Friday, December 8
The parking lot at Daughter of Stars Middle School was full of cars, sleighs, snowmobiles, and carts. Molly maneuvered the Jeep through the chaos of people unloading all sorts of goodies to be sold at the Bake Sale and Craft Fair. What had started as a small fundraiser for the school several years ago had become a massive undertaking, with merchants not only from the Cove but from nearby Realms coming in to offer their wares. For hosting it, the school got a cut of the sales, and the teachers got an afternoon off. Everyone was happy with the outcome.
Are you sure we remembered everything? Schrodinger asked her, as she waited for her turn to pull up to the loading area.
“You’ve asked me that four times already,” Molly said, shooting him an amused grin. “What do you think we might have forgotten?”
“We didn’t forget the tree,” Molly said, putting the Jeep in park. “I promise you.”
But where it is? Schrodinger looked back over the totes. I don’t see a tree!
“You will,” Molly assured him. “It’s there.”
Drew was waiting for them at the doorway to take the first two totes from Molly. He’d come in on his snowmobile from the Gate Station on his lunch break to help them set up, and she appreciated it. Sue was there too, already setting out dark green and red plaid tablecloths on the five tables Molly had reserved.
“I need the middle one for the centerpiece,” Molly said, as she and Drew put their totes down. “And did you bring the tree skirt?”
“I did,” Sue said, showing her a dark blue velvet skirt. “This was the one I could find.”
“Perfect,” Molly said. “The trays are in this tote, if you want to start laying them out. Drew and I will handle the rest of them.”
It only took one more trip after that. Then Drew gave Molly a kiss and Schrodinger a pat on the head before moving the Jeep and heading back to the Station. Sue watched him go with an amused look.
“Don’t be like that,” Molly teased. “Haven’t you and Luke set a date yet?”
“We’re working on it,” Sue said. “It’s been a busy year. I’m sure we’ll get around to it. Do you want me to put the candy canes in both alchemy jars, or just one?”
Molly laughed as she laid out snowman cookies on one of the trays. “Just in one – the larger one. The smaller one can have the shortbread fingers.”
“Oh, good plan!”
The table was full of packages of scones, tea cakes, cookies, and two little gingerbread houses that Molly had built in the last week. Only the middle of the display was still empty.
Schrodinger was all but dancing with impatience. Where’s the TREE?
“Okay, okay, I’m getting it out!” Molly laughed again and went over to the last tote. She opened the lid and set it aside, then reached in. Sue and Schrodinger both gasped at what she pulled out.
“Where did you get THAT?” Sue demanded, looking at the glittering silver tree that Molly set carefully on the velvet tree skirt. It was segmented and sprang together as if by magic, elegant branches each detailed and outstretched. In the right light, it would be skeletal, but here, surrounded by good food and colors, it was beautiful.
“Catherine at the Tin Shop had them,” Molly said. “She thought it might be cool as a centerpiece.”
What are you going to hang off of the branches? Schrodinger asked.
“Ornaments, of course.” Molly pulled out a package of snowflake cookies. These, rather than just being bagged, had ribbons that tied the bag shut. She slid them on to the branches, and then lifted out a gingerbread angel to set on top.
“Wow.” Sue said admiringly. “That is spectacular.”
“Thank you!” Molly said, stepping back to admire her handiwork. “I can’t wait to re-use it.”
The old school bells rang out, alerting the vendors that there were only 10 minutes left before the doors would be opened.
“Schrodinger, why don’t you go and meet the kids?” Molly suggested, and the CrossCat nodded. Jack and Aurora had declined to join them at the fair, since the mass of people who would be crowded into the gymnasium was not exactly conducive to big dogs. Schrodinger was more used to maneuvering through tight spaces.
Once he had gone, Sue handed Molly the gingerbread house order forms on two clipboards. Every year, she took orders for custom houses to be delivered a few days before Christmas.
“Old Man Winter offered to deliver them yet?” Sue asked, as they took out the sample trays for the children to walk around with.
“As long as he isn’t stopping a war, he’s doing it,” Molly replied. “He, Jack, and Jade have their hands full, if the two ‘guests’ we met yesterday are any indication.” She gave Sue a quick rundown of their ride to the Snow Queen’s castle.
“Well, I kind of have to agree with Kaylee,” Sue said. “Poor Jade. At least the Librarian is there to help her.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Ember was there too,” Molly said, and glanced at her watch. “Want a cup of tea before the hordes descend?”
They had time to drink about half their cup of tea before Schrodinger came back with Lily, Zoey, Kaylee, and Gideon in tow. Molly handed out the sample trays (laden with cookie pieces, scone bits, and business cards) to them, and said, “Any questions?”
“Did you want us to take order forms too?” Lily asked.
“No, those can stay here,” Molly said. “I’m only doing the gingerbread houses this year, and we’re keeping a strict number on those. I don’t have a lot of time this year.”
“Because of the dinner. Gotcha.” Lily nodded.
What do you think of the tree? Isn’t it cool? Schrodinger asked them.
“I think it should be hung with skeletons,” Gideon said, after considering the sculpture. “It’s definitely a Halloween tree. But it’s pretty.”
“Ooh, yes! Skeletons and candy skulls!” Kay said, nodding. “Can we do that next year for Halloween, Molly?”
“We’ll see,” Molly said. “I’m sure we can come up with something to do with it.” She glanced at her watch again. “But for now, we have—”
The bells rang again, cutting off her words, and the doors opened. With a grin, the kids disappeared into the crowd, and Molly and Sue got to work.
I wonder if we’ll see any of Jade’s guests here today, Schrodinger said. He’d opted to accompany Kaylee and Gideon around. Remember, she said we might see them in the Cove.
“I hope not,” Kaylee said, pausing to look at a display of handmade dolls dressed in various winter costumes. “They were rude.”
“I hope so,” Gideon said at the same time, offering his tray to a smiling older gentleman in a holly-decked seaman’s cap. The man put the cookie bit in his mouth, widened his eyes, and took a business card as well. Gideon pointed in the direction of Molly’s table. “It would doo them good to see people working together, and isn’t that what Jade wants them to learn? What better place?”
“True,” Kaylee said.
Schrodinger thought privately that it would take more than just the bake sale to get some of them to work together. Pavel said Cookie was coming, he said to them instead. So keep your eyes open for him. We need to find out when he wants us to come help at the Seaman’s Hall, remember?
They didn’t see the cook for The Heart’s Desire, but they did run into Doug, Drew’s cousin, who was the principal of the high school in town. He was carrying a bag full of goodies and had his three-year-old son Ryan by the hand.
“Can Ryan have a cookie?” Kaylee asked.
“Absolutely!” Doug said, beaming. “Thank you for asking!”
Ryan reached up with an eager hand to grab a cookie from Kaylee’s tray, knocking off several others in the process.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Gideon assured him, as he looked down at the fallen pieces in dismay, his lower lip trembling. “We’ll clean it up.” He turned to Kaylee. “Can you hold–?”
Shouting cut him off, and Schrodinger turned his head at the raised voices. These voices were raised in anger, not joy, but he was too short to see what was going on through the crowd. He braced his front paws on Kaylee’s side and raised himself up to look.
It didn’t help – he was still too short. He dropped down and glanced at his surroundings, catching a flash of a familiar cowboy hat.
-Steve!- he said, pushing his way to the lanky Gate Tech. -What’s going on?-
“Dunno, but it doesn’t sound good,” Steve said, as more shouting erupted.
-Can you give me a lift up?- Schrodinger asked.
Steve leaned down and the agile CrossCat jumped up on to his shoulders. Taking advantage of the man’s height as he straightened up, Schrodinger looked in the direction of the raised voices. It didn’t take him long to find them.
He didn’t recognize either of the two parties that were squaring off in a hastily-cleared circle, but he definitely recognized the person in between them: the elegant Mareesh singer Starsha, who was studying with Darien to become a Minstrel. She was standing in her silver journeyman’s robes, her small traveling lute in her hand, her dark eyes wide with surprise and fear. Schrodinger growled deep in his throat and did something he very rarely did, especially in such a crowded public place. He launched himself from Steve’s shoulder, sending the tall tech staggering back…
And vanished mid-air.
CrossCats had a special affinity for the Roads, and one of their most magical abilities was their talent for finding a path to wherever they needed to go, as long as they knew where that end destination was. Schrodinger reappeared next to Starsha, shouting at the top of his mental voice, -ENOUGH!-
The telepathic shout, combined with his sudden appearance, shocked the combatants into silence. Schrodinger stalked into the middle of the opening, sat down, and looked icily around him. -What in the Name of the Roads is going on here?-
He looked from one side to the other as no one spoke at first.
Both groups were very similar: all men, in heavily-embroidered robes, with long braids of hair hanging down each side of their faces, but no beards or mustaches. Instead, their clean-shaven faces sported elaborate tattoos on either cheek: one set were marked in green, the other in blue, but both were the same curlicue design. And both matched the colors of their robes.
-Well?- Schrodinger said, as the silence stretched on. -Isn’t anyone going to tell me why you were fighting?-
“This creature insulted me!” One of the blue-inked men pushed his way to the front of his group, sticking out his chin. “I demand an apology!”
“You?” A similar man in green sneered. “You wouldn’t know an insult if it bit you on the nose, Horace.”
Horace drew himself up. “You go too far, Francis! I know what you meant by asking her to perform THAT song!”
“What, that I liked it?” Francis snapped. “It’s just like you to make everything about you!”
“I do not!”
This time, Schrodinger added an ear-splitting howl to his mental command, causing Horace to flinch back and Francis to clap his hands over his large ears. Then the CrossCat deliberately turned his back on both men and looked at Starsha. -Are you okay?-
“I am well, friend Schrodinger,” she said in her musical voice. He was pleased to see that the color had come back into her dark face, so that her white tattoos looked like constellations in the evening sky. “I honestly do not know what happened. I was playing and this gentleman,” and she nodded at Horace, “asked if I knew a certain song.”
“And she didn’t!” Horace said, straightening. “How can a minstrel not know one of the most famous songs of Freyrock? It is an insult!”
She is not yet a minstrel, Schrodinger said, leveling an annoyed look at the man, who shrank back from him. She still wears journeyman robes. And she is not from your town. Is this the way you treat everyone who is not from your caste?
By now, Gideon and Kaylee had caught up with him, pushing their way to the front of the crowd. When they saw Starsha, they both came over.
“Are you okay?” Gideon asked, as Kaylee said, “Did they hurt you?”
“No, children, I am fine,” Starsha said, smiling down at them. “It was a misunderstanding.” She looked over at Horace. “If the gentleman would be so kind as to give me the name of the song again, I will endeavor to learn it before next we meet.”
Schrodinger thought privately that she was being far too kind, but that was the way of minstrels, he remembered. They were given safe passage because they were neutral.
“It is The Ballad of the Battle of Freyrock,” Horace said. “The saga of my illustrious ancestor, the mighty Jasper the Unwell!”
“Jasper the Moron, you mean,” Francis said snidely. “At least get his title right.”
Kaylee looked at both of them. “You two need to stop!” she scolded. “Santa is watching you! Didn’t you know that?”
To Schrodinger’s surprise, both men paled at those words.
“He-he is?” Horace gulped, looking around.
“He’s here?” Francis whispered.
“He’s coming to the Cove on Sunday,” Gideon said, tilting his head. “He comes every year to see us. I think he knows Aunt Margie.”
Both groups of inked figures whispered furiously among themselves and then hurried away.
What was THAT? Schrodinger asked, blinking.
“I don’t know,” Gideon said. “If I didn’t think it was too crazy, I’d think they were afraid of Santa.”
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