the smuggler’s bible

Vortigern

The teapot sits steaming on the table. Snow colors the hillside a dirty, scuffed white, but it is rippled with shadows. Like water moving below thick ice, deep and cold. Completely removed.

“Do you remember how different things were? Foolish, I know. You needn’t answer.” Vortigern laughs. “But certainly you, of all people, also recall precisely why it all changed.”

A light blooms silently on the horizon, the soft violet of dawn creeping across the treetops. But much too early for dawn. The nineclaw whips about, claws ready.

“Well, never mind. I suppose the world can’t stay the same forever.”

the nineclaw

He finds the paths bare of her scent, so the nineclaw abandons them. The moon is bright. His great eyes shine like lamps as he bounds through the silvery drifts piled between the trees. He mounts a hill and the stinging wind offers him a maddening hope. But underneath, something sour, polluted.

The nineclaw chases it to ground miles away in the shadow of an enormous holly tree—a small wooden table with two chairs, a teapot and delicate porcelain cups. Vortigern, muffled in fur, draws a ribbon out of his pocket, flattens it across his extended palm and smiles.

Vortigern

Vortigern leans forward, breeze ruffling the fawn-colored collar of his coat, and lifts a cup to his lips. “I’ll let you pour your own if you’d like to drink,” he says. “Which I don’t expect you will.”

Six yards across unbroken snow. Close enough, perhaps, if he knew the situation. If he knew what was at stake.

“She isn’t here. In fact, you have come much too far.”

“You invited me.”

“Yes, I suppose I did.” Vortigern folds the ribbon gently on the table. “Do you know the date? Today is her anniversary. I thought her oldest friends should celebrate.”

Rhombus

“I’ve been over every root and trunk. It isn’t there. I can’t even find a spot that looks right,” Rhombus says. He points east and west to twin breaks in the tree line. “I alternate trails every day. Sometimes I flip a coin and pick at random, in case that makes a difference.”

“Just those two?” Gisela says, looking south toward the overgrown footpath beside a forked beech. Shadows dapple a carpet of dried leaves poking up through the snow.

The nineclaw follows her gaze and turns away immediately. “Left or right, lost-cub.”

“Oh, nine,” Gisela whispers, “not you too.”