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(advent) Sunday, December 16

“Wow, look at all the people here!” Zoey paused in the doorway to the second floor of CrossWinds Books. “It’s packed!”

“Why are you surprised?” Lily said from behind her. “Santa’s coming today! Of course it’s busy!” She nudged her friend forward. “We need to get moving. The others are right behind us, and these trays are heavy.”

“Well, they won’t be when we carry them back down later,” Zoey said, moving into the crowded room. “Excuse me, folks!”

The two girls took their trays loaded with Molly’s Christmas shortbread and chocolate chip cookies over to the table on the far side of the room, almost immediately across from the large wooden chair that Nathan and Drew had pulled up earlier in the day. Molly had told them that the chair was specially set up for this every year, and had been since she could remember. There were pictures in Mrs. Barrett’s house of Molly and Nathan back when they were Lily and Kaylee’s age, sitting on Santa’s lap. Other towns claimed to have Santa visit them, but Lily knew that the real Santa came to Carter’s Cove. He was on very good terms with Aunt Margie.

They set the trays down with the others they had already brought up and then settled themselves behind the table. Gideon and Kaylee were soon with them, with Molly’s precious box of teas and her box of mismatched mugs. The large carafes of hot water, hot cider, and the one labeled “Mulled Wine,” watched over by DC, were already there.

“This is going to be cool,” Gideon said, looking out at the crowd.

“What is?” Kaylee asked him.

“Helping Molly like this,” he answered. “I like to help, and this means that she doesn’t have to do it all herself.”

“Yeah, I guess.”
He looked at her. “What’s wrong?”

“I just hope Santa doesn’t leave before we get to talk to him,” Kaylee said.

“We will,” Gideon reassured her. “Molly promised.”

And Santa was told you would be helping, Schrodinger said, coming over to them. He put his front paws on the table so he could see everything. Wow, this is amazing, even for Molly!

In addition to the trays of shortbread and chocolate chip cookies, there were slices of dark, fragrant fruitcake, the candied fruits in it glowing like rare jewels; sugar cookies frosted to look like snowflakes; rows of gingerbread soldiers; and cranberry orange tea bread slices. If anyone was going to go home unsatisfied, it wouldn’t be because there wasn’t enough food.

“And after Santa is gone, we can do the Advent calendar,” Zoey said, as the room continued to fill. There wasn’t just kids and parents either. Everyone in Carter’s Cove wanted to talk to Santa. “I wonder when he’ll arrive?”

As if he’d been waiting for those words, the air in the room changed, becoming almost electrified as whispers spread in ever-expanding ripples. “Santa’s here! Santa’s here!”

Indeed, he was. Every year he dressed a little differently, but always the blue eyes and long snowy white beard were the same. This year, his long coat was bright red, like a cardinal, and trimmed in fur so white and soft that it seemed made of snowflakes. A large, wide black leather belt wrapped around his midsection, and his boots gleamed in the light of the lamps. “Good afternoon, Carter’s Cove!” he boomed, as the crowd parted before him, opening up a path to the great wooden chair. Two elves, dressed in miniature versions of his outfit, followed him, and took up positions to either side.

The queue formed quickly, and for the next three hours, people waited to sit on Santa’s knee, even the adults. And then they thronged around the refreshment table. Lily and Zoey kept busy running up and down the stairs to get refills for the cookies, cake, and bread. Molly’s gift of kitchen witchery meant that she could keep the carafes full, for which Lily was grateful. Carrying the trays were hard enough!

On one of her trips, she paused to catch her breath and glanced over at the Advent calendar. The little cat was still in the dining room, but he was prowling around the table, looking anxiously out at the room every so often.

“Don’t worry,” Lily said. “We’re just busy right now. Once Santa is gone, we’ll be back down. We haven’t forgotten you.”

That perked him up. He jumped up onto one of the dining room chairs, curled up, and went to sleep.

I wonder how they managed to put him in there, she thought, as she carried her tray back up the stairs. Is he actually a real cat? Or is he just magic?

Did they tell him what they were doing? She hoped so. It would be cruel to think of a creature trapped in the spell, and sternly shook her head. Jade and Jack wouldn’t do that, silly. But still, I wonder what will happen to him at the end of Advent.

Finally, the line thinned out, and the happy talking died down. Molly sent the four children and three animals over to see Santa, who was talking to the elf on his right.

“You have been very busy!” Santa boomed, smiling at them. “Do you want to tell me what you would like for Christmas?”

Lily gestured to the others. “You guys go first,” she said. “I need a bit to think.”

As she waited her turn, her thoughts again turned back to the cat in the calendar. When Schrodinger had jumped down, she climbed up onto Santa’s lap.

“And have you been good this year, Lily?” he asked her, his deep voice full of jollity.

“Pretty good,” Lily said honestly. “I did fight with Kaylee a bit.” There was no use lying to Santa, after all.

“That’s good,” Santa agreed. “What would you like for Christmas?”

Lily leaned over and whispered into his ear. His face became still as he listened.

“That’s a very specific wish,” he said at last. “Are you sure that’s all you want?”

Lily nodded. “It’s the only thing that is important.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Santa said. “But it may be beyond even me.”

“Really?” Her eyes widened. “But you’re SANTA CLAUS.”

“Everyone has a limit, even me,” Santa told her. “But in this case, perhaps I can help.” He smiled at her. “Merry Christmas, Lily.”

“Thank you, Santa!” Lily jumped down from his lap and ran to help the others carry things down stairs. If Santa could grant this wish, she decided, she would be even better next year than she had been this year.

(advent) Saturday, December 15

The snow had finally ended around noon on Friday, and to Kaylee and Gideon’s delight, Old Man Winter himself had brought his massive sledge to bring them back to their car, then to the library to drop off the box (which turned out to be full of books wrapped in brown paper, mysterious packages of delight that the librarian, Mr. Staphert, took with effusive thanks), and then back to the bookstore. The calendar had been waiting for them, the kitten looking very concerned, his tail lashing back and forth. He’d been in a room that looked an awful lot like Molly’s pantry back home, if her pantry had been decorated, and the package he’d opened had given a puff of smoke that said “Good things happen when you have friends to help!” and then had dropped pieces of gingerbread into their hands. Gingerbread studded with candied fruits, like rich jewels, that melted in their mouths, and which they shared with everyone else.

Now, Schrodinger was curled up on his bed beside the wood stove with Aurora and Zoey, who was looking MUCH better but was grumpy at missing the sleepover.

“Man, I always seem to miss the fun stuff!” she complained. “Did Brynna cook for you?”

She and Molly put their heads together and made gingerbread pancakes and maple bacon, Schrodinger admitted. It was yummy. Then he laid a soft paw on her lap. But don’t worry – Brynna said she had so much fun that we need to do it again! So you can come the next time!

That cheered Zoey up, as did the eruption of sound as Lily, Kaylee, and Jack came through the front door. The next few minutes were spent in bringing Zoey up to speed, and waiting impatiently for Gideon to come in.

“You’re late!” Kaylee said to him, as he and Kiaya came through the door.

Gideon looked at his watch and frowned. “No, we’re not,” he said. “We said 10 am, and it’s 9:55. We’re early.”

“You came last,” Kaylee said. “That means you’re late.”

“No, it means we’re later than you,” Gideon corrected her, as Kiaya tried and failed to hide a smile. “Are you feeling better, Zoey?”

“Loads! And I hope whatever the calendar gives us to do today is outside. I’m sick of being inside!”

“Well, let’s go see,” Kiaya said, leading the way to the kitchen, where Molly was cutting out gingerbread walls for the houses she was constructing.

“That smells like breakfast from yesterday!” Lily said, inhaling deeply. “I love gingerbread.”

“Me too,” Molly said, putting her knife down. “I think one of the new teas I get will be gingerbread flavored.”

That caught all their attention. “How are you going to do that, Molly?” Kiaya asked.

“Yava and I are working on some new teas together,” Molly admitted. “I’m not ready to sell them yet, but by mid-January, they should be available.”

“Ooh, that’s so cool!” Lily said excitedly. “What other flavors are you doing?”

“The Christmas tea, of course,” Molly said. “And a decaf version that I’m testing now.” She indicated the steaming mug by her elbow. “And we’re working on an Earl Grey for Schrodinger.”

Really? That’s awesome! The CrossCat bounced. I love Earl Grey!

Molly smiled down at him. “I know.” Then she stretched, trying to get the kinks out of her back. “So if you can think of any other flavors you’d like to see, I’ll be happy to talk to Yava about it. But now, let’s see what your calendar has in store for you today.”

They all clustered around the calendar. “Good morning, kitten!” Zoey said. “What is up today?”

The little cat had been sitting in the pantry’s doorway, obviously ready to get things underway. As he trotted into the next room, his tail caught the ribbons from the package from the other day, giving him a long trail of red ribbon that had all of them giggling.

The next room was the grand dining room, and to Schrodinger, it looked very much like the table at Molly’s parents’ house, especially since it was set for the Christmas dinner. In the center of the table was a small tree, covered in what looked like beaded ornaments in all different colors. The plates were white with gold edging, and each setting had a red linen napkin, intricately folded to resemble trees. The feast wasn’t on the table yet, but Schrodinger could imagine what would be there: turkey and stuffing, Molly’s fluffy rolls, green beans and mushrooms and squash and so much more, they’d be eating leftovers for days. And that didn’t even start to count the desserts…

The kitten didn’t go straight to a chair, but ducked his head under the dark green tablecloth, obviously looking for something. To their surprise, he pulled out a picnic basket, edged with green and red ribbon. He nosed up one side, and the expected smoke rose. “Time to make sure others are happy too!” it said, and then came out of the calendar, formed an arrow, and went out towards the front door.

“Wait for us!” Gideon said, and they all ran out, shouting goodbyes over their shoulders.

The arrow led them down the freshly-plowed sidewalks towards Merchant Square, which was one of the hearts of Carter’s Cove. It was an area they knew well, and Schrodinger wondered what was up now. As they followed it along, they called out greetings to the shopkeepers they knew. The square was alive with music, not from radios, but from performers who were set up outside of the shops.

“I love Christmas in the Cove,” Lily said, as they entered The Chocolate Bean, the coffee shop run by Katarina and Mick. “It always sounds so nice.”

“It smells nice too,” Zoey said, inhaling deeply. Katarina, who was frosting a chocolate cake, smiled at them from the counter.

“Good morning!” she said in her musical Austrian accent. “Are you here to help us then?”

The smoke arrow turned into the words “Yes we are!” and then burst into sparkles and faded out.

“I guess so!” Gideon said. “What are we doing?”

Katarina lifted the counter-top to allow them to go into the back room, where her husband Mick was busy. “Go see him,” she said. “He’s got everything for you!”

Mick did have everything: two large thermoses full of hot cocoa and cider, and wrapped packages of butcher’s paper that were warm to the touch, and contained meat hand pies. “You have an important mission today,” he told them, his Scottish brogue a deep counterpoint to Katarina’s lighter voice. “All those musicians out there need to be fed for lunch. Think you can handle it?”

“We can!” Lily said. “But we should have borrowed Molly’s little wagon. Those will be heavy to carry.”

“That’s not a problem,” Mick said, and opened the back door. “Think you can handle this?”

“This” was a little sleigh, although the back was covered with a lid, rather than having seats. It was painted in blue and green with silver accents. Mick picked up the lid, and showed them what he’d built inside: a warming box, well insulated, which would keep the hand pies warm. The two thermoses went on the back of the sleigh.

“And we can pull it!” Gideon said.

Not you, me! Aurora bounced into the area between the traces, and she was right. It fit her perfectly, and there was even a harness that Mick put on her.

“I made this for the goats,” he admitted. “Well, are you guys set?”

Let’s go! Schrodinger said, and they headed out into the square.

(advent) Friday, December 14

Molly’s first thought was that her bed felt weird. Not cold, but the comforter wasn’t hers, and while Schrodinger was sleeping in his normal spot at the end of the bed, Drew wasn’t there. In fact, the narrow bed wouldn’t have fit both of them.

Then she remembered the night before, when Kris had found them on the side of the road and brought them back to Brynna and Paul’s house, where they met Paul and Brynna just coming back in their own sleigh. The couple was delighted to see them and happily put everyone up in the house for the night. Nathan, Kiaya, and Drew had been informed, and then Corrine had called the police to let them know about the abandoned car.

Now, Molly looked out the window. It was still snowing, which meant all she could see was a curtain of lace obscuring everything. She shifted, and Schrodinger said sleepily, Is it still snowing?

“Yes,” Molly said. “It’s doing exactly what Aunt Margie said. I wonder how long Paul and Brynna will have to put up with us.”

Not long. Drew will come and get us on the snowmobile, or we can get a ride home with Kris. Or Old Man Winter. Schrodinger shifted into a tighter coil. Do I have to get up?

“No,” Molly said. “But I need to. I need tea.”

She found that Brynna had left her a bathrobe and slippers, and so dressed, went downstairs to investigate the kitchen. As she’d suspected, both Brynna and Kris were already up, and there was a pot of hot water on the stove, waiting for tea. “You two are amazing,” Molly said, accepting a mug and picking through the tea bags offered to her. “Thank goodness you came along when you did, Kris. That was a stroke of luck.”

“Hardly,” the older woman said from her seat in front of the wood stove. Brynna had both a wood stove and a regular stove/oven, but she preferred the wood stove in the winter. Molly couldn’t really blame her. “I got told you’d need help.”

Molly’s hand paused over the top of the mug at that. “Who told you?” she asked, turning to look at Kris.

“SHE did,” Kris said, and tapped the side of her head. “The lady living in my head.” Then she chuckled at Molly’s look of confusion. “Get your tea, and I’ll tell you.”

She waited until both Molly and Brynna had settled back down next to the stove and then said, “You know about Eidolons, right?”

“Yes,” Molly said. “Apparently I’m good at fighting them, although I’m not sure how.”

“Probably because you care,” Kris said. “Anyways, you know how they need a vessel, right?”

“No, actually,” Molly said. “The extent of my knowledge is that they exist, and somehow, kitchen witchery scares them.”

“Interesting,” Kris said. “I wonder why…” Then she shook her head, cutting herself off. “Never mind. Well, let me tell you a bit about Eidolons. They have to have at least one vessel in order to do much of anything. Eidolons are emotions made real, but unless they are incarnated into a living thing, mortal or immortal, they can’t do much. Once they are incarnated, they can channel their energy through the vessel and actually start affecting the world around us.”

“Interesting,” Molly said. “How do you know about them?”

“My village was the home of an Eidolon,” Kris said. “We grew up knowing that perhaps one of us would be chosen to be her vessel, once her current vessel had decided to retire. That happened when I was only 18, and I was chosen.” She paused. “It was a grand ceremony, but rest assured, it did not make me special in a good way. When you serve an Eidolon, even a kind one like in our village, you give up everything that you thought you would do in your life.”

“Why?” Brynna asked. “That was something I never understood. Especially for your Eidolon.”

“Especially for the Eidolon I serve,” Kris said. “It has to do with the travel. It’s hard to travel where you are needed if you have a family, or a job that isn’t portable.” She shrugged. “Can you imagine having to drop everything if you have a babe in arms? Or a shop that needs to be watched?”

“But aren’t you building a store here?” Molly said. “Doesn’t that interfere?”

“Not this time,” Kris said. “The reason I’m here is because the village that I used to live in, that the Eidolon used to rest in, is gone. So we need a new home base, and the Snow Queen was kind enough to let us settle here.”

“What is the Eidolon you serve, if you don’t mind my asking?” Molly said.

Kris’ blue eyes twinkled. “Sure, and do you really have to ask, child? What do you think?”

Molly’s answer was drowned out by the thundering of feet coming down the stairs, and moments later, the kitchen was invaded by hungry children.

“It’s still snowing! Can we play in the snow after breakfast?” Kaylee asked. “I’m hungry!”

“We still need to get to the library!” her older sister reminded her. “Then we can play.”

“I doubt the library will be open today,” Brynna said, glancing out the window. “I think you might be lucky if there’s anything going on outside today. Except for getting you guys home. But let’s see what I have for breakfast.”

We have a Molly, Schrodinger said, yawning a bit. We’re fine.

(advent) Thursday, December 13

Molly? Do you have a minute?

“I always have time for you,” Molly said, turning from the dishwasher and smiling down at Schrodinger, who had come in to the kitchen quietly. Her smile faltered when she saw the droop of his ears and tail. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling okay?”

You and Drew would tell me if you didn’t want me to live with you anymore, wouldn’t you?

The tone of his voice broke her heart. Molly knelt down and hugged him to her. “We would, but that day will never come,” she said fiercely. “This is your home for as long as you want.”

He relaxed into her. Can I ask another question?

“Of course.”

What have you and Drew been talking about when you thought I wasn’t around?

Molly chuckled. “Trust you to sniff that out,” she said. “It’s a secret, but I trust you.” She whispered into his ear. “But you can’t tell anyone else,” she said at the end.

Schrodinger’s eyes were wide. Really?

“Really.” Molly nodded. “Are you ready for that?”

I can’t wait! Excitement had chased all the despair from his frame, and he put both his front paws on her shoulders. This is going to be the best!!!

“I hope so!” Molly said, hugging him again. “Feeling better now?”

Loads!

“Good, because I think I just heard Corrine’s jeep come into the yard,” Molly said, getting up. “I wonder if Zoey’s feeling better today?”

There was no Zoey or Aurora in the group that came into the kitchen, although Corrine said she should be out and about the next day. “Her fever is gone, but her mother wanted her to rest up,” Molly’s sister-in-law said. “You two ready to join us?”

“I just need my coat,” Molly said.

“Don’t forget the Advent calendar!” Kaylee said.

“It’s still at the bookstore, silly,” Molly said, tousling her blonde hair on the way. “We have to run an errand for Aunt Margie, so we’re going there first.”

“Grab your big boots,” Corrine said. “It’s snowing to beat the band on. I’m not sure how late we’re going to stay out tonight.”

Corrine hadn’t been lying. Small flakes fell with determination, making their lights all but useless. “I wonder if we should cancel,” Molly said softly, looking out the window.

“We’ll see,” Corrine said. “I know how much they want to do this.”

“Yes, but not if it’s dangerous.”

Aunt Margie said the same thing when they got into the bookstore. “I’m surprised you folks came out,” she said. “It looks like this snow is going to park itself over the Cove and not move for a few days.”

“We couldn’t not come!” Kaylee said. “We need to do the Advent calendar!” Schrodinger, Lily, Jack, and Gideon all nodded in agreement at that.

“Well, I’d do it quickly,” her great-aunt said. “Soon they’ll probably close the roads.”

Molly’s eyes widened. “Really? They don’t normally do that.”

“Hudson just announced it over WCOV,” Aunt Margie said. “So unless you’re planning on taking a magic sleigh, I’d hurry it up.”

Molly ushered them in to the kitchen. “Let’s go, let’s go!”

As if the kitten had sensed their urgency, he was already moving into the hall that connected the conservatory to something that looked something like a kitchen, except minus the stoves. There were two huge sinks, though, and a large cabinet that held china dishes and mug. It wasn’t a large room, but even here, where it looked like the household did nothing but wash dishes, there was a garland of greenery strung around the edge of the ceiling, and a candle with a little bunch of holly burned on the windowsill. The little cat jumped up on a stool and then peered into the sink.

“Don’t get wet! Or break the dishes!” Gideon said quickly.

Luckily, the kitten didn’t jump all the way in. Instead, he dipped a paw in, as if he were stirring whatever was in there. A huge soap bubble came up from the sink and popped as if it were poked.

“Be careful! You have an interesting trip ahead of you!” Then, the smoke words swirled together and shot out of the calendar, into the kitchen and then out the kitchen door.

“Follow it!” Lily shouted, and they did. It didn’t go very far, either. It stopped right at the counter where DC was standing with a large box, and burst into sparkles above her head.

What are you sending, DC? Schrodinger asked.

“Nothing,” DC said, grinning at them. “But you guys have volunteered to take these over to the library for their giving tree!”

“What’s a giving tree?” Kaylee asked.

“You’ll find out when you get there!” DC said, and hefted the box. “Let me bring this out to the car for you.”

Once they were back in the Jeep and buckled in, Corrine steered out into the road. The snow seemed to be annoyed that they were out, and Molly could barely see in front of them. She looked at her sister-in-law. “Maybe we should head home instead?”

Corrine bit her lip as they moved through the curtain of falling snow. “Well, we’re heading that way,” she said finally. “If we need to, we’ll stop at the house and you guys can…”

Look out!

Jack’s warning bark echoed in the jeep’s interior as another car loomed out of the storm and nearly hit them. Corrine wrenched on the wheel and the big vehicle ended up in a snow bank.

“Is everyone okay?” Molly asked, twisting around to see the kids and animals in the back seat.

We’re okay, Schrodinger assured her. We were all buckled in. Who was that?

“I don’t know, but they didn’t stop,” Corrine said grimly, putting her flashers on. “And I think we might be stuck.” She put the jeep in reverse, and sighed as the wheels spun. “Never mind think. We are stuck.”

“Oh no!” Molly said, pulling her phone out of her pocket. “Well, I guess we should call someone with a sleigh.” She looked out the window. They were about 3/4 of a mile from the store, but walking in the storm would be just as dangerous. “I wonder if Pavel will come get us.”

But no one picked up at Brynna and Paul’s. Molly was dialing the Station when all of a sudden Kaylee said, “I hear bells!”

“I bet it’s Old Man Winter!” Lily said excitedly. “He’s coming to save us!”

There was indeed bells coming, and moments later, two huge reindeer heads loomed out of the storm. But it wasn’t Old Man Winter driving the sleigh. Instead, Kris looked down at them and said, “Sure, and this is a mess. Would you like a lift?”

(advent) Wednesday, December 12

Nelson sat in a corner of the Harbormaster’s Hall, a cup of strong coffee cradled in his callused hands, and brooded. The large hall was light and airy most of the time, but the weather had turned grey and forbidding, and his corner in particular was gloomy. Not that he minded – to him, the entire world was gloomy, and had been for a very long time, and he had resisted any efforts to pull him out.

Not that the Cove wasn’t trying. His scowl was usually enough to keep anyone away, but apparently the people in this town didn’t know that a scowl meant leave him alone. Even here, there was a person coming towards the table, a cup in his hand.

“Mind if I join you?” the stranger asked.

“Yes,” Nelson said curtly. “I’m not interested in company.”

“You’re in the wrong town then, my friend,” the other man said, sitting down across from him. He was tall and slender, with long white hair that fell in drifts over his shoulders. His plaid shirt and blue jeans were plain cotton, and sat easily on his rangy frame. The very tips of his pointed ears poked through his hair. “Or maybe you’re in the right one, to change your mind.”

“My mind doesn’t need changing,” Nelson said shortly. “It’s fine.”

“You know how many people I’ve heard say that?” the stranger laughed.

“No, and I’ve no wish to.” Nelson lifted his cup and drank. “I wish to be left alone.”

“Do you? Then why are you here, instead of at home?”

“Hard to be at home when you don’t have one anymore.” Nelson scowled again.

The stranger’s face transformed, his good humor metamorphosing into concern. “You are homeless? Then you must join me at my home! This is not a season to be homeless!”

“I have a room to return to,” Nelson said, and wondered why he was talking this much. “I do not need your charity.”

“Hardly charity,” the stranger said. “Are you certain?”

In answer, Nelson downed the rest of his coffee and rose. “Yes,” he said, and strode away before the man could say anything else. He had no wish to continue the conversation.

<><>

Father Christopher raised his mug to his lips, his eyes wary. “I’m not sure about this, Molly.”

“Trust me, Father,” Molly said. “I think you’ll like it.”

“I always trust you,” he said, and sipped the tea she’d poured into his cup. His eyes widened. “What is this?”

“It’s a new spiced herbal tea that Yava sent me, and it’s supposed to help soothe the lungs,” Molly said. “I remember how much you coughed last year, and thought it might help us to get ahead of it this year. Pneumonia is not fun.”

“No,” he agreed.

She pushed a small tin over to him. “You’ll want to do one mug of this before bed, steeped for 10 minutes in hot water. If your throat is bothering you, add a bit of honey. NOT whiskey.”

“Perish the thought,” he said piously, then winked at her.

Molly was going to respond when Kaylee, Lily, and Gideon came in, followed by Jack and Schrodinger. “No Zoey and Aurora?” she said instead.

“She wasn’t in school,” Lily said. “Ms. Temple said she was sick.”

I can confirm, Schrodinger said. I went and checked – Aurora said she was running a fever and doing a lot of sleeping.

“Poor Zoey!” Molly said. “I’ll send over a care package for the family later today.” She looked at them. “Well, did you want to do the calendar now?”

“I’m fascinated by this,” Father Christopher said, joining them in front of the tapestry. “The Snow Queen and Jack have outdone themselves this year!”

“Kitten, who are we helping today?” Gideon asked.

The little cat, who had been frolicking in the snow in the back garden, now trotted into a glassed-in room that was full of tropical plants. He shook himself, shedding snowflakes that melted almost immediately in what was obviously warm air.

“What kind of room is that?” Kaylee asked, her eyes wide.

“The Victorians called it a conservatory,” Father Christopher told her. “Now, you would call it a sun room.”

“It looks like the Gate Room at the Station,” Lily said. “You know, with all the grass and plants, and the glass ceiling.”

It does! Schrodinger said. I love how it’s green all year round in there.

“Me too,” Molly agreed.

The conservatory was a riot of colors, as flowers bloomed all over the place. Molly saw orchids and poinsettias, lilies and iris, as well as plants she couldn’t name. The taller plants had white lights twined around them, and there was a wreath on one door, the one that led back into the house. As they watched, the little cat stopped at a basket that held gardening gloves, snips, and other paraphernalia. He tugged out the gloves, and flipped over a hat that they’d been hiding. The familiar smoke drifted up and turned into letters: “Brighten the world with color. It goes so well with the snow!”

Kaylee cocked her head to one side. “Are we coloring then, today, kitten?”

In answer, the smoke seeped from the calendar and began to whirl around them before dropping something into their hands.

“Gloves?” Kaylee said. “What does that have to do with coloring the world?” She looked at the others. Gideon had a hat, and both Jack and Schrodinger had scarves. Lily had a basket with a bright ribbon on the top of it.

“Well, well, well,” Father Christopher said, looking at their prizes. “Do you know, that looks exactly like the baskets I have back at the church for the poor. Would you like to help me put them together?”

“That will definitely brighten the world,” Lily said. “We’d love to help!”

<><>

“You know, it’s been too quiet.”

Jade looked up from the book she’d been reading when Jack spoke. They were seated in their private living room, which had a large fireplace and comfortable chairs, as well as several magical statues and devices scattered about the room. Jack had been leaning over their scrying pool, a golden bowl set in a tripod that came up to his waist. Now he straightened up, shaking his head.

“Quiet is not a bad thing,” Jade said, setting a velvet bookmark on her page.

“I think it might be, given the circumstances this year,” he replied. “Did you know Percy’s ship pulled into port yesterday?”

“Yes, the Harbormaster told me.” She closed the book and looked over at him. “But he’s not a threat.”

“No, but it’s one more thing,” Jack said, shaking his head. “I just wish I knew who had taken the Advent calendar. It’s bugging me.”

She stood up and went over to him, slipping an arm around his waist and looking into the shimmering silver magic in the bowl. “I know, my love. All will be revealed in good time, though. We have to trust the Eidolon.”

“Do we?” He put his chin on the top of her head.

“Well, do you have another idea?” she replied.

“Not yet,” Jack admitted. He sighed. “I just don’t like feeling that I’m not in control.”

“Trust the Eidolon,” Jade said again. “This Eidolon has never steered us wrong.”

“That we know of,” Jack said.

(advent) Tuesday, December 11

Tuesday, December 11

Come on, Molly! Schrodinger danced around the kitchen, anxious to be off. We’re going to be late!

Molly laughed at him as she pulled her coat on. “We can’t be late, silly,” she said. “They have to wait for us to get to anywhere else! Besides, we have everything they need to finish the surprise!”

That was true enough, Schrodinger had to admit. The special supplies they had picked up after picking out their trees yesterday were safely stowed in the back of Molly’s Jeep. But still! I can’t wait!

“Me either,” Molly agreed, following him out on to the porch. “They are going to be so surprised.”

It was a glorious bright afternoon, the kind of winter day with a sky so blue it stretched forever, and every snowflake sparkled in the bright light. A sharp wind, smelling of pine and snow and crisp cold, made the ribbons on the wreaths that Molly and Schrodinger had hung on the railings of the porch dance. He could taste the faintest bit of sea salt – even inland, you could smell the sea in Carter’s Cove. Schrodinger dashed across the yard and waited impatiently for her to reach him so she could open the front door.

Hudson was playing Christmas carols on WCOV, the radio station for Carter’s Cove, and Molly and Schrodinger sang along at the tops of their lungs as they drove into town to pick up the others. By the time they pulled into Molly’s traditional parking spot behind the bookstore, she was fully into the Christmas spirit.

Which was good, because waiting for them inside the bookstore was not what they had expected at all.

“You are not going to get away with this!”

The words hit Molly like a sledgehammer, and she very nearly reeled backwards away from the speaker: an angry man with a towering beard that bristled threateningly at Kris, who looked supremely unconcerned.

“Sure, Nelson, and what should I be getting away with?” Kris countered. “It’s not as if it affects you at all, you know.”

Nelson’s face went even redder, and he swung around, looking for another target. His gaze fell on Molly. “Do you know what this woman means to do here?” He asked, stabbing an accusing finger at Kris.

“Move into the Cove and open a shop?” Molly said, looking at Kris. “Making a living?”

“A living?” Nelson shouted. “More like a dying! And the one dying will be this town! He glared back at Kris. “I won’t let you do it! I won’t!” And then he pushed past Molly and stomped out of the store.

“What was his problem?” Molly asked Kris.

Kris shook her head, the long grey braid swinging with the movement. “He’s an unhappy man, is Nelson. His is a long, sad story, and I’ve no wish to go over it now. Not at Christmas. Some folks just can’t move on.”

Did he live in a town you lived in? Schrodinger asked, coming up to her. Is that why he doesn’t like you?

Kris leaned down and stroked Schrodinger’s ears. “We knew each other a long time ago, in a place that doesn’t exist except in our memories. And while I’ve learned to put those into the past, not everyone has. Some day, Nelson will have to own up to the fact that our village is gone, and then he will be forced to deal with the present, instead of obsessively going over the past.” She sighed. “I can only hope that it is sooner, rather than later. Perhaps this place will be good for him.”

If any place can be, it would be here! Schrodinger agreed. This is an amazing town to live in!

“Sure, and it is.” Kris smiled. “Molly, I realize it is your day off, but may I bother you for a bit about tea?”

“Of course!” Molly said, leading the way in to the kitchen. “We’re waiting for the others to get here anyways. How can I help?”

Kris followed her in, and took the seat that Molly offered. “I’m looking for a good tea to leave in a crock pot, for a party. Something that will appeal to a wide range of people, but will be okay to sit.”

Molly frowned thoughtfully. “Are you thinking of a black tea, or an herbal?”

“I don’t know.” Kris spread her hands. “I bow to your expertise.”

“Wait here.” Molly moved into the pantry, already running scenarios in her head. Not a black tea, she mused. An herbal is more forgiving to sitting, and that means that everyone can have some. Perhaps a mix on cider – there’s that spiced apple tea that would be lovely.

She chose a few tins from the shelf and brought them back into the kitchen to find her new friend examining the Advent calendar, Schrodinger at her side.

“And it brings you magical gifts?” Kris was saying.

Sometimes. Mostly it brings us things to do, and it’s loads of fun! Schrodinger said. I can’t wait to see what we’re doing today!

“You are lucky indeed to have such friends that give you such things,” Kris said admiringly. “Perhaps one day I too shall have that kind of friend.” She looked over at Molly. “What have you found for me?”

“I think this would be best, especially if you put it into an apple cider,” Molly said. “I’m going to mix a few of my herbal teas together for you, and then you can float it in the crock pot.” She pulled out a bowl, and then an empty tea tin, and got to work. It was a simple task, and soon she handed the tin to Kris. “Just use a quarter of a cup of the tea mixture to the crock pot,” she said. “It would be best if you put the herbs into a square of cheesecloth or muslin, and then tie it up. Easier than a tea ball, and you won’t get the weird metallic taste in the cider.”

“That’s perfect!” Kris beamed as she accepted the tin. “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” Molly said. “Consider it a welcome to the Cove gift.”

“Then you must come to my party!” Kris said. “All of you!” She looked at the children who had just trooped in. “You will, won’t you?”

“A party? Of course!” Kaylee said. “When is it?”

“December 19 is the date I’m planning,” Kris said. “So I can open the store before Christmas.”

“Oooh,” Lily said. “That sounds awesome!” She looked at Molly. “We can go, can’t we?”

“As long as your parents say so, I don’t see why not,” Molly said. She looked at her regular calendar. “It’s a Wednesday, so I’ll be here, but I’m sure I can stop over at some point, and you guys will be out of school by then.”

“Yay!” Gideon said, and he grabbed Kaylee’s hands, the two of them whirling around in glee. “I love parties!”

“Guys, guys, come on, we need to see what the Advent calendar is having us do today!” Zoey said, giggling a little at the antics of the younger children. Then she turned to Kris. “Would you like to help us?”

“Absolutely!” Kris said. “What do we do?”

“We watch,” Lily said, and pointed to the little cat, who was sitting on the stairs, obviously waiting for them. “What are we doing today, kitten?”

He jumped to his feet and trotted down the stairs and then through the hall, stepping into a back garden that was coated with snow. There was a Christmas tree out here, decked with long strings of cranberries and popcorn. Suet balls shaped like bells and gingerbread men hung on it, along with apples, and the top of the tree had a nest, with a beautiful red cardinal perched on the edge, his beak close to the beak of his mate, who sat within the nest.

“Oh, what a pretty tree!” Zoey said. “I love how it’s for the birds and animals! Just like we planned for Indi!”

It’s like he knew! Schrodinger said. I wonder how the Snow Queen knew what we were going to do!

“She’s the Snow Queen,” Molly reminded him.

The little cat had sniffed the tree and then gone over to the big snowman that someone had built. The snowman had a jaunty red scarf tied around his neck, and a big black top hat, with a sprig of holly tucked into the hat band. A pipe was stuck into his smiling face, and his bright eyes were bricks of charcoal that sparkled with magic and mischief. As they watched, he leaned over to the cat and patted its head with one mittened hand, then looked up and out, and raised his hat politely to them. The expected smoke came out of the hat, and formed the words, “Remember that this is the season to help others. And have fun!”

“Sure, and isn’t that amazing,” Kris said, as the smoke came out of the calendar. It wrapped around each child, and as they watched, it dropped suet stars into their hands.

“Thank you, calendar!” the children chorused, and then turned to Molly.

“Do you think Indi will like it?” Lily asked.

“I do!” Molly said. “Did you guys bring your skates?”

“Mom said she’d meet us there with it,” Zoey said. “So let’s go!”

(advent) Monday, December 10

Monday, December 10

Hey, Molly, do you mind if I head out for a few hours? Schrodinger poked his head around the edge of the kitchen door.

“No, but don’t forget to be back by the time school gets out,” Molly said, looking at the clock on the wall. “You’ve got about four hours.”

That will be enough, Schrodinger said. I just need to talk to someone.

Molly left her task and went to kneel down next to him. “You know you can always talk to me, right?”

He leaned into her, feeling the warmth of her presence as she put her arms around him. I know, he said. But I need to talk to someone who isn’t you. It’s something… He trailed off, not sure how much to say.

“Something for Christmas?” Molly suggested.

Yes. Schrodinger looked up at her, glad of her help. You understand.

“Absolutely.” She gave him another hug and got back to her feet. “Have fun.”

Schrodinger nodded and went out the front door before he could see anyone else. He trotted jauntily along the road for a few minutes, until he sensed a Road coming near him. Then he jumped up into the air, and disappeared, landing back on the cool magical surface of the Road that led out of Carter’s Cove, and to a place he rarely visited any more.

The magical Roads that connected the Realms were like highways in the human world, allowing beings and items to move between the various planes that were inhabited. CrossCats were one of the few mortal races that could use the Roads instinctively, and they were highly prized as couriers and navigators. Once, Schrodinger himself had thought he might end up as a courier. Then he’d met Molly and Drew, and decided that contrary to many of his kin, he didn’t want to not have a home. They had made him welcome. They were his family.

Now, though, with all the changes coming through, he wasn’t as sure of his place as he had been. Neither Drew nor Molly had said anything to him, but that might only be because they weren’t sure what to say. And he didn’t want to be the one to broach it, not if they hadn’t thought about it. To be perfectly honest, Schrodinger realized that he was afraid they wouldn’t want him around any more.

Which is probably nonsense, the logical portion of his brain said. I mean, come on. You are as much a member of the family as Drew is, and Molly would have said something to me.

She wouldn’t let me worry about this. She loves me. She and Drew want me around. I just wish that I could talk to them about it, but what if they didn’t think it was an issue? What if they realize it would be easier if I wasn’t here?

No, Molly wouldn’t let me stew….

Well, but you are stewing, another voice in his head said. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be standing in the middle of a Road, talking to yourself, would you?

Schrodinger shook his head and looked around, shocked. He WAS standing there in the middle of the Road, but he was no longer along. A larger CrossCat sat next to him, watching him with sharp but kindly green eyes, an embroidered collar around her dark neck. I’m assuming you were coming to see me, the Librarian said, the tip of her ebony tail twitching in amusement. I could hear you thinking about it in the Lair.

Schrodinger hung his head. I’m sorry, he said.

Sorry for what?

For disturbing your studies, Schrodinger said. The Librarian was always studying something.

Darling kitten, studies can wait. The Librarian swatted him playfully with her paw. What are you so worried about? Tell me.

<><>

True to his word, Schrodinger trotted through the door about 5 minutes before the others, and Molly saw with pleasure that his eyes were brighter than they had been in the last few days. Wherever he had been, the news had cheered him up, which was good. She’d been worried enough that she was thinking of going to the Librarian for help, since the CrossCat had been Schrodinger’s teacher. Was still his teacher, as far as she knew. Now it looked like that wasn’t necessary.

The tea room had been quiet all day, since it was snowing off and on, which meant that only the die-hard regulars were in. Stephen and Lucille Dorr had claimed their normal table, and Molly had been out to freshen their tea once. Lucille was knitting a lovely shawl, and Stephen was reading out loud to her. Not loud enough to bother anyone, of course. They never did.

The quiet had given Molly time to think about what was going to happen after the holidays. Once Christmas and New Year’s were over, she and Drew really had to make a decision about what they were going to do. She hadn’t mentioned the job opportunity to anyone yet, not even Aunt Margie or Sue, because it would be such a big change. Would it be worth it? She and Drew were still discussing it, after all.

The downside of being a kitchen witch is that you can’t use the tasks of baking to stop the bad thoughts running through your head, she reflected ruefully.

Luckily, that quiet was shattered with the arrival of the children, who were exuberant about something. “Molly, Molly, Molly, there’s a new store getting built!” Gideon said, shedding snow like a miniature yeti.

“I know!” she said, smiling down at them. “It’s Kris’s store. Have they started the walls?”

“More than just the walls!” Kaylee said. “And there are dwarves making it!”

That was impressive. While the dwarves were friendly to the Cove, they didn’t always actually fabricate the buildings. Usually that was something that the humans couldn’t afford, to be honest. Apparently Kris had more credit that way than she’d imagined.

“Wow,” Molly said, smiling at them all. “Maybe she’ll let you guys come and watch for a while.”

“That would be AMAZING,” Gideon said. “Let’s go ask!”

Let’s do the Advent calendar first, Jack suggested. It might send us over there anyways, after all.

“Oh, good point!” Zoey agreed. “Let’s see where the kitten is!”

Molly joined them at the calendar, drying her hands on a tea towel. The little kitten was waiting for them, his eyes bright and his tail twitching. Once they were there, he ran down the stairs into the hall. This hall reminded Molly of the hall at CrossCat Farms, but only if they really decorated it. Swags of greenery were wound around each baluster, and wreaths surmounted each newel post. Bright red and gold ribbons contrasted with the dark green of the garlands, and brightly-colored birds peeked in and out of the branches. The wall sconces had swags as well, with brightly flaming candles of burgundy. On the bottom landing was a small table, topped with a tree that also had birds in its branches. There were some small presents under the tree, and a glowing silver snowflake danced on the very top.

As the kitten came down the stairs, each of the candles sank down to a glowing pinprick, until the only light in the room was from the glowing snowflake. They all watched as he rooted under the tree, and to everyone’s surprise, the birds flew up and swirled around him, then turned into the words “Time to get your tree!” Then they came out of the calendar and swirled around the kitchen before dropping little branches into the children’s hands. Attached to the evergreen branches was a golden ticket that said, “Come and find the perfect tree!”

“Are we going to the tree farm, then?” Lily asked, turning to Molly.

“We are!” Molly said, grabbing her coat and purse. “And we’ve got a special mission, too!”

“A special mission?” Kaylee’s eyes went wide. “What special mission?”

“I’ll tell you on the way!” Molly promised. “Shall we go?”

(advent) Sunday, December 9

“You mean you were actually IN the calendar?” Jade put down her cup of tea on the island and stared at her. “But that’s not possible!”

“That’s what I thought,” Molly agreed. She was arranging food on a plate, alternating slices of her rich fruitcake with slices of her frosted cranberry orange tea bread. “But that’s what happened. I was looking at the calendar and then all of a sudden, I was sitting in one of the chairs.” She looked up at her friend. “And it was definitely real. I felt everything.”

Jade chewed on the bottom of her lip. Turning on her stool to regard the Advent calendar, she didn’t say anything else for several minutes. Molly paused to regard the Snow Queen herself.

It still seemed odd to be friends with a being that was over 400 years old, if the legends were true, and Molly had no doubt that they were. Jade was wearing what she considered to be a dress-down outfit: her fitted dress was dark green, with silvery snowflakes dusted across the fabric, and she had shed her woolen cloak when she’d come in. That was trimmed with silver fur, of course, and Molly had no doubt it was enchanted to hang as lightly over the Snow Queen’s shoulders like a lace shawl. Her boots were black, polished enough that Schrodinger could see himself in them. Her long pale hair was neatly braided down her back, not in her normal coronet. Molly also noted that there was no tiara nestled among the curls. This wasn’t a public event like the ball; this was just Jade, coming in to hear some music at her favorite book store.

“So, are you excited for the concert?” Molly asked, after the silence had stretched for a while. “And is Jack coming?”

Jade shook herself out of her reverie and turned back to her friend. “Oh, I am! But Jack will not be here, sadly. He’s got some errands that he said needed to be run.” She picked her tea cup again. “I think he’s trying to avoid someone in town, to be honest.”

“Oh? Who?” Molly’s curiosity was immediately piqued. “Who is he trying to avoid? Not me, I hope!”

Or me, Schrodinger said, coming into the room. 

“Neither of you, of course,” Jade said, leaning down to give Schrodinger a loving stroke along the top of his head. “Don’t be silly. No, this is someone he knew in the past, and happens to be moving to town.”

“Kris?” Molly guessed, taking down another tray and starting to fill it with her lavender earl grey shortbread cookies.

Jade nodded.

But why? Schrodinger asked, jumping up on his normal stool. She seems so nice!

“Oh, she’s wonderful,” Jade agreed. “However, please remember that Jack has not always been, well…” She trailed off, her pale cheeks turning pink.

The best-behaved? Schrodinger suggested.

“That’s putting it mildly,” Jade said, laughing a little. “I think you’ll find him a bit scarce until he makes sure there will be no lasting issues.”

Molly eyed her. “Do I want to know what he did?”

“No.” Jade shook her head. “You definitely do not.” She grinned at Schrodinger. “And you certainly don’t!”

Do you know how hard it’s going to be not to ask? Schrodinger grumbled, his tail swishing. I wish I hadn’t heard about it.

“Do you want me to make you forget?” Jade offered.

Can you do that? His eyes went wide.

“Of course I can.” She leaned over and planted a kiss on the top of his fuzzy head. “The knowledge is gone. Why don’t you go check and see what else Molly needs to bring up to the concert for us?”

Schrodinger dropped down and trotted out.

“Did you really make him forget it?” Molly asked her, as soon as he was out of earshot. 

“Well, yes and no. I gave him something else to do so he wouldn’t think about it.” Jade winked at her as she sipped her tea. “It’s a helpful thing.”

Molly laughed. “You are slightly evil yourself, you know.”

“I learned from the best,” Jade admitted. “Now, let’s talk about this Basilissa again.”

“I don’t know what else to say. I’ve told you everything.” Molly finished up the tray and set it with the others. “I think I’m done here too. I’ll get the kids to help me bring them up.”

“I can help too,” Jade said, finishing her tea. “I’m not broken.” She had just gotten up when Schrodinger came back in, followed by Aurora, Jack, Kaylee, Lily, Zoey, and Gideon. 

“Jade! You came to the concert!” Lily threw her arms around the Snow Queen. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“I’m so happy to see all of you!” Jade said, hugging them all in turn. “Have you been enjoying the calendar?”

“Oh yes!” Kaylee nodded. “But you know, it seems…weird.”

Jade stilled and looked down at her (although with the way Kaylee was growing, it wouldn’t be much longer before she was taller than the Snow Queen, Molly noted privately). “What do you mean, weird?”

Kaylee frowned, obviously thinking very hard. “It feels like we’re being guided through something, or to something,” she said finally. “Like there’s something we’re supposed to find, or someone.”

Molly and Jade exchanged looks over the children’s heads, and Jade gave the briefest shake of her head before smiling down at Kaylee. “Well, in a way, you are,” she said. “You do know that you’re recharging the protections on the Cove, right?”

“Oh yeah, but that’s not it.” Kaylee shrugged. “There’s something else we need to do. I just don’t know what yet.” She turned to the calendar. “I’m sure I’ll figure it out, though. Let’s see what is there today!”

They all clustered around the calendar, where the little cat that so reminded Molly of Schrodinger had just popped out from under the bed in the bedroom. He waved his tail at them, and then trotted into the next room. There was no bed here, but two large bookcases were on either side of the fireplace. There was a heavy wooden wardrobe that had two holly wreaths on it, and a small table with an easy chair was in front of the fireplace. The window at the back had a holly-wreathed candle lit there, and a man’s bathrobe was folded over the back of the chair. There was no vanity, but a large mirror was on one wall, and there was a table with a washbasin and a shaving kit.

This must be the master’s dressing room, Jack said. Since it abuts the master bedroom, and Molly said the master and mistress would have separate rooms. 

“I think you’re right,” Gideon agreed. “I wonder what who lives in this house.”

“Maybe Santa?” Zoey guessed. “That’s why everything is decorated for Christmas!”

“Oooh, yeah!” Lily agreed. “They would have a house like this!”

The little cat had gone to the table and chair, and jumped up into it. For a moment, Molly wondered if he would try and put on the dark red bathrobe, but she soon saw that he was actually trying to get into the pocket. I should get Drew a new bathrobe, she mused, as she watched the fabric move under the cat’s paws. His is getting rather threadbare.

And why am I thinking of this now? She shook her head, amused at herself. I swear, I’ve had more random thoughts in the past few months than I have had in my life!

“Don’t rip it!” Kaylee said, a little alarmed, as the cat continued to paw at the bathrobe. “Santa wouldn’t be happy if you do that, kitten!”

Finally, he managed to get a paw into the pocket, and tugged out a small green fabric pouch that spilled snowflakes across the floor as it fell. “Oooh,” the children said, as the snowflakes shimmered and the familiar smoke rose into the air, forming the words “Time to sing for your supper!” Then the smoke floated out of the calendar and led the children out of the kitchen, nearly trampling DC as they rushed past her.

“Slow down!” she laughed, pressing herself against the side of the door. “The concert hasn’t even started yet!”

“But we don’t want to miss the smoke!” Lily called back.

Molly shook her head, and handed DC a tray. “Thanks.” Then she turned to Jade, who was still looking at the calendar. “Do you want…” and then her voice trailed off as she saw what the Snow Queen was looking at.

Basilissa was back in the upper attic room, sipping from a cup, their back to the people watching. Although all Molly could see was the cloaked figure, she knew that it had to be the spirit. “Who is it?” she whispered to Jade.

“I…don’t know,” the Snow Queen admitted. “I’ve never felt this presence before.”

Basilissa turned to them, and Molly saw again the lined face, the kind eyes. The creature nodded gently to them, raising a mug of tea, and then turned back to contemplate the fire.

<><>

The smoke led them up the stairs to the second floor of CrossWind Books, which was currently a lot more crowded than normal for a Sunday. That was because Father Christopher had brought his Christmas Choir to the bookstore to do a pre-Christmas concert, as he did every year. This wasn’t the big concert, of course – that was held at the church, where the songs could rise to the rafters and echo gloriously amid the flickering candles and stained glass windows. This concert was to give a taste of the songs that would be sung. That didn’t mean that it wasn’t popular, though, and the fact that Molly offered her goodies for free during it only added to the appeal.

“You know, I heard that this is going to be the last year the concert is happening here,” Lily said quietly to her best friend, as they followed Kaylee and Gideon through the crowd.

“What? Why? How did you hear that?” Zoey asked.

“Mom was talking to Auntie Margie and didn’t realize I was there,” Lily said. The smoke was leading them towards the back of the room, where Father Christopher was talking to Starsha, the elegant Mareesh singer who had moved to the Cove several years ago. She was one of the reasons the concert had gotten so popular, with her angelic voice that seemed to reach heights not possible from a mortal throat. “Auntie Margie said that she was trying to soak everything in this year, since it was all coming to an end.”

Zoey stopped and looked at her, horrified. “But why would it be ending?” she whispered. 

Lily shook her head. “I don’t know. Kaylee and Jack came in then, so they stopped talking. But I think something’s happening, Zoey. And I’m not sure that it’s a good thing.”

(advent) Saturday, December 8

“Good morning, Molly!”

“Good morning, Gideon!” Molly said, smiling down at him. “You’re here bright and early!”

“Mom said she had stuff to do,” he said seriously. “And I said I’d be happy to sit with Schrodinger and read while we waited for the others. Is that okay, Molly?”

Molly nodded, and Kiaya looked relieved. “You know you’re always welcome,” Molly continued. “Would you like something hot to drink?”

He considered it as he shed his coat, then shook his head. “Not yet,” Gideon said. “Maybe later.”

“Well, you know where I am,” Molly said, watching him go back out to the tea room. Then she turned to Kiaya. “Tea for the road?”

“Bless you,” Kiaya said. “I need to run some errands today, and I couldn’t very well shop for Gideon with him there. And Zeke’s busy all day.”

Molly had pulled out one of the travel mugs she kept for friends, and was filling it with hot water. “It’s no trouble at all,” she said, handing the cup to Kiaya. “I adore having him, and maybe he can help bring Schrodinger out of his funk.”

“Is he okay?” Kiaya asked, as Molly handed her one of the peppermint tea bags she liked.

“He says he’s just grumpy, but I think if he doesn’t snap out of it soon, I’m calling Dr. O’Malley,” Molly said. “He’s acting like he’s not feeling well, but he won’t tell me what’s wrong.”

Kiaya shook her head. “I hope he feels better.”

Molly looked out the kitchen door towards the large cat bed where Schrodinger and Gideon were already curled up together, with the boy reading something to the CrossCat. “Me too,” she said. “Me too.”

She kept an eye on him as the morning went on. Lily, Kaylee and Zoey had ballet class, so she wasn’t expecting them until after lunch. Aurora and Jack arrived about mid-morning, and curled up with the two of them. He seemed to cheer up a bit with the arrival of his friends, and his appetite was fine.

Maybe I’m over-reacting, she thought. He’s just tired. Lord knows we’ve been busy.

She sat back down on a stool in the kitchen, looking over at the calendar, a mug of tea in her hands. Her eyes wandered over the house, and Molly wondered idly what it would be like to live in a house like that. The upkeep alone made her shudder – they didn’t even use all the rooms they had in the farmhouse, after all. Although that’s changing…

Molly shook her head and looked down at the pages in front of her. Sue had kept the gingerbread house orders to thirty this year, something that Molly was grateful for. As much as I love doing the gingerbread, it’s getting to be a lot, especially while still running the tea room, she admitted to herself. But I can’t not do it…

Luckily this year, most of the orders were for the traditional cottage that she could do en mass. There were two orders of gingerbread men, which she would be able to do easily, and there was only two that really needed a lot of work.

One was Sarah’s, of course. Every year, the blind girl and her mother ordered a gingerbread piece for her father, one of the policemen in the Cove. This year, Sarah had requested a stone walled cottage, with a well in the front.

“Can you do that?” Sarah had asked.

“I think so,” Molly had replied. “I’m going to try!”

The other one was for the Station. Drew and his cohorts had requested a locomotive engine for Mal, the Stationmaster, who was a train aficionado. Molly was looking forward to doing that as well.

She started sketching out the houses and making a list of all her ingredients, keeping part of her attention on the tea room, in case someone needed something.

After her plans were sketched out, Molly stood up and pulled out a loaf of cranberry orange tea bread. The girls would be hungry once they got to the tea room, and Molly figured that a ham and cheese grilled sandwich on the cranberry bread would hit the spot.

“It smells so good in here!” Kaylee said as they came in. “Did you make us lunch, Molly?”

“Of course I did!” Molly said. “I remember ballet practice!”

The boys and Aurora had joined them in the kitchen as well, and now Gideon said, “Can we do the Advent calendar now, Molly?”

“Let’s eat first,” Molly said, glancing over at the calendar. “I have a feeling that you guys might be going out and about today, and you don’t want to be too hungry to have fun, do you?”

“No,” they agreed, and clustered around the island. Molly was happy to see that Schrodinger was just as engaged as the others.

I wonder if he’s lonely, she thought. He’s the only one of his kind around here, and the kids don’t always have time for him. A nibble of a thought was wending its way through her mind, but she kept it hidden. It wouldn’t do for him to catch a whiff of what she was planning.

But I bet the Librarian would be able to help me.

The hungry kids and animals made short work of the pile of sandwiches and hot beverages she had set out in front of them. Then, after thanking her, they went over to the calendar, which was once again hanging on the back of the kitchen door.

“What are we doing today, kitten?” Kaylee asked, and the little cat, who had been giving himself a lazy bath on the chaise lounge, jumped down and went into the next room. This was obviously the master bedroom, as a massive carved bed dominated the room. There were two matching carved nightstands, one on either side of the bed, with marble tops that held two small Christmas trees. The counterpane on the bed was a cheery red and white striped, and someone had placed round pillows at the head of the bed, looking for all the world like ornaments. There were two stockings on the mantel of the fireplace on the left side of the room, and garlands wound their way up the posts of the bed. The little cat went over to the right side of the bed, stood on his hind legs, and reached one paw up under the pillow. He pulled out a long stocking cap that billowed smoke out.

“Don’t be a Scrooge! It’s the Christmas parade!”

The smoke letters hung there for a full minute before they coalesced into a ball and floated out of the calendar. It wrapped around them and then went over to their coats. “Come on!” it formed. “Let’s go!”

“A parade?” Lily said. “We’ve never had a Christmas parade!”

“Well, maybe the calendar made one?” Gideon was already pulling his coat on. “Let’s go and find out!”

Before Molly could do more than blink, they were dressed and hurrying out the front door.

(advent) Friday, December 7

“Hurry, hurry, hurry, guys!” Kaylee was nearly running down the hall of Daughter of Stars Elementary School, rushing to get to the gymnasium.

“Why are we hurrying?” Gideon asked, as he ran beside her. Behind them were Lily and Zoey.

“Because Molly said she’d bring the calendar and I don’t want anyone else to see it!” Kaylee said. “It’s OUR calendar! If anyone else sees it, they will want one, and then it won’t be ours anymore?”

“Do you really think that the Snow Queen and Jack would make calendars for anyone else?” Lily said a little scornfully. “It’s not like she has the time to make them.”

“Yeah, she’s not a machine,” Zoey added. “She likes us, so that’s why they do it.”

“Well, and we help her,” Lily said. “Don’t forget that. Not everyone helps her.”

By the time she’d finished that sentence, they’d reached the gymnasium, and Kaylee threw open the door dramatically. The wall of sound that hit them was impressive, and the fair wasn’t even half-full yet.

Every year, the school hosted a Holiday Fair, inviting artisans from all the surrounding Realms together to sell their wares. The children wove their way through the crowd of people setting up tables to the corner where Molly and Sue were laying out the massive amount of cookies and other baked goods that she’d made over the past week. And the massive marzipan fireplace sat in the middle, taking pride of place.

“Wow,” Zoey breathed, looking at the sculpture. They hadn’t seen the finished project yet. “Molly, that’s beautiful!”

Molly beamed. “Thank you! I’m very proud of it!”

She had every right to be. The red brick fireplace was sprinkled with snow that glittered in the light, and there were seven stockings hanging from it. On the mantel was a layer of snow, with miniature houses set in a holiday scene. Underneath, there were no flames, but a holly-bedecked Yule log lay in the grate, ready to be lit. In front of the fireplace was a rug that looked fluffy and warm, and there was a small table, just like in the nursery room of the calendar. Molly had put actual gingerbread men cookies and a small glass of milk on the table-top, with a note for Santa accompanying it. There was a Christmas tree to one side, with lights and stars and snowflakes, even an angel on top. On the other side of the fireplace was a big overstuffed chair, with a perfect miniature of Schrodinger asleep in it.

“You are amazing,” Kaylee said, hugging her aunt. “I love it!” Then she looked up at Molly. “Can we do the calendar now?”

“Absolutely!”

“But what about Aurora and Jack?” Gideon said, looking around.

Schrodinger was there, of course, but the dogs were no where to be found.
They’ll be waiting for us to tell them later, Schrodinger said from his cushion on a chair behind the tables. It’s too crowded in here for them. It’s almost too crowded for me.

“That’s why you’re hanging out with us,” Sue said. “The last thing we need is for you to be stepped on accidentally.”

Truth, Schrodinger said. And I’m more agile than either Aurora or Jack.

Molly had been pulling the large tube that protected the magical calendar from the elements. She unrolled it and the children gathered around her.

“Good afternoon, kitty!” Kaylee said. “What are we doing today?”

The little cat had been waiting for them, it seemed. He had been sitting on the edge of one of the beds, and now he jumped down and trotted into the next room. There was no bed here, but a long, low couch with an odd back and only one arm. The fabric was red and velvety looking, and there were two soft pillows upon it, as well as a fluffy blanket. There was also a large armoire, bedecked with two holly wreathes, and a dress standing up on its own in one corner. The dress was a deep green color, with white and gold trim around the waist, cuffs, and neckline. Over its shoulders was flung a creamy furred cape, and the table nearby held a matching hat and fur muff. The rest of the room was taken up by a large vanity mirror and table, with a holly garland draped over the top.

“What a pretty room!” Zoey said. “I wonder why it’s there?”

“It’s called a dressing room,” Molly said. “In the era that this house was built in, the master and mistress of the house each had their own dressing room.” She pointed to another room farther down the picture. “They would sleep in the bedroom, but they got dressed in separate rooms.”

“Wow, that’s cool!” Zoey said. “I wish I had a dressing room.”

“I don’t,” Kaylee said frankly. “It’s just another room to keep clean.”

“That’s why you have a maid,” her sister said. “Do you think they actually cleaned themselves?”

“Mom won’t let us get a maid, though,” Kaylee replied. “So it’s kind of academic.”

Sue and Molly were obviously struggling not to laugh at the exchange. Schrodinger, who hadn’t moved from his cushion, now craned his head around.

What’s the cat doing?

“He’s in the big cupboard,” Gideon said.

“The armoire,” Molly clarified. The small cat had pawed open one of the doors and was rummaging through whatever was inside. All they could see was the tip of his tail, which was flicking back and forth.

“What is this?” a familiar voice said, and they turned to see Cookie, the cook from Pavel’s ship, standing behind them, a large basket over one arm.

“Cookie!” the children said excitedly, the calendar temporarily forgotten.

“Hello, my friends!” Cookie beamed at them. They had never discovered his true name, if it wasn’t Cookie, but it fit him well – he had a wide, easy smile and, truth be told, was shaped a bit like a gingerbread man. He wore striped linen pants tucked into worn boots, and something that looked like a cross between a pirate’s shirt and a chef’s jacket. On his head today he had a stocking cap, dusted with new snow. “So tell me, what are you looking at so intently?”

“This is our Advent calendar this year!” Gideon said. “And it’s about to show us what to do today!” He pointed. “Look!”

The tail had stiffened, and now the cat backed out of the armoire, dragging what looked like a Santa hat out in his mouth. Once it was on the floor of the dressing room, the cat jumped on it, and a great puff of the piney smoke popped out. It coalesced into the words: “Today is a great day to check up on your friends! Bring cookies!”

Then it flowed out of the calendar, to Cookie’s surprise and the children’s delight, and became sparkling dots that rained down upon them. As they held out their hands to catch some, the sparkles turned into trays covered with dancing gingerbread men and candy canes for Zoey and Kaylee, and clipboards for Gideon and Lily.

“Well, look at that!” Sue said. “Those will be perfect for you to walk around with samples and with order forms!”

Cookie winked at Molly. “You do know that it’s not fair to anyone else that you give away samples, right?”

“And if I didn’t, I’d have a rebellion on my hands.” Molly laughed as she got out the containers of cookie pieces. She filled each tray while Sue gave them the pre-printed forms and pens.

Then, as if it had been waiting for them to be ready, the buzzer rang, and the fair was on.

<><>

Once the initial rush had ended, Sue cocked her head at Molly. “Why don’t you go look around?” she said. “Schrodinger and I can hold down the fort.”

“Are you sure?” Molly looked around.

Yes, Schrodinger said. You wanted to see what jams were available, and this is a good time to do it.

Molly hesitated a bit longer, but Sue gave her a gentle shove. “Go,” she said firmly. “You aren’t baking anything here, and I know how to refill the stock. Trust me.”

“Fine,” Molly said, grinning. “I know when I’m not wanted.”

She edged her way out from behind the tables, careful not to knock anything over. Once she was in the aisle, she turned to Sue. “Anything you want me to look at?”

Sue frowned thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think so,” she said finally. “I haven’t really started shopping yet, so when you come back, I’ll look.”

“Sounds good.” Molly looked over at Schrodinger. “Do you want to come with me?”

No, I’ll stay here, the CrossCat said. I’m not in the mood today to have my tail stepped on. He set his head back on his front paws.

Molly cocked her head and asked him silently, Is everything okay?

Yes, he replied to her only. I’m just a bit tired.

I hope you aren’t sick.

CrossCats don’t get sick, he said. We just get grumpy. I’m fine, Molly. Enjoy yourself, and I’ll keep Sue company.

Molly heard the dismissal in his voice and went. She paused at Lisa’s stall to purchase a few jars of plum and strawberry jam, as well as a jar of cranberry jelly. Then she wandered, looking at the various wares that the vendors from the Cove and surrounding areas had brought in. There was a bit of everything, from food to clothing to delicate little glass ornaments.

She stopped and talked to Anne, the lady who had made the beaded glass balls that Drew had sent her their second Christmas together, for a few minutes, and Anne showed off pictures of her grandchildren.

Molly found herself pausing beside a booth that held all sorts of wonderful Christmas things: houses that glowed with lights, strings of lights in all sorts of shapes, nutcrackers and other figurines, and so many ornaments. Sitting in the midst of the glory was an older woman with a merry smile. The sign on the front of the table said “The Snowman’s Retreat.”

“Are you new in town?” Molly asked, her eyes wide.

“Sure and I am,” the woman confirmed. “My name is Kris, and I’m building my new store here.”

“You’re Kris!” Molly held out her hand. “I’ve heard about you from the children, and from my husband!”

“And you’d be Molly, the kitchen witch, then.” Kris shook her hand firmly. “I’ve been meaning to drop by your aunt’s store, but, well, time has gotten away from me.” She shrugged.

“What kind of store are you building?” Molly said.

“A Christmas store, of course,” Kris said, as if it was obvious. “Because that’s what this place needs, or so I was told.”

“By who?” Not that Molly disagreed with her.

Kris merely smiled. “By someone who knows.”