The kitchens of a noble's mansion were a busy place. Work started early in the morning, with the preparations for the day's tasks and the cooking of breakfast for the staff. Things continued relentlessly from meal to meal, and only got worse if there was some kind of entertainment planned by the owner. Indeed, on the evening of a gala ball the night might run all the way into the next day.

Eight days after Christmas, though, by ten in the evening, the kitchen of Mage Consul Lillet Blan's townhouse was still and silent, so that the creaking hinges of the door leading to the main part of the house seemed to echo like thunder.

At least, that was what it sounded like to nine-year-old Cressidor Blan-Virgine, who was not supposed to be awake at that hour and definitely not supposed to be out prowling around the house. A guilty conscience always seemed to make any potential problem seem all the worse; she could only imagine how jumpy a professional thief might be while in the middle of house-breaking.

Despite her fear, there was no answering noise, no sign that the creaking door had attracted any attention. With a sigh of relief, she slipped into the darkened room. She had one of her mama's glowy balls with her, an enchanted crystal sphere that cast light (indeed, this one was part of Cress's night-light) and she took it out from the blanket she'd wrapped it in, using the thick cloth to muffle the light in every direction other than where she wanted to shine it, like a crude magic dark-lantern.

She let the light play across the cabinets and work spaces, but what she was looking for wasn't there.

Cress bit her lip. The idea of having come all this way, risked her mother's scolding for nothing, suited her not one whit. And it made no sense, besides! They had to be here! There was no reason in the world for them to be anywhere else, not even in the pantry!

Then it came to her. It wasn't just Cressidor who wasn't supposed to get into things; there were other children as well, scullery-maids and the like only a handful of years older than Cress. She turned the angle of the light up, and began to play the beam along the top of the cabinets.

There!

The blue-and-red earthenware jar didn't look special, but to Cress it was as good as a treasure chest.

After all, the nine-year-old daughter of a Court minister and an opera star didn't really have money needs in her life. Homemade anise cookies, on the other hand…

The question, then, became one of logistics: how was she to get up there? It wasn't just a matter of reaching it; she had to get the jar down without breaking it, extract her prize, and replace the jar securely, or else she'd give the whole thing away. If she left evidence, they'd know it was her—or worse, they'd blame one of the kitchen maids and Cress would have to confess and then she'd get in trouble for her original crime and for causing problems for someone else!

This sort of thing was a lot easier for the famous outlaws in the storybooks who robbed from cruel sheriffs and dishonest church officials who oppressed the people, Cress decided.

Ignoring the voice in the back of her head that told her that maybe this was a clue she really shouldn't be pilferling cookies, Cress found a stool and dragged it over to the counter. If she climbed up onto the counter, then stood on tip-toe, she just ought to be able…

"I believe your mothers are saving those for Twelfth Night."

"Aaah!" Cress yelped. (She was, it will be noted, not an expert at stealth.) She spun in the direction of the voice and saw two green eyes shining in the dark. "Grimalkin, you startled me!" she chided.

"Would'st you have preferred I waited until you had'st the jar in your hands?" Supremely unimpressed by her scolding, her mother's cat began to groom his paw.

"You shouldn't have startled me at all."

"And you should'st not be stealing cookies."

Cressidor squinted at him.

"Mama says that grimalkin are devils of darkness."

"'Tis true."

"Well, if you're a devil, then shouldn't you be encouraging me to get into mischief? Maybe even helping me do this?"

This seemed like impeccable logic to Cress, but Grimalkin waved it off, quite literally with an airy gesture of his paw.

"Please, a cat knows where his self-interest lies, and disrupting a comfortable home 'tis hardly to my benefit."

Cress couldn't really argue with that.

"Besides, your mama oft remarks that if I am indeed a devil then 'tis sloth that my nature embodies. Thus I should advise you, why spend all this industry and diligence on your ill-starred task, when you can return to your bed to laze in indolence?"

She responded to this remark with a derisive snort, or at least her best attempt at it. Derision wasn't her best emotion; she really wasn't very good at feeling superior to people. Still, she gave it a good try, in imitation of her friend Marcia's granny.

"Don't be silly. That's not being slothful. That's just me going to bed like I'm supposed to and getting a good night's healthy rest."

"'Tis a number of virtues you seem to be attributing to this action," he noted.

"Yeah, when you put it like that, I suppose that you're right."

"And there 'tis, the temptation of sloth. That it would be good for you to succumb."

"That isn't sinful! That's just me being a good girl and not getting any cookies!"

Grimalkin yawned.

"Oh, be it so?"

"It is. You're just trying to trick me," Cress concluded with a pout. "That isn't nice."

"But 'twas you who dids't point out that I was a devil. Surely playing tricks is well within my expected purview."

"Evil and sneaky tricks, not tricks to get me to do the right thing and stay out of the cookies! Even in Mama's stories, devil-cats don't guide people down the path of righteousness." It simply did not seem fair.

Grimalkin, obviously cut to the quick by her sense of injustice, yawned again.

"I should have known better than to think Mother's cat would help me to do something she wouldn't like," Cress groaned.

"'Tis now wisdom that you show."

"It's just not fair. Mama and I baked those cookies together, after all. Why do we have to wait for Twelfth Night to eat them, anyway?"

"'Twould be unfortunate if there 'twere not enough left by then."

"I wasn't going to eat that many, just three or four," Cress protested, not without validity. "Well, and one for Shuck, and I would take a couple back with me to have tomorrow. But we made a lot! There'd be plenty for every child on the staff, and for the servants who have children to take some home to. I just don't see what's so important about waiting."

"'Tis because your mama Lillet is a magician. Doubly so, as Mistress Amoretta 'tis a homunculus."

"Why is that important?"

"Twelfth Night is the eve of Epiphany."

"I know that."

"And what 'tis Epiphany, then?"

"It's the day when the three Wise Men greeted the Savior's birth," Cress said, remembering from church. "They were kings from the Ancient East, and they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." She bit her lip, then admitted, "I always forget what the gifts mean."

"'Tis not the meaning of the gifts that concerns us. It is the Wise Men. That 'tis but a translation of what they were actually called: magi."

"Magi?" She tested out the unfamiliar word. "Like in mag-ic?"

"Indeed, 'tis so. The three Wise Men were magicians, heirs to the ancient arts of Solomon, and had used their skills to divine what was to come, and it was in this way that they chose to visit the Savior and offer their gifts. Thus, to a magician, Epiphany 'tis a very important and symbolic part of the Christmas season. They give gifts on Twelfth Night in special celebration of that." After a short pause, he added, "Dids't Lillet not explain this? 'Tis odd for her to leave so obvious a story untold."

"Maybe it was a bedtime story? I fall asleep a lot for those."

"Mayhap 'tis so. A warm bed and a good story 'twere oft better than a sleeping spell at bringing rest."

He favored Cress with a long stare, and she finally sighed.

"All right, Grimalkin, I'll go to bed. If it's really important to Mama and Mother that they have lots of cookies for Twelfth Night, then I should just leave them alone. Even though they're really good and I did help make them."

"'Tis appropriate at this season to do what is good for the soul?" Grimalkin suggested, then hopped don from his perch and headed towards the door with his tail swishing.

"You've spent way too much time around Mother," Cressidor decided, following. The problem with virtue being its own reward was that it did not have anise cookies as its reward instead!

"Mayhap. But 'tis a good thing, as I remark it."

She had to admit that he had a point. After all, Cress was an adopted child and she was certainly happy that Lillet and Amoretta had taken her in. She supposed that she and Grimalkin had that in common.

"Hey, Grimalkin?"

"Yes?"

"I was wondering, what are you doing in the kitchen? You weren't just waiting up for me, were you?"

"Indeed not. 'Tis hardly a wise use of my time. Had I such an inclination, I 'twould have told you so when you went to bed and saved myself much trouble."

"That makes sense. What was it, then?"

"Hm, well, as to that, 'tis true that the cookies are to be given out at Twelfth Night, but 'tis not so for the leftover smoked salmon."