of agony.  He turned eyes already beginning to cloud in shock down to see if his leg had in fact been torn off, but found rather than the creature was standing on his right calf, all of its needle like claws pressing down into at least a dozen punctures into his meaty leg.  Involuntarily he jerked the wounded leg, and screamed once more as the violent movement, rather than dislodging his attacker, ripped the sliver like talons side to side in his wounds, making it clear that he wasn’t simply pierced, he was impaled all the way through to the floor below.

Vaguely now, as if from a distance, Sebastian heard Lydia’s own powerful screams, the booming force of her attempts to get to him apparently making no progress.  He lay sobbing on the floor, unable to even think in the face of such unexpected physical anguish.  As the candlelight began to sputter in his vision, creeping black spots beginning to draw the blissful numbness of nothingness around him, he thought of Roland all at once, and wondered if he would have kicked the creature with his other leg, maybe broken one of its silly black glass eyes.

But of course they weren’t glass.  They were glittering and glossy and wet.  Sebastian was suddenly slammed back into reality by another sharp pain.  He flailed again, and realized that the creature had lifted one claw out of the hole it had bored through his limb and then brought it down again to make a new hole several inches further up his thigh.  The screams fought for the use of his throat then, as the creature began an almost leisurely stroll through Sebastian’s calf, kneecap, and hamstrings.

Each new step brought Sebastian smashing back into reality from the brink of unconsciousness.  And each time he was brought back he thought in his mind over and over, “Fight!  Fight!  Fight!”  He tried to swing his uninjured leg to sweep the creature away, but found each time he tried to swing his hips the pain of his impaled leg froze him in place like an electric shock.

His fingers were aching from their crushing grip on the book that began this entire rotten scheme.  He would have burned the book then and there if it stopped the pain.  And then he remembered he had fingers!  It was a brilliant revelation, that leg quickly to the rediscovery of hands and arms and shoulders and a hundred muscles that weren’t impaled.  With a vicious cry, this time born of ragged rage and desperation, Sebastian swung his elbow backwards, intending to sweep his attacker away in one swoop, but he found his arm flung into open air.  However, the force of his blow caused his elbow to snap open, and the full length of his left thumb same down to the last knuckle in the creature’s enormous and very much living left eye.

The sensation of ice cold wetness at the end of his seemingly missed blow caused Sebastian to jerk his hand back, and clench his fist defensively, which had the effect of lodging his thumb on the inner lip of the statue’s eye socket and hurling the entire thing three feet across the floor.  It also ripped all of the talons free of Sebastian in one movement.

He wasn’t sure how long the pain from his leg caused him to black out, but when he opened his eyes, he saw by the candlelight that the statue was flopping where it lay, much smaller sounds bubbling up out of its throat, the jagged wound Sebastian’s thumb had left in its eye was smoking.  Sebastian had no time for curiosity though.  With a desperate lurching gate, he began to crawl for the passageway with his three unharmed limbs, the book crushed beneath his torso and slid along by his weight alone.

As he neared the entry, he looked back to see the creature, and discovered the eye was almost completely obscured by a thick black cloud of smoke.  But where he thought the smoke was coming from in the statue’s enormous skull, what he could see clearly at this distance was that the smoke was being drawn in snaking tendrils from the candles nearby to gather on the wounded ocular, like black pus on a festering sore.

Turning back to his escape route, Sebastian realized he couldn’t hear Lydia anymore.  He opened his mouth, but found all his screams had left him only able to croak weakly, “Help….please help me.”

As he finally reached the secret hallway, he looked back one last time at the creature before he would be forced to turn and let it escape his sight again.  What he saw was the needle-like claws scrabbling as it rose, swaying, back to its full unnatural height.  Sebastian saw the smooth black surface of the eye he had previously injured now whole and unharmed.  He thought he saw a wet membrane the same black color slide over the newly reformed eye, a blink to clear its vision.

Then the incredibly well fit together teeth parted and the world became the impossible sound once more.  Sebastian’s body spasmed again and he felt his resolve finally shattering.  There was no escape.  The creature was going to tear him apart, one needle shaped hole at a time.  As his head jerked back and forth, unchecked, he caught glimpses of the creature, once more slowly scuttling towards him.  He wished he had at least opened the book, so that Elda would know what he had done, what he had died trying to accomplish.

And then he noticed something else.  He didn’t quite understand it at first.  One of the walls seemed to be jutting out at a strange angle.  He was irritated that it wasn’t in the right place.  And then it was again, and he felt a little calmer.  And then he saw her.

Standing in the cubby alcove which began the secret passageway, and pushing the wall closed as easily as if it were made of paper, was Elda, her lavender hoop skirt filling the hall, sweeping the dust away like an enormous pipe-cleaner as she moved smoothly and calmly towards Sebastian.

The impossible sound grew louder, and Sebastian’s vision swam.  He wondered why Elda couldn’t hear the sound?  His jaw worked uselessly as he tried to tell her everything, and beg her for help, and accuse her of conspiring with enemies and dragons and demon statues.

In later days Sebastian tried very hard to remember those next moments, because he was certain they were as real as anything he had ever seen.  He remembered Elda stopping next to him and looking down at him with her storm cloud colored eyes for an eternity.  He remembered her stepping over him, and hearing the sound stop suddenly.  He remembered being helped up, and being embarrassed when his shredded pants were slid off of his body.  He remembered Lydia’s voice, and Thomas, and even Theresa.  Sometimes, when he thought back, he imagined he heard Theresa’s baby crying too.

And then there were nights, for some years after that, when he would wake up with a single disjointed memory floating about in his mind like a specter.  He saw Elda, standing at the foot of her enormous bed, dress torn and exposing her smooth white skin, and the horrid statue held in one hand.  She was smiling, a smile like she used to smile at Sebastian when he was very small and drew on the walls or spilled a glass of milk.   The smile was sweet and tender.  And then it got bigger, and bigger, until Elda’s mouth was open wide, and four enormous fangs grew out of her canine teeth and she brought the horrid statue right up to her face and put its whole head inside her mouth, sinking two fangs in each eye.  There wasn’t any sound save for a terrible wet gulping noise, as the black glass claws flailed and drove themselves into Elda’s face over and over.  And then it was over, and the statue was an empty gray bag which Elda looked at and then dropped and kicked under the bed skirt.

However, despite the nightmares that eventually came, the next clear memory Sebastian had was the smell of tea.  And then the feeling of a smooth china saucer dish under his fingers and the weight of a full glass in his hand.  He was aware of a stinging in the lower part of his right calf, and then the room appeared, though it was really more like it had always been there and he just forgot it for an instant.  He gasped, and Elda’s voice came to him from across her downstairs sitting parlor, “Sebastian!  Be careful with that.  It wouldn’t do to spill your tea.  It could only end up burning you or staining my sofa, and I don’t venture to think either option would make our tea together a happy memory.”

Sebastian blinked, looking at Elda who had on the same lavender dress, and the same perfectly coifed hair as the moment he had arrived that afternoon.  He was here for a reason.  It was, “Griot!”, he suddenly shouted.

Elda smiled at the mention of the old peddler, the same warm smile she had before, and said, “Come and gone I’m afraid.  I think he intends to stay in town a few more days at least.  You know he never misses a chance to be the first to tell a tale to the young ones.  And we could probably do with some cheering up…what with this…Cobblestop business.  Tell me are you feeling any better Sebastian?”

Sebastian looked down at his tea and frowned, his mind swimming, treading water frantically as he tried to find the answer to that question.  He felt like he shouldn’t be fine at all.  But there wasn’t anything wrong so he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I…I guess so, yea.  I’m fine.”

Elda nodded, and it was then that he noticed for the first time that there was a footstool sized ball of fur curled up in her lap.  Elda was idly stroking the fur, which moved up and down with the even motion of a sleeping dog.  Elda looked down and said, “I suppose I do have to apologize for Sugar here.  I’m afraid she doesn’t abide strangers very well at all, which is why I keep her locked up in my bedroom when there’s company.  Tell me, have the bite marks stopped bleeding?”

Sebastian felt a twinge of horror when he looked down at his pants leg.  He realized they were not the pants he was wearing when he came in.  He looked up sharply but Elda said quickly, “I’m afraid your old pants were ruined.  Thank goodness Sugar mostly tore at the pants leg and not you.  I’m sure it’s all still hazy for you and I apologize for that.”

Sebastian’s hand was taken by a sudden tremor as he pulled grasped the fabric of his pants leg and pulled it up slowly.  He saw a bandage around his lower calf, and he gingerly pried it up to look beneath.  There were three small and very shallow bite marks, and above that little red scrapes that looked for all the world like blunt claw marks.  He frowned, and felt words slipping out of his lips, “But there…there was a secret room…and…and a statue.  It…it wasn’t a statue…it…it was claws and this sound…”

Elda stroked the furry mass in her lap some more and then clucked her tongue, “I’m afraid you’ve stumbled on a very bad habit of mine Sebastian.  My dear departed husband Able, Gods rest his soul, once brought me spiced wax candles from the monasteries of the Velkyn monks of Agnitarn.  It’s a very rare wax, infused with special herbs that help the mind and body calm and become open to dreams.  I’m afraid the more you use though, the more it takes to relax, and I’ve used them for years.  So I burn quite a lot.”

Sebastian had never heard Elda speak this many words to him all at once before.  He felt soothed in a strange way by her oddly deep voice.  She paused to reach over and pick up her own cup of tea, causing the furry lump called Sugar to shift and grumble good naturedly.  After she took a small sip, she peered at him over the rim of the saucer, “I am sorry.  To walk into that much spice wax…on your first time…well…there’s no telling what you might have seen.  Or Lydia for that matter.  Though, I don’t think she saw as much as you.  Or, I hope not.”

Sebastian looked down at his tea again, and sipped it.  It tasted strange.  As if realizing exactly what he felt, Elda offered, “Don’t worry.  You were in quite a state when Lydia came to get me.  You were blocking the door so she couldn’t get in to you, and Sugar here was tugging at your pant leg like there was no tomorrow.  I cleaned you up and brought you down here, then gave you a special tea that helps to clear the mind.  I trust it’s working?”

Sebastian nodded again.  What Elda said made an awful lot of sense.  A lot more sense than Elda having a hidden wall bedroom and an attack statue.  He heard Elda sip her tea loudly again, and looked back to her.  Her stormy eyes were shining in the fading afternoon sunlight glimmering as dangerously as her enormous gemstone necklace.  She said, very calmly, “Now, are you settled down enough to tell me…if you please…why you were in my private rooms?”

Sebastian felt like ice water ran down his spine, despite Elda’s smooth and warm tone of voice.  He swallowed his mouthful of tea, scrambling for an answer.  And then it came back to him, with the fury of a thunderclap, and his tea saucer rattled as he sat upright, “Wait a second!  There was a book!  A book about dragons.  I heard you and Griot talking.  You didn’t want me to have that book!  Griot said he didn’t want me to save anyone!  I only went in there cause the book was obviously important!  Why are you hiding dragon secrets from the village?!  Millicent died!”

Elda watched Sebastian for a long moment, and then gently and deliberately set her tea down on the coffee table between them.  Only her cup wasn’t resting on the table.  It was resting on the dark brown leather face of a book with a coiling dragon burned into the leather and two glimmering green gems for eyes.  Sebastian almost dropped his tea.  He began to sputter, pointing to the tome, and Elda help up a hand patiently.  When he finally quieted, she said, “Griot, amazing as he may be in many ways, is not a civilized tea drinker.”

Sebastian slammed his tea saucer down on the coffee table and almost growled, “What do Griot and tea have to do with dragons?!”

Elda paused again, watching Sebastian with one delicately arched brow until he sat down again and she nodded, “My dear departed husband Able, Gods rest his soul, was taught the fine art of tea by the barbarian hordes of Garnak, who as it turns out, were not truly barbaric at all.  You have come to tea in my house Sebastian.  And the only way to drink tea in my home is like the barbarian hordes of Garnak.”

Elda paused to stroke Sugar while Sebastian seethed.  She was staring at the book on the table, and finally she lifted her eyes and said, “The Garnak hordes have rules for more than just tea you know.  There is a very find tradition in their culture, in which a young man’s inheritance, prepared by his father, is hidden away in a dangerous or obscure location.  He must use this inheritance to pay…well…that’s a long story.  But…the point is, the young man must defy his father, and outwit him to claim his inheritance.  Only in this way can he become his own person, and not the person his father, or anyone else wants him to be.”

Sebastian, feeling more confused and angry than ever felt his wits gnawed at by rage, and he balled and unballed one hand into a fist in his lap as he said, “So?  That doesn’t answer my question.  Why are you and Griot hiding important information from the village?”

Elda smiled, reached over and picked up her teacup and saucer, “Well, Sebastian, do you recall the first rule of tea?  The foundation of the practice?”

Sebastian ground his teeth together, and Elda nodded, “I see your manners are as impeccable as ever.  Now…I suppose we have two options.  In the first case, you can dump out your tea, and you’ll be visiting me just like we always visit.  You can ask me your questions, and I’ll talk back the property you pilfered.  I’ll think about whether to tell your father about you convincing Lydia to pick my lock and steal my things or not.  I really can’t say what I’ll do.  While I think about it, you can make those adjustments for Theresa.”

Sebastian felt his sense of injustice sputter like a dying candle as Elda laid out the facts.  He realized how ridiculous what he had to say would sound, and that Elda had every right to be very angry with him.  He bit his lower lip and looked down at his only mildly injured leg and said, “Or?”

Elda took another noisy sip from her cup and said, “Or, you can finish your tea like a good Garnak youth would, and leave, like a good Garnak youth would, with the inheritance you’ve won.”

Sebastian slumped back into the sofa, his head still swimming with conflicting memories and sensations.  He felt sick and excited and angry and free all at the same time.  He looked at Elda, who was stroking Sugar again.  He felt a twinge of dull pain in his leg when he looked at the dog.  Then he looked at the book, staring back at him with gemstone eyes, and without a word he leaned forward and picked up his cup of tea.

 

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