Vampire Code: Nuptial Babysitters

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After the conclusion of  Jaclyn and Davion’s wedding, a beam of light shone on the cynda.

“Will you watch the kids?” Cathy called to Jaclyn as the light pulled her up into a space craft belonging to the thousand mommies of her best friend, onezero.

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“Where are you going?” Jaclyn called. “When will you be back?”

“Shan’t be gone long!” Cathy shouted back. “It’s onezero’s thousand! I guess they need an update!”

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“Let them know we’ve got it covered!” Jaclyn shouted. “And pick up any strategy tips they might offer!”

“Will do!” came Cathy’s reply, barely audible.

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“I’m faira certain they nae had got the toothfanged ones up in that far away place,” Davion mumbled.

“Don’t be so sure, Davi,” replied Jaclyn. “At any rate, they’ve stronger rune than we and ancient-old ways to draw from!”

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When the disc ascended out of sight, Jaclyn headed in to check the little ones.

Rocket lay curled at the head of his bed, like a pea seed, waiting to sprout.

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“You have got the menë, little seedling. What a big sprout you will grow to be!”

She knew the prophecy, sure enough, as did all who came from her land–Davion knew it, too.

When comes the time that light and dark
are topped and turn,
and he whose name is formed of light
sends the man of dark on the
wisp of the wish

Then the crack shall grow and spread
And all will feel the reach of dread.

The Cynda sees and brings to bred
the wisher and the wishing seed.

From this union,
now come three.
But keep apart the
strong of heart
Until the wish is heard again

And then we find
The merry men.

The line is formed.
Red flows free.
And only one can stop
the spree.

The only one
is Number Three.

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Rocket stirred.

“Ama?” he called.

“Ama will be back soon, little Pea,” said Jaclyn. “Let your Ama’s cynda read to you.”

“Who she?” asked Rocket.

“She is me!” replied Jaclyn.

She found a book of hobbit lullabies tucked in the bookshelf.

“Born of moon,
Little Silver,

“Rest until
Returns the chilver.

“Little lamb,
Little man. 

“With sleep grow strong
Then rights the wrong.

It won’t be long.
It won’t be long.”

Soon he was fast asleep.

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“Do you think Ama will bring back a moon rock?” Florinda was asking Davion when Jaclyn joined them in the living room.

“She’s not going to the moon, though, eh?” replied Davion.

“But she must!” said Florinda. “I saw the moon, and I saw the ship, and then the ship was gone, and now all that’s there is the moon!”

“It’s a very fast ship, henig,” said Jaclyn. “Once it speeds to going, it travels faster than we can see with our eyes.”

“But she always comes back soon,” replied Florinda, “every time she goes with them.”

“It’s the funny time,” said Davion. “Fast for you and me, eh? But for the ones up and away, it’s a very long time. Nae, not to worry. She’ll be back before ye rise with the morning light.”

“That she will,” said Jaclyn.

“And will you and Davi stay with us?” asked Flor. “It’s not like we haven’t been alone before, because usually when she goes with them, me and Sparkie stay. But this is the first time that she’s gone since Rocket was here. And what if he wakes up and misses her?”

“We shall stay,” said Davion.

It wasn’t how Jaclyn had imagined spending her wedding night, but it was right, after all.

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Vampire Code: The Cynda

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“What are they doing, Ama?” asked Sparkroot.

“Have a chat-chat-tickle-me!” laughed Rocket.

“They’re not having a tickle-fest,” said Cathy. “Though it does look like it,” she added as she glanced over to Jaclyn and Davion near the portico. “They’re getting married.”

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After supper, while Jaclyn had helped Cathy wash the dishes, she’d leaned over and whispered, “Will you be my cynda?”

“Really?” Cathy had replied, louder than she’d intended. “Really?” she whispered. “You’re doing it? When?”

“Tonight!” Jaclyn had answered. “Now! Or at least, as soon as we’re done with the dishes.”

Cathy agreed to the honor. Jaclyn had been her own cynda when she and Brennan had married. The cynda is the most respected member of the traditional elvish wedding ceremony, especially when it is private or when the union has been expected for a long time. The term comes from “cynda-rutin,” or “bystander,” and the cynda is witness, midwife, and marriage counselor, all rolled into one.

Like a bystander, the cynda stands in approximation of the ceremony, close enough to watch, near enough to eavesdrop, and at the ready to coach, persuade, or nudge at the slightest hesitation.

From her spot on the patio, it didn’t look to Cathy that Jaclyn and Davion would need any nudging whatsoever. She’d never seen Jaclyn, in spite of her free and independent spirit, quite so happy.

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Davion said the traditional Gnomish vows:

Spree taka longdy
Aska me de pardy.

Longa dech ne baydoo
Mekka snee par kardy.

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Cathy didn’t know Gnomish, but she knew the voice of love.

“They look happy,” Sparkroot said.

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Jaclyn replied with her own cross between a blessing and vow:

Sun in the west,
bird on the nest.

Feather on the wing,
You wear my ring.

It was supposed to be a joyous occasion, Cathy thought. And certainly it was. These were words of love. Sparkroot had grown silent, as he stood to watch and listen. Then why did this heaviness settle over her?

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It wasn’t for Jaclyn and Davion, of that she was sure. She listened to Davi continue with his own vows as he left behind tradition and moved into the region of his own heart.

“Jaclyn, what brought me, brought you. What brought you, brought me. We were both pulled by rune into this nomdish land. What was it for, but to find me and you?”

Cathy had felt that, once, about Brennan, brought here by the rune of her own wish. She’d been happy when they’d married. She’d believed the words she’d said:

To stand with fate
Sometimes brings
Greater freedom
Than to walk alone
Through heaven’s gate.

But that had been so long ago, before she’d felt imprisoned by his harshness. Still, it felt like standing with fate, to have brought into this world these three children. That was something.

But where was freedom? Where was warmth? Listening to Jaclyn and Davi, she couldn’t help but imagine what it would feel like to have kindness and fate.

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She shook herself to dispel her wistfulness. This wasn’t a time to shade the moon.

There’s freedom in surrender, no matter how heavy the weight.

Jaclyn laughed again.

“Go on,” she said. “Put on the ring!”

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“Once I do, it’s nae comin’ off!” replied Davion. “Are ye sure as can sure can be?”

“Oooh!” replied Jaclyn. “Maybe you can take it off on Sunday, every fifth Sunday, and I’ll be a fifth-free-dove!”

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“That would nae do!” said Davion. “Just give me the ring and I shall put it on before we have to call the cynda to make us do so!”

And with that, he put on the ring that sparkled like a star’s wink.

“My bonny elvish bess,” he said.

“My sweet runish doan,” she replied.

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“They’re married now,” Sparkroot explained to Florinda, “just like Ama and Ada.”

“Will they live in separate houses,” asked Florinda “like Ama and Ada?”

“Most likely so,” replied Sparkroot. “That’s how you stay a happy couple.”

“Will they have lots of kids?” asked Flor.

“Most likely yes,” replied Sparkroot. “That’s what comes from married people.”

“Then they’ll be very, very happy,” said Florinda. “Just like us!”

“More pasta, Ama!” yelled Rocket. “Tummy wants yummy! More yummy!”

Cathy had to laugh. Love is still love, even if no one is the perfect spouse. And even the sting of the harshest of words could fade inside the ring of happiness.

Freedom meant something more than having no cares: It meant tending to the cares entrusted to one with a carefree heart.

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Vampire Code: Kinnish Smile

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Jaclyn found a spot at the tables near the performance area, where Cathy was playing Irish ballads on an old guitar. She waited for Davion to finish his stint at the grill and join her.

She caught the whiff of tubers sprinkled with calendula pollen.

“My favorite,” she said, moving to sit beside her boyfriend.

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They’d gotten together so quickly, all those years before. She’d known, the instant she saw this twinkly-eyed gnome that they were bound to be together. The same rune had pulled them both.

She hadn’t wanted more than what they had–kisses snuck in when no one looked; cheerful banter; an unspoken promise. Separate homes suited her just fine, especially when his perched on the island across the bay.

As a wee girl, she’d never nursed dreams of husband, home, and family. Her dreams were always of the wide oak and meadow. Sometimes, she bristled at the closeness–she loved the feel of freedom more. But still, once or twice a moon, she and Davion came together, and it felt as right as kin.

Tonight, Davion’s presence carried strength. If it was true, as she was beginning to suspect, that she’d been pulled here for this campaign that she and Sugar were about to marshal, then maybe Davion had come for that same reason. She could use a Sargent at Arms by her side.

He would make a fine husband, this jovial, hale fellow. She would feel strengthened, to be able to call him mate.

“Will you spend the day with me tomorrow?” she asked before returning home.

“Sure as the dew on the meadow!” he replied.

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The next morning, she waited in the garden, staking the hollyhocks. She greeted him with a kiss, and one led to another, and soon they stumbled into a bush, and by the time they emerged, Jaclyn had made up her mind. She would ask him.

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But not right at that moment.

For at that moment, it was time for elevenses, and after elevenses, time for a pot of Darjeeling tea, and after tea, time for scones and more tea, followed by scones with strawberries and Devon cream, followed by strawberries with coffee and chocolate, and soon, Jaclyn remembered that she had promised Sugar to run up the hill to see if it was true what Sugar suspected about Cathy Tea and Brennan Stuckey’s youngest son, Rocket, so it looked like afternoon tea–and any possible question that might or might not be popped–would have to wait.

“Come with me, eh?” she asked Davion. “I need your keen eyes, too.”

When they arrived at Cathy Tea’s, they found Rocket first, dancing with a wild look in his eyes.

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“Aye, he’s got the rune,” Davion whispered. “This one. He’ll do!”

Jaclyn nodded.

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She would call Sugar later. For now, they soaked in the good feelings of this bustling family.

Cathy invited them to stay for afternoon tea, and Davion and Jaclyn joined the family on the patio for green tea with veggie wraps.

Towards evening, Jaclyn and Davi found themselves upstairs, alone.

“I like the kinnish smile here,” Davion said.

“Yeah, it feels like home,” said Jaclyn.

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She wanted to keep that homey warmth.

“Davion,” she whispered, as she kissed him on the cheek.

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“Oak in the meadow
Acorn on the tree.

“Ring on the collared dove,
Marry me.”

She pulled a fairy quartz ring from her pocket and handed it to Davion.

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“It fits,” he said. “I never thought and yet I always dreamt that I would have a bonny elvish bess!”

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“I’m hobbit, too,” she said, as she kissed him full on the lips.

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“What will our bairn be?” he laughed. “Elvish-hobbit gnomish bae!”

She giggled. “I hadn’t thought of that!”

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The sun was about to set, and Jaclyn wanted to catch its last rays on this day of promise.

As she walked though the living room, on her way to the edge of the hill, she heard the laughter of Sparkroot and Flor, and the songs and coos of Cathy and Rocket. She knew what wish she would make as the sun’s gold faded: the warmth of kin would bolster any heart, no matter what trials waited in the nights to come.

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Vampire Code : The Fissure

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A fissure ran through the block of oak standing on Jaclyn’s workbench. Around this crack, she’d carve faeries, elves, dwarves, dragonflies, and wood nymphs.

On the reverse, if one knew to look, one would see the peering eyes of a demon. Bringing in one type of magic always let in the other.

The creeping-in had already begun. Her young neighbor Florinda walked past home from school with her head hung down.

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“Why so glum, little Flor?” Jaclyn asked.

“My ada finished the rail line. Did you hear that? Well, not him, but the people he bosses. And now it’s done, and he took Sparkie to go over there, but not me, I had to stay home with Rocket and Ama, but when Spark came back, he was sad.”

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“He was none too happy about that dark place, then?” Jaclyn asked.

“No, siree,” replied Florinda. “He says it’s creeply.”

“But he’s home now, safe as beechnut and sound as rabbit, is he not?”

He was.

“And he has a brave sister with a cheerful heart, does he not?”

He did!

“Then all is right in the world, and don’t you worry about the creeplies in the shadows.”

Florinda’s smile returned and she skipped up the hill.

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Jaclyn headed upstairs to the computer.

Sugar Maple was online.

“It has started,” she typed.

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“The two-way connection?” Sugar typed back.

“Yes!” Jaclyn replied. “That blasted goat-footed man. He should have stayed in the Wishing Well.”

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“We knew this would come,” Sugar replied.

Sugar and Jaclyn been expecting something like this since Cathy’s ill-conceived wish had pulled Brennan Stuckey out of the well. They’d hoped binding the two through marriage would forestall the encroachment.

After their twins were born, each full of such goodness, a swing in the other direction became inevitable.

They’d discussed plans and strategies, but until the connection was actually established, it was impossible to know what exactly to do.

“Keep your hope up!” Sugar typed.

Jaclyn closed her eyes and whispered a quick protection spell.

Spider of
Buttercup, dew drop
Yarrow, bluebell,
Spin a web round
The wishing well.

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“Let’s talk” Sugar typed. “Can you make it to the city?”

They agreed to meet at the Spice Festival at sunset.

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Though Jaclyn had never been to the city, she easily found her way from the rapid transit station to the Spice District. Sugar played her violin, and Jaclyn simply followed the pull she always felt from Sugar’s tunes.

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“Might as well have second supper,” Jaclyn said when she spied the table laden with falafal, curried eggs, and dal.

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“I’ve seen it all before,” Jaclyn told Sugar. “It was like this in the old place. First the trolls. Then the boogeys. Then before you knew it, we were hardly safe outside the warrens.”

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“But you survived,” Sugar Maple said. “It didn’t wipe your peoples out. And you found a balance, right?”

“We adapted,” Jaclyn said. “Protection spells, blessings, wildcrafting. All the rituals of the old ways kept us from being destroyed, at least.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Sugar. “You developed rune. We don’t have to look at this as the end of something. We can think of it as the beginning.”

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“It’s a barrow-full of toil!” said Jaclyn.

“That it is,” replied Sugar. “But then, I’ve never been averse to hard work. Have you?”

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Jaclyn supposed not.

“What’s this?” asked Nathanael, Sugar’s nephew-in-law, who’d come along for the festival. “Are you talking about work at a time for feasting?”

“Simply stringing the loom,” said Jaclyn, “so the warp is set when we’re ready for the weft.”

“Right then!” said Sugar.

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Jaclyn caught the whiff of willow catkins on the grill. She knew of only one man in these parts who had a taste for grilled catkin. Sure enough, near the picnic tables, her sweet-heart Davion dished up a plate of fresh-spring river willow catkins for sampling.

“What brings you here, Davi?” she asked.

“Had an inkling you’d be here,” he said.

“Aren’t you the charmer?”

Sugar came to say good-bye. “I’ve got some research to do,” she said. “Don’t worry, Jaclyn. We’ll find a way to protect who and what we love.”

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New World Symphony: Takes a Troupe

“I don’t know how you do it,” Jaclyn said to Cypress.

“Do what?”

“Stay married. To the same person. And not only that, live with him, day after day after bloody day.”

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Cypress laughed. “We’re happy!” she said. “I love McRae. He makes every day fun.”

“I love Davion, too,” replied Jaclyn, “but that doesn’t mean I want to be around him every single day. I’m getting tired of feeling like my wings are clipped.”

“But you’re free, right?” Cypress said. “My mom always said that in the right love, you find you’re free, and that’s what it’s like for me with McRae.”

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Jaclyn walked Cypress and Sempervirens out to the road.

“It’s not how I feel it,” said Jaclyn.

“Why don’t you come over tomorrow?” Cypress suggested. “I’ll show you the garden.”

“We can have ice cream!” Sempervirens said.

“For ice cream, I’ll come!” Jaclyn replied. She knew that Cypress really wanted her to get a taste of their style of domestic bliss: two tents and a kitchen in a big meadow. It wouldn’t change how she felt, Jaclyn knew this. But they were neighbors and friends, and she knew her love of freedom was in no danger of being persuaded away.

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She woke in a far better mood. The birds were singing, she was alone in her big bed, and she wasn’t expecting Davion to call or drop by.

She loved Davion, there was no doubt about that. And it had been her idea that he become her boyfriend. It wasn’t him–it was the whole “being a couple” thing that brought her down.

But this morning, with the sun shining on the empty road and not a single letter or bill waiting for her in her mailbox, she felt free!

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Sparkroot and Florinda Tea ran over the hill and through the meadow and dropped by just as Jaclyn was washing up the morning dishes.

“Are we too late for tea?” Sparkroot asked.

“You’re just in time for elevenses!” said Jaclyn.

“Ha! I told Ama we’d get our something to eat here! You’re always eating!”

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Jaclyn chuckled. “Can’t do to let one’s stomach grumble, now, can it?”

“I think that must be why you’re always happy! You always have something yummy and sweet to look forward to!”

“Well, I’m not always happy,” said Jaclyn, “but I did just get a fresh jar of marmalade that will taste absolutely delicious on a toasted muffin! And that’s something to smile about, certainly!”

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“We can’t stick around too long, Spark,” Florinda said. “We’re going to Little Green’s. You wanna come, Auntie Jac?”

“Why, I certainly do!” replied Jaclyn. “I was headed over that way myself. Shall I toast the muffins so we can eat and go?”

“Yes!” shouted Sparkroot. “With marmalade!”

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Sparkroot and Florinda’s ama was there to join them when they arrived at the big meadow.

“I brought over some basil seeds,” Cathy said.

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Sempervirens and Bryant Cho were having a conversation about family domestic arrangements.

“So, I live with my mom and dad, and you do, too, right Bryant?”

“No,” he said, “I live with my sissy and my ma.”

“Oh. Well, Jennifer and Bridget live with their mom but not their dad, and their dad lives with Mikaela’s mom but Mikaela’s dad lives with Pierce and Pierce’s mom. Whose mom does your dad live with, Florinda?”

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“Nobody, right, Ama?” said Florinda.

“That’s right,” said Cathy Tea. “Your dad lives by himself in his white and blue house and we live in our house.”

“But he comes and visits,” said Florinda.

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“We don’t even live in a house,” said Sempervirens. “We live in two tents, a kitchen, and a meadow!”

“When I grow up, I want to live in a forest! And I want all the moms and all the dads and all the kids to live together!” said Florinda. “Then, it’s not so complicated! You want to see your ada? Fine! He’s right there!”

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“That sounds a lot like my people’s way,” said Jaclyn. “My mother’s people, they lived together in tree-tops, all the elvene, and every man was your Osi’Tan, and every woman was your Osi’Nys. Selde were raised by the troupe.”

Florinda  imagined what that would be like. The more she thought about it, the less sure she was that it would really be something worth wishing for. Maybe she didn’t want to live in a forest with the whole tribe.

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Sure, it was fun to see her ada now and then–but not too often. Sometimes, their house was more peaceful when he was at his house and not visiting over.

And she sure wouldn’t want him to help raise Little Green or Bryant. What if he yelled at them, the way he sometimes liked to yell?

On the other hand, if they were raised by the whole village, then that would mean that she could also be raised by Little Green’s dad, Knox McRae.

Florinda thought that she would like that. Knox was a very kind and gentle man.

“Can I stay the night?” Florinda whispered to Little Green.

“Sure!” said Sempervirens, and they asked all the adults if it was OK.

After her mom and Sparkroot left for their home, and Jaclyn left for hers, and Bryant walked up the big hill to his house, Florinda sat in the kitchen with just Cypress, Knox, and Sempervirens, as if she were part of the family. Knox asked, “Would you like something to eat, Flor?”

He said it with such a kind voice, and his eyes were soft and gentle, too, and he smiled a real smile.

While she sat at the table with her stuffed potato, Florinda pretended, just for a moment, that this was her home and that he was her uncle–or maybe even, her dad, and that he always spoke to her with so much tenderness and kindness., without ever raising his voice. What a different world that would be!

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New World Symphony: Young Apprentices

An old photograph hung upstairs above Jaclyn’s bed, left by previous tenants from a forgotten time.

She never knew who the people in the photograph were or why they were important. But two things stood out to her: the the tall woman in the center and the flock of children surrounding her.

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This mysterious tall woman seemed somehow distinct from those around her.

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When she looked closely at the face, it felt familiar. Could it be a long-lost relative?

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Jaclyn had never heard of any of her kin coming to this land in distant times, but she couldn’t deny that something about that figure resonated with her.

Perhaps, every few generations, an emissary comes, infusing rune into this green land, teaching the children ways to keep magick alive. She knew that was her purpose here–perhaps this same calling had drawn a great aunt who laid down the path that Jaclyn now followed. Now that she thought about it, she’d heard hushed speculation surrounding her ama’s aunt, Neticia, whose disappearance posed a mystery.

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When considered an extension of a family tradition, her own calling seemed more significant, somehow.

Evening or morning, when it was time to meet, Jaclyn never had to call the children to her: somehow, they simply knew to come.

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One evening, Laurel Haas, Bryant Cho, and Sparkroot and Florinda Tea arrived.

“We’re ready!” said Sparkroot.

“Ready for what?” asked Jaclyn.

“Stories!” said Bryant.

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Before they filed inside, Sempervirens ran up to the door.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” she called. “Now we can start!”

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“I’ll tell the first story,” said Laurel, and she launched into a very long tale about a poodle who had wandered into the South of France looking for the Royal Library.

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“I know what book the poodle would read!” said Sempervirens. “The Precise Poodle’s Pedestrian Guide to Puddles of Paris!”

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After each child told a tale, it was Jaclyn’s turn. She had pockets full of stories, for her father, uncles, grandfathers, and great aunts were forever finding themselves in pickles that they could only escape through intentional acts.

When Jaclyn finished her story about the time her great aunt Bonny befriended not one, but five honeybees and gathered enough honey to sweeten the village’s tea for the whole long winter, it was time for the children to leave.

Florinda Tea lingered at the chess board.

“Can I stay a little longer?” she asked, and she and Jaclyn played chess together late into the evening.

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Around midnight, Florinda grew hungry.

“I forgot to eat supper!” she said. “I was so excited to come!”

“I’ll make you a snack,” Jaclyn said.

When Florinda came inside, a bowl of herbs and fruit waited for her.

“It tastes a little bitter,” said Florinda.

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“That’s just at first,” said Jaclyn, heading upstairs to leave the girl to eat her poppet salad alone. “Once it begins to work, you will taste sweetness.”

Florinda knew that her mother had eaten here, the day she found out she was pregnant with her and her brother. Her friend Little Green ate here often, and so did Green’s mom, Cypress. It must be OK to eat food that sparkles a little and tastes a little bitter at first, especially if it tastes sweet after.

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When the bowl was empty, Florinda had to admit: poppet salad is delicious!

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New World Symphony: The Goat-Hoofed Man

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“We have the same hair!” Florinda said to Jaclyn.

“Of course we do,” replied Jaclyn.”We come from the same stock, sure as can be!”

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“How about me?” said Sparkroot, hopping up onto the stool next to his sister. “I come from the same stock, too!”

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“Not you!” said Jaclyn. “You come from wizardry!”

“Yeah!” replied Sparkroot. “Like magic, huh?”

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Just then Brennan stopped by. He’d called to check up on the babies, and Cathy invited him over. “You’ll be surprised,” she told him.

“Surprised by our little family? Why, nothing my loved ones could do would surprise me,” he answered with a laugh.

But when he entered the kitchen, he jumped.

“Whoa! What happened to my peanuts?” he said.

“Ada!” said Sparkroot. “It’s just me!”

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“What was your ada like?” Florinda asked Jaclyn. “Is he like my ada?”

Jaclyn laughed. “My ada was a funny little fellow. Not that much taller than you and Sparkroot, actually, with a long wooly brown beard and hands like a little bear’s!”

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“Tell us more about your ada!” said Sparkroot.

“One day, my ada took a walk in the woods. Usually, his trail led him through the woods and into the meadow. But one day, the woods kept going further and further, darker and darker, until my ada looked around and he was quite lost in the mist of the forest.

“He heard a rumble and a crack, like the sound of a great tree-trunk splitting open, and then, he heard a violin.

“‘I ain’t a feared a no wobbly music!’ my ada said. But this was no ordinary music. This was a tune that had the power to take ahold of a man and never let him go. This was music that could dance a man to bits!”

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Sparkroot hung on every word. How could a man get danced to bits? And who could play such powerful music?

“My ada stared, and this man in a long coat the color of wine began to walk right towards him, playing the violin the whole time. He had a dark beard, this man did, and eyes shone brighter than the sun itself.”

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“Oh, Jaclyn,” interrupted Brennan, “You look mighty cute when you tell that tale. Maybe sometime you could tell me a bed-time story.”

Florinda laughed. “Anybody would be the luckiest of all to have Jaclyn tell the goodnight story!”

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“Now, Brennan Stuckey,” said Jaclyn, “I’ll not have you interrupting my story just because it makes you nervous to hear about a mysterious man in a wine-colored coat with eyes brighter than the sun. And I’ll certainly not sit by quietly while you interrupt me with a lame old flirt, Mr. Tea. That’s quite enough from you, sir.”

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Florinda hopped down to see if her violin were in tune, and Sparkroot jumped right up into the empty stool, so he could hear the story all the better.

“Go on!” he said. “What happened next?”

“Why, next,” said Jaclyn, “that swarthy gypsy man, for that’s who he was, began to play the violin, faster and faster, and my ada began to get all turned around and snarly-brained.”

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“The gypsy man played into the dark, and my ada kept dancing, around and around that old cracked oak tree. And in the darkest part of the night, the bears came out, drawn by the music, circling and circling.”

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“All night long, the gypsy played, the bears circled, and my ada turned and danced and grew dizzier and dizzier, and the bears circled and circled.”

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“And what happened next?” Sparkroot asked.

“Next thing my ada knew, it was morning, and he was leaning against the old oak tree, but the oak tree wasn’t split. The only thing split was the empty jug of mead beside him on the forest floor.”

“Was it just a dream then?”

“That’s what my ada thought,” said Jaclyn. “For he searched the ground all around, and he didn’t see a single footprint from a single bear, and he would have for it was all damp and muddy around. The only footprints he did see were very strange, indeed. The right print was from a man’s riding boot. And the left print?”

Brennan began to clap loudly. “That’s the best folk tale I’ve ever heard!” he said.

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“I didn’t finish yet,” said Jaclyn.

“Yeah, Ada,” said Sparkroot. “We need to hear what the left footprint was!”

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“The left footprint was a goat hoof,” said Jaclyn.

“Folk tales and fairy tales!” chuckled Brennan nervously. “The stuff of foolish nonsense!”

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“And that’s the story’s ending sure as the beginning! I’ll be off then,” said Jaclyn. “Ta!”

After she left, Brennan tried to still the nervousness he felt. He couldn’t explain it. All he knew was that he really had no patience for such make-believe. Superstitions and nonsense!

“You know, Spark,” he said to his son, “these kinds of stories really aren’t to be taken seriously. They’re not like stories about Babe Ruth, for example. They’re make-believe.”

“OK, Ada,” Sparkroot replied. “If you say there’s no such thing as a goat-hoofed man, I’ll believe you. But bears are real, right?”

“Not in New Orleans,” Brennan replied. “And not even here in Windenburg, either. The bears were cleared out long ago.”

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Brennan couldn’t shake his feeling of unease. After the kids settled in for their afternoon nap, he paced the living room, feeling first his right foot on the ground, then his left foot. Such nonsense! Two feet, ten toes. He wiggled his toes. All there! Who could believe the nonsense that such a silly woman could tell in her idleness!

He went in to look at his son as he slept, with his two feet in his two sneakers, like an all-American kid. He glanced down at his own two loafers. Stuff and nonsense! He didn’t even like the violin!

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When Cathy came into the kitchen to dish up snack for them, Brennan lashed out.

“What was that woman even doing here? Why do you have her over? Are you going to let anyone tell any old nonsense to our children? I don’t want my boy growing up believing in fairy tales!”

This was the second time he had yelled at her. The first had happened shortly after their marriage, when they’d met Jaclyn, Davion, and Wade at a nightclub. Cathy began to suspect that Brennan really didn’t like her friends.

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“Oh, phooey,” he said. “I lost my temper.”

He looked at her with a sheepish grin, and she tried to smile back. The smile didn’t reach her eyes.

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He did the dishes out of contrition.

It didn’t take away the sting.

Cathy thought. She knew this about Brennan, that he was capable of this. It was one of the reasons she’d wanted them to live in separate houses, to minimize the occassions when this could happen.

This was likely the root of Sugar’s anger, Cathy realized. Sugar’s Aunt Poplar. What had Sugar told her about her aunt?

“My aunt Poplar, God-rest-her-soul, that was a lonely woman,” Sugar had said. “She meant well enough, and I truly believe that she loved my mother and even me. And she was the best friend of my sweet sister Salix. But I’ve got to tell you, our home was nearly ruined time and again by Poplar’s verbal abuse. Eventually, when I was old enough, I lay down the law. ‘I won’t have you yell at me, or anyone I love,’ I told her. But we’d already been stung.”

Knowing Brennan, and Sugar had made sure to get to know this man before Cathy married him, Sugar likely learned that he was prone to these types of outbursts, too. It’s not the type of thing that anyone would want to expose a child to, especially if they’d experienced it in their own childhood. No wonder Sugar felt upset that Cathy was making a dad out of Brennan.

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Cathy wasn’t sure what to do. She loved this man. She loved their kids more than love itself.

She wasn’t sure if she could protect them from sometimes getting lashed with harsh words. And she didn’t want to keep them away from their father.

Maybe they could learn, what? That love is enough? That sometimes those you love might say things that hurt? That there’s more in this world than harmony and peace? That somebody may have shortcomings and foibles, and might even hurt you, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love you, and it didn’t mean that you had to stop loving him?

She wasn’t sure what they could learn. She wasn’t really sure what she could do. She figured that sometimes, there might be harsh words and tears. And sometimes, they might be like every other happy family.

And no matter what, she’d be there, to hold a safe spot when the oak tree cracked.

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