Archive for the ‘advent’ Category

(writing/personal) February 14th is just another day to me at this point

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to deal with today, and even be happy on it. Today is not that day, so I’m glad to not have to be at work.

 

Instead, I am drinking good tea at my favorite bookstore (Gibson’s, for those who don’t know it), and I’m writing. I’m making the decision that I need to step away from last year’s Advent story, at least for a while. I can’t deal with Carter’s Cove right now – I’m not in that head space, and I don’t like forcing out the story. I will come back to it, and I may rewrite a bunch of it. We’ll see. So I’m moving to a different story, and perhaps there will be Advent in July or something.

 

However, I have put in the stuff for the cover for Winter Storms, the second book in the Advent series, and we are still on track for this to be out in April. Which means I’ll have it for RavenCon! Which means I need to come up with something cool for the freebie tables. I’m contemplating either book marks or book plates. Because stickers are cool.

(advent) December 11

Sunday, December 11

 

“Schrodinger, what are you doing?”

DC looked over at the CrossCat, who was sitting on the floor in front of the big front window he and the others had decorated. Beyond the cheerful scene, snow was falling in a steady, deliberate pattern. It had started the night before, and showed no signs of stopping in the near future.

I’m wondering how we’re going to get to the nursing home, Schrodinger said finally, turning towards her. That’s really not going to stop soon, and I don’t think anyone is going to want to drive. Molly said something about asking Pavel to take us in the sleigh, but he’s so busy. He turned back to the window. But I don’t want to disappoint anyone either. Being responsible is hard sometimes.

“Being responsible is hard all the time,” DC agreed. “But I wouldn’t worry too much about how you’re going to get to the nursing home.”

Why not?

“Because you have a lot of luck,” she said. “And it’s Christmas. Weren’t you the one telling me that anything is possible at Christmas?”

He perked up. That’s true! I’ll go and remind the others.

They needed the reminder. Lily, Zoey, Kaylee, and Gideon were all seated at a table, looking glumly into mugs of hot chocolate, while Aurora and Jack shared one of the pet beds by the wood stove. They had packed up a bunch of stuff from the magic craft table when they’d gotten in earlier, courtesy of Nathan Barrett’s 4×4, at Molly’s urging.

DC reminded me that this is Christmas, Schrodinger said now, hopping up on to a chair next to Gideon. And anything is possible at Christmas. Remember, Zoey?

Zoey nodded. “That is true! We got our house back!”

“And you helped Molly defeat the Eidolon in Old Man Winter!” Lily added, brightening. “That’s true! What’s a little bit of snow?”

“Technically, it’s about twelve inches, which isn’t a little bit,” Gideon said. “But that’s okay. We can deal with that.”

Kaylee threw a napkin at him. “You’re so literal!”

There was a jingling of bells as the front door opened, distracting them. They all turned to see who had braved the storm.

“What a lovely day out!” Old Man Winter boomed, his face wreathed in a large grin and snowflakes in his beard. With him were two distinctly unhappy-looking people wrapped in heavy cloaks. “Are you guys ready to go to the nursing home?”

“With you? YES!” Kaylee crowed, launching herself at him. “Did you bring the sledge? And the reindeer? Can I drive again?”

Old Man Winter laughed. “Yes, with me. Yes, I brought the sledge and the reindeer, but no, I think I’ll drive today. It’s a little too snowy out for you.”

She pouted. “Why?”

“Because you haven’t enough arm strength, darling,” he said, sweeping her up in his arms. “Don’t worry. When you turn 16, I’ll give you your own sledge and reindeer.”

Schrodinger wondered how Nathan and Corrinne would react to that, but didn’t say anything. He was more interested to see who Old Man Winter had brought with him.

The cloaks hid a lot of their features, but he was relatively sure they were newcomers. One was taller than the other, but neither were overly tall or short. Nor did he see any additional appendages. He jumped down off his chair and approached them. Welcome to CrossWinds Books, he said politely. Would you like some tea to warm up before we head back out?

“A CrossCat?” A deep female voice came from the depths of the taller being’s hood, and a gloved hand pushed the hood back to reveal a wrinkled face with amazingly brilliant green eyes. “Upon my soul, it really is a CrossCat. Perhaps this place is civilized after all.” She bowed to him. “Joyous Greetings, Traveler. May your Roads be smooth.”

Joyous Greetings, Schrodinger replied, bowing himself. May your Travels be easy.

She beamed at him, obviously pleased at the ritual greeting. “I am Matriarch Daisia, and I would love a cup of tea.”

I am Schrodinger Barrett, and please, come sit down. He looked at the other figure. Would you like tea too?

The gloved hand that pushed back the furred cloak looked as big as Old Man Winter’s, for all the being was shorter by nearly two and a half feet. “Tea?” the bearded man rumbled thoughtfully. “I do not think I have heard of this before.” His words were strangely accented, although they were clear enough. “What is tea?”

“I think you will like it, Crossas,” Old Man Winter said, leading them over to the table next to the others. “Especially Molly’s Christmas Tea. It will appeal to your sweet tooth.”

As if by magic, Molly appeared at the doorway to the kitchen, a plate of cookies in her hands. “And I’m assuming you’ll want some as well, Old Man?” she said, setting the cookies on the table. “I made the lemon-thyme shortbread you like.”

He reached eagerly for one. “You need to try these too, Crossax,” he said, handing the man one. The wedges looked ridiculously tiny in their big hands. “And the sugar cookies. And then you need to set up a delivery order with Molly,” and he nodded at her, “who is the best baker in all the Realms.”

Molly blushed. “Hardly.” She offered a hand to Daisia, who shook it promptly, and then Crossax, who peered at it before taking it carefully. “Welcome to Carter’s Cove, Matriarch, Chieftain. I’m Molly McIntyre, and I run the tea shop. Please, do warm up before you go out again.”

“A kitchen witch! How lovely!” Daisia smiled at Molly, and Schrodinger decided he liked her. Then again, anyone who liked Molly was good in his book. “What kind of herbal teas do you have, my dear?”

“I’ve got a rather large amount,” Molly said. “Would you like to come and look?”

The Matriarch followed her into the kitchen while Crossax looked warily at the chairs.

“You can sit,” Old Man Winter assured him, taking a chair himself. “They’re very sturdy. I’ve never broken one.”

The big man sat down and shrugged out of his cloak. Underneath, he wore a business suit that reminded Schrodinger of the grey suit Old Man Winter often wore in the Cove, although he did not look as uncomfortable as the winter spirit had been the first time he’d worn it. The suit was tailored around the very large muscles, and to his delight, Schrodinger noticed that his tie had crossed battle axes and Scottie dogs on it.

“I love your tie!” Lily said at the same time, leaning forward. “That’s awesome!”

Crossax beamed at her. “Thank you! This was a gift from my granddaughter. She had it made especially for this trip.” He pulled the tie out so the others could see it better. “I have three Scottie dogs at home, named Horus, Ramses, and Ben.”

“Ben?” Kaylee said.

“Yes, my granddaughter named him.” Crossax’s laugh rumbled out from his belly. “I was going to name him Osiris, to round out the gods, but she insisted. I don’t know why she likes the name Ben either.” He looked around at them. “And who are all of you?”

“Oh, my apologies, Crossax.” Old Man Winter shook his head and introduced them all.

The chieftain nodded. “I hear you are going to help teach us to work together,” he said. “I wish you good luck, but I do not think you will succeed.”

Why not?  Jack said, picking up his head. You and the Matriarch seem to be very nice.

“We are,” Daisia agreed, coming back out. “And we get along with each other.” She gave Crossax a smile. “But even we have issues with some of our…” She paused, apparently looking for the right word. “Companions,” she finished, sitting back down.

“Truth,” Crossax said, picking up a frosted sugar cookie. “While I have no issues with Matriarch Daisia, the same cannot be said for Lady Avala, who seems to believe that the only way to keep her seat is to block every measure I suggest.” He scowled.

“In her defense, you do the same thing to her,” Daisia said, as Molly came back out with tea mugs. “And I do it to Nahand, and fully admit that sometimes it’s just to spoil his day.” She shook her head. “We are old dogs, you and I. Can we learn new tricks?”

As another old dog, absolutely, Jack said dryly. Age is no excuse.

Daisia looked at his greying muzzle. “But it’s harder to learn,” she said.

“That just means it’s worth it,” Kaylee told her. She was still sitting on Old Man Winter’s lap. “That’s what Mommy always says.” Then, as Schrodinger looked over at her, she added, “We’re going to help you! That’s what today is about.”

Lily was frowning a bit, and Zoey, who was very attuned to her best friend’s moods, nudged her. “What’s wrong, Lily?” The words came out in a sudden silence, louder than Schrodinger thought Zoey had meant to say it.

Lily flushed a bit as everyone looked at her. “It’s nothing,” she mumbled.

Lily? Schrodinger reached out with a soft paw. You can tell us. Or just me, if you want.

She struggled and then blurted out, “But why didn’t the Snow Queen send you out with the people you couldn’t work with today? I mean, what good does it do to come out with someone you agree with, if you are trying to learn to work with people that you don’t agree with?”

Schrodinger had wondered the same thing. Now , they all turned to their visitors.

“Actually, we volunteered,” Daisia said. “Neither of us had ever been to the Cove.”

“Also, we were intrigued by your Advent calendar,” Crossax added. “We do not celebrate like this in either of our Realms, but I for one think my granddaughter would enjoy it. “ He looked at Old Man Winter and said, “And truthfully? I wanted to meet the people who unfroze Old Man Winter’s heart. That was truly an amazing thing, long overdue in the Realms.”

“And it keeps me thinking that perhaps you know something we don’t,” Daisia finished.

“You mean like how to be nice to people?” Zoey said.

Not just people, Schrodinger guessed. People we may not like very much. Or may not like us. Right?

Daisia nodded. “Exactly so.”

“The snow is letting up a little,” DC said from the front counter. “Looks like you might want to leave now.”

They all scrambled into their winter clothing and hurried outside to Old Man Winter’s great sledge. Molly followed them and handed up a basket.

“For your snack later,” she said, grinning. “Decorating is hungry work!”

(personal/writing/advent) Deep thoughts

Two posts in one week. Wow, I might actually be getting into a groove or something.

 

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about writing lately. And streaks. And self-care. Shocking, I know, but bear with me, because it all ties in together. I’m still picking at the Advent story, but I’m paused as I need to figure out some plot things that were just thrown up at me. There weren’t supposed to be more people in this story, and now I need to figure out where they are going. This means stopping writing and actually doing some plotting.

 

I’ve got two books that are now in my calendar to proof-read, but I’ve got room in February and March right now, as well as further out. I’m also starting to plot what else I need to do this year. I’ll be at RavenCon and Balticon with new books (yay, Winter Storms is finally coming out!) and calendars. I have to get stickers done too.

 

In addition to rewriting Molly’s 3rd book (and no, I don’t have a title yet) for publication for December 2018, I need to decide my next book as well. I believe I’m going back to Resonant Frequencies, and there will probably be a ghost story or two as well. The Sapph universe isn’t working the way I want it to, so I’m going to try again. With brand-new characters, and a different kind of feel. There’s too much magic leaking into Sapph and while she’s fun, it’s a little bit of a Mary Sue. So I need to try something else.

 

I also have a project that I can’t talk a lot about here yet (but I will be working on it, and it’s cool! I promise!). In addition, I have some friends with some neat books coming out, and I’m thinking about inviting them to come on over and tell you all about it.

 

Last year was about surviving. This year, I’m looking to step back into the sunlight and try to thrive.

(advent) Sunday, December 10

Sunday, December 10

Molly? Are you busy?

Schrodinger stuck his head through the door to the kitchen, his ears cocked at an inquisitive angle.

“Not at the moment,” Molly replied, turning from the stove. “I was just going to ask you if…” Her voice trailed off as she saw who was with him.

“Ask if I’d like some tea?” Jack Frost said, grinning at her. “I’d love some. Especially that smoky tea you served me the last time.”

Molly shook herself. “You are the only person I know who drinks tea that tastes like a damp smoldering leaf pile,” she said, going into the pantry for a package of lapsong suchong tea. “Schrodinger, would you like some too?”

Yes, please. Earl Grey. The CrossCat jumped up onto his stool and waited patiently. I want to hear what you have to say as well, Jack.

“Oh, of course,” Jack Frost said, sitting down on the stool next to him. “I wouldn’t dream of asking you to leave. In fact, you’re part of the reason I’m here.”

You want to talk about what happened at the bake sale, Schrodinger said, as Molly came back out with mugs and tea.

“Partially,” Jack said. “And also to ask you for some help.”

Molly set down the two mugs of tea in front of them and then sat on her own stool, cradling her tea in her hands. “You want us to help you and Jade with your ‘guests,’ right?” she said.

“Not you specifically, this time, Molly.” Jack smiled at her. “You’re busy enough right now. But you guys,” and he turned to Schrodinger, “if you are willing, might be able to help us with our little…problems.”

Not so very little, Schrodinger said. And it will be easier if we know exactly what you want us to do. He chuckled a bit. Although if you told Kaylee you wanted them beaten with a stick, she’d probably be thrilled. She has been less than impressed by the guests she’s met.

“She and I both,” Jack said, chuckling too. “But no, that’s not what we want.”

“Why don’t you tell us who exactly you have, and what exactly is going on, and then we can formulate a plan?” Molly said. When he looked a little surprised, she sniffed. “What, did you really think I was just going to sit back like a good girl and not get involved? I thought you knew me better than that, Jack.”

Jack Frost laughed out loud at that one. “Okay, touché.” He sipped his steaming tea, and then said, “Let me give you the cast of characters first. You’ve met Yesira, Palys, Horace, and Francis.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Lano, the Consulate of Amana, and Mesphridae, the Minister of the Free People of Yavis, arrived before them. The last four showed up yesterday.”

“And who are they?” Molly asked.

Jack leaned back. “Daisia, the Matriarch of Twelrian; Nahand Browntoes, the Administrator of Culture for Embersummit Mountain; Crossax, the Chieftain of Ocovar; and Lady Avala of Typhis. All together, ten of the most divisive of the Parliament of Realms. All ten of them have issues with each other, and each is convinced that their issue is the most important.”

Of course, Schrodinger said. That was apparent when we met Horace and Francis. What does Jade think we can do?

“She was considering what Kaylee had said to her last Thursday,” Jack said. “About how they didn’t really have manners. What you have to understand is that these folks are all used to everyone bowing to their every whim. Parliament members have immense personal power in their Realms, because they can remove access to the Gates for people.”

Molly and Schrodinger stared at him. “Really?” Molly said finally. “They can do that?”

“In their Realms, yes,” Jack said. “Not all peoples have adopted the democratic ways that humans have here on Earth. You believe that the Gates are public resources. Not everyone does.”

But, but… Schrodinger was sputtering. That’s ASININE!

“I agree,” Jack said. “What is worse is that many of these folks have no equal in their Realms, so they think they can do no wrong.”

“I think I begin to see what you want the kids to help with,” Molly said. “You’re going to make these folks work with each other, to teach them some humility?”

“For one thing,” Jack Frost said. He took a sip of tea and helped himself to a cookie from one of the racks next to him. “We also want to show them how people can learn to let go a bit and let others do things.” He cocked his head at Molly.

“So that’s why you don’t want me involved.” It was a devious scheme, she had to admit. “Do you think it will work?”

“It’s can’t hurt, can it?” Jack Frost replied.

I think we could do that, although I can’t speak for the others, Schrodinger said. They’ll be here soon. Santa’s coming later! He looked at Jack Frost hopefully. Are you going to stay and talk to him?

               “It’s been a few years since Santa and I caught up,” Jack Frost said musingly, rubbing his chin. “I might just stay.”

As it turned out, he only had time enough to talk to the others before he was called back to the Snow Queen’s Realm. As Molly had known, the children all agreed that they would help, although Kaylee expressed doubt that it would work.

“They just don’t seem to want to know,” she said, as they all carried trays of cookies up the stairs. “I mean, you have to want to change to really change, right?”

We won’t know that if we don’t give them a chance, Jack said. Let’s see if they can learn a thing or two.

And then there wasn’t time to talk. Santa Claus himself was arriving at any minute, and the bookstore was filling up with people eager to see him. Not just children, either. Santa talked to everyone, no matter their age.

Even Molly got her turn on Santa’s lap. “Well, Miss Molly, what can Santa bring you this year?” the jolly old elf asked her.

She leaned in and whispered, “I’d really like to make sure that Jade’s conference goes well, honestly, Santa. Can you help?”

He looked gravely at her. “That’s out of my control, I’m afraid. The Snow Queen’s affairs are not to be mingled in lightly.”

“No, they aren’t.” Molly sighed. “I guess I knew that.”

“Trust in yourself, Molly,” Santa said quietly, so no one else could hear. “What the Snow Queen needs now is your love, and your support.” He leaned in. “And you need to take care of yourself.” He smiled at her. “You know how important you are right now.”

(personal/writing/advent) 2018 – my first full year alone

I swear this year is going to be better. I won’t let it be the same way it was last year. I won’t.

 

But things are going to have to change. I’m realizing how hard it is to do things on my own – not just in terms of emotionally (because it IS hard, even if you are okay with being alone, which I am), but in financial terms. My hat is off to all you folks who have been doing this all along. I thought it was hard with two incomes. It’s so much worse with one. And it doesn’t seem like the bills get any less.

 

There are a few silver linings for the year coming up: I can work from home when I need to, which means no more real days missed due to weather or illness. My Crohns’ disease is under control, and I’m getting healthier every day.

 

I start my Whole30 food program today, so there will be random posts about that. I’m still trying to figure out how to post automatically to Facebook from here, but I’ll just have to do it manually until I can get into the guts of my website. Which I will have to do anyways, because I’m going to redesign the entire site.

 

In writerly news, I did cancel my Patreon. I’m contemplating several things, including maybe putting a tip jar out here on the site for right now. I don’t feel that I give enough right now to make a Patreon practical for me or fair to my readers. I might also get a Ko-Fe page, but I don’t know right now.

 

I’m working on the new Advent story – I will finish it by the end of January for you all. I promise. Then there are the proofs of Winter’s Storms to go through, the cover to finalize, and that will be out by April 20, which is RavenCon! And I’ll be there that weekend, with calendars and copies of both books, and Schrodinger, of course. He might even get a new hat or vest for the occasion.

 

I’m also now accepting new clients for proofreading only. My rates are:

-Up to 10k is $25

-Every additional 5K is $10

I do fiction, non-fiction, whatever. Poetry might be weird, but I’ll give it a shot. Here’s what I do for proof-reading:
I go through and pick out any misspelled words, missing words and/or phrases, and make sure your heroine’s hair hasn’t gone from blonde to brunette without a dye job in the middle of the story. I also tend to correct punctuation, mostly commas and things like that.

 

If you’re interested in that, please drop me a line at vgford@gmail.com and we’ll talk. Turnaround is based on how big your project is.

 

I guess that’s it. Happy New Year folks.

(advent) December 9

Saturday, December 9

“They ran from SANTA?” Lily said, shaking her head. “I mean, it’s fantastic. Who is scared of Santa Claus?”

Someone who’s been really naughty, maybe? Aurora said, as they walked down the street to the center of Merchant’s Circle. This was the part of Carter’s Cove where many of the shops were, such as The Vienna Lady’s Café, which was where they were headed. There was a soft snow falling – not a storm, but that gentle kind of snowfall that always appears in Hollywood movies about New England Christmases. It was just cold enough to snow, but not cold enough to chill the bones. Even Jack, with his warm coat, was moving briskly.

“The way they were acting, I could see that,” Gideon said. “They were very rude to each other, and to Starsha.”

“I don’t understand how anyone could be rude to her,” Zoey said. “She’s always so nice!”

Some people just don’t know how to treat others, Jack said philosophically.

I kind of hope the Snow Queen brings them to Santa tomorrow, Schrodinger muttered. I want to see him teach them a lesson.

“That’s not very nice, though, Schrodinger,” Lily said.

“I dunno, I agree with Schrodinger,” Kaylee said, kicking at a snowbank. “They deserve coal at the very least.”

“Santa will take care of it,” Gideon said. “It’s his job, anyways.”

“Truth!” Kaylee perked up as they neared the Circle and the first strains of music wafted up on the cold air. “Speaking of jobs, I wonder what Katarina and Mick will have us do today?”

When they arrived at The Vienna Lady’s Café, they found it already full of people. Mick was behind the counter, making coffee with an immense machine that seemed to be full of froth and magic. The air was heavy with the scents of chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and butter.

They waited patiently for a break in the crowd, warming back up from their walk. Then Mick caught sight of them, and his face broke into a warm, welcoming smile.

“Ah, you’ve made it!” His warm Scottish accent danced on the air. “Good! Katarina’s in the back getting stuff ready for you!” He lifted the counter and gestured them through.

“What are we doing?” Lily asked, as they went into the back room, where Mick’s wife Katarina was pouring hot chocolate into a large thermos.

“We’re going to be keeping the musicians warm!” Katarina beamed at all of them. “There are musicians all over the Circle, and I thought it would be nice to have you bring them hot chocolate and warm sandwiches.” She indicated the large basket.

“How are we going to carry it all?” Gideon asked. “That looks heavy.”

“We thought you could us this?” Katarina said, bringing them to the back door. Outside was a small sleigh.

“Oh, it’s like Old Man Winter’s, but mini!” Kaylee said, clapping her hands together. “I bet Aurora, Jack, and Schrodinger can pull it, and we can push it!”

The two dogs and the CrossCat inspected the sleigh and announced that they could definitely take turns in pulling it along. There was even a harness that would fit each of them, generously padded and embroidered with gold and silver threads.

“And look here,” Katarina said, showing them what was cradled in the sleigh. Instead of seats for people, there were two boxes. One opened to show spots for the thermos and two stacks of paper cups with lids, and the other was empty.

“What goes in here?” Kaylee asked.

“That’s for the sandwiches,” Katarina said, bringing them back into the kitchen. “I made hand pockets with ham and cheese, and that box will keep them warm.”

“Wow!” Gideon said. “Where did you get such a wonderful thing?”

“Mick built it,” Katarina said. “It’s a prototype he’s working on for the goats.”

Katarina and Mick had a farm on the outskirts of the Cove, and their small herd of goats was their pride and joy, aside from the café. Schrodinger could see the small goats pulling the sleigh through the snow, perhaps over at the skating cove.

Now, he looked at the others. Who wants to pull first?

Aurora volunteered, and once they had filled the boxes with hot chocolate and warm hand sandwiches, they set off to the sidewalks.

In front of the Tin Shop, a trio of singers were more than happy to take a break from Jingle Bells to sip hot chocolate and eat the warm hand pies that Katarina had made. It was two young men and a young woman that Schrodinger didn’t recognize, but they sang Gideon’s favorite Christmas carol in thanks, which made them wonderful in his eyes. Catherine, the owner of the Tin Shop, came out just in time to hear the end of the song, and joined the children in clapping enthusiastically.

“Schrodinger! Molly’s not with you today?” she asked.

No, she’s baking cookies for tomorrow, when Santa comes, he replied. Is there a message I can give her?

“Yes, please let her know that the centerpiece she requested for Christmas dinner is in,” Catherine said. “She can pick it up at any time.”

Oooh, I wonder what it is! Schrodinger looked at the others, who shrugged. I will let her know!

Their next stop was at the Hammered Dulcimer, a music shop that Molly loved to look in whenever she was in the square. The musicians here were very familiar to all of them: Darien, the Minstrel who now lived in the Cove (in retirement, so he said) and his journeyman Starsha.

Today, they had cloaks on: Darien’s a dark grey, almost black, edged with white fur, and Starsha’s a pearl grey, edged in dark blue fur. Darien was playing a saxophone, the elegant tones wrapping around Starsha’s voice as she sang “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

“Wow,” Lily said, as the last notes died away. “I’ve never heard it played like that.”

Darien smiled at her. “The saxophone is one of my favorite instruments,” he agreed, letting the instrument rest against his chest. His fingers were encased in dark grey kid-skin gloves, and he flexed them momentarily. “And Starsha can make anyone sound good when she sings along.”

His journeyman blushed, the tattoos on her cheeks reddening. “Indeed, Master Darien, it is your playing that makes me sound good,” she said, tucking her hands beneath her cloak. “I am but a poor student in your shadow.”

“You have never been a poor student,” he said firmly. “I will not listen to that bit of false modesty.” He turned to Schrodinger. “I’m glad to see you today. I was hoping you would tell me what happened yesterday.”

“Master, please,” Starsha said, looking very uncomfortable.

“No, child, this is something I need to know, and from someone who is not going to try and cast you in the wrong,” Darien said, not looking at her. “Schrodinger will tell me the truth without trying to take the blame.”

Schrodinger, who had been hoping to run into Darien for this very reason, was brief and succinct in his retelling. She handled it very well, he finished.  They were completely in the wrong, and she just got caught in the middle.

               “Hmm.” Darien stroked his chin. “I think it may be time for me to accept the Snow Queen’s invitation to lunch, so I can meet some of these gentlemen.”

“Why would they have been scared of Santa?” Kaylee asked. “Do you know, Darien?”

“No, but I could find out.” The elf’s eyes gleamed suddenly. “He is at CrossWinds Books tomorrow, is he not?”

Yes, Schrodinger said.

“Perhaps we shall be as well.”

(advent) December 8

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?”

The tree?

“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!”

-QUIET!-

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.”

(advent) December 7

 

Thursday, December 7

Normally at 1 pm, all four children would have been in school, but instead, they were at CrossWinds Books, waiting impatiently for their ride to the Snow Queen’s palace, and taking bets on who it was who was going to pick them up.

“I’ll bet it’s Old Man Winter,” Kaylee said confidently. “In his sledge. And he’s going to let me drive.”

“I doubt it,” her sister said dryly. “Letting you drive to the skating cove is one thing. He won’t let you drive it on the Roads. Besides, I’ll bet it’s Pavel coming to get us.”

“He will too!” Kaylee flared.

It doesn’t matter, Jack said, inserting himself between the two of them. Maybe it won’t be either of them.

“Who else could it be?” Gideon asked.

She has other servants, Schrodinger said. Maybe she’ll send one of them instead. Or Ember.

Ooh, Ember! That would be cool! Aurora said, dancing a little.

“But how could Ember get us?” Zoey said. “She can’t drive anything, can she?”

She’s a dragon, Aurora said. She can do probably anything.

That’s true, Schrodinger said.

They were dressed in what Aunt Margie had termed their Sunday best. Lily, Kaylee, and Zoey were in pretty dresses and warm leggings, with bows in their hair (Zoey’s on her braids, Lily and Kaylee with theirs on headbands). Gideon was in grey, with pressed pants and a neat vest, a bow tie, and a crisp white shirt. He even had a trilby on his head, with a band that matched his bow tie. Schrodinger and Jack wore their bow ties as well, and Aurora had a bow on her collar. Molly thought they all looked adorable.

She was standing by the front of the store, talking to DC as they waited for their ride. The senior clerk, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail that had several jingle bells hanging from it, was a little envious of the planned trip.

“I wish I could have used the excuse for tea with the Snow Queen to get out of school when I was their age,” she said, as she restocked gift cards by her register. “Sadly, that’s not an option in a non-Crossroads town.”

“It wasn’t an option for me, either, and I grew up here,” Molly said. “We just have to accept that they move in rarified circles.”

“Truth,” DC said, and glanced out the window. Her eyes widened. “I think your ride is here.”

Molly looked out as well, her mouth dropping open in amazement. She personally had been expecting Pavel in his black sleigh with its matched black mares. That was NOT what had just pulled to a stop outside the bookstore.

“Well,” she said finally. “I guess we know how the Snow Queen travels when she wants to make an entrance.”

The carriage was pulled by four snow-white deer, not muscular reindeer like the ones that pulled Old Man Winter’s sledge, but ethereal creatures that looked as if they’d been spun from starlight. Their antlers were of the palest ivory, and had holly and ivy twined among the branches. Snowflakes and jingle bells adorned their pale blue harnesses, and their hooves looked as if they were shod in silver.

The carriage they pulled was no less breathtaking. It was all white and silver, with icy blue and warm gold accents all over the snowflake-emblazoned panels. An elegant driver, dressed in a crisp white suit and top hat, sat up front and held the reins in white-gloved hands. Beside him sat a groom or footman, similarly attired but without the top hat, who jumped down as soon as the carriage came to a stop and hurried towards the front door.

“I feel a little underdressed suddenly,” Molly murmured to DC, looking at the uniformed men.

“No kidding.”

The footman opened the door, paused to catch his breath, and then said solemnly, “Her Exquisite Majesty, The Snow Queen, current Leader of the Parliament of Realms, extends her greetings to her dearest friends and requests they join her for an informal tea.”

“If this is informal, the dinner is going to be stunning,” Molly said under her breath, then turned and gestured to her companions, who were all staring wide-eyed at the footman. “Come on, guys, our ride is here.”

The inside of the carriage was just as impressive: full of luxuriously cushioned seats and white fur blankets. Molly almost missed the fact that there was someone else in the carriage until Kaylee said, “Are you visiting the Snow Queen too? What are you?”

These questions were directed at a diminutive person so huddled in blankets that Molly saw a pair of intense violet eyes in a dark face, and a bit of long, dark hair.

“Don’t expect an answer,” came an acid voice from the opposite corner. The carriage was so large that there was actually room for a table in the center. “Not an intelligent once, anyways. Turians aren’t known for their intelligence and two questions in a row probably confused it.”

The speaker was a woman – at least, Molly thought she was. She was tall, taller even than Steve, who was a good six and a half feet tall, but she was painfully thin and angular. Her arms and legs appeared exceedingly long and spindly, almost segmented, and she was busy knitting something. Despite the chill, she wore a simple grey robe and soft grey slippers. The robe was hooded, and Molly could not see any hair, but her eyes were bright green. Were it not for the pursed set of her thin lips and her harsh words, she would have seemed elegant.

Kaylee frowned at her. “That’s not nice,” she said. “I wasn’t asking you.”

The owner of the violet eyes had also turned to look at the tall woman. Now, a faintly bell-like sound emerged from the pile of blankets. “You know, Yesira, you would be more effective if you didn’t air your opinions all the time. They stink almost as much as the dump you come from.”

Yesira sniffed. “Is that the best you can do, Palys? How long did it take you to come up with it? The entire trip?”

“It gave me something to amuse myself while I wasn’t planning how to vote you off the Parliament,” Palys said.

Schrodinger had been looking back and forth at the two. Now, he looked up at Molly and said very quietly, on their personal link, I think I understand why Jade has been so stressed.

               Agreed.

Kaylee, however, was not as circumspect as Schrodinger. She looked at both of the creatures and said, “You both have such bad manners! Santa is going to leave you nothing but reindeer poop and coal!” Then she flung herself angrily down next to Gideon and crossed her arms across her chest.

The rest of the trip was spent in awkward silence, although Molly was sure there was a telepathic conversation between her charges. Yesira concentrated on her knitting (and what she was knitting was completely alien to Molly), and Palys was still snuggled deep within her pile of blankets. Molly pulled out her cell phone and pulled up her ideas for the dinner to go over them again.

When the deer stopped again, it was in front of the shimmering white marble castle that the Snow Queen and her consort Jack Frost called home. The footman opened the door with a flourish, and Yesira stood up immediately, pushing her way to the front.

“The High Priestess Yesira, Disciple of the Summer Druid, of Elderpost,” the footman announced as she swept by him.

The pile of blankets sniffed. “Pretentious twit.” Then the blankets fell, and a small brown creature, dressed in what looked like a cloak of green growing leaves, descended from the carriage.

“Palys, envoy of Greenyard Meadows, beloved of the Turian peoples!”

Molly shook her head. “I wonder what titles we get?” she said, and grinned at the children.

Kaylee was still scowling after the other two. “I don’t want a title,” she said. “They make you stupid and grumpy.”

“Shush!” Gideon said. “You don’t want Santa to hear that!” He gave her a hug. “Don’t be angry at them, Kaylee. They don’t understand. Come on, the Snow Queen is waiting!”

Gideon’s hugs were powerful in their own right, and the scowl fell from Kaylee’s face. She hugged him back, and then they all got out of the carriage.

Yesira and Palys were nowhere to be seen, but Jack Frost was waiting there to greet them (the footman having stayed silent, mercifully). “My friends! How good to see you!” he said, hurrying down the stairs. “Jade and I are so glad you could come!”

“We’re here to save you!” Kaylee said, flinging herself into his arms.

Jack Frost laughed. “From all the rotten Parliament members?” he teased. “I wish. They’re almost insufferable.”

“We met two of them already,” Lily said, frowning. “Are the others better?”

“Hardly,” Jack said, his eyes dancing. “I hope you can help us remind them what the season is about.”

“Are we going to meet the rest of them today?” Molly asked him, as he led them up the stairs and into the great hall.

“No, they’re not invited to the tea party,” Jack said, and then laughed when she breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Although I have a feeling you might meet some of them sooner, rather than later.”

Molly looked at him, but he refused to say any more and just showed them into a cozy room that held a low table full of food and tea, and a large black CrossCat seated on a chair.

Librarian! Schrodinger said, bounding forward. I didn’t know you were going to be here!

               Where else would I be? The Librarian said, leaning over to touch her nose to his. I am a member of the Parliament, after all.

               But not one that needs to be convinced, surely? Schrodinger looked at her closely.

Hardly. I am here to help Jade keep the peace.

The Librarian, besides being Schrodinger’s great-great-grandmother, was the de facto leader of the CrossCats in his den, which was one of several in his Realm. Molly wasn’t quite clear on the way CrossCat politics worked, but it was clear that the Librarian was revered by all of them.

Once they were all seated around the Librarian, another door opened and the Snow Queen herself came in. It was obvious that she had been greeting other guests: Jade wore a massive silver and diamond crown on her head, cushioned by long braids of her pale hair, and her gown was ablaze with shimmering snowflakes. As the door closed, they got a glimpse of this perfection before she waved a hand and her outfit changed. Gone was the crown and gown; in its place was a simple dark green dress with a snowflake motif around the edge of the skirt. No coronet at all, although she kept the braids in her hair.

“Thank goodness that is over!” Jade said, dropping gracefully into a chair next to Zoey. “No more stuffy guests today!” She smiled at them. “Just good friends. I’m so glad you all could come!”

“Us too!” Lily said.

“Yeah, this is way better than school!” Zoey added.

Kaylee nodded, but she was strangely quiet. The Snow Queen looked at her.

“I see you met some of my guests,” Jade said gently. “And you were not impressed, were you, Kaylee?”

“They were rude, and we’re supposed to be nice to each other at Christmas!” Kaylee said. “And they were rude in front of us!”

“That’s part of why they’re here,” Jade said. “I’m hoping that the Cove will show them the right way to live.”

“They should come to my house,” Kaylee said, reaching for a sandwich. “My dad would teach them manners.”

Or the tea shop, Schrodinger added. Let Aunt Margie deal with them.

Molly, who had her teacup at her mouth, nearly choked on her tea at that.

(advent) December 6

Wednesday, December 6

 

The first scent that hit them when they opened the door to the bookstore was cookies. Sweet, buttery deliciousness that welcomed all the children in, beckoning them to the haven that was Molly’s kitchen.

“Those aren’t sugar cookies!” Lily said, inhaling deeply. “What are you making, Molly?”

“Shortbread!” Molly said, beaming at them. “They’re all cooling now, and once you’ve had your snack and warmed up a bit, you can help me decorate them!” She gestured at all the trays around the room. “As you can see, I went a bit overboard, but I think they’ll sell at the bake sale on Friday.”

When was the last time you ever didn’t sell out at the bake sale? Schrodinger said. I don’t think it’s ever happened.

“There’s a first time for everything,” Molly said. “What would you guys like for snack? I took some lemon blueberry muffins out earlier.”

“That sounds lovely!” Zoey said. “I love your lemon blueberry muffins!”

Gideon looked up at Molly slyly. “Could we taste-test the shortbread, Molly?”

Molly laughed. “Of course you can! Go sit down at the tables, and I’ll bring everything out to you. I have fresh cider too – do you want it hot or cold?”

Gideon and Kaylee requested hot cider, with cinnamon sticks to stir them. Lily asked for tea instead, having tasted her aunt’s Christmas tea and fallen in love with it. Zoey asked for cold cider. Schrodinger asked for his Earl Grey, Jack for a decaf chamomile, and Aurora for water. Then they all trooped out in to the tea room.

The weather had been threatening all day – the kind of grey and glowering day that sometimes comes up in the winter, when the clouds lay low over the town and grumble to the snowbanks. The wind slinks along the streets, constantly looking over its shoulder to see if the snowflakes are following it. Ice forms on any liquid the instant it goes outside, creating treacherous roads and sidewalks. It was part of the reason Pavel had picked the kids up and brought them to the bookstore, although he hadn’t been able to stay with them.

“I’m off to the Station,” he’d said. “Picking up more dignitaries. But it was too dangerous to allow you guys to walk to the store, so I stopped in earlier and asked Molly if I could get you.”

He’d also used the drive over to talk to Schrodinger, who now pondered the full import of what the pirate had said to him. There were currently four delegations at the Snow Queen’s castle, with another two scheduled to come in that afternoon. By the time that the weekend, all ten would have arrived.

“And they’re already spatting,” Pavel had said, shaking his head. “Honestly, you’d think they were seven.” Then he’d paused. “No, I take that back. I’ve seen Kaylee and Gideon act more mature than some of them.”

Do you think the Snow Queen will be able to get them to cooperate? Schrodinger had asked.

“If she can’t, with Jack and Molly’s help, no one can.”

Which was true, Schrodinger thought now, hooking his front paws on the edge of his pet bed and laying his chin on them. He was on the side away from the wood stove, so Jack could soak up the heat. Aurora had claimed the other bed, lying on her back and letting her tongue loll out.

“That can’t be comfortable,” Molly said, coming out with a tray. “Doesn’t it hurt your back, Aurora?”

Not really, the husky replied, flipping neatly over. It gives me a new perspective on things.

After they had had their snacks, Lily and Zoey went in to help Molly bring out the trays and trays of shortbread fingers.

“What are we decorating them with?” Gideon looked at the straight shortbread cookies.

“Remember how we did the pretzels last year?” Molly said. “Dipped in the chocolate, and then in sprinkles or jimmies or buttons? I was thinking these would be good for that too, since I didn’t get any pretzels.”

“Ooh, I like that idea!” he said, nodding excitedly. “That will be fun!”

Lily looked around the room, realizing they were the only ones there. “Let’s set up an assembly line,” she suggested to the others. “We can each have a station if we do it right.”

“You guys can do whatever you want,” Molly said. “I have muffins to bake, so I’m leaving this up to you.”

“You can count on us!” Zoey said, and the others nodded. “We’ll get them done!”

In the end, they moved two of the six tables together and set up dipping stations. Zoey and Lily would dip the shortbread into either white or milk chocolate, and then hand the cookie to Gideon and Kaylee, who would roll them in one of the toppings. Molly had given them an assortment of edible glitter, little Christmas jimmies that had trees, candy canes, and stars, as well as rainbow jimmies and mini candy-coated buttons. Then the cookies went back on the trays to harden. It took them a few hours, but Molly came out to help after her muffins went into the oven, slipping the hardened cookies into bags that she shut with a festive twist tie.

“What are you doing for the main centerpiece this year, Molly?” Zoey asked, as they finished up the last tray.

“Are you bringing the skating pond again?” Kaylee asked excitedly.

“No, not this year.” Molly had done a magical skating pond entirely out of gingerbread and had brought it to the bake sale as the centerpiece for her tables for the past several years. “I think it needs a break.”

“So what is the centerpiece this year?” Gideon asked.

“I thought I’d bring a tree this year,” Molly said.

The kids looked at each other. “Just a tree?” Kaylee said. “What kind of centerpiece is that?”

Molly winked at her. “You’ll see.” And she refused to say anything more, no matter how they pestered her.

 

(advent) December 5

Tuesday, December 5

“Too bad Molly and Drew didn’t want to come for pizza,” Lily said, picking up another piece from the tray in the middle of the table. “They’re missing out.”

Drew said he wanted to have some time alone with Molly, since he doesn’t get that often, Schrodinger said. Especially since he’s going to be working crazy hours this season. So they don’t want us to bring them anything.

They were seated at Giovanni’s Pizza, the best pizza place in the Cove, filling up before they went skating. Lily and Kaylee’s mom Corrinne and Gideon’s mom Kiaya had volunteered to pick them up, and Drew and Molly were going to meet them at the small cove on the Elizabeth River where everyone went and skated.

“I wonder who else will be there?” Zoey said eagerly. “It’s a perfect evening for skating!”

It was. There had been snow squalls early in the morning, spreading a new layer of white fluff on the ground, but then the sea breezes had blown the clouds away, and as the sun set, brilliant stars twinkled in the clear night sky. It was cold, but there was always a bonfire going at the skating cove, and Aurora had remembered to bring the magical tent that Pavel had brought her.

Kaylee opened her mouth to say something, but then the bell over the door rang, and they all saw who was coming in.

“Old Man Winter!” she called, scrambling up to stand on her chair and waving her arms, narrowly missing hitting her sister on the head in her excitement. “Come join us!”

“Kaylee, sit down!” Corrinne said sternly. “You’re going to fall over!”

“No, I’m not,” Kaylee insisted, but sat down again. “I’m just excited!”

“I don’t know why,” her mother said, shaking her head. “It’s not like you don’t see him at least once a month.”

“He’s my FAVORITE,” Kaylee explained. “I NEED to see him all the time! And I haven’t seen him in WEEKS!”

You aren’t built to see him all the time, Jack said. You’d freeze.

Indeed, as the old winter spirit came over to them, the air temperature dropped, although not as much as it once might have. “Are you out alone?” he said in a mock-growl, glowering at them all. “And causing mischief?”

“Always!” Gideon said, while at the same time, Zoey said, “No, of course not!”

“Why not?” Old Man Winter demanded, trying hard not to smile.

“Because it’s Christmas, and we need to be good for Santa to come!” Kaylee said. “Even though it’s hard!”

Old Man Winter laughed at that. “Well, that’s the truth,” he allowed, pulling up a chair and settling in. “What are you doing today?”

Skating! Schrodinger said, and indicated the pizza box in front of him. After we have our favorite pizza.

“Is that…” Old Man Winter reached eagerly for a piece. “You and I are in agreement, Schrodinger. This is the ultimate pizza.”

Corrinne shuddered. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put cranberries on a pizza,” she said. “I’m glad you can help him eat it.”

“It’s an acquired taste,” Old Man Winter agreed.

“What are you doing here?” Lily asked. “We haven’t seen you around recently!”

“I’ve been very busy,” the old spirit said, and Schrodinger watched some emotions flicker quickly across his mobile face. “The Snow Queen and Jack Frost are hosting guests this Christmas, and I’ve had to help with that. They are sorry they couldn’t do an Advent calendar for you this year. Since they didn’t need me this evening, I thought I’d sneak out and see my favorite folks.”

Molly and Drew will be joining us at the skating cove, Schrodinger said. Will you come along too?

“I would love to!” Old Man Winter said.

“We decided to do our own Advent calendar this year,” Lily said, and the others nodded their heads. “We’re helping around the Cove!”

Old Man Winter finished his mouthful and looked around at them. “What a good idea! Tell me all about it!”

The rest of the pizza disappeared as they went over their plans for the rest of the month. By the time they were done, he was looking impressed.

“I wish some of the Snow Queen’s guests had half the imagination and cooperation you guys have!” he said, shaking his head. “You could teach them some things about working out problems.”

Is that why she’s so busy? Jack asked, cocking his head. There are problems?

“Can we help?” Zoey added.

“I wish,” Old Man Winter said. “Do you guys know about the Parliament of the Realms?”

They rule the Roads, Schrodinger said instantly. Any treaties regarding the Roads and Gates must be ratified by them, and they work kind of like Earth’s United Nations.

“Except they agree on even less than the United Nations do,” Old Man Winter said, and sighed. “Well, the Parliament has to vote on the Treaty of the Roads in a few months, and there are arguments over who should be allowed to vote and who shouldn’t. There are a lot of old enemies who are using this chance to bring up old feuds and the Snow Queen and Jack Frost are trying to make sure nothing happens to stop the ratification of the Treaty.”

“What would happen if the Treaty wasn’t ratified?” Gideon asked.

“In the short run?” Old Man Winter leaned back and thought. “There’d be some stoppages until the Gate Stations were sorted out.” When they looked blankly at him, he said, “The Gates themselves are owned by the Parliament, but the Stations belong to the Realm that they are situated in. Right now, they’re considered neutral ground by everyone. If the Treaty isn’t ratified, the Stations wouldn’t be neutral anymore. They could restrict who could come through their Gates, and where they could go.”

“Or charge taxes,” Kiaya added, joining in the conversation for the first time. “Making everything more expensive.”

Old Man Winter nodded. “In the long run, it would turn the Roads into private highways. I can remember what it was like before the Parliament was created – it wasn’t good. The Snow Queen wants to remind the most contentious members that the benefits of working together are more than the benefits of going it on their own.”

“The Snow Queen should bring them all in to the Bookstore and let Molly sort them out,” Kaylee said, wiping her mouth with her napkin and missing most of the tomato sauce on her face. “Molly would make them work together.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Old Man Winter said. “I just wonder how much damage they would do to the Cove before she got them into shape.” He looked at all of them. “Do you want to take the sledge to the skating cove? My reindeer could use some exercise.”

“We’ll take the car and meet you there,” Corrinne said, after a glance at Kiaya.

“Tell Giovanni to put this on my tab,” Old Man Winter said. “And we’ll see you there!”

They hurried to get their coats, gloves, and hats, then followed him out into the crisp night air. Outside the pizza parlor, looking right at home amid the other sleighs and cars, was Old Man Winter’s sledge.

It was a large wooden sledge, with raised sides that cradled a veritable mountain of animal hides, blankets, and furs to keep them warm. Old Man Winter stood at the back and picked up the reins. In front of the sledge stood two massive reindeer, shaggy coats dotted with snowflakes, ivy and holly twined in their antlers. They all piled into the body of the sledge, although Kaylee looked pleadingly at Old Man Winter.

“Please, can’t I help drive?” she wheedled. “It’s not far!”

Usually, he didn’t let her, since it got very cold (the reindeer ran very fast) but this time, since they weren’t going on the Roads, Old Man Winter gave in. “As long as you think you’ll be warm enough!”

“Yay!” Kaylee shouted, and scrambled to the back of the sledge. Old Man Winter Winter set her in front of him (so she couldn’t fall out, Schrodinger noticed) and handed her the long leather reins. “You guys ready?”

Ready! Jack said, giving a long bay. Let’s go!

“Go!” Kaylee said, shaking the reins, and the big reindeer jumped forward.

“Don’t forget to tell them where to go!” Old Man Winter reminded her.

“Oh, right! Take us to the skating cove!” Kaylee called.

The reindeer tossed their heads in acknowledgement, their harness bells jingling merrily, and turned slightly.

The Elizabeth River, named for the daughter of Carter’s Cove’s founder, wound its way along the northern border of the town. The gentlest of the three rivers that emptied into the Cove, it made multiple coves and swimming holes on its way to the ocean, most of which froze to glassy perfection in the winter. The largest of these was near the farm of Indi Sarabian, and every winter, she and her family created the Skating Pond.

It was a large cove, with a rock outcropping in the center and snowflake lights strung through the trees to bath the entire area in a soft white glow. Indi had a large bonfire that people could warm themselves by, bracketed by wooden benches that her family had built. A small wooden hut sold hot chocolate and hot cider, as well as renting skates for those who didn’t have them. Indi also had a sound system that played Christmas carols during the system. And there was an improvement every year.

This year, as the sledge came to a halt on the edge of the clearing, Schrodinger saw that Indi had expanded the hut. The original wooden building with the generator behind it was still there, manned by one of Indi’s sons, but next to it was a larger hut, with another generator behind it. After piling out of the sledge, Schrodinger went over to the new hut, intrigued.

“Hi Schrodinger!” Indi said cheerfully, leaning over the clean counter top. “What do you think of the new set-up?”

It’s lovely! he said, sniffing. Are you selling food now?

“Just burgers and hot dogs,” Indi said. “We’re so busy now that I don’t want to add anymore. I’d have to hire people! And then I’d have to pay them!”

Both she and Schrodinger laughed at that. Indi had a small tribe of children that helped her and her husband at the Skating Pond, and while she publicly said she never paid them, everyone knew that was how the kids made their pocket money in the winter.

You should look into keeping this open in the summer, Schrodinger said, as the others joined them. I bet the swimming would be just as popular.

“The bottom is a bit too rocky, sadly,” said Indi regretfully. “But maybe a fishing hole. I don’t want to change the bottom, because the fishing is good.” She looked over the group. “You guys hungry?”

“We just had pizza,” Gideon said, a little regretfully. “It smells good though!”

“Maybe next time,” Kiaya said, as she and Corrinne came over, followed by Molly and Drew. All the adults were carrying skates. “Now that we know there’s food here, I don’t see why we couldn’t! You should have announced this on the radio!”

“Hudson was supposed to, but I think he forgot,” Indi said, grinning. “Eh, we’ll just spread by word of mouth.” She looked at the animals. “Do you guys want the sled today?”

I’ll take the cushion by the fire, Jack said, and looked at Schrodinger and Aurora. But you guys like it.

We do! Aurora said, bouncing.

<><>

“You’re hiding from your guests.”

The warm, gentle voice broke the silence, causing her to look up from the small pool of magic that shimmered in the soft glow of the mage lights that ringed her scrying room. “And they aren’t even all here yet,” the Snow Queen replied, and Jack Frost, the autumn spirit, heard the fatigue in her voice. “I can’t wait until all ten of them descend.”

He crossed the room to where she sat on the edge of the pool and looked down. In the liquid magic, the image of the Skating Cove shimmered, and he could almost smell the snow and ice wafting up. The scene had been zoomed in to where Lily, Kaylee, Gideon, and Zoey were pushing Schrodinger and Aurora in the sled, with Molly and Drew behind them. “I’d rather be there with them,” Jack Frost said honestly. “We have so much fun with them.”

“Agreed,” Jade, the Snow Queen, leaned against him as his arm went around her shoulders. “They make this my favorite season. The innocence and joy they have. I wish we could have done a calendar for them this year.”

“Pavel says they’re doing their own,” Jack Frost said. “Helping out around the Cove where they can.”

“Of course they are.” Jade smiled down at the laughing children. “We’ve learned so much from them. It feels almost sinful to use them.”

“Sinful?” Jack Frost shook his head. “Not at all. You aren’t making them do anything they don’t already want to do. You’re just exposing certain people who need to remember how to work together to some folks who do it well.” He kissed the top of her silken hair. “And I for one can’t wait to see it.”

“As long as it works.” Jade took one last look at the happy faces and then with one wave of her hand banished the image. She stood up, adjusting her gown. “Well, let’s go meet the newest arrivals.”