The Marquis, the Minx, and the Mistletoe – Ava Devlin

T he first of December is, without question, one of the most magical moments of the year. No, it is not one of the grand holidays which we all clamor around, but perhaps it is because of this that its enchantment is so potent. Perhaps the magic can truly shine when the day is quiet and unassuming. Any child will tell you that the frost in the air begins to truly sparkle once the month of Christmas arrives. Adults might not notice the rosy flush that the cool winds bring to their cheeks, nor the bracing thrill that fills their lungs with every gulp of shimmering winter air, but they feel it, all the same. Cups of steaming hot chocolate, sipped near a roaring fire as laughter and contentment and storytelling wrap their warm embrace around all, young and old, is the gift that December brings. There was a particular December, many years before our story begins, which looms heavy in the memories of our heroes. For it must be remembered that the magic of the season visits us all in different ways, and many do not see the true value of a gift until it has the opportunity to blossom in the days and years that follow. Take, for example, little Tatiana Everstead, who on this first of December, all those years ago, was a bright-eyed six-year-old, sprawled on the floor of her grandmother’s country cottage, just west of the city of Norwich. She wore her raven-dark hair in a blue ribbon with a large, glossy bow on top. She took care not to spill on her dress, but instead managed to burn her tongue in her eagerness to drink down her tea all at once. Little Tia loved her grandmother more than just about anyone else, and these stolen stretches of time where she had her all to herself were more precious than any of the bright, candy-colored gifts she would open in the coming weeks. Her parents and sisters were well and fine, but no one quite had the magic in their company that Nana did. “Pace yourself, little one,” Nana chided, unable to hide the affection in her voice even in admonishment. “The leaves will read better if you drink calmly.

” This was a secret gift, one Mama and Papa would never approve of. Nana’s talent for telling the future had once caused the Everstead house some small scandal, and so Papa had forbidden his mother from performing her tricks, especially in front of the children. This was why it was much more fun to be alone in Nana’s cottage than visiting back in Norwich at the Everstead house. Nana did not much care for the rules Papa enforced. She wore her black and silver hair long and straight down her back, instead of curled and pinned like a proper lady. She still put rouge on her lips with a dab of rose oil, despite Papa insisting that such a thing was unseemly for any woman, much less a widow of advanced age. She sang and baked her own bread and befriended those far above and beneath her own status, much to his dismay. Nana was magic. Everyone knew that. Little Tia was devoted to keeping her grandmother’s secrets.

She sometimes wondered if Nana simply trusted her to hold her tongue or if she had divined Tia’s loyalty somehow, with her magic. It was a question she would never ask aloud, even as she blossomed into a young woman, though she would come to suspect that her father had known the truth all along and was not moved to put a stop to it. She was fixated on the cup of tea, her little eyes crossing to meet the tip of her nose with every sip, hoping to catch a glimpse of the leaves at the bottom. So focused was Tia that she missed the first flakes of snow that began to drift lazily down to the ground outside Nana’s window. “What question will you ask the leaves?” Nana asked, her voice warm and affectionate as she watched her granddaughter from her favorite chair. “I want to know about my true love,” Tia said with a wistful sigh, clutching the blue teacup between her slender fingers. “I want a prince or a knight, with golden hair and blue eyes, gentle and elegant and romantic, Nana.” What she did not say was that she also wished for everyone in the world to be just a little bit jealous of her, for winning the love of this imaginary prince. She did not speak of the nights she had lain awake, fantasizing about a glowing, golden hero; handsome perfection, who danced like an angel, and sang like a nightingale, and wrote the most beautiful poetry. He would be a perfect, elegant creature who did not snore or prod her with his elbows in the night, as her sisters did.

“You aren’t making a wish,” Nana reminded her, raising her dark eyebrows. “You are asking a question. You must be grateful for any answer, even if it is not the one you imagined.” Tia twisted her lips and nodded, though she knew in her heart that she only wanted her wishes fulfilled and nothing else. “There, now,” Nana said, lifting herself from her chair and sinking down on her knees next to little Tia. “Close your eyes and take your last sip, and think of your question one more time.” Tia nodded, taking a deep breath of that magical December air and closing her eyes, the dark fringe of her lashes resting on her round little cheeks, and she finished her cup of tea in a single gulp. She shivered, almost afraid to open her eyes again, and held the cup out to her grandmother before doing so. “Let’s see here,” Nana mused, a little smile playing on her rose-stained lips. She pulled Tia into her side, wrapping her arms around so that she could hold the mug in front of them both.

“How will you find your true love, hm? What do you see?” Tia blinked at the mug, squinting down at the mush of leaves that sat in the bottom. “A dog,” she decided, “a running dog.” “Hm,” Nana mused, rotating it a little, “and now?” “A bird?” Tia pondered. “No, a bat! A big, ugly bat! Nana, that isn’t very nice!” “Shh,” Nana whispered, unable to hold in a chuckle as she tilted the mug again. “Do you see how the leaves have all stayed in the bottom of the cup, but divided in half? That is curious. It may mean that you must lose one love to gain another.” “I thought it was a snowflake,” Tia said with a frown. “I do not want to lose any loves.” “Well, life is full of loss, my love,” Nana assured her, making one last rotation of the cup and gazing down at it intently. “You might lose a friend or a pet or even me before you are ready to find him.

Or perhaps you will have to leave one life to pursue another. That is all right. It is the way of things.” Tia could not repress a pout, pushing the teacup away and turning her face into her Nana’s shoulder. “Now it just looks like a crying face,” she complained. “I do not want to be sad before I can be happy.” “How can you be happy if you do not know what sadness feels like?” Nana asked. “These are only hints, my love, signs along your path. You always have a choice. You will need to listen to yourself, to your inner wisdom, to know which choice is the right one, no matter how many dogs or bats you see.

” “But I will find true love?” Tia asked, her voice muffled by the sleeve of Nana’s dress. “Oh yes,” Nana said, continuing to ponder the leaves in the cup. “Yes, indeed, you will. I promise you this, my precious one.” Tia sniffled and heaved a sigh, tilting her head up to look at her grandmother. “Can we make sweets?” she asked, her eyes large and pleading. Nana smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners, and discarded the cup on the floor to pull Tia into a tight embrace. “Sweets sound like just the thing,” she decided. “I shall have some too.” Cozy and huddled in that little cottage, the two of them would spend the day in laughter as the ground outside was covered in a layer of soft and powdery snow.

Their laughter would warm the house as much as the fire, and the day would impress itself into their memories as a little taste of perfection, however fleeting. As the sun began to set on that December first, its magic wove its way through the sky and landed upon another child, who had no notion that he had just appeared in a cup of tea some three hundred miles away. This other child was a little older, but still a boy. He sat, huddled up in his favorite hiding spot, all the way on the other side of Britain, in the Scottish county of Moorvale. After visiting Tia, one must immediately notice, of course, that the lad had no doting grandparents or warm hearthfire to keep him company. Instead, he had chosen to hide in a little wooden enclave, surrounded by the nuzzling noses and warm paws of his father’s hounds. It wasn’t a proper kennel, like the one they used in the summer, but rather a makeshift nook of the stables, sprinkled with hay and sawdust, so that the dogs might stay warm as the frost came. This was Sheldon Bywater’s favorite place in the entire world. Hounds were sweet and loving companions, ambrosia to a boy with a father who was far too old and a mother who was far too young. It was a far more lively spot than his bedroom, anyhow, a drafty chamber in the crumbling shell of a medieval castle, which held no other children with whom to play.

He was big for his age, broad shouldered and dark haired, like so many of his distinguished ancestors, preserved in portraits throughout the great hall. Sheldon loved wrapping himself in Clan Moorvale tartan and pretending he was one of them. Sometimes, when he knew no one would notice, he would borrow the very old dirk from the box in the treasury, the one with Moorvale bats carved into the hilt, circling their adversary. He would slash at the air and imagine himself a warrior, fighting in the ancient battles that had won his people the Southern Uplands, back when the bricks of Hawk Hill were still smooth and new. It was not fun to play all alone for very long, however, and it wasn’t as though his mother or father would play with him. The things that meant so much to the adults meant little to young Sheldon. What does a child care for words like marquis or adultress or debt, after all? The dogs did not say such words. They were very good friends. It had been snowing for some time in Moorvale. It had started days ago, a steady drift of snowflakes that coated the ancient bricks of Hawk Hill with a crust of shimmering white.

Sheldon liked to watch the dogs play in the fresh snowfall. It made him laugh at the way they jumped and rolled in the powder, as though discovering all of life for the first time, every time. If he could just have the dogs instead of parents, that would be very good. He sighed, looking down at his hands, which were clasped around a bit of wrought iron, twisted into the shape of a star. He had not meant to break the new carriage. He was only admiring the decorative embellishments that led up to the driver’s bench. Da had given him a swat on the back of the head when the star had broken off, but he had mumbled about shoddy craftsmanship too, which meant Sheldon was not the only one in trouble. Still, he knew his father had been embarrassed in front of his guests, with his new prize failing upon its first presentation, and he could not help but feel he had shamed him in some way. He felt unwieldy and awkward, always breaking things on accident and misjudging his own strength. His governess sometimes teased that he had never been a little boy.

“There you are,” came a voice, booming and exasperated, as the doors to the stables flapped closed behind the man who had entered, his father’s driver and stable-master, Graham. “You’d best come back to the manor, Master Sheldon. Your da thought you’d run off!” “In the snow?” Sheldon replied, all too aware of his own petulance. “Where would I go?” Graham frowned at him, his bushy eyebrows drawing together in a flat line over his eyes. “He will be none too pleased if you go to dinner smelling of dog.” “I am not hungry,” Sheldon muttered, averting his eyes. It was a lie. He was always hungry. Yet another embarrassment in the long litany of adolescent indignities. “There’s another lad here,” Graham said, knowing this would draw Sheldon’s attention.

“Looks to be of an age to you. Son of a viscount, I believe.” Sheldon pressed his lips together, gripping the iron star in his hands tightly enough to hurt. “Is that true?” he asked cautiously. “Mm, yes.” Graham nodded. “Lives nearby too, he does. It was meant to be a surprise.” “What surprise?” Graham sighed, shaking his head. “Only a fool boy spoils his own surprise,” he chided.

“If you must know, they’ve come to invite you to spend Yuletide at their estate in Yorkshire. Lord knows there isn’t much festivity here these days, at least not suitable for a young lad.” Sheldon was silent, stunned by this sudden flash of luck. Christmas with other children? A visit to a new manor, where it was not always cold and somber? It was almost too much to consider, too risky to hope. Of course, at that age, one cannot help but hope when the occasion calls for it. He scrambled to his feet, shoving the iron star in his pocket, and gave each of the hounds a quick pat on the head in thanks for their company. He hoped that he did not smell too strongly, though he thought dogs were quite a nice smell, all things considered. Nicer than the horses, in any event. Graham put his big hand on Sheldon’s shoulder. He was a brusque man, but Sheldon thought him a quiet kind of comfort, and was happy to follow him out of the stables and back up the path to the old castle.

In the hours to come, Sheldon would hold his breath as he approached this other boy, a somber-faced lad with auburn hair and rigid posture. He decided that he would do whatever it took to ensure that they became friends, for he had never had a friend before, and was not of a mind that he could waste the opportunity. For the rest of his life, Sheldon Bywater would remember that December first, and the jolly holiday season that followed in the company of his new best friend. Was it magic in the air that had brought him this good fortune? Had the iron star been a lucky omen? It did not matter, he thought, so long as he was grateful for the gift he had been bestowed on the most magical day of the year.

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