The Pepper Pot by R. Lee Fryar

“Would you mind?” Nikl said. “I can’t simmer with you boiling over there.” The white dwarf shifted his bulk to get between the stove and the trestle table where Dwyn Dragon, dwarf Seidoche of Ironsfork, wrestled with his weekly nemesis. 

He looked up. The papers he had been grading fluttered in the heat waves that billowed from every inch of his three-foot frame, but he said, “I’m not boiling. And I’m nowhere near your damned stove, so quit griping at me. I’ve had enough of that for one day.” He reached beneath his shaggy brown hair to rub the back of his neck. He’d been sitting at this table like a buzzard over a carcass for two hours now, and knots had gathered in his shoulders. Wearily, he hunched back over the folder he was marking up, drew a line through an entire sentence, and tossed his pen on the page. It was seven o’clock on a Saturday night at Rich Mountain Kitchen, and he was done, even if he wasn’t really as done as he had hoped to be.

He never should have agreed to teach this year. Bad enough he had to hear students butchering the magical language in his library, where he had a strict policy of Seid only—if you were over seven, and therefore old enough to know the basics. He should have left the teaching of written magic to someone less sensitive to the mangling of verb tenses, noun cases, and contracted prepositions. Every mistake he ran his pen through jarred his magical sensibilities until his bones ached at the end of a grading session.

A gust like a late summer breeze filtered over the table from the direction of the cast-iron range. His papers rustled ominously. Dwyn huffed in his beard, but a moment later the wind accelerated to a gale, tossed his papers about the table, and then punched him in the middle of his chest. It was as if someone had taken a bellows to him, and when he raised his hand to retaliate it glowed as brightly as a coal for a moment, and then—hand and all—he burst into flames.

“Cut it out, Nik,” he said. The paper he was holding caught fire in his sudden ignition; he shook it, and the fire dripped from the page onto the well-worn sandstone floor at his feet and burned out there like a broken match. He dropped the singed assignment on top of his scattered folders and began to gather them into a loose pile, fussing in Seid the whole time about Thunderbirds and their peculiar ways of getting his attention.

Nikl chuckled in his breathy way as he leaned against the zinc countertop behind him. An impish grin spread over his round face. “It’s not every day I can blow up the Dragon,” he said. “What is it this time? Did you fight with Nyssa again?”

Dwyn didn’t reply. He looked over the top of his rectangular glasses at his best friend, shuddered hard all over until the rest of his fire went out, and picked up his pen. He resumed the task of marking the casualties in the magical massacre in front of him.

“What did you do?” Nikl said and his grin widened.

“It isn’t always my fault, you know.”

“Oh, no,” Nikl said. “Only ninety percent of the time it is your fault, and the other ten percent of the time you had something to do with it.”

“That woman is impossible to please.”

“No more than a Dragon I know,” Nikl said. He stepped away from the stove, where a cauldron-sized pot was sending a symphony of delicious smells wafting around the kitchen. He wiped his hands on his striped apron and came over to sit at the table with Dwyn. Nikl was a big dwarf, overweight despite the endless diet he always professed to be strictly observing, and he grunted when he eased himself over the bench. He picked up the seared paper. It bled from the scratches Dwyn had so recently inflicted.

“So, tell me about it,” Nikl said.

Dwyn growled. He tipped his chair back on its rear legs. It balanced where he stopped; he didn’t even have to shift his weight to make it stay. He could make anything stick. Or he had thought he could. “I’m about to lose my mind,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that I drill this stuff in the classroom every day. It’s gone the moment they pick up a pencil. I’m this close to cramming the whole lot of them to save my sanity.” He clenched his fingers into claws. “Just pry open their little heads and jam it in there. I said as much to the class yesterday—I was half-joking—and one of them went and bawled about it to Nyssa.” He took a deep breath and let it out in a rush.

“And Nyssa didn’t think it was funny either,” Nikl said. He folded his broad arms over the table in front of him and pressed his fingertips together.

“Damn hell, she didn’t. She told me if I wanted to make jokes like that, I could tell them to the parents when they come to her complaining that I make their kids cry. She has no idea. I’m the one who ought to be crying. She’d know that if she’d ever taught Seid to a bunch of hormonal wrecks with their beards coming in and their brains falling out.” He snorted. “I told her that, too. She told me it was my job to get them ready for the examination in May, not hers.”

“And you didn’t shut up, did you?” Nikl said. He shook his head, but he was smiling.

“I should have. But it makes me so damned hot when she shuts me down like that. She never listens.” Dwyn clenched his teeth together and sighed.  “I told her that I didn’t give a damn about that stupid test.  It’s magic I’m teaching; dangerous magic. At the current rate of mistakes, I figure one of them will blow up my classroom around December, because they keep mixing up the subjunctive and the jussive. I told her that she could quit telling me how to teach it, or she could teach it herself. I’d had it. By the time we were done yelling at each other, she was practically incoherent and my hair was on fire. I’m on probation now, and frankly, I’d just as soon she’d fired me and let me go back to my library.”

“Probation?” Nikl chuckled. “That’s got to set some kind of record. It’s not even the end of September yet.” His gray eyes narrowed as he looked at Dwyn. “You know what you have to do.”

“I know, and I’ll get around to it. But I’m so pissed off right now, I don’t think I could get through an apology without saying something I’d regret.” Dwyn ran his stained hands over his beard, tugging at the brown braids that ran down to his waist. “It’s pouring ink down a well, trying to teach those kids the proper grammar of magic, it really is. I don’t know how Cheyloche ever stood it, and now I know why he retired. The only other option was to jump off the nearest cliff.” He rocked his chair back, and then he slammed all four legs down on the floor. Sparks flew. “I’m not made for this, Nik. I suck at it. I don’t know what I should do. I’m so frustrated. And every time I open my mouth it seems to burn somebody up.” He leaned forward, elbows in the middle of everything, and cupped his forehead in both hands.

Nikl waved his hand and gentle wind with the smell of rain in it whisked in through the open windows of the kitchen, blowing the embers away. He didn’t say anything for a moment, and Dwyn felt his temper drop a few degrees just watching the Thunderbird sitting there in the kitchen, in quiet solidarity with him. They were so much alike. Both were dwarfs and both were elementals, but Dwyn was volcanic, and Nikl? He was like the winds that he could control with just a thought and a gesture. He could bend, he could change. He could blow a gale when it suited him, but no one ever forgot that Nikl could be as gentle as an autumn evening, and they forgave him his many moods.  No one ever forgave Dwyn.

“Did I ever tell you the story about the pepper pot?” Nikl said, stirring as if he’d been lost in thought.

“If you had, I’d remember,” Dwyn said. Wearily, he picked up another paper and drew a few lines through the words half-heartededly. “What was it about?”

“Just something that happened to me in Tellico,” Nikl said. “Why don’t you eat, and I’ll tell it to you. Maybe you can use it—make up one of your fables with it for the kids. You need a break, buddy.” He patted Dwyn’s left hand, where the dragon rune burned brightly. “Wash your hands first.” He got up, and sailed back to his stove, his apron billowing in the breeze.

 Dwyn stamped the ache out of his back as he trudged to the long stone sink, where the wealth of Nikl’s gardens and orchards was washed before it found its way into the chef’s many creations.  He took his time scrubbing the ink from under his fingernails with the brush, as he looked through the open window at the kitchen garden.  It blanketed the western slope of the high mountain, and the dregs of late September sunset drained through the ragged clouds over the towers of tomatoes and beans. The tops of pumpkins glowed brilliantly, like flamboyant orange hunters stalking their own shadows through a forest of dark leaves. Small wonder that Nikl found it easy to let life slide over him. He could always look out at these gardens he loved so much, and let peace seep into him. A measure of the stillness and serenity seemed to flow into Dwyn too, and he felt the tension in his shoulders slacken.

When he came back to the table, his papers had been stacked neatly in a pile near a large earthenware plate filled with Nikl’s braised rabbit, one of Dwyn’s favorites. The smell of spicy peppers mingled with the savory aroma of browned meat, and it made his mouth water. A bright yellow saucer held a few slices of the crusty bread Dwyn liked so much, soaked through with butter. There wasn’t anything Nikl cooked that Dwyn didn’t love almost as much as he loved the man himself, and he wasn’t the only one. Dwyn would come into the kitchen at the end of a long day, tired and out of sorts, only to see one of his students leaving—usually well-fortified with a thermos of Nikl’s hot soup, a loaf of bread, some cheese, and a tart or two for those night study sessions with “that damned Dragon.” Dwyn dug into the meal with fork in one hand and a slice of bread in the other as Nikl began his tale.

“I was twenty-five,” he said. “I’d just left New Orleans, knew I was never going back, and I was tired of cooking for humans. I wanted a change. So I showed up that spring at Tellico, Tennessee, looking for work. Well, you know how that goes. You’re golden right up to the point they find out you’re an elemental dwarf, and then it’s all over.”

Dwyn took a bite of the peppers and potatoes and nodded. He knew. Ten years wasn’t long enough to blunt the sharp edges of his memories, and the colors of a life lived between bouts of starvation hadn’t even begun to fade for him.

“I was a chef in New Orleans, you know,” Nikl said. “Cooked at a big hotel, and before that I cooked in Oklahoma City. You should have seen that steward drooling when he thumbed through my application for mountain residency. Then he got to that little question on page six. All of the sudden it’s, ‘we don’t have anything for you here, Nikl Phar. Not unless you want to work in the kitchen garden, take out the garbage, and scrub the pots and pans’.”  Nikl snorted, and the little breezes that always dusted around his moonlike face fanned his silver hair and beard, making him look like an angry white lion.

“You should have told him where to shove it,” Dwyn said, breaking a piece of bread in half and using it to mop up the creamy sauce on his plate.

Nikl laughed. “I never had half your nastiness. I was a nice, sweet-tempered tornado before I met you. I was mad, I’ll grant you. But I said to myself, I said: ‘Nikl, you knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get your foot in the door of a mountain, but it’s what you want. And if you’ve got to shovel crap to get what you want, you’re going to do it. In two years, you’re going to own that kitchen.’ And I meant it, too. I put my name on that line, and gave my blood oath on it.”

“I still wouldn’t have stood for it,” Dwyn said with a snarl. He picked up a section of rabbit from his plate and began to tear at it with his fingers. “They had no reason to treat you that way. You weren’t me. You never killed anyone.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to admit to anything. They might have figured something out from how quickly I left New Orleans.” Nikl shifted his weight as if the subject made him uncomfortable. “Your glass is low, Dwyn, let me get that.”

The warm yeasty fragrance of the last autumn’s oak mast frothed into Dwyn’s mug as the magic connecting an empty pitcher on the table to the beer in the cellars was activated. For the third time that day, Dwyn wished he’d kept his mouth shut. He should never have said anything to remind Nikl of the hurricane. Those perilous bursts of wild elemental magic made a wicked spur, driving a bondless elemental from place to place. Life had roweled the both of them unmercifully—it was over now, but the cuts and bruises still felt fresh to Dwyn, and presumably, Nikl was just as tender. Nikl would never hurt anyone, not intentionally. But things happened.

Nikl set the pitcher down and continued.  “I never told them why I left, and my new boss didn’t ask. He was the chef at Tellico: a sour-faced, half-goblin kobold called Sawshen. Ollie Sawshen. We called him “Onion Sauce” behind his back. He smelled like a million cloves of garlic and his personality was just about that bitter. He didn’t like me, and he wasn’t shy about saying so. I learned to stay out of his way, but never far enough to suit either of us. Until spring.

“Sawshen decided he wanted to spice up the summer menu, so he had the gardener grow up a bunch of peppers. He figured it was the perfect way to get rid of me. He was sure I wouldn’t stick it out if he treated me like a magicless knockr, instead of the warloche I was. He sent me out to the greenhouses. The gardener loaded me up with about ten trays of peppers and told me to plant them. Now, I didn’t know a serrano from a bell without a fruit to look at, but they were all labeled, so I just planted them together in rows. One row of sweets, one row of hots, one row of sweets, one row of hots…” Nikl laughed. “Nobody bothered to give me any instructions, and I didn’t know better. I planted all ten flats of peppers, walked off dusting my hands on my jeans with no idea that I’d just created a natural disaster, and I didn’t even have to gin up a windstorm to do it.”

“I don’t see the problem,” Dwyn said, chewing on a bone.

Nikl shook a finger at him. “One of these days I’ll make you go into the gardens to help me with the planting. You’ll learn a thing or two about where your food comes from, and you’ll appreciate me more.”

“I do help you in the garden,” Dwyn said, waving his fork at Nikl. “I warm up the soil every April so you can plant your okra early. And, I appreciate you plenty. Get on with it, or I’ll be done with dinner before you’ve gotten around to the point of your story.”

 “If you plant hot peppers and sweet peppers close enough, they’ll cross,” Nikl said in his patient way. “It’s not a huge problem unless you save the seeds, like we did, to plant the next year. We saved the best of the peppers that autumn and planted the seedlings we grew out the following spring. By that time, I was a cook. Sawshen had decided that I might just have enough talent to make him willing to overlook my thunderstorms and lightning, as long as I kept on turning out great bread and stayed out of his way. But he still had me in the gardens, and not just because he wanted me the hell out of his kitchen. I was good for the plants, you know. It all comes down to heat, humidity, and bugs when it comes to keeping a garden happy, and a little breeze always stirring the leaves is a good thing. I liked the garden. It was peaceful out there in the summer, not having to worry if it rained while I worked, and not having Sawshen breathing down my neck all the time, looking for any excuse to send me packing.

The peppers grew like weeds, and before I knew it, the fruit was coming on. That’s when I found out I had a problem. They didn’t look like last year’s peppers. And they sure didn’t taste like they should. You would bite on something that looked like a sweet pepper, but instead of a nice, green, mild flavor it was like crunching down on a scorpion. It didn’t take me long to figure out that everything that came out of that patch of peppers had roughly the heat value of your average jalapeño. Some of them weren’t as high decibel, but some would flat blow your head off. It only took a few pots of stew you couldn’t eat for Sawshen to figure it out, too. I had to tell him what I thought had happened. He took it as you might expect. First, he screamed at me, and then he cursed me for what I couldn’t help. I hadn’t known better. He was nowhere in your class when it comes to cursing, Dwyn, but by the time he finished all of us in the kitchen were in tears—me because his curses stung quite a bit, and everyone else because the place reeked of garlic. And, he told me that since I botched his grand plan for the rest of the summer’s meals, I could either fix it to his satisfaction—or he’d fire me.”

“Knowing you, you fixed it,” Dwyn said, and he finished the last of his bread and washed it down with the beer.

Nikl chuckled. “Of course I fixed it. Once I salved the burns he gave me, I dug out a pan from the back of a cabinet and went to work. Because we never knew just what we were going to get with my crossbred peppers, we needed to dish them out in fractions. We’d chop up the required amount of peppers, but we’d only put half into the dish. The rest I would sauté up with some butter in the pepper pot. We just kept that old saucepan on the stove, and when Sawshen would taste the soup, he’d decide if it needed more peppers. If it did, I’d add a scoop or two from the pepper pot. And that’s how we got through the rest of the year with my all-hot patch of peppers.”

Nikl stopped. He looked up at Dwyn with a smile on his face. “Now,” he said, “how does a piece of plum tart and a cup of dark coffee sound to you?”

“Like an elegant construction,” Dwyn said, pushing back from the table.

Nikl got up and walked to the counter where pastries were cooling for Sunday’s breakfast. He took a large knife from the magnetic strip overhead and began to cut a tart into wedges.

“What happened with you and Sawshen?” Dwyn said.

Nikl’s stony eyes gleamed with satisfaction. “He quit. That very winter. It turned out that I wasn’t the only person he’d pushed around a little too often. The other cooks and I took turns playing chef for a while, and by spring, it was my kitchen. Until I left to come here.”

“So, are you going to tell me the moral?” Dwyn said, folding his arms over his beard as he waited. “Something like screw up, fix it, and life will pay you out someday.” He pursed his lips sanctimoniously. “I can’t make a fable if I don’t have a moral.”

Nikl placed a slice of the rose-colored tart on a plate. He pointed his knife tip at Dwyn. “If your peppers are all too hot, back off a little. You can always add more from the pepper pot.”

He filled a coffee cup and set both cup and saucer in front of Dwyn, who sat—suddenly contemplative—next to the pile of papers that were oozing red ink. 

Nikl tapped a plump finger on the top of them. “They’re good kids, Dwyn,” he said. “They want to learn from you. They have a lot of respect for you, because you’re the best damned Seidoche in this region, and they know it. And they like you, because you treat them like the warloche they will be someday. No one understands the dark side of magic quite like you do, and you can teach them that in a way that no one else can. But you don’t know how much it hurts them when you keep reminding them—every damned day—just how little they’ve learned. You’re heavy-handed with your peppers.” Nikl sat down and pushed a clean fork toward Dwyn.

The silence was as thick as clotted cream between them.

Then Dwyn looked up, and he smiled, picked up the fork and poised it over the tart. “I thought they only came to you for the food,” he said as he cut into the nest of soft fruit inside the crust. “But now I think they come to you because they know you can always talk some sense into me.”

“Could be,” Nikl said, smiling as he passed the sugar.

R. Lee Fryar is a fantasy writer living in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. When she’s not writing stories, she works as a part-time small animal veterinarian, homeschools her children, and acts as chief servant and personal attendant to three cats, two dogs, and six spoiled brat chickens. She also paints watercolors of her characters and settings whenever she can.

Find her blogging at rebeccafryar.com, or on Twitter @rebecca_fryar.