“In the Late December” by Greg van Eekhout
(Originally published in Strange Horizons.)
Here's a secret of the North Pole: Santa powders his hands with talc before donning his thick red mittens.
It is a small secret, true, but some would give anything to steal even that. A secret is a detail, and here in the late December, a detail is as precious as a true name.
Santa, a red exclamation in a white world, walks the reindeer line, stroking sugar-and-cinnamon fur. The reindeer shiver and snort and stamp their hooves, the lines connecting them to the parcel-laden sleigh jingling. Santa looks over to his candy-brick castle and waves good-bye, but no one stands in the doorway to wave back. With a sigh, he climbs onto the sleigh's driver's seat, the bench creaking beneath his weight. He pauses, holding the smooth and supple leather reins, and considers how to start the team. Onward? A-heya? Giddyup? Ho-ho? No, he's already used those. He makes a point of uttering a different word to inaugurate every outing, because he's been doing this for a long time, and if he didn't deliberately insert some bit of novelty into the procedure, he fears his jolly round head might well explode. That is another detail.
Then he has it. He snaps his fingers (no mean feat in his mittens) and with a brisk snap of the reins, he shouts, "Zorxa!"
Zorxa was a great emperor whose realm once encompassed sixteen degrees of the Curvature, and though his despotic rule made him a natural enemy, Zorxa knew how to accept a gift as well as anyone.
Greg van Eekhout lives in San Diego with his astronomy/physics professor wife and two dogs. He used to develop educational software for a living, but now writes full time, which he enjoys much better. His novels range from adult science fiction and fantasy to middle grade and include The Norse Code, the California Bones trilogy, Kid vs. Squid, and The Boy at the End of the World. His next book, a middle-grade novel about dogs on a spaceship, is due out in Fall 2018. You can find more about him at his website: writingandsnacks.com.
About the Narrator:
Eric Luke is the screenwriter of the Joe Dante film Explorers, which is currently in development as a remake; has written for the comic books Ghost and Wonder Woman; and wrote and directed the Not Quite Human films for Disney TV. His current project, Interference (a meta horror audiobook about an audiobook... that kills), is a bestseller on Audible.com. His website for creative projects is Quillhammer.com.