A Royal Pain – Chapter One
A warm breeze stretched across the open field and rustled the blue and crimson leaves of Blair’s tree. He stepped free of the bark, his form separating and solidifying, and took a deep breath. The air was sweet, the temperature perfect. He used to see this time of year as full of promise.
That enthusiasm had died a little each passing year. Now thousands of seasons into his life, the scent brought him nothing but frustration. The lone tree for acres, there was little for him to do during the weeks where other dryads would hibernate into their trees and release pollen. He had no intent on participating.
He pressed his forehead to the silver bark of his tree and breathed slower. From the day he emerged from a seed, he knew his future, the same as any dryad; tend his tree and the land within his reach. He’d done this from day one. It wasn’t enough.
He stroked the rough trunk and stepped back, taking in the beauty. Some days all he did was look at it. Touch it. But today it angered him. As much as it was a part of him, his spirit, his home, his everything, it was also his prison.
Turning his back to the massive spread of branches, he stared out. He walked away, and as he took each step could feel the tether that kept him close to the land. He reached an invisible wall and sank to the grass. His fingers stretched out, but he couldn’t pull himself any further.
This was as far as he could go, and even here was too remote. The absence of his tree tore at his heart, but he knew it was more than that. This was loneliness. This was despair.
He glanced up and saw two females coming close. Brook, the human wife of prince Kerren. Vevina, their personal aide and the closest thing he had to a friend.
“What are you doing this far out?” Vevina asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
Brook smiled and looked past him. “Your tree is looking lovely.”
The compliment made a rush a pride blossom within him, even in his current mood. “It’s been a good year.”
“It’s almost that time,” Vevina commented. “I’ve always thought the next field over could use some of your saplings.”
He looked back. Faded in the distance, there was a small line of hedges and beyond that was the field she meant. He used to have the same thought. “I don’t think so.”
“There aren’t many trees like yours,” Brook said. “Why is that? I never noticed before.”
“Because I don’t care to join in on mass reproduction,” he scoffed.
“What?” The confusion was clear on her face.
Of course, being a human and only having been on Prism for a few years, there was still plenty she didn’t know. Vevina’s lips were pursed and she gave Blair a look. It was going to be up to him to explain.
“When this season comes around, the male trees are expected to release their pollen into the air. The females tend to accept whatever floats their way—literally.”
Brook’s bewildered expression was comical. “But… wouldn’t there be hundreds, if not millions of dryads then?”
“No. Most of the seeds carry incomplete genetics. They’re just trees.”
Vevina plopped down onto the grass beside him. Her usually peach-colored hair had shifted to a soft yellow, which he took to mean she was curious. As a sprite, her hair changed to match her mood, a trait she couldn’t control. Her blue eyes had a somber tone and she glanced to the side when she spoke. “You haven’t participated in quite some time.”
“Why wouldn’t you?” Brook asked, sitting carefully next to Vevina.
He motioned around himself. “Where is the nearest of my kind?”
Brook frowned and followed his arm, searching. “Kara…”
He knew the name. She was the dryad that tended the gardens of Brook’s estate. “I’ve heard of her. Heard that she’s lovely and sweet and that her tree is well-maintained. But we can’t meet. I can’t travel the distance to see her. To touch her.”
“She’d accept your gift,” Vevina said.
“I’m sure she would. She’d be flattered if I made a deal with the air and sent something her way. But if any male gave her the same attention, she’d be flattered by them as well.”
Vevina didn’t respond, knowing his words were true. Brook appeared baffled.
“How cruel is it that I’m expected to simply send my spirit into the wind and hope some random dryad accepts it? And then I’d have children I’d never meet?”
“That doesn’t seem right at all. You’ve got feelings and needs… spurting pollen just seems… incredibly informal,” Brook said with a frown.
“No other dryad sees it that way,” Vevina said under her breath.
“So I’m told,” he ground out bitterly. “But why have this shape if I don’t get to use it?”
Brook looked him over, and by the blush on her cheeks perhaps she’d never noticed that he wore no clothing. Where skin would be on another fae, he was protected by rough bark, just like his tree, but he was still all male. The body of a man, albeit crudely hewn of nature. “So, you can… umm… date other fae?”
“I could, in theory. I have had moments with a few fae over the centuries. Physical pleasure is wondrous. But most pay no attention to me, and certainly, no fae wants to be confined to my tree with me. I can’t blame them.”
“But I’ve seen fae here before. They have picnics with you.”
“They have picnics under him,” Vevina corrected.
“Vevina is correct,” he said, responding to Brook’s questioning eyes. “The younger fae, those that weren’t alive during the wars, they come here. They know they’ll have privacy. They eat and flirt and make love under the shade of my branches. I don’t join in, clearly.”
“You’re in there! They must know that!”
Vevina shrugged. “It’s lore. Sex under a dryad’s tree is supposed to boost fertility. And granted, every other dryad in existence doesn’t care. They only care about their tree. Unless the couple is knocking off branches in their enthusiasm, it is what it is.”
“That’s ridiculous. I’d never have sex next to a tree spirit like that.” She shuddered.
Blair flicked the dirt from his fingertips. “It doesn’t bother me. I’ve learned things. I’m told I’m an excellent lover.”
Vevina snickered and Brook pursed her lips. Another sweet breeze carried over them and he took a breath, out of habit. The season called to him, but he had the power to ignore the lure.
“There must be something we can do to help,” Brook insisted.
“Not unless you can strip me of the desire to be what I’m not.”
* * *
A soft voice carried outside of Blair’s awareness. He opened his eyes and saw Brook standing near. Her soft hand graced the wide column of his tree and she called his name. Since a few days earlier she’d witnessed his pathetic unhappiness, he’d hidden away.
But Brook was human and would most likely continue to touch him and speak to him, whereas any fae would give up and recognize his poor mood.
He stepped out of his tree to be welcomed by her bright smile. She held out a slim rectangular device and he took it from her, curious about the item.
“I got this just for you. It’s a lot like the one Vevina uses. It’s tapped into Earth’s internet and I preloaded some of my favorite sources of entertainment. And the best part? It runs on the magic in the air! No batteries and no need to plug it in.”
She blinked at him. “Are you serious? Okay umm. Let’s see. If you push this button on the top, the screen comes on.”
He pressed the button and the black glossy tablet lit up with a rainbow screen. “It’s a computer?”
“You know what a computer is but not the internet?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, actually. I’ve heard of such a thing from the people who come and sit under my tree, and I’ve watched Vevina tapping her finger across the light.”
“Well then, the internet is a network. It’s like…” She squinted and finally expelled a frustrated breath. “I’m not going to lie—maybe at this point it’s best if you just play around with it rather than worry about what it is, exactly.”
He flipped the device over in his hands and stroked the back and front. It was like nothing he’d touched before. The front was glass, that he knew. The back was something else. “How does it entertain?”
“You can watch movies and play games. Aaannnd…” She tapped a square image on the surface and it brought up a drawn map. “You can explore the world just by swiping around here.”
It sounded promising, but the bright screen drew nothing but confusion to his mind. “But how does it work?”
“Everything.” He dragged his finger across the glass and everything shifted. The map disappeared.
She pointed to another colorful image on the screen. “If you hit that, it’ll play a video that explains the basics. From there, you’ll get it. I promise, it’s very intuitive.”
Clearly Brook meant well with the strange gift, but he wasn’t sure it was helpful. Still, he appreciated the sentiment. He didn’t have friends. No one ever brought him gifts. Dryads weren’t social creatures. Most of them were happy to converse only with their own tree, which never spoke in return.
He was strange, and he knew it. The least he could do was welcome her attention. “I’m thankful for this.”
She arched a brow. “You hate it.”
“Not at all.”
She pouted. “I don’t like the thought of you alone out here, day and night. I guess being human makes it impossible for me to understand, and I’m told you aren’t supposed to care. Yet clearly, you do.”
He leaned back against his tree and glanced up at the light sneaking through the lush, colorful leaves. “I’m flawed. Dryads aren’t supposed to be aware. We aren’t supposed to have ambition or desire.”
“That’s no way to live.”
“Dryads aren’t supposed to live, not in that sense. I don’t know why we were made, how we first came to be, but I know that I am a mistake.”
“Don’t say that.”
He met her eyes, which shone with pity. “It’s the truth. We aren’t supposed to long for affection. We certainly aren’t supposed to lust for anything, be it companionship or a change of scenery. The other fae avoid me for this reason. I’m strange and unseemly.”
“Vevina visits you.”
“Vevina is a sprite. She’s drawn to me to fix me. I’ve caught her poking my leaves, trying to change their color. For her, it is an innate fascination. If she didn’t pass this way frequently, it’s unlikely we’d have formed a friendship.”
Brook looked towards the hedges separating her home from the rest of the surrounding land. “I never thought to visit you. Kara lives in our backyard and I’ve seen her a handful of times over the years. I just assumed you were the same way…”
“I don’t blame you,” he promised.
“But I should have noticed. She almost never leaves her tree. Every time I’ve seen you, you’ve been out here. Literally trying to reach out to the rest of us.”
“I hear guilt in your voice but it’s not necessary. I understand my life, or rather, the strangeness of it. I’m tied to my tree,” he said and patted it with his flattened palm. “I am rooted. That used to be a divine comfort.”
She gnawed her lip for a moment then lifted the tablet in his hand again. “Until I find a way to free you, I want you to see what else the world has to offer you. Prism isn’t on the internet, obviously, but you can look up anything you’ve ever heard about.”
Her persistence chiseled away at the misery he’d embraced. There were many things he’d heard of. “Like an ocean?”
She swiped her finger across the screen and it filled with blue waves. “Any ocean. Any fish.”
The apathy he’d experienced before now ebbed away with every ripple under the glass. The soft murmur of water churning came from the device, adding to his growing delight. He sank down to the ground and propped the glowing tablet on his knees as he stared. Creatures he didn’t know moved through the water. Colorful and fascinating.
“I’ll leave you to it for now. I’ve got an idea.”
He didn’t see her go. He simply watched the scene unfold before him. Hours passed, and he barely noticed but for the shift of dappled light filtering through his tree.
He viewed oceans and rivers, mountains and deserts. Snowy plains with white wolves and rabbits. And squirrels. He knew of them. Prism had them, although they were more colorful than Earth squirrels. The tree-dwellers were part of the knowledge innate to him, information that he held even upon coming into existence.
Mischievous and impossible to reason with, they were either welcome companions or a nuisance, depending on the disposition of the dryad. Blair had never met one. Why would a curious creature full of life ever be drawn here?
He pressed the button on the tablet and the screen went black. Closing his eyes, he attempted to process all he’d learned. The world around him was massive and beautiful. His own world was a small, grassy berth around his tree. It was hard to imagine that outside of that there was so much going on.
Across the far rooftops, the sun was sinking down. The light cast a long shadow from a figure walking towards Blair. It was a man, but his outline was not familiar. He wore no shoes, and as he got close and his bare feet hit the ground, he sent strange waves of energy through the earth.
Blair stood, trembling. The magic trickled through the roots of his tree and touched every part of his body. He felt that he should know this fae, but his memory failed him.
The stranger drew near, and now Blair could make out his face. It was a face he knew but never expected to see.
“You,” Blair breathed. “But how?”
The nameless aspect simply smiled. He was the son of Life and Death, a mysterious being who brought about the deities that ruled over every flower and tree and blade of grass. He was the distant father of every dryad.
“I thought you were in the Fade, with the rest.” Blair resisted the urge to reach out and touch the figure standing before him. The aspects had all retired to slumber forever in the Fade, save for the aspect of Harmony. She’d run away from Prism and married dragons, a story that Blair had enjoyed overhearing as it seemed nearly impossible but entirely fantastic.
“Your plea was one I could not ignore,” the aspect replied.
“My… but I never sought you.”
The aspect stepped to Blair’s side and placed a hand to the tree’s trunk. A soft red shimmer appeared around the leaves, as if a light shone within. “My great-great-great… well, many generations-past granddaughter pled your case to me. Bledwen Aodhán.”
Bledwen was the adoptive mother of the prince, but Blair had never met her and barely knew Kerren. “I’m not sure how it came to be her concern.”
“Your story came through many channels. It takes a lot to break through the magic of the Fade. A bevy of sprites pestered me as well as the lady Aodhán. That precocious Vevina led the one group. Bledwen called to me on behalf of a human who claimed to be your friend. And to be honest, had it not been the human whose blood helped awaken our land, I may have ignored it.”
Blair could hardly believe what he was hearing. “Are you here to fix me? Cure me of my tainted desires?”
Concern creased the aspect’s brow. “No. I can’t fix you in the way you wish. But I can shine light onto why you have come into this awakened state.”
Blair’s shoulders slumped but he nodded. “I would like to understand.”
“You know, of course, that during the last war, this field saw its share of atrocities.”
“Yes. That’s always been known to me. But I’m not the only dryad born of bloodied soil.”
The aspect’s head tilted and acknowledged this. “To this day, though, there are areas of Prism that simply do not promote life. Grass may grow, but nothing magic. Fields that were once fertile for crops now can barely support weeds, even though so much time has passed.”
“I wasn’t aware.”
“No, I suppose not. The fae don’t speak of it. It is a point of discomfort to dwell on the ravaged land and recall what made it so.” The aspect motioned a large arc across the field they stood in. “This land is unfit for magic. I stand in it and sense nothing but the despair and desperate prayers of the fae who died here. Dryads can sprout from blood, but not from the ruined dreams and hopes of innocent lives ended unfairly.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of the hundreds, if not thousands, of seeds that landed here, only you took root. And look how magnificent.” The aspect gazed up at the boughs with clear pride on his face. “Only the strongest of my children could survive here. You should not have managed, yet your branches are thick and protective. Your roots solid.”
“But I’m flawed.”
“No. Not at all.” The aspect placed a comforting hand on Blair’s shoulder. “You absorbed the base spirit of the wishes of all that died here.”
“Is that why my tree… isn’t enough? Why I long for more?” Blair asked with trepidation. It seemed crude to admit such blasphemy to an aspect. His tree was supposed to be everything to him.
“I wish it weren’t so, but yes. And I can’t fix that. I can’t take away the years you’ve spent soaking in the memories of this land,” the aspect said with a hint of remorse. “But I can try to ease your suffering.”
Blair shook his head. “But how?”
“What is your desire?”
“Freedom,” Blair answered easily.
“And what would you do if I could grant you freedom? If you could move past the barrier that your tree currently imposes?”
“I would go to Earth.”
Shock crested on the aspect’s face and Blair immediately regretted his hasty confession.
“Your desire is to leave Prism entirely? Not to explore it? Not to be given the chance to settle with other dryads, perhaps?”
The thought of moving and settling down in a beautiful grove somewhere was tempting, but it wasn’t his heart’s desire. “If I could move, that wouldn’t make me any less strange in the eyes of the rest of the fae. It would only make it worse.”
“You shouldn’t let that dictate your wishes. The other fae could never fathom what you’ve been through. Their judgment and assumptions should not sway you.”
“They don’t. I’d still be aware. I’d still long for more.” Blair stepped away from the aspect and his tree. “You may understand why I have these feelings, but perhaps you don’t understand the depth. I have stopped contributing to the pollination season.”
The aspect closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “You don’t wish to continue.”
“I do not.”
The importance of participating in the dryad’s mating season was lost on human Brook and even Vevina as a sprite, but the aspect understood perfectly. Dryads reproduced to continue their own existence. It was how they kept memories going. In a way, it was like living forever.
That Blair had given up, it was akin to suicide, albeit it would be a death still centuries to come. His tree still flourished for now.
“I have seen no other way. And I lied before. I have pled to you. Many times over many years I have begged for you. I have tried to leave my land. I have tried to lift my roots. I have lived a torturous existence, alone and sheltered from a world I am told is magical and expansive.” Blair’s voice rose as he continued,
“And yes, if you grant me this wish, I’d leave and never look back at the suffering I’ve endured, the blood I’ve drunk, and the father that neglected me.”
Tears fell down the aspect’s cheeks and fire blazed in his eyes. “I will grant you this wish.” He held his hand up and cupped the side of his face, catching a drop of moisture. The tear solidified into a silver seed. “When you are prepared to face your desires, press this into the heart of your tree. Your roots will be lifted, and you will have the power to leave this world.”
He pressed the tiny seed into Blair’s hand and folded it closed. Blair stared down. He could barely feel the object against his palm but knew it was there and knew it was priceless.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You’ve said enough.” The aspect stepped back, releasing his hold on Blair’s hand. “I have to warn you. Without your tree, you won’t be able to return to Prism once you leave, and the magic is not perfect.”
“I’ll be human?”
“As close to human as I am able to produce. You will need to replant the seed on Earth, or the magic will fade. Your tree needs roots, regardless of where you go.”
“How long will I have?”
“I don’t know, truly. Magic is unpredictable, and time is not my domain.”
The aspect began to glow, the brightness increasing until it was too much to look into. Blair turned his head away, hands shielding his closed eyes. When he felt safe to open them, the aspect was gone. The seed twinkled in his hand.