Pepper hated it when they stood there and watched him exercise. He wasn’t like Flower—he didn’t like to be the center of attention. Maybe with only a few people, but not so many.
But they watched him anyway, even though he’d been doing the exercises every day since Wolfscar came half a month ago. Gray-whiskered old Natuak, the scarred war-leader Farat in his painted leather, Kema with the scar on his arm from Pepper’s teeth, some others.
Stretch, jump, slash. Stretch, squat, punch. Stretch, pushups, kick… He could feel their eyes on him just like fingertips, and it made him have to focus really hard on what he was doing so he wouldn’t mess up, instead of just letting his body remember like normal. At least it was too cold for him to exercise naked like a good Laophilean. He didn’t even want to think about doing that right now. He wasn’t… he wasn’t ready for that, not alone out here.
Right as he was getting close to the end, a sharp whistle from one of the sentries called for everyone to assemble. It wasn’t the danger whistle, though, just the ‘everyone come here’ one. The people watching him started heading over to see what it was. He almost stopped and joined them, but Papa was coming, so he had to be ready.
He just did the last parts as fast as he could, then ran to catch up to Natuak, hot and out of breath. “What is it?” he asked. “Is something happening?”
The old demon patiently replied, “We shall learn what it is together.” He kept walking at his slowish pace, tapping the walking stick he never leaned on into the dirt as he went.
“Oh,” replied Pepper, feeling silly.
They walked outside the cluster of tents, past the little hill with all the bushes that made the camp hard to find. Others had gotten there before them and crowded around something in the muddy trail through the snow.
Just barely visible over everyone’s heads was a little demon boy’s head… “Seff! It’s Seff!” shouted Pepper. The little boy must be on Dyana’s shoulders, or someone’s. He looked a bit scared, or maybe confused. Pepper left Natuak’s side and hurriedly slipped his way through the crowd, careful not to bump anyone’s tail off their shoulder.
The Night People stood a couple paces away from Dyana, and she stared back at them defiantly with her arms crossed over her naked breasts. All she had on was something around her waist. Her brown hair had grown a little so she wasn’t bald anymore, and she still went around barefoot. She was muddy up to the knee.
Seff had a bandage over one eye, and he squinted in the bright morning light with the other one and held a thick blanket in place around himself. The bumps on his forehead where his horns would grow looked like they might be getting bigger, too, or maybe Pepper was imaging that part because it had been so long. But it was his friends! They were here, and--
Pepper couldn’t contain the joy welling up inside him and he popped out of the crowd to leap on Dyana with an ambush of a hug. He felt happier than he could remember ever being, like there was an ox jumping around inside him. She took a half step back and uncrossed her arms before she realized who he was, but then she hugged him back after only hesitating for a second.
“Dyana! I thought I’d never see you two again! Can you put him down? Hi, Seff! Come here!”
Seff’s good eye brightened when he saw him and he gave a big smile. “Peppew?”
The little demon started squirming to get off Dyana’s shoulders, but she reached up and held him in place. “Pepper, what are you doing here? No, hold on, Seff. You’ll get dirty if I put you down here. Just keep looking for your parents. So, does anyone recognize him? His name is Seff. One of you has to know who he is!”
Pepper stepped back to sort out his surprise. Seff had a family? And they were here, and Dyana brought him to… That was…
Seff gave up trying to wiggle his way down and opened his eye wider to look again into the crowd. Pepper turned to help look, wondering if anyone would step forward.
“Sheth!” yelled a man from the back of the crowd.
“That’s my Sheth! Oh, merciful Calishek, Sheth!” a female voice cried out.
The crowd parted to show a man and woman jostling their way forward. Pepper had seen them both and knew they were a couple, but he hadn’t learned their names yet.
“Mama! Papa!” squealed Seff, and this time, he jumped before Dyana could hold him. She caught the blankets, but Seff landed face down in the cold mud and arose with his front covered from hair to toes. He still wore that red tunic Androkles had made for him, but it looked like it’d been dragged behind a horse by a rope. He had another cloth wrapped around his waist under the tunic that was starting to come unravelled and fall down. He didn’t even try to wipe his face clean as he stood again and ran forward, but he didn’t have to take more than two steps before his parents picked him up and hugged him between them.
The mama had a better grip on him and she held him against her chest tightly, ignoring all the mud, and said “Sheth, my Sheth…” over and over in a quiet, fervent voice. The man put his arms around them both and rubbed his long, pointy ears against theirs.
Pepper stepped back by everyone else. A conflicting whirl of emotions spun inside him, like he couldn’t decide if he was happy or sad. Both at the same time, and maybe other things, too. He fought back tears that were trying to get out, but watching Seff smiling so hard it looked like a frown while his parents hugged him like that… it was painful and joyous at the same time.
He made himself hide before he realized what was doing, but then he decided that was the right thing to do. Seff had a family, and they missed him, and they were all together again. As bad as Pepper wanted to be around Seff, now wasn’t the time. And maybe never again. The other Night People children didn’t want to play with him either, or maybe their parents wouldn’t let them. They just stayed inside their tents all the time. And Dyana had left Androkles behind, so she probably didn’t want to talk to Pepper either, even though he really wanted to talk to her.
Dyana walked forward and put her hands on the couple’s shoulders and said, “We need to talk. Right now, just you two, him, and me. Where can we go? Seff, don’t forget!”
“I won’t, Dyana!” said Seff. Then he licked his lips and spat out some mud. He still didn’t try to wipe his good eye clean.
When no one moved, Dyana spoke much more forcefully. “Get moving. We have to talk. Alone.”
The man said, “We will not trade for him, or let him out of our hands again for any reason. If you think--”
Dyana scowled at him before he finished talking and stomped to the nearest tree--a mid-size one, with a trunk as thick as his leg. She gave a look of challenge at the crowd, then violently kicked the tree with her shin. The tree gave a tremendous crack as her leg passed right through. A heartbeat later, the top part thudded to the ground and fell sideways.
The entire crowd gasped in unison and all other sound fled. Quite a few tails dropped from shoulders onto the ground, ready to whip. Someone probably got smacked in the face by one, Pepper was sure. Hopefully nothing bad would happen--Dyana wasn’t that scary once you got to know her, but if anyone tried to fight her…
Dyana stepped forward into the shocked stillness and faced Seff’s parents with her hands on her hips. “He’s yours. I understand. We need to talk immediately. Right now. Where?”
The parents took a moment to answer, and Pepper knew what that felt like: they were too surprised to think of what to say. The woman clasped Seff even tighter to her chest with both arms and tilted her head forward, almost far enough to point her horns as a threat. She said, “Come to our tent.”
Seff looked up and said something to his mama that Pepper couldn’t hear, but it didn’t make her look any happier. She kept her head bowed down and kept a steady glare on Dyana. She didn’t point her horns directly, though; Night People never did that, even on accident, unless they meant it.
Dyana turned and told everyone, “Give us some privacy.” When her eyes passed over Pepper, she paused for a moment, but then ignored him as she followed Seff and his parents through the crowd, who gave them plenty of room.
Something about the way Dyana’s eyes had passed over him made him feel lonely again. She wasn’t happy to see him after all. He thought she would be a friend but she wasn’t. What if… what if everyone was going to be like that? What if Agurne just shrugged and turned away? What if Flower made new friends and forgot about him? Or Papa. What if he was mad that Pepper had to be rescued again and just left him behind? That wasn’t… there was no way. He didn’t dare believe it, but he couldn’t stop thinking it, either.
The crowd closed up behind them and everyone started talking with hushed and worried voices. Pepper knew about Dyana already, but these people didn’t. They wondered if she was a goddess or a monster or what she was, and why she had one of their children. Pepper felt the deep pit in his heart start to open back up. He couldn’t help it. Images of his family frowning and turning away from him filled his mind and he couldn’t push them away.
He shook his head, but that didn’t work, so he pinched himself in the underarm until tears came to his eyes. That worked, mostly, but it made it hard for him to keep his presence hidden.
Just as he was calming down and was about to slip away, Natuak appeared beside him, leaning forward like his back was sore again. When Pepper tried to stay hidden and walk past him, the old demon grabbed his ear between a knobbly finger and thumb and said, “Ah, there you are, Black-tail. Will you follow them and listen, and tell me what they say?”
The point of hiding was so people wouldn’t bother you, but Natuak didn’t care about that. He always knew where Pepper was, and Pepper suspected sometimes he just interrupted to prove he was watching. He didn’t have time for this right now! He needed to think. The bad feelings swirling inside scared him.
Pepper said, “Dyana said not to go listen. You can just ask after.”
“And what if they agree to keep a secret together? Suppose it is a danger to the tribe that I should know. How will I learn it, if you do not tell me?”
“Why should I?”
“So I keep feeding you,” said Natuak, releasing his ear and urging him forward with a gentle push.
“You’ll feed me anyway. You promised, and I’m not causing any trouble. And I know her—she’s not actually that scary.” Pepper didn’t want to just say no, not directly, but couldn’t Natuak figure it out? Couldn’t he see how troubled Pepper was?
“Child, I am in no mood for your stubbornness. Do you spite everyone who helps you, or have I earned a special privilege somehow?”
That comment cut deep. “That’s not what I’m doing! Dyana said not to follow!”
“That’s why I’m sending you, who will not be caught. Come now, Pepper, are you not curious?”
“Well, it’s just that…” Pepper said, but trailed off. He couldn’t think what to say. How was he supposed to explain? If Natuak even cared, he wouldn’t be bothering him like this. Maybe it was true that no one cared anymore… The muscles in Pepper’s chest tightened, making it seem hard to breathe.
“Please, little Black-tail. I have done all I can to make you a friend. Do not treat me like an enemy.”
“That’s not--!” Pepper slumped his shoulders in defeat and made his ears flatten against his head.
This time, Natuak looked at him sincerely and finally noticed. “Dear child, what is the matter? Is something troubling you? Are you scared of her?”
Pepper didn’t reply right away, and the old demon let him think for a minute, just watching with his fading gray eyes. It was true Natuak treated him well, after letting him out of the cave. And part of being in there had been Pepper’s fault, too. Pepper hadn’t needed to fight and try to get away at all, and Natuak had been right all along. Maybe Pepper just screwed things up all the time, even though he thought it was Flower who did that. Maybe he could have saved his first mother--if he hadn’t let the slave-takers catch him, she wouldn’t have had to fight them, and she’d still be alive. And now Papa had to come all this way and face a tribe of demons because Pepper let himself get caught. Papa would be angry when he got here, too, and that meant a lot of Night People were going to die, whether they deserved it or not.
Putting pepper in food made it taste like fire. Maybe that’s what Pepper did in real life, too. He turned everything to fire everywhere he went.
“I’m fine. It was just that Dyana… well, never mind. I’ll go. Sorry I argued.”
Pepper slipped away from the old demon and went behind a tree and concealed his presence. He snuck back along the trail, darting from bush to tree to rock so he wouldn’t be spotted. It didn’t take him long to find his prey—they were hurrying, but not trying to keep from being followed. He raced around behind tents to keep an eye on them while remaining hidden, and before long, they stopped at one of the tents he’d never been in. Dyana peered around to see if anyone was following, but not at him. She couldn’t see him when he was hiding, because there’s no way she would have let him sneak up and slap her bottom that one time. So she couldn’t see him now, right?
When Seff’s papa opened the tent-flap for everyone, Pepper stayed back far enough not to feel any warmth. After it closed behind them, he crept up the little path to the tent-flap so he didn’t have to step in the noisy snow. He squatted low to the ground and pulled in his presence as strongly as he could so no one would see.
“Thank you for your invitation, and for not arguing,” said Dyana. She sounded like she was trying to sound mature. He could just picture her kneeling there like she was on a throne.
She continued, “I found him under a rock a little while ago and I’ve been taking care of him ever since. I’m a wanderer with no parents, and it didn’t even occur to me to ask if he had any. I thought there was no way he’d get stuck under one of their rocks if he wasn’t abandoned. I only found him because a team of Allobrogians lifted the rock and tossed in some food. I just wanted to know what they were doing. When they left, I smashed the rock and there he was. They’ve been chasing us ever since.”
The woman interrupted, “Sheth. His name is Sheth. He’s just too little to say it properly.” There was a bit of an edge to her voice.
“Your name is Sheth?” Dyana asked.
“It’s hawd to say, and den I fowgetted a little,” said Seff. Sheth. His name was Sheth, and everyone had it wrong! Pepper’s dark mood suddenly burst and fell away and he had to keep himself from laughing. It got funnier the more he thought about it. He couldn’t say his own name!
“Say it like this: Shhhhheeeethhhhhh,” said his Papa, slowly. Pepper could hear a smile in his voice.
“Sssssseeeeefffffffffff,” attemped Sheth. “It’s hawd.”
“No, don’t open your eye!” commanded Dyana. “Not yet. And you two calm down; he’s not injured.”
For a moment, there was only quiet, and Pepper could almost feel the tension radiating from inside. Was Sheth going blind? What had happened to him? He was fine before.
“And while I’m thinking about it, Pepper, come on in. I know you’re out there, you little rat,” said Dyana.
Pepper was so startled he almost stopped hiding on accident. He didn’t dare move; could she really tell? No, there was no way. She wasn’t even outside to look for him.
“Listen, you mangy little rodent, don’t make me come out there,” said Dyana, and Pepper couldn’t tell how serious she was from just her voice. “I'm not asking again.”
Inside the tent was only dead silence. Outside was almost as quiet—everyone else was staying away.
Pepper stood and stopped hiding, then took a deep breath and lifted the flap. He sheepishly stepped inside to find them sitting close around a warm brazier.
The inside of this tent looked just like Natuak’s. Furs and blankets covering every bit of ground, some cushions to sleep on, bags and woven baskets of undyed fiber, a brazier of brass in the center. Seff… no, Sheth rested on his mama’s lap with that muddy bandage still over half his face. He held her tail in one hand and his Papa’s with the other. Their stares made Pepper feel awfully exposed.
“Come sit beside me, son of Androkles,” said Dyana. She gestured regally at the blanket on the ground next to her and Pepper did as he was told. When he sat down, she gave him a brief, familiar one-armed hug with a hint of a smile. Wait, was he wrong, and she did still like him?
The mama went back to watching her little boy, careful to keep her horns pointed away from anyone as she looked down. The Papa asked, “How did you know about our little Kitten-ghost?”
Pepper realized that that’s what they called him amongst themselves… Kitten-ghost. He’d heard people say that, but he never knew they meant him.
“Kitten-ghost?” asked Dyana.
“He comes and goes as he pleases, and no one can see him unless he wishes it,” replied the Papa. He looked tense, or maybe impatient. “The elder is taking care of him. But never mind that now, tell us what you wanted to say.”
“Why does he have this bandage?” asked the mama. She seemed tense, but like she was trying to hide it. Her voice carried a certain strain.
“It isn’t there because he’s hurt, because he isn’t. But leave it on for now anyway because we’ll get to that. Pepper here is part of the story, so I may as well start there. Several months ago, I travelled for a time with Pepper and his family. His father, Androkles, is a monstrous brute of a man, with a short temper and no hesitation to fight or kill. He’s not a Skythander, he’s something called a Laophilean and he looks more like me than you. He…”
“We’ve heard about him. The elder says he’s coming here to kill us all,” said the papa. He met Dyana’s gaze evenly, with… curiosity? A question? A challenge? Flower would know, but he wasn’t here.
Dyana gave the barest hint of a smirk and said, “If that’s true, you should pray your Spirits make him get lost before he gets here. He absolutely hates demons. He’s terrified of you, too. Androkles is the only man alive that I’m not certain I could kill, if we fought sincerely. I'm confident I could beat him, but not certain. If he does show up, it won’t be with gifts and dances. Although he did start to like Seff, er, Sheth, so who knows.
“But set that aside. This family had a fairy with them named Wolfscar. I’d never seen one before, or even heard of them. He’s a tiny little boy with blue skin, purple hair and wings like a dragonfly. He glows like a lamp, day or night, and he’s about the size of my hand.”
“We… we saw him once. He came to find the kit,” said the Mama, sounding a little worried.
“Yes, he said he’d found Pepper. Seffy and I met him on the road just a few days ago. Seff… Sheth had taken gravely ill. His skin turned gray across most of his body, and he had one of the worst fevers I’ve ever seen. He lost his appetite and quit talking. He barely moved. I was certain he’d die. Have you seen that before? That illness?”
The parents both looked scared now. The Mama clutched him even tighter, and the Papa gave him a long, appraising look-over with a stony worry in his eyes. The Papa said, “We know of it. It’s a curse of our heritage, from the god’s seed and the monster he planted it in. It’s rare, but none survive after their skin changes.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like that, so I thought it might be unique to your people. But as you can see, he survived and he's healthy as ever. You have Wolfscar to thank for that. He worked some secret art that made Seff whole again. I wasn’t there to see how it was done, but I know that whatever Wolfscar did cost him dearly. I’ve never heard anyone screaming in that much pain. You can't imagine what it’s like hearing a little fairy that... It… that sound haunts me still. I hear it in the quiet of my thoughts when I try to sleep,” said Dyana. Her voice got very quiet, and she looked down at the brazier with glassy eyes like she was imagining something. Her words filled Pepper with dread, like something bad was about to happen but no one knew what. Wolfscar cried all the time from normal stuff and that was bad enough, but to think of him screaming like that…
Dyana sighed and continued, “Sheth is the only one who knows what really happened, and Wolfscar made him promise not to tell anyone. That’s the first thing I wanted to tell you. Your son made an oath he has to keep all his days. His life was spared by his friend and I will not see him made a betrayer. Disloyal people never find happiness, and I will not tolerate it. You will help him keep his promise, or I will have to reconsider certain decisions,” said Dyana. Her iron gaze on the parents was a clear challenge and threat.
All the air went out of the room. Pepper couldn’t breathe or look at anyone’s faces. He spared a brief glance at Seff, whose eye was wide and confused. Everyone waited, full of dread, as the embers crackled in the brazier.
Finally the papa said, “I’ll agree. But just so you understand, if you try to take him from us, you’re not making it out of this tent alive.”
In a voice that sounded even more deadly than the papa’s, the mama said, “Calm down, my love. She is no fool. I am sure you misunderstand her.”
Dyana smiled patiently like Mama used to do when she won an argument. It seemed to make the parents even more angry, and Seff started looking nervously at everyone like he was trying to figure out what was going on. Pepper avoided making eye contact, because he didn’t know either. Not really. Why was Dyana trying to start a fight?
“I’m content, then. And I’m glad to see you intend to keep him close this time. I couldn’t just assume, after you let him get stolen from you once. How was I supposed to know whether you cared for him without a little test?” said Dyana, looking down at them like a queen on a throne.
“How dare you!” hissed the mama through gritted and bared teeth. With her face twisted in fury and her horns pointed down toward Dyana, she looked… scary. Skythanders had the same teeth, but Night People could look much scarier because of the horns and the blue-black skin that made the teeth shine in contrast.
Dyana didn’t seem impressed, though. She smirked again and said, “The strong may dare as they wish, don’t you think? I may dare where others may not. How do you think I got by all this time, wandering Allobrogian lands with one of their captives on my back? And why do you think I bothered in the first place? I’m more fond of him than I can say. Do you think I’m just going to hand him over to people who don’t really care, if I don’t have to? Would you?”
The mama didn’t calm down immediately, but slowly simmered down into a quiet seething. The Papa had his fingers tensed like he thought he might have to use his claws, but he looked calm other than that, sitting there with his legs crossed and his little boy holding his tail.
Sheth reached up and patted his mother’s chin to get her attention. “Mama, it’s okay. Dyana’s nice. She helped me fow a long time.”
Dyana said, “I fought and killed one of your kind, a wild one. Insane. I know nothing about your people other than him, and Sheth. Wolfscar pointed the way so I could find you, but he said you had little Pepper chained up and starving, so what was I supposed to think? Lucky for you I’m not as quick to judge as Androkles. You can swallow your anger and thank your Spirits for bringing me here at all.
“But there’s one more thing to discuss. When Wolfscar healed him, some of the fairy’s power sort of... stayed in him. It’s still in there and it... Actually, I see no reason to wait any further. Seffy, er, Sheth, it’s time now. Go ahead and take off your blindfold.”
Every eye fell on Seff, but he just squirmed and turned his head toward his mama’s chest and hid against her undyed leather shirt.
“It’s okay, Seffy. You can show your mama and papa. They’re gonna see it eventually, aren’t they? Just show us,” said Dyana. The difference in her voice between talking to Sheth and talking to his parents was huge.
Pepper saw that she had relaxed and wasn’t sitting there like a queen anymore. She was leaning forward like she wanted to reach out, and her face had softened to match her gentle voice.
The mama said, “It’s okay, sweet one. Please show us.”
“I don’t want to,” complained Sheth, his voice muffled by his Mama’s soft leather shirt.
The papa reached over and lifted the blindfold from Seff’s head, which caused the little demon to clasp even more tightly to his mother. The papa tried to unravel Seff and force his eye open, but he resisted and curled up with all his strength. The man quickly gave up and sat back scowling with frustration.
Pepper asked politely, “Can I see, Seff? Can you show me because I’m in the Sharp Teeth Tribe? I wanna see.”
“Please?” almost everyone asked at once.
“Mmmm!” said Seff, trying even harder to cover himself.
For several more minutes they tried unsuccessfully to convince him to open his eye. No matter what argument they tried, Seff just refused even harder.
Pepper got an idea for something better and stood with a mischievous grin spreading on his face. He said, “Let me try. Seff, I’m gonna tiiiiickle yoooouuu...”
“No! Don’ tickle me! Mama, don’ let him!” said Sheth with passion.
Pepper crept over with his fingers out like claws. Sheth had nowhere to run, and when Pepper pounced on him and went for his armpits, he squealed with coerced laughter and did his best to get away, even trying to whip his thin tail, but he was sitting on the tip and couldn’t get it loose.
Sheth shrieked and howled as Pepper tickled him mercilessly, and when curling up into a ball as hard as he could failed, he unraveled and tried pushing Pepper’s hands away. Pepper was too strong for him, though, and that just gave Pepper more openings.
“I never thought I’d hear that again,” said the papa quietly. When Pepper glanced over at him, the man’s eyes looked all watery, and then Pepper’s eyes started watering too.
He didn’t stop his assault, however, and when the mama joined in to help, Sheth was done for. He laughed so hard he couldn’t breathe. He caught a few lungfuls and shouted, “Stop! I’m go… gonna!... It’s coming out!”
“You’d better open your eye then, before you wet yourself!” said Pepper.
“Stop!... Stop it! I will! Just stop!”
Pepper relented. Sheth leaped out of his mama’s arms and ran out the tent flap, hunched over and holding his crotch with both hands. Pepper followed him and opened the tent flap to see him making water in the snow, about two steps from the entry. He closed the flap and sat back down by the brazier. “We tickled him too much.”
When the tentflap opened again, a bright ray of sunlight reflected off something outside and beamed right into the tent, lighting up the far wall. Pepper had only a moment of confusion to figure out what it was before Sheth stepped in and let the tentflap fall shut behind him. He had one eye shut, but Pepper couldn’t see anything wrong with him. No cuts or anything. He looked nervous, with his little tail drooping and his hands fidgeting with the hem of his filthy tunic.
No one said anything, but instead stared at him expectantly.
Sheth folded his arms like he was trying to conceal himself behind them and gave a quick one-eyed glance at his parents. He looked away again and finally opened his other eye.
A bright ray of light shone out it, like the sun finding a hole in the cloud. It lit up a part of the floor where it made a circular patch exactly like the sun shining in through the hole in the roof. It only remained for the briefest moment before Sheth closed his eye again and put his hand over it. He kept his head bowed and peeked up with his other eye, apprehension and dread emoting from his entire body.
Pepper and Sheth’s parents froze, completely stunned. No one moved except the little boy, who started creeping back toward the flap like he was thinking about running.
Dyana quietly told the mama, “Well?”
The mama looked back at her with her mouth hanging open and scared confusion in her eyes, then back at Sheth.
“Is… it safe?” the mama asked in a quiet voice.
Dyana replied, “I’m not sure. Does it matter?”
The parent gazed at their son, confusion and fear plain on their faces. The Papa’s long, pointy ears twitched a little, even though Night People ears usually didn’t move like Skythander ones did.
The moment stretched on in a thundering silence, and Seff must have thought his parents didn’t want him anymore. Pepper’s heart burned when he saw the little boy’s eyes fill with water and his bottom lip start trembling. Sheth covered his good eye with his other hand and bowed his head. His thin tail rested lifelessly across his feet, and it looked like all the joy was leaking out of him into the ground.
Pepper looked back to the parents, trying to beg them with his eyes to do something. Anything! Don’t make him… don’t let it…
The mama swallowed hard and made her face soften. She held her arms out and said, “Of course it doesn’t matter! I was just surprised. Come back here, little one. Oh, you poor thing! I’m sorry. Come here. Open your eyes and come back to Mama.”
Sheth hesitated for only the briefest moment before opening his eye and running right back into her arms at full speed. She caught him and almost lost her balance, but the papa held her up. From the spot of light darting around the room, Pepper could see where Seff was looking. When the little boy sat in his mama’s lap, she held him to her chest with both arms and whipped her tail around to encircle him with that, too. It was long enough to go all the way around both of them with plenty to spare, which made Pepper a little jealous.
“He was afraid you would reject him. Will you?” asked Dyana.
The papa said, “We… need to talk to the elder, and…”
“Never!” yelled the mama, cutting him off. Her face was suddenly ferocious again, and it even made Pepper feel guilty despite not being involved. “Never!” she said again, quieter but just as forcefully, in the direction of her husband.
The man looked ashamed beneath the Mama’s gaze, and he said, “That’s not what I meant. I wasn’t… We won’t give him up. I meant that we’ll need the elder’s counsel on how to… protect him.”
Dyana said, “I do not doubt it. He is hard to protect, and even harder to give up.” She tried to say more, but her voice caught and she had to clear her throat.
She seemed almost like Androkles, in how strong and confident she usually acted. She could act like a normal person too, but when she met new people she wanted to look strong--that was probably why she did it. However, there was one thing he knew, and that was how hard it was to give people up. Even Papa almost cried when he left Pepper and Flower in Basket that one time.
Dyana was sad, and Pepper knew why and what it felt like. This time, he didn’t need Flower to tell him what to do: he reached a sneaky, hesitant hand over to find hers, and they held hands, and she squeezed tightly. He would have wound his tail around hers, if she’d had one; instead, he slung it around her waist, flattened his ears, and leaned his head against her shoulder.
Dyana slowly regained her composure and said, “How you deal with his eye is up to you, but here is what I’ve learned. The light gets dimmer when he’s tired or unhappy, and brighter after a good meal or laughter. If he says he's not tired, you can just point it out and win the argument. The light never ceases, day or night, if his eye is open. It’s useful in the dark, but sometimes he opens it in his sleep, which can be startling. I don’t recommend he keep it closed or covered because I'm worried its vision will get weaker from infrequent use like a muscle does. And I don’t need to warn you about the fear it’ll cause. Do I?”
The Mama nodded, and the Papa shifted his weight where he sat and looked uncomfortable.
Dyana continued, “There is more to it than just replacing a lamp. His eye sees things that mine can’t. He finds small creatures nearly everywhere, which he can only barely describe due to their strangeness. If you ask, he’ll talk about them until you make him shut up. I can’t touch the little creatures he sees, so they must be spirits, and not any kind I know of. I know only of the spirits of my tribe’s ancestors and he doesn’t see any of those, although maybe we haven't encountered any for him to spot. I have my doubts they’re still guiding me.
“Aside from strange creatures, he sometimes sees other things, very large, which he can’t even begin to describe. They don’t move, and they appear only for a short time before they vanish. Neither he nor I have any idea what they are, either. If you ever encounter a fairy, perhaps he can tell you, and hopefully when Seffy gets a bit older, he’ll be better able to describe all of this.”
Sheth reached up and touched his Mama’s chin to get her attention. “I see lots of fings, Mama and Papa. Dere are two of dem dancing in da smoke wight now. Dey’re about dis big, and…”
“Hold on, precious thing. Let me finish saying what I have to say, and then it’s your turn. Okay?”
The little demon consented and Dyana continued, “At first, I wondered if he was dreaming, or losing his mind, or haunted by malicious spirits, but by now I’m convinced the things he sees are real. I mentioned Wolfscar pointed the way? All he did was point one time. That’s not enough directions to go on. But a few days ago, he said he could see pictures in the air at a crossroad, one for each direction. The first was a man’s closed fist, another was a golden crown, and the third was a manacle around a skinny ankle. Because Wolfscar had told us about your people chaining up Pepper, we realized what the images meant.”
Pepper asked, “What were they?”
“Do you remember what Wolfscar called Garbi?”
“Oh! I get it. The crown was Garbi because she’s the Princess, and the fist was Papa, and the ankle was me. I was chained up when he found me. Did Wolfscar make the pictures?”
“That was our guess. We followed pictures of ankles all the way here hoping to find Seffy’s people, and here you are. The things he sees are real.”
They sat in silence for a time pondering and watching Sheth, who cast his light all over everything as he looked around. Pepper wondered why the light wasn’t silver like the boy’s eyes, but then he thought maybe it was and it was just hard to tell because white and silver are close. Every time he looked at his Mama’s arms or his Papa’s face, the light made the demons’ blue-black skin look a lot more blue than black. Natuak said their skin was the sky’s last color before dark because the Night People were descendants of Calishek, god of the night sky, and Pepper could believe it.
Dyana abruptly released Pepper’s hand and rose to her feet, “Can I get that cloth around his waist? It’s mine. Thank you. I plan to stay with your people for a few days, maybe longer. I haven’t decided, but for now I know you want some time alone with him.”
The mama quickly untied the cloth and returned it to Dyana, who wrapped it back around her chest as she bid them a hasty farewell and slipped out the tent flap. Pepper hardly realized she had gone, she left so quickly.
Then it was just him in there with Sheth’s family, and that didn’t feel right. Pepper stood to follow her out. He stopped halfway out the tentflap and asked, “Can I come back later and see him? We’re friends. Huh, Seff? Sheth.”
The mama said no but the papa said yes, so Pepper ran out before they made up their minds just in case the final answer was no.
The bright mid-morning sun burned his eyes, and he had to squint for a moment to see. A soft, cold breeze made them water, and he stood there like a fool wiping them over and over even though he wasn’t crying. He wasn’t sure how he felt—he had been so miserable, and then it felt so warm inside there, but now he had to accept that it wasn’t his family and that happiness belonged to Seff, not him. Sheth.
He couldn’t wait to play with Sheth again. In fact, the last time he’d played with anyone at all, it had been Sheth and Flower, and that was a lifetime ago. Would the parents even let him? The Mama didn’t want him there. They didn’t like him or Dyana, or they would have fed them and given their names since that was a custom they had. Maybe that was the last he’d ever see of little Seffy. Although, he could sneak and visit when they weren’t watching him. He just had to wait.
Knowing he had to wait made the wind feel colder, since there was no one around now who wanted him there. Knowing Papa was coming helped keep him from feeling too lonely, but at the moment it wasn’t working. And of course Papa was coming—he’d given his word. There could be no doubt about that. And Seff’s parents had been happy to see him even though he’d been gone longer. There was no way that Pepper’s family wouldn’t be happy.
It was stupid to just stand in the mud in front of the tent. People were going to start wandering home and he didn’t want to answer a million questions. Natuak would be expecting him soon, but for some reason the thought of talking to him right now made Pepper feel anxious, or maybe just annoyed.
He went to find Dyana instead, whose trail of bare footprints indicated she left at a run as soon as she was outside. What he should do, he decided, was sneak up and slap her bottom like Papa had him do that one time. That had cheered her up then, and she’d know he wanted to be friends.
Dyana’s tracks went all the way through the grove to the west and up the hill, then down the other side, up the other hill, and then all the way along a rocky cliff he hadn’t know about. Pepper was almost ready to give up and just wait for her to come back when he spotted her. She sat on the trunk of a big evergreen that had fallen over, about fifty paces away from him. Her back was turned, but she was sitting down, so maybe he should try tickling her instead?
He moved slowly forward, hopping into each of her footprints as quietly as he could. He grinned in anticipation of the joke, and how she’d be mad but not really, and then he could sit down next to her, and…
Pepper froze when he heard her weeping loudly, miserable and forlorn. It seemed like his heart stopped beating for an instant, then started beating twice as hard to make up for it. She must be crying because of Sheth. He wasn’t her little boy anymore.
Pepper found himself frightened of getting any closer because he had no idea what to do. Should he even go over there? What would Garbi do, or Flower? Garbi would… well, it wouldn’t matter what she did because everyone loved her as soon as they saw her. And Flower would immediately know the right thing to do, whatever it was.
He knew what she must feel like. Without Sheth, she was completely alone, sort of like Pepper except no one was coming for her. Didn’t she say her father was dead? And Dyana never talked about a mother. Well, Pepper’s birth parents were both dead, too--he even watched his Mama get killed right in front of him, so he knew how she felt. He should go sit right down next to her without saying anything, and then hold her hand or put his arm around her, or something like that, because that’s what he wanted sometimes.
But as he listened to her weep, he thought maybe she just wanted to be alone, like he did when he felt especially bad. Maybe she just needed to cry until she felt better, and it would be wrong to interrupt. Whatever he decided, he knew that if he chose wrong and upset her, she might not like him after that.
Pepper opened and closed his hand several times while he tried to decide. He wanted to have a friend again. He wanted it so badly it felt like a bruise on his heart. But Dyana might not like him showing up right now and push him away, and that terrified him. He couldn’t make his feet take another step closer to her, and the longer it took, the less determined he was to try.
He waited, listening to her weep, and feeling more and more awkward and uncomfortable with each pounding heartbeat.
Well, he could wait until she felt better, and talk to her then. He quietly slipped away and went to find Natuak.