Thanksgiving this year is definitely not the same as usual. The weather has turned from rainy and foggy to exceptionally cold, leaving the trees glittering artistically and the roads treachery slippery. It seems like the earth itself has decided to add to the coldness spreading in the hearts of the habitants of Bayou Oaks Mansion.
With Taïga deeply unconscious and no news from Granny since her departure several weeks ago, even Missy is beginning to lose faith. She can’t help but believe the worst has happened to her sister. Especially since Sprinkler told her where she was headed and why, making her solemnly promise not to tell anyone. She’s blaming Magnus Darkling, of course. Tara probably found him and he finished her off, the coldhearted bastard.
‘Who?’ Juan stops hammering on his latest creation.
Missy realizes she must have spoken out loud, but she shrugs it off.
‘No one. An old acquaintance… Extremely old,’ she adds under her breath and sinks deeper into the welcome warmth of the bubble bath. ‘Can you take care of Junior? I’ll be a minute.’
‘Where is he?’
‘Oh… Probably in the backyard. I sent him out to get some fresh air.’
‘You sent a toddler outdoors on his own?’ Juan glances out the window. ‘What the heck? Dang kid is lying in one of them puddles!’
‘Oh my. You’d better hurry then.’
Juan grumbles something inaudible, but he dutifully takes his coat and slams the door shut behind him.
Missy rolls her eyes. She can feel her husband’s aversion to taking care of their son, but there’s no other way but to force him. And she needs to be alone and think for a while. Since Taïga can’t be counted on anymore, she has had to take care of everything at home and the decaying state of Juan’s house is taking its toll on her. She waves away the thought that her age could also have something to do with her constant state of exhaustion. She sighs. Tonight they are having Thanksgiving dinner at the Old Manor. Without Granny’s cooking and without Taïga. But the most dreadful of it all is the presence of the Council.
The Darer’s are greeted by Lugubre Chantelamort who opens the door with a sneer. Missy waits until Rowan has taken their coats to ask Lugubre an innocent question about Magnus Darkling. Rowan freezes. How come Missy knows about Granny’s mission?
‘Pourquoi? ‘ow come? We ‘ave finished ‘im off. Zhere is no way to find ‘im, let alone bee killed by ‘im,’ Lugubre Chantelamort hisses so Juan can’t hear. She pats her styled hair and looks down her nose at Missy. ‘Such a ridiculous question. And vhere is your sister? Does it ‘ave somzing to do viz Magnus Darkling?’
‘Of course not! I’ve just started on a romantic book called Twilight – almost as good as “Wuthering Heights”, dear – and it’s about handsome vampires. Naturally I thought of him. You do know we had a torrid affair a few years ago?’
‘Oh là là, tell me about it.’
Rowan lets out his breath. He decides he will sit as far from the French witch as possible during the dinner. The old crone positively reeks of hairspray and contempt. ‘I’ll just check on Taïga,’ he says, grabbing the occasion to get away.
‘She iz fine. She iz viz zhe Count and your charmant fazher. Now quiet zhe children, s’il te plaît.’
‘Oui? Somzing better to do?’ She looks at him, making him feel utterly stupid. ‘Bien. Zhey are too noisy. Ouste!’
Rowan rolls his eyes and heads for the dining room following the sound of barking and happy screams. So much for a few moments of solitude in his sister’s room. The Council’s presence at the manor is starting to get on his nerves. He never thought he would be happy to leave the Bayou, but even the prospect of doing more magic with Sprinkler can’t cheer him up. Their attempt at freeing the fairy has not worked and he has not seen Sprinkler since. Dang gnome is probably sleeping off a taste too much of the red wine his father had brought with him from their vineyards. He knows he will have to go back to Italy with Frost and his father after Thanksgiving, but at the same time he is not ready to leave his sister at the mercy of the Council.
He stops at the doorway, taking a step back as Frost runs past him, followed by Valkyria taking a sharp turn around the festively set table.
Athan Junior is right behind, sliding on the polished floor in mismatched socks. Valkyria stops and barks at the little boy who giggles and screams with glee. She turns around and he tries to grab her tail, shaking the short stump vigorously in his little hands. The poor dog shies away with a yelp.
Rowan kneels in front of the little boy and sermons him, trying to explain that he mustn’t pull on Valkyria’s tail. Athan crosses his arm and sucks fiercely on his pacifier.
‘Don’t overdo it. He doesn’t understand.’ Frost snickers. ‘And it is too short to get a good grip, anyway.’
‘Just see to it he doesn’t do it again, will you?’
‘I’ve got it, Rowan.’ Frost picks the little boy up from behind, showing him the tempting bounty on the side table but keeping the chubby fingers just out of reach. ‘See? You can’t have anything of all this. But I can.’
‘And don’t let him eat anything. Capisce?’
‘Si, si. No play. No food. No fun…’
‘You’ve got it.’
Rowan backtracks. He’ll go upstairs and check on his sister anyway. With a little luck he could stay with her and maybe no one will miss him at table… The doorbell rings again and he watches Missy and Lugubre Chantelamort open the door on two familiar, but not welcome, figures. The Arrington’s. This is getting better and better.
‘What the hell?’ he mutters, watching the two spinsters take off their colorful coats and hand them to Missy who lamely protests.
‘Ell, ell,’ Athan shouts, losing his pacifier on the floor in his excitement.
Frost picks it up and holds it just out of reach. Athan screams and Valkyria starts barking again.
Lugubre throws an annoyed glance in their direction, but finds herself being ushered toward the den by Phyllis who resolutely has taken her arm.
‘Who are they?’ Frost asks.
‘Some neighbors from upstream in Ivy Creek. The Arrington’s.’
Frost snickers, still holding the pacifier out of reach from Athan who is howling to get it back. Rowan sighs. He resolutely grabs it and pushes it into the little boy’s mouth, effectively shutting him up. So the Arrington’s have decided to pay the manor a surprise visit to get some free food and the opportunity to mingle with the Council. He hopes he won’t have to stay and endure the elder’s boring ranting but will be able to leave the table as soon as possible.
Rowan directs Frost and Athan to the corner of the large room where there are some toys scattered on the ground. Then he grabs Valkyria with a firm grip on her collar and steers the dog through the hall to let her out for a while. He opens the door on Arthur, hidden behind a huge bouquet of autumn Dahlias in lovely orange and red shades.
‘They are for the hostess,’ he explains, his cheeks growing a little pink. ‘She told me not to bring anything, but I didn’t want to show up empty handed.’
Rowan stares. Oh, shit. He had totally forgotten about Granny’s suitor. Quick, he has to get rid of him before he asks too many questions.
Lugubre pushes Rowan aside and grabs the bouquet. ‘Merci. I am certaine we can find a bucket or somezing to put zhem in. Au revoir.’ She sweeps off towards the kitchen, dismissing Arthur.
‘Well. I thought… I didn’t know you had company. Err… Tara, is she available? She must have an awful lot to do with so many guests and all.’
‘She’s not here, actually,’ Rowan says. ‘She’s visiting with friends in, err… Fort Lauderdale. With Taïga.’
‘Oh… Florida? She didn’t mention it… But it’s a good choice this time of the year. Well. I should probably leave then.’ Arthur puts his hat back on and turns on his heels.
‘You’re welcome to stay,’ Rowan bursts out, mostly because he doesn’t want to side with the bossy French witch.
Arthur turns around with a smile, and Rowan knows he has made a good choice. Thanksgiving is about sharing, after all.
After adding enough silverware to seat three more guests and waiting for Missy to feed Athan, they all gather in the dining room around the long table set as usual with their best porcelain and autumnal decoration Haeju has has put together. The side table is laden with delicious food ordered at the local deli.
Count Olaf declines presiding the dinner. Instead he elegantly gestures for Leonardo to take the seat usually held by Granny.
‘I say, today is a day of sharing with the lesser ones among us, what?’
Leonardo sits, but Rowan can see that his father is not happy with the condescending attitude of the Count.
He can’t understand why the two men are so hostile. Of course there is the matter of hierarchy and then of old lineage. His own, Di Grisogno dell’Aquila, seems to trace back to the Roman Empire when Count Olaf’s family was knighted in the late middle ages. So what? His father is a successful business man while Count Olaf is living off his apanage, not doing much of his days. Being head of the Council can’t take that much of his time.
He sighs again. This will be a tedious dinner…
‘C’est terriblement impoli,’ Lugubre mutters. She doesn’t have to say any names for everyone to understand that she is referring to Granny and her inopportune absence.
‘Yes. Absolutely. And it is not like her at all,’ Phyllis breaks in. ‘She never leaves the Manor for longer periods, and it’s been at least… What? Two? Three weeks now.’
‘That long?’ Arthur is surprised. ‘She didn’t mention a journey.’
‘Who are you? Her priest?’ Phyllis cackles with mirth at her own rude remarks.
‘Err… No. Of course not, miss Arrington. But Tara is a cherished friend and I haven’t heard from her since Halloween.’
‘Pillow talk then? I wouldn’t have thought that of Tara either.’ Phyllis nudges Lugubre’s side, winking conspiratorially.
‘Take your ‘ands off me,’ Lugubre sneers, shying away from the unpolished manners of the redneck witch.
‘Pillowtalk? Lugubre need some,’ Baba Yaga puffs and she would certainly have nudged the French witch, too, if the Count had not been seated between them.
Count Olaf clears his throat. ‘Ladies. Show some restraint, what?’ He returns his attention to Leonardo. ‘I say, it would be jolly pleasant if you could say grace, old chap.’ He gives Leonardo a pointed look.
Leonardo curtly nods back, hating to be told what to do. Especially by a Count with a shorter lineage than his own.
They all follow the American tradition and take each other’s hands, bowing their heads in silent contemplation. Leonardo draws his breath.
‘I’m blessed to be able to spend the holidays here with all of you. Let us appreciate this meal in fellowship and celebration and let us all say thanks for the bounty we’ve received. Amen.’
‘I say, let’s dig in. What?’ Count Olaf rubs his hands together.
‘Da! Go first, Missy. Afterrr all, you iz eating for two, da?’ Baba Yaga says slyly.
Juan is halfway on his feet but stops pushing back his chair and sits heavily down again. ‘What did you just say? Two?’
‘Da. Zvo. Two. Deux. Dos.’ She holds up two fingers in the air to underline her words.
Missy fluffs her hair, giggling nervously and throwing a glance at Juan.
Her husband has become very still. He stares into space with a vacant look on his face.
‘Baba Ya- Yanca!’ Haeju hisses. ‘Don’t you have any notion of secret and confidential?’
‘Niet,’ Baba Yaga answers tartly.
‘C’est pas vrai!’ Lugubre exclaims, leaning forward to look first at Baba Yaga and then at Haeju. ‘You ‘ave told Yanca and not me?’
Haeju shrugs and fiddles with her hair, a typical gesture to avoid confrontation.
Baba Yaga scoffs and shakes out a long brown cigarillo from a packet next to her plate. ‘He must be blind if nod see viz hees own eyes. Firrre?’
‘You do not smoke.’ Lugubre says sternly.
‘Govno. But I do smoke. I smoke since I vas zhirteen? Fourteen? Hundrrreds of yearrrs. I enjoy verrry much. Nov, who light it? Arrturr-chik?’
Arthur fiddles with his cutlery. ‘I don’t think Tara would appreciate us smoking.’
‘Hmpf. Iz nod herrre to stop us, is she?’ Baba Yaga waves with her cigarette, but suddenly she remembers where she is and refrains from lighting it with a flick of her hand.
‘Ahem. I say, well done, old chap.’ Count Olaf nods curtly.
‘Yes, I guess congratulations are called for.’ Arthur beams at Missy and Juan. ‘Excellent news.’
Juan doesn’t answer. He just nods absentmindedly.
‘Well, then…’ Arthur looks at Missy. ‘Your sister must be thrilled. Or maybe she doesn’t know yet?’
‘Oh, she was not very enthusiastic, you know her ways. Kept going on about my age, could you believe that?’
‘Err… no.’ Arthur hesitates.
Tramp whimpers by his side, craving attention. Arthur is happy for the distraction. He strokes the dog’s head, feeling a little uneasy. There are tensions around the table he can’t pinpoint, and poor Juan seems thunderstruck by the news of his wife’s pregnancy. He can understand the poor man, being pregnant at Missy’s age is not risk free. And learning about it in public by this bad-mannered woman… He shakes his head.
‘Are you sure you don’t want any? It is really good, made with 100% Aleatico grapes. Even the Romans enjoyed it.’
Leonardo is holding a bottle of red wine, ready to pour some into his glass.
‘Oh. Of course. I’d love some.’
‘Me too.’ Baba Yaga waves her glass, leaning on him. ‘Let’s get zhis parrrty starrrted!’
‘I’d really prefer a Pouilly Fumé,’ Lugubre mutters, but she accepts the beverage nevertheless.
They are soon all discussing more trivial matters over turkey and mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
When Missy and Tanya go to prepare the dessert – freshly ground coffee and pastries, Rowan asks if he can leave the table and deftly disappears upstairs. It is the signal for the men to go outdoors and bond over thick cigars on the porch.
The witches are left alone, with the children calmly playing in a corner of the dining room. So calmly none of the old witches pay attention to them and what they might pick up of their heated conversation.
As soon as Arthur and Juan are out of earshot, Lugubre speaks what has been on her mind during the whole meal. ‘We ‘ave to stay here. Viz Taïga. Take care ov ‘er.’
‘Vee? Vee? I-’ Baba Yaga gestures towards herself. ‘I veel stay.’
‘Taïga is a common interest, Baba Yaga. She belongs to the Council.’ Haeju tries to calm the outburst she feels is on its way.
‘Niet. Taïga is mine. She is betrrrothed to my descendant. To Ivan Aleksа́ndrovich. She veel become Queen of Jadwiga.’
‘Exactly,’ Phyllis Arrington cuts in, eager to show where her loyalties lie. ‘The honorable Baba Yaga has explained everything about the marriage contract,’ she adds. ‘But why don’t you both stay here. We can house the Count at the Pidgin Roost.’
‘Mother! What about-’ Tanya Arrington widens her eyes. She has no desire whatsoever to host the stiff Count. If she had her pick, she would much prefer the other Count, the Italian one. He is a smooth operator…
‘Vhat? You nod vant him?’ Baba Yaga turns her pale eyes on Tanya who blushes.
‘Of course, I want… him.’ She swallows nervously at the sight of the French witch’s eyes narrowing. ‘I mean… it… it will be a real pleasure. To receive such a… a substantial guest.’ She avoids looking at her mother. Since Taïga’s initiation, Phyllis has filled her in on the Count’s marital, or rather absence of marital, status and she has made it clear that she won’t take no for an answer if ever the topic turns up. And knowing her mother, it soon will.
‘I don’t zhink it iz appropriate for zhe Count to stay viz a… a… Viz you.’ Lugubre stares at Tanya with animosity.
‘You are right, Lugubre. Maybe you should stay with them, too? Just to be sure nothing inappropriate happens.’ Haeju looks innocently at her French colleague from across the table.
‘Inappropriate? Are you crazy?’ Tanya splutters.
Haeju silences her with a gesture and a look. Split to better rule. Baba Yaga alone will be an easier task than having her fighting and squabbling with Lugubre.
‘Exactement. I veel stay vere zhe Count stays.’ Lugubre crosses her arms over her thin chest.
‘Vell. Go ahead, all ov you. I veel stay herrre. End of discussion.’ Baba Yaga spits.
‘But you can’t just move in-’ Missy tries.
‘Err… Well, Tara isn’t home right now, and-’ She looks from Baba Yaga to Lugubre. Both Council members are staring back at her with something she prefers not to know in their eyes. ‘-and I guess you can,’ she finishes in a tiny voice.
‘She’ll be on her own if we don’t stay and take care of her,’ Haeju says.
‘Right. And you’ll leave as soon as she wakes up, huh?’ Tanya adds enthusiastically.
‘Comment?’ Lugubre looks down her nose at Tanya. How dare the low standing witch interfere?
‘Durak! I vill not leave vizoud MY Taïgeshka.’
‘-there is not much we can do before Tara is back anyway. Can we all agree it is our duty to stay?’ Haeju finishes diplomatically.
‘What?’ Missy returns her attention to Baba Yaga.
‘So vhen can ve expect herrr?’ Baba Yaga picks off some tobacco from her thin lips.
‘Err… I don’t know…’
‘So, it iz settled zhen? Ve all stay ‘ere. Count Olaf aussi,’ Lugubre states with a meaningful look at Tanya who feels a rush of relief wash over her.
She avoids looking at the Count when he returns and takes his seat between Lugubre and Baba Yaga. Better not titillate the jealousy of the ugly witch further. She concentrates on talking to Haeju about fashion and other innocent topics instead.
But Phyllis’s hopes of snaring a suitor to her daughter is not entirely crushed. As long as the Council stays in the vicinity, there is hope. And the Council will stay as long as Taïga remains unconscious and Tara is away. She just has to make sure it stays that way…
Part II – End of Chapter 44