Ka’harja’s Journey (DLH #1) – Chapter 2


Glif 6th, Grada

Year 10,053 AE

(The Nigelle Farm; Okatako)

Ka’harja couldn’t help but laugh as the pair followed him through the fields. He’d been weaving his way carefully over the uneven landscape, glancing back frequently to make sure the girls hadn’t fallen behind or tripped.

He wasn’t surprised that Neg’an had gotten distracted as many times as she had; right now, she was staring up at the sky with her mouth wide open and her torn-up ears flicking back and forth.

‘The sky looks like it’s alive!’ she breathed. ‘Kekik, why are there so many stars here?’

‘I… don’t know,’ her mother admitted. ‘There’s not so many clouds here, I suppose. The clouds hid the stars in Heck’ne.’

‘Okay,’ Neg’an nodded. Then she let out a long, wistful sigh and rubbed her eyes. ‘Why are there so many clouds in Heck’ne? We haven’t gone very far at all, but all the clouds are gone and the sky’s all colourful. Why’s it like that?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I’ll ask Ka’harja,’ Neg’an decided out loud before hurrying to Ka’harja’s side. ‘Ka’harja? Can I ask a question?’

‘You just did,’ Ka’harja joked.

‘Oh, did I?’ for a moment, Neg’an blinked. Then she flicked an ear and readjusted her grip on her baby. ‘Then I need to ask you another one. Do you know why there are so many clouds in Heck’ne?’

‘Probably dust in the air,’ Ka’harja told her. ‘Though if you ask a religious freak you’d probably get told it’s Dark Sky.

‘Dark Sky?’ Neg’an echoed. ‘Is that when the sky is dark? Does it have another name when it’s not dark? And what’s the sky being dark have to do with religion?’

Ka’harja snorted a laugh and scratched the back of his head. ‘I don’t know much about it, but some people think that a starless sky means there are no good spirits because evil ones have chased them all away. Basically, the sky goes dark and you get people who believe in The Goddess screaming and freaking out that they’re going to die.’

‘The Goddess?’ Neg’an blinked. ‘Do you mean Zen’efay?’

An itch crept over Ka’harja’s scalp at the mention of the Har’py’s god, and he shook his head. ‘No. I mean Scara.’

Neg’an pulled a sour face and looked away. ‘I’ve heard of her. She makes Heck’ne a wasteland because she hates us and wants us all to be unhappy and sick and die starving. She makes life bakti.’

‘Wow. It’s been a long time since I heard someone say that,’ Ka’harja half-chuckled. ‘Most Animon say she’s the soul of the planet, and that the Heck’ne is a scar that she can’t heal because Zen’efay rules it.’

‘Animon?’ Neg’an’s unhappy expression faded into curiosity, and her ears twitched. ‘What’s an Animon? Are they like a nurlak or a dassen or a foxen? Do they have wings? Or tails? Or big ears?’

‘Animon isn’t a race,’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘It’s a religion. Think of it like a… a reverse Har’py. They worship Scara and think Zen’efay is evil.’

Really?’ Neg’an frowned, though it wasn’t an angry frown; it was like she was so deep in a strange thought that it hurt. ‘Zen’efay. Scara. Reverse…. I suppose that makes sense. Because Zen’efay did tell Scara where to stick it, didn’t she? So people who like Scara won’t like Zen’efay.’

Ka’harja laughed so hard he choked on his own spit. ‘Yeah— When Zen’efay refused Scara’s light, Scara was pretty mad about it.’

‘Her light?’ Neg’an blinked curiously. ‘What light?’

Ka’harja shrugged. ‘Animon believe that when we die Scara gives us some glowing hair or something, and then we become stars.’

‘We become stars? I thought that when Scara got you, she dragged you into the planet and buried you in the deep dark Underfor and left you there.’

Underfor, Ka’harja shuddered at the word, pushing back the memory of how close he’d come to seeing it for himself. ‘That’s— That’s the Har’py version of it. In the Animon version, she takes the dead into the sky and turns them into stars.’

‘So…. Wait. The stars up there are dead people?’ Neg’an looked up, a horrified expression spreading across her face. ‘Dead people wrapped in glowing hair?’

‘Close your mouth,’ Ka’harja barked a laugh. ‘It’s supposedly a reward for being a good person in life— But don’t ask me for details. I’m not Animon, I don’t understand it either.’

‘You’re not an Animon?’ Neg’an cocked her head sideways and blinked several times. ‘Are you a Har’py too?’

‘No,’ Ka’harja shook his head. ‘Not anymore, anyway. I don’t believe in gods or goddesses or any of that rubbish. I’m an atheist. I don’t have a religion. The closest I’ve got to one is knowing about the Eight Star magics.’

Eight Star magics?’ Neg’an whispered. ‘Is that magic that comes from eight stars?’

Ka’harja groaned. ‘It’s magic from one star with eight points. The star was made by a family of gods. Blah blah blah. No big deal.’

‘Stars seem like they are very important things,’ said Neg’an. She walked beside Ka’harja quietly for a moment before continuing, ‘I would like to be important one day, too. But I don’t think I ever will be.’

‘I’m happy being a nobody,’ Ka’harja chuckled. ‘Nothing’s expected of you and you can get away with a lot more than you could if people knew who you were.’

‘Get away with things?’ Neg’an asked. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Like, uh… being a little bit rude,’ Ka’harja told her. ‘Eating too much. Not having a bath everyday—’

‘—Bath?’ echoed Neg’an. ‘What’s a bath?’

‘When you clean dirt of yourself with water,’ said Ka’harja. ‘Sorry, shouldn’t have assumed you’d ever bathed before.’

For a moment, Neg’an was quiet. She looked around the ground and bit her lip and twitched her ears. Then she looked back to Ka’harja, her eyes sparkling, ‘So why don’t you have a religion? Do you not like gods?’

‘I like the idea of them,’ Ka’harja admitted. ‘Like Scara? A deity who loves everyone and wants to protect them? That’s great! I just… I don’t know. It’s hard to believe something like that’s real.’

‘Scara loves everyone?’ Neg’an gasped. ‘Really? She really loves everyone? How is it possible to love everyone? Does she meet them all secretly? Does she shapeshift and pretend to be someone else so she can know everyone enough to love them? And do other things love everyone? Like grass! Does grass love everyone like Scara does?’

‘Gr—’ Ka’harja nearly choked. ‘Grass? Why are you asking if grass loves everyone?’

‘Because I like grass a whole lot?’ Neg’an’s voice rose a pitch, as if she couldn’t understand how her thought wasn’t as clear to Ka’harja as it was to herself. ‘And I want to know if it likes me back. Why else would I ask a question like that?’

‘Neg’an, leave him alone,’ Neg’an’s mother quickly grabbed one of her daughter’s spare hands and tried to lead her away. ‘Please, don’t be mad at her. She doesn’t understand.’

‘No, it’s alright,’ laughing, Ka’harja bent down and ripped a handful of grass out of the ground. ‘Grass can’t feel hate. Unless you’re allergic to it. Then it tries to kill you. But you don’t have any bad red marks on your feet, so you’re probably not allergic.’

Neg’an’s eyes sparkled as Ka’harja threw the torn grass over her like confetti.

‘So it— It loves me back!’ she exclaimed. ‘And it can be my friend?’

Her mother sighed at this and frowned. Her hard gaze met Ka’harja’s eye and the corner of her lip twitched. ‘I’m not explaining this to her again. You can fix what you’ve just done.’

Nervously, Ka’harja put a hand on Neg’an’s back. He wasn’t sure what he’d done, exactly, so he had no idea how to fix it. ‘Grass… isn’t…. It’s not really alive—’

‘—But it can die?’ Neg’an’s voice was so firm it shocked Ka’harja into silence. ‘And if can die, then it’s alive. If it’s alive, it has feelings! And if it has feelings, it can be my friend.’

‘I— Can’t argue with logic like that,’ Ka’harja coughed, and shrugged at Neg’an’s mother. ‘Sorry, kekik.’

Neg’an looked at her frustrated mother for a moment before dropping to her knees and hugging the woman. ‘Kekik, what’s wrong?’

‘Nothing, my little carrot, just… terr basaka tarr kami maka.’

What? She thought he was lying?

Excuse her?

EXCUSE HER?!

He was not a “maka”!

Well— Maybe he couldn’t deny that he was a bit of a liar. Sometimes. But not right now he wasn’t lying! He was trying to help her!

Dreankot!’ Ka’harja hissed, watching Neg’an’s mother pale. ‘And I’ll say it again in International, too, just for good measure: rude. Kizza icha International. I speak Har’py, too.’

Neg’an looked between Ka’harja and her mother, then kissed her mother on the cheek and jumped back up to Ka’harja’s side.

‘If the stars are people, then what’s rain?’

Rain?’ Ka’harja echoed, so taken aback by Neg’an’s change in subject that he forgot he was annoyed. ‘Rain is… when the sky cries.’

The look Neg’an’s mother gave Ka’harja could have very easily killed him had Neg’an not turned around and gripped her excitedly.

‘I knew it! I knew it!’ she exclaimed. ‘That’s what I thought too! Everyone always said I was wrong and that the sky didn’t cry! But you know it too! It must be true if we both think it!’

‘How far away did you say your home was?’ Neg’an’s mother looked like she’d had enough of Ka’harja to last a lifetime.

‘Just over that hill there,’ Ka’harja did feel a little bad about the grass —he hadn’t thought that Neg’an would take everything the way she did— but he wasn’t going to feel guilty for talking about why it rained. Instead he continued ahead, knowing his home was just over the slight rise; hidden well from anyone who’d never seen it before.

When Neg’an saw it she let out a shout, ‘GIGHI! WHAT IS THAT?! IT’S HUGE!’

‘That’s where I live,’ Ka’harja told her.

‘It’s like a giant hovel!’ she clapped her free hands, and jumped up and down— But stopped herself when she nearly dropped her baby. ‘Oh, oh!’

‘Careful, carrot!’ her mother exclaimed, quickly taking her child from her and holding him firmly. ‘Don’t jump around. You’ll hurt yourself.’

‘But look at it!’ Neg’an breathed. ‘It’s so— It’s so— I love it! Kosson!’

Ka’harja laughed at that. ‘It’s pretty great, yeah! Come on, I’ll show you inside.’

‘We get to go inside?!’ Neg’an’s voice rose again, and she pulled on her long black hair in excitement. ‘Kekik! Kekik! We get to go inside!’

Neg’an’s mother gave a gentle nod and quietly followed Ka’harja down the hill. She didn’t say much as they made their way to the front door— But she let out a gasp as the warm air from inside flowed out and brought colour back to her pale cheeks.

Ka’harja chuckled before ducking inside. And then immediately let out a frustrated sigh.

Everything had fallen over.

It was absolute shambles.

Bottles had smashed, books were strewn across the floor, and the chairs were all sideways…. The only thing that hadn’t noticed the force of the quake from the fallen stars was Distro; who was about seven meters away from the bed, still asleep on a pile of scrolls.

Pushing the idea of having to clean up to the back of his mind, Ka’harja guided the girls into the house and motioned to the floor, ‘Try not to step on anything.’

Gighi, it’s really messy in here!’ Neg’an pointed out, carefully taking her baby back from her own mother. ‘Is it always like this? Do you like this sort of mess? Can I make it messier or are you going to clean it up?’

Ka’harja shrugged and began to untie the invisible sack from his wrist. ‘It’s usually only the bottles that get everywhere,’ he tried to put the sack of stolen goods down without the girls seeing, but Neg’an turned to him as he dropped it and he knew she’d seen it. He tried to act inconspicuous and motioned to the mess again. ‘The rest is normally in piles.’

‘Who’s that?’ Neg’an asked. ‘She doesn’t look very comfortable. Why is she so pale? Is she sick?’

‘That’s my mum,’ Ka’harja replied. ‘My kekik. She’s fine; I’ll move her in a bit. Just leave her.’

The young nurlak continued to stare at Distro with the most intrigued look Ka’harja had ever seen. She crouched down next to his mother and reached out to touch her. ‘She looks like the sky has fallen on part of her face!’

‘I said to leave her!’ without thinking, Ka’harja stepped to Neg’an’s side and firmly gripped her wrist. ‘I’ll sort her out later!’

‘NO! I’m sorry!’ Neg’an ducked her head down and covered her face with her free arm. ‘Please don’t hit me! I’m sorry!’

Ka’harja let her go and stepped back, realising what he’d done. ‘No, no! I wouldn’t! It’s okay! It’s okay!’ he glanced back and saw Neg’an’s mother frozen in place. She looked as terrified as her daughter. ‘I’m not like that. I’m sorry. Uh…. Na… kiita. Na kiita. Kizza kiita. I’m a good boy. Kizza kiita.’

‘Kizza kiita?’ slowly, Neg’an lowered her arm and met Ka’harja’s eye. She was shivering and Ka’harja could tell by the twitching of her long, shredded ears that she was surprised. ‘You’re not going to hit me?’

‘Of course not,’ Ka’harja said simply. ‘I want to help you. I shouldn’t have snapped. I’m sorry.’

‘You want to help me,’ Neg’an repeated. There was a pause before she continued, ‘Then help me know why your kekik looks like she has the sky on her.’

It took a second for Ka’harja to process what she’d asked. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Under her eyes,’ Neg’an pointed. ‘She has small dots, like stars.’

‘They’re called freckles,’ he said. ‘Haven’t you ever seen someone with freckles before?’

‘Nobody in our troop has them,’ Neg’an’s mother seemed to find herself and hurried to her daughter’s side. ‘And our troop doesn’t socialise much with outsiders.’

‘Well, you obviously did,’ Ka’harja laughed and pointed to Neg’an’s child. ‘I’ve never ever, not once, heard of a dassen living in the Heck’ne! If you tell me that the dassen you bonked was a Har’py, I’ll shave my tail and eat the fur!’

‘What’s “bonked”?’ asked Neg’an.

‘Nothing,’ Ka’harja said. ‘Don’t worry about it…. Hey, I’ll heat some water for you so you can wash off, and get you something to eat. How’s that sound?’

Neg’an’s face lit up. ‘Are you going to show me how to have a bath? I really want to know how! Is the water cold? Is it from a river or a pond or a puddle? Can I drink it?’

~~~~

Ka’harja woke up before Distro, as usual. Even though the older woman had been asleep for a good few hours more than she usually slept she continued to snore relentlessly beside her son and showed no signs of waking up any time soon.

But it didn’t bother Ka’harja; it had been years since Distro had woken up on time. Plus, he’d given her that sleeping potion. And she’d been the one to make it; meaning it worked well. Probably better than she’d intended it to work. Her potions were usually like that.

He blinked as his tired eyes tried to adjust to the dull light of the morning. The room was illuminated yellow-white and everything was damp. Ka’harja groaned. He’d forgotten about the window his mother had broken and now the morning dew was soaking into their blanket.

The foxen boy had to be careful not to kick his mother as he stretched. The shared bed was cramped, but it was warmer than sleeping alone. Ka’harja thought back to the freezing nights he’d spent in a bedroll on Distro’s floor before crawling under the blanket with her and asking, in the most pitiful voice he had been able to muster, if he could share his guardian’s bed. He’d claimed to have had a nightmare but Distro had caught on to his lie and told him he was welcome to sleep next to her for the rest of the Snowfall months…. Somehow that three-month agreement had turned into eight years of sleeping back-to-back. Not that either of them minded.

Ka’harja shook himself and climbed out of bed. The chill air brought his thoughts back to reality and he checked to make sure he hadn’t accidentally pulled the blanket off his mother. It was mostly covering her, but he still tucked the blanket around her properly, kissed her on the cheek, and stumbled to the kitchen.

He could tell something was going to be different about today, but he couldn’t remember what had happened the night before. He ached like he’d had a party but all he remembered was pretending to be a ghost and slapping someone on the butt. He didn’t remember who, though.

He was searching the kitchen desperately for something to eat and came across the bottle of Emperor’s Orgasm that he had put away the night before. He didn’t hesitate to uncork the bottle and drink half of it, justifying it as his breakfast. The last gulp was messy; he choked and coughed a mouthful of the drink onto the kitchen floor. He figured he’d had enough then and re-corked the bottle. He didn’t bother to clean the spill and instead went to wake his mother.

Ka’harja frowned as he walked back through the house. Everything was an absolute mess. Did he actually have a party last night? He didn’t think he would have had one. Even if he had wanted to he had nobody to party with. And it would be obvious if his mother’s friends had come over again. He stopped at the broken window and stared out across the grassy field.

Golden clouds were hanging low on the horizon of the faded blue-grey sky and everything looked normal, if not a bit shaken. Flying bugs shot about and Ka’harja could hear birds chirping in the distance. Was the well always on that angle?

‘Mip flakha syun.’

Ka’harja nearly jumped out of his skin, and turned to see a young nurlak girl clutching a bundle of clothes. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

‘Uh…. Good morning to you too?’ he managed. ‘I’m sorry— Who are you?’

‘You don’t remember?’ she said. She looked tired. ‘You helped me and my kekik save my berr.’

Oh. Yes. He remembered now. ‘You’re Neg’an, aren’t you?’

‘Not anymore!’ she exclaimed excitedly. ‘I’m changing it!’

‘Well, if you’re going to change your name now’s as good a time as any,’ Ka’harja laughed as he turned back to the window. ‘What are you gonna call yourself? And what’s your kekik’s name?’

‘I’m going to call myself Stars,’ she responded. ‘Kekik is called Dena’cosa, but she prefers to be called Dena, without the cosa, like her kekik wanted her to be called.’

‘I see,’ Ka’harja said as he examined the girl. She was an oddity, even for a Har’py. There was something about her he just couldn’t place and he tried to mentally list off her details to find out what it was.

She was wearing an old shirt of his, although it was backwards. He remembered ripping new holes into the clothes while the girls bathed so they could fit their four arms in comfortably, but he didn’t remember Stars’ hair being that long. It was almost down to her knees and seemed a darker, shinier black than it had been before. She seemed paler too, now that all the dirt and dried blood had been scrubbed off her face. Although her skin was still a sickly grey-beige that made her cheekbones stick out even more than they already did.

‘And my berr is going to be called Little Demon,’ Stars’ happy addition interrupted Ka’harja’s thoughts, and all he could do was laughed.

Little Demon! That’s exactly what Har’pies would consider a mixed infant!

‘What’s funny about the name?’ Stars twitched a damaged ear and Ka’harja had to force himself to stop snickering. ‘It’s what it is, and it’s what I will call it!’

‘I’m sorry, it’s just—’ Ka’harja took a deep breath. ‘It’s different from the names we have here. So’s the name “Stars,” actually. Very different from what people here call themselves.’

‘I don’t mind being different,’ Stars said. She flicked her head slightly and brushed her hair out of her eyes.

Ka’harja gasped. ‘Oh, Great Star! You only have two eyes!’

The nurlak nodded. ‘Yes.’

It took Ka’harja a second to compose himself. That was what had seemed so off about her! She only had two eyes instead of the four eyes that nurlak were usually born with.

‘You look weird, too,’ Stars spoke as if she’d read his mind. ‘You’re too tall for a foxen. You should only be this high.’

Ka’harja laughed as Stars held her hand to her midriff.

‘That’s how tall all the foxens in my troop are,’ she said simply. ‘And that’s how tall you should be. But you’re not. You’re as tall as my ears reach. Why is that?’

‘I just am?’ Ka’harja didn’t feel like discussing it. Explaining the lingering effects of mis-measured potions to a non-alchemist, let alone a Har’py, wasn’t very appealing, so he tried to change the topic. ‘So, uh, did you sleep well?’

‘I didn’t sleep at all,’ Stars said.

‘Why not?’ Ka’harja asked. That was why she looked so tired! ‘Was it too cold? I could have found another blanket for you if you’d asked.’

Stars shook her head. ‘I was worried about my berr,’ she said and motioned to her baby. ‘I wasn’t sure when it would be hungry, or if its crying would wake me. It cries so quietly…. I didn’t want to lose it like the others. It’s the first one I’ve had long enough to name, and I really love it a lot.’

Ka’harja’s chest tightened. How do you even respond to something like that?

‘I wasn’t sure anyone would hear it if I slept,’ Stars continued. ‘So I didn’t sleep. Although now I’m tired and my head hurts. Miita.’

Ouch, huh?’ Ka’harja echoed Stars in International. ‘I’m sorry…. You could try and get some sleep now. Although you should have something to eat before you go back to bed.’

‘Eat?’ Stars looked surprised. ‘But we only ate last night! Are you really going to give me more food?’

‘Of course!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. ‘Eating every day is healthy, and it will help you make enough milk for your Little Demon.’

‘Will it?’ Stars asked. ‘Gighi! Okay, I’ll eat. But I’m not a very good hunter, so I can’t help you catch it.’

‘No need to catch anything!’ Ka’harja said proudly as he led Stars to the kitchen. He dramatically pulled a sack of oats out of a cupboard. ‘Bam! Porridge!’

‘It looks like dust,’ Stars observed. ‘Does it taste like dust?’

‘If you don’t cook it, yeah,’ Ka’harja laughed and continued pulling things out of the kitchen cupboards. ‘Let me light the fire here and I’ll cook it up and make it taste good! You like spiders?’

Stars froze. ‘They’re awful! Absolutely mup! And the big ones always attack us! Tah’liki got bitten once and his whole arm swelled up—’

‘—I meant for eating,’ Ka’harja corrected himself. ‘But I’ll take that as “oh, please don’t add any into the porridge I’d prefer if you put in apple slices!”’

Stars giggled and agreed. ‘Should I wait in here while you cook?’ she asked.

‘Why don’t you go wake your kekik?’ Ka’harja suggested as he put the porridge on the stove to boil. ‘Give you both a good ten or so minutes to get yourselves ready to eat.’

Stars nodded enthusiastically and bolted out of the room. ‘KEKIK! Ka’harja says we can bini kan!’

Ka’harja chuckled. He wouldn’t expect someone from the Heck’ne to be this entertaining. Not in such an sweet way. She almost reminded Ka’harja of a kogarg boy he’d had a fling with a few years back… that hadn’t turned out too well. He didn’t want to think of that, so he grabbed the half-drunk bottle of Orgasm and downed the rest.

He wanted to mix it into the porridge like his mother would have done, but he didn’t think it was a good idea to give alcohol to his guests. Not when they had an infant to feed.

‘Ka’harja!’ Stars rushed back into the room. ‘Kekik’s awake, but she doesn’t want to come in and talk. I told her she should, but she said she doesn’t like you much, so I told her she’s just being silly and that you’re great, and then she told me that I’m silly and trust too easy, and then she kissed me on the forehead and told me that I should keep you company and say thank you. Thank you, by the way! For the food and shelter and bath. You’re kami mip!’

He was the best, wasn’t he? Ka’harja grinned at Stars and left the porridge to simmer. ‘You’re welcome.’

Still smiling, Stars looked at the kitchen window. ‘Can I look outside?’

‘Sure!’ Ka’harja watched as Stars hurried to the window and tried to lean out, only to bang her head on the glass. Ka’harja bit his lip and chuckled; he was distinctly reminded of one of his own experiences learning about the world outside the Heck’ne.

‘What is this?’ she asked as she touched the smudge her forehead had left on the otherwise clear window. ‘It’s like hard air.’

‘That fooled me first time I saw it too!’ Ka’harja laughed. He was lying a little; he hadn’t understood what glass was for almost a full year after discovering it. ‘It’s called a window. The hard air is glass.’

Stars tilted her head to the side and flicked her ear innocently. ‘Glass?’

‘Yeah, glass.’

‘Is it like grass? Its name sounds like grass.’

‘No, it’s… more like see-through rock,’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘But it’s very easy to break, so don’t lean on it or hit it!’

‘What happens if it breaks?’

Ka’harja gave the porridge a stir and took it off the stove. ‘It’ll turn into tiny sharp rocks and bite you.’

It was hard not to laugh as Stars jumped back from the window. Her mouth was hanging open and her ears stood erect as she stared, wide-eyed and unblinking, at this now-dangerous beast that could attack at any time. She shielded her baby with all four of her arms, pressing it against her chest protectively.

‘It will only bite you if you break it,’ Ka’harja told her. ‘You can still look out of it! Just don’t touch it.’

Ka’harja could barely take his eyes off Stars as she crept carefully back to the window and the first scoop of hot porridge ended up on the floor. He was more careful with the next few spoonfuls, which he scooped into a bowl and handed to Stars with a warning to be careful; it’s hot.

Stars ate very slowly. She licked the porridge out of the bowl like a cat, smacking her lips with each lick and flicking her ears excitedly.

‘Good, huh?’ Ka’harja scooped some into a bowl for himself and stood next to Stars as she nodded happily. He decided to open the window a crack. The steam from cooking had made it almost impossible to see out of.

Stars watched him open the window with quiet amazement. She continued to stare outside for quite a while. There was a wistful look on her face as she started to speak. ‘The sky is so kama here.’

‘It is beautiful, isn’t it?’ Ka’harja agreed. ‘Much better than in the Heck’ne.’

‘You’ve been to the Heck’ne?’ Stars turned her curious stare to Ka’harja. Then she smiled. ‘Oh, yes! You said that yesterday.’

Ka’harja drank the thick porridge like soup. He wasn’t fussed by how hot it was. He’d gotten used to burning sensations in his throat from drinking so many potions, and hot porridge was almost soothing compared to some of the mistakes he’d digested. He burped loudly and chucked the bowl next to the pot of porridge. He’d have seconds, of course. He always had seconds.

‘Ka’harja?’

‘Hmm?’ Ka’harja turned to Stars. ‘What’s up?’

Stars looked up at the roof before looking back to Ka’harja. ‘I have a question.’

Ka’harja nodded and waited for her to ask. He was met with silence as Stars got distracted by a bug on the windowsill. A large black fly that buzzed unpleasantly was thinking about coming into the house. In the end, it decided not to and buzzed away, and Ka’harja continued to wait patiently until Stars turned back to him.

‘You wanted to ask me a question?’ Stars cocked her head.

Ka’harja barked a laugh. ‘I thought that it was you with the question!’

‘Oh, yes! It was,’ Stars corrected. ‘Did your kekik take you away from the Heck’ne, like I’m taking my berr?’

‘What? Oh, no,’ Ka’harja felt himself stand up straighter as he was put on the spot. ‘Distro isn’t my… she’s not my mother mother. I’m an orphan.’

‘But I thought that orphans were supposed to stay orphans,’ Stars’ voice became muffled as she started to lick the last of the porridge from the bottom of her bowl. ‘Isn’t it the law?’

‘Not out here,’ Ka’harja explained. ‘Distro took me in and looked after me. She gave me food and clothes and treated me like her own child, and that’s sort of what I became. She adopted me, legally. By Empire law, I’m her son. And she looks after me.’

‘Oh,’ Stars rocked on the balls of her feet for a second and glanced down at her baby. ‘So she did what you’re doing now for me and my berr?’

‘Sort of,’ Ka’harja grinned. ‘Only I’m not going to become the adoptive father of your child anytime soon!’

Stars laughed and turned back to the window. ‘That would be silly. It already has a yalfit!’

‘What’s his name?’

‘I’ve told you its name!’ Stars laughed again. ‘Little Demon.’

He had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. ‘I meant their father’s name.’

‘The father’s name?’

‘Yes, the father’s name,’ Ka’harja grinned. He stepped around Stars so he could stand by her side to talk. He’d rather see her face than the back of her head. ‘The dassen you fuc—’

Ka’harja didn’t have the chance to finish his sentence as his foot slid out from underneath him. He reached out to grab something —anything— to stop himself from falling but just ended up knocking pots and pans off the bench, which landed on top of him as he smacked the back of his head on the hard stone floor. He felt a wet patch soak into his tail fur and smelt strong alcohol and sour apples. He groaned. He hadn’t meant to squeal when he fell but he was sure that loud shriek had been his.

‘Are you alright?’ Stars didn’t seem too phased by Ka’harja’s accident. There was concern on her face, but her voice was flat.

Fucking Orgasm,’ Ka’harja sobbed.

Stars gently put her baby down on the kitchen bench and started to move the pots off Ka’harja and onto the floor. ‘That’s an odd thing to happen after falling over.’

Ka’harja didn’t bother explaining that the Emperor’s Orgasm was a drink. Instead, he let her help him up and limped to the window. ‘Day’s getting warmer.’

‘Is everything alright?’ Stars’ mother stuck her head into the kitchen. She glared at Ka’harja with such a vicious look that he was scared she was going to attack him… but then she softened her gaze and turned to her daughter. ‘Carrot?’

‘I’m okay, Kekik,’ Stars told her. ‘It’s Ka’harja who got hurt.’

Good,’ Dena mumbled under her breath. She tensed when she realised Ka’harja had heard her, and retreated hurriedly out of the room.

‘You look upset, Ka’harja,’ Stars said simply. Then she seemed to realised what had been said and stared at Ka’harja with wide, scared eyes. Ka’harja raised a hand to comfort her but she flinched away. ‘Please don’t hit me!’

‘I wasn’t going to,’ he slowly put his hand on her cheek. ‘I was just going to put my hand here, like this.’

‘Kekik does this sometimes,’ Stars relaxed as Ka’harja stroked her face. She closed her eyes and let out a long breath. ‘It’s nice.’

Ka’harja pulled his hand away from Stars and turned to the window.

They watched as the sky turned from pale grey and bright yellow to vivid blue and shimmering white. Stars’ breathing got heavier, and Ka’harja realised just how amazed she was by the sky’s beauty.

‘It looks like my kekik’s eyes!’ Stars said wistfully.

Ka’harja grinned. ‘Your eyes look like that, too.’

Really?’ Stars exclaimed. ‘But the sky’s so kama! So beautiful! My eyes can’t be that colour.’

‘Are you joking? You’re gorgeous!’ as he stared into her eyes, Ka’harja couldn’t help thinking to himself that he knew Stars from somewhere. That they’d met before… but he just couldn’t seem to place it.

She must have been someone he’d known before he left Heck’ne, but she can’t have been anyone he knew too well if he didn’t remember her by name or face.

Stars blushed and looked to the floor. ‘I’m sorry, we can’t be mayts.’

‘Whoa, no,’ Ka’harja took a step back. ‘That’s not what I was trying to— No. Na.’

Stars looked confused. Her cheeks were still red and she mumbled when she spoke. ‘But you’re being so nice to me… and complimenting me.’

‘That doesn’t mean I’m flirting with you,’ Ka’harja explained. ‘Look, I don’t like girls. I’m gay. Gay. Boys only for me.’

‘But why else would you compliment someone, if you don’t want to have sex with them?’

Ka’harja shrugged. ‘Because you notice something nice about someone and think it would make them happy to hear?’

‘But if you’re “gay,” then how can you tell if a girl has something nice about them?’

‘I’m not fucking blind, that’s how!’

Stars flinched, and Ka’harja felt bad for snapping.

‘Not everything revolves around sex,’ Ka’harja said softly. He couldn’t help but think about the irony that it was him, a foxen man, dismissing sex… considering the stereotypes. ‘Sometimes being friends is enough.’

‘Oh… I like how that sounds,’ Stars said slowly. Then she grinned, and her ears flicked up. ‘What kind of men do you like to be mayts with?’

‘I don’t know,’ Ka’harja shrugged. ‘Small?’

‘Then you can have the men I don’t want!’ Stars decided, her cheerful personality coming back in a rush as she clapped her hands.

Ka’harja laughed. Why not humour her? ‘It’s a deal.’

They stood together for a while, quietly thinking. Ka’harja chuckled when he saw she’d picked up her baby again. She was holding Little Demon with her lower arms and gently stroking them with one of her free hands.

‘I like that it doesn’t smell like dust here,’ Stars peered out the window again and pointed. ‘I can still smell the dirt, but it doesn’t smell burnt.’

‘It’s nice,’ he agreed.

Stars took a deep breath and kissed her baby. ‘Can you help me feed my Little Demon? I don’t know how to with this thing on.’

Ka’harja helped Stars adjust her backwards shirt so that she could feed Demon comfortably, then turned back to the window. Partly to be polite, but mostly because he didn’t want to see it.

He waited a while, but the silence felt awkward, so he tried to think of something to say.

‘What’s your preference?’ Ka’harja finally asked. ‘Dominant hand, I mean. I’m ambidextrous.’

‘Ambi… huh?’

‘I use both my hands for things,’ he clarified, glancing back at her and feeling relief that she’d stopped feeding Little Demon. ‘Nurlak have lower and upper arm preferences, right? Which do you use?’

Stars stared at Ka’harja, confused, for what felt like hours before she lifted her upper hands up and looked at them. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth opened in shock. ‘I use my top arms.’

Ka’harja lost it at that. He laughed so hard he had to sit down on the kitchen floor again. His chest and stomach hurt and he couldn’t breathe.

The whole time he laughed Stars watched him. She was frowning and looked offended but Ka’harja couldn’t stop himself.

Her face!

‘Don’t laugh at me!’ Stars exclaimed. She stomped a foot angrily and folded back her ears. ‘I’m tired of being laughed at!’

The hurt in her voice was all Ka’harja needed to hear. He stopped laughing and scrambled to his feet. ‘Sorry,’ he held out a hand to Stars. ‘Friends?’

She hesitated, staring at him as her ears flicked back up and her voice came out in a mystified gasp. ‘Are we friends?’

‘Sure,’ Ka’harja grinned. ‘If you want to be.’

Her face lit up and she bolted out of the room. ‘Kekik! I made a friend!’

‘With who?’ Ka’harja heard Dena respond through the wall. ‘I hope it wasn’t with that boy!

Ka’harja frowned as he collected the bowls and lifted the heavy pot of porridge. He made his way into the main room as Stars began twirling around her mother excitedly.

‘It was! It was! My first friend!’

‘Well, I suppose we have to start somewhere,’ Dena mumbled. She clenched her jaw when she saw Ka’harja was in the room and looked away awkwardly.

Ka’harja tried not to let it bother him. He put the pot on the table with a grunt and started filling bowls. ‘Do you want more, Stars?’

More?!’ Stars almost shouted. ‘I’m allowed even more?!

‘You can have as much as you like,’ Ka’harja told her. ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll make more if you manage to empty the pot.’

Stars bounced up and down excitedly. ‘More! More! I want more please!’

‘Don’t eat too much, my pebble,’ Dena reminded her. ‘You’re not used to eating a lot. I don’t want you making yourself sick. Kan slowly.’

‘Same goes for you, Kekik,’ Ka’harja laughed as he sat opposite the girls. ‘I mean, the eat as much as you want thing, not the don’t make yourself sick thing. Though you shouldn’t do that either.’

Dena gave a disgruntled tsk and turned her back on Ka’harja so she could continue to fuss over her daughter.

Ridiculous, Ka’harja rolled his eyes. He tried not to be upset but it was hard; it wasn’t like he’d risked his life to give her, a potential murderer, food and shelter or anything like that! Ungrateful….

Stars was finished with her second bowl by the time Ka’harja managed to stop himself internally mocking Dena, who handed her daughter what was left of her own porridge.

‘Your kekik’s been asleep a long time,’ Stars said as she finished off her mother’s bowl. ‘She’s a very loud sleeper, and she snores like my gorg growls when he’s angry. Although I shouldn’t call him gorg. He hates it when I do and growls at me whenever he hears me say it, which I do a lot without thinking, so I hear him growl a lot. That’s how I know your kekik sounds like him. He only likes it when I call him by his name, which is Lah’kort, or if I call him yalfit. That means father, if you didn’t know. Although you probably did, because you knew what kekik meant. But if you didn’t know before you know now, because I just told you and—’

Ka’harja nodded along patiently while Stars continued to talk— Though nothing she said really made any sense to him. He wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to smile; Dena was watching her daughter with a severe expression and flinched every time Stars said the name “Lah’kort.”

‘What’s the not-Har’py word for gorg? I never learnt that one.’

‘Brother,’ Ka’harja told her. He realised a few seconds after saying it out loud that she’d referred to Lah’kort as both yalfit and gorg, and his eyes shot to Dena. Her own son?

Dena looked at him and nodded, with sad eyes that begged him not to ask about it. Ka’harja shivered as he thought about what might have happened to him if he’d stayed in the Heck’ne with his first mother. He certainly wasn’t hunter material…. Would he have ended up like Dena?

Luckily for them both, Stars changed the topic back to Distro’s snoring which —as awkward a topic as it was— was a lot less awkward than Har’py family dynamics.

My kekik doesn’t sound like yours when she sleeps,’ Stars said proudly. ‘My kekik is a very quiet sleeper. Well, actually, she’s quiet all the time. People can forget she’s there because she barely ever talks! I never forget her, though. I love her too much.’

Dena gave a weak smile and kissed her daughter’s cheek.

‘So she’s the opposite of you?’ Ka’harja pushed his anxiety to the very back of his mind and smiled at Stars. ‘With the never talking thing, I mean. You never seem to close your mouth!’

Stars looked to the floor and started to apologise, but stopped halfway through. ‘Wait— You were smiling when you said that. Was it a joke?’

Ka’harja nodded. ‘Of course it was. I don’t insult my friends.’

‘And I’m your friend!’ Stars’ eyes grew wide as if she had just remembered. Then she paused. ‘Do you think our kekiks can be friends?’

‘You know I don’t like having friends,’ Dena squeezed Stars’ shoulders gently. ‘Besides you of course, my little carrot.’

‘But you can make better friends now that we’re free!’ Stars exclaimed. ‘Just like me!’

‘That’s enough for now, my precious one.’

‘But kekik—’

—I said that’s enough!’ Dena’s snap was followed by a tense silence. A moment passed before she sighed and kissed Stars on the forehead. ‘I’m supposed to be the one looking after you. I don’t want you worrying about me.’

‘But I love you, Kekik,’ a tear rolled down Stars’ cheek and Ka’harja couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.

Without thinking, he jumped out of his seat. ‘You know what? This conversation is so awkward that I think waking my mother and explaining to her that I welcomed two Har’pies into my home while on a potion high is more appealing than sitting here and listening to it!’

He turned around stiffly and marched towards the bed. He didn’t bother to avoid the junk that had been thrown about the house the night before and simply kicked it away as he walked. When he got to the bed he plopped himself down heavily and gave his mother a shake, which she ignored.

‘Mum, time to get up,’ he shook her again. ‘Mum, it’s time to get up. Sunlight and breakfast await you. Time to get up! Wake up! Awaken!’

She didn’t respond at all.

‘WAKE UP!’ Ka’harja shouted. But to no avail. Getting his mother up for breakfast was one of the hardest daily chores he’d ever been given. He might as well tip porridge on a brick. ‘DISTRO NIGELLE! WAKE THE FUCK UP! MUM! DISTRO! MUM!’

She snorted and mumbled something before rolling over and burying her face in her pillow.

Frustrated, Ka’harja climbed over her onto the other side of the bed and squashed himself between the wall and his mother. He braced himself, setting his feet against Distro and his back against the wall, and then heaved his legs straight.

His mother fell out of bed with a grunt, a thunk, and a mumbled “fuck off,” but when Ka’harja checked on her she was still asleep.

‘Impressive,’ Dena chuckled. ‘Is she alright?’

‘It’s all part of our daily routine!’ Ka’harja grinned as he picked up one of Distro’s abandoned bottles. ‘This happens every morning!’

He waved the top of the bottle under Distro’s nose and finally got a response out of her. She made a loud, wet snorting sound and attempted to sit up.

‘Ka’harja? I have a headache,’ she snorted again, this time from deep in her crackly chest. She opened her eyes, only to close them again instantly. ‘Oh by the Ninth God that’s bright.’

Ka’harja chuckled as she gave a long wet sniff. ‘Is that our new language now?’

‘Yeah, it’s hangover for hello,’ she sniffed again and blinked her eyes slowly. ‘Aren’t you handsome today?’

‘I’m handsome every day,’ Ka’harja reminded her playfully. ‘I’m sure our new guests would agree.’

‘Guests?’ Distro wiped her nose with her arm and gazed around with her swollen, half-open eyes. ‘Who are they? They’re not— IT’S NOT THE CARAVANERS IS IT?!’

Ka’harja put his arm around his mother as she curled into the foetal position, clutching her head and obviously regretting yelling with such a bad hangover.

‘No, no, not the caravaners,’ Ka’harja explained. He helped his mother to her feet and guided her to the table. ‘They’re like me.’

Distro stared blankly at the girls as Ka’harja sat her down. Dena looked nervous, but Stars started bouncing up and down excitedly when Distro’s eyes met hers.

‘They’re nothing like you,’ Distro said. ‘They’re too pale. And thin. And they’re both girls. They look like— Oh. Runaways?’

Ka’harja nodded.

‘I’m Stars!’ obviously unable to control herself any longer, Stars jumped onto the table and sat in front of Distro. ‘I used to have a different name, but now my name is Stars because Ka’harja told me about the stars and the sky and grass and I really like them all but I really like stars a lot! Do you know about Scara? There are people called Animon who think she’s a goddess with glowing hair and magical love! And did you know Har’pies say she’s evil when Animon say she’s not and is really good and full of love? I’m so excited to not be a Har’py anymore! Ka’harja’s helping me to stop being one because he used to be one too but stopped so he knows how to stop being a Har’py and he’s been telling me how and did you know he can speak Har’py? Can you speak Har’py too?’

Distro stared at Stars with eyes wider than Ka’harja had seen in a while. Her eyebrows were raised high and she didn’t look like she was taking anything in. He supposed it didn’t help that Stars started speaking in Har’py to test if Distro could understand her.

Ka’harja was grinning ear-to-ear as his mother stared at Stars. He served himself a bowl and finished it before Stars realised Distro couldn’t speak Har’py and started to talk in International again. Then he turned and started for the front door.

‘Ka’harja, don’t be rude!’ his mother called to him. She sounded more desperate and confused than she did frustrated. ‘Get back here and eat your breakfast— Don’t just walk away! Ka’harja please come back I don’t know what’s happening!

Ka’harja didn’t stop; he ignored his mother’s protests and hurried outside. He stretched, laughed, then made a beeline for the outhouse.

~~~~

By the time Ka’harja got back in the house, Distro and Dena were sitting side by side, laughing and having a discussion about “how utterly useless men are.”

‘I resent that,’ Ka’harja grunted as he came up behind his mother. He kissed the back of her head and reached across the table for more food.

Dena’s attitude changed when she realised Ka’harja was in the room. She shuffled nervously and went quiet when Distro tried to start the conversation again. Instead, she stared at Little Demon, who slept peacefully in her arms.

‘What’s wrong? Are you alright?’ Ka’harja asked. He knew he was what was wrong, but tried to be polite. ‘Can I get you a drink?’

‘Yes!’ Distro interrupted. ‘Check if we have any White Dragon Wine left, would you, Sweetheart? If not just grab some more Melberry. That stuff’s cheap as water.’

‘It basically is water,’ Ka’harja snickered as he stepped over bottles and obediently made his way to the kitchen. He nearly collided with Stars on his way in, who lifted up armfuls of food and exclaimed happily that Distro was going to let her try everything in the kitchen.

Ka’harja squeezed past her and started shuffling through the cupboards as she rambled on about how nice the food they had tasted. He didn’t manage to find White Dragon or Melberry, but he found quite a few bottles of a drink called “Filgigosh” pushed right to the back of one of the higher cupboards, which he figured must have been one of the bottles nicked from the travelling caravan. The label wasn’t in International; it was some sort of chunky cursive that he didn’t recognise. He opened it and had a sip as Stars wandered up to his side.

It had a very strong mint flavour with a nutty aftertaste. It was, in Ka’harja’s opinion, disgusting… and oddly chunky.

‘Can I try that, too?’ Stars asked.

‘Sorry, not good when you’re breast feeding,’ Ka’harja pulled the bottle away from her quick, curious hands. ‘If you drink this your milk might make Little Demon sick.’

Stars gasped loudly and ran out of the room. She dropped a loaf of bread on her way out so Ka’harja picked it up and followed her to the table (which she proceeded to sit on top of) and gently thwapped her on the head with it.

‘Bread head,’ Ka’harja chuckled. Stars was obviously confused, so he continued, ‘This is called bread. I bopped you on the head with it. So you are now a bread head.’

‘Don’t confuse the poor girl,’ Distro punched Ka’harja’s arm. ‘And give me my drink!’

‘Alright, but don’t overdo it like yesterday!’ Ka’harja held the bottle out to his mother… but pulled it away when she reached for it. He did this several times, each time having to pull it away faster, before Distro managed to catch it. He still didn’t let go and watched his mother struggle to pull the bottle away from him. She gave a victorious laugh when she won the tug-of-war and drunk without looking at the bottle. She gagged and spat it out almost as soon as the drink made contact with her lips.

‘What the fuck is this?’ Distro snapped. She stared at the label and then frowned. ‘Filgigosh? This is cooking oil, Ka’harja!’

‘Is it?’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘Sorry, I couldn’t read the label and sort of just assumed any liquid in the house was alcohol.’

‘It’s fourteen years past its expiry date!’ Distro cackled and handed it back. ‘It must have been something my father made me bring here when I first moved out. Where in the world did you find it?’

‘It was in the back of one of the top cupboards,’ Ka’harja laughed. He turned to Stars and held out the bottle. ‘Hey Stars, turns out it won’t make Little Demon sick if you drink it.’

‘Don’t drink it!’ Distro slapped the bottle out of Ka’harja’s hand before Stars could take it. ‘It will make you sick!’

Stars looked hurt. ‘Ka’harja, why would you want to make me sick?’

‘Don’t worry, Stars, he doesn’t want to make you sick,’ Distro stared at the bottle as thick, chunky liquid pooled onto the floor. ‘He’s just an idiot who can’t think things through.’

‘That’s putting it lightly,’ Dena mumbled. She froze when everyone turned to her. ‘Did I… say that out loud?’

‘What have you got against me?’ Ka’harja snapped and pointed a finger at Dena. ‘Seriously? All I’ve done is try to help you!’

Dena refused to meet his eye. ‘I…. I don’t know. I’m sorry. Please don’t…. Don’t hit me.’

‘I’m not going to hit you,’ Ka’harja’s chest tightened with a knot of anxiety and he put his hand down slowly. He tried to remind himself to be patient.

‘Dena, sit down and finish your breakfast,’ Distro’s voice sounded like it had been dragged across a gravel road. ‘Ka’harja, please get me a drink. An actual drink. Listen to me! I sound a dying gargoyle!’

‘Alright, I’ll get you a drink,’ Ka’harja said.

‘And then clean up the mess you’ve made!’

Ka’harja got Distro her drink and then headed back into the kitchen. He didn’t feel up to dealing with tense conversation as he cleaned the spilt oil, so he sat against the wall and put his face on his knees. He sighed when he heard Stars start talking.

‘You rasp like I used to,’ Stars said, presumably to Distro. ‘When I was a just a berr, if it got cold, my throat used to swell up and I couldn’t breathe properly. I sounded just like you do! I still sound a little like that when I get thirsty, though, but not as bad. And I used to know someone else who talked really funny, but he’s gone now. He left a long long time ago and I can’t remember his face anymore. He made me happy, and I wanted to be his friend. My yalfit was going to give me to him when we were old enough, because he was the son of a really strong warrior that Lah’kort wanted to impress, but then he ran away, so Lah’kort kept me for himself—’

‘—Carrot, that’s enough. Please talk about something else. Anything else.

‘Okay,’ Stars sounded hurt. ‘What’s that rainbow on the wall? It looks like a star.’

‘That? That’s the Eight Star,’ Distro explained. ‘It’s a religion thing. Each section of the Eight Star is supposed to represent a different magic and god. It’s complicated.’

That’s a lot of gods,’ whispered Stars. Ka’harja had to strain to hear her. ‘Do they really exist?’

‘HAH! No,’ Distro laughed. Then she gave a cough and corrected herself. ‘Not that I think, anyway. Gods just don’t make sense to me.’

‘They don’t? I think they make sense,’ said Stars. ‘They make me feel… safer. I think. I’m not sure what words to use for the feeling they give me.’

Ka’harja sighed as his mother chuckled.

‘Don’t laugh at me!’ Stars exclaimed.

Distro went quiet and Ka’harja strained to hear the hushed conversation. He thought he heard someone apologise but he wasn’t sure.

‘Well, to me, magic makes sense,’ Distro said suddenly. ‘Magic is always there; always has been and always will be. Even long after our kinds are gone, magic will still exist.’

‘The Heck’ne’s mala’kala —our leader— she says that magic was made by Scara, and that it’s evil and that we shouldn’t use it,’ said Stars. ‘But I’m not sure what to think anymore. What do you think? Is magic evil?’

‘I think it’s just like anything else in the world. Like a rock, or a stick. Neither of those things are going to jump up and start beating you by themselves; it’s about what the people who pick them up choose to use them for. They can use them to hit you, or to build a house. It’s not the rock or the stick’s fault if it’s used for hitting. It’s the person who uses it for hitting who’s bad, not the object.’

This was followed by another silence.

‘I think I like the Eight Star,’ Stars finally said. ‘It’s very pretty. I like how this picture of it uses real rocks to make it sparkle.’

Distro laughed. ‘Ka’harja made it for me.’

‘I like Ka’harja, too,’ Stars said happily. ‘And I really like you too, Kekik Distro. Can we live with you?’

Distro laughed loudly. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’

‘Why not?’

‘Carrot…’ Dena hesitated, then sighed. ‘We’re still too close to the border. We have to get as far away from the Heck’ne as we can. All the way away.’

‘That sounds like a very long walk. And I don’t think I can walk much further.’

‘Maybe. But maybe you won’t have to,’ Distro paused; probably to take a swig of her drink. ‘There’s a travelling caravan hanging around. You could ask if they’d take you with them to wherever they’re heading. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to help you!’

Ka’harja scoffed. After what he’d seen of the caravan, he wasn’t sure it was a good idea to leave Stars with them. Not with Trat, at least. Baku seemed decent enough, but the others….

‘What if they don’t take us, Distro?’ Dena sounded close to tears. ‘What do we do then? We can’t stay here.’

‘If they won’t take you, I’ll offer them money. If that doesn’t work we wait for another caravan to come through. There’s some good friends of mine who come through every three or four months to give us mail and sell on my potion stock. They’ll be coming by soon, and they’d take you if I asked them to, but… getting you away from here as soon as possible would be best. Ka’harja can take you to the caravan when he STOPS EAVESDROPPING FROM THE KITCHEN AND GETS HIS BUTT IN HERE!’

Ka’harja jumped into the kitchen doorway. ‘Great Star, mother! You can’t expect me to go back to the caravan after what happened last night!’

Dena squinted and locked her four eyes on Ka’harja with a severe expression. ‘What happened last night?’

’N-no, nothing happened,’ Ka’harja lied. ‘I mean, after last night being such a long night. And me being tired from not sleeping well!’

Dena turned away. She obviously wasn’t convinced by Ka’harja’s lame excuse.

‘You’re a really bad liar,’ Stars piped up. ‘I know you’re telling a maka. You slept as good as your kekik did. Why don’t you want to go to the caravan? Is it an animal? Is it dangerous? I won’t go to it if it’s dangerous! It might hurt my Little Demon!’

Distro put a hand on Stars’ knee —the only part of Stars she could reach while she was sitting on the table— and tried to comfort her. ‘It’s not an animal, it’s just a couple of nomadic seces and their guards.’

‘Nomadic seces?’ Stars cocked her head and twitched an ear. ‘I know what seces are, but what is nomadic? Is it a religion like Animon?’

Ka’harja shook his head. ‘It’s just a word used to describe someone who travels around a lot.’

Stars seemed to think for a moment before a huge grin spread across her face. ‘Like I’m going to be!’

‘You could become a nomad, I suppose,’ Distro’s eyes darted from Stars to Dena and back. ‘But I wouldn’t recommend travelling alone. There are lots of people out there who might hurt you.’

‘Of course there are!’ Stars exclaimed. ‘That’s why we’re running away. I don’t think many people can be as mean as Lah’kort, though. So even if I meet someone who wants to hurt me, they won’t do a very good job. Because I’m used to being hurt really bad, and nobody can hurt people as bad as Lah’kort can, and Lah’kort was the one hurting me. So if someone tries to hurt me it won’t be a big deal.’

‘You’re probably right,’ Ka’harja heaved himself onto the table so he could sit next to Stars. ‘But you being able to cope with pain isn’t an excuse for people to hurt you.’

‘I know, and it’s okay,’ Stars pet Ka’harja on the shoulder and grinned. ‘If someone tries to hurt me or my Little Demon, I’ll just kill them.’

‘What a simple solution,’ Distro crackled. She coughed a laugh and then turned to Dena. ‘Have either of you ever killed anyone before?’

‘Yi,’ said Dena.

‘Na,’ said Stars.

‘Yikes,’ said Ka’harja. ‘Remind me not to get on your bad side, Kekik.’

‘I think you’re already on her bad side,’ Distro cackled loudly. ‘Alright. Let’s start packing and get you to the caravan.’

‘Packing?’ Stars echoed curiously. ‘What are we packing? We can’t take this place with us like our troop usually does when we move, it’s too big and solid. We could never fold it up like our sleeping hovels in the Heck’ne.’

‘We’re going to give you some clothes,’ Ka’harja told her gently. ‘You’d fit in most of my old stuff, if I cut arm holes in it like the shirt you’re wearing now.’

‘But I already have clothes,’ Stars pulled on her shirt happily. ‘You gave me these!’

‘You’re going to need to wash them,’ Ka’harja told her. ‘You can’t wear them while they’re wet, and you can’t just walk around naked.’

‘I walk around naked all the time,’ Stars stared at Ka’harja with a confused look and flicked one of her ears.

Same, thought Ka’harja, though he kept that to himself. ‘It’s impolite to be naked when you’re with strangers. So if you’re going to be leaving with the caravaners you’re going to want a second set of clothes.’

‘You’re being very nice to me,’ Stars smiled. ‘I’m not used to people being nice to me.’

‘Well, get used to it!’ Ka’harja met Stars’ eyes and grinned. He’d only known Stars for a day —less than— but she’d already become closer to him than people he’d known for years…. Although, to be fair, the people he’d known for years were his mother’s friends and clients; mostly people he wouldn’t have chosen to be social with. As much as he cared for some of them, they were his mother’s friends, not his.

‘Ka’harja, I have a question,’ Stars shifted in place nervously. ‘I don’t want to upset you by asking, but you said….’

‘Go on,’ Ka’harja gave her a gentle shove as she trailed off. ‘I won’t get upset. What did I say?’

‘You said it’s rude to walk around naked, but when we first met, you were naked… and now, you’re barely wearing anything. All you have on is those.’

Ka’harja glanced down at his tattered shorts and chuckled. ‘This is what I usually wear around the house,’ he explained. ‘But I could put on a shirt if you’d like.’

‘I don’t mind, but what about when we first met? You said it was rude to be naked around strangers, but when we first met we were strangers, and you were naked.’

‘Well I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone, was I?’ Ka’harja gave a nervous laugh. He couldn’t explain the actual reason he’d been naked. ‘And—’

‘—Here you go!’ Distro exclaimed from the kitchen doorway.

Distro’s shout had cut Ka’harja off and he stared at her, wondering when she’d gotten out of her chair.

Two large shoulder bags were slung over Distro’s shoulders as she stumbled into the room. ‘Food, water, clothes, money, and sleeping potions. That should be all you need.’

‘Sleeping potions?’ Dena commented. ‘What are those for?’

‘Sleeping,’ Ka’harja snickered. He stopped when Distro glared at him.

‘I’ve never met a runaway who didn’t have nightmares,’ Distro said gently. ‘The potions should help you both sleep easier. Just a mouthful before you lie down and you should be fine. I’m sorry I can’t give you more. Someone recently raided my pantry and used up all my stock.’

Ka’harja gave a cough and looked away from his mother; realising she hadn’t forgotten how he’d escaped the night before. As he did, Stars smiled widely and took her bag from Distro.

‘This is more than I’ve ever been given in my entire life! Thank you!’

‘You should both get going before the caravan leaves,’ said Distro, fiddling with her ear.

Ka’harja grinned when he saw she was wearing the earring he’d given her. It was like the necklace she’d given him; with a cutting of his hair attached so they’d never feel alone—

‘Ka’harja will take you now, won’t you, Sweetheart?’

His grin disappeared and anxiety gripped his chest like sharp talons squeezing a mouse. ‘Yeah, sure.’