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!
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?”
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?”
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.