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.”

Gisela

She crouches slowly and feels the ground nearby, eyes forward. She’s afraid to blink, afraid to make a sound. A feeling deep inside tells her that the courtyard scene will fade if given the barest excuse.

“You told me earlier that it would be tomorrow.”

“Things are complicated now. Next week.”

Gisela’s fingers close around an object. Smooth and round. Ice cold.

“Liar. You’ve said that before, too.”

Vortigern’s reply is soft—so very soft. A whisper. The hairs on the nape of Gisela’s neck rise. Then she is falling away, backward through the open door into the snowy night.