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December 2014

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Dec. 20th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 20

Saturday, December 20

“Is this really necessary? You think he’d do something tonight?” Molly asked Pavel, as he opened the front door to the farmhouse and peered out into the dark yard. The lights on the trees glowed in the clear night; if only there was snow, she thought fleetingly, it would be picture-perfect.

“Absolutely,” the pirate replied, looking back at her with an unusually serious expression on his face. “If I were him, I’d be counting on the fact that you think he wouldn’t dare try anything when the Snow Queen in the Cove.”

“But he can’t come in now,” Molly protested weakly. “Jade will be in the Cove.”

“Caliban can’t come into the Cove, but the banishment doesn’t affect his servants,” Pavel reminded her. “He can sit back in Stumpleton and pull the strings. That’s why we’re coming with you.”

Molly couldn’t argue with that logic, even though her gut said that nothing was going to happen. She wasn’t a fighter – she was a kitchen witch, and if Pavel said it was possible, she’d defer to him. At least he and his men had cleaned up amazingly.

“So where did you all get the tuxedos?” she said instead, reaching out to straighten his bow tie. He and the three sailors with him had shown up in tuxedos and tails, with dark red bow ties and cummerbunds, which incidentally looked amazing next to her pale wine-colored dress. Drew’s vest was the same dark red, so she would have quite the escort.

“You have a lovely rental shop here in town, and they were nice enough to match us to what Drew rented,” he said. “So we didn’t clash.”

“Pirates with fashion sense. I approve.”

“My dear girl, they revoke your pirate license if you don’t have fashion sense,” Pavel said, winking at her. “It’s a requirement, you know.”

“I had no idea,” Molly said, chuckling. She turned as Drew and Schrodinger joined them. The CrossCat’s tie matched the others, and he had actually agreed to wear a tuxedo coat this year, not just the tie. “You both look so handsome,” she said, leaning down to stroke Schrodinger’s head. “I’m going to be the proudest girl there.”

“Well, we had to make sure we lived up to your glory,” Drew said, looking at her admiringly, and Molly blushed. This year, they’d all decided to go in vintage costumes, so instead of a tie, Drew had a white cravat, and white spats over his black shoes. Molly had found a lovely evening gown, with small puffed sleeves and pale wine-colored lace over the front, and her dark hair was swept up, piled in curls on the top of her head, threaded through with a ribbon that matched her dress. She had a small black velvet capelet that complete her outfit, and her mother had loaned her a cameo that she’d threaded onto more of the wine ribbon and tied at her throat.

“Your carriage awaits, my lady,” Pavel said, bowing her out the door.

The large carriage rumbled along the road towards the Ball, and Molly snuggled up next to Drew, Schrodinger on her other side. Despite her worries, Molly realized she was happy. Her family was together, she was going to spend a wonderful night dancing with all her friends, and it seemed as if the Snow Queen was going to be okay.

“Have you seen Jack today?” she asked Pavel.

“No, actually,” Pavel said, leaning back against his seat. His white teeth gleamed in the dimness as he grinned. “Shockingly, he didn’t come back to the ship last night. I assume he stayed with the Snow Queen.”

“Good.”

The ride was uneventful, and the driver pulled the carriage skillfully up to the path into the ballroom. As she stepped down, Molly breathed out and realized that it was cold – not snowing, but there was a definite bite in the air, more than there had been all season. Which had to be a good sign, right?

I think so, Schrodinger said, hopping down beside her, his tail twitching. It might mean she’s feeling better.

“Or that Old Man Winter is with her,” Drew said, taking Molly’s arm and escorting her down the path. Two of Pavel’s sailors walked in front of them, and Pavel and Goldie followed Schrodinger, bringing up the rear.

The path emptied out into the Snow Queen’s ball room, the one that appeared ever year on this spot. Molly and Drew stepped onto the marble floor, and she peered around, looking for her friends. She spotted Sue in a lovely tea-length dress of cream and blue and waved.

“There they are, come on!”

She pulled Drew and Schrodinger over to Sue as Lai, in an amazing floor-length emerald gown that shimmered in the light, and Noemi, in pale pink covered in lace, joined them. Steve, Mike and Luke had tuxes and cravats like Drew’s.

“This was a great idea,” Sue said, accepting a glass of champagne from Luke. “We definitely have to come up with another theme for next year.”

“Agreed,” Molly said, stifling the thought that there might not be a next year. There would be. The alternative was unthinkable.

Pavel brought over champagne for her and Drew, and when she looked at him, shook his head. The guest of honor hadn’t showed up yet, apparently.

Old Man Winter was there, though, standing near the throne that the Snow Queen usually watched the ball from. Molly touched Drew’s arm and murmured to him that she was going to talk to the spirit, then walked over to him.

“You look lovely tonight,” Old Man Winter said, his weathered face breaking into a welcoming smile as he saw her. She hugged him.

“You look very handsome,” Molly told him, admiring the tuxedo. He’d even trimmed his beard, so the long white hairs looked like shining snow instead of straggling everywhere, like normal. His vest was silver-grey and covered with tiny silver snowflakes, and his cufflinks were silver snowflakes as well. “How is Jade?”

“Better today,” he said. “She’s not fully back to health, but bringing Jack in was a good call.”

“Has she…?” Molly hesitated, not sure if she was allowed to ask this question yet.

“No,” Old Man Winter said, shaking his head. “She hasn’t made that decision yet. But I do know that she and Jack talked for a very long time yesterday. He slept in one of the guest rooms in the castle last night, and this afternoon, Jade looked more like her old self than she has in a while.” He looked out over the rapidly-filling ball room. “I didn’t know for a bit if she’d even make it tonight. But she will.”

“When will they be here?” Molly asked.

“Soon. She was finishing up a few things when I left.” Old Man Winter patted her arm. “Enjoy yourself tonight, Molly. You’ve earned this night. And save a dance for me?”

“Of course.” Molly smiled up at him, and then went back to Drew and the others.

After about twenty minutes, the room had filled with happy people, talking and exchanging holiday greetings. Molly waved at her brother and sister-in-law, who joined them.

“No Peter and Donna?” Molly asked, and Corrine shook her head.

“They took Lily and Jack for a sleepover with Zoey,” she said. “Donna was a little superstitious about going this year.”

“Well, you can’t really blame them,” Drew said, and Molly nodded. Donna and Peter Allard’s house had burned down during the last Snow Queen’s ball. “And this means you didn’t have to pay a sitter this year!”

“True,” Nathan said, then he chuckled. “Although you should have heard the howls when Lily and Zoey found out that they couldn’t go this year.”

Yeah, I felt a little guilty about that, Schrodinger admitted, hanging his head a little. But not enough to stay home.

They all laughed at that, and then there was a ringing bell, and everyone turned to the throne. Old Man Winter had been joined by Jack Frost, looking very handsome in a dark green morning coat and black pants, with shining black boots. There was a spray of autumn leaves on his lapel, and Molly thought he looked calmer than he had before. Then the door behind the throne opened, and she turned all her attention to the Snow Queen.

If Molly hadn’t been in the room the day before, seeing how bad her friend had been, she’d have had a hard time believing anything was wrong. Jade was radiant, smiling at everyone as she walked slowly to her throne. Her floor-length dress was pure white and shimmered as she moved. Her long hair fell about her shoulders, and there were snowflakes woven in her curls. Her coronet was more snowflakes, icy and light and glowing faintly. She was enchanting , as always.

She reached her throne; Old Man Winter and Jack each took one of her hands and lowered her to the seat. Then the Snow Queen looked out over the assembled crowd and said, “Welcome, my friends. I’m so glad to see all of you! Please, enjoy yourselves tonight!” She raised a hand and gestured to the band, who started the first waltz.

Drew held a hand out to Molly, who handed her champagne glass to Sue and allowed him to wheel her out on the floor. Old Man Winter was right. She’d earned this night. Laying her head against Drew’s shoulder, she let him and the music lead her away.

Molly couldn’t remember dancing so much – she seemed to go from partner to partner, hardly resting at all between songs before she was out on the floor again. Finally, she had to plead exhaustion in order to get a drink.

While she and Schrodinger sat on the side, Jack came over. “Do you mind if I join you two?” he asked.

“As long as I don’t have to dance, no,” Molly said, moving over a little on the bench she was seated on to give him some room.

“No dancing,” Jack agreed, sitting down. He looked out over the crowd. “It’s funny, how big this has grown. Did you know I was at the first ball?”

Really? Schrodinger said, his ears pricking up. What was it like?

“Not like this,” Jack said, smiling. “The very first ball was held during the height of the siege on the Cove, and was to actually set up the wards that protect you. We had everyone we could find, to dance, while the five of us cast the spells needed to weave the protections together.”

Why did you need them to dance? Schrodinger asked, curious.

“It raised more power,” Jack said. “And really, we needed all the power we could get.” He shook his head. “I never realized she kept this going.”

“It’s tradition,” Molly told him. “Of course it’s gone on.”

“Which explains why the protections are still so strong,” he said. “The dancing every year renews it.”

Would it last without her? Schrodinger asked softly.

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “I’m hoping we don’t ever find out.”

“How’s that going?” Molly asked. “Old Man Winter said you guys had a long talk yesterday.”

“We did.” Jack was still watching the dancers whirl past them. Molly and Schrodinger waited. Finally, he said, “It’s not going to be solved with one conversation, no matter how long, guys. I did some terrible things. And she’s right not to trust me yet.”

“But she’s willing to give you a chance,” Molly said, touching him lightly on the arm. “That’s more than she was going to do. It’s progress.”

Jack covered her hand with his and smiled at her. “Yes, it is. And I have you two to thank for it.”

You did the work, Schrodinger said. We just provided the teaching.

“You’re good teachers.” Jack squeezed Molly’s hand and stood up. “Now, I think I’m going to see if I can get a dance with her, before the end of the night.”

Molly and Schrodinger watched him weave his way across the floor and lean over to say something to the Snow Queen. She smiled up at him, and gave him her hand, allowing him to lead her out on to the dance floor. Dancers moved out of their way as they began a slow turn around the room, and the band moved into a stately waltz.

“They look good together,” Drew said in Molly’s ear, coming up behind her and slipping his arms around her. She leaned back against him and nodded.

“They do.” They watched the two spirits dance, so wrapped up in each other that Molly didn’t think they realized that they had the floor to themselves. Jack murmured something to her at one point, and she laughed, a silvery sound that danced through the room.

Finally, the final dance, the Cinderella dance, was announced. Molly removed her right shoe and threw it into the pile with all the other women’s shoes, then went back to the bench where Schrodinger was waiting. As always, the gentlemen went in and picked a shoe, then looked for the lady who it belonged to. Even the Snow Queen had a shoe in the pile.

“I think this belongs to you, yes?”

Molly grinned and nodded, accepting her pale heel from Pavel and slipping it on her foot before she stood up. The pirate whirled her out onto the floor and into the crowd.

“You have done a great thing, Molly,” Pavel said, and nodded to Jack, who passed them with Lai in his arms. She was laughing at something he said, and rather than looking put upon, or studiously polite, Jack looked like he was enjoying himself. “I would have never thought I would see that.”

“I didn’t do it, really,” she said. “Like Schrodinger said earlier, Jack did the real work himself. I just provided the way.”

“You are a good navigator – one I wouldn’t mind having on my ship,” Pavel said. He nodded over her shoulder and turned Molly so she could see Jade dancing with her brother Nathan. “She already looks recovered.”

“I doubt she is, but I wonder if this is renewing her as well as the wards,” Molly said. When Pavel quirked an eyebrow at her curiously, she explained what Jack had told her and Schrodinger earlier. “So if this renews the wards, and she’s tied into the wards, wouldn’t it renew her too, a bit?”

“It makes sense to me,” Pavel agreed. “There is much I don’t know about the spirits we associate with.”

Molly gave him a skeptical look. “I think you know a lot more than you are letting on, my friend. You just don’t want to reveal all your cards.”

Pavel didn’t say anything to that, but he did give her a wink.

At the end of the dance, Nathan returned the Snow Queen to her throne, and she smiled up at him in thanks. Then she turned to the crowd.

“Thank you, my friends. Once more, you have brightened my day by sharing this ball with me.” Jade smiled at all of them. “Merry Christmas, and may we meet again soon!”

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Dec. 19th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 19

Friday, December 19

Molly had woken up feeling exhausted, and decided to take the day off. She very rarely did that, and Aunt Margie had agreed that she’d been working too hard.

She’d planned on a lazy day, since they’d finished their decorations. But as she and Schrodinger sat in the bay window in the dining nook in the kitchen, watching fat, wet snowflakes drift down sullenly from a dirty grey sky and drinking their second cups of tea, they both heard bells.

Visitors? Schrodinger said, looking over at Molly. Were we expecting someone?

“Not that I know of,” she said, getting up, her mug still in her hand. “Let’s see who it is.”

The bells continued to peel as Molly and Schrodinger stepped out on to the porch, but neither of them recognized the carriage, not a sleigh, that came up the drive. It was made of pale wood, with pale green leaves twined around it, and the horses were cream-colored, with what looked like spring flowers in their manes. A warm, sweet wind preceded them, turning the wet snowflakes into rain.

The carriage came right up to the barn, and a young woman in a brightly colored tunic jumped down from the back, opening the carriage door to allow her mistress to alight. Molly noticed that both the handmaiden and the young woman who stepped out of the carriage were barefoot, and that they had a slightly greenish tinge to their pale skins.

“I think this might be Herse,” she murmured to Schrodinger, as the two came across the damp lawn and up the stairs.

It was indeed. The goddess of rain came up to the front door, her gentle face glowing slightly, and asked, “Miss Barrett? May I speak with you, please?”

“Of course,” Molly said, inviting her and her handmaiden into the house. “Would you like some tea?”

“If you have an herbal, that would be lovely,” Herse said, following her and Schrodinger down the hall into the kitchen. “Pandora, see to the horses.”

The handmaiden bowed and darted out again as the goddess settled herself at the kitchen table. “You have a lovely house, Miss Barrett.”

“Molly, please,” Molly said, filling a mug with hot water and settling an herbal mixture of strawberries and chamomile leaves in to steep. “To what do I owe this visit?”

Herse accepted the mug with a pretty smile that was at odds with the worry in her light green eyes. “Word travels fast, Molly. I hear worrying things about my friend Jade, and rumors that Cal-that certain unwanted people are back in her life.” She put the mug on the table. “I haven’t been back to Carter’s Cove in a very long time, but I couldn’t stay away. Not if it was true.”

It’s true, Schrodinger confirmed, putting a gentle paw on the goddess’ knee. Caliban and Jack are both back.

“Jack is not a worry of mine,” Herse said. “It’s Caliban. He’s ambitious. And dangerous.”

“Which is why the Snow Queen won’t choose him,” Molly said. “I’m not sure why everyone is so concerned she might.”

“She might not have a choice,” Herse said somberly. “If she holds out much longer, and refuses to let Jack in, then she will lose control of her borders. He will simply march in and take her – which is what he’s hoping for. It’s not her he wants – it’s her realm.”

Why? Schrodinger asked. Doesn’t he have one?

“Yes, but it’s not enough for him. He’s craved her realm since he first saw it, all these years ago.” Herse looked over at Molly. “Which is why I’ve come today.”

Molly waited.

“I want you to come with me to see Jade,” Herse said. “We have to convince her to lift the banishment on Jack.” She sipped her tea, and continued, “I know he comes across as a bit of an ass – or at least, he did when I knew him. But he truly loves Jade, unlike Caliban, and he would be as good for her as she would be for him. And I think she does love him. I could see the anguish in her face when she banished him.”

“If she loved him so much, why banish him?” Molly asked quietly.

“Because she had no choice,” Herse said sadly. “Caliban had accused him of cowardice and possibly helping the enemy, and everyone else who had been at the Gate with him was dead. Jack had to respond to Caliban’s charges, and they were both so angry – the Cove would have been destroyed if we hadn’t stopped them. And then, rather than admitting he’d been wrong, Jack was so angry that he told her they were just mortals. It was the entirely wrong thing to say, and made her so angry that she’d spoken the banishment on both of them before she realized it. And once it was done…” She shrugged eloquently. “Which brings me to now.”

“And why you are here in my kitchen,” Molly agreed.

“I need you to come with me, Molly. You’re the only one who can convince Jade to give Jack a second chance. And if we don’t go now, it may not make a difference.”

It’s that bad? Schrodinger said, his eyes wide. But I just saw her!

Herse nodded. “She needs to be in his presence, even if she doesn’t accept him right away, or she’ll lose the last of her control. Old Man Winter sent me a message last night, letting me know. He can’t keep it under control much longer.”

“Let me get my coat,” Molly said, putting her mug in the sink. “Come on, Schrodinger.”

The carriage was smaller than Pavel’s, but not by much, and it smelled like a meadow after a spring rain, rather than wood smoke and pine tar. Herse didn’t have to knock on the roof, as the pirate had; she simply leaned back against her seat and the driver got the horses moving.

It was a much easier drive than the last time Molly and Schrodinger had gone to the Snow Queen’s realm. Apparently Caliban’s wind was no match for Herse’s carriage – then again, she was a goddess, and he was simply a summer spirit. Molly supposed that being a goddess, even a minor goddess, had to be good for that much.

The carriage shuddered a bit when it hit the cold air of the Snow Queen’s realm, and Herse laid her hand on the window, murmuring something under her breath. Another shudder, and then it straightened out, riding smoothly over the snow.

“I always forget to change to the sled runners before we hit the Gate,” Herse said. “I come here so infrequently now. I should change that.”

I bet Jade would like that, Schrodinger agreed, and Molly nodded. She always seems to like having friends around.

“I thought that maybe I would bring back bad memories,” Herse confessed. “But that might have been wrong.” She looked out at the white snowy fields. “It wouldn’t be the first mistake that’s been made in this mess.”

When the carriage pulled into the yard of the Snow Queen’s castle and Molly got out, she gasped. Although the lands were still snow-covered, the castle itself was dry and grey-looking, with no greenery or decorations in evidence.

Something is very wrong, Schrodinger said. It didn’t look like this before!

Molly tore up the steps, Schrodinger and Herse hot on her heels, and nearly knocked Old Man Winter over as he opened the front door.

“Whoa, wait, Molly!” he said, holding out a hand. “There’s something you need to know before you go up.”

“What?” The word came out a little more sharply than she’d meant.

“She’s fragile,” he said, and the worry in his voice made Molly focus on him. Old Man Winter looked older than normal, and the lines on his face were deeply-cut. “Her control is slipping more and more – Ember is up with her now, stabilizing her, but she might not be what you remember. Try not to upset her.”

Sobered, Molly followed him up the stairs to the Snow Queen’s apartments. The characteristic crisp peppermint and ice smell was faint – still there, but almost a memory of itself. As he led them into her sitting room, Molly steeled herself for the worst.

“Jade?” It was Herse who pushed ahead of her, hurrying to her old friend’s side to take a pale limp hand of the girl laying on the chaise lounge. The dragon curled around her moved to give the goddess access.

“Herse?” The Snow Queen’s voice was a bare whisper. “Is that you?”

“I’m here,” the goddess said, and Molly could see a glow moving from her to the Snow Queen. “I’m here.”

Schrodinger had crept in after her, and now curled up next to Jade, purring deeply. The girl smiled down at him, her other hand moving to pet him gently, and then she looked up at Molly. “Hello, Molly.”

“Hello, Jade.” Molly heard the exhaustion in her voice and realized how far gone the Snow Queen was. “You look terrible.”

Herse, Ember and Schrodinger all looked shocked, but both Old Man Winter and the Snow Queen laughed. “I do, don’t I?” Jade agreed. “I should do something about it.”

“Yes,” Molly said, moving into the room. “You need to lift the banishment on Jack.”

Jade’s eyes hardened, but Molly saw the tell-tale glint of tears as well. “Why?”

“Because you have to have a consort, or so I’m told, or you’ll die,” Molly replied, sitting down in front of her. “And I don’t want you to die. And I definitely don’t want you to fall into Caliban’s clutches.”

A tremor went through the Snow Queen. “That will never happen.”

“It will, if you don’t let Jack back,” Old Man Winter said from the doorway. “I can only hold him off for so long. The land will fall to him, and he will force you to take him back. You know that’s the truth.”

“And would Jack be so much better?” Jade whispered, closing her eyes. A single tear tracked down her pale cheek. “He has as little love for mortals as Caliban.”

He’s changing, Schrodinger told her, raising his head to look at her. He wants another chance.

“Does he truly?” Jade opened her eyes again, looking at Molly. “You’ve met with Jack – do you truly think this?”

“I have, and I do,” Molly said. “I’ve met Caliban too. And of the two of them, I can tell you that while Jack might be an ass, he loves you. Caliban just wants you.” She couldn’t quite suppress a shudder at the memory of his dark eyes. “So here’s what I would suggest, Jade. Lift the banishment on Jack. Come and see him. At the Cafe, or at my house. Neutral ground. Let him make his plea.” She clasped her hands together, like she’d done when she was a child. “Please, Jade.”

The room grew silent, except for Schrodinger’s purring and the labored breathing of the Snow Queen. Molly tightened her fingers until the tips tingled.

“All right,” Jade said finally. “I will temporarily lift the banishment of Jack Frost.” She paused, and then added, “But if he cannot convince me that he has changed by the end of the ball, then the banishment will be reinstated.” She raised one hand, made a graceful gesture, and then sighed, as if that had taken all of her energy.

The temperature in the room dropped several degrees, and Herse smiled. “It is the right thing to do, Jade,” she said. “Even your magic knows it.”

There was the slightest flush of color coming back into Jade’s face. “We’ll see,” she said softly. “Molly, I will–”

There was a crash from downstairs, cutting her words off, and everyone turned to the door. Old Man Winter swore. “I wondered how long it would take him.”

Molly wasn’t shocked to see the young servant boy from Caliban’s hotel come skidding into the room. He recovered and bowed. “Gracious Snow Queen, I bring news from my master,” he said, his voice shaking. “He wonders why you would allow Jack Frost an audience, but not him. It is not right, he says.”

Old Man Winter muttered something under his breath.

“Neither is holding the Snow Queen’s realm hostage,” Molly said. “And attacking anyone who comes in.”

“He is protecting her realm, since she could not,” the boy said. “Which is the act of a friend.”

“Caliban has not been my friend since he decided the mortals that we swore to protect were expendable,” the Snow Queen said, struggling to sit up. “He has no claim on me.” She pointed a trembling finger at the boy. “Tell your master that I do not appreciate his spirits harassing my borders, or my friends. Tell him that I do NOT lift his banishment, and that I have no intention of lifting it.”

“You will anger him, Gracious Snow Queen,” the servant warned her, and Molly saw the fear in his eyes. She didn’t envy him at this moment. “My master–”

“Is a bully,” Jade said bluntly. “And someone I wish to have nothing to do with.” She pointed at the door. “Now go, and do not return here again.”

The servant boy bowed and went out. As soon as he was gone, Jade melted back against Ember, her face paler than it had been.

“Schrodinger, go get Jack,” Molly said, going to kneel on Jade’s other side. “Now!”

The CrossCat didn’t even wait to get out of the room before he disappeared, jumping onto a Road.

Molly took Jade’s other hand, shocked at how warm it was. Normally the Snow Queen was cool as an icicle. “Hold on, Jade,” she said. “He’s coming.”

It was probably only fifteen minutes, but it seemed like forever before Molly and Herse heard the pounding of boots on the stairs. Jack burst into the room and Molly drew back, giving him room.

He had eyes only for the Snow Queen, going straight to her side and gathering her gently in his arms, murmuring something that Molly didn’t hear. She looked down at Schrodinger, who had followed in Jack’s wake and was flopped at her feet, his sides heaving. “Good job,” she murmured, kneeling down and hugging him. “Maybe now this will start to work out.”

I hope so. Schrodinger said. I hope so.

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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moonkitty

(advent) December 18

Thursday, December 18

Normally, Molly had Thursdays off. But this was the Thursday before the Snow Queen’s Ball, and since Aunt Margie usually closed the bookstore that Saturday, Molly had come in to work. Jack was sitting at the island, a cup of tea cooling at his elbow as he watched her paint lines of shimmering silver icing on delicate snowflake cookies. Lily’s teacher Miss Stanley had stopped by the day before and requested them for the last day of school on Friday, and Molly had been happy to oblige.

Jack was fascinated. “But how do you do it?” he asked. “Not the actual icing – I can see that. But how do you know what it’s supposed to look like?”

“I just do,” Molly said, laying another line down. There were nearly three dozen cookies that had already been frosted on the counters against the wall, and she only had two or three cookies on this last sheet to lay icing on. “It’s not really something I can explain.” She frowned at the cookie, deemed it done, and moved on to the next one.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Like watching a nymph dance.”

“Seriously?” Molly looked up at him. “A nymph?”

“I don’t know many mortals, or I’d compare you to them,” Jack said. “Nymphs are what I know. Cut me some slack?”

“Oh, I suppose.” Molly grinned at him, then went back to her cookies. When she’d finished the last one, she set the icing bag aside and frowned at the trays. Then she went into the pantry and came back, not with the silver bullets she’d planned originally, but more of the shimmery sugar that she’d used in the icing. She dusted this across the snowflakes and smiled. “There.”

“Almost,” Jack said, leaning over. “May I?”

She eyed him warily. “What are you going to do?”

He grinned. “Make them magical. Do you trust me?”

“I don’t know,” Molly said, wondering if she really did. “These are for Lily and Zoey’s class, you know.”

“I won’t hurt them, and I won’t wreck the cookies,” he promised. “Please? Let me help.”

“Okay,” Molly said, stepping back. “Go ahead.”

Jack grinned even wider and then, to her surprise, he leaned down and blew softly across the cookies. Loose sugar whirled up, sparkling in the light. No, not just sparkling, Molly realized: they were glowing.

The glowing sugar swirled across all the cookies, settling down and making the cookies dance with pale light. Now they looked like captured stars, glowing with inner starlight.

“Oh, those are beautiful!” Molly breathed, clapping her hands together. “Jack, that’s wonderful!”

Then she looked up, and saw his face was pale, paler than normal. “Jack? Are you okay?” she asked worriedly, hurrying over to him.

He waved her off. “I’m fine. I just didn’t realize how much that would take out of me.” Passing a hand in front of his face, Jack sighed. “Not long ago, I could have done that in my sleep.”

Molly settled for laying a hand on his shoulder. “It will be over soon,” she soothed. “Drew said that Jade didn’t seem completely opposed to lifting the banishment.” She smiled. “He said she was captivated by the cabin.”

“Really?” Jack looked up, hope warring with despair in his eyes.

“Really,” she assured him.

Jack picked up his tea and sipped, making a slight face, but waving her away when she went to warm it back up for him. “She only went there once, you know,” he said, as she went to start packing up the glowing cookies instead.

“Oh?” Molly said, inviting him to continue with that one word.

“Just before the last battle,” Jack said, his eyes going distant, looking back across the centuries. “We didn’t know if we’d even survive, and I convinced her that we needed one night together.” He laughed softly. “She said it was charmingly rustic. I think she meant it wasn’t much better than a tent. But it was a clear fall night, with a sky full of stars. We had a fire outside, and we fell asleep in each other’s arms.”

“It sounds lovely,” Molly said.

“It was the last time I was truly happy,” he said. “The next day, the raiders made their final attempt. I was lured off, my guard slain, and Caliban accused me of cowardice that cost his brother his life. I was banished.” He laughed again, but this one was laced with bitterness. “My only consolation was that Caliban was banished too. It made things…bearable.”

“What do you think will happen to Caliban when she chooses you, Jack?” Molly asked him.

“You speak as if it’s a forgone conclusion.”

“It is.” Molly’s voice was firm. “I know it.”

“True love conquers all?” Jack smiled sadly at her.

“Yes.” Molly shook a finger at him. “Don’t distract me. What will Caliban do?”

“I don’t know,” Jack said honestly. “He can’t come to the Cove while Jade is here, but that doesn’t mean his army can’t.”

“His army?” Molly paused, wide-eyed. “He’d invade the Cove? But that’s insane!”

Jack chuckled. “Look at who you’re talking about, Molly.”

Her brain whirled. What would happen? This wasn’t back when the only defense the Cove had was Captain Carter and his ragtag allies. Despite the magical nature of the Cove, it was still a part of the United States. “He might be surprised at the reaction,” she said. “Does he know about modern warfare?”

“I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” Jack said. “But maybe we’re borrowing trouble. Maybe he’ll give up and go find someone else to bother.”

Molly looked at him steadily. “You don’t believe that, do you.” It wasn’t a question.

“No,” Jack said. “No, I don’t.”

And that left her with all sorts of other things to worry about.

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Dec. 17th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 15

Monday, December 15

Molly looked out at the tea room, checking to see who might need more tea or treats. Her little cafe was fuller than normal, since Goldie was sitting at the table next to Schrodinger’s cat bed, a set of gold reading glasses perched on his nose, a large book in his hands. She couldn’t tell if he was actually reading or watching the door. Knowing the pirate, probably both.

It was odd to know he was there to keep her safe. Molly still couldn’t believe that Caliban would actually harm her, would use her to get at the Snow Queen. But given the last two days, she couldn’t deny that he might.

Shaking her head, she went back into the kitchen, filled a thermal carafe with hot water, stuck some random tea bags in her sweater pocket, and then went out into the store. She stopped by Stephen and Lucille’s table first, refilling their cups and admiring the sweater Lucille was making for her artist son Robert, who lived outside the Cove but always came up for Christmas.

“He’s bringing up the new projects he’s working on,” Lucille told her, beaming. “I can’t wait to see what he’s come up with now!”

“He’s still doing the beaded brooches, right?” Molly asked, and the older woman nodded.

“He’s branching out, though,” she said. “Doing some really interesting things with calligraphy.” She leaned forward and said conspiratorially, “There’s a rumor that he’s going to have a big show in the spring. In New York!”

“That’s awesome! I hope it’s true!” Molly smiled down and then went over to where a couple of tourists were sitting enjoying some of her gingerbread scones and tea. They asked for a pot of her apple cinnamon tea, so she went back into the kitchen. Molly, Drew and Schrodinger loved hitting the flea markets and yard sales in the summer, looking for tea pots, cups and saucers to stock the tea shop, so she had an ever-changing supply. She considered what she had on the shelves in her pantry currently, then pulled down a lovely green teapot with holly berries on it.

Leaving the full teapot with the tourists, along with a timer so they could take out the tea balls in time, Molly went over to Goldie. As she neared, she realized that not only was he actually reading, but he was reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” out loud to Schrodinger.

“I didn’t realize you were a Dickens fan,” she said, when he stopped for breath. She held up the carafe suggestively. “More tea?”

“Yes, please.” The pirate looked up at her over his glasses as she filled his mug (he’d asked for larger than the normal tea cup, and Molly had been happy to oblige). “And do you know people who aren’t Dickens fans? Really?”

“Really,” Molly told him, laughing. “He’s not for everyone.”

“Well, maybe not Bleak House or David Copperfield,” Goldie allowed. “But I have yet to meet anyone who does not like A Christmas Carol.”

I’m enjoying it, Schrodinger said, raising his head. He’d actually slept about half the night last night, since Jack and Pavel had been as good as their word and sent guards to the farmhouse. Even still, he hadn’t been able to sleep all the way through, and Molly knew he’d done several rounds of the farmhouse. Still, he didn’t look as tired as he had yesterday, which made her feel better.

“Well, you liked the movie, so I’m not surprised,” Molly said.

“Well, that depends on which movie,” Goldie amended, and there was a twinkle in his blue eyes. “Which movie did you see?”

You mean there’s more than just the Muppets Christmas Carol? Schrodinger said, mock astonishment coloring his mental voice. Really?

Molly and Goldie laughed. “Well, yes, there are, but that’s my favorite too,” the pirate admitted. He looked up at Molly. “You know, I think I’ll tell the captain that I’d rather be here than the ship. You have better food.”

Molly laughed again. “You know you’re welcome any time, Goldie, but don’t you think your reputation as a terrible pirate will suffer if you keep hanging around a tea shop?”

“Of course not,” Goldie said. “Everyone knows tea is far more hardcore than grog.” He winked at her. “Besides, the clientele is more gentile here.”

She couldn’t argue with that, so Molly went on her way, refilling tea cups and taking orders for scones, sandwiches and cookies. There were two other pirates lounging throughout the store, and Molly, rather than feeling smothered, felt amazed that they would give up a day off to keep her safe. This was friendship, she knew.

When she finally got back to the kitchen, Jack was waiting for her, a large bag on the island. “I wasn’t sure you were going to be around today,” Molly said, putting the carafe away and picking up her own mug. “Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, please,” Jack said. He indicated the bag. “I’ve brought you a gift, and unlike Caliban’s, it has no strings attached. It’s a thank you, for putting up with me and helping me when you didn’t have to.”

“You didn’t have to do that!” Molly said, blushing. She went for another mug and two of her special Christmas tea bags. Jack had earned the right to have some, she decided.

“I know,” he said, smiling at her response. “But I wanted to.”

Once the tea water was poured, she opened the bag eagerly. Inside were apples, but apples unlike any she’d ever seen: a deep, deep red outside, and when she cut one open, the flesh was golden and the juice that dripped down was sweetly spicy. “These are amazing!” Molly said, looking up at Jack. “Where did they come from?”

“They come from a special tree from my realm,” he told her. “They don’t really have a name – the seed was given to me by a people who no longer exist, when they knew their world was dying. They wanted to make sure it would continue somewhere.” His smile dimmed a bit. “It’s not as much as I could have done, I know now, but at least it’s something.”

Molly laid a hand on his arm. “You can’t save everyone,” she said quietly. “Thank you for this. I know just what to do with them.”

She pulled out her peeler and went to work. Within an hour, she’d reduced the bag to golden slices, soaking in a bit of lemon juice and water. While Jack watched and chatted with her, Molly pulled pastry dough from her freezer and thawed it, then rolled it out and cut it into squares. The apples went into the squares, and she frowned.

“What?” Jack asked.

“Try this,” she said, dusting a bit of cinnamon on top of one of the apple slices and handing it to him. “What do you think?”

He chewed thoughtfully. “It’s good,” he said finally. “Spicy, but not too spicy.”

“Good.” She dusted the squares with the cinnamon, and folded over each square, pinching the edges together with a fork. Then, as the turnovers baked in the oven, Molly sat down and warmed up her tea.

“Tell me about your realm,” she said, and Jack looked surprised.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve been to the Snow Queen’s realm,” Molly said. “But you’re a fall spirit. What is your realm like?”

He looked over her shoulder, into the distance. “Well, it’s wild,” he started. “The days are warm, but there’s that little nip in the air, and it snows occasionally. At night, the stars twinkle in the sky. The leaves are all colors, and it smells like apples and wood fires.”

“Do you have a castle, like Jade?”

“No.” Jack laughed. “I’m a bachelor, remember? With not a lot of friends. I have a little log cabin, actually. It’s enough for me to sleep in, and that’s about it.”

“You’ll have to add a kitchen now,” Molly teased him gently. “Imagine, a fall spirit, with all those harvest treats, who doesn’t eat!”

“Well, I do now,” he said, chuckling. “Will you come and teach me some more?”

“Absolutely,” Molly said. “I’ll even help you design the kitchen.”

Jack sniffed the air. “As long as you teach me to make these and pizza, I think I’m good.”

“Spoken like a true guy,” Molly said, laughing as she got up to pull the turnovers out of the oven. She dusted them with cinnamon sugar, and then handed him one.

Jack’s expression was one of pure bliss as he chewed the first bite. “If I promise to keep giving you these apples, will you keep sending me these?”

“Deal,” Molly said, pleased. Then she paused. “Jack, can I ask you something?”

“If you refill my tea and let me have another turnover, you can ask anything you want.”

“Such a guy,” Molly said, shaking her head, but she put another turnover in front of him and refilled his mug.

“Ask away,” Jack said.

“If Jade does accept you as her consort, will you leave your realm? Or will she?”

Jack chuckled. “Neither, and both.” When she blinked at him, confused, he said, “We’ll share, and set up some personal Gates. So we will each have our own space.”

“Then you’ll definitely need to change your cabin,” Molly told him. “Jade likes to cook.”

“I think that can be arranged.”

She watched Jack eat, marveling at the changes in him. The man who had come to ask for her help two short weeks before was gone, replaced by a friend. Something she wouldn’t have expected.

Suddenly, she thought about Jade. Old Man Winter had said she was still in seclusion, and that she wouldn’t come out for anyone. Molly looked at the turnovers, and realized that it was time to start softening another heart.

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Dec. 15th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 14

Sunday, December 14

Molly glanced around the room, making sure everything was in order. The armchairs had been moved aside to make room for the large white chair, almost a throne, covered in ivy and red ribbons, that would very shortly be claimed by Santa himself. Schrodinger, Lily, Jack and Zoey were down in the tea room, finishing up their letters to the great man himself and chattering excitedly. Or at least, that’s where they were supposed to be. Which is why Molly was surprised to turn around and see them all standing behind her, holding their letters in their hands.

“What’s up?” she said, frowning at their expressions. They ranged from outrage (on Lily and Zoey) to worry (on Schrodinger). “Did someone say something to you? Were you being too loud?”

“No,” Lily said defiantly. “We weren’t.”

“Then what’s wrong? Are you done with your letters?”

“No,” Zoey said, shaking her head and making her purple bows on the ends of her braids dance with anger. “But there was a man that told us to…”

Caliban’s servant is back, Schrodinger said to Molly, cutting Zoey off. And he wants to see you. He wasn’t polite about it this time.

“Does he, now?” Anger blossomed up in Molly. “I wonder why.”

Because his master is angry? Schrodinger guessed. I can’t think Caliban is happy with us at this point.

“He hasn’t begun to see how unhappy I can make him,” Molly snapped, then remembered the two little girls looking at her wonderingly. “Stay up here and finish up, guys. I’ll take care of our unwanted guest.”

She made sure that the four of them were set up at the table that was set up along one wall, and that they had everything they needed, before she went downstairs. If Caliban’s servant couldn’t be polite, then he could bloody well wait for her.

Finally, Molly took one last look around, then went down the stairs to the main floor. Caliban’s man wasn’t in the tea room; to her annoyance, he was lounging in her kitchen. “What do you want?” she said abruptly.

“My master has a message for you,” he said, standing up from the stool he’d been sitting on, and setting down the tea ball he’d been holding in one hand.

“I don’t really care what your master wants,” Molly informed him. “You are not allowed in this kitchen.” She stepped to one side and pointed into the tea room. “Out. Now.”

He raised one eyebrow at her. “Are you sure you want to do this? This message isn’t for public consumption.”

“I said out. Now.” Molly glared at him. “You are not welcome in my kitchen.”

“That seems fairly clear,” said a new voice, as Jack and Pavel stepped out from the pantry. “I’d leave now,” the pirate added, as Jack scowled. “Molly can get physical when she gets angry, and you’re making her angry.”

“And what can a simple kitchen witch do to me?” the servant scoffed.

“Have you ever had scalding tea thrown at you?” Jack asked. “It’s not pleasant. Besides, if you make her angry, you make me angry, and I’m perfectly fine with sending you back to your master in pieces.” He looked over at Molly. “We’ll keep the blood to a minimum.”

“I’d appreciate it,” she said. “I hate cleaning it up.”

The servant looked from one to the other, his bravado deflating like a punctured balloon. “I will go,” he said finally. “But after I give my master’s message.”

“I’m listening,” Molly said, crossing her arms over her chest. “What does Caliban have to say?”

“That you should have stayed out of this,” the servant said. “That now that you have decided to defy my master, so you will pay for your disobedience.”

“Disobedience?” Molly all but hissed the word, and her fingers curled around her elbows. “Disobedience? What does he think I am, some prize dog that he can order around?” She stalked over to the servant and said very softly, “Tell Caliban that if I see him in my Cove again, I’ll make him wish he’d never heard of me.”

“You and what army?” scoffed the servant, but he shrank back from her.

“You don’t want to see her army,” Pavel told him, and for once, there was no humor in the pirate’s voice. “Trust me. And neither does your master.”

The servant ducked around Molly and scurried out. After a moment, she took the tea ball that he’d been playing with and flung it viciously into the trash.

“Molly? Is everything okay?” DC stuck her head around the door frame, her hazel eyes wide. “Did that guy actually come in here? I told him to wait in the tea room!”

“I’m fine,” Molly assured her, forcing herself to calm down. It wasn’t DC’s fault, after all. “He won’t be back.”

“Good.” DC nodded to Jack and Pavel, then went back out front, calling back, “Don’t forget that Santa will be here soon!”

“Santa is coming here today?” Jack asked, blinking at the sudden change in subject. “Why?”

“He’s coming to collect the letters upstairs,” Molly told him, going over to the stove and pouring herself a cup of tea water. Then she concentrated briefly, and smiled as the filled tea ball settled into the mug. She didn’t use her powers like that very often, but she had too much energy right now, and it needed to go somewhere. Otherwise, she’d be burning anything she tried to cook for the next day.

She turned and looked at the two. “Thank you for coming in when you did,” she said, holding up the mug in a silent question. Both of them shook their heads. “It was fortuitous.”

“It was planned,” Jack told her. “I assume you know what Schrodinger brought us yesterday.”

Molly nodded. The CrossCat had filled her and Drew in when they’d come back to the bookstore, and Drew had had to hold her back from rushing off to wreak her own vengeance on the summer spirit. “Thank you for taking care of it,” she said now. “What would it have done?”

“Influenced you,” Jack said. “Subtly, but he would have poisoned your mind, and made you his. Old Man Winter said he’d tried the same with Jade.”

“Which is how you knew how to destroy it?” she guessed.

Jack shook his head. “I’ve seen him use it before. I was expecting it.”

“Did you think that maybe you might have mentioned it to me, then?” Molly heard the edge creep back into her voice. “So that I could be on the look out for it?”

The fall spirit started to answer, then stopped. “I didn’t think of it,” he admitted. “I should have, though. I’m sorry.”

The apology knocked the wind from her sails. “You are?”

“Yes,” Jack said, then looked slyly at her up through his downcast lashes. “I’ll deny it if you tell anyone, though.”

That made her laugh, and chased away the last bit of her anger. “I assumed so.”

“You’ll have to be careful now, though, Molly,” Pavel said, coming over to her. “Caliban doesn’t take lightly to being stood up to.”

“Which means what?” she asked warily.

“Which means we,” and Pavel nodded at Jack, “would feel better if you’d let us set some guards here and at the farm. Just to make sure Caliban doesn’t try to…” He hesitated, and looked over at Jack.

“Caliban might kidnap you or Schrodinger to force Jade to let him in to her lands,” Jack said, and Molly blanched. “We won’t let him.”

“What kind of guards?” she asked, and one small part of her brain screamed that she was having to even think about it.

“Me,” Jack said. “And some of Pavel’s men, but mostly me.” He looked determined. “If you don’t mind. I just feel bad that I pulled you into this.”

Molly looked at him, then at Pavel. “Do you really think he’d try that?”

Pavel nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

“Then I guess I have a guest,” Molly said, sighing. “Well, at least Schrodinger will be able to sleep again.” She looked over at Jack. “He stayed up as late as he could last night, to make sure we were safe.”

“He’s a loyal friend,” Jack said. “Tonight, he will be able to sleep.”

Molly just wondered if she could.

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

Dec. 14th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 13

Yesterday’s episode.  My migraine is finally gone, so it’s time to get caught up – after my game today.

Saturday, December 13

“Good morning, mistress. Might I purchase some of the famous CrossWinds Books cookies from you today?”

The boyish voice floated through Schrodinger’s ears as he dozed by the cool iron stove, accompanied by a dry, dusty smell that made his nose twitch and woke him from his nap. He raised his head, looking for the source, but couldn’t see anything in the tea room. Whoever it was must be in the front room.

“Well, Molly’s not here, but I can definitely see what she has boxed up.” DC’s voice got louder as she spoke, which meant the clerk was coming into the tea room. Whoever was with her was coming along too.

Schrodinger stayed where he was, his eyes focused on the entrance to the tea room. The dry, dusty smell grew, and he wasn’t surprised to see Caliban’s servant follow DC into the room.

“But where is Miss Molly?” the servant asked diffidently.

“Oh, she’s out having lunch with her fiance,” DC answered, smiling at Schrodinger as they passed him. “He came down and whisked her off for a special lunch.”

“Love is a beautiful thing,” the servant agreed, not looking at the CrossCat directly. “She is lucky.”

“Yes, she is.” DC said. “Wait here, and I’ll go see what she has for sale.”

“Can I not see the kitchen?” the servant asked. “I would love to see the place where she makes her magic.”

The kitchen is off-limits to customers, Schrodinger said sharply. It’s against health rules.

DC gave him a quick look, but nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid so. Wait here, please.” She went into the kitchen, leaving Schrodinger and the servant to look at each other.

The boy (he couldn’t be more than 14, if he was human – Schrodinger wasn’t sure on that point) looked around the room, not meeting the CrossCat’s eyes. Schrodinger, for his part, sat down on his bed, not moving forward as he might normally. There was something wrong with this whole thing.

He noticed the servant had one hand in his pocket, holding on to something. His money? Perhaps. But why was he so nervous?

Why are you here? Schrodinger asked him quietly. It’s not just to buy cookies.

“What do you mean?” the servant said, still not looking at him. “My master wished for cookies from the bakery.”

There are bakeries in Stumpleton, Schrodinger said. Your master has a personal chef with him. Why are you here?

“Because my master wished for cookies from the bakery here,” the servant said, and the hand in his pocket twitched. “I must do as I am ordered.”

And what else were you ordered to do? Schrodinger was sure there was something else going on. Leave something in Molly’s kitchen, perhaps?

The servant flinched just a little, but didn’t say anything. Schrodinger was going to say something else, but DC came out of the kitchen with a box in her hands, and the moment was gone. “Molly has gingerbread cookies,” she said. “Will your master like that?”

“Of course.” The servant handed over a small pouch. “Please to give Mistress Molly my master’s regards, as well.”

Schrodinger waited until he was gone, then he went over to DC. What else is in the pouch?

“What do you mean?” DC asked, picking the pouch up from where she’d laid it on the counter. “It just had money in it.” She held it out to him. “See?”

As soon as it came near him, Schrodinger could smell magic. Hot, dusty, heavy air came from the pouch, and he could almost hear Caliban’s voice, wheedling and cajoling. Without thinking, he grabbed the pouch from DC’s hands and ran out the front door.

“Schrodinger, what are you doing?”

DC’s voice was lost as he tore down the street, the pouch clamped in his jaws. His gums were starting to burn from the magic by the time he made it to the harbor, but he didn’t falter.

Goldie was on guard duty, but he didn’t challenge Schrodinger as the CrossCat ran up the gangway – he just stepped aside and shouted, “Open the Capt’n’s door!”

One of Pavel’s sailors jumped up and yanked open the door to Pavel’s quarters, startling both Pavel and Jack. Schrodinger ran in and dropped the pouch on the floor, then wheezed, Jack, can you destroy this?

“What is it?” the spirit asked, then hissed as he felt the magic from it. “Where did you get this?”

Caliban left it for Molly, Schrodinger replied, lying down, his sides heaving. He sent one of his servants to buy cookies. Paid with money in that.

“Good thing you got it away from the store,” Jack said, studying the pouch. “Are you okay?”

My mouth hurts, Schrodinger admitted. And I could hear Caliban talking.

Jack left the pouch and knelt down in front of Schrodinger. “Let me see,” he said gently.

The CrossCat opened his mouth, and Jack probed with surprisingly gentle hands. “I can fix this,” he said finally. “If you will permit me.”

Schrodinger blinked. Of course. Thank you.

Jack laid fingertips on each side of Schrodinger’s inflamed gums, and in a moment, a cool feeling, like a fall rain, washed over him, sweeping away the dry, hot inflammation. After a minute or so, his mouth felt better.

Thank you. Schrodinger said, purring. Can you take care of the pouch too?

“Absolutely.” Jack surprised Schrodinger again by stroking his head. “He didn’t leave anything else, did he?”

No, I kept him in sight the entire time. But he wanted to.

Jack looked at Pavel. “We’ll need to talk to Molly and Drew,” he said, and the pirate nodded. “It looks like Caliban is done playing nice.”

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Dec. 13th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 12

Sorry, I’m running behind.  Here’s yesterday’s – today’s will be up later tonight.

 

Friday, December 12

“But baby, it’s cold outside….”

Molly sang along with the radio as she mixed batter in her mixer. Carolyn had stopped by the farmhouse the night before to deliver eggs, milk, and her grandmother’s fruitcake recipe, which she swore would make anyone actually like fruitcake. Molly had been dubious, but as she mixed the darkly fragrant batter, she was rapidly coming around. This was NOT the hard as a rock fruitcake she was familiar with, but a rich, molassesy batter that swished seductively in the mixer bowl. She had run out to the candy store earlier in the day, and brought back some lovely candied fruit, and she added those chopped up pieces and some dates and raisins to the batter, then poured it into a set of greased mini bundt cake pans and slid the entire pan into the oven.

“But it’s not really,” Jack said from the doorway, and Molly blinked at him, puzzled. “Cold outside, I mean. It’s pretty warm.” When she continued to blink at him, he added, “The song you were singing.”

“Oh!” Molly laughed. “It’s just a Christmas carol. But you’re right. It’s too warm out to really feel like Christmas. I guess the radio station figured that it’s a tradition, so they’re still playing the carols.”

Jack claimed one of the stools. “Traditions are strong in this town,” he observed. “I’ve never seen a group of mortals so very tied to their traditions.”

“Welcome to New England,” Molly told him, topping off her tea mug and holding the kettle up suggestively. Jack nodded, and she filled up another mug for him, putting a black tea bag into the hot water and handing it to him. “Tradition is everything here. It’s in our blood.”

“But why is Christmas so big?” Jack asked her. “I just don’t understand.”

Molly sat down opposite him, cradling her tea mug in her hand. “Well, I can’t speak for anyone else here in the Cove, but it’s big in my family because it’s a family time,” she said. “My father traveled a lot when we were younger, and we’d go for months without seeing him. But he was always home for Christmas.” She smiled, remembering. “There were a couple of years when Nathan and I fell asleep in the living room, under the tree, waiting for Dad to come home. I swear, at least once, he came in just as dawn was breaking, on Santa’s sleigh.”

“Really?” Jack looked interested. “He was always home for Christmas?”

Molly nodded. “So Christmas is family time for us. As we’ve gotten older, it’s included some very close friends, but at its heart, it’s a time for the Barretts to get together and enjoy each other. This year, Drew, Schrodinger, and I are hosting for the first time out at the farm, and we’ll have Nathan and Corrine, Lily and Jack, my parents, and probably Pavel out for the evening. It will be so much fun.”

“It sounds like a lot of work,” Jack said.

“Not as much as you would think,” Molly said. “We all chip in, and really, it’s more about being together than presents. Nathan’s a great homebrewer – he handles the libations. Mom, Corrine, Aunt Margie and I all cook. The kids help decorate.” She laughed. “I think Mom still has the old Advent calendar we got when Nathan was Lily’s age. It’s a big paper Victorian house with a paper Santa Claus that moves from room to room over the month of December. We used to argue over who got to move him, Nathan and I. I should see if I can find one for our house for next year.”

“Pavel said that there was an advent calendar here in the cafe last year,” Jack said.

“Yes, the Snow Queen and Old Man Winter created it for Lily and Zoey,” Molly said, nodding. “It was pretty amazing.”

Jack smiled, the expression charming on his expressive face. “Do you know, I’ve never seen Old Man Winter be as welcoming as he is now? When I was here last, he was bitter, angry, and rarely had a kind word for anyone. I saw the change in him and was amazed, especially when he told me that you showed him the good of people.” He shook his head. “I didn’t really believe him at first, to be honest. I thought he was putting up a front for me. But he really did change. Because of you.”

“No,” Molly told him. “He changed because deep down inside, he wanted to believe in the good of people. He was angry and bitter, like you said. But I think a big part of that was disillusionment.” She looked out into the tea room; from her stool, she could see the Dorrs seated at a table, she knitting and he reading to her. “The world is a cold, dark place a lot of the time, and lord knows that humans aren’t perfect. But at least here, for the most part, we try to see the best in each other, and help one another out. We don’t always succeed. But we try.” She refocused back on Jack. “I just showed Old Man Winter that.”

“I know,” Jack said. “That’s what’s so amazing. I mean, one person who is kind and gentle, I can understand.” He waved his hand. “But you have a whole town of them. How?”

“Because it’s a small town,” Molly said. “Everyone still knows everyone else. And when you know people, when they’re more than just numbers or vaguely familiar faces, it’s hard to be cruel or even just cold.”

“Maybe that’s it,” Jack said, his smile sliding into thoughtfulness. “It’s been a very long time since I got to know mortals.”

“Why?” Molly asked.

He took his time answering, looking down into the depths of his mug as if the words were waiting for him down there. “Because it’s so hard to say goodbye,” he said finally, looking up at her. “Your lives are so short, compared to ours, and we know that we won’t ever see you again. It’s like ripping out a piece of our soul each time. I never understood how Jade could handle the pain of all the loss that she saw.”

Molly dared to reach out and lay a hand on his. “Maybe because she realized that the good of the memories outlasts the pain of the loss?” she said softly. “If you don’t try to get to know folks, you won’t get hurt, but you’ll be lonely.”

Jack looked startled at the touch, but he didn’t draw his hand away. “Maybe,” he said. “I never really wanted to find out before.”

“And now?”

“Now, I don’t have much of a choice,” he said quietly. “Jade’s life isn’t the only one that’s hanging in the balance.” He pulled his hand away, and Molly saw it tremble just a bit. “I’m a little younger than she is, so I have a little more time, but I’ll not last to see the spring if I don’t join with another spirit. And the only spirit I want to join with is her.” Jack looked down at his mug again. “I just hope I can convince her of that.”

“You will,” Molly said, and he looked up, blinking in surprise at the serene certainty of her voice. “I don’t fail.”

Jack laughed.

Molly was about to say something else when the phone on the wall rang. This was her line, not the general line, so she got up and answered it. “CrossWinds Books, tea room, Molly speaking. How can I assist you?”

“Molly, it’s Father Christopher. Do you have a moment?” The priest’s voice had a slightly tense edge to it.

“Yes, what’s up?” Molly frowned, and Jack looked up, concerned at the change in her voice.

“I need you and Jack, if he’s there, to come over to the church. Don’t bring Schrodinger.”

“That will be hard,” Molly warned him. “He loves to come to the church.”

“He won’t love what I have to show you.”

Those words sent a frisson of fear down Molly’s spine. “We’re on our way.” She hung up the phone and pulled out her cell phone. A quick text to DC ensured that Schrodinger would be busy for at least another 30 minutes helping the clerk sort the letters for Santa on Sunday. “Come on, Jack.”

Her car was still parked in the back alley, and as she slid behind the wheel, she wondered what Father Christopher had to show them.

“Whatever it is, it’s something to do with Caliban,” Jack predicted darkly, when Molly voiced that thought. “He’s never been content to wait. I’m surprised he hasn’t mounted a ‘rescue’ attempt yet on Jade.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to come up against Old Man Winter?” Molly said.

“Maybe.” Jack shifted, not looking at the town but down at his own hands. “Then again, Caliban’s in the prime of his power – and he’s not hesitated to take a consort in the past.”

“If he has a consort, why does he need Jade?”

Jack snorted. “Need has nothing to do with it,” he said. “Caliban wants her. That’s all.”

Molly notice an odd tremor around his hands – not as if they were shaking, but as if the edges themselves were moving. Caliban may not need a new consort, but if Jack was starting to have issues with his human seeming, that meant he hadn’t recharged himself. He’d saved himself for Jade. Molly’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. Another point in his favor.

They didn’t talk much more on the rest of the ride. Jack was deep in his own thoughts, and Molly didn’t want to disturb him. When she pulled into the church parking lot and turned of the car, he didn’t even look up.

“Jack?” she said quietly. “We’re here.”

His hands tightened, and the wavy edges solidified once more. “I’m ready.”

As always, the peace of the church soothed Molly’s soul as they stepped inside. Father Christopher had decorated the old stone building in red poinsettias, deep green boughs and gold bows, and the scent of pine mixed with the remnants of the church incense hanging in the air. The priest himself was kneeling in front of the altar, his head bowed in prayer.

“Father?” Molly called softly as they came up the center aisle.

Father Christopher crossed himself and stood up, turning to meet them. “No Schrodinger,” he said, and relaxed just a bit. “Good.”

“DC is distracting him, but not for long,” Molly said. “It was the best I could do on short notice.”

“That’s fine. This won’t take long.” Father Christopher looked at Jack. “Thank you for coming. I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Why not?” Jack asked, and Molly noticed he sounded surprised, not condescending. “You requested my presence.”

“In a church,” Father Christopher said. “I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t bother you.”

Jack smiled, and looked around the church. “I don’t follow your God, but I can appreciate the love and peace in these walls. I don’t always agree with him, but he does love you, Father Christopher, and your flock.” He squared his shoulders. “However, I do not believe he will love what you are going to show us.”

The priest’s face darkened. “No.” He motioned them to follow him to a side room, where there was a large box on a plain table. “This was waiting for me on the steps today.”

Swallowing hard, Molly stepped up to the table and looked in the box, Jack a half-step behind her.

Inside the box was the remains of a gingerbread farmhouse – not one of hers, she realized, but the wraparound porch and the sleigh in the front yard was unmistakable. The house had been shattered as if something large had smashed through it, and lying in the wreckage were three figures: two people, and a large cat.

“Did it come with anything else?” Jack said, anger making his voice tight and hard.

Father Christopher handed over a note. “This was on top.”

“This is the fate of mortals who interfere with the affairs of spirits,” Jack read out loud, biting off the words, then crumpled the note in anger. “It’s not signed.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Molly whispered, unable to tear her eyes away from the contents of the box. “Only one person would send this.” She finally looked up, not at Father Christopher, but at Jack. “Would he really do this to us, Jack?”

“Probably,” Jack said at last. “Mortal lives don’t mean much to him.” His fist tightened around the note. “But he didn’t think of one thing.”

“What’s that?” she said.

“He didn’t think I’d try and stop him.” Jack’s eyes glittered. “And he’s wrong.”

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Dec. 10th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 10

Wednesday, December 10

“So now what are you going to do?”

Molly shook her head, continuing to roll out gingerbread cookie dough. “I don’t know, Sue,” she said to her best friend, who was taking her lunch break in the kitchen at CrossWinds Books. “I mean, Caliban creeps me out. But what if Jack did do what he says happened? What if he really is a murderer?”

Sue cradled her tea mug in her hands, frowning. “Well, you know what bothers me the most about these two?”

“What?” Molly laid her rolling pin aside and picked up a gingerbread man cookie cutter.

“That they’re both using you,” Sue said. “And they have no hard feelings about doing it.”

Molly couldn’t argue with that. “It’s obvious they consider us more like pets than anything else,” she said, cutting out gingerbread men. “I mean, Caliban basically said the fact that Jack killed immortals was a larger crime, because we’re doomed to die anyways.”

“What a jerk,” Sue said. “Seriously?”

Molly nodded. “But he was right about one thing, Sue. She needs one of them.”

“Oh?”

“Old Man Winter stopped by the house last night,” Molly said. She slid one tray of gingerbread men out of the oven and put them on the sideboard to cool, then put another tray in.

“Is that why we finally got snow?” Sue said. “I actually had to clean my car off this morning.”

“Probably. But he’s worried about the Snow Queen.” Molly pulled the last little bits of dough together and formed them into a cookie. “He said that she hasn’t come out of her rooms in over a week. She won’t even see him.”

“Wow.” Sue blinked. “What else?”

“He said she had to select a consort. That if she didn’t, she’d die the night of the Ball.”

They were both silent after that, considering what that would be like. Molly couldn’t imagine Carter’s Cove without the Snow Queen. It would be like Christmas without Santa Claus.

“We can’t let that happen,” Sue said finally, getting up and putting her mug in the sink. “We can’t.”

“I know,” Molly said. “I know.”

But how she was going to accomplish that was what was hanging her up. After Sue had left to go back to the museum, Molly pulled out icing materials and began to decorate the cooled gingerbread men, hoping for inspiration. It didn’t help.

“I hear you had an interesting conversation yesterday with my ex-best friend.”

Jack’s voice crackled with bitterness, and Molly looked up to see him standing in the doorway, leaning against the door frame. Once again, she realized how different he was from Caliban. Unlike the prince, he was normal-sized, and someone looking quickly at him would probably not even notice the slight haze of magic around him. His hair was pale, but not overly so, and his skin had the faintest hint of color, especially on his cheeks.

His expression was sour, and Molly wondered what he’d been eating.

“I did,” she said, beckoning him in. “Interesting is one word for it, I guess.”

“Did he tell you I murdered his brother?” Jack didn’t move from the door.

Molly nodded. “And that you were a coward.”

“Did you believe him?”

“No,” Molly said, and smiled as Jack’s eyebrows rose. “Did you think I would?”

“You’d be one of the few,” Jack said. “Caliban convinced a lot of my compatriots of his truth.”

Molly is hard to convince, Schrodinger said, pushing his head against Jack’s calf. When the spirit looked down at him, he said, Go sit down. I want some tea.

“You two are obsessed with tea,” Jack said, but he went, and the CrossCat followed him. They both took seats and Molly set out two new mugs, both with tea bags in them already.

It’s a lovely beverage, Schrodinger told him loftily. And sophisticated.

“If you say so,” Jack said, but Molly noticed that he didn’t disdain to drink the tea. Unlike Caliban, who had never even tasted the tea his servants had made. Yet another difference between them.

Lunch too? Schrodinger said hopefully, looking over at Molly. It’s been ages since breakfast.

“Ages, huh? And what about the muffin you shared with Sarah about an hour ago? What was that?” Molly teased him, but she pulled out two plates and assembled some sandwiches, which she set in front of them.

“So tell me, Jack, what really happened that day when you were banished,” she said, picking up her icing bag and going back to the gingerbread men. “Did you really leave them?”

“Is that what he told you?” Jack snorted. “I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s been singing the same tune to everyone who would listen for the last three hundred years.” He shook his head. “I did NOT become a coward. There was something in the mist that was coming up on us, something big. I went after it, with my guards, and when I did, Lothar’s company was ambushed.”

“Lothar?” Molly asked.

“Caliban’s younger brother. The one who would have inherited their father’s kingdom. The better brother, without a doubt.”

How could the younger brother have inherited? Schrodinger asked him, cocking his head in puzzlement. Isn’t that the older brother’s lot?

“Not if the older brother isn’t the father’s choice,” Jack told him. “The King and Caliban have never seen eye-to-eye. Lothar was a good man – just and kind – everything Caliban isn’t and never was. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Jade had chosen him as her consort. He loved the Cove as much as she did.”

“Then why isn’t his name on the memorial?” Molly asked. “It’s just Caliban’s.”

“Because it erased itself when he died,” Jack said. “The piece of his soul died with him.” He cupped his hands around his tea mug, much like Sue had earlier. “It shouldn’t have been Lothar. It should have been Caliban.” He sighed. “I sometimes think..”

“Think what?” Molly prompted, when his voice trailed off.

Jack sighed again. “I’m probably wrong, but I think Caliban wanted his brother dead. And since I was the only one strong enough to keep the enemy back, he had to draw me away. And then he had a ready-made villain for the crime.”

Molly had to admit that before she’d met Caliban, she’d have had a hard time believing that. But now, having seen the dark hatred pulsing in the spirit’s eyes, she could see him doing what Jack had said.

“So why does he want the Snow Queen now?” she said.

“What did he tell you?” Jack countered.

“That he loved her. That his heart was set on her.” Molly shook her head. “Which may be true, but it doesn’t feel right.”

He doesn’t know how to love, Schrodinger said. He wants to own her.

“She was his once,” Jack agreed. “He doesn’t take kindly to anyone or anything leaving him.”

“Why was she his?” Molly said, shaking her head. “I can’t imagine her with him.”

“We were young. We were different.” Jack finished his tea. “We all had dreams.”

“What were your dreams?” she asked him, refilling his mug and her own.

Jack’s face softened, and to her surprise, he smiled faintly. “I wanted to be a hero,” he admitted. “I wanted to ride in on a white horse, with my magic, and save everything, then get the girl and ride off into the sunset.” He shook his head. “War was a romantic myth to me. I learned the truth soon enough.”

Watching him, Molly realized that she hadn’t even considered giving Caliban a chance. For all his abrasiveness when she’d first met him, Jack had been genuine. Real. Caliban was a construct, the only real thing about him the rage coursing through his body.

“Jack, what does the banishment actually say?” she asked, and he blinked at the change in subject.

“It’s not what it says, so much,” he said after a moment. “It’s more like a compulsion. If Jade is here, I can’t be.”

What happens? Schrodinger asked.

“It feels like my skin is about to split,” Jack said, shuddering. “And if I resist that, my shape starts to change. It’s highly uncomfortable. I haven’t pushed it farther than that.”

“So you tried to see her.” Molly laid the used icing bag in the sink and then put the last tray of gingerbread men on the sideboard to harden and set.

“Of course I did. I love her.” Jack laughed bitterly. “I thought she loved me.”

She probably does, Schrodinger said comfortingly. That’s why the curse works so well.

Which made sense, Molly realized. The more emotion that went into something like the banishment, the more effective it would be. “So we have to remind her why she loved you in the first place,” she said out loud. “Time to remind her of the hero she saw.”

Jack looked up at her. “And how do you intend to work that miracle?”

“I’m working on that,” Molly said. She looked over at the calendar. “The Ball is on the 20th, and we need to have that banishment lifted by then. Which means getting you off the Snow Queen’s naughty list.”

And how do we do that? Schrodinger asked her.

Molly smiled and picked up one of the gingerbread men. “I’m working on it. But trust me, if I can, I will do it.” Then she looked over at Jack. “Are you ready to start?”

“Sure,” he said. “What are we doing?”

“What I always do,” Molly said. “We’re baking.”

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Dec. 9th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 9

Tuesday, December 9

Pavel was as good as his word. Molly and Schrodinger were just finishing breakfast when they heard a knock on the door. “Come in!” Molly called, getting up to fix another plate of eggs, bacon and homemade cinnamon-raisin toast. Pavel’s eyes lit up as he came into the kitchen and saw the place set for him.

“This is the best way to start a day,” he said, settling into his chair. Molly noticed he was dressed in what Drew called “pirate fashion” – black pants, white shirt, a red sash around his waist, and a black vest, with tall black boots. “Good food, and good friends.”

Molly smiled at him, putting a steaming mug of tea at his elbow. “You know you’re always welcome, Pavel.”

“If I were ever to actually settle down, it would be here in the Cove,” he told her, tucking in. Schrodinger had finished his meal but was lingering over a second cup of Earl Grey. Molly still had a bit of eggs on her plate, but she wasn’t really that hungry, so she pushed the plate aside and picked up her own tea mug.

“Will you ever settle down?” she asked him, and wasn’t surprised to see him shudder violently.

“Lord, no! But I might build a house here, so I can be near you and Drew,” he told her. “I can’t imagine ever not being able to get to the sea. Besides, I get into trouble when I get bored.”

You get into trouble anyways, Schrodinger pointed out, and Pavel chuckled, saluting him with his tea cup.

“True enough.”

Molly watched him eat for a moment, then said, “Pavel, who was Herse?”

The pirate’s fork paused, and the look he shot her was equal parts surprise and calculation. “Where did you hear that name?”

“I went to look at the memorial behind the Gate Station,” she said. “There were four pillars, and on one of them was a raindrop. The inscription gave the name Herse. Who was she?”

“She’s a daughter of Zeus, and she’s still around, I think,” Pavel said, after a few moments. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you found that, but I am.”

“A daughter of Zeus.” Molly blinked. “That wasn’t what I was expecting.”

“Your friends move in rarified circles,” Pavel said, finishing his breakfast and putting his fork down before picking up his tea mug again. “She and Jade were very close. After the battle ended, she sided with Jade against Jack and Caliban, but that’s not surprising.” When Molly cocked her head, he clarified, “She has always been very close to mortals. Many of the minor gods and goddesses were. She didn’t like the way Caliban and Jack held themselves apart from the people of the Cove.”

“What did they do, Pavel?” Molly asked. “Everything I’ve found says that they didn’t like the mortals in the Cove, but that Jade forced them to help her. But they don’t say why the split happened, and Jack got interrupted when he was going to tell me.”

Pavel hesitated again and Molly fixed him with a hazel glare. “Don’t lie to me, Pavel,” she said. “Father Christopher said they were banished because they were fighting over the Snow Queen, and that they were going to destroy the Cove with their battle.”

“That’s part of it,” he agreed, setting his empty cup down on the table. “Let’s get moving and I’ll tell you the rest.”

Molly started to object, but he held up a hand. “It’s a long tale, Molly, and we have a ways to go. I’ll tell you in the carriage.” He looked at her – she’d decided she wasn’t going to pander to anyone’s preconceived notions, and was dressed in slim dark jeans, a dark green silk shirt that shimmered a bit in the light and brought out the emerald hues of her eyes, and a pair of black ballet flats. Two silver barrettes held her hair back from her face, the snowflakes on them echoing the snowflakes that hung from her ears.

Now, as Pavel continued to look at her, Molly lifted her chin. “Yes?”

“Making a statement?” he asked, pointing at her jewelry.

“Yes,” Molly said, not bothering to pretend she didn’t know what he was talking about. “Jade is my friend. She’s the one I’m doing this for.”

“Well, then let’s go.”

His carriage waited in the front yard, two black horses stamping their feet impatiently, eager to be off. Pavel had brought out his fancy carriage this time, twin to the sleigh he usually had: it was chased with silver, and decorated for the season with holly wreaths. The horses had green and red ribbons braided into their manes and tails, and to Molly’s surprise, there was both a driver and a footman, dressed in black, waiting for them.

The footman held the door to the carriage open, and helped them inside. Once they were seated on the plush green velvet seats, Pavel rapped on the roof and said in a loud voice, “Stumpleton, and take the Roads, not the Station, Thom. The sooner we’re there, the sooner we can return.”

Schrodinger looked at Pavel. How are you planning on getting onto the Road? he asked suspiciously, and the pirate winked at him.

The driver shouted to the horses, and they leaped forward, their hooves thundering on the driveway. Then they jumped again, and Molly felt a Gate open.

You’re cheating! Schrodinger accused. You have a portable Gate built into this carriage!

“You never know when you might need to hop a Road,” Pavel said blandly, his blue eyes twinkling. “Besides, if we went through the Station, everyone would know where we were going, and this isn’t a pleasure trip.”

“No,” Molly agreed, leaning back against her seat. “It’s not.” She gave Pavel another pointed look. “Now, why were Jack and Caliban banished? What happened?”

“Father Christopher was partially right,” Pavel said heavily. “There was a fight, and they were well on their way to wrecking the Cove over her, which didn’t sit well with the Snow Queen. But that was just the beginning, I think. It was what she found when the dust settled, and how they reacted to her questions, that was the final straw.”

What did she find? Schrodinger asked.

“The body of a young man, killed by Caliban and Jack,” Pavel said. “And when she demanded to know why, Caliban told her that there were always sacrifices. Jack wouldn’t say anything against Caliban – he still won’t, although it’s clear he doesn’t like him anymore. So she banished both of them from her presence.”

“I don’t blame her,” Molly said, her face pale. “At all. And I think I understand why Jack wouldn’t tell me.”

“Jack is nothing if not loyal, and he promised the Snow Queen he wouldn’t fight Caliban any more, ever.” Pavel looked out the window, and Molly felt another Gate open. “Let’s hope he doesn’t have to.”

The carriage came down on a smooth road, joining the other vehicles, both motorized and not, that were coming into the town of Stumpleton. It was considered neutral ground by several realms, and the inn, which was more of a large castle than anything else, was commonly used to host delicate negotiations. Molly had never actually been there, but even she had heard the stories.

The driver manuevered his way through the traffic expertly, pulling into the driveway and stopping the carriage at the front door. The footman jumped down and opened the door with a flourish, and Molly stepped out, trying not to gawk at the beautiful building.

Wow, Schrodinger said, hopping down beside her. I’ve never seen anything like this.

“Me either,” Molly agreed. She felt almost childlike next to the building, especially as the doorman (dressed in a uniform so crisp it looked like it could cut air) looked down his nose at them.

“Checking in?” he asked, his tone implying that they weren’t good enough to even be considering it.

That was the wrong tone to take with Molly. Her uneasiness vanished and she straightened, giving him a steely look. “No,” she said, HER tone insinuating that the place wasn’t worth her time. “Meeting someone.” She walked in the door, her chin high, and Pavel and Schrodinger hurried to follow her.

Her momentum carried her to the desk, where a lovely young woman smiled at her. “May I help you?”

“Yes. Molly Barrett, here to see Prince Caliban.”

The receptionist’s smile faltered for a split-second, and her eyes widened. Then she recovered. “Of course, Ms. Barrett. Let me let His Highness know.”

Apparently, His Highness was waiting for that call, because scarcely a minute later, the elevator doors swooshed open and a tall, golden-skinned man came striding across the lobby. Molly raised her eyebrows.

When the Snow Queen and Old Man Winter came around the Cove, they looked human, even though there was that certain something about them that let everyone know they were more than mortal.

Prince Caliban did not look human. He was impossibly pretty, nearly glowing from within, and his dark eyes were slitted, almost like Schrodinger’s. But there was none of the sparkling curiosity of the CrossCat’s in those onyx eyes – just hot power and rage that washed over Molly as his gaze settled on her. The sheer force of his will was in those eyes, and she felt him waiting for her to stumble back. She had no doubt many mortals had.

She did not.

Lifting her chin and one hand to him, Molly smiled sweetly. “Good morning, Your Highness.” She waited until he took her fingers in his warm hand to add, “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”

“Have you now?” Hot lips were pressed to her skin, warmer than any she’d ever felt. Where Jack had been cool annoyance and superiority, Caliban was hot hunger, the hunger of someone who cannot be satisfied with mere food. This was a hunger she’d never felt before, and Molly’s fingers trembled slightly as she withdrew her hand from his.

“Yes.” There was no tremble in her voice, though. “I’ve heard some interesting things about you.” She took in his tall, lean figure, swathed in silk and linen in various shades of crimson and gold. He reminded her of a phoenix just before it burst into flames. That dry, dusty scent that had chased them down the Road towards Old Man Winter’s wrapped around him, a faintly threatening perfume that tickled her nostrils.

Caliban laughed, his voice spare and dry, and offered her his arm. “And none of it good, I’m sure.” He looked at Pavel, who had crossed his arms over his chest and radiated quiet violence. “Which is why you brought your bodyguard.”

Molly flicked a warning look at the pirate. “Pavel’s a friend,” she told Caliban. “We needed a ride, and he offered.”

“I’m sure.” Caliban looked down at Schrodinger, who was pressed up against Molly’s leg. “Welcome, young CrossCat. It is a long time since I have seen one of your kind.”

Schrodinger inclined his head. It is good to meet you, Your Highness.

“And so polite.” There were teeth in Caliban’s smile. “Unusual.”

“Are you planning on just insulting my friends all morning?” Molly asked him. “Because if that’s the case, we’ll leave now.” She started to remove her hand from his arm. “I don’t have the patience to play those sort of games, and I’m not going to waste my day off doing so.”

His grip tightened. “My apologies, Miss Barrett. I forget that not everyone is gentry.”

“If by gentry you mean rude as snot while using flowery language, you’re right.” Molly glared at him. “Let go.”

“Please, Miss Barrett.” Caliban looked down at her, and she felt the power he was holding back. “I will behave.”

Molly looked down at Schrodinger and back at Pavel. Both of them nodded, although Pavel looked dubious. Then she turned back to the prince. “All right, Your Highness,” she said, relaxing. “But more insults, and we’re leaving.”

“I will behave,” Caliban repeated, and led them to the elevator. When they were all in, Molly saw this elevator had a bellboy who operated the actual buttons.

No, not a bellboy, she realized, looking at the crimson and gold livery he wore. This was one of Caliban’s servants. She wondered suddenly if the Snow Queen had liveried servants that she’d never seen.

The young man’s eyes widened when Schrodinger came in, but a sharp command in a language she didn’t understand snapped him back to his job. He pushed the button to the penthouse hastily and then shrank into the corner, away from the prince. Schrodinger, with a sharp look for Caliban, went up to him and nosed his hand, purring slightly. The boy, with a look up at his prince for permission, slid a gentle hand across the CrossCat’s head, his face relaxing from fear into wonder again. Schrodinger butted up against him, his purr increasing.

When the doors open, the servant scampered out ahead of the visitors, hurriedly opening doors and making sure everything was set as the prince led Molly and her friends into a large entryway. She saw the penthouse was actually an apartment suite, complete with its own little kitchen, which was currently occupied by another young man, this one in crisp white with a tall chef’s hat. Caliban said something else to him as they walked by, again in that language Molly didn’t understand, and by the time they were seated in a lovely little parlor, the chef and the other servant came in with a full tea tray and all the accoutremonts.

“They are probably not as good as what comes from your kitchen, Miss Barrett, but I hope they are satisfactory,” Caliban said, indicating for the boy to pour tea into delicate gold and white china cups. There was one that was larger than the others, and this one the servant set in front of Schrodinger.

“I’m sure they will be,” Molly said, picking up her tea cup and sipping cautiously. It was hot, and very sweet, very different from what she was used to, but not bad. She ignored the tray with various sandwiches and looked over at the prince. “Now, Your Highness, you wanted to make your case for why I should help you woo the Snow Queen. Go ahead, I’m listening.”

Caliban was seated in a large leather armchair that had aspirations of being a throne. The dainty tea cup looked almost absurd in his large hands. “I don’t actually need your help, Miss Barrett,” he said, and Molly’s eyebrows went up again. “But I know you’re helping Jack, and what I wanted to do was make sure you knew who you were helping.”

“A fall spirit?” Molly shrugged. “Someone who has as big a superiority complex as you do? Someone who got himself banished from the presence of the woman he claims to love?”

“All that, and more,” Caliban agreed. “He’s a murderer, you know.”

“So are you, if what I’ve been told is correct,” Molly retorted. “Why should that be a strike against him and not you?”

“Because he killed spirits, Miss Barrett.” Caliban’s eyes flashed with something darker than she’d thought possible. “I killed mortals, yes, but they would have died anyways. That’s what mortals do. Jack killed immortals.”

“So?” Molly repeated. “Why is that different?”

“Because he killed his own people,” Caliban said. “He betrayed our trust, and my brother died because of it.”

“Tell me,” Molly said.

“There is not much to tell,” Caliban said, sinking lower in his throne-like chair. “We were protecting the Gate in the last battle, when Jack slipped off through the woods. He said at the time that he was chasing someone, but I doubt that. He was running, leaving us to face the enemy alone. My brother, my younger brother, was left defenseless, except for his CrossCat guards, and they all died horribly.”

What did Jack say when you confronted him? Schrodinger asked quietly.

Caliban gave a short, mirthless laugh. “That he had been chasing ghosts. Something that moved in and out of the mists but that he could never catch.  Something that slaughtered his guards from the shadows.” He set the tea cup down before he broke it. “His cowardice meant we lost people that would never come back. When I called him on his cowardly words, he accused me of helping the enemy. I had no choice but to challenge him.”

“So it wasn’t over the Snow Queen,” Molly said. “It was over your brother.”

“And my honor!” Caliban said. “An insult like that cannot be ignored!”

She didn’t say anything, but gestured to him to go on.

“We were in the midst of settling this dispute when we were interrupted,” Caliban said. “Just because there were some casualties.” He shrugged. “The Snow Queen has always treasured you mortals, like fine china.”

“And yet you still want to win her hand,” Molly said.

“Who can understand love?” Caliban shrugged. “My heart calls to her. Especially now, when she needs me.”

Molly studied him as he slouched in the chair, back-lit by the light coming in the window, and wondered if he was indeed what the Snow Queen needed.

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Dec. 8th, 2014

moonkitty

(advent) December 8

Monday, December 8

Molly looked around the tea room, making sure everyone was settled in. She avoided looking at the mantel, where Caliban’s vase had been. She couldn’t say why she’d smashed it, but it had seemed the right thing to do at the time. Now, however, she was second-guessing herself.

Stop it, she told herself, looking out over her small domain. You don’t need to borrow trouble. Go upstairs and see how everyone’s doing there.

Glad to have some direction, Molly took a carafe of hot water and went up the wide staircase to the second floor. CrossWinds Books had a large open space through the middle of the room, flanked on all sides by comfortable armchairs that headed up each aisle of bookshelves. Only three of these were occupied today, and two of them waved her off when they saw her emerge from the staircase. She nodded to them and went over to Father Christopher, who was deep within the latest Stephen King novel and didn’t react to her presence until she was almost beside him.

“That good, huh?” Molly said, grinning as he jumped a little.

“The man is a master,” Father Christopher said, holding out his tea cup to her. She obligingly topped it off. “Thank you.”

Molly was about to leave when she stopped, a thought hitting her, and she turned back to the priest. “Can I ask you something, Father Christopher?”

He tucked a scrap of ribbon into the book and closed it. “Certainly. What’s o n your mind?”

Molly dragged one of the other chairs over to him and sat down. “You know so much of the history of the Cove,” she said, putting the carafe down between them on the floor. “Do you know about the banishments of Jack Frost and Caliban?”

He blinked. “I wasn’t expecting that. Then again, considering what year it is, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“What do you mean?”

“This year is the 300th anniversary of the banishment,” Father Christopher said. “I assumed you knew, and that’s why you asked.”

Molly shook her head. “I had no idea. No, I asked because it seems like I’ve fallen into the middle of it.” She quickly filled him in, and then asked, “So I wondered if you knew anything about them. I’ve heard a bit from Old Man Winter, but he didn’t seem too happy with Caliban, and I need to know more about him.”

The priest thought for a moment. “Well, from everything I’ve read, Caliban was always kind of the third wheel. He was a little younger than Jack and the Snow Queen, and since he was a spirit of summer, he was an outsider that way. He and Jack were very close, though – like brothers.”

“Until they were banished,” Molly said.

“No, the break happened before that, from what the records I have say.” He chuckled at her look. “The Church keeps records of everything, Molly. Especially here in the Cove.”

“What do your records say?” she asked, leaning closer.

“I’d have to go reread everything to give you details, but the gist is that Caliban asked the Snow Queen to marry him and live with him in the Cove,” Father Christopher said. “Jack objected, and asked her to marry him. There was a fight between the two of them, and the Snow Queen stopped it by banishing both of them. My predecessor said part of it was because they didn’t care about the destruction their battle caused, and that there were deaths.”

“So it wasn’t raiders,” Molly said, thinking out loud. “She was angry that they didn’t respect the Cove and the people here the way she did.”

“That’s my feeling too,” Father Christopher agreed. “The Snow Queen has always cared for this town, and to see her two suitors destroy the very people they’d just pledged to protect not a month before showed her their true nature.”

Molly threaded her fingers together and rested them on her knee. “Did your predecessor have an opinion on either of them?”

“Not really,” Father Christopher said after a moment of thinking. “He was more concerned with recovering from the raids. This was right after the last big battle, remember. The one Captain Carter almost died in.”

“Right.” Molly nodded. “And the Cove survived because of the Snow Queen, Jack and Caliban’s help, right?”

“That’s what the records say. And they helped her lay the foundations of the protections the Cove enjoys now.” Father Christopher looked over at her. “Which is how she was able to banish them from her sight, as I understand. Why are you helping Jack?”

“Because Old Man Winter likes him?” Molly shrugged. “And because he reached out to me first. Honestly, that’s the biggest thing.”

“And why you’re going to meet Caliban tomorrow?” Father Christopher said shrewdly.

She nodded again. “I owe him at least a hearing.”

“You aren’t going alone, are you?”

“No, why?” Molly asked. “Do you think it’s dangerous too?”

Father Christopher hesitated, and then sighed. “Dangerous? Maybe. Maybe not. But I’ve heard…things about Caliban, things that make me question whether or not the Snow Queen was right to banish him.”

“Like what?” Molly leaned in closer, since his voice had gotten quieter.

“He’s…tempermental,” Father Christopher said after a few moments. “Not always, but when he feels slighted, he doesn’t back down. And there have been rumors that he is involved with some of the darker elementals that exist in other realms. Where are you meeting him?”

“Stumpleton,” Molly said. “I’m assuming neutral ground, since I’ve never heard of him being there. Really, I’ve never heard of him.”

“It’s not a portion of the Cove’s history that really gets talked about,” Father Christopher agreed. “Especially since the Snow Queen doesn’t like to have it remembered. I don’t think their memorial is even kept up anymore.”

“There’s a memorial?” Molly said, sitting up. “Where?”

“In the back of the Gate Station, I think,” Father Christopher said. “It’s not the official memorial, obviously, but according to the Church records, it’s where they signed the treaty that ended the battle.”

“Hmm, I wonder if I can get Pavel to stop there before we go to the inn tomorrow,” Molly said. “I’d like to see it.” She got up, moved the chair back and reclaimed her carafe. “Thank you, Father Christopher.”

“Be careful, Molly,” the priest said, putting a hand on her leg and stopping her. His blue eyes were very serious. “And if you want to come over and look at the history I have, you’re welcome to.”

“Thank you. I might.”

As it turned out, she didn’t have to wait to go see the memorial. After she’d returned to the kitchen, Aunt Margie came in and asked if she could run an errand for her, up to the Station.

“It’s a special order, and I want to make sure it goes out today, and Zette’s already come and gone,” Aunt Margie said, waving her hands distractedly. “Mal said he didn’t have any techs able to come down and get it – are you busy?”

“Not at all,” Molly said. “Let me grab my keys and Schrodinger, and I’ll be happy to run it up for you, Aunt Margie.”

Ten minutes later, she and Schrodinger were in her car, with a large package in the back seat, heading for the Gate Station. It was actually sort of cold, but clear, and Molly hoped that meant the weird weather might be breaking soon. So, why are you so eager to go to the Station? Schrodinger asked, looking sideways at her. This is more than just seeing Drew or helping Aunt Margie.

“You know me too well,” Molly told him, and filled him in on what Father Christopher had told her about the memorial. “So I want to see it myself,” she finished, as they pulled off the main road onto the long driveway up to the mansion that housed the Carter’s Cove Land Gate Station. “There might be something there that might help.”

And there might not be, Schrodinger said. He looked back out the window. We need snow.

“I agree,” Molly said. Normally, the rolling lawns that led up to the Gate Station were alive with snow sculptures and lights. Mal, the Station Manager, dreamed up a new theme every year, and it was eagerly anticipated by most of the Cove (the poor techs who had to actually put the things together were not as eager, usually). This year, because there was no snow on the ground, she’d figured that he wouldn’t really decorate. As they went further up the driveway and twilight started to creep over the horizon, though, she realized she was wrong.

He’d gone with light instead. In the gathering darkness, lights started to wink on, in various shapes and hues. They passed a waterfall of icicles, the lights moving sinuous as a stream over dark-green boulders. After that, an angel stood in the middle of a forest, holding a wreath of gold and silver in her hands. There were Christmas trees, of course, and a set of moving reindeer that made Schrodinger’s eyes light up. But it just wasn’t the same without the snow.

Molly pulled the car into the parking lot, turned the car off, got out and pulled out Aunt Margie’s package from the back seat. “Let’s bring this in and give it to Heidi,” she told Schrodinger, who had hopped out of the car and was waiting for her. “Then we can find out where the memorial is.”

And get a flashlight, maybe? he suggested. Do you have one in the car?

“I think so?” Molly said, frowning. “If not, I should get one.” She opened the trunk and grinned. “Looks like Drew set me up,” she said, pulling a large steel flashlight from a kit she found there. “So if we ever get caught in the snow, or something, we have a kit.”

He takes good care of us, Schrodinger agreed. Molly tucked the flashlight into her coat pocket, picked the box up again, and shut the trunk.

Heidi and Porter were sitting in a pool of golden light in the lobby of the mansion, Heidi looking at her computer and writing notes into a large ledger, Porter drowsing with a large catnip mouse between his grey paws on a pillow next to the desk. The receptionist looked up as the door opened, and a smile lit up her face.

“Molly! Schrodinger! How nice to see you!”

Porter woke up at that, blinking at them with green-gold eyes that were slightly glazed. He burbled a hello that was part meow, part purr, but didn’t move from his pillow.

“Hi Heidi! Hi Porter!” Molly paused at the pillow and stroked the grey cat’s head, then put the box on Heidi’s desk. “Have we missed the afternoon delivery run yet?”

“Nope, they’re running late, so I can definitely put that on for you.” Heidi took the box, squinted at the label, and made another note in her ledger. “Let me go and put this on the carriage now, just to make sure. From the store, right? No food?”

“No food,” Molly said. “Just books.”

Heidi made one last note and disappeared through a door behind the desk, taking the box out to where the evening courier was undoubtedly chomping at the bit to get moving. Molly waited until she came back and said, “Heidi, do you know where the memorial dedicated to Jack Frost and Prince Caliban is located?”

Heidi looked startled. “The what?”

“Father Christopher said there was a memorial at the back of the Station that was dedicated to the spirits who protected the Cove during the battles at the beginning,” Molly said. “I’d like to see it.”

The receptionist frowned. “I’m not aware of a memorial, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Mal can probably tell you where it is.”

“Is he in and able to be bothered?”

“By you? Of course.” Heidi waved her and Schrodinger (who had finished touching noses with Porter and now looked a bit stoned himself, courtesy of the catnip mouse) through the main door into the hallway that led deeper into the mansion. “He’s in his office.”

Mal’s office was located deep within the bowels of the Gate Station, on the other side of the Gate room itself. As always, it was cluttered to the point of being a fire hazard with papers and other things that she didn’t really have names for, and she wondered how Mal could work like that. He was sunk down low in the leather chair behind his desk, almost not visible through the haze of smoke from his ever-present cigarette that was clamped in his teeth. “Who’s there?”

“Molly and Schrodinger,” she replied, knowing perfectly well that Heidi had called him as soon as they’d left the lobby. Mal hated surprises.

“Oh, yes, come in! Heidi said you were asking about the old memorial?” He looked out at her, frowning. “Why?”

“I’m curious,” she said truthfully. “Father Christopher was telling me about it earlier and I’d like to see it.”

He looked suspiciously at her. “I hear you’ve had some interesting visitors lately.”

“I always have interesting visitors,” Molly said.

“Banished visitors?” Mal asked.

“The banishment specifically states they can’t be here when the Snow Queen is,” Molly told him. “I’m doing nothing wrong.”

Mal leaned back in his chair, looking at her and Schrodinger, absently tapping the long ash on his cigarette into an overflowing ash tray. “Semantics, and you know it. If she knew, she’d be very unhappy with you.”

“Maybe, but she doesn’t control my movements,” Molly said. “And I’m doing it to help her.”

“Are you, now.” Mal continued to look at them, obviously weighing options. “Well, in the end, it’s none of my business, really. The memorial is out back – if you go through the Gate Room and out the back door, then take the path out towards the hillside. It’s about five hundred yards along the path.” He finally stubbed out the cigarette, and then shook another one out of the pack he pulled from his shirt pocket. “Do you have a flashlight?”

She pulled it from her pocket and waved it at him.

“Good. You’ll need it. There’s no lights that way.”

“Thanks, Mal.” Molly turned to leave, but his voice stopped her.

“Molly, do you think you can fix this?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, turning back around.

Mal sighed. “I’m not stupid, Molly. I know who Pavel brought in on that scow of his. I know that Drew was looking at the old records. And now you’re looking at the old Cove Memorial. You can’t tell me that the weather issues aren’t connected to it. And if the weather doesn’t break soon, we’re going to be in trouble.” He pointed the new cigarette at her. “Can you fix it?”

“I’m going to give it my best shot,” she said finally, and he nodded.

“That’s all we can ask. Good luck.”

Steve gave them a wave as they cut through the Gate room towards the back door, but he was busy doing something that apparently took most of his attention. Molly slipped outside and paused to turn her flashlight on. Mal hadn’t been kidding; in the minutes that had passed since they’d come into the Station, twilight had fallen into darkness, and the bulk of the mansion blocked the lights from the front. It was dark in front of her, and she could barely see Schrodinger’s pale shape as he set off down the path.

“Don’t go too far ahead of me, please,” she called quietly, setting her feet on the gravel path, thankful for the lack of snow. If the memorial was as neglected as it seemed, then if it had snowed, the path might have been snowed over.

I won’t, the CrossCat promised, coming back over to her. It smells wet.

“Rain will do that,” Molly said, looking up at the sky. Stars winked overhead, but there was a smudge on the horizon that might be clouds. It should be snow clouds, but she bet it was more rain. Her flashlight lit the path and she set off cautiously.

The memorial was not quite what she’d been expecting. The official memorial in the Cove’s center was full of statues of Captain Carter and various members of his crew, and the Snow Queen, of course. This memorial was smaller, and less ostentatious: just four large pillars around a small square box of granite. Each pillar had a symbol carved into it: a snowflake, which Molly knew was for the Snow Queen; a lightning bolt; a fireball, which must be for Caliban; and a raindrop. “Four,” she said to Schrodinger. “Why hasn’t anyone mentioned who the fourth person is?”

That’s really weird, he agreed. A water spirit?

“Maybe.” Molly ran her fingers over each symbol, and could just barely feel cold underneath the lightning bolt and the snowflake, warmth under the fireball and the raindrop. “Drew didn’t mention that anyone else was banished, though.”

Maybe they weren’t. Schrodinger had gone over to the square box; Molly joined him, playing her light over the simple inscription.

“We give thanks for those who have left a piece of their souls in this Cove,” she read out loud. “Jack Frost; Jade Winterborn; Caliban Summerstorm; Herse. Without them, we would not be here.” She frowned. “Who’s Herse? I’ve never heard that name before.”

Nor I, Schrodinger said. She wasn’t mentioned in the Librarian’s book.

“No.” Molly pulled out her cell phone and took a picture of the inscription. “I think it’s time for us to head out, Schrodinger.”

Did you find any answers? he asked her, as they walked back towards the Gate Station.

“I don’t know,” Molly said. “We definitely found more questions, though.”

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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