The Marvelous March to Completion: Day 10: Roland, Rainbows, and Wee-Juice

Dear Readers,

WHEW!  It has been such a whirlwind the past 10 days!  There are scenes popping out of my head that have lived there for years, and brand new pieces just jamming themselves in at random.  Today’s chapter is very long.  10k+ words.  It is only one chapter, but it is an important one.  I’m a wreck!  I think there is probably a fair bit of paring down to do here, but I wrote the interactions full on, as they came to me, and can cherry pick the good stuff from there.

Kudos to you brave few who make it through to the end of this one!

 

rainbow1

CHAPTER 9

In which Gregor finds relief, and Sebastian finds Roland

The noontime sun hung in a sky so clear and crisp it seemed naked, a hot orange radiance that banished all shadows with its intimate light.  It was the sort of sun that made the world seem plain and flat, as if there were no secrets of mysteries left to be found.  Everything was out in the open.  It was the most scandalous and boring sort of sunlight.  And still, the pages of Sebastian’s hard-won tome remained the same.

Dawn had come and gone, leaving only disappointed yawns in its wake.  Sebastian still had his list though, and even as he scratched one form of illumination off, he did his best to add another in its place.  He spent the next several hours diligently lighting random combinations of materials on fire.  What he found out, however, was that random villagers were not put at ease by an aimless young man wandering the streets with small fires following in his wake.  So by the time that noontime came and went, Sebastian had set up a small place to experiment in the alleyways of a relatively unused section of storage buildings near the docks.

He had, of course, paused in his experiments long enough to expose the book to the high, nude sun in the sky, and even stayed in the main street, book open over his forearms for close to fifteen minutes, in case his estimation of when exactly noon occurred wasn’t accurate.  By the time a quarter hour had passed though, his arms were shaking from the effort of supporting the large leather-covered burden, he was certain that he could cross another item off his list.

With a heavier heart, he retreated into the alleyway nearby, to the small wood fire he had established to make it easier to test the light of different burning objects with.  It also kept him warmer than he might otherwise have been, having left his own home with shoes but no coat.  He might have gone back on another day, but he preferred, if he could, to avoid his father when he was anything less than sober.

He huddled near the fire, and tried once again to turn his thoughts away from the ridiculous certainty he felt that Elda’s cryptic pronouncement about candles held the vital clue to revealing a secret hidden in the book.  He couldn’t explain why his mind would not let go of the idea, though he begged and pleaded with it to move on to other possible solutions.  But whenever he started to make progress on a different idea, another possible source of light would jump to the front of his thinking, and he’d scribble it down, only to discover five minutes later he was again hunting for flammable object in someone’s garbage can.

With a ragged sigh, he stood up, holding his cold hands briefly over the small fire, and then he turned and left the alley, looking now for braided rope, dried hay, or driftwood dry enough to ignite.  Like most people who leave a secluded or private room, Sebastian assumed that when he returned he would find the site much the same way as he left it.  It is an easy, and often accurate way to feel about secret places.  However, had Sebastian not made this assumption he might have been paying less attention to counting the cobblestones he jumped between, and more attention to the very real differences in the small dockside alleyway he had hidden himself away in.

As it was, the first sign Sebastian had that anything was out of the ordinary was when he was halfway down the alley itself, and finally looked up, arms full of miscellaneous junk, and saw there was a large figure standing between him and his campfire.  He froze where he stood and glared at the broad back of the unexpected figure, who seemed to be leaning towards the small smoldering remains of his fire, as if to warm himself.   Sebastian opening his mouth to protest the intrusion, found that the strong hands of the two large teenage boys who had been lurking near the entrance of the alleyway, and whom he had missed entirely.

As thick arms slid under his armpits and hefted him into the air, he tried to cry out, “Hey!”, but found a thick fist thudded against his stomach, driving the breath out of him and causing the objects in his arms to clatter noisily to the ground.  He coughed loudly, which caused the man by the fire to turn and look over his shoulder.  But Sebastian was not greeted by the face of a man.  It was the teenage face of Gregor Tailor, fixed with a sideways grin on his broad lips.  He bobbed his head at his two lackeys and said, “Good job boys.  I’ll just be a second.”

Sebastian tore his gaze from Gregor to the two equally large village youths that held his limp body aloft.  He didn’t know either of them by name, but their reputation was all he needed to recognize.  They were two of Gregor’s closest companions.  He felt his heart begin to race in his chest, and he threw his shoulders back and forth, grunting, “Let me go!”

The grip of both boys tightened painfully, causing Sebastian to gasp audibly.  He stopped struggling for a moment when he heard a loud hissing noise, and saw a gout of smoke, or more likely steam, billow out from around Gregor’s ankles.  The bully turned slightly to the side, so that Sebastian could see the fly of his trousers folded open and a glittering golden stream arcing from his exposed crotch to the embers below.  Gregor chuckled as he swiveled his hips to drive the thick flow of his urine back and forth over Sebastian’s test fire.  As the steady flow weakened and then became broken into staccato pulses of liquid, Gregor looked over his shoulder again at Sebastian and said, “Can’t let people go startin’ fires in alleys now can we?  Gotta do my duty to make sure you don’t burn down the whole dock.”

As he refocused his attentions on the wet ash below, Gregor called to his friends now, “OK, bring him over here boys, so we can have a nice long chat about why little Basty is playing with fire.”

Sebastian squirmed again, but to no avail as the two meaty minions bore him easily forward until they were all standing next to Gregor.  He was turned to face the exposed teenager, who with no evidence of embarrassment, angled his hips towards Sebastian and gave his groin a vigorous shake, flicking the last yellow droplets onto Sebsatian’s shins and shoes.  Sebastian tried to pull his legs back too late, and he felt himself gag as the steam from the fire floated up, carrying the acrid aroma of Gregor’s piss with it.

As the older boy made a show of stuffing his intimates back into his pants, he jerked his chin toward the rest of Sebstian’s makeshift laboratory and asked, “So, now we’ve snuffed out the dangerous bits, care to tell us what you’re doing back here with all this half-burned crap?”

Sebastian knew he looked frightened.  He was frightened.  But knowing that he couldn’t stop it from showing in his face made his eyes burn with anger, “Keeping warm.  Nothing else.”

Gregor reached up and scratched the patchy brown stubble on his chin and neck, then lifted his fingers to his nose and sniffed them, before he lurched forward and drove another blow into Sebastian’s gut.  As Sebastian twisted and writhed once more, trying to catch his breath, Gregor almost shouted, “Quit lying!  Me and my boys saw you standing out in the street with that big book, staring at the sky forever.  We figured it was just you being useless again, but when we followed you back…low and behold you’re trying to burn down the city!  So what were you doing?!”

Sebastian looked around at the tight walls of the alley, as if a way of escape would suddenly break open in the stone.  He yelped when Gregor’s thick fingers caught his chin, pinching it as they wrenched his head back to face Gregor.  He stammered and spoke quickly, “OK, ok!  I…I’ll tell you!”

Gregor released Sebastian and stepped back, his thick arms crossed over the barrel of his chest.  After another moment of silence passed, Gregor growled and stepped over the doused fire, stooping to pick up Elda’s book.  He brandished it towards Sebastian and said, “Well?  It’s got something to do with this big book right?”

Sebastian bit his bottom lip and tried to think of some explanation, any explanation other than the truth which he could use to explain the facts in the alley.  But each time he seemed to be on the right track, one of his captors would crush his shoulder in their bicep, or jerk him to the side, sending his thoughts scattering like spilled marbles.  Gregor shook the book, “C’mon Sebastian!  Speak up!  You sure had a lot to say yesterday when you helped that murderer get away.  Are you helping another murderer?  What’s in this book?”

Gregor flipped the pages open, slapping them roughly apart as he looked at each in turn, until his eyes lit on the book’s first diagram, a picture of a dragon, from the side, with a tiny figure representing a human nearby.  He looked up with widened eyes and said, “Is this a book about dragons?  Did your murderer friend give this to you?  As payment for helping her escape?”

Sebastian shook his head wildly, and stuttered, “N-no…that’s not…”

Gregor slapped the open page accusingly and said, “Stop lying!  Where else would you get a dragon book but from that Professor!”

Sebastian tried to reach the ground with his toes, every fiber of his being telling him to run.  But he was held easily, as though he weighed nothing at all.  He looked to the book and then up to Gregor, whose face was red and glistening with flushed excited sweat, even in the crisp autumn air.  He swallowed and said, “I…I got the book from a friend.  In town.  It’s a story book!  L-like the kind Graybeard tells!”

The mention of Griot brought a sneer from Gregor, who spat on the ground, “That old man should mind his own business.”  He narrowed his eyes then, considering Sebastian and then gestured to his cronies, “Alright boys…if Sebastian has a story book, come sit him down so he can read us one.  That ugly sister of your taught you to read right?  Waste of time.”

Sebastian was carried forward and then set down on his feet closer to Gregor.  Gregor shook his head though and inclined his head down, “No…make sure he is real…comfortable.”

The two meaty teens looked at each other, then a grin of realization spread between them, and the clapped their hands onto Sebastian’s shoulders and forced him down until he was sitting directly in the wee-wet ash in the middle of the alley.  Sebastian felt the luke-warm liquid soak into his pants, and his stomach tried to climb up his throat to escape the sensation.  Suddenly the open pages of the tome were thrust into his face, so close he could barely focus on the letters, and Gregor barked, “Now read us a story!”

Sebastian saw the page that was open was on the various sizes of dragons.  He looked up at Gregor, and then down at the book and said, falteringly, “Uh…the dragon of…G-garnak…was a t-terrible foe.  He…he had fire breath…and…umm…a really mean toe?”

The book suddenly snapped shut and Gregor snorted, “That’s the worst story ever.  I don’t think I can let you keep this book, Basty.  I mean…if I ever heard you repeat anything that terrible I’d probably have to punch you in the mouth just for talking!  Nah, I better take this book and drop it off the docks.  Only way to save the village from you turning into Little Basty Pussbeard.”

Gregor’s lackeys ribbed themselves and laughed thick heavy laughter at their leader’s newest petname.  Sebastian, however, when he realized that Gregor wasn’t just going to tease him for a while and leave, but was about to walk away with the prize he had worked so hard to understand, felt a pain in his stomach he had never felt before.  It was injured pride.  It is difficult to say exactly when Sebastian had grown pride to be injured, but the most likely explanation is that some small essence of the Garnak barbarian hordes he and Elda had imitated the day before, had taken root in his stomach.

Gregor’s threats stomped at that small pride now, and Sebastian’s fist clenched in the muck below him.  He didn’t realize that the mask of fear he had been so ashamed of had melted away when he looked up at Gregor and said, “Give me my book back.”

Gregor looked at Sebastian with disgust, then rifled his fingers through the paper in the tome, and began to tug violently at a random page, as he snarled again, “Nah.”

It took Gregor a moment to figure out why his vision was suddenly clouded.  His eyes closed, reflexively, before he even realized what had happened.  Then the sensation of wet sludge on his eyelids and the bridge of his nose arose, and finally the dank odor of an outhouse.  Realizing with knee-jerk horror what was on his face, he dropped the book and staggered back, wiping viciously at his eyes.

Sebastian, who had aimed the biggest handful of piss-soaked ash he could muster at Gregor’s eyes, leapt forward when the leather book fell towards the ground.  He caught it, mostly with his chest, and kept rolling, straight through Gregor’s flailing legs.  He felt the skin on one wrist scraped away by a rough cobblestone, but his body was free, and the far end of the alley was just a few lengths away.  His heart was pounding so loudly in his ears that he didn’t hear Gregor’s friends break down into gales of ape like laughter when the bully’s own excrement was flung up at him.  Sebastian was already up and running as Gregor screeched, “Ugh!  No!  Get it off!”

Sebastian had only made it a few steps closer to escape, when one or both of the giggling hooligans realized he had disappeared between Gregor’s legs and made an instinctive dive to follow.  The resulting tumble of bodies only grazed Sebastian, who stumbled but kept moving, as Gregor and his gang became tangled together, each of them thrashing violently against the others to be the first on their feet.  Gregor kicked viciously at whatever body parts came near him, as he rolled onto one elbow, the single eye he had managed to free from ash-goop, now bloodshot and enraged, catching sight of Sebastian as he scampered around the corner into the next street.  He hollered, “You idiots, get off me!  Don’t let him get away!”

Though the injury of his tiny bit of pride had indeed spurned Sebastian into a bold and reckless action, the very real possibility that Gregor would beat him to death once he found him was what now drove Sebastian in his wild flight.  He could hear Gregor’s angry voice echoing out the alleyway.  Desperately he looked for the one thing he knew might stay Gregor’s wrath: other people.

However, as his small footfalls echoed loudly down the empty twisting streets of the upper docks, declaring his location with every beat, he caught sight of no movement.  No sailors out for a stroll, no merchants checking their cargo against tatted manifests.  He choked once and whirled into another alley, eyes scanning for the next best option: a place to hide.

The small alley into which he turned was almost swept clean, but there was single large crate nestled against one wall.  Sebastian dashed for it, hoping it would be open and easy to crawl into or under.  He jammed the leather book under one arm and hit the side of the crate harder than he intended too, immediately beginning to look for an opening.  He shouldered the heavy crate away from the wall, the wood scraping the pavement.  However, as he began to wedge himself into the space behind the crate, the guttural growling of a dog erupted near him.  He jerked back just as the mass of fur and teeth began to snap at him.  His leap caused the corner of the crate to jab his side, and he fell over the lid, blindly scrabbling forward until he was atop the wooden box.  He scrambled to his feet, looking around for the angry animal, which he saw immediately as it lunged at his feet, missing narrowly, and continuing to snarl.

Sebastian, for all his sudden courage, had a terrible recollection at just that moment of Elda’s dog Sugar, resting curled in her lap, and then immediately an image of the glittering black smile of a horrific grey statue flashed into his mind, and a moment of panic brought him back to the pain and the terror.  He cried out loudly, and gripped the book, swinging it blindly around him.  The heavy weight unbalanced him almost immediately, and he gasped, one leg kicking frantically toward the alley as he fell hard against the building next to him.

Except the building next to him was not as much like a building as it should have been.  When his small shoulder slammed against the wall, what he heard was the sound of splintering wood, and then the sensation of thin air all around him as he crashed through the building.  Or at least, that was what seemed to happen.  Darkness surrounded him, and harness slammed into his back, knowing the wind from him for the third time that afternoon.  He lay motionless, stunned, and heard, from a far away distance, wood striking the ground, and a yelp.  He heard the scrabble of claws on the pavement and then the clear sounds of Gregor and his lackeys calling to one another, like wolves on the scent of a rabbit, charging down the alley with thundering steps.  They stopped, looking around.  He heard Gregor call his name, and then there was the sound of a crash from outside the alley and Sebastian heard Gregor holler, “C’mon!  I’m not letting him get away this time!”

And then the sound of pounding footsteps became fainter and fainter, and Sebastian let his eyes flutter open.  His whole body ached, and he was aware of a cool, slightly soft surface below him.  Packed dirt, he realized.  A strange sort of calm overtook him.  He examined the faded sunlight streaming in through the jagged hole he had fallen through.  As he watched it, curiously, he realized it was not a hole in the wall, but rather a window, which was boarded over, most likely to spare the expense of replacing a broken pane of glass.  The distance up to the hole seemed longer than it should have been.  He stared for a moment longer and out of the mist in his mind the memory that some warehouses were dug deeper into the ground than the streets surrounding them emerged.

He became aware of the weight of the book on his chest, and with a groan, he pushed himself upright, letting the book slump to the dirt floor below.  He gently tested each of his limbs, and then crawled onto his knees, and stood up.  One of his ankles smarted, but it worked alright if he insisted.  He stooped and felt around in the gloom to retrieve the book.  He moved towards the wall, not wanting to be standing directly in the light if Gregor’s head suddenly burst into the room.  He hugged the book, and tried to focus on listening.  However, despite his intentions, the gloom around him began to slowly become clearer, and he saw everywhere ruined and forgotten shipping containers.

As he was gradually taking stock of his surroundings, the unmistakable sound of a boot scuffing against wood erupted in the silent half-light, and Sebastian stifled his surprised scream into a squeak like a whimper.  Without any real plan he inched along the wall until he foot came to rest against what turned out to be a short pile of crates.

Without any other option, he hunkered down next to the broken boxes, trying to make himself as small as he could.  He held the book in front of his shins like a shield.  He scanned the darkness, but saw nothing.  Then, after a few moments crept by, during which Sebastian was sure he heard the tell-tale scuffling of an entire army of imagined villains, a shadow passed into the small rectangle of light shining through the broken window boards.

Sebastian’s heart instantly swelled in his chest.

There, his lean and agile body stooping down into that dust-filled sunbeam was Roland Baker.

Sebastian felt utterly lost as he watched the older boy touching the dirt where he himself had just moments ago been laying.  His breath came in short gasps.  There had been many strange and even absurd events which had occurred in Sebastian’s world in the past day, but the sudden appearance of the boy responsible for Sebastian’s most shameful and powerful emotions simply ended his thoughts altogether.  He felt hollow, unsure if he was supposed to laugh or cry or run away.

He stayed perfectly still, eyes trained on his secret love, noticing every detail, but reacting to nothing.  He saw the way the sunlight made his feathered brown hair seem lustrous.  It didn’t shimmer, so much as it seemed to draw the sunlight in and hold it in each lock like an ember glowing with heat.  His arms were perfect.  Not bulky hammers like Gregor’s or his brother’s arms.  Not skinny useless wisps of flesh like his own.  They were powerful and long, and the fingers on his hand as he ran it back and forth in the dirt seemed graceful and strong.  There was no thickness to him, but he seemed powerful, the way his body twisted and lengthened as he stood moving with the fluid smoothness of a spring uncoiling.

And then Roland’s eyes, blue and green and gold at the same time, flecked with equal measures humor, wit, and courage flicked towards Sebastian, the sunlight flashing in them for just an instant.  Sebastian began to shiver.

Sebastian watched Roland brush the dirt from his palms, glance from side to side, and then look back, almost directly at him, and tilt his head, calling in the richest, most soothing voice Sebastian had ever heard, “Who’s there?”

Sebastian, in a haze of shock and adoration felt his heart begin to pound when he realized that Roland was speaking to him.  The rapid twitching in his chest rudely thrust a single word up his throat, and he heard his own voice squeak in the darkness, “Me!”

The word reached his ears a split second before it reached Roland, and he winced in a sudden flush of self-loathing.  Could any reply have been stupider?  But Roland’s response quickly came, and Sebastian saw that he had drawn one arm up defensively, leaving the other hanging down and a little behind him, “Who is me?”

Sebastian thought Roland looked like a knight in a storybook, the sunlight making his white shirt glow with a brilliant aura in the murk surrounding him.  He realized there was no answer he could possibly give besides, “S-sebastian.  Sebastian Smith.”

Roland’s posture relaxed a little, and he took a step forward slightly out of the light, “Smith?  You mean Gretchen Smith’s little brother?”

Sebastian nodded for a moment before realizing that Roland probably could barely see him.  He stretched his neck so his head rose above his knees and the book shield still hugged against them, and said, “Y-yes.  That’s me.”

Roland took another step forward, and reached one hand up to ruffle his own hair.  Sebastian didn’t know how his voice could sound like a smile but it did when he asked, “Well what are you doing here?  Are you what crashed through that window?  Are you hurt?”

Sebastian slowly stood up, using the wall for support, leaving the book to lay in the dirt as he said, “N-not really.”

Roland was only a few feet away from him now.  Sebastian felt light headed, and swayed a bit, and then a hand fell onto his shoulder, warm and strong and soft, and he was swimming in Roland’s voice which asked, “Just not really?  Or not at all hurt?”

Sebastian’s knees buckled for an instant, and Roland’s hand was instantly pressed against his chest, holding him up.  Sebastian marveled that the movement could be so fast and so gentle.  He realized he should try and bring his legs back to working order, and he scrabbled awkwardly until he was standing, bringing a low laugh from Roland, which rumbled in Sebastian’s mind like thunder.  When he was again standing steady, Roland leaned back but kept his hand lightly in contact with Sebastian and said, “Easy there.  It’s alright.  Are you sure you’re ok?  Your heart is pounding like you just ran from the top pier to my uncle’s bakery.”

Sebastian’s teeth began to chatter as his panicked shaking resumed once more.  He spoke with his words broken by the clack of his teeth, “I..I’m fine.  I’ll be f-fine.  I…I just…I’ve gotta…figure out the book.”

He knew he wasn’t making sense.  He knelt down suddenly, and Roland instantly knelt with him, both his hands on Sebsatian’s shoulders, and he said, “Whoa!  Hey, don’t pass out on me now.”

Sebastian paused, looking up at Roland looming over him, and he said softly, “I’m ok.  I just…I was getting the book.”

Roland leaned back a bit as Sebastian reached out, grunting slightly as he picked up the book.  Roland looked surprised when the leather tome appeared from the dark dirt floor, and he only watched Sebastian struggle to lift the large tome for a second before he swept it up in his own arm easily, and then said, “C’mon…I’ve got, well, uh, I’ve got a spot over here.  We can sit down.”

Sebastian nodded, standing along with Roland.  He jumped again when he felt Roland’s arm slide unexpectedly around his small shoulders.  The older boy began to guide him gently, and Sebastian tripped along in the direction he was pressed, until suddenly a piece of cloth was withdrawn and the soft steady glow of a lantern dazzled his eyes.  Roland pressed him past the curtain, and then moved inside himself and let it fall shut.

Sebastian blinked for a moment, and then gradually made out the details of where he had been taken.  There was a small lantern mounted on a pole which shed light on what appeared for all the world to be a makeshift camp.  There was a rumpled bedroll stretched against a row of boxes, and a small crate drawn close to the lantern like a stool.  He saw several jugs, much newer than anything he had seen in the warehouse thusfar, and where the light became dim, he thought he could make out a large pack, like a trader might strap to a mule.  Roland moved past Sebastian and walked to where the bedroll was laid out.  Still carrying Sebastian’s book in one hand, he levered another small crate off the stack and walked over, setting it down near the first.  He gestured to it and then sat down himself, placing the book on its spine in the dirt, leaning against his crate.  He looked at Sebastian intently now, and then smiled, “Well, there aren’t any bones sticking out.  I guess that’s something.”

Sebastian walked to the second crate and sat down on it cautiously.  The soft regular glow of the lantern seemed to drive back the fog of disbelief he had been lost in, and he looked again at Roland, noticing that his powerful chin did not gleam so brightly in the light, covered as it was by a fine smattering of unshaven hairs.  He took a steadying breath and then said, “Umm…t-thank you.  I’m sorry I startled you.  I didn’t mean to fall through the window.”

Roland nodded and put his hands on his knees, “How did you manage that anyway?  The window falling part, I mean.”

Sebastian looked back at the curtain, and then shrugged his shoulders, “I…I guess I was trying to get away from a dog.  And I just…fell.”

Roland nodded once more, and then said, “Some of the dock dogs are pretty vicious.  You’re lucky you didn’t get bit.”

Sebastian let his eyes roam the little camp site once more, feeling like he was missing something.  He frowned, and was almost ready to voice his concern, when Roland spoke and his throat was full of nervous lumps once more, “So, why were you in an alley by the docks anyway?  This isn’t near one of your father’s projects is it?”

Sebastian shook his head, and something in Roland seemed to soften, like a bowstring released from an archer’s pull.  He rubbed his hands together in front of the lantern, then spoke again, “So…were you down here all by yourself then?”

Sebastian looked down at his own knees and sighed, “I was at first, yea.”

Roland perked up, “At first?”

Sebastian nodded, “Yea…I was…umm…working on a project of my own.  And Gregor found me.  Gregor Tailor.  You know him right?”

Roland snorted, “Yea, I know Gregor.  He’s a coward and a cheat.  Master Harrow kicked him out of the watch because he caught him making up phony taxes to try and force bribes out of merchants.  He wasn’t more than thirteen winters then.  Did he give you trouble?”

Sebastian turned his face away, frustrated that he couldn’t keep his chin from quivering when he said, “Yes.  I guess.  I…I made him angry yesterday.  I interrupted him and a whole bunch of other guys beating up this lady.  The assistant of that Professor.  She got away, anyhow, and so did I, because of Graybeard the peddler coming along, and I guess Gregor saw me and followed me today, wanted to get back at me.”  Sebastian sniffed.

Roland was quiet for a moment and then said, “And did they?”

Though he couldn’t say why it was so easy, over the next few minutes Sebastian relayed to Roland the entirety of the events that led him to his fall, from Roland’s ambush, to his disgusting dousing of the fire, to his desperate escape.  When he was finished, Roland had a dark look, somewhere around his eyebrows, which were drawn together slightly.  He shook his head, “They made you sit in his…his…piss?”

Sebastian flushed scarlet and nodded, “Yea…I…I know I probably stink.  But…but I have to stay here until they give up.  I can go somewhere else in the warehouse though.  I don’t mind!”

He started to stand but Roland said sharply, “Sit down.  You’re not going anywhere.”

Sebastian was surprised at the anger in Roland’s tone, and he wondered if he’d done something wrong.  Without a word Roland got up and walked to the dim light where the pack was sitting.  Sebastian watched him bend over for a moment, digging in one pouch, and then he returned to the lantern, and tossed a soft lump of fabric at Sebastian.  It turned out, after Sebastian recovered the fumbled catch, that the lump was made up of a pair of undershorts and a soft white shirt which Sebastian recognized as a nightshirt.  He looked up at Roland, feeling like the clothes might burn his hands right off his body.  Roland grinned, “Well, if you have to stick around till they lose interest, we might as well rinse Gregor’s wee-juice off right?”

Sebastian’s whole face pounded with embarrassment.  He just sat there, staring blankly at the clothes, Roland Baker’s actual clothes, fresh and freely given resting in his grip.  Roland laughed, “What’s the matter?  The one with the sleeves goes over your head, and the one with the legs goes over your butt.”

Sebastian sputtered a bit and fumbled with the garments, “I..I know!”

Roland frowned, “Well?  What’s the problem?  Do you like smelling like Gregor’s wee-juice?”

Sebastian honestly thought he would die, right at the moment.  When he found he hadn’t, he looked over at Roland and swallowed, “N-no!  Of course I don’t like…you know…wee-juice.  It’s just…you know…you’re, uh, here.”

Roland’s laugh escaped with a loud spray of spittle, as if he hadn’t expected it himself, and he slapped his knee, “Really Sebastian?  I’ve got two brothers, two uncles, and six cousins all boys.  I’ve seen more peen in my life than I ever will mounds!  No reason to be embarrassed.”

Sebastian ground his teeth together, then stood up slowly, turning his back to Roland.  He set the fresh clothes on the crate, then toed his shoes off one at a time, then stood and fiddled with the hem of his shirt, lifting it a bit.  After a long minute of indecision he whipped around and snatched up the clothes, “I…I can’t!  I’m sorry!  I…I’ll go on the other side of the curtain!”

He made for the barrier, and Roland held up his hands, still laughing gently, “No, no.  It’s ok.  One of my cousins is the same way.  You already had a rough day, I’ll wait outside.”

Sebastian stood still as Roland walked to the curtain and slipped past it with a little rustle.  He waited till the fabric stopped moving and then turned his back to it.  Quickly he tugged his shirt up over his head, replacing it with Roland’s soft, oversized nightshirt.  Just as quickly he tugged his still-damp pants and underclothes down his legs, stepping out of them.  The cool warehouse air swirled around his bare lower half unsettlingly, causing him to skip back and forth between his feet as he impatiently fumbled with Roland’s wadded undershorts.  Just as he was pulling them on, a sharp whistle came from the direction of the curtain, and he stumbled forward, yanking the oversized pants up over his backside and whirling to face where Roland was.  He couldn’t help a single explosive, “Hey!”

Roland ducked back through the curtain, hands open in the air, laughing still, and said, “Easy there.  I didn’t mean to peak.  After all that fumbling I figured you had to be done.  And well…two brothers, six cousins.  I couldn’t resist.  Truce?”

Sebastian scowled, but nodded, once.  He stooped and pick up his clothes and then asked, “So…how do we rinse out the…you know…wee?”

Roland patted Sebastian on the shoulder as he walked by, this time making for the row of jugs along the wall.  He lifted one, and it was obviously heavy even for him.  He nodded towards the area of the pack and said with some effort, “Over there.  Got a chamber pot.  Emptied.  We can pour some water through the clothes into there.”

Sebastian moved quickly to the pot to get there ahead of Gregor.  He held open his soiled pants first as Roland dumped the jug sideways.  Cold water cascaded slowly down, and once the clothes were soaked, Sebastian said, “That’s enough”, and began to scrub the fabric against itself and ring it out slowly.  As he worked, the familiar motions of laundry occupying his body, soothing his nerves, the situation around him became more and more irritating, until finally he asked, “Roland…what is this place anyway?”

To Sebastian’s surprise, Roland gave a little wince.  He waited quietly until Roland spoke, “You know…it’s just a getaway.  I’ve kinda got that big family.  I mentioned.”

Sebastian nodded.  He wrung out his pants for a moment and then asked, “So…why do you keep a pack here?”  He gestured to the pack with his chin, “I…I mean…you must have an awful lot of clothes if you can keep that many here and not notice…”

Roland looked at the pack, and nodded, “Oh, uh, yea.  I guess so.”

Sebastian felt his mind beginning to sneak in reason around his swollen heart.  He spread his shirt out, waiting until Roland was done wetting it before he asked, “And the bedroll?”

Roland glanced over his shoulder, then set the jug down and said, “I…like naps.”

Sebastian scrubbed his shirt and rung it out before he said anything more.  He stood up and said, “Can we hang these somewhere to dry?”

Roland jumped a bit and held out his hands, “Here, let me.  I’ll toss them over the curtain.”

Sebastian hand Roland his clothes and watched as the taller boy threw them over the same rope holding up the curtain.  He noticed that there seemed to be a brighter light above the curtain now.  The sun was moving, shining again through what few of the warehouse windows remained unbroken.  He watched Roland as he came back with the lantern light fully on him now.  He noticed little things.  Like how wrinkled Roland’s shirt was, or the disheveled way his hair stuck up at odd angles.  He noticed the dirt stains on the knees of his pants, ground in as though he’d knelt in the dirt on and off for quite some time.  And as he drew nearer, he noticed for the first time red rings circling each of those blue green eyes.

Slowly, Sebastian sat back down on his crate, and Roland sat on his.  The easy friendly warmth was suddenly gone from the little camp.  Sebastian felt the chill of the warehouse moving easily between the loose folds of fabric Roland’s nightshirt formed on his small torso.  He looked down at his bare toes, and buried them as best he could in the packed dirt.  It was Roland who broke the frigid silence, “So…what actually is in this book?”

Sebastian looked over and saw Roland had hefted the tome into his lap and was gently tracing the picture on the cover.  Roland said softly, “Dragon?”

Sebastian nodded, seeing no reason to deny it now, “Yea.  It’s a book about dragons.”

Roland looked at him with a raised brow, “Like…what?  A storybook?”

Sebastian shook his head, “No…well…sort of.  It’s supposed to be a book about real dragons.  With real facts and all that.”

Roland absently lifted the front cover and laid it flat again, then looked at Sebastian, “Have you read it yet?”

Sebastian nodded.

Roland shrugged, “So what does it say?”

Sebastian leaned over his knees and hugged them, shaking his head, “Nothing very interesting.  It mostly says stuff anybody who’s ever heard about a dragon knows.  Like that they fly, and breathe fire, and stuff.  It uses a lot of…weird words, but it’s basically just guesses as to why they can do that stuff.”

Roland nodded, opening the book completely now and turning over a few pages before he asked, “So…why did you have this book?  Where did you even get it?”

Sebastian looked at Roland, studying him for a long time.  Finally he sat up and said, “If I tell you for real…will you tell me why you’re really in this abandoned warehouse?”

Roland looked away from Sebastian quickly when he made his offer.  He was very still, and then without turning back he said, “Yes.  I suppose I can.”

Sebastian got up and walked over to Roland.  He knelt down and began to turn the pages to certain diagrams or paragraphs.  He told Roland, slowly, and with great caution about Griot’s intervention in the alley, and about overhearing Elda about the hidden book.  He told him of the break in, though he left out Sugar’s attack, and then he showed him the places in the book he had identified as obviously having text or pictures missing.  He then flipped to the back half of the book, to the blank pages and finished by saying, “And I think that there is a certain kind of light…which will make new writing appear on the pages…and that writing is what Griot and Elda were so worried about being discovered.”

Roland let out a low whistle and closed the book, saying, “Sebastian…that’s…that’s incredible.  You really think there are invisible hidden dragon secrets in here?”

Sebastian shrugged, “I really hope so.”

Roland looked from the book to Sebastian and said, “Why?  What would you do if there were hidden secrets?”

Sebastian stopped, feeling ridiculous before he even spoke.  But eventually he said, quietly, “I’d try to stop the Dragon from killing anymore people.”

Roland stared hard at the lantern, “Do you think you even could?  Stop the Dragon?”

Sebastian laughed a little, “I guess it sounds really dumb.  I know.”

Roland looked over at Sebastian quickly, and frowned, “No it doesn’t sound dumb.  It sounds brave.”

Sebastian looked at Roland, a little shocked with the ferocity in his tone.  He shook his head, “No but…really.  Even if I had a whole library full of dragon secrets…what could I really do?  I can’t even go hunting, or join the watch, or…or anything someone who can handle a dragon is supposed to do.”

Roland was silent, and so was Sebastian.  They both knew what Sebastian said was true.  Finally, pulling his knees out from under him so he could sit cross legged, Sebastian heaved a deep sigh, and said, “I think I was just…keeping myself busy.  You know?  It made me feel…better.  I didn’t feel like I was just waiting for the next Choosing…waiting to lose another friend.  Or even one of my sisters.  And maybe somewhere I thought…maybe if I could find out the secrets…something that would help…well even if I couldn’t use it, I could tell someone who could.  I could tell someone strong and brave and clever.  Like the Mayor or Master Harrow…”  He took a long breath and then added, “Or like you.”

Roland listened to Sebastian speak, sagging just a little bit more with each word.  When he finally reached the end, reached that tiny honest confession, Roland buried his head in his hands.  Sebastian looked at him feeling confused and exposed.  He drew back a bit and stammered, “I..I’m sorry Roland…I..I didn’t mean it!  I…I was just saying you know…it wasn’t…”

Roland growled and looked up quickly.  Sebastian saw his eyes were more swollen now, and as he started to speak two tears broke free from the corners of his eyes and rolled quickly down his cheek.  He looked like a hunted animal when he spoke, voice thick with emotion, “Just…just stop Sebastian!  I…I know what you mean.  I know what you think of me!”

Sebastian winced and said weakly, “Y-you do?”

Roland buried his head in his hands again and said, “Yes…it’s what everybody thinks of me!  That I’m brave and strong.  Roland’s here, no need to worry.  Roland will take care of it.  Roland, Roland, Roland!  But I’m not any of those things.  I’m a coward.  I’m worse than Gregor.  Do you know why I’m here Sebastian?”

Sebastian felt afraid and unsure.  He had never seen Roland this…human before.  He looked at him now, angry tears streaking his face, and shoulders pulled tight, and he saw how young he was.  For the first time, he felt truly like only a few winters separated them.  He  wanted to make him better, to make him see that the things people saw in him were really true.  But all he could do was watch in stunned silence.

Roland scoffed, “I’m not here to get away from my family and take naps.  I’m running away Sebastian!  Don’t you get it?  I’m just hiding out here until the next merchant ship leaves.”

Sebastian worked his jaw for a moment before he could say, “B-but why?”

Roland shot Sebastian an angry, hurt look, “Because the Dragon started eating people.  Goram eating people!  A giant fire-breathing reptile that eats people.  What in the hell do we do about that?  Nothing.  There’s nothing you or anyone can do!  You just…watch.  You just have to watch.  Oh gods…”

Roland’s body, which looked powerful and lean before, seemed to shrink as it was wracked by a shuddering soundless sob.  Sebastian twisted his fingers together, trying to find words to say.  He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what Lydia or Thomas or Elda or even Griot would say.  No one he could imagine had anything useful to say.  So he sat, silently, while Roland let his shame pool in the dirt by the lantern.

After some time, Sebastian wasn’t really sure how long, Roland quieted, and then straightened up a little, speaking again, “I’m sorry Sebastian.  I…I didn’t want anyone to see this.  To see me…running.”

Sebastian looked at the grief swollen face of his idol and he smiled in what he hoped was a helpful way, “You don’t have to run.”

Roland looked down at his hands, and then spoke softly, “Henry.  Henry Thrushton.”

Sebastian frowned, “Who?”

Roland looked over, “Henry Thrushton.  He’s…my age.  He was… he was the member of the guard who pulled watch duty.  In the field.  The night…the night Millicent…”  Roland choked and then coughed, “H-he…saw the whole thing.  He said…he…he heard her screaming.  Right up till it…it happened.”

Sebastian hadn’t thought of that.  He hadn’t thought that the village would, of course, send a member of the guard to watch the maiden.  To make sure she didn’t escape, to make sure nothing else bad happened to her like wolves or bandits, and to…witness the Dragon’s actions.  He closed his eyes and said, “Poor Henry…”

He heard the rustle of Roland’s clothing, and he looked over to him.  He saw the youth pull two pieces of broken stick from his right pocket.  He held the pieces out to Sebastian, who could see in the light of the lantern that it was two broken halves of one stick, the end of which was tipped with thick red wax.  Roland sniffed loudly, and Sebastian looked up with sudden realization, “You drew the next watch didn’t you?”

Roland closed his eyes and nodded miserably.

Sebastian, without thinking, reached out and closed his small hands around Roland’s, encircling the broken draw.  He sidled up to his knees, “Roland!  It’ll be ok.  W-we can figure something out…y-you don’t have to leave the village.  P-please don’t leave the village.”

Roland looked down at Sebastian’s small hands and then up the length of his arm and into his earnest eyes.  He shook his head, “You’re braver than I’ve ever been Sebastian.  I’ve been terrified of the Dragon since I was little.  I used to have horrible nightmares about it.  Every night.  I’m not like you.  I…I wouldn’t ever dream up a plan to…to stop the Dragon.  All I’ve ever wanted was to get away from it.”

Sebastian felt the tremor in Roland’s hand.  He felt something change inside of himself.  Some box that he had put Roland inside was beginning to unlock.  He smiled, as best he could smile, and said, “I’m afraid of Gregor.  And I was afraid of the dog outside.  I’m afraid of forests.  And sometimes I’m afraid in my own room in the dark at night.  I was even afraid to…to change my clothes just cause you were here.”

Roland looked at Sebastian, confusion in his gaze.  Sebastian sat back, letting Roland’s shaking hand go, and looked at the dirt between his knees, “I guess…what I’m trying to say is…you probably aren’t scared by half that stuff I’m scared by.  And…and when I was scared…all this time in the warehouse…you’ve been really kind to me.  You really cared what Gregor did.  What I mean is that just because you’re scared of something, or you can’t do something doesn’t mean all of you is bad.  It doesn’t mean you’re a coward.  People didn’t just like you, and believe in you for no reason.  You did all sorts of stuff to prove you were strong and brave and clever.  Why does being scared of the Dragon change those things?”

Roland looked at the little figure of Sebastian, sitting and staring at the dirt, and he looked around the dank warehouse, and he looked at his enormous pack, filled with all the things he thought he’d need in a new life.   He wanted Sebastian to stop believing in him.  He wanted him to be shocked and angry, to yell at him and call him a traitor.  He wanted Sebastian to run out of the warehouse and tell everyone who he’d found.  But he knew, without having to question at all, that Sebastian wasn’t going to do that.

Sebastian looked at Roland, who looked worse now than ever.  He looked at the tiny campsite, and then up over the curtain.  He saw that the light was slanting through the windows now, creating bright shafts of light on the ceiling and wall.  It was late afternoon already.  Just a few more hours till the Choosing.  He slowly crawled to his feet, and took the large leather book from beside Roland.  He walked to his own crate, setting the book down, and then walked to the curtain.  He dragged his damp clothes down, and wordlessly shimmied out of Roland’s things and into his own again, feeling cold and sad.  He walked back to the crate, and began to work his shoes onto his feet.

When it was done, he picked up the heavy tome and began to walk towards the curtain.  He stopped when Roland’s cracking voice suddenly asked, “Sebastian, what if there really aren’t any secrets in that book?  What if you…can’t save anyone or make any difference at all?”

Sebastian stopped in his steps, and thought for a moment.  He hefted the book in his arms and turned halfway back to face Roland, “Well…I guess I’ll be pretty sad.  Probably mad too.  And…I dunno.  Maybe it’s smarter to do what you’re doing.  Maybe everybody should…run away from the Dragon.  I don’t even know why anyone would agree to live here at all!  If you think about it.”

He paused and then shook his head, “I can’t change that though.  I can’t make everybody leave.  I don’t have a boat big enough to carry us all away.  What I do have is a book.  That’s it.  And I can be upset, I guess, that I have a book and not a boat.  But…if there are secrets in this book, I don’t wanna miss them cause I was too busy being upset.  The book is something I have that nobody else has got.”

He took a breath, and shifted the book to one side, “And tonight, in just a few hours, my sisters are going to maybe get picked…and maybe they’re gonna have to face a Dragon that started eating people all of a sudden.  And it’s too late for them to run away.  And I bet they are scared and angry too.  A lot more than me.  But I think they’d like to know that I was working hard with my book, to help them.  Even if I couldn’t.  Even if I failed.  It might…make it better for them.  To know they weren’t all alone.”

Sebastian turned and walked a few more steps toward the curtain, and then paused one more time, speaking without turning, “I don’t think you should have to be alone either Roland.  I’m sorry.  I guess I didn’t know it could be lonely being like you.  But you know what?  If I was had to face a Dragon that was gonna eat me…and nothing could stop it…it would still be pretty amazing to have Roland Baker there with me, even if he was scared.”

Unable to bring himself to look back at Roland again, Sebastian pushed past the heavy cloth curtain into the broader warehouse beyond.  He found the afternoon sun was shining much more strongly through the broken and patched windows now, such that he could easily pick his way through the rubble.  He saw the high window he had broken through, and knew there was no chance of exiting that way now.  He sighed, still troubled by Roland’s broken spirit.  His heart was heavy as he began to trudge his way through the broken or decayed boxes, making his way slowly along the outer wall until he could find an exit.

He wondered if there were other people who felt the same way as Roland.  Powerful people, or people who were admired, that felt just as scared as everyone else.  He ran one hand along the rough walls of the warehouse as he moved along.  He thought about his experiments, and his lists.  He wondered if Gregor and his gang had returned to that spot to wait for him.  Or if they had ransacked it all, destroying and scattering anything he left behind.  He dug his fingers into the thick leather of the book in his hands and wondered how in the world he could ever even hope to even reveal the hidden truths of Elda’s tome, much less read the information, before the sun set and another girl was chosen to face a horrible fate.  He closed his eyes and visions of Lily and Gretchen and Lydia floated into his mind, and then the perfect face of Millicent Cobblestop.

He shook his head and looked up at the windows, trying desperately to judge how much time he had left.

Which was when everything changed.

As Sebastian searched the windows, trying to catch a proper glimpse of the sun, his eyes roamed the walls and ceiling with desperate speed.  And had he only been looking for an exit, he would never have had any cause to look at the upper right corner, just below the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse.  It was there, shimmering in the hazy shadows, that he saw a beautiful sight.

It was a single splash of light, small and out of place, as though it were hiding from the sun in the sky.  Of course Sebastian didn’t quite understand how it got there.  He didn’t know, as you and I know, that light can be bent.  He didn’t yet realize that glass, even the glass of a window pain, can take a sunbeam and twist it round, till it unravels like thread.  But what he could see, shining in that corner, was a band of light which vividly shown in sequence: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

The instant he caught sight of that vibrant rainbow, Sebastian knew it was the key.  He knew it with every fiber of his being.  His heart, once heavy, now fluttered against his chest as if it could escape and fly to the multicolored light straight away.  With a happy whoop, Sebastian did his best to follow suit, running, tripping, jumping, and crashing through the warehouse, right up to that high corner.  Desperately he looked for a way to climb up to it.  Dropping the book, he set about pushing boxes together.  There was already a high stack, nearby, and he made a small pyramid next to it.

He was panting by the time he finished his tower, which stretched more than halfway to the ceiling, and could be climbed, precariously, by a series of progressively taller stacks.  He began to climb, but found once the crates were higher than three, that they wobbled and creaked beneath his weight, and that the heft of the enormous tome was too much to carry.  He set the book down on one of the landing, opened it to a blank page and closing his eyes as if committing a great sin, he ripped the page free of its binding.

With the single sheet in hand, Sebastian resumed his careful ascent, pausing for each tremor that rocked his mountain of crates.  Finally, he was standing on the highest crate, clothing soaked now with water and sweat.  He trembled as he looked up to the rainbow above, which was now faded almost to nothing.  He stretched his hand out as far as he could, and found he was still nearly a foot shy of that precious, and rare light.  He looked back at the bank of windows through which the sun was shining.  He saw the sunlight glinting off one jagged shard, flashing persistently.  That was where the light was coming from.

He looked down below but saw no more crates nearby, and it had taken him almost five minutes to climb up.  The light would be completely gone by the time he could rebuild a taller tower.  He glared at the light, and he thought about Elda and Griot, and the horrible ordeal to get the book, both the real and the imagined.  He thought about Gregor, and the Professor’s assistant.  He thought about his father, and his sisters.  He unfolded the blank sheet of paper and said aloud, “I can’t hunt.  I can’t sail.  I can’t fight.  I might not be able to beat a Dragon.  But I can read!”

As he spoke, he snapped the blank paper taut, and grasped it between his index and ring finger, so that it stretched like a fan above his hand.  He braced himself against the wall and leaned, pressing his toes down into the crate below, stretching as far as his body would stretch and father, reaching for that last faint glimmer of colored light.  The white page crept inch by inch up the blackened wall, each tiny span causing Sebastian to press further and further away from his quivering tower.

And then, for only one instant, the smallest sliver of violet light grazed the white paper, exploding in radiance when reflected by the crisp white surface rather than the shadowed wooden corner.  Sebastian looked up, every muscle in his body screaming for release, but saw that light and couldn’t help a sharp loud laugh.

That was the moment the old wooden crate top on which he was standing collapsed.  Sebastian heard it before he felt it, the first ominous snapping sound joined almost instantly by a chorus of fellow cracklings.  He realized there was nothing he could do.  He could neither jump, nor step back.  He sank slowly at first, the crate lid feeling soft under his toes.  But then things became fast and loud.  A tremendous popping noise, like a bone snapping in two shot out of the box, and Sebastian’s feet were suddenly standing on nothing.  He stared up at that rainbow, because it was all he could think to do, even as his body lurched downward, already shards of splintered wood digging into his ankles and calves.  His feet slammed down into the bottom of rotted crate, and immediately his body was flung backwards by his buckling knees, away from the walls and into free air.

Or what should have been free air.

It took Sebastian several seconds of despair and flailing of arms to recognize the strong warm arms of Roland Baker around his waist.  In fact, when he first realized he was not falling, his instincts had driven him to begin striking his savior, panicked and confused.  It wasn’t until he heard that mellow voice, strained just slightly by effort, saying, “Sebastian!  Hold still!  This could fall any second…”

Sebastian instantly froze.  He realized that Roland was standing on the next crate down, bracing the broken crate with one knee, while stretching out the very arms he was now supported by to save him.  He looked down into Roland’s eyes, and saw once more tiny flecks of humor, wit, and courage dancing in their blue-green depths.  He tried and failed to keep from trembling.  With careful precision Roland drew Sebastian close to his chest, and then slid him down so that he was standing safely next to him.  Sebastian could feel Roland’s powerful breath, when he asked, “You’re trying to get up to that little bit of rainbow aren’t you?”

Sebastian nodded.

Roland looked up, and then ran his hands along the broken top of the next crate.  He whistled and asked, “And you’re pretty sure it’s the key to the book huh?”

Sebastian said without hesitation, “I know it is.”

Roland looked down at Sebastian, his eyes still rimmed in red, but his smile newly bright and said, “I’m sorry I was so selfish Sebastian.  I let the fear of what I can’t do, stop me from doing the things I can.  I don’t have a book to figure out dragon slaying secrets with.  But I’ve got a Watch draw tonight and that girl, whoever she is, won’t be alone anymore.  And I’m gonna tell her, about my friend Sebastian and his book.  And when you do figure out those secrets, you remember what else I had alright?”

Sebastian couldn’t help the big foolish grin on his face as he asked, “What else do you have?”

Roland looked down at Sebastian and winked, then leapt up onto the broken crate top, his feet falling with feather-light grace on the still sound outer edges.  Without saying a word, he reached down and swept Sebastian up into his powerful arms, and thrust him upwards, along the wall, until his head almost touched the ceiling.  Sebastian looked down in wide eyed shock, feeling at once complete terrified and absolutely calm.  Roland, who worked his shoulder under Sebastian like a seat, looked up at the Rainbow now just an arm’s reach away and said, “Balance.  I’ve got great balance.”

Sebastian laughed, a whooping victorious laugh, and quickly unfolded the page.  He wasted no time in jamming the crinkled paper directly into that corner, the full seven colored spectrum erupting in vivid glory on the stark white background.  And there, somewhere nestled between the wide green and blue bands of light, Sebastian could see glittering blue letters appear.

Advertisements

The Marvelous March to Completion: Day Nine: Frustration and Alcoholism

Dear Reader,

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.

Cheers!

kitchen1

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

The Marvelous March to Completion: Day Seven: Sebastian had friends now!

Dear Reader,

When I first sat down to expand the brief story of Sebastian in Hilsbac into a full fledged novel, I knew I would have to add in a quite a few characters to make the town interesting and the book readable.  Tonight I’m happy to introduce three new characters!  Thomas, Lydia, and Theresa, who hold the very great honor of being Sebastian’s very own scooby-gang.  They won’t feature HEAVILY in the overall story, but I want them to be vivid and memorable.  Let me know what you think!

friends1

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 ten 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.”

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

Dear Reader,

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

battletea1

 

CHAPTER 5

In which Sebastian comes to tea

By the time Sebastian finished his own retelling of the frightening and unprecedented events which led to the sacrifice of Millicent Cobblestop, he and Griot had passed through the northern town gates and walked the half mile to the enormous iron gates the surrounded the manor home of Aunt Elda.  As they slowed in front of the white rock wall, covered now in browning ivy, Griot unlaced his arm from Sebastian’s and patted him twice on the shoulder and said, “Well, I believe we have arrived at the house of Elda or Elda.  I do hope you’ll tell me a little bit more later Sebastian…for instance a little about how the Doctor who is now facing his execution came to be involved in this mess.  But for now, we should focus our minds.  You have to be of sharp wit to take tea with an Elda of any stripe.”

Sebastian nodded, feeling a little numb inside after speaking about that frightening night at such length.  He smiled weakly up at Griot and walked towards Elda’s familiar gate to unlatch it for the old man.  As his fingers touched the cool metal, Griot said softly, “I am sorry for Millicent, Sebastian.”

Sebastian hesitated, and then spoke without turning, “Yeah.  I…didn’t always get along with her.  But I don’t think she deserved to get eaten by a Dragon.”

As he turned the latch and opened the heavy gate on squealing metal hinges, he looked back to Griot and found his bearded face twisted in a silly sort of smirk.  When he furrowed his eyebrows, Griot held up a hand, “Oh, don’t mind me.  I just suppose that being eaten by a dragon might not be as bad as some other fates I can think of.”

Sebastian wondered how Griot could be so good at telling stories and also so bad at cheering people up.  So he shrugged his shoulders and indicated the house with his chin, “Well c’mon.  Aunt Elda…”

A voice from the porch, strangely rich and mellow, interrupted Sebastian, “Aunt Elda does not like the sound of a gate creaking without also the cheery hi-hellos of invited guests, Sebastian Smith.”

Sebastian cringed involuntarily and turned to find the unmistakable and enormous figure of Elda standing on her porch, filling the doorway to her home with volumes of rich lavender fabric, the sunlight glittering on the enormous jewel she always wore around her neck.  It was nearly impossible to tell how much of Elda was actually Elda herself and what was fabric and hoop skirts and formality.  He was never positive, no matter how many times he visited, if she would decide to scoot to the side and make room for him in her elegant and enormous world.  What he said at that particular moment was, “Sorry Aunt Elda!  I was bringing you a visitor I think you invited…”

Griot stepped forward just then and stroked his beard, remarking, “Well Sebastian, she certainly looks like the Elda I remember, but really how can we be sure?”

Sebastian looked back to the old peddler and frowned, “If you recognize her then…”

But Elda interrupted once more in her strangely rich voice, “An invited guest knows the way, Sebastian.  That is the first rule of invited.  The knowing of ways.”

Sebastian turned back to Elda and opened his mouth to reply, but found Griot immediately said, “An invited guest may make invitations of his own between the being invited and the arriving.  The first rule of inviting is that inviting is for later, elsewise it would be welcoming.  And welcoming is a thing which this house could learn a thing or two about.”

To illustrate his point Griot pushed the gate further open, the sudden, sharp grating sound of metal seeming now to be an accusation of disuse rather than a reality of rust.  Sebastian wanted to duck out of the way, but found himself frozen between the two as Elda said, “Welcoming is offered at the time of arriving, that is true.  But arriving is after announcing, which seems to be a task those loose lips seem oddly too tight to accomplish.”

Sebastian had never heard anyone dare to speak to Elda as Griot was now speaking.  He wanted to caution the poor old man, to make him aware how dangerous it was to talk to Elda that way.  At least, Sebastian certainly felt like he was in danger.  But Griot was already replying with not a single pause, “Announcing causes arriving, but announcing is merely annoyance if the arriving it occasions is not at the point of invitation.”

Sebastian ducked the latest verbal volley from Griot and heard Elda mutter almost inaudibly, “Not half as irritating as your whisker muffled words…”

He nearly leapt off his feet when Griot clapped his hands together sharply and hooted, “You do know it’s me then!  I can see it in your scowl!  Admit it!”

Elda sighed, and Sebastian watched her swivel her shoulders back and forth as if adjusting a heavy wait before she said, “Oh very well.  You carry the first round.  We’ll have milk with the tea afterall.  But when did you know it was me in your heart?”

Sebastian looked to see that Griot was smiling broadly, and he placed one hand over his heart as he said, “Why, my dear, never has a gate been as pretentious and unnecessary as this one.  I knew it was you from the moment your architecture irritated me.”

Sebastian stood staring back and forth between the pair, and after a moment he said, “So you do know each other?”

Griot’s shuffling steps made the gravel crackle as he passed Sebastian and began to mount the porch stairs.  He reached out a hand to Elda, who took it and smiled in a bright way Sebastian had never seen before, and then said, “Why we suspected of course.  But there is really only one way to be sure you’ve met an old friend and not some terrible changed someone or something else.”

When Sebastian said nothing, Elda clucked at him, “Why it’s obvious.  Irritation.  Anyone can make you feel good.  That’s easy.  And hurting can happen even between strangers.  Only a true friend can irritate you deep down in your heart without injuring you.  I’d hate to invite my good friend Griot to tea only to find he’s become someone pleasant and boring.”

Griot bobbed his head along with what Elda was saying as if it made all the sense in the world, but Sebastian still felt confused and a little upset.  He walked towards the house, deciding just to move on past this strange pre-tea ritual altogether and to change the subject by asking, “Aunt Elda…I’m glad Griot got here.  But I wasn’t just showing him the way.  I was coming to see you too.”

Elda’s warm smile seemed to fade a little bit.  She was actually looking at Sebastian in the way she always did, which was not unkindly, but having seen the warmth of Griot’s friendship in her eyes made her kindness seem cold by comparison.  She nodded, “Well, I suppose that is fine.  I was going to send for you tomorrow or the next day anyway.  Theresa needs some more adjustments.”

Sebastian made his way up the stairs, nodding as he went, pausing while Elda retreated into her own parlor, the fabric of her dress rustling as she seemed to fold in on herself and become smaller, like a flower closing its petals at dusk.  He followed Griot inside then, and dutifully closed the front door behind him.

Sebastian had come to tea.

Elda, or Aunt Elda as she was called by all the residents of Hilsbac, was one of the towns few enduring enigmas.  She wasn’t a mystery like a cave or a secret passageway.  You could see almost everything there was to see about Elda the instant you laid eyes on her.  She was an unusually tall woman, who dressed in unusually broad and needlessly ornate dresses whatever the weather.  Her hair was always combed or curled into tight, neat, styles so flawless that children often dared one another to attempt snatching the whole of her bun from her head simply to see if it was a wig or perhaps a fantastic animal sleeping on her head.

And everyone, from the very young to the very old, believed Elda had access to fantastic odds and ends of every variety, wig animals included.  If you didn’t believe it, all you would have to do is ask her for some implausible object or item.  She would cough into one gloved palm and then say, “Oh heavens yes dear, I believe my husband Able, Gods rest his soul, happened upon one of those when he was charting the Lost Falls of Emperor Tol’thak the Second” or “Why it’s so interesting you ask about that.  I just found the one my husband Able, Gods rest his soul, brought me for our seventh wedding anniversary, all the way from the Hidden Garden of Rangoon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastian felt triumphant.

 

CHAPTER 6

In which Sebastian steals again

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

This is not what Sebastian did next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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