These short stories were written by Deborah Dixon and will be available to read online for free until around January 15, 2018. All rights reserved; do not redistribute without permission.
Christmas had arrived, and just like every year in the recent past, René Renaud was dressed as a reindeer.
Not convincingly, in fairness. He wore a tidy bespoke suit of brown tweed, with a matching tie and a pair of antlers atop his head. He had removed the suit jacket and added a large apron that read, "SANTA'S COOKIN'."
René was not, in fact, cookin', and neither was he Santa, but he did have an oversize ladle, which he was using to spoon a divine-smelling seafood gumbo into the bowls of passing dinner guests. Standing behind the table as he did, part of a row of many servers, he did not appear to be much more than the average holiday volunteer.
But the soup kitchen had been set up by BeNOLAvent, a New Orleans nonprofit that specialized in community works. BeNOLAvent, in turn, was funded in large part by Monte Cristo Incorporated, which was run by the man in tweed slacks whose reindeer antlers blinked if you bopped them.
One such bop was issued by an eighteen-month-old girl. Her cousin had her hoisted on one hip, parading around the school cafeteria where the Christmas dinner was being served. The baby was dressed as a snowman. She cooed as René returned her smile.
"Ash likes you," Remy Melancon informed René. She was the founder and manager of BeNOLAvent. "You should be proud. She has a very discerning palate for people."
"I'm very proud," René answered, taking a moment to bow to baby Ash. "I'm most pleased to have earned your high regard, Your Grace."
Remy chuckled. "That's adorable. Thanks again for helping me put this together, Mr. Renaud."
"You put this together," René pointed out. "I'm glad to have been invited to fund this. You did a wonderful job."
"D'aaww. I'm gonna blush." Remy grinned. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Renaud."
"Merry Christmas to you as well, Miss Melancon. Princess Ash." René gave another little bow, and Remy laughed as she and Ash strolled off.
The hour was not terribly late when René left the dinner, so he planned to meet with a friend or two, if they were available. He and his friends, a group known in the local media as "the Eccentrics," had already met for an early dinner themselves, but René was not in the mood to be in his spacious, empty house by himself.
He left the school and waited on the sidewalk for his driver to bring the car around. There were people milling about down the block and in front of the school's entrance.
The black sedan was just rounding the corner when someone bowled into René from behind. Immediately he felt his wallet being pulled out of his pocket.
René was in decent shape for a fortysomething-year-old philanthropist, and he knew how to defend himself. He threw the person's weight off of himself and was on his feet almost as fast as the pickpocket was.
The pickpocket was a young black man, and he looked absolutely mortified as René threw a punch that connected neatly with his nose. The kid stumbled from the blow, but he caught his footing and took off at an Olympian's pace, just barely slipping through the clutches of René's driver, who had just pulled up and jumped out of the car to help his boss. But the kid slipped that last obstacle, and then was gone into the night.
"Sorry, Mr. Renaud," the driver said, changing course to see whether his boss was injured. "Did he get anything?"
"That's all right, Alan. All I had in that wallet was a hundred dollars in cash and the emergency credit card. I'll call and cancel that now." René pulled out his cell phone, which was still in his possession despite the brief tussle. His breath was still a little ragged from the surprise and the exertion, but he had not gotten hurt otherwise.
"Mr. Renaud! What the hell happened?" Remy ran up to them; she was no longer carrying the baby with her. "Someone said you were attacked?"
"Robbed, not attacked," René clarified. "He got what he wanted and left."
"Oh my god. I'm so sorry." Remy winced. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Renaud."
"It happens," René said. "There's no reason to be sorry."
"No, I mean, he was at the dinner. I saw him there when I was talking to you!" Remy growled. "He must have heard me use your name and figured he could get an easy million off you."
"No millions, just a few twenties and a card that will be canceled in a moment." René realized he did not have his phone in his hand anymore. "Alan?" René looked over at the car and saw that his driver was on his phone. "Oh. Thank you, sir."
"It was my fault. I should have watched what I said," Remy sighed.
"It isn't your fault, Remy." René gave her a gentle smile. Because Alan was returning to the sidewalk with the phone held out, René added, "Finish serving your guests, and please don't worry about any of this. I'll check in with you tomorrow."
Remy nodded. "Thanks, Mr. Renaud." She turned toward the school as Alan handed the phone to René, who confirmed his identity with the bank and had the stolen card closed. Then they set out for René's home in Lakeview.
"You're sure you don't want to call the police, Mr. Renaud?" Alan asked from the driver's seat.
"I'm sure, but thank you, sir. I'd rather get home." But then René's phone rang again. "Pardon me a moment, Alan," René said before answering the call. "What's going on, Christian?"
"Are you okay? We just heard that you got attacked at a soup kitchen," Christian said.
"What? Where did you hear that?" René rolled his eyes. How he hated the speed of the local rumor mill.
"From Reynardo," Christian answered. "Where are you? At home?"
"I will be shortly," René replied.
"We'll meet you there," Christian said. "With a bottle of your favorite wine."
"My favorite wine costs twice your company's future IPO," René said. "Who are you with?"
"Cicely," Christian said. And that changed everything. René was suddenly not opposed to hosting them. The couple were so seldom seen together that catching them both at once was rarer than a blue moon. If not a full solar eclipse.
"I'll be home in a few minutes," René said, but was cut off by a beep on Christian's end.
"Hang on. That's Rey calling," Christian said. He added Reynardo's incoming call to the one in progress. "Rey?"
"I could use a bit of help," Reynardo said. He was panting heavily, as if he was in the middle of a long-distance run. "We may or may not be running from the scene of a crime with a police unit on our tails."
A female voice exclaimed loudly on Christian's end. "No, don't do that. You have to stop doing that," Christian said away from the phone. Then he sighed and said, "Uh, Rey, Cicely says to stay still. She's going to get you."
"We can't stay still! They're going to catch us," Reynardo protested.
"Let's go back to the part where you're running from authorities." René sighed. On one hand, Reynardo was a vampire and thereby an active criminal, and René had always feared that one day he would have to buy Rey out of a murder charge. On the other hand, his friends were a mess.
"Yes, Monsieur Renaud, it will make a very funny story *later," Reynardo said, right before he made a high-pitched shriek right into his phone. René winced.
Much of the commotion stopped, and then Cicely's voice could be heard on Reynardo's end, arguing with the police. That went on for about a minute. Then the conversation seemed to end. All René could make out was the last part, which was "go do your jobs."
"Wow," Reynardo said in the sudden stillness. The respite only lasted for a moment.
René's car came to a stop in front of his mansion, and Alan stepped out and opened René's door as if a bunch of grown men were not shrieking at each other over the phone. Bless his tolerant heart.
Eventually it was decided that everyone would convene at René's home. René had enough time to wash his face, ask the maid to set out some wine and scotch, and send Alan home. Then a fine black mist began to simmer in René's sitting room, and four of his friends appeared.
Cicely looked exhausted, and Christian helped her settle into the sofa. René shot Christian a look that asked, "did she do that?" Christian's returned look warned, "don't bring it up."
Across the room, Reynardo and Adrien also sagged into sofas. Adrien was the missing piece of this puzzle, René realized. Trouble followed the young man wherever he went.
"Let's start at the top, please," René said once everyone was comfortable.
"The top starts with you, monsieur," Reynardo replied. "I heard from Raniero that you had been attacked in front of a soup kitchen."
"And he probably heard it from Remy," René sighed. "I was robbed, not attacked. The young man did not wish me any harm. Alan helped me. I'm fine."
"Did you report it to the police?" Christian asked.
"Our current police force is still new and has much more important things to handle," René said. "I only lost some cash and a card that's now closed and flagged."
"You should still report it, in case this comes up again," Cicely suggested.
"It won't," René said. "Now, señor, how does my robbery connect to your fleeing the police?"
"We were only a couple of blocks away from the event," Reynardo said. "Hunting. Then we saw your man running away, and towards us."
So that was it. René raised an eyebrow and sat up straighter, setting his glass aside. Reynardo and Adrien shrank back a little.
Cicely said to Christian, "It's amazing. I can actually feel the disapproval rolling off of him."
René nodded sharply. Everyone in the room knew what had happened next, even without a verbal explanation. Adrien was a human, but he was dogged by a malevolent spirit that drove him to moments of extreme violence. Reynardo had to feed on the blood of humans in order to remain undead. The two often worked together in sating these needs, in hopes of minimizing the harm to society.
"Did you kill him?" René asked bluntly.
"No, sir," Adrien said. "But we did recover your wallet."
A beat passed.
"Someone interrupted you before you could finish, didn't they?" René said.
"We didn't realize the police were looking for the guy also," Adrien said, wincing. "That's how they ended up chasing us. They got a bit of an eyeful."
"But the thief was only minimally harmed," Reynardo added in a helpful tone. "I'm sure he'll recover well enough to continue his life in crime."
René gave both men a severe glower.
"What happened after that?" Christian asked, but he was looking at Cicely.
"They stopped running, and I teleported to them just as the police caught up to them," Cicely said. "These were a couple of beefcake werewolves who had been patrolling the neighborhood. I informed them that Reynardo and Adrijan had been making a citizen's arrest, and I suggested that they back off before I call their captain and tell her they let René Renaud get robbed. They left, and I got Christian and then brought everyone here."
"I am in awe of your negotiating prowess, Miss Riva," Reynardo said in an earnest tone.
René settled back into his chair. "Then all is well. I'm glad to hear it."
"Here you are, sir," Adrien said, handing the wallet to René.
"Thank you, Adrien, although I hope you won't go to so much trouble for me again," René said before looking through the wallet. The card and cash were still inside. "It's very little money. If the young man had asked me for a hundred dollars, I would have given it to him."
There was an awkward silence. René glanced at Adrien, who said, "Was that a serious comment?"
René frowned. "Yes, it was."
Adrien turned to Reynardo and said something too quietly for anyone else to hear. Then he slouched back into the sofa. "Adrijan makes a good point," Reynardo said to René. "That wasn't a very charitable thing to say."
"How not?" René asked. Because it was Reynardo who was bringing up this topic, he knew he could trust his friend to share whatever was on his mind in a way that was instructional but not hurtful.
"When you say that the young man should have asked you, you put the burden on him," Reynardo explained. "And he is, perhaps, the victim here -- not a victim of you, or even of me, but of a societal structure that keeps him oppressed. I'm assuming that he only wanted to rob you because he needed money, not out of any personal maliciousness or out of greed or such."
"I think that's a fair assumption to make," René said.
Reynardo nodded. "As well, suggesting that he could have asked you at all handwaves some of the very same metrics that have kept him poor and marginalized. He could not have approached you at the soup kitchen and asked for a hundred dollars. That is frowned upon in his community as well as in yours. He can't ask you because he is supposed to provide for his own well-being, and asking for help from someone so much higher than him in class is a blow to his own pride as well as to his standing in his community, where asking money from a rich white man is something of a sellout. And you could not have given the money in any case, because then you would have to give money to anyone who asked you, and your peers would have to do the same."
"It's more than that," Cicely said quietly. "It creates an obligation."
Everyone turned to look at her.
"If he had asked you for money, he would have been wrong for making you feel as though you had to give it to him. In such a situation, you would have been reluctant to give it to him because of the caste rules that it breaks, as Reynardo just said, but you also would have had no choice but to give it to him, because you were in a public place, and because it's not kind to turn away an honest request for help."
"So he has to be dishonest," Reynardo added.
"I understand," René said. "Or at least, I'm beginning to understand."
"Of course you are, because you've been there yourself," Christian said. No one knew much about René's past, just that he was a rags-to-riches story. "And you're open-minded enough to listen."
"And to act," Cicely added.
"Which is the important part," Adrien offered. "As for me, though, I'm tired, and my sister says she is worried."
"Right," Christian said. "With all the excitement, I almost forgot about the murder charge you almost caught."
Reynardo and Adrien heaved a sigh.
"He didn't mean it that way," Cicely said, "especially not after a conversation about how important it is to listen. What he means is that he worries for your safety and wishes you would be more careful when you go 'hunting' at night."
"What she said," Christian said.
"I'll second that," René added. "But it is getting late. You're all welcome to stay here overnight if you're too tired to travel." He shot a look at Cicely.
"Thank you for the offer, but I'm going to meet Dianne," Adrien said.
"I'll go with him," Reynardo said.
"I think we'll stay," Christian said.
René nodded. "Pardon me while I walk them to the door." He, Adrian, and Reynardo got up and walked to the foyer.
"Are you certain you're fine?" René asked Adrien.
"The demon has passed," Adrien said, referring to the malevolent spirit. "As for Reynardo, he can sip from me."
"That will be much appreciated," Reynardo said.
"Then I'll bid you good night," René said. "Only, how will you get home? Miss Riva teleported you here."
"I hailed a car," Reynardo said, holding up his cell phone. "But on that subject... René, I doubt you have any clearer an answer for this, but I'll ask anyway: What is Miss Riva, exactly?"
René shrugged, a little smirk tugging at his lips as he glanced back at his other guests. "The newest Eccentric, I suspect."
The night was cold and Canal Street was alight, and Cicely Riva felt strangely lifted.
This was Cicely's third consecutive Christmas on Earth. The humans' holiday season had never affected her before. It had always been amusing to watch as a spectator, but she had never before understood why people seemed to expect their moods to change just because it was some specific time of year.
She stood on the neutral ground, in between the streetcar tracks, and gazed at the strings of lights among the palm trees, following them to the bright hotel windows that rose overhead in the unique skyline of New Orleans, and down again to the approaching streetcar, decked out in wreathes and bows. Cicely stepped aside to let the streetcar pass, a reflexive movement.
Something about those lights had led her in this direction. Her offices were nearby, but she had left for the day, and her apartment was in the opposite direction. She stood with her arms wrapped around herself, bundled against the unusual cold. Leaning forward absently, she almost tipped over in her high-heeled boots.
Was it the lights? The biting wind blowing in from the Mississippi River? Some sort of cheer had settled in around Cicely, deep into her bones, guiding her muscles, making her smile. It was a relaxed, easy feeling, akin almost to happiness.
This was not her. Cicely Riva was a powerful businesswoman, a force in her own right, one of the few who could make the boys' club of entrepreneurs and CEOs bow in respect and fear. And before she was Cicely Riva, she'd been a legend among men, the stuff of stories, the bane of heroes, turning her hand against fates and dreams. How she longed for those days sometimes!
But this feeling, while new, was not altogether unwelcome. It warmed her, a quiet little tingle under her skin. But it was so unusual that she found herself confused by it. Confusion was not as welcome. She took it as a challenge, something that needed to be solved. But the feeling was resistant to examination, to logic, to the applications of reason that had guided her for so long.
Cicely turned away from the French Quarter and walked at a balanced pace toward her apartment in the Central Business District. Her cell phone rang as she stepped into the building's lobby. "Answer," she said, and the call connected. "Arman, what's going on?"
"I'm still at the office. Just got your note." The ever-unruffled voice of her chief security officer streamed through her earphones. "Energy Riva will be on lockdown through the 26th. But do you really want me to forward all of your calls to the company voicemail?"
"That's what my note said, isn't it?" Cicely replied with mild irritation.
"Yes, ma'am," Arman answered. "And I'll ask again: all of your calls?"
It was then that Cicely clued into what Arman was very politely trying not to say. She exhaled. "Please route my sensitive personal calls to my private line."
"Will do, Miss Riva. Merry Christmas." Arman hung up.
"Merry Christmas," Cicely murmured to no one as she entered the elevator. It deposited her on the correct floor, and she entered her apartment on the last breath of her energy. She flopped onto her bed and fell asleep.
She dreamed that she was standing on a snowy expanse. There was nothing but snow and sky to be seen in any direction but north, where a tall ridge stood blanketed in snow. The sky itself was as white as the snow, stretching beyond her sight.
Cicely tucked her arms against her chest and exhaled. Her breath made a smoky shape on the cold air in front of her, then disappeared on the wind. And then there was a woman standing there, in a white gown that shimmered like gold.
"Who are you?" Cicely asked.
"I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future," the woman said dryly. "How's business, Scrooge?"
"Oh! Lady Twelve. Forgive me. I didn't expect to see you here." In truth, Cicely did not recall having ever met the Queen of Dreamland before, but her keen senses warned her that this was a very powerful individual, and Twelve was the only top-tier deity with a decent sense of mortal pop culture.
"You're forgiven," Twelve said, charitably ignoring Cicely's polite lie. "Are you enjoying the holidays so far?"
"I don't know that I am." Cicely frowned. "I'm not sure how it's done."
"You feel it in your heart already," Twelve pointed out. "That's the most of it. The rest of it is spending time with family and friends, but I do suppose that would be difficult in your case."
The creases in Cicely's frown deepened. "I do have friends."
"Then why are you wasting precious time napping?" Twelve asked.
"I've been exhausted," Cicely snapped. "I work long hours. I haven't had the time."
"Well, Energy Riva is closed until Wednesday. Make the time." Twelve was smiling despite Cicely's annoyance. Her pleasant demeanor led Cicely to also relax a bit.
"Forgive my abruptness, Lady Twelve," Cicely murmured.
"Of course." Twelve nodded. "I only ask that you remember this."
Raising an eyebrow, Cicely answered, "I shall. But why?"
"When you return to this place, it will be important that you remember this moment. Remember that the events that led to your return have been unfolding since this day and beyond," Twelve told her. "Remember then, if you still have the same question, that I have already given you the answer."
Cicely frowned again. "The answer?"
She bolted upright, launching forward, almost toppling over the foot of her bed with her own momentum. Stunned, she pressed a hand to her heart, her chest rising and falling heavily.
"Cicely," Christian Moynahan repeated. His voice came through her phone's receiver loud and clear, and not without a note of concern. "Are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here, Christian. I'm sorry. I had a bad dream." She hastened to pick up the phone and dropped it on her mattress twice. "What's going on?"
"I was just wondering what you have planned for this weekend," Christian said.
Cicely thought back to her conversation with Twelve. "I don't have anything planned yet. Do you?" Then she recalled something she'd heard and quickly added, "Oh, I forgot about the Moynacorp Christmas party."
"Yes, Tina is arranging that." Christian chuckled. "I'm not sure how I should feel about my AI being so interested in holiday traditions, but she is. At any rate, that's all I have planned. Aside from watching the football game on Christmas Eve. I thought you might -- well, I was hoping you'd be interested in joining me for either of those."
"For the Christmas party and for football?" Cicely asked.
"Yes. If either of those interest you, that is."
"Yes, of course," Cicely said quickly, because Christian sounded hesitant. "The party is tomorrow, isn't it? What time should I be there?"
"It starts at five o' clock," Christian said. "Just be sure to -- do you have an ugly sweater?"
As she stood at the windows of her apartment the next afternoon, looking down onto the street, that lifted feeling returned, with a mix of butterflies this time. But again, even with that mild anxiety, the feeling was not an unpleasant one, merely a different one; and one Cicely suspected she would have to get used to as she waited for her doorbell to ring.
When it did, she jumped up and landed on her feet like a cat. She scurried over to the door and let Christian in, balancing on her narrow heels with a skill uncommon to lesser women. "Welcome," she said, and then gave Christian the grand tour of her apartment. It was a very compact place, so the tour consisted of her pointing to the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom door.
"You look beautiful," Christian told her as she directed him to sit on the small sofa. Aside from the plain white camisole she wore, everything else about her outfit was very professional, from her classy black heels to her stylish black pencil skirt. She had even taken the time to tie her long black hair into a braided bun. Then Christian added: "You've dressed very well."
Cicely tilted her head. "But...?"
Christian unfolded the small packaged he had carried in under his arm. It was a traditional handmade Christmas-themed ugly sweater, with Santas apparently chasing reindeer across the chest. Then Cicely noticed that Christian was wearing a similarly embarrassing sweater and a pair of jeans, much unlike the office attire she'd grown to expect from him. She had been a little too focused on his face, and on the gentle smile on his lips.
"Oh," Cicely said.
Christian chuckled. "I can't believe you've never heard of an ugly sweater competition. Tina has."
"Tina has twelve million petabytes of Internet at her digital fingertips," Cicely replied. "Is this your sweater? Do you own two of them?"
"That one is my sister's," Christian answered. "It should fit you. You're about the same size."
Cicely regarded Christian warily. She had seen recent videos of his sister, and she thought Cameron was a couple of cup sizes smaller than her.
A few minutes later, Cicely stepped out of her bedroom in stylishly distressed jeans and Cameron's ugly sweater, which was indeed too small. The sizing error was clearly something Christian noticed right away, because he blushed upon moving his gaze up to meet her eyes.
"Sorry," he murmured. "I can fix that." He lightly tapped two fingers against Cicely's shoulder, and the sweater resized itself to more comfortably fit her figure.
"Thank you," Cicely said. "You're getting the hang of your magick, I see."
"It's about time," he said, offering his arm. "Shall we?"
She looped her arm through his and smiled. "Yes."
She had started the weekend wearing his sister's sweater and ended it wearing his football jersey. Cicely thought that was an excellent progression.
After the Moynacorp office party, she had opted to go with Christian to his unremarkable but spacious shotgun-style house in Broadmoor, and had spent the night there. It wasn’t the first time she and Christian had slept together. They had made an art of maintaining a professional distance in work-related circles, while occasionally having toe-curling, back-arching, mind-blowing sex.
They’d spent Sunday indoors, waking up late, watching the Saints rout the Falcons, talking again, and then sleeping. He then successfully persuaded her to stay over another night.
Cicely was certain one or more of his friends, which she knew he had, would call and invite him somewhere at some point, maybe the football game or maybe out drinking, but that did not occur. Aside from one brief phone call conducted in Irish on Sunday morning and another from Cameron on Sunday night, no one seemed to reach out to him at all. Cicely found that strange, but decided not to question it.
When she awoke on Monday morning, that lifted feeling returned. She opened her eyes and found Christian across from her. Easing off of the bed, she pulled the jersey on over her head and quietly padded out to the living room.
At some point overnight, Christian’s living room had transformed into a holiday wonderland. There were garlands hanging along the ceiling, the modest artificial tree was alight in bright colors, and vividly-colored gift boxes were stacked around the tree.
She heard footsteps behind her, and then Christian wrapped his arms around her waist. “Merry Christmas, Cicely,” he whispered into her ear.
She placed her hands over his and leaned back, resting against his shoulder. That feeling was sinking in again.
“Open your presents,” Christian said. Cicely blinked. She hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes.
“Mine?” she asked a bit drowsily. “I have presents?”
“Yes. Most of those are for you.”
Cicely was a grown woman, so she put extra effort into not scampering over and grabbing a foil-wrapped box. She strolled over and sat on an ottoman with all the dignity and patience befitting a lady. Christian sat with her.
She reached for a box wrapped in a shiny navy blue, her favorite color. Christian slid that box away and placed a different one in her hands. “Start with this one.”
Cicely carefully unwrapped the present and found a deluxe makeup kit. “Did you buy this?” she asked Christian, eyeing him suspiciously.
“No. These gifts are from other people,” Christian said. “That one is from Tina.”
“Ah.” Cicely smiled. “It’s perfect.”
“Tell her that. She’ll be glad to hear it.” Christian handed her another present.
Over the next few minutes, Cicely unwrapped presents from many of her peers and friends, including a teddy bear, a coffee mug, a handmade scarf, and a collectible Wonder Woman doll. The last one, from an employee of Christian’s called Kee Kee, especially made Cicely chuckle.
“And this one is from Jocelyn Delacroix?” she asked in amazement as she unwrapped one of the last gifts. “This is truly a Christmas miracle.”
“He overnighted it. I think he intended to send it to you at some point anyway,” Christian said. “See what it is.”
Cicely removed the wrapping and found a model car inside. It was packaged neatly but without any clear labels. “This is a prototype of the Bienville XV I’ve been working on with him. Built to scale, it looks like.”
“He said to have you try it out.” Christian handed her the little controller after she took the car out of the box. Once turned on, it drove on its own, propelled by the solar panels that had been neatly integrated into its design.
“Oh!” Cicely laughed as she steered the little car along. “A fully working model! Don’t tell me it also runs on alternative fuel.”
“He didn’t say. I’m sure he wants you to find out on your own.” A smile seemed to have permanently settled onto his lips. He opened the presents that were addressed to him while Cicely had entirely too much fun with the car, and then he handed her the navy blue box.
Cicely looked for a tag. The box was unmarked. She glanced up at Christian. “I didn’t get you anything.”
“You’re here,” he answered. “That’s enough.”
She smiled before she could stop herself. Instead she focused on the box. Unwrapped and opened, it revealed four framed paintings of Greece — not as it was in the modern day, but as it was in ancient times, at least in the mind of the artist.
She gazed at it for a long, quiet, awed moment. “Oh,” she breathed. “Oh, Christian. Where did... how did....”
“Called in a small favor,” Christian said quietly. “I take it that means it’s accurate.”
“It’s like looking into the past.” She met his eyes again. “Does that mean you know...?”
“I guessed that you’re either a part of or at least associated with the Olympian pantheon. The rest I’ll leave for you to tell me, when you’re ready.”
Cicely nodded. She was beginning to feel overwhelmed, but only in an unusual way. “Christian... thank you.”
His fingers traveled along her neck to rest on her cheek, a more intimate touch than any they’d yet shared. Cicely found herself leaning into it, almost purring quietly.
After a while, Cicely asked, “Is that all? For Christmas?”
“There is one more thing,” Christian said. He lifted his arm to hold something above her head.
Cicely chuckled. “Ah. Mistletoe.”
He gave her a sly grin. She leaned in and gave him chaste little kiss. Compared to the passionate moments they’d already shared, it was a little preposterous, and Christian laughed aloud. It was a warm, ringing sound.
Cicely settled against his shoulder. “Is that all? For Christmas?”
“Well, we should have something for breakfast,” Christian said. “We can watch the parades when they start, and watch the football games later. Or go around and visit some friends. I think there's also a caroling event sometime today."
"All of those sound terrific." Cicely smiled up at him.
"Then I'll get breakfast going," Christian said, standing up and walking over to the kitchen. "Which do you prefer? Cereal or... cereal?"
She turned to look at him, and he shrugged a little. "You've been here for three days. That doesn't make it any less a bachelor pad."
"Then give me another day." Cicely smirked at him, and he smirked back.
We Three Kings
In a world apart, three women met over Christmas cake and sorrel.
They sat around a small table shielded by the warm winter sun by an umbrella, with the ocean lapping at the Almajoyese shoreline. The sorrel, a dark red drink made from sorrel leaves, was rich and sweet, and the cake, full of dried fruits, was appropriately bitter.
“Well,” Crystalline said, dipping a piece of cake into her cup. “It’s been an interesting year, hasn’t it?”
“That’s one way to put it,” Renelle replied. “My question is, Crystalline, are you trying to put sorrel on your cake, or are you trying to get the cake’s rum into the cup?”
Crystalline smirked. “I’ll let you form your own opinions.”
Melisma tapped her finger against the pitcher of sorrel, then formed her hand into the universal sign for holding an alcoholic drink. Renelle chuckled. “Mel caught me. I put a little rum in the sorrel.”
“It’s been that kind of year,” Crystalline agreed.
“It has,” Renelle said. “I was afraid we were going to be outed, especially given how near we were to Sayeva Reardon and her news magazine, but we’ve made it through the year with most of the human world blissfully unaware that we exist.”
“I don’t think it’s going to last much longer,” Crystalline warned. “We had to step in and intervene with HRL making a comeback in New Orleans. The special elections will be held soon, but HRL is still around. They could weasel their way in.”
“I don’t know,” Renelle said thoughtfully. “Astaire Kenton is managing the election himself, and Blair Winters has gone to great lengths to fix them.”
Crystalline scowled a bit. Renelle shrugged. “It has to be done, Crys. Otherwise, HRL might fix the election and put their cronies back in power. And continue murdering nonhumans.”
But Crystalline still did not look pleased, so Renelle glanced at Melisma, who nodded and tapped a finger against her wrist. They didn’t have the time to ensure a fair election.
“That’s true,” Crystalline allowed. “But I don’t have to like it.”
Melisma spread her hands over the table as if she was laying out a map. Then she placed her hand next to the invisible map, like a wall shielding the map from view.
“If there is a chance we can keep our nations hidden from human view,” Renelle said, “then we should take it.”
Melisma nodded. She seldom spoke, particularly not unless she was asked something directly. Among her peers, she communicated via sign language and an interpreter, while among friends like Crystalline and Renelle she was easily understood by broad gestures.
On its face, this may have made Melisma seem like an odd choice for the leadership of a country. But she was, at least at the moment, the last remaining member of the honored Ramijozana dynasty, which had ruled Almajoya for nine centuries. Her partner was almost always with her, at any rate; he was also fluent in sign language and Melisma’s improvisations.
"What if the human world needs us again? Will we continue to intervene, or is it better that we focus on our own people?" Renelle asked. "To be honest, I'm leaning toward the latter."
"I agree," Crystalline said, "but what happens in the human world does affect us. If the humans destroy Earth, we lose our home too. If the humans cause another scene like they did in Japan, then the effects will almost certainly reach us in some way."
Renelle sighed and decided she was not yet ready to concede the point. "We have worlds beyond Earth, Crystalline. We don't necessarily need this planet. Besides, what have the humans ever done for us? Aside from discriminate against us, subjugate us, oppress us, and murder us?"
Crystalline closed her eyes. It was a sensitive topic. She remembered the class war that had unfolded on the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. She had been a part of it. So had Renelle and Melisma, but of the three of them, Crystalline had been the most willing to forgive the humans, hoping that somewhere within them, those in power would have come to their senses. Had Renelle and Melisma not overruled her, the nonhumans she was meant to lead and protect would most certainly have met their final days.
Melisma turned her gaze toward the beach. The sun was setting over the Pacific Ocean. Crystalline and Renelle noted the time as well, and Crystalline, glad for the reprieve, asked, “Should we begin our travel?”
The trio rose from their seats and gathered their packs. Then they started away from the ocean, and away from the the hills and the great castle that rose in the northwest. Sanctus Aidenn, the ancient seat of power of the Ramijozanas and all the island’s rulers who had gone before, caught the fading light like a beacon calling out to those lost at sea. But its welcoming glow was dimmed by the energy cloak that hid the island from the view of anyone not meant to see it. A similar cloak shielded Crystalline’s island, Antemyst, from the same unwitting eyes.
Renelle was the leader of a people without a country. Known as the United Diaspora, or simply "the Diaspora," its citizens were spread across Africa and West Asia, but were connected by a common identity. Like the inhabitants of Almajoya and Antemyst, her people were all many varieties of nonhuman.
The trio took a boat across the Anthurium River, near where it fed into the delta. Then they followed a path that wound about a mile through a dense, cool forest of cypress trees and hanging moss. By the time they left the forest, the sun had slipped beyond the horizon, and all was dark.
They made camp in a small clearing. With the efficiency of long practice, they gathered firewood and set up a small tent in case of rain. Only the light of the quarter moon guided them until Renelle lit the firewood.
Once everything was ready, the women separated, each finding her own little area in which to be alone with her thoughts.
Renelle sat next to the fire, taking in its warmth. This was a trip she and her friends had taken every year since Melisma's ascension to the throne of Almajoya. Yet she always found herself feeling terrified at what the morning would bring. She would learn something new, certainly, but there was an element of the unknown that worried at her, biting past her defenses, unsettling her stomach. What if the Oracle was going to tell them that next year was the one that would see the destruction of their societies? What if it turned out to be more than Renelle could handle?
The Oracle never spoke in clear terms, but so far, Renelle's fears had not come to be. Rather than being happy about that, though, she set herself the expectation that one day, her luck would run out. So she sat with her head bowed and her fists clenched, searching for strength.It was difficult, but Renelle always pulled through.
Crystalline sat next to the tent, facing north. In the distance, the silhouettes of the Islajoya Mountains still stood against the darkening sky. She had climbed some of those mountains before, and she always admired how challenging and welcoming they were. She endeavored to live her life like mountains.
Where her colleagues were wary of humans, especially their leaders and governments, Crystalline was open-minded and willing to take risks on people. She was an excellent judge of character, and she was willing to believe in others. The harms of human society had not yet wearied her as they had her friends. She always looked forward to what the Oracle had to say, thinking that even if they were given terrible omens, they would always find a way to survive.
Melisma sat near the shore and watched the water lap at the beach. This annual trip had been her idea, and her friends had faithfully attended every year, no matter the obstacles. She was so very grateful for Renelle and Crystalline. They'd seen her through some of her darkest days, and they still stuck around to see her through her best ones. For her, friendship and love were more valuable than all the gems of Almajoya.
She was the youngest of the trio, but she had seen more tragedy in her lifetime than Crystalline and Renelle combined. She never took anything for granted, least of all their affection for her, or that of her husband. As well, that of the millions of Gifteds and preternaturals who accepted her as their leader.
Meeting the Oracle was a sort of cheat that Melisma had developed at the beginning of her rule. These days, she was confident enough in herself that she did not really need the Oracle's help, but the trip was a tradition now; and besides, having an Oracle on one's side was never a bad thing.
As the night advanced, the women laid out blankets and went to sleep near the tent. The wind was not terribly cold, so they opted to sleep under the stars. The sky was clear of clouds, and there were few dangers to them there in the delta, so why not enjoy a moment with nature while they could?
When the sun again began to rise, Melisma woke Crystalline and Renelle, and after striking camp, they started on their way again. They only had a short walk and an easy boat ride through the swamp ahead of them. Then, finally, they reached the northernmost point of the delta.
On the eastern bank of the river was a small building. It was built like a gazebo, but was five times bigger than usual. Everything was made of smooth stones, and the floor was a white marble. Against the wall opposite the door was a table covered in rose petals that never faded. There was a sweet, familiar scent on the air.
The travelers removed their shoes and left their packs at the door. Each of them placed a small hand-carved figurine on the table. Then they looked at each other and waited.
"So it is that time of year again. Welcome, Empresses."
The women turned around. The Oracle stood in the center of the room. A tall, slender figure dressed in shades of blue, the Oracle was imposing but not threatening. Her gaze was unfocused, but seemed to take them in all the same. All of the stories of her existence referred to her as blind, but the trio had discussed it before, and they all agreed that she had the opposite problem. Instead of seeing nothing, the Oracle saw everything, all at once.
The trio curtsied in their dirtied and worn traveling clothes. "Greetings, Oracle," they said in unison.
"And greetings to you. Please, be seated." Three short stone stools appeared behind them just as suddenly as the Oracle had. "It has been quite a year for you all, hasn't it?"
"Yes, Oracle," they chorused. "It has."
"But you've managed it well, as you always have. But your trials have only begun." Her gaze vaguely found Renelle. "The day you have dreaded is here, Empress."
Renelle took a deep breath but said nothing.
"The new year will test you more than any year past. You must begin making your preparations now." The Oracle folded her hands. "As you know, I can only speak generalities. But I will try to help as best I can within the confines of my role."
"Thank you, Oracle," the trio said.
The Oracle turned to Melisma. "The Emperor-Consort has not accompanied you."
Melisma shook her head. She never quite understood why the Oracle asked about Ciarán every year. He had never come along on one of these annual trips. Someone had to be at Sanctus Aidenn to manage the country.
The Oracle also sat on a stool that appeared behind her. "I have heard the stories of how you lent aid to New Orleans this year," she said. "You did well. But more will be required of you."
Renelle made a faint grimace.
"The enemy you faced this year has suffered a serious blow, but if it is left unchecked, it will recover and grow. You will face choices that seem impossible. You will do things that would otherwise feel unsavory."
This time, it was Crystalline who grimaced.
"New years bring new changes, Empresses. Be ready to accept or adapt." The Oracle turned to Melisma again. "In the new year, you will make new acquaintances. Beware of those who are false."
Melisma nodded, but her expression was grim.
"Is there any more you can tell us?" Crystalline asked.
"If you ask it, I will try to answer," the Oracle replied.
"Will we have to choose between defeating HRL and defending our own people?" Crystalline asked.
"Probably," the Oracle answered without hesitation. But she did not offer any further information.
"Will we be able to do both?" Melisma asked. Her voice was soft from disuse, but was as musical as her name suggested.
"Perhaps. If you are careful and skillful." The Oracle smiled.
"We will be," Renelle vowed.
"Then be assured that among the three of you, working as one, will surmount the difficulties that will threaten you next year and in the years to come. If you allow yourselves to be divided, then your cause will be lost."
The trio nodded. "We'll remember," Crystalline promised.
"Good." The Oracle nodded. "The sun is rising, Empresses. Go forth and lead."
The Oracle stood up and disappeared without fanfare. The three woman also rose, looking at each other.
"Right here, right now," Crystalline said. "We pledge to prepare. We pledge to communicate. We pledge to be honest. We work as one."
"I pledge it," Renelle said.
Melisma nodded. "I pledge it."
"And I pledge it." Crystalline took a breath. "Let's show the human world what we're made of."
They put on their shoes and gathered their packs, and, hand in hand, they made their way back to the world.