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Tidings of Comfort and Joy: Part 3
“...and in the words of Tiny Tim, ‘God bless us, every one.’”
“Ya know,” Asinus sighed, “that story gets more saccharine every flarkin’ year. Everyone knows that it’s angels of the Gerophim class who do the class two manifestations for alignment adjustment.”
Everyone looked at Asinus quizzically.
“Did I say that? Uh, what I meant was, where’s the flarkin’ turkey?”
“You know, brother,” smiled Lora, “since you became head of the family, you’ve put on a good bit of weight.”
Asinus looked down at his stomach, hanging down between his legs. “Great,” he grumbled. “Maybe soon I can be one of those guys who wash themselves with a sponge on a stick.”
“Oh, gross, Uncle Asinus,” Mina winced.
“Beefcake!” Asinus cried, taking a bite out of the holiday cheeseball.
“So, uh, when are the presents?” Marty asked. “In my family, we, like, always opened one on Yuletide Eve.”
“In mine, we looked for someplace to sleep,” said Rani. “If we were lucky, we ate something.”
“Well, you’ve got family now, Rani,” Mina said.
“Augh!” cried Asinus. “Holiday cheer overdose! Someone get me a cynic.”
“The suicide rate increases significantly over the holidays,” Rani offered, deadpan.
“And the gods Yuletide was created to worship are all dead,” Rauvin added.
“Mine aren’t!” Nynia chimed in.
“You people are sick,” Lora smiled.
“I’m not listening! La-la-la-la-la!” sang Mina, her fingers in her ears.
“Here, Asinus,” Marty said, “Open this one. It’s from me.”
“This should be good for a laugh,” Asinus muttered, tearing the wrapping paper with his teeth. Inside was a lump of clay with a hole in it.
“It’s an ashtray,” Marty said. “I made it when I was a kid, but, like, my parents never smoked.”
“That’s so sweet, Marty!” Mina said.
“Yeah,” Asinus sighed. “It’ll look perfect next to my Capocelli glass sculpture.” He rolled his eyes and Lora whapped him.
“Here, Aunt Lora,” Mina said. “This one is for you.” She held out a small wrapped package. Lora opened it and pulled out a thin silver chain with a locket on it. “She sent me this in a letter years ago,” Mina said. “And this way maybe it can be like she’s still here for you.”
Inside the locket was a small lock of auburn brown hair.
Lora had no words, but merely embraced her niece.
“What do I get? What do I get?” Nynia clapped.
“Ritalin,” Asinus muttered.
“We decided that as you’ve been away for so long,” Rauvin said, some tension in his voice, “that you’d enjoy some... familiar surroundings.”
“When the architect was fixing up my pad,” Asinus said, “we had ‘im recreate the room you grew up in. Rauvin said it’d help tighten your screws a bit.”
“There’s the holiday spirit,” Lora smirked.
“A room! A room!” Nynia leapt up and raced off to find it.
“Did you tell her which wing it was in?”
“Oops,” shrugged Asinus. “She’ll think finding it is part of the fun.”
“Rani should open hers,” Mina said. “I picked it out myself.”
“He didn’t have anything to do with it?” she asked, thumbing at Marty.
“No way,” said Marty confidently. “I got you something all by myself. But you only get to open one present the night before.”
“Ah, yes,” Rani sighed. “The fine print. Love them holidays.” She took the box from Mina and opened it.
Inside was a deerstalker cap and a fine crystal magnifying glass. She could tell immediately that it must have cost a fortune.
“Look, this is too much,” she said.
“Hey!” said Asinus. “You never struck me as a Javinian-giver, Ran. Consider it a retainer to find out how long until dinner is.”
“Thank you,” Rani said quietly.
“Mina needs to open something,” Marty said.
“Here, open this one,” Rauvin said, handing her a small wrapped present.
Mina tore the paper off and found beneath it an old leatherbound book.
“It’s been lost for years,” Rauvin said. “But in tracking down the Remnant to join them, I ran across it. It’s the first spellbook of Arthur Paris.”
“No!” Mina cried in astonishment. “You’re kidding me!” She flipped through the book and her wide eyes showed that Rauvin wasn’t.
“What did you get, Rauvin?” asked Lora.
Rauvin looked at the gift he had opened. “Someone gave me a pickled foot.”
“Oh, uh, wait,” Marty said. “That’s, uh, not yours... can you just wrap that up again?”
“I assumed the ‘R’ on the tag was for Rauvin,” Rauvin apologized.
“Here, Uncle ‘R’,” Mina said. “Open this one.”
Rauvin unwrapped a tie with a hula dancer on it.
“Let me guess,” he said, staring at Asinus. “It dances.”
“Hell, yeah!” Asinus said. “I got ‘em in bulk about five years ago. You pull the string on the back, and the girl dances. Later I’ll show you how to get the lei to fall.”
“Sounds like dinner time,” Lora saved. “Shall we?”
“Oh, please,” Rauvin sighed.
“Dude! Dibs on a drumstick!”
“God bless us every one,” smiled Mina.
“Cut it out,” Asinus growled. “I’m about to eat here.”
Garal had been a bit surprised to get an invitation to Yuletide dinner from Mr. Salzar. The gnome had been his favorite schoolteacher and something of a hero in his younger days, but the two hadn’t spoken in ten years, and Garal wouldn’t have thought Mr. Salzar would even still remember him.
He showed up at the handsome Tudor house the address in the letter indicated and hovered outside on the stairs for several minutes before summoning up the social bravado to ring the bell. Mr. Salzar opened the door himself. He was starting in on middle age now, and had gained some weight, but his eyes were as blue and bright as they were when Garal was a lad. “Garal, my boy!” he boomed genially. “It’s been far too long. Please come in!”
The house was tastefully appointed, and a warm fire roared in the hearth. Garal missed his parents every time he returned to the Land of the Little Folk, and this trip was no exception. “I was surprised to hear from you, Mr. Salzar,” he mumbled, proffering the bottle of elven wine he’d brought as a gift. “It’s been so many years...”
“So it has! A mistake I--hope this coming year may see remedied.” Mr. Salzar paused. “Garal, have you ever thought of doing something for your country?”
“Cynystra? I don’t mean to be rude, Mr. Salzar, but--”
Garal didn’t get to finish the sentence. “Of course not, my boy.” The older gnome chuckled. “Still the same old Garal. I mean Ti’Ashentes, of course. And please, call me Toby.”
“Uh... but we’re not a country.”
“We’re not a country, yet.” Toby Salzar smiled a broad and meaningful smile. “Would you like to help?”
“Me?” sputtered Garal. “But I--I...” He sat down hard. “I’m no good at politics,” he finally said.
“Actually it’s your talent as a courier that would be of greatest use to us,” said the gnome. “Keri and I have the diplomacy angle covered.”
“Keri?” said Garal. “Keri Cloverleaf?”
“Of course, silly,” came her voice from behind him. Garal jumped a little, turned to face his childhood friend for a few moments, and then grabbed her into an uncharacteristically unrestrained hug.
“At this stage we’re making quiet economic overtures to selected states,” continued Mr. Salzar, an amused tone in his voice. “I hear you know Khyrisse Starshadow of Trade. Do you think you might be able to escort Keri there and get her an audience?”
“Oh, I’m--I’m sure of it, sir.”
“Toby,” he corrected again, and shook his former student’s hand with a broad grin. “Welcome to the Council, young Tinderhook.”
“Eren Messala,” said Sigrid, “Flicker, Sunfighter, Ragnarokkr, or whatever you’re calling yourself these days, I take back everything I have said about you, ever.”
“Welcome back, Sig.” Flicker allowed himself a small smile.
“God jul, my man,” said Jason, leaning across the Valkyrie with a horn of mead for him.
Flicker took it. “God jul.” He looked at the cold disk of Bane up there, shining surreally through the pillar of spark-flecked smoke from the great bonfire. All of Ringebu county was here tonight for the ancestral Yuletide festival that marked winter’s darkest depth. How many still lived: from the completely plastered warriors dancing naked around the fire to the little girls hanging candles from the branches of fir trees, fleece-bundled babies and old men with toothless grins. It was the darkest night of a dark year, and Ringebu lived; Riklandir lived; Ataniel lived.
Flicker tilted the mead horn up and drained the entire thing in one long pull, his people around him triumphant in the firelight.
“Wake up! Wake up! It’s Yuletide!”
“Whoo! Lookit all these presents!”
“Dad! Wake up and put blinkers on the tree!”
Khyrisse assumed at first that she was still dreaming, but it slowly dawned on her, in that early-morning way, that the voices weren’t hers and Karel’s, but Rissa’s and Skitch’s. That felt very strange--ye gods, we grew up when I wasn’t looking!--but not unpleasant. She stirred the rest of the way awake curled into Ebreth’s side in her brother’s hide-a-bed, a piece of technology she was less than maximally impressed with. Ebreth was already awake, of course, reading quietly in bed. “Morning, lover,” she murmured.
He kissed her hair and turned his page.
Khyrisse stretched in the sunlight scattering through the angled window, trying to put her finger on what it was she was feeling so good about this morning.
“Ebreth?” she finally said.
“Hmm?” He put his book down on the nightstand, spine up, and pushed a bit of tousled hair out of her face with his thumb.
“It isn’t any different,” she said, almost with wonderment. “It’s just like any other country.”
“Happy Yuletide,” he said, his eyes twinkling, and kissed her.
Ebreth was flipping the playing cards slowly on the coffee table amid the other unwrapped presents, his brow furrowed. “These cards are marked,” he said, puzzled.
“Really?” said Khyrisse.
“Yes.” He kept turning cards, looking at the back of each like there was a message encoded on it he didn’t quite understand. “Why--would Mina Paris send me a marked deck of cards for Yule?”
“Maybe that’s the secret to her poker success,” Khyrisse suggested.
“Maybe she’s saying this is the only way I could beat her.” Ebreth flipped cards. “Maybe she’s wishing me romantic luck.”
“Maybe she’s having fun psyching you out.”
“You may be onto something there.”
The Rat lay on Jack Paris’ pillow and dreamed.
The Rat dreamed that he was in a house, much larger on the inside than on the outside. Filled with rooms, all alike, but inhabited by different people. The geometry there was wrong.
The first room the Rat scurried into held a young man with curly brown hair. The young man was trapped, in a cage. Or perhaps he was the cage. Or both. The Rat could not be certain.
This wasn’t what he was looking for, though. The Rat moved on.
In the next room, the Rat came face to face with a large spinning wheel. He could feel that here probability was in flux. The Rat fled before more could happen.
He could smell blood, now. Familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
He traced it to a third room, and inside he saw two familiar figures. Jack Paris and Valende stood facing each other, embracing. The Rat wanted to cry in joy and in warning at the same time, but all that came out was “Thank you!”
Jack turned, and there was a hole in his chest.
“No,” he said. “Thank you.”
The Rat woke up with a start.
He needed to find the house of many rooms. For his friend.
The Rat noticed that his feelings of loss had cleared somewhat in the memory of the dream. Whatever closure this new vision offered, the Rat was glad to have it.
Here, in Jack Paris’ room, the Rat returned to sleep, though this time it was dreamless and peaceful.
And when the time came, the Rat would be ready.
“Asinus sent me a racing yacht?” Ebreth ran his hand dizzily along her rail. She had a light feel. “I hope you got him something really nice. This is one hell of a Yuletide present.”
“What’s money for but spending?” shrugged Khyrisse, with a wry smile.
“Rebuilding one’s decimated empire?” He leaned across her slender bow. “...Boat,” he read. “The Boat. Well, that’s creative, Asinus.”
“He named it Boat?” said Khyrisse, incredulously. “I thought you said that was insulting?... I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, he still calls me a chick.”
Ebreth laughed. “Well, this really is a boat, though,” he said. “I could lift her in a pinch.”
“Is that the definition.” Khyrisse slipped her arms around his waist, her hair blowing lightly in the Northsea breeze. “Let’s flatter her and call her a ship,” she whispered.
The shallow pool in the lower square had frozen over as evenly as Jack Paris the Second had designed it to, and New Trade was skating in the flurrying snow.
That was still only about thirty people, of course, fewer than half of them full-time residents. But the number was growing. And it was New Year’s Day, 814, and Khyrisse had invited the Rat Pack to her fledgling city for a reunion party.
To Skitch’s delight, Tarrin had taken the coach out from Diaria, and brought his daughter with him. The two pre-teens were taking laps together on wobbly ankles, leaning on each other and giggling. Tarrin and Ebreth were having a beer rinkside. Vas was ‘skating’, if you could call it that--his blades only occasionally touched ice--in exuberant twirls and swoops, pausing periodically to flirt with the ladies or tease Skitch. “Flying is cheating!” the boy yelled after him on this occasion, and the elf’s laughter retreated across the ice.
Val and a very bundled-up Otter were chatting together on the other side of the artificial lake. Marty and Mina were tracing inexpert circles together; Vickie, Garal, and Amatsu were practicing ‘whips’ in a high-speed but low-sync chain. Rani, evidently the best skater, was weaving backwards through the ice traffic, her eyes intently closed and the tip of her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth, throwing the occasional ankle loop and grinning with the pure satisfaction of the landing. Asinus had made the trip out from the Islands, and even Flicker had taken a week off from his duties in Riklandir to make it. Kayla had taken the coach up from Lianth to meet him here, and they were
tandem-skating with crossed arms. It was very cute.
Khyrisse, Jack, and the Rat sat watching from a bench. “It’s starting, you know,” said Jack.
“What is?” said Khyrisse.
“The Year of Living Dangerously.”
“I understand,” said the Rat.
“I’m ready,” smiled Khyrisse. I think I know just which prophecy I get to be, too, my New Little Life. “Are you?”
“I’m not sure I really count,” Jack said. “I hadn’t actually joined you guys yet when the prophecies came through.”
Khyrisse nodded. “Well, either way. To the Year of Living Dangerously, Jack. It’s got to be better than last year.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Jack, and clinked his glass into hers, and together they watched the Rat Pack glide on through morning.
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