This ambushed me yesterday afternoon and wouldn’t go away.
Spoiler Alert: If you have not read the Rada and Joschka chapters posted earlier this year, or do no want spoilers for the next Cat Among Dragons book, please come back tomorrow. Thank you.
Johann yawned, fighting off sleep. Maybe his friends were right and Father Christmas didn’t come to Austria. He blinked and yawned again as he watched his Great-grandfather, Opapa Joschka, putting out the candles from the Christmas Eve gathering and then banking the fire. The Christmas tree remained lit, and the small white lights provided more than enough light for Johann. Would the fire in the big fireplace keep Father Christmas out? He had not asked Geoffrey about that. Or was it Opapa being awake that prevented Father Christmas from coming? It was almost midnight, after all. Then he heard a sound. Opapa Joschka heard it too, and froze, looking toward the corridor leading to the family wing and the chapel.
“Mensch! Das is Himmelhoch.” Johann’s eyes popped open at the sound of Tante Rachel’s voice. He risked peeking around the end of the heavy leather-covered sofa, under the end table. He saw Opapa’s back, and then heard “step-tap-step” coming more quietly than usual. Tante Rachel limped into great main hall of Schloß Hohen-Drachenburg. She stopped and tipped her head all the way back, looking up at the silver and gold star on top of the tree, almost hidden in the shadows of the ceiling beams. A long braid of hair swayed a little in the dim light from the tree and the banked fire. He’d never seen her with her hair down, or with a bow on it. Opapa turned and smiled. Tante Rachel walked closer to where he stood and curtsied, not quite as gracefully as Johann remembered. Opapa frowned and took her hand, the one not on her pale wood cane, raising her, then kissing the hand. “I’m just tired.”
“Dare I ask why?” Yellow-gold eyes narrowed and Johann stared. Opapa never let anyone see his hidden eyes.
“Ah.” Opapa’s shoulders dropped a little. he wasn’t mad then. Johann relaxed as well. Opapa angry scared people. Opapa moved and put his arm across Tante Rachel’s shoulders. She leaned his head against him! Oh, Johann’s papa would fuss if he saw them. He didn’t like Tante Rachel.
“How did you get it through the door, my lord?”
Tante Rachel laughed, a bright, warm sound. “House secret?”
Opapa chuckled. “Yes.” Opapa had not laughed this much the whole past year. Hearing the rich, warm voice made Johann feel better. “And how did you get in?”
“The cat flap. Someone left it unlocked.”
Johann heard a sigh, then a hint of more laughter in Opapa’s voice. “I am the lord of the Drachenburg. I have a duty to know about any weaknesses in my defenses.”
Tante Rachel turned so that she faced him. Opapa kept his arm on her shoulders. It looked suspiciously like a hug to Johann. “But I am the cat who goes by herself, my lord. All times and places are alike to me.”
Tante Rachel stepped even closer and Johann blinked, rubbed his eyes, and blinked again as they kissed! His father really would not approve, but Johann sensed that something else did, that odd thing in his mind that Opapa and Papa called “the House.” Opapa lifted his arm and stepped back from Tante Rachel, who seemed to be rummaging at her side. Oh, she had a bag with her. She always had a bag with her, Johann remembered. And she was from England. Was she working with Father Christmas? He wiggled a little closer to the end of the sofa, watching closely.
“Happy Christmas.” Tante Rachel held something out to his Opapa. “Father Christmas left this while I was at chapel.” She was! But it looked like a book. Books were not what Johann wanted from Father Christmas, or the Kristkind, or the Three kings.
“Interesting, because he also left something here.” As Opapa reached into the tree’s branches, Johann’s eyes went wide and he felt a crush of disappointment. Where were his gifts if Father Christmas had already been here? And how did Opapa know? Maybe Jane had been right after all, and Father Christmas only visited English boys and girls. Opapa handed Tante Rachel a flat box with a simple ribbon on it.
She opened it and gasped, dropping the ribbon. “Oh! Oh, Awful Clawful, these are . . . they’re beautiful. Thank you, love, thank you!” Opapa reached into the box, took out something and set it on Tante Rachel’s head. No, he clipped it to one of her hears? Johann blinked, rubbed his eyes again, and shook his head a little. She had cat ears, and Opapa had just put gems on them. Was he dreaming? Opapa picked up the ribbon as Tante Rachel closed the box and slipped it into her bag.
“Can you stay?”
She shook her head slowly and the gems threw a little of the light from the tree. “I’m sorry, my love. I can’t . . . Logres and I’m on duty.” She reached up and touched the side of Opapa’s face. “It’s going to hurt when I go back, but I stole an hour.”
Opapa inhaled with a hiss, eyes shifting to red-gold. He didn’t say anything, instead hugging Tante Rachel close, so close that Johann couldn’t see space between them. Johann sensed mind-talk but he knew better than to try to listen in. He hoped Opapa would go to bed soon, so he could look and see if Father Christmas had left anything for him.
The adults separated, and Opapa smiled, then dangled the ribbon high, just above Tante Rachel’s nose, and bounced it as if he were teasing a cat. She swatted the end of the ribbon but smiled, and tipped her head toward the sofa. She said something in a language Johann didn’t recognize, guttural like Dutch but also a bit musical. Opapa answered in the same speech, turning toward Johann as he did. Johann ducked back behind the couch and held his breath.
“Infant holy, infant lowly/ For his bed a cattle stall,” a warm woman’s voice sang. “For his bed a cattle stall./ Oxen lowing, little knowing/ Christ the babe is Lord of all.” Johann yawned. He felt warm, and rested his head on his arms. “Swift are winging/angels singing/ tidings bringing/ noels ringing/ Christ the Babe is born for you/ Christ the Babe is born for you.”
“He’s asleep,” Rada whispered. Joschka took her in his arms again and kissed her, then just held her, stroking her back and resting his chin between her ears. She felt him sigh. “Are you going to muddle his memory?”
“I don’t want to, but yes,” he murmured back. “I can’t risk him telling Leopold about your gift.”
Joschka put his finger on her lips, stilling her apology, then kissed her again. “No. It’s Leopold and my problem, beloved, Star Born, not yours.” She sighed and rested her head on his chest.
“Did Father Christmas bring him anything?”
“Yes. Liza told me what he’d told her about the children at school, and so Father Christmas made a little detour.”
“Good. He needs to shield better at home, love.”
“I’ll remind him, gently.”
They stood that way for several sweet minutes, then Rada shifted her weight and backed away. “Forgive me, love, I have to go.”
“Go, then come back, please,” he whispered, letting his worry and fear show.
She squeezed his hand. “I’ll do my best, Awful.”
Rada waited until Joschka had scooped up the sleeping ten-year-old and carried him up the stairs to bed, then snuck out of the Schloß by a way even Joschka did not know. Johann’s green eyes, so like his great-grandmother Magda’s had given him away.
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved