The top step creaked. Galen paused, his sister losing his attention for a moment. She kept talking – something about the new bridge they were putting in the middle of the city – and he nodded along until he heard the second creak, one step lower. It was almost hidden in under the crackle of the fire beside him, but it had been timed too perfectly, the impatient sneaking motion of little feet. He waited another second, then slid his gaze toward the stairs. He could just see Jaera’s toes and the hem of her nightshirt.
Galen gathered himself up off the floor, crouching over his knees. “Hang on a moment,” he whispered. His sister stopped in the middle of a sentence, glancing around the room as if there was something she might need to hide from as well. Grinning, he put a finger to his lips, asking her for quiet. Then he nodded toward the stairs. She looked up, rolled her eyes at him, and nodded him off.
Galen crept around the far side of the stairs, moving from chair to chair to stay out of sight. Jaera crept down one more step. He saw her feet shift through the open back of the steps, and he thought she was peering down into the room, searching for him, but he stayed out of sight. He slid under the stairs, quiet as he could. Then standing quickly, he reached up through the slats and caught her by the ankle.
Jaera didn’t laugh, or shriek, or giggle, just turned toward him and dropped straight down until she was staring through the steps at him. She had sucked in a breath, and it took her a moment to let it back out.
Galen paused, then gently laid his arms across the back of the step she was perched on.
“You’re supposed to be asleep, Squidget,” he told her.
Jaera laid her hands on his, pulled herself close so that she was eye to eye with him. “There’s something under the bed,” she whispered.
Galen blinked. He’d had almost five years of tucking her in every night – usually into a swaying hammock aboard ship – and had listened to her say a thousand earnest, silly things, but this was new. “What’s under the bed?” he asked, sensing that nothing could be done without gathering more information.
She paused, wide-eyed and still nose to nose with him. “I think it’s an elephant,” she breathed.
Galen would have laughed if she hadn’t looked so terrified. “Have you heard it?”
She nodded solemnly. “There’s a thump-thump noise. Connell says they’ll stomp me til I’m jelly and poke holes in me with their tucks.”
“Tusks,” Galen corrected. When she looked confused, he put too fingers up on either side of his mouth to show her what he meant. “They’re called tusks.”
“They’ll poke holes in me,” she repeated, slowly, each word dropping heavy off her small tongue. Clearly, he wasn’t grasping the important part.
“Did Connell say how huge elephants are?” Galen asked.
Jaera nodded. “Big.”
“Huge.” Galen drew the word out. He held his hands over his head and raised himself onto the tips of his toes until he hit the back of the stairs and couldn’t make himself any taller. “And fat. They wouldn’t fit under the bed.”
“Then it’s a cheetah,” she said. “It was scratching.”
Galen let out a rough breath. He rounded the stairs and climbed them two at a time, scooping her up in both hands when he reached her. “Okay. We’re gonna have a talk with Connell tomorrow about what he’s teaching you.”
“Okay,” Jaera repeated, echoing him. “Tonight, let’s have a talk with the cheetah.”
“Okay,” he agreed.
She let him drop her back into bed, let him pull the blanket up over her. Then she sat very still, waiting. Galen held her eyes while he dropped to his knees and bent to look under the bed. Then he bent lower, and looked across the dark, empty floor. “Nothing here,” he told her.
“It’s hiding,” she told him. “It hid from me too.”
He hesitated. “It hid from you?”
Jaera gave him a sure nod.
“I think it’s scared of you, Squidget,” he told her.
She blinked at him.
He leaned it close, nose to nose. “But just in case, Connell told me something very important about Under The Bed Cheetahs: They’re terrified of finger snaps.” He held up one hand and demonstrated a single, cracking finger snap. “Can you do that?”
She snapped her fingers and it made a duller sound than his, but he pretended to recoil.
“Ooof,” he said. “Did you hear that? That was a cheetah bolting, I swear. I think he’s already out the front door.”
She snapped her fingers again, just in case. She bit her lip and smiled.