I know, it’s still a long way until spring, but seriously, I feel like I’m trapped in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones world. Between the depression and the SAD and the god-awful snow (seriously, there’s been like 60 inches of snow in the past month!), I feel like I’m smothered in cotton. So what have I done?
I have totally been sleeping when I haven’t been at work, and eating all the foods that aren’t good for me (darn it, gluten! Why are you in all my comfort foods?) and not writing. Well, not really writing. I did get some words in February, but I didn’t finish Secrets, and I haven’t finished the first draft of Deep Waters, both of which I wanted to do. I haven’t lost any weight. I didn’t make it to the gym.
But that’s in the past. And I can’t change the past.
What I can do is focus on the future. The days are getting longer (finally), and spring is coming. I now have trackers that work for my sneakers, and I have my FitBit, which lets me see how I’m doing. I have a new desk at work, and dammit, I have a birthday coming up. I don’t want to be unhealthy any more.
I know it’s hard. I know I’ll backslide sometimes (movie theatre popcorn, you are my kryptonite!), but going forward, I’m going to keep myself accountable here on the blog, on Twitter (I’m @vg_ford there), and on Facebook. I’ve got modest goals for March:
1. 250 words a day
Not just on the blog, but on actual stories. I need to keep writing every day.
2. 8 hours of sleep
Seriously. I’m sleeping more, so that on the weekends I don’t spend until noon in bed. And I’m going to try and stick to my weekday sleep schedule on the weekends, so I don’t screw everything up. End result: if you see me online after 11 pm and I’m not out somewhere, tell me to go to bed!
3. 6 lbs gone
That’s the physical goal. 6 lbs will bring me under 300 lbs, and that’s my first goal. I can do this. No more soda, no more gluten, no more crap. It’s going to be interesting, as my gut is not happy with raw veggies and fruits right now, but I’m going to try some smoothies, and more steamed/cooked veggies. And real food, not processed food. And water. And tea. (Glorious tea)
So there’s that. I’m off now, to get my 250 words (at least), and then over to Mom and Dad’s for a roast lamb dinner. I’ll see you all tomorrow!
In a way, I’m lucky. My day job doesn’t come home with me. I go in, I deal with people, and I go home. It’s not something that I can bring home, nor is it something that I have to really schedule (lucky me, my day is scheduled for me). So articles about how to “work smarter, not harder” are ones I read with an eye towards my second job – writing.
What brought this up? I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately. I belong to several writers groups, and all of them feature folks who write faster than me. I don’t write fast. A good day for me is about 2k. I’m not someone who is going to be regularly pulling a Lowell (10k in a day) or more. I don’t win NaNo on Day 3. And sometimes, watching these word counts, I feel (a) jealous; (b) like a fake; (c) like I should be doing more; (d) a total failure.
Now, before everyone rushes in to tell me it’s okay, trust me, I know. I’m not a failure. I’ve got a full series published. I can finish stories. I know I’m not a fake, and that everyone writes at their own speed. But it also got me to looking at HOW I write, and what I can do to maximize the writing time I have.
I confess, I’m an internet junkie. I love to have a writing chat room up while I write, and I’m constantly checking Facebook (I fell off the Twitter wagon when I didn’t have an Android phone for a year, and still haven’t really gotten back into it). I’ll write with the TV in the background. I’m a true multitasker – which really isn’t good. (Case in point – while writing this blog post, I’m eating breakfast.) And I’m sure it affects my writing.
One of the things I recently read (and of course, now I can’t find the link, oh well) was talking about scheduling rather than making a to-do list. I don’t do this, because I am terrible at estimating how much time something will take me. Seriously. So what do you do when you’re me and terrible at something? PRACTICE!
Starting tomorrow (because I will be out all day today, hence the blog post while writing breakfast before I run out the door), I’m going to start scheduling my time, and then seeing how close I came to it. I expect the first few weeks to be hysterically inaccurate, but that’s okay. That’s how I learn.
How do YOU maximize your writing/crafting time? Any hints?
Thursday, December 25
Molly had awoken early, the habit of years, and had slipped from the bed without awakening Drew. Schrodinger was sleeping in a pile with Lily, Zoey and Jack in one of the guest rooms; Molly peeked in the room, but they were all still asleep as well. So she went downstairs, made a cup of tea, and went into the living room.
Their living room was huge, and the coals from the night before were still banked. Molly coaxed them back to life, then plugged in the Christmas tree. With the softly glowing lights making the room sparkle, she curled up in the window seat to watch the sun rise.
There was little to see, though. Clouds had continued to come in, building a thick wall that blotted out the moon and stars. Molly sipped her tea and enjoyed the silence, knowing that soon it would be shattered. There were more presents now under the tree, wrapped in the traditional red and green tissue paper that Santa used, which told her that the jolly elf had come and gone.
She heard a noise, and turned to see Jade coming to join her in the seat. The Snow Queen was dressed, to Molly’s delight, in soft pajamas that were covered fall leaves and holly berries. “May I join you?” she asked, and Molly moved her feet, inviting her in.
“So the Snow Queen wears pajamas to bed, just like a mortal?” Molly teased gently.
Jade laughed. “Of course I do! Mortals have some of the best ideas, after all!” She looked out the window. “Time for one of my Christmas presents for the Cove.”
Molly watched as Jade raised a hand and whispered something under her breath. Silver-white sparkles flowed from her fingertips and out through the glass, swirling up to the clouds. In a few moments, snow started to fall, tiny white flakes that danced on the breeze.
“Now it looks like Christmas,” Molly said, as the snow started to pile up. “Finally.”
“It’s thanks to you that we have a white Christmas,” Jade said, looking over at her friend. “You’ve pulled off a Christmas miracle. You found the good man hiding in Jack’s soul, and gave him back to me.”
Molly flushed a little. “Like I said before, Jade, Jack did all the work. I just showed him how to do it.”
“And you believed in him, when no one else did,” Jade said, leaning over and putting a cool hand on Molly’s. “I’d even given up on him. But you didn’t, and I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. Thank you.”
“You would have done the same for me,” Molly told her, clasping her hand.
“Absolutely.” Jade nodded. “If you need anything, Molly, please let me know.”
Molly was about to reply when a shriek of absolute joy echoed through the house, followed by the sound of running feet. Lily and Zoey burst into the room, followed closely by Schrodinger and Jack. “Santa came!” Lily shrieked.
“And it’s SNOWING!” Zoey added. “Christmas is perfect!”
Their calls brought everyone else to the living room, yawning and rubbing sleep from their eyes. Molly, Corrine, Donna and Jade brought out tea and coffee cakes, and then the present unwrapping began.
In the middle of the chaos, Old Man Winter showed up with even more presents and, to Lily and Zoey’s delight, Ember. The entire living room was full of chaos, noise and cheer, and Molly loved every minute of it.
At the end, there was only one more box under the tree, and Lily pulled it out. “To Drew and Molly, from Jack and Jade,” she read, then brought the box over to Molly. “Open it, Molly, open it!”
Inside the box was a key. Molly pulled it out and looked quizzically at Jade, who was snuggled in Jack’s arms. “Did I miss something?” she asked.
It was Jack who answered. “No,” he said, chuckling. “That’s actually the key to my log cabin. We thought you might like a honeymoon there.”
“Really?” Molly’s eyes went wide. “Before or after you add the kitchen?”
“After,” he promised. “Just tell us when.”
Molly glanced back at Drew. “Well, I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you all that we’ve set a date,” she said, and Drew nodded. “We’ve decided that Saturday, July 18, 2015, we’re getting married.”
The room erupted into cheers. Molly turned to Schrodinger. “You’ll be our ringbearer, right?” she asked.
Of course! the CrossCat said excitedly.
“And we’d like you two to be our flower girls,” Drew said, looking at Zoey and Lily, who nodded enthusiastically.
“Jack, would you escort them down?” Molly asked the hound, who thumped his tail in agreement.
“Then it’s settled,” Molly said, smiling. “July 18.”
“There’s actually one more gift we have,” Jade said, looking at Jack. “For Schrodinger.”
For me? Schrodinger said. Where?
Everyone looked around. There were no more presents under the tree.
Jade grinned and beckoned the CrossCat over to the window that looked out over the front yard. The sleigh that Drew had painted sat among the snow drifts.
“We couldn’t get a pony,” Jade said. “But we talked to a certain friend of ours, and we hoped this would be acceptable.”
Hitched to the sleigh with a silvery harness covered in bells was a large reindeer, ribbons on his large rack and a Santa hat perched on his head.
Is it…is it…? Schrodinger couldn’t even get the words out.
“It is,” Jade assured him. “You only have him for today, as he has to go back to the North Pole after that, but I think we can manage to get a few flights in today. What do you think?”
It’s the best present EVER! Schrodinger jumped up on Jade, purring ecstatically. Let’s go!
Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you enjoyed this year’s Advent calendar, and as a special gift, start looking for a new Advent story on July 12, as Molly and Drew get ready to wed! I hope to see you then!
Wednesday, December 24
“Drew! Can you get the door, please?” Molly called, slicing up another loaf of homemade bread. The doorbell pealed again, and Molly heard footsteps hurrying to the front door. She wondered again where Schrodinger was – she hadn’t seen the CrossCat in at least an hour, and it wasn’t like him to be absent on Christmas Eve. Especially not this year.
“Molly, Molly, Molly, where’s Schrodinger?” Lily demanded, skidding in to the kitchen, Jack hot on her heels.
“I don’t know,” Molly admitted. “Did you check the barn? He might be there, working on Christmas presents.”
Lily and Jack ran off, nearly knocking over Corrine and Nathan as they came into the kitchen. “Be careful!” Corrine shouted after them, shaking her head.
“At least here they have enough room to run around and burn off some of that excess energy,” Nathan said, chuckling and kissing his sister on the cheek on his way to the large refrigerator. He had a box of bottles in his hand, and Molly’s eyes brightened.
“The cider’s done?” she asked.
He nodded. “I tested a bottle last night. It’s perfect.”
“What, he didn’t share?” Molly teased Corrine, who shook her head and flushed a little.
“No, he couldn’t,” Corrine admitted. “No more alcohol for me until around July.”
Molly looked at her, and then the light went on. “Oh, Corrine!” She hugged her sister-in-law and then her brother, nearly knocking him over. “Do you know yet?”
“No, but we should around February,” Corrine said. “We haven’t told anyone else; you’re the first to know.”
“The first to know what?” Drew asked, and when told the news, he whooped and nearly crushed Nathan’s ribs with a hug. He was more gentle with Corrine, of course, and then Nathan cracked open a bottle of his cider, and the three of them toasted to the newest addition to the Barrett household. Molly, after glancing in her refrigerator to make sure she had enough ginger ale, sent Nathan and Drew to find the kids. Corrine sat at the table and assembled sandwiches for lunch, piling cold cuts, cheese, and veggies high on Molly’s homemade bread. Molly, meanwhile, started working on the stuffing and cranberry relish for Christmas dinner.
“Mom is going to be ecstatic when she hears,” Molly said, zesting an orange into the bubbling relish in front of her. “Do you have a preference?”
“Healthy,” Corrine said, chuckling. “Although Lily wants a little sister desperately.”
Two hours later, everyone gathered in the large living room around the Christmas tree. Molly, Drew and Schrodinger had gotten an eight-foot Christmas tree, which stood in an alcove, surrounded by a wall of presents. The kids were plastered to the front windows, looking anxiously for both Zette and the promised snow. Drew had told them that the weather reports all reported a snow storm headed straight for the Cove. And this one didn’t look like it was going to veer away.
It wouldn’t, Molly knew. Caliban’s spells were gone, banished at the tip of Jack’s sword. The summer spirit had been so sure he’d been victorious as he raised his sword, ready to take Jack’s head off, that he hadn’t seen Schrodinger come barreling in from the sidelines. The CrossCat had hit Caliban broadside, knocking him to the ground and sending his sword flying. Jack had grabbed the sword and, with Schrodinger growling at his side, forced Caliban to surrender. To Molly’s surprise, once Herse had brought the wards down, there had been men waiting outside, led by an older man whom Caliban had shrunk back from.
“King Medron,” Jade had said, hurrying down to greet the older man. “To what do we owe this surprise?”
“You have done me a service, Your Majesty,” Medron had replied, bowing gravely to her. “I have been looking for this criminal for several months now.” He had glared at the quivering Caliban. “My son. I see can finally take you to answer for your crimes.”
The shrieks of the kids broke her out of her reverie. Molly glanced out the window to see Zoey, Donna and Peter Allard climbing out of a car, their arms full of presents. Right behind them was Zette’s mail truck.
Once all the presents had been brought in and the kids sent off to read their letters from Santa, the adults retired back to the living room, where Drew and Nathan had built a warming fire. There was a bite in the air, and Molly could smell snow coming as she opened the front door one more time, to admit her parents and Pavel.
“So, are we the last ones?” Mrs. Barrett asked, kissing Molly on the cheek.
“No, we’re still waiting for Jade and Jack,” Molly said, ushering them in to the living room. She caught a glimpse of something white moving down the end of the driveway. “This should be them, though. Go on. I’ll wait for them here.”
She heard them greeting Nathan and Corrine, and heard her mother exclaim in delight – obviously, the news of a new grandchild in the summer was welcome. Molly stepped out on to the porch as the large white sled ghosted into the front yard, two large white reindeer pulling Jade and Jack’s sled. Jade looked absolutely lovely, wrapped in white fur and snowflakes, her eyes shining. And Jack looked happy as he helped her down from the carriage, for the first time since Molly had known him.
“Welcome to our home,” Molly said. “Merry Christmas.”
Jade all but danced up the steps and hugged her tightly. “Merry Christmas, Molly,” she whispered. “Merry Christmas. And thank you.”
Tuesday, December 23
Molly was up and sitting in the armchair by the window when Caliban came to collect her the next morning. Despite everything, she’d actually slept well, probably a residual effect of the drug he’d used on her. That didn’t stop her from glaring at him when he came in the room. “Coming to gloat again?” she asked, not moving from the chair.
“No, actually.” He moved the tray from the table and leaned against it, looking at her thoughtfully. “I’m wondering what it is about you, Molly Barrett.”
He sounded honestly confused, and Molly frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Jade lifted her banishment of me,” Caliban told her, still studying her. “In fact, in a few minutes, you’re coming with me to see her finally accept her place as my consort.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Molly said. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because she did it to get you back. The Snow Queen, one of the most powerful spirits in this part of the Realms, raised a very powerful banishment to get you, a mortal, back. Why? What is so important about you?” Caliban looked her up and down. “You’re not even that stunning to look at. I mean, I suppose you’re pretty enough, but you’re so…human.”
Molly realized he was actually serious. He had no idea why Jade would do such a thing, and that realization broke her mood. She was no longer angry at him. Rather, she looked at him, and felt sorry that he would never, could never understand.
“It’s not how powerful or how pretty I am,” she said quietly. “It’s because she’s my friend. And that’s what friends do for one another.”
Caliban shook his head. “It can’t be just that. For one thing, why would Jade be your friend? You’re just a mortal.”
Molly shrugged. “I don’t know. But we are friends. I’d do anything for her, and it appears she’ll do almost anything for me.” She looked at him, and there was no anger in her gaze now, just pity. “Maybe one day, you’ll find someone that you feel the same way about.”
“I do. Jade.”
“No.” Molly shook her head. “You want her. You want to own her. Friends don’t own each other. Lovers don’t own each other.” She stood up. “Let’s go. There’s nothing more I have to say to you.”
She was somehow unsurprised that his carriage pulled up to the clearing where the Snow Queen held her ball every year. If what Jack had said was true – if the people of the Cove had danced there to raise power for the five spirits who had protected their home from raiders, then it was only right that this ended where it had started three hundred years ago.
Molly was surprised, however, at who was waiting there for them when she stepped into the ballroom, Caliban right behind her. Jade was there, sitting there on her throne, pale and determined, with Jack and Old Man Winter on either side of her, and Ember curled at her feet like a guardian, smoke curling from either nostril. But it was Drew that Molly saw first, followed by Schrodinger. She tore herself from Caliban’s grasp and ran across the floor to them, not caring who else was there. Drew hugged her tightly as Schrodinger pressed up against her legs, and Molly quickly dried her tears of joy on Drew’s shirt before anyone saw them.
“Are you okay?” Drew asked her quietly, lifting her head so he could search her face. “Did he hurt you?”
If he did, I get first bite, Schrodinger said, growling.
“No, no, I’m fine,” she reassured them. “He didn’t hurt me.” She looked over at Jade. “I promise.”
The Snow Queen’s eyes were as flinty as her namesake stone. “Good. Else Schrodinger’s bite would have been the least of his worries.”
Drew pulled Molly back to the sidelines, where Pavel was. Molly looked out and saw Father Christopher and Herse standing to either side of the throne as well, but farther back in the shadows.
“I have returned the mortal,” Caliban said. “Will the Snow Queen hear my suit?”
“I will hear both suits,” she said, and Jack stepped out from around her throne. He gave her a quick but courteous bow and stood in front of her, making certain that he was not standing close to Caliban. “Speak, Caliban.”
Molly noted the lack of an honorific in front of his name; to judge by the flush on his face, so did Caliban. But he stepped forward nonetheless and said, “I thank you, Your Majesty. For both raising your banishment, and for your audience today.”
He took a deep breath and raised his dark eyes to hers. “I have loved you since the first time I saw you, Jade, when we were but children. I have always striven to protect you, to keep you safe, to help you to realize your true potential. Now, I ask you to join your land, your line, with mine, to make both our families stronger.”
“And what would you give me in return?” Jade asked him. “Will you share my life here with the Cove? Will you consent to live part of the time in the snow with me?”
Caliban looked at her, disbelief running swiftly across his face, so fast that Molly almost wondered if she’d imagined it. “You don’t need to stay in the Cove anymore, Jade,” he said, smiling. “You’ve made them safe, the way we wanted to. Now, you are free to start a family of your own. Of our own.”
He didn’t answer her other question, Schrodinger said quietly to Molly.
“No,” she murmured. “He didn’t.”
But Jade turned from him to Jack. “And you, Jack Frost? What do you offer me?”
He looked up to her and said simply, “My heart, Jade. I offer you my heart, and hope you will accept it.”
“Will you share my life here in the Cove?” she asked him, the same question she had asked Caliban. “Will you consent to live part of the time in the snow with me?”
“Yes,” he said, not hesitating. “Absolutely.”
She smiled at him, and it was like the sun coming up after a long, cold, rainy night, and Molly knew without a doubt that not only had Jack answered correctly, but he meant it.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, Jade turned to Father Christopher. “You have always been a good friend, Father,” she said. “Would you give me your counsel again?”
He bowed his head to her. “I will always offer you counsel when asked, Your Majesty. I do not know Caliban, but I do know that someone who was in love does not use innocent people as pawns. I know Jack has been in the Cove for the past month, working to change himself into the man that could win your heart. My counsel is, if you have to choose one of them, choose Jack. He loves you, and yet doesn’t want to own you.”
Jade nodded. “I thank you, Father.” Then she turned and looked at Herse. “You are one of my oldest friends, Herse,” she said. “What is your counsel?”
“Jack,” Herse said, without hesitation. “I do not trust Caliban. He has given me no reason to.”
Jade nodded again. “Thank you.” She then turned and looked at Molly. “Molly, you have always been a friend to me. You were dragged into this because we were friends, and I apologize for that.”
“You have nothing to apologize for, Jade,” Molly said. “Nothing.”
The Snow Queen smiled. “What is your counsel, Molly?”
Molly took a deep breath. “I know you have to make a decision, Jade,” she said, twining her fingers in with Drew’s. “What I will say is that I have seen Jack make changes this month. He’s become a friend.” She looked at Caliban. “I don’t think Caliban even understands what that word means.”
“Thank you, Molly.” Jade turned back, and looked at the two men standing before her. “Molly is right,” she said. “I have to make a decision.” She sighed. “I was hoping that it wouldn’t be so easy, but it is.”
Molly found she was holding her breath.
“Caliban,” Jade said, and the spirit looked up hopefully. “I had hoped that the years would soften your heart, show you what you could never see – how to love. I am afraid that this has not happened, and I am sorry about that.”
“Jack.” Jack looked up at her. “You took the banishment and rather than force me to change, you took it upon yourself to learn why you had been banished. You did not push me, did not force my hand.”
She paused, and then looked up. “I choose Jack as my consort, if he will have me.”
“You know I will,” Jack said, starting forward towards her, eyes only for her.
“No!” Caliban shouted, looked stunned. “NO! I will not be cast aside like this!” He threw something at Jack, who didn’t duck in time. There was a loud slap, and Molly saw a large black glove on the floor. A red mark had appeared on Jack’s face. “I demand trial by combat!”
“The Snow Queen has made her decision,” Herse said. “You are out of order, Caliban.”
“No,” Jack said slowly, one hand going up to his cheek. “I will accept his challenge.” He looked at Herse. “Can you seal this place? I do not want anyone else to be harmed. I will not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
The goddess nodded and raised her hands. Pale green light that smelled of spring rain flowed out and around the room, twining around each of the pillars, bathing the entire area. She lowered her hands. “It is done. Nothing shall escape.”
“Thank you,” Jack said. Looking at Caliban, he raised one eyebrow. “Well, coward, what combat do you want?”
Caliban twisted his hands in the air, and two swords appeared. He tossed one to Jack. “Less talk,” he snapped. “My honor will be avenged with your blood, and then I will claim my consort as well.”
“This is not for Jade’s hand,” Jack said. “This is between me and you. She’s made her choice.”
Caliban simply snarled at him and lunged forward. Jack parried, dancing out of the way, and lunged in his own turn. The blades hissed through the air, flashing and slashing, and Molly found herself holding her breath. Both men were excellent swordsmen, or so she assumed, since she was hardly an expert in fighting. But they appeared evenly matched, trading blows back and forth.
And then Jack slipped on something as he lunged forward, and Caliban took the opening, reaching out with his free hand and grabbing Jack’s shirt, yanking him forward onto the floor. Jack’s sword went clattering along the floor and Molly gasped. She wasn’t the only one.
“Finally,” Caliban grated, and raised his sword. It flashed in the light as it slashed down.
Monday, December 22
Molly paused outside the back door to the book store and took a deep breath. The cold, salty air felt wonderful against her flushed cheeks – she’d been cooking bread for the week, and the kitchen was very, very warm. She tossed the bag of trash into the dumpster and leaned back against the door, enjoying a moment alone. Pavel and Jack hadn’t let up their guard, but she really felt at this point that it was unnecessary.
“After all,” she said out loud, looking around. “Look at this place. It’s cold. There’s snow forecast for Christmas Eve. Caliban is gone.”
“That’s what you were meant to think,” a voice sneered in her ear, and Molly barely had time to process the sentence before someone grabbed her and shoved a sweet-smelling rag over her mouth and nose. As her consciousness dimmed, she struggled, but whoever it was had an iron grasp.
Schrodinger! her mind screamed. Schrodinger, help me!
And then there was blackness.
Schrodinger’s head jerked up. He’d been snoozing next to the pot-bellied iron stove in the tea room, listening to Goldie read The Christmas Carol, the smell of freshly-baked bread tickling his nose. Then something had rocketed through his head, a voice filled with fear, and jolted him awake.
“Schrodinger? What’s wrong?” Goldie said, looking up from the book in concern.
I don’t— His head rang, and another scream raced through his head. Molly!
He jumped up and ran through the kitchen, the pirate hot on his heels. Molly needs help! he shouted, as he shouldered open the back door and burst into the alley. She was here!
“She’s not here now,” Goldie said, looking around. “But something’s not right here.”
Schrodinger lifted his head and sniffed. There was an odd sweet smell, not a food, but something else, that drifted on the cold air, fading along with the scent of Molly’s perfume. Molly was out here, and she called for me, he said. And now she’s not here.
“No, she’s not.” Goldie continued to look around, and there was an odd tone in his voice. “Come on, let’s go look inside.”
She would have had to go past us to go anywhere but the kitchen, and the kitchen was empty, Schrodinger told him.
“I know. Humor me.” Goldie led him back out into the tea room, and then upstairs. No Molly. They went over the entire building, but the kitchen witch was no where to be found. By now, Schrodinger was frantic.
She’s been kidnapped, Goldie! We have to find her!
“We will,” the pirate soothed him, pulling out a cell phone and dialing. “We definitely will.”
By the time Pavel and Jack got there, Drew had arrived and was trying to keep Schrodinger from going off on his own. “What happened?” Pavel demanded.
“I think Caliban took Molly,” Goldie admitted. “Schrodinger heard her call out to him, but we couldn’t find her.”
“We caught an unauthorized Gate opening about the same time that Molly went missing,” Drew said, his voice almost unnaturally calm. His hands on Schrodinger were gentle, soothing the CrossCat, but his jaw was tight. “Which means they had a portable Gate transmitter.”
“Which sounds like Caliban,” Jack said bitterly. “He wouldn’t come himself, but he’d send his lackeys with illegal technology to do his dirty work.”
“But why?” Drew said. “Why take Molly?” His voice broke on the last word, and he buried his face in Schrodinger’s fur. The CrossCat leaned up against him, sharing his misery.
“Because he knows Jade will do anything to get her back,” Jack said. “If it’s one thing Caliban is good at, it’s reading other people’s weaknesses.” He looked over at Pavel. “He’ll send a message. You know he will.”
The pirate nodded. “Do you think he will come here?”
“Probably. He can’t go to the castle, and he knows we’ll all come here.” Jack looked over at Drew and Schrodinger, pain and resolve on his pale face. “We’ll wait until he does. Send someone to the castle to ask Jade to come here, please.”
The darkness faded into dim light, and Molly raised her head from a soft pillow, her thoughts fuzzy. There was a horrible taste in her mouth, and a dull, pounding pain in her temples. As she sat up slowly, she realized that she was in a soft bed, with dark curtains drawn closed. She looked around the bed, but the light was too subdued to see much: just pillows, blankets and the curtains. Steeling herself, Molly reached out and pushed aside the curtain nearest to her.
“So, she wakes.” The voice was calm, cool, slightly sardonic, and altogether too familiar. Molly groaned and turned to look at Caliban, who was seated in a large armchair before a dark fireplace. The room was in shadow, but over his shoulder, she could see blue sky, just darkening into twilight. She’d been asleep for a while.
No, not asleep. She tasted the cotton wool on her tongue again and realized she’d been drugged. Anger raced through her, burning away the fuzziness. “You kidnapped me!”
“Technically, yes. I did.” There was no apology in his voice. “I apologize for the inconvenience.”
“Inconvenience?” Molly tried to get up and the room swirled around her, so she sat back down.
“I wouldn’t try to get up yet,” Caliban said. “I’m told the drug used on you takes a while to remove itself from your system. You might just want to lie back.”
“And what, think of England?” Molly snapped, but she didn’t try and get up again. “Where am I?”
“You’re my guest. At least for a while.”
“Guest. You mean prisoner,” Molly said, lying back against the pillows, refusing to look at him. “Since most people don’t drug and kidnap their guests. Or do spirits have poorer manners than us normal folk?”
“You should have thought of that before you became involved in things that were none of your business, Miss Barrett,” Caliban said, completely unruffled. “You chose to be a part of this, and now it’s time to play your part.”
“I had no choice,” she protested, staring up at the canopied ceiling of the bed. “I couldn’t let Jade die.”
“You could have helped me.”
Molly laughed bitterly. “Which would be letting her die. No thank you.” She rolled over slowly and waited for the room to stop spinning before she glared at him again. “You are a pathetic excuse of a man, and I will never help you.”
“Oh, but you will, Miss Barrett.” Caliban laughed quietly. “In fact, you already have.”
Aunt Margie had closed the bookstore early, and now she, Drew, Schrodinger, Jack, Pavel and Jade waited in the empty tea room. The early evening shadows crept across the front of the store, but no one wanted to go home. They were waiting.
“You’re sure he’ll send someone?” Aunt Margie asked, chewing on her lower lip worriedly. “He won’t just keep her?”
“It’s not her he wants,” Jade said soothingly, putting a hand on the older woman’s where it lay on the table. “It’s me.” She looked over at Jack. “He’ll send a message.”
Jack nodded. “He will. Caliban is nothing if not predictable.”
A sharp tapping on the front door drew their attention. Outside stood the servant boy, holding a message. Aunt Margie got up and unlocked the door, letting him in.
“I come with a message for the Snow Queen,” the boy said, but there was no fear in his voice this time, despite the fact that Schrodinger was standing up, growling, showing all his teeth.
“Speak your message, boy,” Jade said, sitting up straighter. She was wearing a plain dress, but there were snowflakes splashed across it, and a small tiara glinted in her hair. “I’m waiting.”
The servant bowed. “My master, Prince Caliban, requests that you lift your banishment of him and accept his suit, becoming his consort. If you do not, he will keep the kitchen witch. Forever.”
“Like hell!” Drew said, standing up so quickly that his chair fell backwards. “You tell that sonofa—”
Aunt Margie caught his arm and Jade raised her hand, cutting him off.
“I will lift the banishment.” She bit off the words, spitting them at the servant. “But he will have to come and make his case in person before I will make a choice as to who will become MY consort. And he must return Molly. Immediately.”
“I will carry your message, Your Majesty.” The servant bowed again and turned to go.
“Boy.” Jack’s voice stopped him in his tracks, and he turned back. “Tell your master that he has crossed a line today, and it is a line that he can never come back from. He will regret what he has done today.”
“I will tell him.”
Sunday, December 21
“Okay, spill it,” Lai said, as the Terrible Trio swarmed into the kitchen that afternoon. “The entire story.”
“Yes!” Sue and Noemi chorused, and Molly laughed.
“Okay, okay, okay,” she said, pulling tea mugs out and pouring hot water into each of them. “Although come on, Lai, didn’t you give him the third degree when you were dancing last night? You looked like you were having a good time!”
Lai stuck her tongue out at Molly, reddening. “Not my fault he picked my shoe. I know he was looking for yours.”
“Oh? And how do you know that?” Molly asked, putting their favorite teas in the mugs: Christmas for her, green for Sue and Lai, and a spicy Assam for Noemi.
“Because he told me so,” she retorted, picking up her mug. “In fact, we spent most of the time talking about you. You’re lucky you’re engaged, Molly.”
“I doubt Drew has anything to worry about,” Molly said, and pulled a plate of homemade maple donuts from the refrigerator. “Jack’s heart is firmly held in the hand of the Snow Queen. If it’s not, then I’ve wasted most of my December, and I will NOT be happy.”
It is. Schrodinger climbed up and put his front paws on the island. Are those donuts?
“They are,” Molly said, putting one on a plate in front of him. “How did you know?”
I have a highly sensitive nose, he informed her. Tea, too?
“Tea too.” Molly poured water over the tea ball containing his favored Earl Grey. “Are you going to help me tell this story?”
I’ll just make sure you get everything right, Schrodinger said, licking a drop of frosting from his nose.
“Thanks.” Molly picked up her own tea cup, enjoying the feel of the warm porcelain. A cold front had moved in overnight, finally driving off the warm air that had hovered over the Cove for the past month, and it had actually been icy that morning. The stove in the tea room had been stoked to life for the first time all winter.
“So, how did you actually meet Jack Frost?” Noemi demanded. “Because that’s who that was, right? THE Jack Frost?”
“Yes, that’s who it was.” Molly told them about how Pavel had brought Jack to the farm, asking for their help. The tea and donuts were long gone when she finished with the scene at the Snow Queen’s palace.
“I can’t believe it,” Sue said. “I mean, who would have thought the Cove would be the center of this torrid love affair? We’re just the Cove.”
You’re not just the Cove, Schrodinger said, wiping crumbs from his whiskers. You’re the COVE. Everyone knows about you. When they all looked at him blankly, he said, Really? Do you really think that Old Man Winter, the Snow Queen, and everyone else who has come through here in the past came through just because you happen to have a Gate or two here?
“Um, yes, actually,” Sue said. “I mean, there’s really nothing historical here. Remember, I work in the museum here. Why else would they come here?”
Look at how much magic seeps into the world here, Schrodinger told her. That’s not just spillover from the Gates.
Molly looked at her hands. Her magic was small, as was most of the magics of those born here in the Cove, and she’d never really wondered where it came from. It just was. If you were born in a Gate town, you had magic. “So where does it come from, then?” she asked.
Schrodinger shrugged. I don’t know. But I bet Jade and Jack do. And I’m certain that’s part of why Caliban is so interested in her realm, and her. She’s got the keys to the Cove.
“Which means you did a wonderful thing, Molly, in getting Jack back into her good graces,” Lai said. “When I asked him last night what his plans were, he said he was currently getting to know the Snow Queen again. It’s been 300 years since they’ve talked, he said it was like discovering her all over again.”
“I wondered if it was possible, at first,” Molly admitted. “Jack was an ass, to be perfectly honest, but now that I think about it, I was never unsure about what was underneath. He’s a good guy – he just didn’t know it yet. Caliban, on the other hand….” She couldn’t stop a shiver from going through her. “He was just evil. There was never anything human about him.”
“Well, then, it’s a good thing he’s gone then,” Noemi said. “We don’t need that.”
“If he’s gone,” Lai said darkly, and they all turned to look at her.
“What do you mean?” Molly said. “The warm front lifted. I lifted ice from the puddles in my driveway today. Caliban is gone.”
“Maybe,” Lai said. “Jack didn’t seem to think so last night, even with the cold. It’s just too easy.” She turned and pointed out to the tea room, where Goldie was sitting next to the stove, reading again, his gold-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. “And isn’t that one of Pavel’s sailors? Why is he still here, if you’re safe?”
Molly had no answer for that. Another chill went through her. What if Lai was right? What could Caliban be planning?
Anything, Schrodinger said, answering her unspoken thought. He could be planning anything.
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.”
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!”
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.”
“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.