So…I’ve kind of taken the book into more serious waters lately. I think it is the way it needs to go, because Hilsbac needs to be shown to be a place that…just isn’t good for Sebastian. I want readers to feel liberated by the move to Tyr’aethea in book two, and so the world of Hilsbac has become very…dark. I hope it isn’t too dark! Remember, Sebastian brings it all around in the end. This is pretty much the midway point in the novel tonight. The problems begin to be solved beginning in the next chapter. I hope you enjoy it! And hey, at least there aren’t any creepy demon head statues this time.
In which Sebastian learns nothing and falls asleep
The remainder of Sebastian’s surreal teatime visit with Aunt Elda was spent in pleasant, if stiff conversation, and was concluded when he trudged upstairs, lugging his newly won “inheritance” to bid his friends a tense farewell. There were no questions asked about what had happened. There were no stories swapped. There was only one brief, grim nod from Lydia when she saw the leather tome in Sebastian’s arms, and a smile from Thomas, who patted his violin and bent down to toss another log on the fire.
They all knew Elda was too close now to gossip anyway, and beyond that, each of them felt a genuine sense of gratitude and good will to the eccentric woman, who had time and again swooped into their strange little worlds, gathered them up from the clutches of people trying to pound their round spirits into square roles they’d never fit in, and by and large gave them only one job: be themselves. That gratitude soured into curdled guilt inside them all, despite the excitement and intrigue with which they all began the whirlwind theft.
Sebastian, for his part, though not yet haunted by the full weight of his (likely) drug-induced memories, still felt the shadow of something painful and dangerous the longer he stayed on the second floor, and he found once he was down the stairs and pushing open Elda’s front gate once more, that the late Fall air tasted sweet and cool and good in a way he had never before noticed. He stopped when the wall of Elda’s compound hid him completely from the view of that house, and paused for a full minute, hugging the heavy book to his chest and breathing deep gulps of autumn breeze, washing away the lingering stench of fear that still wound itself around his intestines so persistently.
He turned his feet back towards the north gates of Hilsbac when his knees felt firm underneath him again. It took him almost the entire walk back to finally feel like he had left Elda’s house, as if a tiny part of him were stuck to the floor in that confusing bedroom and all this way he’d just been pulling himself thinner and thinner until the cord snapped and he was himself again.
By the time he passed through the town gates, with nary a nod from the watchmen, the weight of the book in his hands became exciting and important again. He tried, briefly, to walk with the massive book propped open in his arms, but got as far as “Dragons are…” before he stumbled on a cobblestone and almost sent the book skidding into a gutter puddle nearby. He closed the cover, and watched his steps, but moved his feet as fast as he trusted them.
It took him no more than half an hour to reach his own home, nestled somewhere vaguely in the center section of the town. The home his father built was actually just a remodeling of one of the older homes in the village, and had originally been intended as only a short stopover for the young family, until his father could build his young bride a properly large home as a belated wedding gift. However, once the young carpenter opened his doors, he found no shortage of business pouring onto his workbench. The town was bustling, but most of the men were hunters, or sailors, or merchants by trade, and the skilled labor needed to keep the creaking wooden structures standing stout against strong summer sea gales and cold winter mountain snows was ceaseless.
So, over time, the temporary house had simply been added onto. The rooms were first divided, and then divided again, until the home was a warren of small passages and doorways that led to small but plentiful square rooms. Eventually though, even that hadn’t been enough, and the house next door had been acquired after it’s elderly owner fell victim to a nasty winter cold and left no heirs behind. The two houses were joined by a covered walkway, and a long shed in back was erected that ran the full length of both homes and served as his father’s workshop for repair projects and furniture building.
Sebastian Smith had one father, one brother, and two sisters. His father’s wife had died while giving birth to him, and so he had never known a mother. His oldest sister, Gretchen, was the next best thing though, and while Sebastian was growing up, she did her best to keep the house, and make sure Sebastian was always clean and happy. She was, if Sebastian was honest, often very short tempered with him, particularly recently, but he imagined it was only because she worried for his future, and was frustrated Sebastian had yet to find anything more than part time work as a tinker and tailor. Sebastian was worried about his future too.
His brother, Thomas, though much older than him had tried often to play with Sebastian, and to look out for him when he could, and though they had very little in common, Sebastian often felt that there was a deeper and unspoken bond that held them together as brothers, and that it didn’t matter that Sebastian was terrible at sporting games, or startled too easily to stalk a deer. Sebastian admired Thomas, and if he was honest, was a little envious that the order of their birth meant that it was Thomas who would inherit their father’s business upon his death. Sebastian knew he wasn’t well-suited to the dexterous and heavy labor of a carpenter, but in his most practical moments, he knew that he enjoyed figuring out the way things fit together, and could imagine that he would be a happy sort of incompetent living as a carpenter like his father. It was Thomas who had the arm for hammers though, and though they had tried on several occasions to work together, it usually ended in a contest to see whether Sebastian’s head could figure out how to avoid Thomas’ hammer arm.
Sebastian’s youngest sister, Lily, was named for their mother, and had all the vibrant beauty and life that her namesake had, or so Sebastian was often told. She was a kind girl, but selfish by nature (a condition produced by being relentlessly spoiled by Sebastian’s father, and of emulating in all respects our much talked-of Millicent). She seldom spoke to Sebastian, save when she needed a dress repaired, or an errand run. But she was thoughtful when she remembered to be, and Sebastian had always felt she was one of the most decent people he knew, when she could bring herself to look past the end of her own nose.
Though Sebastian didn’t know it as he darted across the last street and up the three steps to his front door, he would find none of these people in his house. Each of them had been drawn away, and when he unlatched the sturdy wooden door and slid into the heavy oaken mudroom beyond, he called out a hello, and found only his own voice responded back to him, echoing off the thick exposed timbers that loomed everywhere in the house. He frowned and called again, but found himself standing again in silence.
Sebastian’s sisters were easy enough to account for. And after several moments thought he realized, with a sick pang, where they both were. They were gathered, as all the girls of the appropriate age gathered, by sundown on the eve of a choosing, in the large village commonhouse. The massive building usually served as a makeshift Inn for sailors sick of the cabins on their ship, or for merchants needed to stable their animals after a long sea voyage. But the night before the choosing, every maiden was to be rendered up to the care of a village matron, and the entire lot were put under guard to ensure that no family member, with ideas of a heroic nature, would attempt to liberate their sister or daughter or girlfriend. On most occasions, though it was a little frightening, it was also exciting and a good chance for the girls to get together and share gossip and play games. Sebastian was certain that the mood in the large building would be very different tonight.
As he slipped his shoes off and padded into the kitchen, walking as he always did on the balls of his feet when he was shoeless, he could think of nowhere his father or brother might be so close to nightfall. He looked out the small kitchen window but saw no lights in the shed. He also saw that the small dish of meat and vegetables his eldest sister Gretchen had prepared before leaving to be housed with the others was untouched. He grabbed one of several dishes from the cupboard and quickly ladled a bit of the cold meal out, then set the enormous leather tome down on one side of the table and sat opposite it, contemplating it as he filled his suddenly very empty stomach quickly.
What Sebastian would not discover until tomorrow was that Thomas had volunteered as an extra guardsman to watch over the gathered maidens that night. The villagers were all on edge, and there had already been several family breakdowns at the gathering house doors. Mayor Cobblestop had quickly put out the word for any able bodied young men to come and ensure the maidens were safe, particularly from any harm that might be done to them in one individuals reckless attempts at liberation. Thomas wasn’t particularly brave or clever, but he knew how to calm down a rowdy villager, and how to crack their skulls in just the right way if they wouldn’t settle down. So he had put down his hammer early and answered the call, and would remain, all night standing outside next to the fourth window from the left on the ground floor of the commonhouse.
Sebastian’s father, who was also missing, had been hired that morning to repair the damage some rocks had done to the hull of a merchant barge. He had spent his day at the docks, under a beached boat, and so had been spared the irritable accusations of Mrs. Geldeblat, who had spent the better part of the midday looking for someone to complain to about Sebastian Smith’s increasingly disastrous antics. He had also missed Thomas’ decision to undertake a civic duty. And most importantly, he had missed saying goodbye to Gretchen and Lily on their way to the commonhouse, and the day after, the Choosing.
This was the real reason Tomas Smith, Tom to nearly everyone, had taken the job at the edge of the docks, and three times torn out his work to begin again, stating that one could never be too careful with leaks. It was only after the sun set that he crawled out from the barge, gathered his tools, and made his way back to the city. He knew that only after the light faded, and the deadline had passed, could he be spared the unbearable pain of having to say goodbye, and in so doing, make the choice to release his two precious daughters to a monstrous threat more real on this night that it had been in any night that could be remembered by even the eldest villagers.
Tom Smith intended to go straight home then, to lock his door, and to find a lightless room in his house and there wait for the morning. However, his equal measures of shame and relief which lived one in each foot, carried him stumbling instead towards a small and dirty bar which served men of the sea almost exclusively. And there, just outside the tavern, heading in himself with a lute in hand, Tom Smith ran into a certain gray bearded peddler, who greeted him very warmly and asked if he was interested in hearing some of the songs which he could not play around the children of the village.
At that moment Tom Smith felt like he would like nothing more than to do anything which children could not, and he disappeared into a tiny tavern to listen to Griot Graybeard singing dirty songs about women and battlefields to sailors.
What this meant, was the Sebastian, quite unexpectedly, and for the first time in his entire life, had the house all to himself. For the almost an hour after this revelation, he found the quiet and the stillness distracting. Thomas hadn’t shoved his head to the side and brusquely demanded that he get out of the way. Gretchen hadn’t checked his fingernails to be sure they were clean before he sat down at the table. The freedom seemed to freeze him in place. At first, he just sat unmoving at the table in his own chair, and then gradually tried to moving to chairs that were traditionally the home of some other family member’s rump. Then, when the chill of evening set in, he made a fire in the kitchen fireplace, and struggled only a little to get it crackling cheerfully.
The light seemed to tug at the stillness and move him from place to place. He tried laying on the floor first, sprawled out feet kicking up and down against the warm hearth. Then he curled up on the kitchen counter legs twisted in a tight knot. Finally he pushed all the chairs out and sat underneath the table itself, but ultimately climbed back into his own chair when he gave his head a sharp bump while trying to stretch.
You may, at this point, wonder about the book Sebastian had worked so hard to obtain, and what important secrets about fire breathing monsters Sebastian’s sharp mind was able to lift from the complicated prose within. And of course, the reason I have not mentioned these secrets is because, despite his best efforts, Sebastian learned nothing of any importance at all. The book was very detailed. It provided sketches, and long passages about the way various parts of a dragon might possibly work together to produce flight or flame or tail flicking. It also contained an exhaustive index of stories which featured dragons, or ballads and songs about the great beasts. And these entries also featured what he thought was a rating system, detailing their accuracy or quality, though no key for the small symbols was provided. And finally, the entire back half of the book, he discovered with some dismay, was filled with nothing but completely blank pages.
After several full hours of solitary reading, skimming really, for new details or some code or passage he missed, Sebastian was at a complete loss. He had propped the enormous leather tome up in a kitchen chair and was laying on the table on his back so his head could hang over the edge and he could read the same words as before only upside down, hoping for a random bolt of inspiration to strike him. He sighed and went through the awkward process of turning an upside down page and said aloud to no one in particular, “What was so important about this stupid book? I could probably tell you which part of a dragon’s wing to stab to make it stop flying. Maybe. But what good is that? No one can even find the Dragon except when he comes for the tributes…or…a maiden.”
He pursed his lips and sat up in the center of the table, pushing the knees of his crossed legs down towards the table to stretch them, and jerked backward when his left knee landed in something cold and wet. He looked down and realized he had mashed his leg into the leftovers of his own dinner. He sighed, and crawled to the edge of the table, swung himself down onto the cold wooden floor and made his way toward the wash basin. He muttered aloud as he reached into the low tub and his fingers touched solid ice. He sighed, “Oh great…worthless dragon book that I have to read with food caked on my leg. That’s gonna help my ‘wits be clear’ or whatever Elda said.”
Walking in the ridiculous stiff legged way that people always do when they spilled anything on their lower limbs, Sebastian made his way to the fireplace, and took a candlestick off the mantle. He lowered it into the low flames of the small fire, and then stumped back over to the sink and lowered the flame close to the ice, hoping it would melt a few drops for him. He grumbled, “Oh Griot…I hid the book, and I left the storybook for him to play with. Ohoho…we’re do clever with our letters and our tea rules.”
He watched melted wax drip off the candle and land on the ice, whereupon it immediately hardened again. He thought about Elda’s spicewax and Sugar the secret dog. He watched the candle flame sputter and thought again of the condescending tone Elda and Griot had taken in the parlor, when they hadn’t known he was listening. He quoted bitterly aloud, “Oh Griot…you know it’ll take more than candlelight to reveal the secrets of that book…”
And then he froze, eyes fixated on the tiny candle flame, and he narrowed his eyes and whispered, “More than candelight…”
He dropped the candle into the icy sink where it guttered and died almost immediately, and without pausing to care about food on his knee one bit, he snatched the book off the table and flung it wide open as he skidded to his knees in front of the fire. He angled the pages towards the flames until the manuscript was as bright as he could make it. He scanned the page for anything out of the ordinary, for new colors or shapes. He saw nothing.
He flipped to the next page. Still nothing.
Like a man possessed he rapidly tore at each page, even most of the blank ones. He found nothing. He scowled at the book, and then sat it up, bending both covers back till they almost touched and the binding creaked in complaint. He folded all but the last blank page back and positioned it so the light shown through the page. For a moment he thought the flickering light was revealing dark marks he hadn’t seen before, but soon enough it became apparent it was just his hopeful imagination. He tried, with greater difficulty, a page from the middle of the book, covered in a sketch of a dragon in what appeared to be mid-flight, wings spread wide. He scoured every inch of the page, backlit by the fire, but found nothing than the ability to vaguely make out the words written on the opposite side: words about a theory of how dragonfire was able to burn on the surface of bodies of water.
He sat back on his haunches and blew air through his lips rudely. He closed the book, and ran his hands back through his hair, gathering it in tight clumps and tugging gently on it, as though he could pull a better idea out of his brain. It proved to be a more effective technique than he thought. Soon enough he snapped his fingers and once again grabbed the book. He skidded to a stop near the window of the kitchen, and looked up to see bright stars swimming in the dark night above. He angled the book to the glass, looking once more for hidden markings. When none appeared, he crawled on the counter and pushed the squeaking pane of glass open, sticking his head and shoulder, along with the book, out of the window entirely. He splayed the book to the sky between the two houses that made up his home, and still saw nothing.
He shivered in the cool air and let his mind race. He looked up at the sky, scanning it back and forth and realized he couldn’t see any moon. Slamming the window shut, he flew out of the kitchen, through the parlor, and down into the mudroom, bursting out the front door. There, shining down on him was a moon nearly full to the brim with white light. He once more held the book open and scanned first one and then another page, his tongue heavy and dry in his mouth. But once more, there was not a single change in the text on the pages. He snapped the book shut in frustration, and the sound shot out to echo around the closely packed houses, bringing a sudden yowl from a nearby alleyway as a cat skittered away, bringing more banging with it that caused Sebastian to startle and hop back up the stairs quickly. He stood in the entry way, door still cracked behind him, and cradled his chin, almost growling as he said to the air, “Just you wait Aunt Elda…Griot Graybeard…I’ll find out what you were hiding!”
It was almost four hours later, when the night had softened to gray haze, that Sebastian’s father Tom Smith, sat at the kitchen table staring with bloodshot eyes at his son. He found the boy, with a book nearly as large as he was spread open on the table, head nestled on one open page, the ink below smudging in a sizable stream of spittal drooling from one corner of his half opened mouth. All around him were candles, and paper, and even some of his wife’s book and charts. There were strange half burned pieces of wood and clothing and material of every kind scattered even further. And of course, one plate of mashed cold mush.
Tom Smith swayed slightly in his seat, the haze of beer and song pulled heavily about his shoulders to keep out the cold chill of regret. He watched Sebastian’s breathing come in small steady rising and fallings of his back. He wondered if Thomas had ever been that small. Sebastian looked fragile like a bird, laying there in the half-light. Without thinking, the man reached his large and calloused hands and gently brushed one stray lock of back and behind Sebastian’s small ear.
‘How will he ever survive. He is so weak’, he thought to himself, as he let the back of his fingers fall from Sebastian’s hair to the top of one cheek. He sighed and whispered aloud, “Not weak. Soft. You’re…so soft.”
He drew his hand back slowly, and Sebastian stirred a bit, then smacked his lips once and resumed his slumber, snoring in a quiet even way. After he watched Sebastian settle again, Tom looked at the spread mess on the table. He felt a sharp pain just below his heart when he scanned on of his wife’s charts, flipped open nearby, her tight, flowing handwriting lovingly scrawled over each line. He didn’t recognize many of the characters. She had tried to teach him to read, while they were on the long journey by boat from Trentalone to Hilsbac, but he hadn’t been a very attentive student. He was more interested in her revealing to him other mysteries, as many times as she was willing. He knew the symbols and markings of his trade, and that was enough. He closed his eyes and smiled, and whispered, “Lily..”
As the word died in the air, he opened his eyes, waiting for Sebastian’s small sleeping body to come into focus again. He spoke, in a soft voice, leaning onto the table, scanning the pages and objects without understanding or intensity, “That was her name you know. Lily. Before it was your sister’s, I mean. She…she wanted to start a school here. Did I ever tell you that? It’s why she had all these…books and…and tools.”
He paused, and reached out to stroke the hardboard backing of one chart, and he sighed, “I made her these…my own invention. Before that she’d get so mad lugging all these papers around blowing away in any breeze at all…but there was no way to make them for the students if not by hand…” He sat back and looked at the ceiling, “Students…I thought she was…crazy. But I suppose it was commonplace in the capital, even then. Schools I mean.”
He closed his eyes and rubbed one hand along the rough skin on the bridge of the other and shook his head, “Not proper schools. Not…trade schools. With apprentices learning crafts. Smiths and…and carpenters. No…just…learning. Everyone. Learning to learn. About all sorts of things…but…but most of all those letters. Always with the damned letters.”
He felt a sudden burst of anger worm its way into his throat like a belch, and he let it sit there like a burning lump. He shook his head, “Of course…by the time we arrived…well…Thomas was already on the way. And…and there was so much business for me…she never had students”
He looked down at Sebastian, whose arm jutted at a strange angle out from under his head, to ramp off the pages of that huge book and dangle helplessly in the air. Tom reached out and brushed his small fingertips, causing Sebastian to clench his fist and then turn suddenly, rolling onto his side with the page he was laying on pulled up with him, stuck to his cheek by the paste his drool and the old paper had combined to make. Tom caught a corner of the large sheet of paper and pulled till it smeared free and he smoothed it back down flat, looking at the picture revealed below. It was a sketch of a dragon.
He frowned and looked more critically at Sebastian, sighing as he said, “Where did you get this? This isn’t one of your mother’s…”
He almost shook Sebastian awake when he didn’t answer, but just then his light snoring resumed and Tom withdrew his hand taking a deep breath, “What am I supposed to do with you Sebastian? You can’t…do anything you’re supposed to do. You can’t even heft a beam on your own to help me frame a room. You’re at least…ten or twelve winters now…why can’t you do it huh?”
The volume in his voice was rising, and when Sebastian’s brow crinkled in response, Tom felt suddenly embarrassed and sank back into a moody silence once more. After a few steady breaths returned in his youngest son, he looked again at the unfamiliar book and tried his best to see any of Tricia’s letters that he recognized but it was hopeless. He shook his head, “I guess I should have paid attention when Gretchen was teaching Lily-bit and you, huh?” He scratched the back of his neck, “Thomas never had the patience for them either…and Lily-bit only ever cared about getting the right answer. Not you though…not you…those letters…they live for you don’t they? They’re alive…like they are…were…for her. For Lily.”
He felt sick to his stomach now, and the belch of anger had slowly subsided, sliding back down into his stomach, where it dissolved strangely, mixing in with the fond feelings the memory of Lily brought to Tom. He rubbed his stomach, a bitter sort of good humor sneaking into his mind now, as he said, “You know…I’ll never forget the first time you realized you did it. It was a relief, actually, when Gretchen snapped at you and hollered it all out at once. You just wouldn’t stop needling her about being so goram sad. You got your answer though, eh? Six whole years of questions about other kids…other families…with moms and dads. I scolded her…but I was glad it was out there.”
He sat back, the venom leaving his mind as soon as it was expressed, like broken wind. He chuckled, and Sebastian turned once again, moaning softly in protest of his father’s continued disturbance. Tom didn’t notice anymore. The chuckle grew into a little laugh and he spoke in the midst of it, “And…And d-d-do, do you know what you did? The next d-day? The anniversary. You probably don’t even remember. You made us all stay in bed. Wouldn’t let us step foot outside the bedroom door for hours…and when you finally called us out. You…y-you made pancakes!” Tom’s laughter overtook his speech again, and Sebastian began stirring in earnest now, swimming up from a frustrated dream of dragons carrying screaming maidens off behind towering book pages.
Tom put both hands on the table now to support his shaking shoulders and carried on, “Y-you rigged up some…some contraption…to help you flip it all by yourself. Made a bleeding disaster of the kitchen…fed us those cakes…dry and tasteless. We choked them down though didn’t we? And you smiled all the time, and said it was an apology. Like that made it all better. Like pancakes changed the fact you murdered Lily!”
As the accusation, slurring and loud and harsh, fell finally free from his lips and his heart, he slammed his hands down on the table, causing Sebastian to sit bolt upright, his eyes wide but unfocused, as he wobbled in the chair, and grabbed the edge of the table to stay upright. And then those big eyes fell on Tom, the eyes that knew Lily’s letters, and Tom winced when a small voice said rapidly, “W-what is it Da? W-what’s the matter? What’s going on?”
Tom wished he never had to open his eyes again, and look at that wide-eyed face again, never see the light in them, never look at that soft boy again. What right did he have to be soft when his very first act on the planet was to steal away the life of the woman who brought him forth? He felt a hot stinging tear well in his right eye and he sniffed suddenly and wiped his hand across his eyelid and then took a deep breath and looked up at Sebastian, who was just watching him sway there. This wasn’t the first time Sebastian had seen his father like this. Tom tried to smile but it looked more like a snarl, “You fell asleep. Reading, I guess. I…I didn’t want to wake you making breakfast yet.”
Sebastian nodded to his father, knowing that it didn’t matter much what he said. And then his groggy mind made a violently forceful connection, which lit his body up like a lightning bolt. He jerked his head to the kitchen window and saw the first beginnings of a pink color to the light. He had almost missed it! He looked at his father as he began to quickly gather several of the pages on the table, “Sorry Da, I’ve gotta go! Gotta…umm…be somewhere by dawn! No time for breakfast! I…I’ll finish putting…mah…er…her things away when I come home!”
Quickly Sebastian found a small scrap of paper on which he had used a charcoal pencil to scrawl a list. On the list were the words; starlight, moonlight, sunlight, candlelight, firelight, burning cloth, burning paper, burning leather, firestick light, dawn, noon, and sunset. Many of the words were already crossed out. Making sure he had the pencil as well he slammed the large book shut, and hefted it off the table, scurrying quickly out of the room, looking like an ant carrying a pebble. Tom heard the book slap the floor again, and then a silence just long enough for a pair of shoes to be tied on, and the sound of the front door slamming closed.
He blinked once, and then again, looking at the whirlwind hole his youngest son had left in the chaos of the table. He realized then that he hadn’t said goodbye to Sebastian before he left. He hadn’t said goodbye to Gretchen or Lily-bit either. He hadn’t said goodbye to anyone. Not since that horrible morning when they tried to make him say it to the one person he shouldn’t ever have had to say goodbye to.
He closed his eyes once more, hoping for black sleep to drown the sound of his own pounding heart away at last. But instead he saw, for no reason at all, the sketched outline of the dragon in Sebastian’s mysterious book. He choked back a sudden surge of vomit as he realized the Choosing was just after sundown, today. His baby girls…Lily’s treasures…would be led out into the square like cattle…and put out for that damned monster to take away. To try and force him to say goodbye to one more precious thing. And the last thought he had, as he lurched to the side and expelled the entire alcoholic content of his stomach into the fire’s dying embers, creating a hissing reeking gout of barf steam was:
“If the Dragon is eating people now…why doesn’t it start with me? Sebastian…he killed us both anyway.”