Christmas was always something of a big deal in the Blan-Virgine household. As a child growing up, Lillet had been used to big celebrations, the kind where not only did she and her parents and brothers get involved, but hordes of assorted neighbors and cousins descended on each other for visits, groups of wassailers went from farm to farm, cottage to cottage singing carols, Church pageantry and merriment joined in to convey the joy of the season, and only the needs of the animals interrupted the general celebration from the twenty-fourth through the twenty-sixth. The Royal House of Magic wasn't quite the same, especially since those magicians with families would go home for Christmas, but there were still plenty of parties. And when Lillet had become Mage Consul, she was certainly not going to let being the owner of her own estate stop her from making quite a Big Deal out of things, even if the dragons were never quite sure why they were wearing wreaths of pine boughs around their necks.

Amoretta had never had a childhood at all, being a homunculus, so her Christmas memories were all those shared with Lillet, and her greatest fun at the season was taken from her time with her beloved and seeing Lillet's face as she managed to extract joy from even the most mundane aspects of the seasonal preparations. And when they'd gone and adopted a child, well! It took no great stretch of the imagination to realize how that had cemented the celebration of Christmas into an Event.

Which was why Lillet's family found it very confusing when Christmas morning came and Lillet was missing.

The tree in the library, shimmering with ornaments from the exotic to the handcrafted was there, and the piles of presents beneath and the stuffed stockings dangling from the mantel indicated that St. Nick had indeed made his annual visit. But Lillet was significant by her absence.

It was Shuck the barghest who located her at last. The quarter-ton, fire-breathing family dog put his nose to the floorboards and tracked her across the library to the laboratory door. Amoretta and seven-year-old Cressidor followed after when he announced his findings with a bark.

"Mother, why is Mama in the lab?"

"I'm not sure. It seems very unlike her." While Lillet was, after all, a master magician, and therefore a regular risk to get involved in some project and lose track of things like the time, the need for meals, or the fact that people ought to sleep more than once every three days, there were limits to that. If the kingdom wasn't falling or the world ending, then magic could darned well wait until after Christmas.

It was all very unusual.

Amoretta, being the direct sort of person, knocked on the door.

"Lillet, dear?"

"Amoretta?"

"Everyone's awake for Christmas morning, Lillet. Are you going to be much longer?"

"Oh! I'm sorry. I'm almost done!"

There was a loud sizzling sound, like someone had caught a lightning bolt in a box and it was venting its annoyance with this, and less than two minutes later, the door swung open, revealing Lillet. She had on a heavy canvas apron (red and green, natch) over her dress, and her face was smudged with soot.

"Did you come down the chimney with Santa, Mama?" Cress asked.

"Sort of," Lillet said, beaming. "You could say that one of the presents got stuck halfway and I had to get it out." She held out her hand to reveal a gutta-percha rubber ball, about six inches in diameter, decorated with stars. "Here, Shuck, fetch!"

She threw the ball, which went bouncing across the library, and the barghest went bounding after it, only knocking over one armchair in his pell-mell pursuit. Oh, well, it's Christmas, thought Amoretta, so I think we can forgive a little excitement.

"I'm sorry I'm late; I thought I could have it finished last night, but it took a little longer than I expected."

"What did?"

Squeaky chewing noises came from the far side of the room. Surprisingly, they continued, despite the fact that barghest jaws could reduce rubber to shreds in seconds.

"Well, constructing a ward that would resist the damage from chewing the ball was straightforward enough, but it was a little harder to make it so the ball could still flex and be chewy. That's what took so long; I thought I had the symbolism worked out so I could put it together at two last night after we–" She glanced at Cress and stopped talking, no doubt stifling any reference to how she and Amoretta had laid out all the presents (and scarfed Santa's milk and cookies). "Anyway, I just got it done."

"He really likes it, though!" Cress decided that she approved of the delay.

"I thought he would. You know how most wards are set up so that when they're struck, they trigger a second magical effect, like a lightning spell or summoning a familiar or something?"

"Yes," Amoretta provided a cue.

"Well, I set these up to trigger a two-sense illusion. Whenever he bites down, it smells and tastes like pork jerky."