Note: Like many Christmas specials, this is not canon, and in fact, takes place in an alternate timeline (a non-canon alternate timeline, just to distinguish it from a hypothetically canonical alternate timeline).
It was Amaryllis’ idea to have Christmas, maybe to cheer me up, maybe because it was a kind of Earth-tourism that really appealed to her. I had tried to explain as much as I could about Christmas, but she had supplemented with watching movies from Earth. Then, naturally, before we could actually do a Christmas, we had to have a Christmas planning session.
“My mom always said that Christmas was about God,” I said. “But it’s really, really not. The whole Christ-in-a-manger thing barely plays into it, most of Christmas is completely divorced from anything religious, or was stolen from the pagans so long ago that it’s hard to say what was them and what was memetic mutation over the years. And obviously some of it is just capitalism, since it’s a spending season.”
“Winter is a spending season?” asked Amaryllis.
“Well, yes and no,” I said. “The Christmas season, as of when I left Earth, started immediately after Thanksgiving, and didn’t end until after New Year’s. It kept expanding though, so that you could sometimes see Christmas stuff right after Halloween, which would make it a holiday that we spend two months celebrating and preparing for. Some of that is probably supply chain stuff though, companies need to stock shelves early, coffee places need lead time on their special holiday season cups, things like that. But frankly, I thought that we were in need of a War on Christmas, because it threatened to expand without limit.” I frowned for a moment. “That’s not a half-bad premise for a one-shot, like a ‘holidays come to life’ thing but they’re at war with each other, mainly Halloween against Christmas with Thanksgiving caught in the crossfire.”
“I understood like … two things of what you just said,” replied Fenn. “But to be fair, I’m half drunk on this egg stuff.”
“Eggnog,” Amaryllis said. “And it’s not just you, Juniper is speaking gibberish.
“Well, I should have saved the eggnog for later,” I replied. “In our house it was tradition to buy a single carton of eggnog, the smallest my mom could get, have everyone try it, all decide that no, we still didn’t like it, and then throw it away the day after Christmas. I think maybe she had some kind of association with it, like grandpa liked it or something?”
“Okay, continue,” said Amaryllis. She’d gotten a notebook out and was writing everything down.
“With what?” I asked.
“Personal traditions,” said Amaryllis.
“Uh,” I said. “We went to cut down a tree every year?”
“Just a random tree?” asked Fenn. “Because fuck the forests, that’s why?”
“They plant the tree in their house for the month of December,” said Grak, sounding like he wasn’t sure he believed that was right.
“It’s more like a flower in a vase,” said Amaryllis. “They put the trunk in water so that it will stay alive.” She looked at me. “That’s good, we’ll start with that.”
“And then, I guess — are we really doing this?” I asked. “Like, are we having a mini-Christmas?”
“Oh Juniper,” Amaryllis said with a sad sigh. “There will be nothing even remotely miniature about this Christmas. We have downtime, and this is how I’m choosing to use my portion of it.”
“Alright,” I said. “But I really don’t think that you can do the entirety of Christmas in a single day. If we’re going to go out and get a tree, and do shopping, and have a Christmas meal, then I think that we’d need at least three days total, maybe more.”
“I volunteer my day,” said Valencia. “I’ve always wanted to have a Christmas.”
“Always?” I asked.
“They feature prominently in the Harry Potter series,” replied Amaryllis.
“I’ll probably be getting everyone hand-knit sweaters,” said Valencia.
“You’re not supposed to say,” I replied. “Also, there’s no way in hell you can do sweaters for all of us by the time this Christmas is supposed to take place.”
“I’ll just consume the right demon,” said Valencia. “So there is a way in the hells.” She seemed incredibly smug.
“Fast knitting is a demon thing?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You probably don’t want to know what they’re using instead of yarn,” said Valencia, wrinkling her nose as though talking about sour milk, rather than unspeakable tortures.
“Is it pubes?” I asked.
“Not even remotely close,” said Valencia. “Once again, you’ve underestimated the hells.”
“Well, I don’t want to know,” said Amaryllis. “Val, you can tell him later, maybe while you’re knitting.”
After our little Christmas management meeting, Raven came up to me for a private chat, as she’d been doing fairly frequently of late, preferring to remain silent when it was the whole group. She was still in recovery, I got that, and social stuff was particularly taxing. I was hoping that we could make Christmas easy on her.
“I wanted to tell you about the holiday celebrations in Anglecynn,” said Raven. “And around the world. You didn’t ask though, did you want to know?”
“Oh,” I said. “Uh, I probably know a few of them already, having invented them, and some others are probably jokes or puns, but … I guess I wasn’t thinking about others, which is really not in the spirit of Christmas. I’ll make a note to ask Grak what the dwarves do for a winter celebration, if anything. They’re underground, so … maybe it doesn’t affect them in the same way.” I looked at her. One-on-one, she was about ninety percent her old self, not that I’d known her old self all that well. “What did they do in Anglecynn?”
“They have two,” she replied. “Thraeg Wirdan, when the sun is the furthest from us, in the depths of winter, and then Haelg Ledan, when the snow is at its deepest.”
“Okay, so on Earth, that first one would be the solstice, or something at least vaguely like it, but for the second … how do they know when the snow is at its deepest? What if it snows again?”
“A False Haelg is considered a dire sign, or was, back when it mattered more,” said Raven, nodding just a bit. “People save up for the Haelg, stocking treats and presents, usually small, and in the old days, they would keep an animal ready for slaughter, and spill its blood on the fresh snow.”
“Huh,” I said. “Gruesome.”
“Please don’t invoke the name of the grue,” said Raven, blanching slightly.
“Right,” I said. “Sorry, slipped my mind for a moment. So you have Second Haelg, if there’s a huge snowfall following the one that was supposed to be the last?”
“The Anglish do,” Raven nodded. “But the tradition changed a lot from the time I was little. You have to keep in mind that from the time I was equivalent to seven to the time I was equivalent to twelve, that was five hundred years. Human traditions can change a lot in that time.”
“I suppose,” I replied. “So you weren’t really ‘raised Anglish’ so much as you grew up alongside the culture, which was also growing up?”
“Something like that,” she shrugged.
“But do the Ell have their own winter holiday traditions?” I asked. “I know the perception of time would be a lot different, but winters were still harsh back in the not-too-distant past, so … maybe something?”
“A day for us is like fifteen minutes for you,” said Raven. “That way of thinking, or the pressures it puts on our normal ways of thinking, doesn’t lend itself to anything like a holiday, or birthday, or anything like that. We mark the seasons, but perceptually that’s like the weather for the day.”
I nodded along, trying not to let it show on my face that the Ell were among the dumbest fantasy species that I had ever created.
I tracked down Grak to ask him about what dwarves did for seasonal holidays, if anything, and ended up getting way more than I thought I would get.
“We’re sequestered underground,” said Grak. “But we still feel the rhythms of the world, all except the deepest dwarfholds that are completely insulated beneath the rock. The world above is a source of foraged or farmed food, to supplement the kear. When winter comes, we need to keep the exits shoveled or risk not being able to get out when spring arrives. That assumes variable seasons, of course, which not all of Aerb has.”
“So you do have some kind of winter holiday?” I asked.
He nodded. “In Darili Irid, there was a specific day that we brought down blocks of ice and snow. We did carvings of ice and sculptures of snow, then ate cold foods, with a warm kear ferment to complement it. I have some fond memories of that.”
“Common to dwarves?” I asked. “Or just your local thing?”
“Very common,” he replied. “The origins would probably bore you.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I’ll gently change the subject if they do, okay?”
He grunted assent. “Historically, most dwarfholds in places with winters had an ice room, a place where large slabs of ice could be stored along with anything that needed to be kept cold, like meats.”
“Meats that came from teleport?” I asked.
“I’m speaking of before that,” said Grak. “I’m talking about tradition. Before teleport, we had meat from two sources, the first being farms within the dwarfhold, the second being topside hunts near the entrance, or less commonly, trade goods. Those meats needed to be stored, and dwarves lacked what people who lived topside had in abundance. We could not so easily dry things in the sun, we had little salt, so other methods were needed.”
“Meaning ferments or cooling,” I said. “And I guess an ice room would work better underground, where there’s some insulation already in place.”
Grak nodded. “For those with an ice room, they needed to restock it once a year, when a nearby pond which had been cut for that purpose had frozen solid. In some places, this was more of an event than others, but it was a part of the rhythm of the year for many dwarfholds, and common traditions formed around it. For many young dwarves, it was the only time of year they would see snow.”
“I see,” I said. “Neat.”
“Is it?” asked Grak.
“I mean, yeah,” I said. “It’s fundamentally pretty neat, the way that material conditions leave their imprint on a culture.”
“Mass communication changed things,” said Grak. “Dwarves began to share their traditions more deliberately. The Gigorgila was a time when dwarves were attempting to construct an identity for themselves, across far-flung dwarfholds, in response to the First Empire.”
“Right, I read about that,” I said. “And so your winter traditions stem from that?”
“In part,” said Grak. “It’s difficult to tell. But it has begun to wane, of late.”
“Some kind of equivalent of the War on Christmas?” I asked.
“I don’t really know what that is,” replied Grak. “Nor do I really care to, if it’s Earth ephemera. You did not explain.”
“Yeah, not worth wasting breath on,” I said. “I was just asking why the traditions were fading out.”
“Bulk teleportation has meant that many exotic foods come into the dwarfholds without the need for refrigeration, usually already sterile and desiccated,” he replied. “Other cooling methods are also available, and many dwarfholds no longer have ice rooms.”
“Is there anything you want to sneak into Christmas?” I asked. “Something to pay homage to how the dwarves do things? A meal, something like that?”
“Amaryllis seemed to want a pure Christmas,” said Grak, giving me a skeptical look.
“Well, she can be like that, yeah,” I replied. “But she’s going to have to learn that a part of Christmas is looking after people you care about. If you’re going to do Christmas without caring about others, you’re doing it wrong. So you think on it and let me know what you want, okay?”
“The tree is close enough,” said Grak. “As a part of the holiday some cuttings were brought down to provide interesting scents and the exotic color of green.” He looked away from me. “But there are too many things that cannot be replicated, and which I wouldn’t want a recreation of.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling a bit helpless.
“It was sometimes stressful,” said Grak, turning back to me. “I held a special position within the dwarfhold. Much was expected of me during special events.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding as I tried to figure out what that would actually be like. I was hoping that he would clarify, or give me some details, tell me about the stuffy and uncomfortable clothing he had to wear, something like that.
“I’ll help with the tree,” said Grak. “These presents, they should be expensive?”
“Uh, I’m not sure, Amaryllis should have brought it up, but typically on Earth it was relatively small stuff, books or games, maybe clothes.” I took that to be the end of our conversation, which was typical of Grak when he didn’t want to take a deeper dive into some aspect of his past.
I spent about half an hour fiddling with the settings of the Marvelous Moving Mansion, adjusting its many dials and checking on the environment outside as I made adjustments to it. With every adjustment there was a familiar flash of blackness to accompany the transition, and while we’d dealt with the monster of the obsidian plains, it was still a bit disconcerting to be moving through that realm as a part of the entad’s function. Eventually, I was able to settle on a low temperature, high precipitation, high wilderness, low urbanization, medium-high elevation, with a few of the other knobs fiddled with until I had just the right kind of Christmas wonderland, a place where the pine trees around us were blanketed in snow, which was steadily falling all around us.
Amaryllis put up the ‘preliminary decorations’, which mostly included Christmas lights that she’d pulled from the backpack, which had to then be used with the electrical converters of her own design, and strung all through the main room of the Marvelous Moving Mansion. Accompanying this were garlands, candy canes, a handful of candles, and a set of stockings that hung above the fireplace. I’d always felt like the main room of the Marvelous Moving Mansion was a little bit big, but I was pretty sure that with a Christmas tree brought in, it was going to feel a little small. The entad dining table we’d picked up in Ourourblin could be resized, but then we would be giving up dining space, and I decided that I would just let Amaryllis handle it, rather than worrying myself about furniture arrangement during what was supposed to be worry-free, stress-free downtime.
We all went out to get a tree together, not particularly bothered by the deep snow. Four of us used the surfboards we’d gotten from Glassy Fields, while the other two rode on the back of the locus. The trees around us were far too tall to be cut down and stuffed into the Marvelous Moving Mansion, but we were hoping that we would find some place that had smaller varieties, or maybe the same variety but not quite so tall.
As often happened on these kinds of journeys, we gravitated toward each other and formed small groups, or split off into pairs. Fenn found me, and drew me off from the others just a bit, so that we could talk in semi-private.
“Seems like Christmas was a happy time for your family,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied. “Not sure what I said to give you that impression.”
“It wasn’t?” she asked.
“I’ve been trying not to bitch about things if it’s not going to make any positive impact on the world,” I said.
“But then who’s going to be my bitch buddy?” asked Fenn, giving me a moue. “I can bitch about elf Christmas, if you want.”
“I’d like to hear about elf Christmas,” I said. “And I’m sure they’d hate you calling it that if they knew what Christmas was. Also, they’d probably hate the whole ‘Christmas elf’ thing too, now that I think about it.”
“Let me add it to the list of things that I can annoy people with,” said Fenn. She hummed a few bars of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, and I had no idea when or where she’d heard it. “So, elf Christmas is all about the food, like a lot of elf stuff, right?”
“Right,” I said. “And we’re going to go to the Isle of Eversummer, I swear we are, —”
“Was I bitching about it?” asked Fenn. “No, I was not, I’ve lately decided that I’m trying not to bitch about things unless something something positive impact. Anyway, the Isle of Eversummer wasn’t named that for no reason, it had some ancient mystical property that meant that it would never experience snow, which I learned later on wasn’t a mysterious mystical property at all, but a defect in the projection layer. So, no winter, just a brief chilling, so on the coldest day when you could see winter blanketing places across the bay, we had a big celebration that was basically just ‘ha ha, fuck those guys who have to suffer through winter’.”
“Elf Christmas was about smug superiority?” I asked. “That’s almost a little bit too on-brand.”
“I mean, in their defense,” started Fenn, then frowned. “What was that other Earth holiday?”
“Uh,” I said. “Halloween?”
“No, the other one,” said Fenn.
“Easter?” I asked. “Fourth of July?”
“The July one is an independence one, right?” asked Fenn. “But no, it’s — there’s mashed potatoes?”
“Thanksgiving?” I asked, thoroughly confused.
“So from a certain very sympathetic point of view, Ter Nette as a holiday is basically like Thanksgiving, it’s talking about how lucky we were to live where we did,” said Fenn. She stood down on her surfboard for a moment, dipping low enough to touch the snow. “It’s celebrating fortune, right? If it had been done by some other culture, I think you could have had it not be this toxic smugness that infuses elves, but hey, they’re elves.”
“Example time?” I asked.
“There’s a nudity thing,” said Fenn. “Everyone gets naked — you’d love it, you perv — and then wades out into the water, which is usually pretty damned cold, because only part of it is under the same effect as the Isle of Eversummer. But it’s just so much display, especially because the elves choose to do it on the side of the isle that’s facing the humans. I’ve been told that it’s visible from the other shore, though you wouldn’t see much unless you had binoculars, which, of course, some people do.”
“And for the elves, this is like a ‘look at how perfect I am, look how perfect this place is’ type of thing?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Fenn. “And it’s also got that classic elf thing of ‘let me look at you to see how imperfect you are’ and ‘let me express my disdain for your imperfections’.” She had a sour look on her face. “I mean, imagine me there, half-elf, wading naked into the cold water, no one necessarily watching me, because that would be inproper, but still making it known through their posture and facial expression that my existence isn’t welcome, and that’s the meaning of Christmas for me.”
“Anything I can do for you?” I asked. “Anything about elf Christmas that you liked, something that didn’t completely suck?”
“Hrm,” said Fenn. “Let me give it a think.”
We hovered along, a few inches above the snow, and I patiently waited, trying not to overhear what the others were saying. Grak was in conversation with the locus, and Amaryllis talking with Valencia about some solutions for temperature control that would work despite her being non-anima, the biggest of which was just getting a better outfit for cold weather like this (Valencia probably enjoyed the mothering the most of any of us). Raven was by herself, as she often was these days.
“Back and foot massages,” Fenn finally said. “That was the best part of elf Christmas.”
“You … gave each other massages?” I asked. “That doesn’t seem on-brand.”
“Well, it happened,” said Fenn. “The men gave the women massages. So if you wanted, you could incorporate that as a part of our little Christmas here.”
I looked at her. There was a twinkle in her eye, but that was almost always there. “You want to be waited on hand and foot,” I said.
“Back and foot, but yes,” said Fenn. “I’ll be topless, if that helps.”
“Ah,” I said. Some day I was going to answer her relentless flirting with something bold and flirtatious of my own, and I had no idea what her game plan was then. That day was not while we were in a group with all the others though. “Okay, sure, I’m extremely skeptical that this is a thing that elves actually do, but that can be my gift to you.”
“Oh, you have to also get me a gift,” said Fenn. “Sorry, elf tradition, and you know, I’m offended that you would imply that I, of all people, would tell a lie.”
“Also, it’s improper, not inproper,” I said. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be a pedant, just thought you would want to know.”
“As in, like an imp?” asked Fenn.
“Sure?” I asked. “I don’t know the etymology.”
“Do you want to talk about your shitty family Christmases?” asked Fenn.
“Nah, not really,” I said. “Just a bunch of fights and awkwardness, fights about presents that are too cheap, too expensive, too thoughtless, too useless, fights about where our Christmases will be, fights with the extended family about all kinds of things, and if it wasn’t fights, then it was simmering resentment, stony silence, and awkwardness.” I sighed. “Nothing that I would want rolled into this Christmas, obviously.”
“We’ve found the tree,” Grak called, and as soon as I looked where he was pointing, I thought he was probably right. It was large enough to be impressive, but just small enough that it would be able to fit in the house, depending on where we made the cut. Grak jumped down from the board and sank up to his waist in snow, but seemed undeterred by it, because he began tapping the back of his axehead on the tree to get the snow off it. Once it had come down, we could see the shape of the tree more clearly.
“Now, traditionally,” I said. “We need to look at like fifty different trees, have a tense conversation where we disagree on which one to get that’s rooted in both differences in aesthetic preference and a general need to not let the other people make the decisions. But I would like to skip that part of the tradition and then just take this tree.”
“Second,” replied Fenn.
“Well, I’m cold,” said Valencia.
“We’ll have hot chocolate when we get back,” said Amaryllis. “And yes, this will be a fine tree.”
“You have to at least look at it from all sides,” I said, breaking away from Fenn on my own silver surfboard to make a single ring around the tree. “It has no noticeable bald spots though, so we’re good to cut it down, which … Grak, your axe isn’t going to make it grow hair, is it?”
“It is not the ideal axe for trees,” he said. “But it will not make the tree hairy.”
“Probably better for the bladebound to do it with a sword,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper?”
“Uh, sure, I guess,” I replied. I dropped off my board and joined Grak. “This really isn’t a job for a sword, but … I guess.” I unsheathed the sword and drew it back for a big swing, trying to pretend that I was going to cut a man’s leg off, which strangely helped me. Before I could make the swing though, the locus started bleating.
I looked at her, and she seemed distinctly unhappy, which shouldn’t even have been possible to read on a deer’s face. It was mostly in the eyes.
“Yeah,” I said. “I was wondering whether that would be a problem. Looks like we might have to call the tree cutting off.”
But before that topic could be gone over, the locus moved forward, stepping lightly through the snow, and with a nudge of her nose against the lowest limbs of the tree, there was a rush of floral magic around us. The tree shook, slowly at first and then faster, causing the remaining snow to fall down, and then it began to move, tipped back slightly. It trudged through the snow on some kind of feet that couldn’t be properly seen in the snow, following the locus, which had already begun walking back in the direction of the Marvelous Moving Mansion.
“Well I guess we’re just not doing traditional this year,” said Amaryllis with a sigh.
We did our Christmas shopping in Florafil. It was weird to be in a city without worrying about the police, or the imperial police, or rogue fireteams, but Amaryllis was talking about us having a more stable base of some kind, now that we were in the good graces of everyone important, at least for the time being. I understood the impulse, given that the Marvelous Moving Mansion was never going to fulfill all of our needs, and had been constraining us for quite some time. The six of us sharing a bathroom was probably the worst of it, even if it was a nice bathroom. (The girls were bunked up, with the exception of Raven, but so far there had been no complaints.) Still, cities had been danger spots for long enough that I thought I probably wouldn’t be comfortable having one be my place of residence, not in any real sense.
We agreed on a budget of fifty obols per person, which seemed shockingly high to me, but it wasn’t like we were doing much else with our money, and it wasn’t like money was in short supply. We also had the backpack, which meant that in theory, we could have all done most of our ‘shopping’ from the safety and comfort of the Marvelous Moving Mansion, if there had been any desire.
Back in Bumblefuck, we hadn’t really done gifts, not within the D&D group, in part because of the differences in money, and in part because we didn’t want to make things awkward or stressful. I was worried that those same problems would crop up for this fake Christmas that Amaryllis was throwing, but tried to put those worries out of my head.
I had already gotten some ideas for things that people might like, but I had almost no experience shopping on Aerb. Amaryllis would get something practical but with enough character that she could get sentimental about it, Valencia would be happy with almost anything, Fenn would want something cheeky, and that left Grak and Raven, who I felt were considerably harder to shop for. My best bet for Grak was a set of Ranks, which didn’t officially need anything but pen and paper, but had all kinds of carved or sculpted sets with the most common pieces and board configurations.
And Raven? My first thought was that I should get her something Maddie would have liked, and then my second thought was that I had no idea what kind of gift I would have given Maddie, which made me feel a little sad. She was the former head librarian of the Infinite Library, and I knew that she had a love of knowledge and stories, but it was a bit too much mixed business and pleasure, and how the hells would I find a book for someone who had read as many as she did?
“We should have done secret santa,” I muttered to myself. That was much more workable, in my opinion, and I would only have had to worry about a gift for one person, rather five (six, technically, if I got the locus a gift, which … well, it was definitely the hardest to shop for, I would give it that).
I eventually found myself walking into an entad shop, which was almost certainly not going to have anything below fifty obols. I’d already picked up the (mixed-stone) set of Ranks for Grak, a (non-functional but highly aesthetic) wand for Valencia, and an organizer for Amaryllis, and I was hoping that I would see something that sparked an idea at least. If I went over on budget, I didn’t think that would be too big of a deal, because it was, after all, just a guideline.
Entad shops were rare, because entads were rare, but there were still places like this which were Aerb’s take on Ye Olde Magic Mart, a place where you could walk in and purchase one-of-a-kind magic items, if you had the money for it. Looking over what they had, maybe two thirds of their stock weren’t entads at all, instead being materials with magical properties, entad-made items, or things that were entad-aesthetic but non-magical. The remaining third, the true entads, were all behind glass and close enough to the counter that the storekeeper could keep his eyes on them. From the written descriptions, most of them were pretty lame, little more than party tricks, and from the prices, they were all expensive for reasons other than their utility.
“See anything you like?” asked the man behind the counter.
“Uh,” I said, looking at the cauldron that made things put into it heavier. “Not really, no. Can I maybe have some advice?”
“Sure, you’re looking for something specific?” he asked. “If we don’t have it, we might be able to find someone who could. There are catalogs and brokers.”
“I’m looking for a gift,” I said. “I came in here partly because I feel like I’m out of options, and I was just hoping that — well, maybe that by random coincidence you would have exactly what I needed, at a reasonable price.” I looked up from reading the descriptions. “I have a friend, she’s Ell, seventeen hundred years old, very world weary, smart and currently a little people-shy. She has a lot of interest in books and knowledge, but she’s read so many books that I’m not sure she would want another, nor do I know what I could get her that she hasn’t already read.”
“Quite the conundrum,” the shopkeeper replied. “What’s your budget like?”
“Honestly, if it’s the right thing, then the sky’s the limit,” I said, feeling a little desperate.
He gave a chuckle. “A dangerous thing to say to someone who trades in entads. A very dangerous thing.” I was dressed in civilian clothes, the better to not draw attention to myself, including an oversized hoodie that hid a lot of my build, which might have given me away. If I’d had my full battle outfit on, which I could summon in the time it would take him to blink, he might have realized that I wasn’t joking about having an absurdly high budget. “Anything else about her?”
“Uh,” I said. “Well — she misses the world being more magical, I think. She learned two magics that are excluded now, dibbling and groove casting, if those are meaningful to you or might help in any way, but I’m not sure that she would want to be reminded of them.” I thought about that for a bit. “Sorry, I’m almost definitely wasting your time.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “Slow day, and I’m always happy to help.” He looked down at the entads. “Seventeen hundred years old, you said?”
“Thereabouts,” I replied. “But what’s a decade here and there?”
He smiled at me. “After a while, that kind of time really starts to add up.” He looked down at the case, then pulled out a small rod with a swirling grey tip on it. “This is the closest thing that might do the trick. When you give it a light squeeze —” the tip of the rod lit up, and a line of light projected out of it, curling around and making a spiral that had small glowing dots at regular intervals. “This is my life, all forty-two years.”
“You look good for forty-two,” I said.
“Unreasonably kind of you,” he said with a wave of his hand. “One dot for each year. The real magic isn’t one that I can show you without handing it over, which I’ll do in just a minute if you’re really interested. Touch a dot, and you’ll get a memory from that year. It’s almost always a good one, but not always the best, and it’s always the same memory, usually five or ten minutes at the most.”
“Neat,” I said. “And yeah, I do think that would be perfect.”
“It’s eleven thousand obols,” he said, looking a bit regretful.
“Ah,” I said. “Is this a case of rich people ruining it for the rest of us by being able to pay enormous sums of money for things?”
“That’s not quite clear,” he replied. “This is one of those entads that does the most work when there are lots of people who get to use it, but it’s not quite good enough to support a business on its own. There used to be a place down on Mulgrew that sold entad experiences, but it was mis-managed and shut down about three years back. It’s where I snatched this up from, incidentally. Do you want to try it, before I put it back?”
“Oh,” I said. “I was planning to buy it.” I fiddled with my ring, thought the right thoughts, and materialized eleven thousand obols on the glass countertop.
“Oh,” he said.
“Can I still try it first?” I asked. “I mean, I trust you when you say what it does, but —”
“No, of course,” he said. His eyes went to the ring on my finger, then to the ring on my other finger, and I knew that he had some questions.
“Before I do, will this put me out or compromise me in any way? Will I be able to fight back?” I asked. “Not to worry you.”
“The memories are instant,” he said.
I poked at a spiral that was seven dots out from the center, and sure enough, I got a memory. It was me and Arthur, playing in a sandbox that he’d had at his house, setting up army men in a pitched battle outside a sand castle, making up the rules as we went. It was nice, but short, and vivid in a way that none of my memories from that time were now. I wondered how the entad worked, whether it was showing true scenes, or whether it was keyed off the soul.
“Neat,” I said. I looked down at the cash, which he hadn’t touched. “You can count and test it,” I said.
“An Ell girl, seventeen hundred years old, is that — is that a gift for Raven Masters?” he asked.
“Who’s to say?” I asked with a shrug. “But if by chance she comes in here, don’t tell her what I got her.”
“Will do,” he said, letting out a shaky breath.
“I know it’s an uncomfortable amount of cash,” I said, looking down at the counter. “I can escort you to the bank, if you’d like.”
“Sure,” he said, looking at me like I was a creature out of myth and legend. I don’t know if he’d put two and two together and realized that I was Juniper Smith, or if he just thought that I was someone in that same circle of people, but he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I was hoping that I’d given him a story to tell.
The tree was as conventional as Amaryllis could make it, with a piece of fabric tastefully draped across the grotesque, venous root-legs. There were a surprising number of presents under the tree, because apparently I couldn’t do basic math and just multiply the people in the party. The tree was wrapped in lights and decked with ornaments, all of them in what I thought of as a high-class version of traditional Christmas, with everything in golds, whites, and rich reds. Given that we hadn’t actually cut it down, the tree was a bit too tall, but with some coaxing, it had positioned itself in a squat, and so far we’d managed to convince it into not shaking off all the decorations (though I was thankful that we weren’t doing more than a day or two, because the locus seemed to have imbued it with a mind of its own).
“Juniper,” said Amaryllis, looking at my gifts. “Was that the best you could do with wrapping?”
“You have your own idea of Christmas, and I have mine,” I said. “It’s tradition to use too many pieces of tape, have to slap on scrap pieces when you miscalculate how big the boxes are. Or you just put everything in the nicest bags you can find.”
“Why do you have this obsession with warts-and-all versions of the things you like?” asked Amaryllis, folding her arms. “Can’t we just do an idealized, perfect Christmas? Can’t we just take a scalpel to these warts?”
“Meh,” I said.
“Well I also did a shitty job wrapping presents,” said Fenn. “But it wasn’t out of any misplaced sense of doing things wrong on purpose. In my defense, I’ve never given a gift.”
“Never?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow.
“Me either,” smiled Valencia.
“Well, then I’m glad we’re doing this,” said Amaryllis.
“You’ll excuse the shoddy wrapping?” I asked.
Amaryllis rolled her eyes and nodded. “I suppose you’re the authority on tradition, after all.”
The kitchen of the Marvelous Moving Mansion was much more suited to quick meals than a full holiday feast, but Amaryllis did her best, assisted by entads, with Raven as her sous chef. While they were cooking, Grak and I set up the table outside, which mostly consisted of putting a tarp above it and me watching Grak as he put wards into place so that we wouldn’t freeze to death. I shoveled snow to make sure that it was out of the way, but pretty soon the outdoor area was as warm as the inside.
“It would be neat to have a water ward around the table,” I said. “With enough snowfall, we’d end up inside an igloo, which is a house made of snow blocks.”
“Snow isn’t water,” said Grak.
“Wait, really?” I asked.
“You’re a water mage,” said Grak, somewhat disapprovingly. I was already feeling for the snow, and finding that despite the blanket of it over the ground around us, I could feel nothing.
“That’s weird as hell,” I said.
“Snow is a form of ice, which falls under ice magic,” said Grak. “It is excluded.”
“It feels like it should be both,” I said. “I formally disagree that ice is not water.”
“Noted,” replied Grak.
The dinner we had was one of the better ones since Amaryllis had started getting serious about cooking, with a large honey-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, herbaceous gravy, a collection of roasted root vegetables, and a few other sides. I surprised Grak with a bottle of kear ferment that I’d picked up during the shopping tour, and I surprised Fenn with a bottle of elven wine that I’d almost not gotten because of the expense (not because I couldn’t afford it, but just on principle). Grak seemed surprised that I would have thought of him, and Fenn seemed surprised that I had been listening when she’d said the wine was one of the few things she’d missed. The locus joined us, and curled up next to the table in the snow, eating a bit of ham that Valencia fed it, but otherwise just being a lazy deer.
For dessert, there was a figgy pudding, which I’d never had before, and had only heard of as a lyric in “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. Amaryllis seemed chagrined that I’d never had it before, because in her mind, it was a staple.
“Normal Christmas, where I’m from, just has a bunch of sweets,” I said. “Grandma liked to make candy, so we would get chocolate-covered caramels, and sometimes there were gingerbread men or decorated sugar cookies, but if we had a proper Christmas dinner, which we didn’t always, then my mom didn’t really want to spend more of her time on dessert.” I ate a bite of the figgy pudding. “It’s good though.”
“Well, I shouldn’t have tried to make it a surprise,” replied Amaryllis.
“It’s good, it is, better than any Christmas I ever had back on Earth,” I said. “It was never my favorite holiday, but this — I was skeptical, but I think you’ve done it.”
“Thank you,” said Amaryllis, giving me a warm smile. “But we still have presents left to do.”
Back on Earth, my family had usually done presents in the morning, maybe because as a kid I’d been excitable and hadn’t wanted to wait around all day, but on Aerb, we were doing things differently, in part because I hadn’t told Amaryllis any differently. The tree was awkwardly big, and swaying slightly, but we crowded around the fireplace and engaged in what ended up being an extremely long gift exchange. In theory, there should have been thirty gifts, but there were quite a bit of extras.
I’d expected Amaryllis to mostly give practical gifts, but she’d gone in the other direction, giving us all keepsakes and mementos, things that served no real function but were either nice to look at or could help us decorate our rooms. For me, she got a painting, which I was fairly sure must have been over budget, one that had hidden details in every corner and evoked a world of limitless possibility. Art wasn’t typically my thing, but I really liked it.
True to her word, Valencia had knitted a sweater for everyone, with a letter on the chest to show whose was whose. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was well done, but I guess I had expected poor craftsmanship from her, for whatever reason. I did wonder how many demons had died in the making of these sweaters, but that was a question for another time.
Grak was more eclectic, tailoring his gifts more to each of us, at least as far as I could tell. He gave me a deck of cards that was apparently part of a game he’d thought we could play together, and which would need more investigation later. It seemed a bit like Magic: the Gathering to me, which I’d always liked for its sense of wonder and fantasy more than its mechanics, but I was willing to give it a go.
Raven got me a bonsai.
“You mentioned it some time ago, and I started,” she said. “It’s not fully finished, but most of what’s left is letting it grow before I can trim it again. I think I’ve got the shape about right. Obviously I’ll help you with it.” She gave me a little smile. “It’s a juniper.”
“Thanks,” I said, but it seemed like it was almost too personal. I did like the look of it though, especially when I noticed that she’d put miniature people into the tree, explorers that seemed to have climbed it to get a better view, making it more of a scene than just a tree in a pot.
From Fenn, I got gaming stuff, enough that I thought she’d probably gone over budget as well. Aerb didn’t really have a tradition of tabletop RPGs, but they did have wargaming stuff, and she’d apparently found someone who made what were kind of minifigs, if you squinted at them a little bit. Each of them was supposed to represent a full battalion, but they would definitely be usable as player characters or enemies. Beyond that, she’d gotten a set of dice from somewhere, native to Aerb rather than pulled from the backpack, and a handful of books on different Aerbian games.
“I’m not sure how much you’ll use any of it,” said Fenn. “And don’t want to commit too heavily to playing anything, considering that more shit might be coming down the shit pipe any day now, but I hope it’s the thought that counts.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Maybe we can start running sessions again. Or do your campaign you’ve been working on since forever?” She beamed at that, blushing slightly when she realized how much she was smiling.
Once all the presents were opened up, we had a nice lull where we were putting things away, chatting, and playing with our new toys or reading our new books. It was nice and cozy, especially with the fire going, and I wished that the locus weren’t so big, or were more comfortable making her presence known indoors. Still, it was just about as perfect of a Christmas as I could have hoped for.
At the end of the night, after I’d shown everyone how a nutcracker worked and we’d sung as many Christmas carols as I could remember, we took the decorations off the Christmas tree and let it loose into the snow, watching it scrabble off back into the woods as fast as its magical root legs would carry it.