"Mother, is Santa Claus real?"
It was the kind of question that struck terror into Amoretta Virgine's heart. Innocent inquiries from six-year-olds were not supposed to be a Scylla and Charybdis, but even so her choices seemed bad ones. She could look into her daughter's wide, blue eyes and tell her a plain lie, or else she could crush out a childhood dream and source of Christmas joy. As much as Amoretta hated lies and pretense, she found that she had no desire to take away a harmless illusion by revealing that the stockings they'd just hung together would be filled not by Santa but by the girl's two mothers.
"Why do you ask, Cressidor?" she temporarily put off the question.
"'Cause Jenny said that her big brother said he isn't real!" Jenny's big brother was twelve and therefore considered himself infinitely more experienced in life. "Then Marcia said that he was just teasing, but Jenny wasn't so sure, and so I thought I'd ask you, since Mama knows about everything."
Amoretta smiled at how the girl had inadvertently pointed out their family dynamic. It was her "Mama's" knowledge Cress was relying on, since Lillet Blan was the kingdom's Mage Consul and arguably the world's most powerful magician. Surely, after all, such a woman would know the truth about Santa! But it was Amoretta that Cress actually asked the question of, because she'd already learned that Amoretta was more comfortable giving her direct answers.
"Well, do you know what Santa Claus's other name is?"
Cress screwed up her face thoughtfully.
Amoretta shook her head.
"No, that's just another way of saying Santa Claus. It's like Mama, Mother, and Mommy all mean the same thing. Santa Claus is what he is to us, like I'm your mother, but I have a name, too, and so does he."
"Oh! Saint Nick!" Cress exclaimed, beaming.
"Exactly. Saint Nicholas," Amoretta sat down in one of the oversized chairs that faced the hearth and patted her leg. Cress hopped up at once, and snuggled into Amoretta's lap. "Saint Nicholas was a real person once, like all the saints, and he would do many kind things for children."
"For example, there was a very poor family with three daughters who couldn't afford to get married. One night, Saint Nicholas dropped three bags of gold down the family's chimney, one for each daughter's dowry."
"What's a dowry?"
"In some countries, when a girl gets married, she brings some money from her family, so that her new family can afford to start their new life."
"Oh. So if they don't have that..."
"They can't get married."
"We don't have dowries in this kingdom," Amoretta told her. "But even if you marry someone from a country where they do, your mama and I have lots of money so you'll have one."
"Okay!" Cress said, reassured. "But St. Nick gave three girls their dowries as a Christmas present?"
"That's right, and he did other things for other children, too, so that's why we celebrate him as Santa Claus today."
The wheels of a tea-cart squeaked as it bounced up onto the hearth-rug, making the mother and daughter turn their heads.
"I thought you ladies might need a little something to help with your decorating," announced the elf pushing the cart. Gaff was Amoretta and Lillet's majordomo, but he was as much of a friend as a servant, and he doted on Cress besides. "There's hot cocoa, and fruitcake--"
"Cressidor, don't be rude when someone is offering a kindness. Gaff didn't have to bring in anything at all."
"I'm sorry, Gaff," Cress said, genuinely repentant.
"It's okay; I can't stand the stuff either. If you ask me, I think it says something that your mother, who was born from alchemy instead of nature, is the one who likes it. There's a brownie for you."
"Yes, thank you," Amoretta added.
He nodded, accepting their appreciation, then went on and said, "Now if you ask me, the fellow must be a great magician."
"What do you mean?" Amoretta asked.
"Well, let's look at the story. He lives at the North Pole, right, where nobody's ever been so far as I know. Magicians are always supposed to be living in caves that turn into hidden palaces or castles in the clouds or giant towers the size of small cities, right?"
"Mama lives here," Cress pointed out, making Amoretta laugh.
"Miss Lillet has you and your mother and her job at the palace. She needs a more or less normal home for that." Still, Gaff seemed aware that he had to try harder, so he poured the hot chocolate and tried again. "Then there's how he travels. A sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Reindeer shouldn't fly on their own."
"Don't they?" Cress asked. She wasn't being funny, her mother realized; she just didn't know.
"No, they don't," Amoretta told her. "A reindeer is kind of like a normal deer, only it's bigger and furrier because it lives in the far north, and both boy and girl reindeer have antlers. Normal ones don't fly."
"Oh. I didn't know that."
"That's right," Gaff said. "It's magicians who breed winged dragons and make horses fly and that sort of thing. A reindeer is just more of the same."
Amoretta took a sip of her hot chocolate. As always, it was perfect; Gaff had an unerring eye for that sort of thing and the servants who worked under him followed suit.
"But the point that really gives it away is where he gets all those toys he gives out."
"Mmph?" Cress asked, or tried to, since she was busily munching away on her brownie.
"Don't talk with your mouth full, dear." Amoretta stroked her daughter's hair, which was the same ash-blonde shade as her own, then asked the question Cress had been trying to get out. "How do the toys fit in?"
"They're built in his workshop, right? And who's supposed to run the workshop? An entire crew of elves, that's who! Let's face it, what magician ever lived who could get along without elves there to do the hard work behind the scenes?"
"Not us!" Cress caroled. While most of the house's servants were human, not only was Gaff the majordomo but several of his garden-elf family members acted as the landscaping and gardening staff.
"That's right. And that's not even getting into how he can fly all over the world and deliver all those gifts all in one night. That's got to be magic, and not just ordinary stuff, either! Playing with time is really powerful magic." He frowned as another thought struck him. "I just wish I could figure out how he tells the naughty children from the nice ones."
"Mother said he was a saint. Maybe God tells him," Cress suggested while licking fudge from her fingertips.
"Yeah, that could work. Sometimes even a great magician needs a little help."
"So Santa Claus is a magician and a saint," Cress marveled. "That's amazing!"
"Well, you look like you're having fun."
Everyone swung their heads towards the open door.
"Lillet!" Amoretta exclaimed, actually coming in a half-second before their daughter's equally joyful "Mama!" Over ten years as a couple hadn't dimmed the love Amoretta felt for the beautiful magician in the slightest; rather it seemed to grow deeper and stronger every day.
"Oof!" Lillet gasped as Cress slammed against her midsection, wrapping a bear hug around her hips. "Hi, Cress! Hi, Amoretta!" Her lover was a half-step behind their child, matching Cress's embrace for enthusiasm. Lillet slipped one arm around Cress's shoulders and the other around Amoretta's waist, then gave Amoretta a warm hello kiss.
"You're late, Mama! We hung the stockings already!"
"Thanks," Lillet murmured to Amoretta. "I barely got out of my office when I did, and I'd hate for her to go to sleep without getting the hearth set up because you'd waited." To Cress she said, "I'm sorry; I had a lot of important work to finish up so I can spend all of the next three days with my two favorite ladies."
"That's good, because we're going to hold you to that. Right, Cress?"
"I promise, any messenger from the palace short of Her Majesty herself can present his complaints to the chimeras."
"All right, then. Come on over; Gaff made hot chocolate."
"Just the thing." Lillet brushed sparkling flakes of snow from her waist-length hair. "We're going to have plenty of snow tonight. So what is it you were discussing so intently?"
"Santa!" Cress caroled as they walked, arm in arm in arm, back to the hearth.
"Uh-huh! Jenny told me her big brother said Santa wasn't real, but Mother told me about how he was a saint, and the Gaff said that he was a magician, too!"
"I see," Lillet said, smiling.
"Do you believe in Santa, Mama?"
"Of course I do," she answered right away, which surprised Amoretta--not so much for the affirmation, since Lillet had grown up on a farm with her parents and her little brothers, so childhood traditions meant a lot to her and represented happy memories to pass on to Lillet's own daughter, but how fast she'd answered, without the slightest hesitation. Did that mean it was her honest answer?
"Really?" Amoretta couldn't help but ask.
"Of course," Lillet said easily. "I choose to believe in Santa Claus, because a world with Santa is a better place to live than a world without him. Besides, it's easy to believe in miracles, especially at Christmas."
"Why is that, Mama?"
"Because I have two miracles of my own in my life. I met a girl who was created in an alchemy lab who turned out to be the perfect person for me to love and be loved by, and even though we're both women we have a wonderful child together. There's no other way to describe the two of you."
"I think of you that way, too," Amoretta said, brushing her fingertips against Lillet's cheek.
Gaff shook his head sadly.
"Man, a dozen years and you two are as sappy as ever. Worse, even!"
"Thank you," Lillet said, grinning, then clapped her hands together. "Now, what's left over that a late-homecoming magician can help with?"
"We're all finished, Mama! All our stockings are hung up. And we decorated the tree last week, so that's all ready."
"Hm, that's serious," she said. "It looks like the only thing to do is to set out a glass of milk and some cookies for Santa to eat." She glanced over at the tea cart and added, "Oh, but there aren't any cookies." Lillet bent down and said in a stage whisper next to Cress's ear, "Did your mother eat all the cookies? You can tell me the truth."
"No, she didn't. Um, but I did eat a brownie..."
"That's okay. Santa Claus doesn't like brownies. But if neither of you ate any cookies, then where did they go?"
"There weren't any cookies, Mama!"
"No cookies!" Lillet gasped in mock surprise. "We can't have that! To the kitchen!"
Amoretta sighed blissfully, tucked her arm through Lillet's, and the two of them led their daughter off to cook up treats, and more importantly the loving memories that were the real magic of the season.