The worst part about being a slave again, Pepper decided, was not the work, which was endless, or the cold, which was brutal. Those things were bad, but not the worst. The worst was how much he missed everyone.
The second worst was the hunger, though. Loneliness and hunger both felt like a kind of pain in his stomach, and sometimes they melted together and made it so he couldn’t even speak. It hurt so bad he couldn’t think about anything else.
If he worked too hard, the hunger hurt more, but if he didn’t work hard enough, he didn’t get anything at all to eat. And if he thought about certain things, then it made it worse, too. Mama had told him to think about happy things, but those were the most dangerous. All the happy things were from when he was with two lost families, and he missed them.
All he could do was just do his work and hope he got a big piece of bread today. He reached down with a sigh to pick up another lump of horse dung. Master’s people liked to collect horse dung for reasons no one had bothered to explain, and if he didn’t get enough of it by dark, he wouldn’t get dinner. The sun was only one fist above the horizon, and it was sinking fast. He gritted his teeth and picked up another piece, wishing the fur had grown on his hands already so his fingers would stay warm.
These Allobrogians lived in round-houses like the ones he’d lived in with his first family, before Androkles. They were shaped like a circle, wide and round with a pointed top and thick, heavy roof made of hay. The buildings were similar, but the people were different. They were all stone men, but not the same kind as Papa. Papa’s skin was a bit darker, and his hair and beard were black instead of pale, and he…
Pepper blanched and looked around, but no one had seen him thinking about Papa, so he just shook his head and tried to think about something else.
The basket was as full as it could get, so it was time to go dump it on the pile. When he bent over to pick it up, though, he found that it was even heavier than he expected. He was so hungry his arms felt like they were made of cloth, and he looked at them and it seemed strange for a moment that they were his. I wish Flower could help me with this, he thought. He imagined for a moment that Flower was standing there holding the other end of the basket and… Oh no, no, I thought about it again. He tried to think of something else, but he wasn’t fast enough. Tears rushed into his eyes and the pain in his stomach suddenly got worse. He almost threw up.
He squatted down and hugged himself tightly, wrapping his tail across his knees to try and warm up a bit and calm down. He didn’t want to cry because the tears made his face cold, and he didn’t want to throw up because of how bad it hurt. There was nothing in there to throw up anyway. He squeezed his eyes shut to keep them from burning and he breathed as deeply and evenly as he could, over and over. It took him a moment, but he felt better after.
He picked up the basket, straining as hard as he could, and carried it about ten steps before he had to set it down and rest for a few breaths. Then he picked it up again, lurched another ten steps, and stopped to rest. No more thinking about Flower. No more thinking about Flower, or anyone. Not until his stomach was full, and definitely not in front of Master.
It took him longer than it should have, but Pepper finally dragged the basket over to the pile at the edge of the village and dumped it out, then started cleaning all the bits of dung out of the wickerwork. He had to pack it with snow and then shake the snow out, over and over, or the dung wouldn’t come out. The cold made his forearms stiff, and he realized that he could barely move his fingers. But once he hadn’t cleaned well enough and Master had punished him by not giving him anything to eat. Then the next day he gave him the same amount of work even though he was so hungry. So Pepper did the best he could, packing snow into all the crevices and then smacking it out until it was perfect.
He carried it back to Master’s round-house and when he got close, he saw the light from a big fire inside and heard men and women laughing. The smell of roasting meat filled his head and a bold spark of hope ignited in him, even as his mouth watered and his stomach turned over. Master had his friends over again, and that was the best thing that could ever happen. It had only happened twice so far, but each time Master had given him more to eat than normal and let him stay near the fire to keep his drinking horn full.
He shook all the snow he could out of his tail and off his leather shoes, then made sure he bowed his head meekly as he carried the basket into the big round-house. Not looking up, he waited until Master wasn’t talking, then said, “Master, I did what you said. Here’s the basket.”
“Ah, good, it’s my Skythander kit back from gathering dung. Come here and show me the basket,” said Master in a friendly voice. The hope in Pepper’s chest increased even more.
Pepper gingerly stepped over the guests and their wives, careful not to look at any of them, and showed Master the basket. The gruff man took it, peered inside, and tossed it into a corner.
Pepper spared a glance around the room and saw at least ten visitors gathered around the fire. The usual cookpot had been replaced by a spit, and there was a large, skinned boar on it, shimmering and dark from roasting. Master’s wife was dripping more fat onto it to make sure it cooked well like Papa used to do with rabbits and birds.
But just then, it rotated around and its eye met Pepper’s, looking squarely at him, then just kept turning. Pepper couldn’t keep from trembling, and not from hunger. He stared at the roasting animal’s face, with its tongue hanging out between its teeth and its one good eye watching him no matter how it turned, and it seemed personal somehow. Like it could have been him with that iron bar shoved from tail to teeth. No skin. Pepper had to remind himself that it was food. He closed his eyes and smelled it instead.
“So Naios, where’d you get a Skythander?” asked a man with a gravelly voice.
Pepper avoided looking at the visitor and kept still. He wasn’t sure how to react—Master would be angry if he did anything to stand out, but he didn’t want to embarrass Master by looking weak or silly, either.
“I got a deal from the prince. He owed me a favor. Cost me two sheep,” said Master, sounding pleased with himself. “So far, he hasn’t been worth it.”
Pepper’s chest tightened and he looked away. His stomach twisted again, a sharp pain almost enough to make him bend over. Sudden fear of not getting dinner was making it worse.
Master’s friend replied, “Two sheep? You have to be kidding. Skythanders are worth over four hundred silvers down south, maybe more.”
“Grown ones, maybe. Not kits. But my little Black-tail here was with that massive brute everyone’s talking about. The one who killed the King’s nephew? The kit was that man’s slave. The prince needed to get rid of him quick, before the brute got ideas. I called that favor due,” said Master with a half chuckle.
Not slave. I’m Papa’s son, not his slave, thought Pepper. He said nothing, though. Master forbade him to even think about his old family. Master somehow knew when he was doing it, too, and would hit him or twist his ears. He quickly tried to think of something else instead of Papa. Getting dinner.
“So how is he? I hear Skythanders are a pain to raise, and if you get them as adults they’ll never obey you,” asked another of Master’s friends.
“Black-tail here is too small and skinny to be any use, but he’s been easy so far. Not much crying or that nonsense. He forgot his old master pretty quick. Didn’t you, Black-tail?” asked Master, wicked gleam in his eyes. Pepper could see the effects of alcohol there, making them a bit more empty than normal. The firelight cast odd shadows on Master’s face where it caught his sparse beard and short, unruly hair. It made him look monstrous, and Pepper looked away.
“Yes, Master,” said Pepper, eyes downcast, trying not to let any of the bad feelings roiling in his stomach leak up into his voice.
“Now that I think of it, tell me: how long have you been a slave?” asked Master.
“Half a month, Master,” said Pepper.
“No, that’s when I bought you, stupid. How long were you a slave before that?” said Master, starting to sound annoyed.
Pepper flinched, knowing he was about to lose his only food for the second day in a row. The thought made his mind shake. Hunger was too terrifying to contemplate. His thoughts raced almost too fast to keep track of as he tried to think of what to say. Trying to sound as contrite as he could, he said, “Sorry, Master. I wasn’t a slave before. But I don’t remember it much anymore. I forgot all about them.” He felt the lie stumble as it left his lips, and he was certain everyone knew it.
“You weren’t a slave before?” asked Master’s wife. She had barely looked at him twice the whole time that Pepper had lived with them, but now she was staring right at him. Her dull brown eyes and long face, framed by a mess of tumbling brown hair, always made him uncomfortable, and now more than ever.
“No, Master, or, um, Master’s wife. I was just, um…” said Pepper. He didn’t want to say he was Androkles’ son, because that might seem defiant. Everyone knew that Androkles was the strongest man who ever lived.
Master asked, “If you weren’t a slave, then why are you such a mild little rabbit?”
For a moment, Pepper didn’t answer as sudden shame burned him. He almost stared up defiantly at Master before catching himself. But Papa used to say something all the time, usually to make Flower feel better about being bad at everything. He would say, ‘It is as good to be clever as to be strong.’ Pepper knew he was too little to fight a grown-up. He was sure he could beat up any boy his age, and maybe one as old as twelve, or fifteen. But Pepper was still just a boy, and Master’s fist had taught him just how weak he was.
If he couldn’t be strong, he needed to be clever. Even a child could be clever. So after calming himself down he said, “Master wants me to be weak, so I am. I have to do what you say because I’m a slave now, and you could just kill me if you wanted. I’m just a child. I don’t have anywhere to go.”
Some of the merriment around the fire diminished a bit, and for a moment Pepper feared he had just screwed up—he’d ruined Master’s party by saying something dark instead of funny, and now he’d go hungry again. He looked at the wall.
Master said, “Best never forget it, kit.”
“Of course, Master,” said Pepper. After a sudden flash of insight, he quickly added, “Master has been kind. I could be starving in the snow. I can’t ever forget because I’m alive,” Then, knowing that everyone was watching him, he risked everything and spared a quick glance at the roasting boar, then shyly licked his lips and looked away. Just shyly enough to make it look like he was doing it on accident. He held his breath in anticipation and waited to see if it had worked.
There was a brief moment of silence; then a woman with a scratchy, unmusical voice said, “We didn’t come here to talk to your slave, Naois. Just feed him and let us get back to happier things.”
Master broke off half a loaf of bread and handed it to Pepper with a bit of a scowl, and Pepper was flooded with so much relief that tears dripped out of his eyes before he realized what was happening. He hurriedly turned away and took a bite of bread so big he could barely chew it. He could feel the pipe to his stomach stretching the whole way down after he swallowed. His stomach felt sour for a moment, but by the time the bread was gone, he felt much better. The hunger in his stomach was gone, leaving only the loneliness. Having a full belly felt like a triumph.
For the rest of the evening, Pepper stood dutifully at Master’s side and kept everyone’s drinking horns full. Once things got merry, Master’s guests began to share generous cuts of meat and sips of wine with him, all of which he accepted with a huge grin and a sincere “Thank you!”
Pepper knew he had none of Flower’s charm. Everyone always immediately loved Flower. He was better looking, with white fur instead of black. And Flower smiled all the time, and Mama always said it made her happy to see it. Pepper was good at sneaking and he was a better hunter, but Flower could sing so well that trees bent down to listen. No one stopped to listen to Pepper do anything. And yet, here, among these people, now that he was trying really hard, Pepper was starting to believe he could have a good personality and get what he wanted like Garbi and Flower always did. He just had to be humble like Garbi, and friendly like Flower, and funny like Wolfscar, and…
A sudden flash of intense pain shot through Pepper’s body as Master struck him under the ribs with his knuckles. Pepper moaned in pain through clenched teeth as he collapsed to the ground, holding where Master had punched him.
“You were thinking of your old master again. I can tell. Stop it,” said Master with no emotion in his voice.
Pepper didn’t dare look up at him, or anyone else. “Yes, Master. Sorry,” he whispered.
Those who were still awake seemed to be pointedly ignoring what had happened, since no one said anything. The pain just seemed to get worse the more he thought about it, and it made Pepper feel sick to his stomach. He’d eaten too much after too long. He started to worry that he was about to throw up, and that thought terrified him even more than being hit again.
But then Master reached down and patted Pepper on the head. The surprise was enough to make him forget everything; Master had never once done anything nice like that. Pepper looked up, utterly confused.
In a kinder, quiet voice, Master said, “Listen, boy. You should never love or hate any master too much. Just serve. It’s easier for everyone that way. And don’t let a master love or hate you too much, either. A slave is a slave, not family. You can never be family. You will never have one. You’re a slave for the rest of your life. If you love a master, then when he sells you it’ll break your heart. If you hate him, he’ll kill you when he finds out. Just take the middle road. Do what you’re told, and it’ll be easier for you. So forget your old master. I can tell you loved him. Just forget about him.”
How can I forget Papa? Or anyone? He’s still coming someday to save me, thought Pepper. But he didn’t say it. He could never say anything like that where Master could hear. After a moment, he quietly said, “Yes, Master.” Then he wiped the tears from his eyes, tears caused by two kinds of pain.
Master nodded and looked away.
The night grew long, and eventually the last of Master’s friends nodded off to sleep, helped by the fragrant wine they drank. Master was the last to sleep, and Pepper put on another log to help the fire stay warm all night, then covered everyone with what blankets he could find.
Except one, the blanket Master had given him. It was thin and had two holes, but it was better than nothing. Pepper wrapped himself up in it and curled against the bundle of furs Master kept under his hunting trophies.
He gave one last glance around the round-house, listening carefully to everyone breathing to make sure they were really asleep. They were. No one moved. Some of them snored.
Being the last to be awake always felt strange, but in a good way. It made him feel powerful. He could decide to sleep if he wanted or do something else instead. Whatever he felt like.
But he knew what he wanted to do: with Master asleep, he could think about his family. He remembered as hard as he could what it was like to sleep next to Papa. He remembered what it felt like to wake up with Papa’s huge arm keeping him warm. What it was like to sit next to Flower, holding hands and winding their tails together, best friends and brothers. He thought about Garbi’s laughter and her seriousness and her clever jokes. Mama’s rude language and all the horrible things she said, none of which she meant. When Mama said, “You horrible little rodent!” she really meant, “I love you, my darling!”
Papa once thought he had to give Pepper and Flower up, and he gave them to Mama to take care of. She had held them on her lap, heads on her shoulders, while they wept, thinking they’d never see him again. She had held them and hugged them and sang songs from her old tribe and Pepper couldn’t forget a single moment of it, no matter what Master ordered him.
Forever ago, Pepper’s first family had been good people. They were happy and took good care of him, but they were killed by slave-takers. People just like Master’s tribe. Then they decided not to keep him, so they left him to die. He almost did, but first he found Flower. Then he found Papa. Then they found Mama. And Garbi. And Wolfscar.
That was Pepper’s family now. He had lost everything once. He had been hours from death. Then he was saved. He was Papa’s son. He would never forget, no matter what Master said.
He opened his eyes and glared at Master’s sleeping form. Papa would come rescue him. There was no doubt about it. He’d already done it a bunch of times and he would again. And if he couldn’t, someday Pepper would be strong. He would be an adult, and he would kill Master and go find everyone and rescue Papa instead. Then they would go live in Dikaia like Papa always promised. Pepper stared at his sleeping Master, defiance burning hotly in his belly. He would never forget who he was. And someday he would be free.