Welcome! Thank you for taking the time to read the latest installment in our new book. If you’re just joining us, you may prefer to start at the beginning. The Introduction, which is beneficial to understanding the story, can be found here. If you would rather jump straight into the story, click here for Chapter 1.
Bad days happen in every line of work but for the various directors at the United States Department of Interior, this one was being especially difficult. Four straight days of record-breaking storms had already pushed resourced to their limits. That power was still out across more than half the country only made things worse as fast and accurate communication was impossible. Millions of lives were still in danger and everyone in any form of government office was looking for someone to blame. The Department of Interior was taking a lot of heat from the president and several members of Congress despite the fact their ability to do anything was severely limited.
Making tempers shorter and everyone in the building on edge was the fact that even though the building was no longer operating on generator power, the air conditioner still wasn’t working. No one had gone home in over 72 hours. Sleep had only come in short 30 minute cycles as staffers rotated who used the boss’s couch next.
No one noticed how much the conference room smelled like mold. They did notice how hot the room was. This wasn’t going to be an easy meeting. The president demanded, on television, that there be a recovery plan on his desk by the end of the day. Everyone in the room knew the task was impossible. They also knew they would have to present something even if it was completely fake. Washington was about appearances. Details didn’t matter as long as one gave the impression they were doing something.
Trying to fit all 17 assistant secretaries and department directors in the room at the same time required a carefully arranged seating chart. Political appointees were kept a safe distance from career staff who tend to put nature and science above political expediency. Tensions as these meetings were high under the best of circumstances. Today was not going to be the best.
Interior Secretary Jack Hanson was intentionally the last to arrive, thinking the move echoed his importance. His balding head was already covered in perspiration, the few strands of hair that remained on his head matted onto his ruddy scalp. He was out of breath, his red tie hung loosely over his sweat-soaked shirt, his complexion pale and his eyes bloodshot. As he dropped a large, black, three-ring binder on the table, he said, “These are just the incident reports from the New England sector in the past twelve hours. I’m sure I don’t need to tell any of you how bad this is. There has never been a disaster of this magnitude but we’re still supposed to be able to fix it and keep everyone in the country safe without adding any more resources. I don’t need reports of how bad it is, I need solutions or something that sounds like a solution, and I need them fast.”
Martina Bridefield, assistant secretary for water and science, was the first to respond. “We have to find a way to divert water resources westward to compensate for the loss of the Colorado,” she said firmly. “I’m not sure how that happens. We have our engineers working with the Army Corp engineers now. Without water, though, we have roughly 30 million people without access to sanitation or electricity.” She paused for effect then added, “These are people who largely voted for the president in the last election. They’re expecting a significant response.”
Secretary Hanson sat down at the head of the table and leaned forward. “How the fuck did we lose the entire Colorado River?” he asked angrily. “How is that even possible?”
Calvin Herschweiler, assistant secretary for land and minerals management, sat forward and said. “We’re checking for old mine shafts that might have eroded under the river. Those records are all in the old archives that are still being digitized. We have people looking at them now.”
“We also have multiple teams en route for inspection,” added Murphy Frieback, the director of land management. “We have to know whether the ground is stable before we start diverting water. We’re sending everyone we can afford to send, but it’s still going to take time.”
“Don’t talk to me about time,” Jack said. “We all know we don’t have the time we need. For this conversation, time isn’t a factor. Tell me what we’re doing and well make up the time schedules later.”
Timothy Elliot, the director of the USGS, leaned in to speak. “We’re picking up some serious plate movement,” he said. “You all felt the tremors a couple of days ago. As best we can tell, those were centered at least a mile deep underground in the area near the US/Canada border. This isn’t Yellowstone geyser territory as conspiracy theorists have claimed online. We’re not sure what set off the plate movement but we have to assume there is more to come.”
“What are you suggesting?” Jack asked. “Give me something visible that people understand.”
Timothy gave a careful look around the table before answering. “We upgrade the Shake Alert system, make it a bit more predictive, starting issuing watches and warnings just like they do with the weather. That shake loosened a lot of fault lines that had been dormant for centuries. We can use the system to give emergency management at least a few minutes of warning.”
“What would be the accuracy rate on that?” Martina asked. “I didn’t think the science was firm enough to be predictive.”
“This rumble changed things,” Timothy said. Our equipment has been overflowing with new data along old fault lines like we’ve never seen. Everything seems to be in play. We can see connections we didn’t know existed before.”
“How much warning are we talking about?” Calvin asked.
Timothy shrugged. “Ten, maybe 15 minutes. Enough to get people in safer places. I’d stay out of stadiums for now, though.”
“Let’s skip over that part about the stadiums,” Jack said. “Too much of the president’s base involves sports fans. Baseball season is heating up.” The secretary looked back at Calvin. “What are we doing about those wildfires?” he asked.
Calvin lowered his head and shifted his weight in his seat. “We’re not going to win this round,” he said. “They’re too hot and too wide-spread. We’ve told the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington to go ahead and issue evacuation orders for all forested areas North of Sacramento. We’ve also asked them to activate the National Guard to help fight the fires, but at the end of the day, the winds have been too severe and we’ve never had to fight fires of this size. We don’t have the resources to keep everyone safe.”
“We can spin that,” said Lucy Cantrell, the department director of communication. “Those states are notoriously liberal and their failed environmental policies are to blame.”
Collectively, eyes rolled as the scientists at the table knew that to argue with someone whose motives were purely political was useless.
Deputy secretary Marsha Ivan decided she had been silent long enough. If she didn’t say anything, the others might forget she existed. She was routinely left out of the information loop and few of those at the table regarded her opinions as valid. “All we’re talking about is reaction to things that have already happened,” she said. “I think what the president wants to know and what the American people deserve to know is how we’re going to keep this from happening again.”
Murphy leaned over to Calvin and in a pseudo-whisper said, “She does know we don’t control the weather, doesn’t she?”
Those at the furthest end of the table from the Secretary laughed at the mean-spirited comment. Smiles disappeared when Jack cleared his throat. Only Daniel Redcloud, director of the Bureau for Indian Affairs was still smiling.
“Something amuse you down there, chief?” Jack asked with derogatory intent.
“Remembering old stories my grandmother told me,” Dan said. “She used to believe in the air spirits who control the wind and the rain. She also told of evil ones who shook the ground with their stomp dances. If she were still alive, she would say that we need to leave a peace offering for the eagle and the bear so they could convince the spirits to leave us alone and give us good weather.
“Couldn’t hurt to try,” Curtis said as those around the table chuckled.
“Dan, why are you even here?” Jack asked; the derision in his voice palpable. “Like, I’m sure there are spirits who are trying to make our lives miserable. I’ve seen them. They’re called liberals. If all you have to offer is nonsense, you are free to leave”
“Wisdom of the elders should not be put carelessly aside,” warned Wilma Tenkiller, the assistant secretary for Indian affairs.
“Dead Indians don’t vote,” Jack scoffed. “For that matter, the live ones usually don’t, either. You’re both free to go. I don’t see how this concerns you at all. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
As Wilma and Dan stood to leave, so did Murphy. “Where are you going, Murph?” Jack asked.
“Oh, if their opinion is irrelevant I assume mine is as well,” he said. “They know more about land management than all the Harvard degrees in the building.” he tucked his binder under his arm. “I’ll be in Wilma’s office if you need me.”
The tremors caused by the troubled ones caused Pockwatch to slow his travel more than he wished. As the ground beneath him moved, the magic allowing him to fly waned severely enough that it was often safer to set down and walk rather than attempting air travel in any form. Pockwatch didn’t necessarily mind walking as it gave him the opportunity to enjoy the blend of native herbs in his pipe. He enjoyed the chance to converse with plants and trees, the latter to whom he was somehow related but no one could account for how exactly.
The frustration in walking, though, was that he needed to deliver Amun’s message to the queen as quickly as possible. He was not yet aware of what all the troubled ones had done, how many water spirits they had captured, nor how they had, throughout the afternoon, already put the truce in danger.
As he walked, Pockwatch began to wish that he’d brought Pausnuck along with him for the company if nothing else. His presence might have been helpful with Amun and Merric as well. Pockwatch had felt quite small next to the two fabled giants. Even though he could fly to parallel face levels, he was still small enough that either of them could have swallowed him in a single gulp. Of course, neither would have done such a horrible thing, but he still thought that such an event in the future should probably include a partner who might come to his defense should it be necessary and provide a level of companionship otherwise.
By human measures, Pockwatch was hardly more than half a meter in height, not counting those moments when the tendrils at the top of his head stood straight up in alarm. Most of the time, they hung loosely around his face, giving him a friendly and welcoming appearance that helped when he wanted to strike up a conversation with someone he didn’t know. He was also one of the evolved souls whose wings folded nicely into his back when he wasn’t flying. That advantage was helpful at moments like this where they could have easily become snagged on all the bushes and underbrush as he made his way through the forest on foot.
When Pockwatch would come to a clearing, he would take a leap, unfolding his wings, and try to fly. As it failed to produce any positive results, his frustration mounted. He was not accustomed to magic not working at his command. He could still become invisible but he was trying to save that energy for when it would become necessary should he come across wandering humans or possibly Hantu Air. At the moment, he was most concerned about the latter. Humans, should one happen to see him, would not be likely to pose an immediate threat. They were more likely to be excited and then try to catch him as though he was some kind of leprechaun, even though species had all but died out and those remaining never left Ireland. Humans out hiking weren’t a terrible threat.
Hantu Air, however, could be deadly. Pockwatch had no idea how long it would take Merric to deliver the news of the truce to Dasheng Sen nor how long it might take for the queen to spread the information across the watery realm. The water spirits had taken a hard beating at the hands of the sylphids and there was no guarantee that even if they knew of the truce that they would choose to honor it. His safety was far from certain and his magic was not reliable.
Still, Hantu Air would only be a problem if he came across water and there was none on his current path. Pockwatch took a deep, long drag of his pipe and did his best to travel as quickly as he could. The terrain was challenging for one of his size but he still felt sure that he would be able to fly again and deliver his message to Apa’ii before sunset.
Leaping from rock to rock became something of a game as Pockwatch continued. He could use just enough magic without actually flying to carry him over the underbrush from one old stone to the next. With each leap, he could not resist the temptation to make the next one further than the one before. At times, he was certain the trees would move slightly so that his next target was unobstructed by trunks or limbs. None of the trees were saying anything as not all were inclined to chat with magic souls on a casual basis. Pockwatch thanked them, nonetheless, and continued enjoying his game right up until the moment that he slipped on the smooth surface of an old and well-worn outcropping and became wedged between its narrow cleavage.
Unlike the trees, the great stones and boulders whose heads had been exposed by eroding soil and their surface smoothed by long seasons of wind and rain were not inclined to move. Doing so would mean unloosening great depths of dirt and smaller stones that had taken residence around what had once been sharp peaks of tall mountains. Millions of seasons had passed since these ancient mountains first rose from the great expanse of water covering the earth. They were well set and only the magic of one as powerful as Apa’ii was likely to move them.
Pockwatch did not have such powerful magic, especially now. Not that he didn’t try. He attempted spells that would make the crevice larger. When those didn’t work, he tried spells that would make himself smaller. He was certain he had something in his broad arsenal that would free him from this momentary difficulty. He had never found himself in such a predicament before so he wasn’t at all sure as to which spells might eventually work. He saw little choice but to try them all until he was finally free.
Being intensely given to the task of extracting himself from between the rocks, Pockwatch was not listening to other sounds in the forest, nor was he aware of the spectacle his constant use of magic created as sparks and stars and glistening objects bounced off the stones and into the trees. He was caught off guard when a voice called out, “You there! Could you use some help?”
Pockwatch looked up to see a member of the Kor clan, one not much taller than himself, standing on another outcropping just above him. Pockwatch was familiar with the clan, having met their council representative, Cartha, on many formal occasions.
“I would be most obliged,” said Pockwatch. “None of the spells I have tried yet have been successful.”
“Yes, we know,” said the young magician as he hopped down from his perch and came over to where Pockwatch was stuck. “We have enjoyed watching the light show that your magic has provided. We might not have bothered coming to help were it not that the colors from your spells are beginning to fade. We knew that you must be getting weak.”
Pockwatch had not considered the amount of energy he was exerting with each spell. Embarrassed, his core blushed a soft orange. “I greatly appreciate your assistance,” he said. “I am on a mission for the queen and am quite late in getting my message to her,” he said. “I must hurry if I am to get to the home tree before sundown.”
The magician was joined by two others of his clan. Their gray cores reflected the geometric patterns glowing on their faces. Their light hair reflected the sunlight and pointed ears wiggled gently as they spoke. Two of them wedged their swords between either side of the crevice while the third pulled Pockwatch from between the rocks.
As the counselor brushed himself off and stretched the limbs that had been trapped, the first magician said, “I am Mundo and these are my brothers, Satto and Arthi. We would be pleased if you would come back with us to our village and share a meal before you continue on your journey. Perhaps our mother could assist in relaying your message to the queen through the neural network. She speaks with the trees fluently.”
Feeling suddenly exhausted and weakened by his overuse of magic, Pockwatch accepted the invitation. “I would be honored,” he said, “And I’m sure the queen would reward any assistance Your mother might give.”
The trio guided Pockwatch back to a small village of stone huts that stood about two meters tall. No one seemed to notice Pockwatch and when one did they hardly seemed to care. They were all busily going about normal tasks that come from having endured a four-day onslaught of weather. There were roofs needing repair, walls requiring re-building, and debris to be picked up and returned to the forest where it belonged.
Mundo and his brothers were as friendly as Pockwatch expected the Kor clan to be. Passing through the village, they exchanged greetings with most and offered assistance when they came across someone struggling to remove a boulder that had landed in front of their door. No one seemed to have exceptional power in their magic—enough for simple housekeeping chores. Working together managed to resolve larger issues and there was no hesitation to assist.
“We found him, Mom,” Mundo announced as they entered as modest home at the far edge of the village. “And we have brought him along. He says he needs to get a message to the queen.”
“Everyone wants to get a message to the queen,” Cartha said as she emerged from the kitchen dusting flour from her hands before wiping them on her apron. Seeing Pockwatch in her living room, the councilor’s tone turned bright. “Oh, my dear Pockwatch! Whatever brings you to our village? Of course, I’ll relay your message. Come with me and we can do that right now.” She headed for the door then stopped and turned, her expression one of worry. “Unless your message is one that needs to be kept secret,” she said. “If that’s the case, we’ll have to find a more secure means than the neural network. The trees are great allies and friends, I can’t imagine surviving without them, but they can be terrible gossips. I certainly wouldn’t trust them to keep a secret.”
“The neural network is fine for now, thank you,” Pockwatch said. He knew that as a representative of the queen, not only did his words matter but so did the tone in which he said them. To not show appropriate consideration for Cartha’s help would reflect more negatively on the queen that it would him.
Cartha nodded, pleased that Pockwatch was as kind and polite as rumors held him to be. She opened the door and led him down a path toward the forest. She had only taken a few steps when she stopped short. “Oh fuss and bother,” she said as she turned around and called back toward the house, “Mundo, pull the bread from the oven before it burns!”
A sparkling plume of magic shot from the chimney signaling Mundo’s compliance with his mother’s request.
Turning back toward the forest, Cartha said, “I do believe this is the first time anyone from the queen’s court has ever visited our village. We are such a small clan, scattered in villages through many different forests, I can’t imagine us ever ranking too high on the queen’s priorities, especially at this moment.” She paused as they worked their way around a large boulder.
“What happened at council was the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced,” Cartha said, the patterns on her face changing in color from dark green to pale blue. “I’ve never seen a troubled one that close before, either. They usually leave us alone. They have tunnels under the mountains, of course, as do the dwarves, and sometimes the dwarves stop by for a meal because they do enjoy a good meal and the fruits of the forest here make a nice grog that they enjoy drinking by the pitcher. We don’t have to worry about dwarves stomping us into dust, though, do we? I would have certainly been crushed were it not for Queen Apa’ii protecting us.” Cartha paused again as the path narrowed and the forest became denser. “Just a bit further to our primary,” she said. “We are lucky to have an ent over 1800 seasons old. His reach extends across the continent. He can have a message to Apa’ii much more quickly than you could have flown there.”
Cartha realized what she had said, causing her to think about Pockwatch’s situation. “You do fly, don’t you?” she asked. Without giving him space to answer, she added, “I know you do. I saw you flying during the battle. So, why were you wandering through our old first getting stuck in crevices that are millions of seasons old?”
“Because there isn’t enough magic for me to fly across here,” Pockwatch said. “The mountains seem to be negatively charged, at least as it applies to flying. I tried several times and all that happened was that I fell on my face more times than I have since I was first created. Have you and your clan not experienced any change in your magic?”
Cartha’s etchings changed from blue to yellow. “We’re not the most magical clan, to begin with,” she said. “We don’t do too many big spells. We lead simple lives here. Magic helps us keep things tidy and in order, but we are primarily caretakers of the forest. What we do requires a direct touch, feeling the soil and the rocks and the bark. Magic helps us heal, helps us keep the bush under control, but we rarely have cause to do anything dramatic. So, I don’t know, now that I think about it. We did have to use a lot of cooperative magic to put things back in place after the storm. I hadn’t thought about there not being enough of it. I guess it’s a good thing we’ve not had to hide the whole village.”
“Were you not given the camouflage spell?” Pockwatch asked.
Cartha shook her head. “It was offered, but you’ve seen our village, we blend in well as it is. We’ve had human scientists walk past us and not realize they were stumbling down our main street. Only twice in our existence have we needed to use invisibility. Both times the pale walkers were new and a bit too stupid to be safe. They thought they could come in, cut down our trees, and build their homes on the mountains. We managed to run them off then and they’ve not tried again since. Now, all they want to do is study our rocks. They don’t even know the difference between trees and ents. We’ve plenty of both. This has long been a safe place for entwives to hide. We’ve watched many young ones grown in our forest then move elsewhere. The mountain’s connection across the ocean makes it easy for them to find new homes there.”
Reaching a point near the middle of the forest, they came upon what appeared to be a grand old black oak tree, its leaves deep green, and its thick bark covered in moss. As they approached, eyes became apparent as he started to speak. “So it really is Pockwatch of the queen’s court!” he said with great excitement. “Queen Apa’ii will be happy to hear that you are alive and doing well. She has been awaiting your return with great amounts of anxiety.”
“Magic problems have left him unable to fly,” Cartha explained. “We were hoping you could help him relay an important message back to the queen. It sounds as though you’ve already talked with her.”
“Not directly, no,” the ent said. “She has asked those along the network to keep watch. She will be very pleased.” He extended a branch toward Pockwatch and said, “I am Metsowana. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Pockwatch grasped the extended branch in the expected fashion, his hand not on the leaves but the bark itself, and bowed. “The great pleasure is mine,” the counselor said. “So, you can put my message to the queen on the network?”
“I can,” Metsowana said, “but you must understand that by the nature of our shared communication, there are no secrets. Any message you send is known not only by every tree connected but all the magical tree-like souls, like me. That includes the lovely Yakshis, the more worrisome Nang Mai, a few Dryads who scoff at everything, and many others. You’ve met them at council meetings, I’m sure. Mieliake and her clan, great stories they tell, and I know you must be familiar with Rakepila, he never is silent in any setting. We are good communicators and we all enjoy a good story. But that is not why you are here, is it? What message would you like sent to the queen?”
“There are two parts,” Pockwatch said. “The first is most important. The truce between the magic realms has been accepted as long as each is allowed our normal existence. The second is that the battle has caused the magic veil to grow thin. Not only can I not fly but many other spells have not worked, hence my need to travel slowly on foot.” Pockwatch looked at Cartha and added, “And if you would please add that Cartha and the Kor clan have offered great aid in service to the crown, and should be highly commended.”
Cartha blushed pink and bowed deeply. “Thank you, counselor. Your words are a great kindness.”
“Ones well deserved,” Pockwatch said.
“Your message has been sent,” Metsowana said. “Queen Apa’ii should have it soon. The truce is good news. A lot of damage was done and many souls were lost during that last battle. It took all the strength I had to remain rooted in the ground. Although, I sense some hesitation in your voice.”
Pockwatch was tempted to explain how that while many of the water spirits were tired and welcomed the truce, he was not so convinced that Dashen Sen could be trusted. If he had been talking with the queen in private, he would have told her to befriend the fresh-water spirits who were fearful of Dasheng’s plans for domination. Those words were for private counsel, though. The neural network was too public and no matter what his intent might be, Metsowana could not be trusted with such delicate matters.
Pockwatch smiled and bowed. “My worries now are getting back to the home tree safely. I thank you for your service to the crown.”
Metsowana smiled and bowed in return. “It has been an honor to serve you, Pockwatch of the home tree. May you travel in peace.”
Cartha added her thanks to Metsowana before guiding Pockwatch down the path and back to the village. As they walked, she asked Pockwatch, “Have you considered alternative modes of flying?”
“I am not sure what you mean,” the counselor said. “Is there some other magic at your disposal?”
“In a manner, yes, but more than anything it is a manner of working with nature and its own resources,” Cartha said. “Specifically, I am thinking that we might arrange for you to hitch a ride with the great eagles. They could ferry you safely to the home tree. That way, you wouldn’t need to worry about crossing the rivers where, truce or no truce, the Hantu Air are not to be trusted. Capturing one of the queen’s counselors would put them in favor with Dasheng Sen. That’s not saying that the smaller streams are any safer. They, like us, have much to do to recover from the battle. Many of their beds were routed by the sylphids and others were filled with stone. I wouldn’t expect any of them to be kind.”
“That does seem like the better solution,” Pockwatch said, “but I am far from being the smallest magician. Wouldn’t I be too heavy for the great eagles?”
Cartha laughed. “You make it sound as though you are a barrel of lard. No, we can use magic to give the eagles more strength and, if necessary, we can lighten the burden you place on them. They once carried humans and dwarves, both of which are significantly heavier than you. I have no worries that they can get you home safely. I can send word as soon as we get back to the village and you can leave first thing in the morning.”
“In the morning?” Pockwatch asked, surprised by the delay. “I was hoping that I could still make it back to the home tree by sunset.”
Cartha laughed again. “You’re not accustomed to traveling by foot, are you?” You are a good three days’ journey from the home tree if you have to walk. One night in the village won’t delay you by much. Besides, the day is already getting late and the air currents the eagles ride grow weaker as the earth cools for the evening. Waiting for morning allows them to carry you on fresh winds. You will be back to the home tree before Apa’ii has her second cup of tea.”
Pockwatch took a moment to readjust his expectations. He had not realized he was still so far from the home tree. He wanted desperately to get back before anything else happened. Still, he could find no valid argument against the solution Cartha was proposing. Spending the night in the village was better than being alone in the forest. “Your offer makes the most sense,” he finally said. “I would be happy to accept.”
“Fantastic,” Cartha said, nearly shouting as they neared the village. “I’ll let the village know and we will have a great celebration in honor of your visit. I think you will find our clan pleasurably hospitable. We can send you on your way in the morning knowing that you have been thoroughly refreshed.”
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“What use is this truce if we still have to worry about the troubled ones swallowing up whole water tables? Do we know if any of the magic souls throughout the Colorado basin survived or is everyone just … gone?” Dasheng Sen asked Merric as they met at the mouth of what was now called the Mississippi River, though it had no fewer than a dozen other names before that one.
“We have no way of being sure,” Merric answered. “None of us have magic that works that far below the surface. If they did survive, it is likely that their own magic isn’t working, either, and that alone could mean death for those who must have oxygen to breathe. There is less magic in the waters now than I have seen in thousands of seasons.”
“Try millions of seasons,” Dasheng said. “We’ve not seen so little magic since the moment the great beast disappeared. I can hold a truce with the magic realms if I must, but troubled ones are not part of that agreement, are they? We must find a way to release the waters.”
Merric hesitated for a moment then said, “There is one who has powers over the waters both below and above the earth.”
“Don’t you dare say his name,” Dasheng warned. “He abandoned us and all the water spirits, including his own daughters, after the war with the Olympians. He might have avoided being doomed to Tartarus with his brothers but he might as well have gone with them for all the good it has done. I tried season after season to get him to rule, to participate, anything. He did nothing, saying it was up to the Olympians now and that old fool, Poseidon. At least we don’t have to worry about that infidel any more. I don’t even know where my father is. Among the stars, I suppose. Getting a message to him is a risk I’m not willing to take.”
“You don’t think he knows?” Merric asked.
“If he had a clue, if any part of his being still cared, he would have returned long before now. No, I will not consider him an option. I never want to hear of him again.”
Merric bowed low. “Yes, my queen.”
Pockwatch could not have anticipated the kind of celebration Cartha’s village had in his honor. The full length of the community was adorned with ribbons, flags, and tapestry of every color and cloth. Tables were full with all manner of spring fruit and pickled vegetables and roasted nuts. Cartha herself provided an unending array of bread with every form of grain imaginable. Grog and mead made in the village flowed freely and the music was joyous and loud.
Pockwatch, always careful to mind the manners demanded by his position, took care to not overindulge. He was too keenly aware of the many myths and fables concerning those who came to no good end after giving in and allowing themselves to become drunk, without complete control of their faculties. He could have a pleasant enough time without risking anything that might later prove to be an embarrassment to himself or worse, the queen.
Cartha, naturally, noticed Pockwatch’s choice of discretion. He took only three berries at a time, never more. He drank from a mug, not a pitcher. He wrapped pieces of bread in cloth and slipped them into folds resembling pockets for later digestion. He would pat his feet and clap his hands with the music but he would never dance, even when invited by the most beautiful of the young Kor females.
“My dear counselor,” Cartha said as she sat next to Pockwatch, “you are so proper in your behavior. I understand the expectations of your position, but here you are more assuredly among friends. We will not begrudge you the pleasure of some grog-induced revelry. Even if you were to somehow become totally inebriated, no one here would tell on you. For that matter, it’s not likely that any of our souls would notice. They are already ‘high’ spirits!”
She laughed at the pun while watching for a reaction from Pockwatch. He laughed, kindly, but like everything else he did, it was measured and careful.
Cartha reached over and poked Pockwatch on the shoulder with her open palm. “C’mon,” she teased, ‘must I contact Apa’ii myself to gain permission for you to let those lovely tendrils of yours get wild?” She reached over and ran her fingers through the soft layers of green that flowed gently from the top of his head.
Pockwatch breathed deeply, soaking in the excitement of Cartha’s touch. From the moment he had become Queen Apa’ii’s chief counselor many thousands of seasons ago, he had not given himself to any form of personal pleasure, not because he did not have permission but because he wanted to avoid any possibility that the queen might need him and he might not be ready. He had never placed himself in a position such as this one where he might be approached by anyone. He wondered, perhaps too much, whether now might be the time for him to finally give in.
“You do not have a partner, do you?” Cartha asked as she moved closer. “I don’t recall being introduced to one.”
“No, I’ve been given fully to the queen’s service,” Pockwatch said softly.
“Oh, so has the queen allowed you to service her pleasures, then? I know she was coupled with Pai, but we both know he was not shackled. He was one of the reasons I always enjoyed visiting the home tree. I dare say, many mourn with Queen Apa’ii in his passing. Still, he did travel a lot. Perhaps the queen called for you during those lonely hours.”
“No, she has never called,” Pockwatch said, unaware of the degree to which he was leaning into Cartha’s body. “She values the time she has to herself. The court can be taxing and, at times, exhausting in its boredom.”
Cartha felt Pockwatch flinch slightly as she draped one of her legs over his, but as he said nothing and made no move to object, she pressed closer. “Perhaps our dear queen does not know what she is missing. We spirits of the land were created for pleasure, you know. All of nature joins in as well. The dance this time of year between birds, or bees with their flowers, it is all-powerful and re-affirming.”
“So, you are not partnered with anyone here?” Pockwatch asked. It had just occurred to him that if Cartha’s partner was watching her advances, they might become jealous. What a spectacle it would create if he were to be caught fighting!
Cartha laughed her loudest laugh yet. “You have already met my partners and turned them down!” She motioned to two young females and a taller male who were dancing seductively together. “This is Ayli,” she said, gesturing toward a slender yet buxom Kor whose painted designs throbbed with neon colors. “This is Virian, whose tongue, I must warn you, is a form of magic all its own.” Virian’s body was more muscled and tall, with only select paintings glistening. “Then, Fortai,” she giggled, “has that beautiful ability to reach into all three of our souls and bring us that greatest of pleasures. They are each as lovely as the sweetest spring fruit.”
Ayli sat next to Pockwatch opposite Cartha, running her soft hands under his coat and along his chest. Virian slipped behind him, reaching under his tendrils and massaging his core along the boundaries of his auditory flaps. “I… I’m not sure…” he said, experiencing a rush of pleasure, unlike anything he had experienced or dreamed in his youth so many seasons past.
“We are never sure until we give ourselves to the pleasure of nature,” Cartha whispered. Fortai knelt and began licking up the inside of Cartha’s leg. As his head disappeared under the short leaf-shaped skirt she gave a soft moan and leaned fully into Pockwatch’s chest. The counselor put his arm around her and she took his hand, pushing it under her vest onto her breast.
“Is this something we should be doing outside, where everyone can see?” Pockwatch asked, keenly aware of the cool breeze blowing through the village streets.
“We are at our best outside,” Cartha said. “Look around. Pleasure and nature are one. There’s no reason to not share what we enjoy.”
Pockwatch glanced carefully around. Up and down the streets there were groups of Kor bodies pressing against each other. Each was consumed with their own pursuit, oblivious to anyone not directly involved. Most were completely naked, the glowing paint on their bodies creating an erotic rainbow in the street.
Leaning back, Pockwatch relaxed his muscles, trying to convince himself that there was no harm enjoying the pleasure that he was receiving. While this was not his first experience with pleasure, many seasons had passed alone, to the point that pleasure was rarely anything he gave a thought. As he gently kneaded Cartha’s breast, Ayli climbed onto his leg and placed her breast in his mouth. Verian leaned forward and slipped her tongue into his auditory flap resulting in an unexpected shudder of excitement, unlike anything he had previously felt.
Placing his free hand on Ayli’s back, he pressed her closer to him. She steadied herself with one hand while the other slipped between his legs. Cartha undid the belt that held his sword and his pipe, setting them on the table behind him. Ayli removed her breast from Pockwatch’s mouth and began kissing her way down the center of his core. Verian moved to straddle his face, giving him access to her sweet-tasting nectar, a juice that tasted much like peach syrup. He put a hand on her hip, pushing her into his mouth. As he did, she pulled his tendrils, gathering several in her hands and sucking on the leaf-like bulbs that ran along their length.
Pockwatch could feel himself growing dizzy from the mounting pleasure. He needed to tell someone what would happen when his core reached its full pleasure potential but speaking would mean creating a break in the gratification he was enjoying. He hoped that, perhaps, Cartha had experienced pleasure with one of his clan before, but there were so few of the Pa’iins left and he had not seen any of them in the home tree region since he left their lakeside home. Overwhelmed by the force of the thrill, the last decision he remembered making was to take his chances and hope for the best. His eyes closed. He felt another soul join them, and then another.
It was still twilight, minutes before dawn, when Cartha leaned over, kissing Pockwatch on the cheek, and said, “We had best get you dressed and ready. The eagles will be here soon.”
Groggily, Pockwatch sat up in the bed, rubbing his eyes, unsure of where he was or how he had gotten there. Ayli and Varian were on one side of him. He did not know the names of the three on the other side. “Please tell me that I was not an embarrassment last night,” he said. “I have little memory of what happened and no idea how I got to this bed.”
Cartha laughed from an adjacent room. “You were a delicious model of pleasure for everyone who had a chance to be with you. I dare say that your pleasure spells are working quite well! We’ve never had a guest who could bring such pleasure without having to touch anyone, and those you did touch, my goodness… Perhaps we should have you come back for our pollination ritual. Blending your clan with ours could be beneficial for both!”
“I… I… I don’t know,” Pockwatch stammered. “I’ve never been involved in a procreation act before. I know there’s a specific spell common to our clan, but I’ve never practiced it.”
Cartha returned to the room and handed Pockwatch a cup of mint tea with a slice of fruited bread. “You have time, dear, and no obligation. Our clan pollinates in the autumn according to how much space we have for growth. Gestation occurs while our females hibernate through the winter. Only select males stay awake to tend to the forest while snow in on the ground. It’s a lovely ceremony and you would be most welcome to join us even if you prefer to not offer your seed. I will say, though, that if you do, Ayli would be first to like to mate with you. She enjoyed your pleasure more than anyone and is sad that you can’t stay.”
Outside, the sound of large wings rushing through the morning air announced the arrival of the great eagles, larger than most normal species with protective magic that kept them from becoming the target of hunters. Three birds stood proudly in the center of the village. On the back of the largest sat a crocheted saddle, its fabric soft so as to not damage the eagle nor the rider.
Pockwatch and Cartha walked outside and were soon joined by other Kors, all of whom smiled, many coming over to Pockwatch to say thank you, though he was unsure as to why.
As Mundo and Forkai helped secure Pockwatch in the saddles, Cartha asked the eagle in its language, “You understand where you are going and the importance of delivering him quickly and safely?”
The eagle nodded, while the other two took defensive positions behind him.
“You could not be any safer if you were flying with your own wings,” Cartha said, then added, “And your wings are quite spectacular.”
The eagle gave his wings a flap, warning everyone to stay clear.
Pockwatch was about to ask when he had shown anyone his wings when the eagle took off at such a severe angle that he had no choice but to hold tightly to the saddle to prevent falling off.
“Give our love and allegiance to the queen!” Cartha shouted from below.
Pockwatch waved as he watched the village disappear below the clouds. The eagles flew swiftly, occasionally joined by playful sylphids who enjoyed the race. Little time seemed to pass before the home tree came into view below them. Pockwatch wondered if he’d been as far from home as Cartha had claimed.
As the eagles landed near the home tree, Pausnuck arrived and helped Pockwatch dismount. “The queen anxiously awaits your arrival and the news of your adventure, particularly your evening of pleasure.”
Pockwatch felt a pan of fear pierce his core. His shocked expression caused Pausnuck to laugh.
“My friend,” Pausnuck said, “the next time you choose to have pleasure in the forest, perhaps don’t do so within earshot of a talkative ent. Metsowana was providing a play-by-play account of everything that happened to you last night.”
Pockwatch hung his head. “Is the queen terribly dismayed?” he asked.
“Are you kidding?” Pausnuck repled. “You achieved legend status last night! Everyone here is proud of you and I wouldn’t be surprised if you receive an invitation to the queen’s chambers sometime soon.”
“You are drunk on nonsense,” Pockwatch said. He looked up to see the home tree was glowing a friendly yellow. The queen was in a good mood.