A/N: I wrote this story as a Christmas gift for my honorary little sister, Fuyu no Sora, so I figured it was only right to wait a year before posting it since it's not much of a present if you give it to the entire world at the same time as you give it to them (which is also why my wife gets to read her Valentine's/birthday/anniversary gifts when I write them, not when I post them!).
~X X X~
As it tends to do, despite the best efforts of assorted Scrooges and Grinches, the Christmas season had arrived once again. The Blan-Virgine household, with two adults who were rather soppy sentimentalists as well as a nine-year-old child who was, well, a nine-year-old child in a happy home, had flung itself fully into the spirit of the season once Harvestide had passed. The mansion on Argentine Way had had its halls fully decked, stockings dutifully hung by the library fireplace, and a good five fir trees of assorted sizes hauled up by the root ball and set up in various places, from the front hall to the servants' quarters. The front door and gates were decorated with wreaths, and even the dragons' harnesses were bedecked with jingle bells.
It was, in short, the kind of place where a random visitor might fear being mugged by a homemade sugar cookie baked in a festive holiday shape. It almost rose to the status of a self-parody, except that everyone in the house, from the kingdom's Mage Consul (humming carols as she performed alchemical experiments that bent the laws of nature sideways and back around again until they were as twisted as the ribbon bows on the aforementioned wreaths) to the lowest scullery elf (who'd exchanged his usual green hat for a red one so as to be seasonally colored) was so obviously sincere about it.
Even so, the Christmas season was not all carols and garlands. The annual return of the holiday carried with it questions of serious importance that had to be confronted. The mind of Cressidor Blan-Virgine, said nine-year-old, could not stop from considering these important issues.
Of course, that was her subconscious mind. Her conscious mind was having more fun playing "Rescue the Princess" with her friends Marcia Tempranillo and Jenny Smithwick. Marcia had lost at rock-paper-scissors, so she was the princess, which mostly involved standing in stocking feet on the library sofa (dutifully pressed into service as the Dolorous Tower where the princess was held captive) and calling for someone to rescue her from durance vile. Actually, the best princess was Jenny's brother Marcel, who hammed up the role hilariously when he got stuck in it, but since he'd reached the terribly mature (in his own mind, at least) age of fifteen, he didn't often play with his little sister and her friends. Marcia tried her best, though, heaping scorn on her captor and trying to give advice to her rescuer from her tower window.
Cressidor, meanwhile, had the role of the heroic witch trying to save the princess, while Jenny was the evil Black Knight who'd imprisoned her (it must be said that Cress's home life had given her a somewhat skewed idea of the traditional roles in these romance-story scenarios). However, it looked as if this time the princess was going to be forced to marry the evil knight, as Cress was currently pinned to the rug by the massive forelegs of the Black Knight's wolf companion, as played by Cress's dog.
"Ha! You thought that mere goodness and purity would let your magic defeat my strong right arm? How wrong you were!" Jenny cackled.
"Oh, woe is me!" Marcia cried. "I shall not be rescued, and now I shall be forced to wed this monster, who no doubt shall require of me that I wear linen dresses instead of silk, that my jewelry be made of mere silver and semi-precious stones, and that only one maid shall attend to me, occasionally requiring that I brush my own hair! Alas! Was there ever a princess so unfortunate as me?"
"Maybe you could rescue her anyway?" Jenny offered.
"Sorry; you won fair and square and to the victor go the spoils, like Mama always says when she beats Mother at chess."
All three of them broke into laughter, and the dog, recognizing that the game was over, moved his paw so Cressidor could sit up.
"Thanks, Shuck!" She gave him a pat on the head, then snuggled up against him, soon joined by Jenny and Marcia. One advantage of having the pet the size of a small horse was that there was enough of him to share snuggling time with her friends. Really, if it wasn't for the fact that ordinary people can't put up wards against accidents with fire breath, I think barghests would be really popular pets, she thought.
"That was funny, Marcia," Jenny said. "How'd you think of all that?"
"My cousin Vivienne." Marcia stuck out her tongue. "Aunt Mina married a duke, so Vivienne's awful spoiled. She flung a hairbrush at a maid once because she was in a snit, and it made for a big fight between Mama and Aunt Mina!"
Cressidor and Jenny looked suitably shocked. While in fact a thrown hairbrush was by no means the worst thing a servant in a Court Society household might have to put up with from their employers, both the Blan-Virgines and the Smithwicks were not the kind of families who would tolerate any such thing.
"Mama said that Aunt Mina had let Vivienne turn into a nasty, spoiled brat, and that if she ever did something like that to one of our servants again then Aunt Mina could go rent a home for the Season instead of staying with us, family or not!"
"She said that right in front of you?"
"Well...actually I was hiding behind the door. But still!"
"Uh-huh. Uh-huh," the others agreed, bobbing their heads.
"She'd better hope that Marcel is right about Santa," Jenny said, "or she won't get any presents!"
That comment brought the conversation around to the thing that Cressidor had been worrying about.
"Does he still say that there's no such thing?" she asked. She'd been pretty concerned about that three years ago, but a talk with her mothers and their elf major-domo Gaff had helped put that question to rest for a while. Still, she was older now, and it was that very issue that had been rattling around in her head for a couple of weeks now.
"Mm-hm," Jenny affirmed. "He's not as loud about it as he was—Papa was kind of mad when he found out Marcel had been telling us those things—but I'm sure that he does."
"It might be true," Marcia said. "After all, Mama and Papa give each other gifts, and to the other relatives, too."
"But those are adults. Santa Claus only brings presents to children."
"He brings different toys to rich children than he does to poor children, though," Cress observed. Since Lillet Blan had come from humble origins and stayed close to her family despite coming a long way up in social life, Cressidor had more practical experience with the lives of ordinary people than her friends. "If it was their parents who got them the gifts, that would explain why. I don't think a saint would give more to the rich than to the poor."
It was a good point, and the other girls considered it seriously.
"You might be right, Cress."
"Yeah, it's true, but...wait..." Jenny scrunched up her face, thinking hard. "Ah!"
Shuck yelped, surprised by her sudden cry.
"Sorry, Shuck; I just thought of something and got excited."
He settled back down, settling his head between his paws and letting the lids drift back shut across the fiery red eyes.
"So what was your idea?" Cress prompted.
"Well, Christmas isn't about getting gifts, right? I mean, there's lots more important things than just what we find in our stockings. So maybe what we get isn't really that important to Santa. He's not really giving us presents, he's giving us happiness."
"So...rich kids get more expensive presents because they have lots of toys already, and getting just another one isn't as fun for them?" That sort of made sense to Cressidor, although she had a sneaking sensation that there was a flaw in that logic somewhere.
"Yeah! Money doesn't matter to Santa, and he knows kids don't care what something costs so long as they enjoy it."
"Well, that could be it," Marcia agreed.
"And it means that the question doesn't prove that Santa isn't real," Cress concluded. After all, arguing Jenny's point wasn't the issue at hand. She wanted to know if it was St. Nicholas who delivered her Christmas presents, or her two mothers.
A loud, rasping noise tore through the young philosophers' attention, making them tumble forward in surprise. The sound reminded Cress of some steaming clockwork engine run amok, or the growling of an enraged dragon.
"Cress, don't you sleep with Shuck in your room?" Marcia asked.
"Oh, he doesn't snore very often, and when he does, I just do this." She reached over and tickled the barghest's muzzle. He made a little harrumphing sound, wrinkling his muzzle, then settled smoothly back to sleep. The other girls looked on, impressed, and now that Shuck was quiet they allowed him to resume his previous role as a self-heated backrest.
"I think," Cress began back on topic, "that we need some kind of way to test it. What Mama calls an experiment! It's the only way that we can know for sure."
"Some way to prove if Santa Claus is real?"
"Or that he's not. Either way will work, right?"
"I guess so..."
"But how are we going to do that, Cress?" Jenny wanted to know.
"You could sneak downstairs and watch," Marcia suggested. "It's in here where the gifts get left, right? You could hide up on one of the galleries and look down into the room."
Cressidor thought about it, then shook her head.
"I don't think so. There's nowhere to hide up there, so if Mama or Mother looks up, they'll see me. Besides," she added, pouting, "every time I try to stay up past midnight I get tired and fall asleep."
"Isn't there any magic you could use to stay awake?" Marcia suggested. "Maybe a potion or something?"
"You know, that's a good point. If you don't see what happens," Jenny added, "then you'll never know. Oh! Hey, what about coffee? That'll keep you awake, and you don't need to worry about taking magic that your mothers might get mad about."
"Yeah, but I'd have to get that from the kitchen, and the servants would tell Mama. She says I'm too young for anything stronger than tea." The three girls shared a sigh at the unfairness of parents who underestimated their children's maturity.
Then inspiration struck.
"Ah! That's it!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands (and waking up Shuck again, though this time he just raised his head with a curious "rowr?").
"Did you think of something, Cress?"
"It was the kitchen that made me think of it. Every year, we put out cookies and milk for Santa."
"We do, too."
"And every year, someone eats the cookies and drinks the milk while they're delivering presents, whether it's mamas or Santa."
"Well, right. Everybody likes cookies," Marcia agreed. "How does that help you decide who's leaving the gifts?"
Cressidor grinned. It was actually a pretty good imitation of Lillet's "I Have an Evil Plan" grin.
"Because you're right: everybody likes cookies. So this year, I'm going to leave out a piece of fruitcake with the snack!"
The girls gasped.
Cress nodded again, very firmly.
"Exactly! If it's gone on Christmas morning, then I'll know that Mother helps to fill the stockings. She likes it!"
Jenny and Marcia shuddered at the idea. They both thought that Amoretta Virgine was a nice lady and a good mother, but it was things like this that reminded them that she was a homunculus, an artificial life created by powerful alchemy.
"B-but, Cress..." Marcia stammered. "If...if you leave out fruitcake for Santa, w-won't he be insulted? You might be put on his 'naughty' list at the last moment!"
"Well, I was going to put out the cookies, too," she allowed. "I mean, even if it really isn't Santa, Mama should get a snack, too."
On the gallery above the library, a small black shape stood and stretched. Cressidor and her friends were right; it wasn't possible for a child to hide and watch from up there, but a cat could lay and listen...and walk to a door to go find his mistress and warn her what her daughter had planned.
"That's too bad," Amoretta said, with a trace of a pout on her lips. "I'd have liked a piece of fruitcake."