Pepper was crushed for a moment until she remembered their conversation only hours before. Her role was strictly administrative. She was hired to take messages, make appointments, maintain the office, and make tea. Her father always talked about the virtues of starting from the bottom and working your way up. Watching the others leave the office with their assignments, Pepper just wished she had the patience. In the meantime, she needed to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid, including fraternizing with her co-workers.
“Yes, most becoming.” Tracker murmured and winked as he filed past.
Pepper stepped off the Crosstown Express carriage and watched as it made it's way back into the city before climbing the path towards home. Here, between the lights and hustle of downtown Phaeton and the outskirts of Taergoria Wood sprawled a growing number of villages made up mostly of families and newly married couples. The homes varied in size, each with their own plot of land as indicated by flowerbeds and picket fencing.
Pepper shuddered as she passed a large two-story house that was long abandoned. Children whispered it was haunted. The owner had many names, she was Contrary Mary to the women of the village and Mistress Mary to the men, but the entirety of Davenmour soon gave her another name, Bloody Mary, before locking her away in the Black Tower these 15 years. The adults refused to speak of it so the children, as children do, coupled their imagination with what few facts they had to fill in the blanks.
Bloody Mary provided shelter for many a pretty maid in distress. Despite being too poor to afford much in the way of clothing, the maidens were friendly nonetheless, often smiling and waving to the men of the village as they returned home from work. Mary’s home was so merry and festive that people, well, men mostly, would travel all the way in from the city for a visit. Some of these men had wives who were none too pleased to find their husbands would rather visit Mary than come home at night.
Pepper didn’t blame the men. Things weren’t nearly as fun and festive at her house either and, although her father never went to Mary’s house, Pepper had often wondered why the other men’s wives didn’t just make things more fun and festive at home for them once in a while.
As the story goes, three men, in particular, spent so much time at Mary’s house that their wives came to the village to fetch them. Instead, they found Mary lounging in a bathtub bathing in the dead men's blood. Her maids grabbed the wives to kill them as well but one managed to escape. Pepper was only about four years old at the time but she vaguely recalled watching from the stairs as a woman knelt on the floor in the parlor covered in blood and hysterically pleading for help from her father. Mama always dismissed what she saw as a bad dream but to this day Pepper still wasn’t certain.
A brisk wind made Pepper draw up her hood and she gazed at the full moon looming overhead. The cry of a Wolf in the distance made her shudder again. The patrols would be out tonight, protecting the villages but everyone knew not to tarry out of doors when the wolves were hunting.
Somehow Pepper’s mind flicked to Romulus Marlowe. No, not Romulus, Tracker, he wanted to be called Tracker. Heavens knew why, Pepper thought Romulus was a lovely name. It was strong, dark, and mysterious like the man to whom it belonged. Pepper was no innocent waif. At 19 years old she had kissed many a boy in her life at dances and such, though she knew better than to lay with one. To lay down with a boy meant to get up with a baby. Mama had laid down with Papa plenty if the brood at home was anything to go by. Four brothers were already out of the house with families of their own but four more young ones remained, not including herself and the child that rested in Mama’s belly.
As much as she was tempted, Pepper knew allowing Romulus to kiss her would be dangerous. The man did funny things to her body with a look and a whisper, if he ever actually touched her- Pepper swallowed, her mouth going dry as her heart did somersaults and her belly tightened. She shook her head. No, she definitely would not kiss Romulus. They were co-workers after all and Pepper would be professional. She had to be if she wanted to earn the Godmother’s trust.
At last, Pepper reached her home. It was a large sprawling thing with a tall chimney rising from one end. The other villagers often kidded her father that from the side the building looked more like a big shoe than a house.
The chaos that was the music of her home life greeted Pepper as she entered the house, its warmth bringing a blush to her cool cheeks as she hung her cloak on a hook by the door.
“Pepper!” shrieked a chorus of little voices and she braced herself for the onslaught of four bodies plowing into her. Three ruddy-haired cherubic boys and a little girl with a fiery cascade down her back grinned up at her as they wrapped their arms around her legs and waist.
“Good evening, my little loves!” Pepper smiled back at them.
“We missed you, Pepper!” Her sister, Saffron, wailed.” Where have you been?”
“Chervil said the wolves got you but I said he was a liar.” Coriander glared at his older brother. “See, I said you were lying!”
The boys squared off despite one being two years older and a full head taller.
“Now boys, what have I said about fighting?” Pepper scolded.
Still facing each other both boys dropped their heads.
“Siblings don’t hit each other.” They said in unison.
“Right! Now, Chervil, apologize for scaring the little ones and Cori, you apologize for calling Chervil a liar.”
Coriander’s head whipped up, an expression of absolute tragedy on his face as he opened his mouth to protest. Pepper cocked an eyebrow.
“Calling people names isn’t nice, Cori, especially if it’s family.”
The little boy dropped his head again before turning to Chervil.
“Yeah, me too.” Chervil turned to the others still latched onto Pepper. “Sorry for scaring you.”
“That’s alright,” Saffron said, crossing over to him to give him a hug.
Sorrel, the littlest boy, toddled along behind her to emulate his sister’s actions as he always did.
“So, you’re home at last. You’d best get cleaned up before your father gets home.” Her mother sniffed before disappearing into the kitchen with a mixing bowl on her ample hip and a large wooden spoon in her beefy hand.
Pepper groaned inwardly then marched into the washroom where she pumped frigid water into a basin to wash the road from her face and hands. After brushing the dust from her skirt and boots she entered the kitchen to tie on an apron. She turned toward the fireplace and was surprised to find a suckling pig roasting on the spit being turned by Coriander. Strange, it wasn’t a holiday.
“What’s the occasion, Mama?” She asked, nodding toward the pig.
Her mother was a very large woman even when she wasn’t with child, which granted, was never very often. Her dark hair was pulled into a bun behind her head though wayward strands were plastered to the sides of a face flushed from activity. She raised her grey eyes to meet her daughter’s green.
“Your father will be hard at work for many long days on the Princess’ case. He will need much more nourishment than usual.”
Pepper nodded and shooed Cori away to take over.
“And the extra money is welcome news even if the reason for it isn’t.” She sighed. “Speaking of money, I started a new job today.”
Her mother grinned. “Oh, so the florist was open, or did you stop by Madame Misty’s Boutique? Do you see? I said your stitching isn’t as atrocious as you think. You didn’t go to the Witching Flour, did you?”
“No, Mama,” Pepper threw her shoulders back and took a deep breath. “I am assistant to the Fairy Godmother, Aryssa Thornhart.”