Author : Garrett Harriman

Flagons of goat milk strewn before him, Mr. Rudolph propped boots on his musty bag. Sun-wrung but cheery, he’d drunk nonstop the whole interrogation, whistling once winter classics between questions and guzzles. Their purpose, their lyrics, had all but evaporated. Only their catchiness remained.

Plagues berating Tor’s head, they underscored the man’s impossible alibi. If nothing else, he was assiduous. He swore himself a Worldtop missionary. Detailed cobbling, pointy-eared creatures, whirlwind, nightlong deliveries. Snow.

Noah Tor stopped him again. “Snow, Mr. Rudolph?”

Rudy’s dimples were products of emaciation. “Like fallout, my Noah, only freezing. Pure. You can even sculpt it into men.”

Tor’s matte imagination couldn’t contain such splendor. “Why approach Subhaven by foot?”

The man mime-whipped eight creatures in succession–“On Comet! On Cupid!”–waving from a high-flying sleigh. “Couldn’t slip down the chimney. There’s only a coal chute.”

“It’s blocked. For emergencies.”

Rudy toasted genially. “Thank the saints I signaled, eh?”

Tor’d seen the distress flares, red and green, as Rudy collapsed in the swelter. It was a dangerous foible accepting Shadeless subsurface. Most Ark lords slit vendor throats as a precaution; Tor gave them hospitality. Empathy. Milk.

So long as Old Wind stained the Geiger-hot air, Tor refused to kill unscrupulously. Even if Rudy proved a conscript, some Secular saboteur, life on the Sprawl scorched the mind beyond blame. History and lore were toxins, Blurring men out of all prescience.

And who’s to say flying deer never existed? Truth, like sand, was immemorial.

Tor beckoned for the bag. “Your wares, Mr. Rudolph.”

Rudy slid his haul. “Wares? Ho-ho-no–they’re gifts!”

“You say that…” The Noah unloaded toys onto the tabletop. A wooden caboose. A wind-up alligator. A scuffed Gameboy cartridged with Mega Man V. Each an inscrutable, portable ruin. Items not of nostalgia but suspicion.

“All handmade!” lauded Rudy. “Subhaven’s children have earned their rewards.”

Tor rummaged through dolls. “By whose standards?”

“Why mine, of course.” Rudolph chuckled. “And the Naughty-Nice List.”

Tor tightened: List? He flapped the sack until a hide scroll fluttered out. He read it top to bottom. He gloomed.

Tor clenched a doll’s floppy head. “And how does a Shadeless conjure the names–the deeds–of children secured underground?”

Rudoulph’s latest tune–“We Three Kings”–withered. He stroked his braided beard and winked. “Ah, that I can’t explain, Noah. The lives of Ark children stream through my head in gales. Always have, good and bad.”

A missile of sinew and meat, Tor wedged Rudy against the flagstone. Torchlight radished their faces.

“That much I can’t believe. Are these beacons, Rudy? Bombs?” Tor decapitated the doll–a flurry of fluff. “Who’s the Secular traitor what sold you my children? Give me creeds, you Blurred wretch! Remember!

It was futile. Guileless eyes irradiated back. “I’m a public servant, Noah. An entrepreneur. My elves made these presents. At the workshop.”

Silent, remorseful, Tor shrank from the deluded merchant. He rallied his guards; they advanced with ill tidings.

Rudy cornered himself. “Don’t be naughty, sir–the delivery’s tonight! Your children, the others–they need me!”

Gentle, Tor retrieved Rudy’s flagon. “You’re no child murderer, Rudy. No lunatic or marauder. You’re a charitable man. Like me.” He pecked his far-gone brow. “Roam,” he whispered. “Don’t come back.”

Incredulous, his whiskers white with foam, Rudolph was ushered by the guards.

Weighing the coming conflict, Tor paced the hall. He restocked the threadbare bag. It smelled bodily of coal.

Yes. Coal. Hunting Seculars would constrict Subhaven’s resources. They’d need every scrap of fuel to survive.

The Noah cinched and shouldered Rudy’s relics. He quickened to the furnaces, whistling “Silver Bells.”


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