The Heart of the Forest
Premise Tags: Magic Tree, God-Human Relationship,
Isekai Protagonist, Body Modification,
Couple Growth, Transgender Protagonist,
Love Interest with Multiple Bodies.
Content Warnings: Minor Depictions of Violence,
Trans-related Anxiety and Representation1The MC is a post-op trans man. There are light discussions of magical “surgery”, references to past dysphoria, and some trans-related anxiety. The character being trans is not the major focus of this story..
It started, as most ominous things did, in spring. Leafhaven’s winter had been particularly long and bitter that year. The snow had piled up on the streets so much that they had run out of places to shift it, and the frigid gales stripped the heat from every home. In the nursery, the tree-guards had winced as their armour creaked on patrol, the cold turning their uniform into a portable nails-on-chalkboard. Now the icy breeze carried a sweet warm afternote, and the earliest of the spring-blooming plants were casting their perfumes to the wind. There wasn’t a citizen around who didn’t feel the shift in atmosphere.
Daiki and his colleagues wandered back to the headquarters after their shift that day, buoyant and chatty.
“Nice hair and eyes, by the way,” grinned Sherin, resting her spear against her muscled shoulder. Her long chestnut hair had long worked free from its braid, and the wind swept it across her brown skin like a triumphant Lara Croft.
“Thanks.” He dragged his hand back through his hair and shot her a playful grin so she could admire them both. “I had them transmutated yesterday.”
The raven black and royal purple he’d chosen complemented his tanned skin perfectly, if he did say so himself.
“I can’t believe we threw you a party to celebrate your final transmutation, and you go straight back in a week later,” teased Helbriton, waking backwards so he could look at them. “Did you miss the centre or something?”
Daiki dismissed the hot, sticky discomfort that tried to lodge in his chest and chuckled. “This one’s cosmetic. The ads they put in that waiting room must be hypnotic… I’ve been dying to try it out since last year.”
“So you could look even flashier?”
“So I don’t look like an NPC anymore.”
They shot each other looks and burst into laughter. Fadmose, a quiet man who was a dead ringer for Legolas except for his amber skin, said, “That’s Dandy-talk for, ‘wearing purple on Mondays wasn’t enough for me.’”
And even though their armour was heavy, he raced to “catch” him, the soft breeze carrying their laughter across the courtyard. It was a precious day, a day for hearts to relax and people to play; not uncommon in Delphyn, but never to be taken for granted, and they knew this, hence–
“Good afternoon, guardsmen.”
Bang, clang, smash! Five sets of plate armour crashed into each other at full-force, clinking and ringing as they scrambled to separate. No one had seen their superior, Captain Kelro, watching them from the entrance.
“Sir!” they cried in unison, saluting as they were trained to.
“At ease, guardsmen.” To their relief, Kelro’s peaceful, fatherly smile didn’t vanish from his pale white face. “I’d like a word with Guardsman Wright.”
Surprised, Daiki followed him into the building. On the outside, his expression was calm, but his chest was tight. No matter how carefully he combed over his memories, there was no misstep he could recall – except that little slip-up at the banquet last month.
“Congratulations again on completing your transmutations. You look much happier, son.”
Kelro threw back one of those gentle, sincere smiles that could disarm an ogre. Despite his many years of service and the unbendable strength of his posture, his snow-white hair and twinkling blue eyes had always made him feel like a strict but kindly grandfather. Daiki unconsciously straightened.
“Thank you, sir.”
“What are your plans now?”
“Ah…” He grinned sheepishly. “I guess it’s the normal for me: aim for a mansion and a good husband to share it with.”
Kelro chuckled. “Well, I’ll be glad to help with at least one of those.”
A new fear shot into the back of his brain, sending ice trickling down his back. He tried to remember if Kelro had any grandchildren, or even relatively young sons. Just in case, he prepared every polite excuse he had learned since arriving here.
Thankfully, Captain Giolan was waiting in Kelro’s office.
“Please, sit,” said Kelro, gesturing to the towering velvet chair in front of the desk. The feather cushions cupped his armour perfectly, but did nothing to make the inside more comfortable.
“Guardsman Wright, we’ve brought you here today to discuss a promotion,” began Giolan.
Kelro smiled fondly. “You know, from the moment you were brought to me, I had the feeling you were destined for great things. It’s not because you’re an Otherworlder – but because you have such vast knowledge and a real touch with plant-life.”
Otherworldly training was to thank for that, but he stayed quiet.
“Look at how the young trees adore you. This could be your chance to soar.”
“The position as Lord Mesimialum’s personal knight has just become vacant, and we believe you’re the man for the job,” Giolan added quickly.
“Wait…” Daiki could hardly believe his ears. “A Head Knight? I really don’t have the qualifications to–!”
Kelro shook his head, holding up his hand to silence him politely. “This position requires so much more than qualifications. Lord Mesimialum is a primogenitor, and a tough master to serve. He requires service that no tutor can instruct you in… But I believe you have the inborn talent for it.”
“His Lordship has never received a medical examination in all the time that we’ve served him,” said Giolan. “Lady Telmatia is anxious for his health. She agrees that promoting you is our best chance.”
“She does?” He thought the tree queen would have forgotten all about him by now.
“We believe in you, Daiki. If anyone can convince Lord Mesimialum to listen to reason, it’s you.”
He was too stunned to speak. Kelro took advantage of his silence to press on.
“There are perks, of course. Barracks were built in Sheylin, his village, to house his guards. He was so resistant to our presence that we were forced to scale it back to a single Head Knight. You’ll have it all to yourself, with staff provided. And whatever alterations you’d like to make it more comfortable for yourself, well…” He spread his hands. “The Order considers those “work necessities”. We’ll pay for it all.”
“If you decide to accept, we can give you until the end of next spring. There are no penalties for failure – we understand the difficulty of the task.”
“And, if you succeed, there will be a sea of accolades and gratitude. We’d love to give you time to fully consider,” said Kelro, resting his chin on his hands with a heavy sigh, “but the matter is urgent.”
"I'll do it." Something in his gut told him not to be so reckless, but that was a coward's twinge. He’d never get another opportunity like this.
There was a surprising beat of silence. His superiors stared, apparently frozen, before glancing to each other in amazement. Kelro leapt from his chair.
"Excellent! Excellent, my boy." He hurriedly drew his sword from his belt. Like Daiki's, it was hardly used outside of sparring, and its gold emblems shone brightly from weekly polishing. "Captain Giolan will bear witness as I swear you in."
“Right now?” Normally there was at least a day’s wait, to prepare the ceremony. They nodded so eagerly that he hesitantly lifted himself from the chair and settled into bended knee right there. Kelro gently touched the flat of his blade to each of his shoulders.
“With this sword, I dub thee Sir Daiki Wright, Knight of the Bloody Slaughter.”
“And I do acknowledge it,” said Giolan.
That was how he found himself trundling across the countryside in a mechanical carriage. It was his first time outside the walls of the capital. His first impression was that the world was very green. Leafhaven was filled with plants, but they were like spectators confined to their boxes, only growing where humans made room for them. Here, the houses were sandwiched between verdant bushes and towering trees, and rich vines climbed their way across the bricks, poking their tips into window ledges. New perfumes invaded his carriage at every metre, switching dizzily from soft, delicate blossom scents to the heavy odours of sticky barks.
It was fascinating for the first day or two, before his aching back and the constant clatter of his armour from the rough ground reduced him to a cynic. He thought constantly back to his friends’ advice.
“You were swindled.”
Helbriton’s words had been as unceremonious as always. Never mind that Daiki had rushed over to tell them the news immediately, brimming with excitement – that shit-eating grin turned his shocking blue eyes and ice white skin into the face of a demon in an instant.
“I can’t believe you agreed to serve Mesimialum the Maneater!” cried Sherin. Normally she never failed to back Daiki up. “That’s the job they give newly trained personal knights as a hazing ritual.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“The worst! Mesimialum is a violent monster of a tree, with branches that touch the heavens and no love for humans.” She gestured wildly to show just how huge he was. “Every knight we’ve ever sent to serve him comes back a shadow of the person they used to be.”
“Weren’t all the human-hating trees exiled?”
“Only the ones who plotted against us. Mesimialum was neutral during the war. He only took part once, when a nearby city invaded his land to attack the people there.”
“And we’re pretty sure that was about the land, not the people,” snickered Helbriton.
His glowing pride sank into shame and guilt. “So it was a punishment for telling him that I never read the recommended material…”
“Yes. It’s what you get for letting them smell weakness.” Fadmose, in one of those quiet, serious moods, finally spoke up. “Look, Dandy, don’t try to be a hero. This world is more dangerous than you know. Do the bare minimum, avoid the tree-lord, and come back here in one piece.”
“Yeah – we don’t want you getting eaten by the locals,” joked Helbriton.
Sheylin turned out to the oddest village he’d ever seen. Tucked away on a mountain and pressed on all sides by a tangled, feral forest, it was nevertheless the largest and most plant-free settlement he’d encountered in this world. There seemed to be a line around the village that the forest refused to cross.
Kelro hadn’t been exaggerating about the lodgings, either. The grand, archaic building was practically a castle looming over the quaint stone cottages. The front doors, carved from top to bottom with forests and horses, required five strong hands to open each one, relegating any real entrance to the side door. The stained-glass windows were painted with the traditional glory battles that the Order of Tree-Guardians still exalted. There was even a small, dry moat to prevent him from getting snowed in.
The Head Housekeeper, a young woman named Virin, greeted him at the door. She was neatly put together like a painting, with a pale blue dress that complemented her brown skin and her hair secured firmly in a bun with a few small wooden flower pins. He didn’t miss how she fluttered for a moment when he opened the carriage door. “Welcome, Sir Daiki. It’s a pleasure to have you with us.”
“Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.”
He followed her swift steps as she led him through the house, explaining the layout and the magical mechanisms that were installed. If the outside was impressive, the inside was a waking dream. Thick red carpets muffled their footsteps completely, and every bathroom was filled with gold and marble. The hallways were hung with portraits of the most distinguished Knights of the Bloody Slaughter. Some, according to their plates, had lasted as long as three years.
“My apologies for interrupting, but can I ask for your honest answer to a question?”
Virin, about to begin an explanation of how the water generator worked, stumbled straight out of her flow. He winced internally. “Of course, Sir.” She glossed over it with a warm smile.
“How do you feel about Lord Mesimialum?”
“His Lordship? He’s our protector,” she answered as if it were obvious. “Sheylin is the safest place in the world. Bandits never make it this far up and the beasts know not to trouble us. Even if your baby went missing, His Lordship would have them back in your arms by sunset.”
“I see. Thank you.” He kept his tone light and easy. “And how do you feel about the Order?”
“His Lordship and the knights have their differences, but that’s between the two of you,” she said carefully. “You’ll find no resentment here in Sheylin.”
He released a small breath of relief. As the clouds moved, the afternoon sun cast a warm, colourful light across the heavy wooden furniture – the most luxurious material in this world. It filled every room that Virin showed him.
“You have a lovely village. It would be a nice place to settle down.”
She stopped so suddenly, he almost crashed into her. Many emotions passed through the wide eyes she turned on him: shock, excitement, caution. He awkwardly held still while it grew into a glowing smile. “Yes! I hope you can.”
And she continued the tour with even more gusto.
Sorry, guys – guess you’ll have to visit me on vacation.
Those were Daiki’s final thoughts as he prepared to greet the tree-lord. First impressions were the most lasting, so he spent the afternoon shining his armour and retired at nine o’ clock to rest his aching back. Come morning, he was washed and ready to dress by dawn.
Clothes maketh the man, so this was a process that couldn’t be rushed. The silver armour the Order issued was non-customisable, but not even their superiors wore the hideous acid green cloak. Daiki favoured royal purple – now more than ever, since it complemented his eyes – but he settled on white to be uncontroversial.
The hair was the most difficult choice. Mesimialum was an elderly gentleman – he probably wanted a knight who looked tidy and reliable. If he played it too safe, though, he wouldn’t stand out and would be easily swept aside like the others. Plus, there was nothing to say that an older man couldn’t appreciate a handsome face, too…
In the end, he compromised by running three braids along the right side of his hair and leaving the rest of it down. He could only count on his good looks to save him.
The fact that the girls at the fruit stall giggled and waved when he passed by gave him just that little extra confidence.
“Good morning, Sir Daiki!” Virin called. He looked around to find her leaning out the top window of a nearby house. “If you’re going to see His Lordship, could you tell my little sister to come home? She snuck out to see him again, but breakfast is almost ready.”
“Of course. I’ll escort her home right away!” he called back, waving.
“Thank you! Her name is Cotee, and she’s a right little lady, so I’m sorry in advance for any trouble she gives you.”
He flashed her a grin. “Don’t worry – I have a lot of experience with boisterous saplings.”
At last, he was able to stand at the edge of the trees. It was a verdant forest, so teeming with life that shadows fell across every part of it and no path existed. The humblest of perennials were taller than him. He took a deep breath of the warm, oxygen-rich air and smiled. Deep, deep in this city of plants was the forest king himself, invisible to the human eye, but waiting. The containment field that hid him from view also protected the outside world from the atmosphere he created. If not for the mandatory physical transmutations that recruits underwent when they qualified, even Daiki would die within minutes of passing through.
He stepped into the forest carefully, brushing aside the countless leaves that tried to keep his foot from touching the soil. A glass-root was leaning coquettishly against a tree at the entrance, its pale, delicate bell blossoms dangling out towards him. He dipped in a gentle bow.
“Good morning to you. May I ask that you let Lord Mesimialum know that I’m here? I’m his new knight.”
In a few seconds, a fragile, dreamy scent flooded the air. It was so subtle, you would never notice the change if you weren’t watching for it. Soon it would pass through the whole forest, and everyone would know exactly where he was. He could only hope they had reported him as a guest, not a predator.
Ten minutes passed, but no vassal appeared. He suppressed a sigh and continued picking his way deeper. It was hard to imagine any child running into this den. The more the village slipped out of sight, the wilder the plants grew. Weeds and mushrooms spread themselves across what little free ground there was, and the leaves of the tallest plants stretched across any air space available. Any apparent “path” he tried to follow soon ran into a tree or a bush too bloated to slip around. There was a suspicious number of vines hanging a foot above the ground, always conveniently hidden beneath a leaf or two.
The eyes were the worst. Daiki knew the plants were watching him, but this was different – this made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. The trees rustled like creatures were climbing in them but, no matter how fast he turned, all he saw was the branches swinging back into place.
He almost stumbled over the kids. They were crouched down in the foliage with their backs to him, heads lowered over something on the ground. He knew Virin’s sister as soon as she raised her head – she had the same hazel eyes, and was even wearing one of her sister’s hair pins – but the boy was a mystery. His deep ebony skin and wine-coloured hair didn’t resemble any villager he’d seen.
Cotee screamed. Daiki jolted back, tripping and landing against a tree. She clung to the boy, who hadn’t reacted at all.
No, not boy. On second glance, his tiny shorts and crop-top revealed hard muscle and fully-developed limbs. With the turn of his head, his puffy low-ponytail moved enough to see the strong jaw it had been concealing, and he raised his sharp, pastel green eyes – no whites, no pupils, no irises.
This extremely height-challenged twink was a vassal.
“Who are you!? How did you get here?” Cotee demanded.
With some difficulty, he pushed himself back onto his feet and resumed something close to knightly dignity. “Be at ease, Cotee. I-!”
“How do you know my name? I don’t know you!” She looked at the vassal. “How did he sneak up on us, Lord Mesimialum?”
He scoffed, waving a hand to dismiss the idea.
“You knew he was here?” Daiki was glad to see her relax slightly, although she still eyed him warily.
Clearing his throat, he began to draw his sword – then thought better of it, at the sharp glance from the vassal. He took one knee and bowed as elegantly as he could manage with the leaves interfering.
“I apologise for startling you. I am Sir Daiki Wright, Knight of the Bloody Slaughter, and I have come to-!”
Something the weight of a boulder smashed into him. Instantly, his lungs were empty and his stomach lurched. The forest became nothing but colour spinning around him; in the next second, he dropped, plunging into ice-cold water. Just before panic took hold, several pairs of strong hands dragged him up and pinned him back against a solid surface. It was just enough to keep his head above the water.
He heard Cotee’s shrieking laughter some distance away. Numbly, he registered the remarkably deep pool he was in; no doubt, if he was left to sink, he would have to cut his armour to escape. The water was already seeping into it, weighing him like lead.
The vassals held him in place like a small puppy. There were four of them: three of the kind he’d just met, and now a giant of a man in leaf-green armour. His hair was bound back in a braided bun, highlighting his piercing eyes and thick neck. Daiki would have thought he was an unfriendly fortress of muscle even if he hadn’t just rugby tackled him.
They grinned down at him, revealing rows of razor-sharp thorns in place of teeth.
“Nice, milord! Really give it to him!” Cotee called as she caught up.
Please don’t, he thought.
He took a breath and tried to steady his voice. “Your sister, Virin, requested that I bring you home for breakfast…”
“Oh.” The disappointment in her voice was extremely satisfying. “I guess I need to go, milord…”
To his relief, the muscled fiend dragged him out and dropped him by a tree. The excess water gushed through the joints and released the heaviness that was crushing his chest. He gulped down air gratefully.
Daiki had barely been allowed to catch his breath before Cotee tapped her foot against his greave. “Let’s go, Mr. Knight. Lord Mesimialum will show us the way back.”
His mind was too blank for a witty reply – and it would have tarnished his reputation as a knight anyway. Ignoring the dirty looks the little girl was giving him, he levered himself onto his feet and followed her back. Every step, every tiny joint movement, was accompanied by a squelch. The mountain chill offered no reprieve. He was almost glad to be too stunned to feel it properly.
Cotee, on the other hand, walked confidently with her face turned upwards. There were people in the trees – more vassals, judging by the shared hair and skin colour. These ones were tall but slender, their faces androgynous and disturbingly peaceful. Long, loosely braided hair hung down as their arms pointed the way.
“Were they always here…?”
“Duh,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “How do you think he saw you before? He can’t tell the future.”
Smirking, she snatched a bellbron from a passing branch – after looking to the vassals for permission – and took a deep bite.
“Lord Mesimialum is everywhere in this forest. He’s always watching you.”
He didn’t have the energy to explain plant communication or the nature of vassals to her, so he let it be, trudging silently back to the village.
A warm bath and a soft bed helped Daiki’s rational mind return. There wasn’t a single bruise on his body, dent in his armour, or tear in his cloak. It took very deliberate skill to manage that when you had the strength of ten elephants. More than that, there was no way a mouthy brat like Cotee would survive prolonged interaction with violent, short-tempered tree beings.
The next morning, he retreated into the study to confront the mountains of reading material he’d been re-provided with. They covered every topic from basic tree care to scare stories of Human-Haters, but all he was interested in today were the books that featured Mesimialum. Perhaps coincidentally, those were also the books written in Tree Eken Script – the highest and hardest register for him to read.
But not even the subpar language skills Telmatia had given him would stand in his way. Word by word, line by line, he sat and translated them into the common register. What he discovered was especially gratifying.
Sure, Mesimialum was a cutthroat plant obsessed with becoming the strongest. He’d strangled every sapling that dared to try and grow in the same leyline, starved the land of nutrients to grow his monstrous branches, and developed into a carnivore to bulk himself further; but that was standard behaviour for plants, really – it was a rose-eat-rose world out there.
His interactions with the other Nephroti were more telling. He was described as wild-spirited, hot-blooded, and ready to spar at all times; he next to never showed up in a story unless it was a competition of strength or someone begging him to lift something. He was boastful, insulting, not particularly compassionate… But once humans arrived on the scene, he all but disappeared. Other than that fateful night where he’d bitten the invaders’ heads off and hung their bodies as a warning to the reinforcements, he was lucky to be credited as a bridge-builder in a throwaway line.
Daiki was willing to stake his life on “Mesimialum the Maneater” being a myth. And what the tree-lord didn’t want, his loyal vassals would never carry out.
By the end of the week, his armour had dried and his game plan was ready. Daiki opened the window to find a beautiful spring morning, with the first bright streaks of sunlight falling over the treetops and the birds – and he was surprised that there were any – bravely raising their voices from the canopy. Today was the day for new beginnings, if there ever was one.
Tucking the board under his arm, he stole out through the empty village to the edge of the trees.
“Please let His Lordship know that I’m coming in,” he whispered to the glass-root. He didn’t wait for the scent to release this time.
His heart thumped oddly as he passed over the border. The air was stiller here somehow. A choir of birds beckoned him in deeper into the forest, where dawn lit the leaves as if they had a natural halo, illuminating the not-paths with a light of their own, and the dew in the air brushed against his skin like a lover’s fingers. Above him, the androgynous vassals lounged like cherubs on clouds of leaves, watching silently. He noted that their long hair didn’t end in clumps of anthers, as you’d expect the vassals of an adult tree to have. Instead, the ends were blunt, like someone had taken a pair of scissors to them.
He walked until he reached something that didn’t fit the mood: the twink vassal shoving one of those heavenly singers hastily down his throat.
Daiki took the initiative. “Good morning! I apologise for interrupting your breakfast, but I was hoping we could talk.”
The twink turned a disdainful gaze on him. The bird squealed as his thorns closed on it.
“I know that vassals don’t have voices of their own,” he said quickly, “that’s why I brought this.”
He produced the handheld blackboard and accompanying chalk with a smile. There was no returning glee from the twink. Nonetheless, he swallowed and snatched it, scrawling quickly in a messy yet traditional script:
‘Leave or die.’
Daiki strengthened his smile. “See? Clear communication at last!”
He dropped his bag on a nearby rock before he could write again.
“But I don’t think you’ll kill me and, no matter how many times you chase me out, I’m not allowed to go back to the city until at least the end of next spring.”
The vassal sneered at him.
“So I have a proposition for your master.” He sat down defiantly. “First, why don’t we introduce ourselves? I’m Sir Daiki Wright – I use he/him pronouns.”
There was a mocking snort, but the board was wiped and refilled.
He held his breath for a split second. There was telepathy happening here. He knew that vassals always shared their pronouns with their masters, but their name? Unlikely.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, my Lord, even if indirectly.”
The vassal eyed him from head to foot like he was a walking sculpture of shit – disturbing to the point of amazement. He cleared his throat and pressed on in spite of it.
“You see, my Lord, we could spend this year fighting, but it won’t be much fun. I propose that we make a game of it.”
‘I’ll make a game of you in a minute.’
“If you don’t like what I have to say, you can go right ahead,” he hurried on, fighting to keep his tone even, “but I really think you’ll like this. I’ve been reading a lot about you and your… Incredible power. Is it true that you’re the strongest Nephrotus in the world?”
The twink thrust the board out with a smirk, setting his stance wide. ‘It is.’
“But you must have your limits?”
‘No.’ He raised his chin in indignation at the very idea.
Daiki grinned. “Then why don’t we bet on it? If I can give you a challenge that you can’t complete, I win and get to give you a full health exam.”
‘And what do I get for winning?’
Daiki scoffed as confidently as he could. “Come now, we both know that you’re guaranteed victory. Getting something from me would be like giving me a hundred handicaps that you don’t need. If I can’t get you to cooperate by the end of next spring, I’ll be gone anyway. Then you can play with the next chump they toss your way.”
The vassal’s chest swelled slightly at his praise, but he continued to stare him down. After a minute and a half, he wrote again.
‘Alright, Daiki. But you’ll never defeat me.’
And with a flick of his ponytail, he disappeared with the board, leaving Daiki dumbstruck and with no one to question.
His name had been written in kanji.
The gamble was a partial success. It was a struggle to come up with convincingly difficult challenges at first but, after picking his brain bare for several days, he found that he could turn the villagers’ problems into trials with a little bit of creativity. The vassals raised their eyebrows at being dared to “repair the hole in Mr Hizard’s roof in ten minutes”, “carry all Miss Abel’s stock to her shop in one go”, and “find Lilim’s lost teddy bear”, but they carried out each task perfectly in their master’s place.
Daiki also had full permission to go anywhere he wanted in the forest and could choose to sit beside any vassal – or, if he sat down anywhere, one would soon appear. But even though the board was passed forward to his companion, Mesimialum spoke the bare minimum and ignored all questions.
Spring became summer. The heat of the season had crept in unannounced, withering the bells of the grass-root and unfurling the buds of the long-petalled passion flame. Gradually, the whole forest changed its clothes. Daiki longed to do the same. Instead, for the sake of decorum, he was forced to endure the sweat running down the back of his neck and hide in the shadows to keep his armour cool.
He had to fill the silence to distract himself. He told the vassals about the plants he’d cultivated for clients back on Earth; about Pando, Earth’s oldest tree that had survived a colossal eighty-thousand years; and about the manchineel, whose every leaf, fruit and inch of bark contained deadly toxins that could cause asphyxiation just by standing near it for too long. When he ran out of plant stories, he used marine facts his parents had taught him, or spoke about the things he missed from home.
Only once, when he was talking about the books he used to read, did a message come through on the board.
‘You can’t read?’
He was so stunned, the vassal had to tap the board to prompt an answer.
“I can, but not as easily as I can read English and Japanese, and some of the harder scripts are almost impossible for me.” He pushed himself into a better sitting position so he could look him in the eye. “When the ritual went wrong and I was sucked here from Earth, it drained Lady Telmatia. This was the best she could do for me.”
The other vassals all turned their eyes on him. After a few moments, the twink with the board wrote again.
‘She lied to you.’
Before he could ask what they meant, the corpses of seven bears crashed down on the ground beside him – Mesimialum’s answer to “hunt a feast for the village”.
One day, in the height of summer, he stumbled into a clearing full of half-naked vassals. His first thought was that he’d interrupted some kind of inter-vassal wrestling match, but no one was fighting. In fact, they were all turned in his direction and smiling.
The twink scribe wrote swiftly. ‘Happy birthday!’
Despite his training, his jaw dropped. The vassals bared their thorns smugly.
‘You said last week that today is your birthday, so here is Earth’s traditional shirtless men.’
They had been listening – partially. He’d spent a day last week rambling about the different ways people chose to celebrate their birthdays back home, and might have let it slip that he wished he could hire strippers. But for Daiki, who didn’t even have the courage to download Grindr, it was nothing more than a pipe dream. Now he didn’t know where to look.
The twink continued writing. ‘You’ve lived for 34 years and crossed 2 worlds, and nothing has eaten you yet. Congratulations!’
This was accompanied by a swarm of thumbs-ups from the nearest vassals.
‘Since I’m feeling bored and Telmatia can’t do the bare minimum for her poor, ignorant pawn, I’ll perform your Earth rituals today.’
In fact, the tree-queen had sent a letter amongst the pile of presents and cards from his friends. She had very earnestly wished him a happy birthday and thanked him for his dutiful service. He thought Mesimialum would rather not hear that, though.
“Thank you, my Lord.” He pulled himself together just enough to give a knightly bow. “Your generosity knows no bounds.”
The vassals lifted their chins with pride. ‘Enough of that today. Sit down and have your cake.’
A flurry of hands pushed him gently along until he found himself sitting on a boulder. One of the muscled bullies thrust one of the baker’s famous ruleberry-cakes into his face – the same one he’d mentioned wanting to try, if he could only buy one before they sold out.
The nickname “bully” was maybe a misnomer now. They hadn’t laid a hand on Daiki since that first day. Without the upper half of his armour, he didn’t look nearly as intimidating, though it was still impossible to ignore his presence. He was as ripped as Daiki had expected – an absolute mass of muscle, with biceps you could wrap your arms around, a solid stomach, and a deceptively soft-looking chest. He wondered if his skin was as soft and warm as a human’s, or if–
He tore his gaze back to the cake before that thought could go further. “Thank you, my Lord.”
Their grins widened. Two scribe twinks – whose remarkably toned bodies he was not going to linger on – wrote, ‘You can look. You can touch. I’m not shy.’
He nodded in assent, but continued admiring the fragrant red sauce drizzled across the cake. Even if he was brave enough, he would never know if the vassals really consented or if they were only following orders. They chuckled silently.
‘Blow out your candles. No fire, of course – but you can pretend.’
He obeyed. A cacophony of applause shook the mountain. The vassals had merely put their hands together half-heartedly, but the result had put the noise of three music festivals to shame. Unease chewed at his stomach.
The cake was lifted and cut in a group effort. In the meantime, a twink slipped a wine glass into his hand and an androgynous tree-hugger leaned over him to fill it. Daiki watched the rising liquid to ignore how close they were. The sharp, fresh scent of bark and healthy leaves smothered his senses.
A muscleman replaced the tree-hugger at his side to lift a forkful of cake to his lips. Its sweet yet sour softness wasn’t enough to block out the slow, smouldering smile the vassal gave him – thorns be damned.
When he next glanced around, the number of vassals in the clearing had tripled.
“Is this really fun for you, my Lord?” he asked, rushing to swallow.
‘It is. You’re rarely so silent.’
“If all you wish is for me to speak less, you had only to ask.”
‘Did I say I wanted that?’
Rather than give him the chance to reply, six of the vassals wiped the board and refilled it.
‘Little knight, I can see you’re dim but well-meaning. Telmatia will only give you as much she needs to use you. I’m better than her in every way, so why don’t you join me?’
So it was this sort of ploy after all. He took a swig of his wine before answering.
“Sorry, but the politics of trees has nothing to do with me. I’m here to do my job.”
‘You’re right but you’re wrong. But never mind that. Come to my side, and I’ll give you everything: immortality, eternal youth, strength beyond your means, the ability to read every language in the cosmos…’
The list filled the rest of the board, but he only skimmed it. Nothing was worth the trouble this would bring.
“Thanks, but all I want is a husband and a house.”
They clicked their tongues in unison.
‘Fine – but let me give you the gift of knowledge for your birthday.’
They wiped the board and wrote a single word: ‘Vassal.’ Then, with a quick swipe, they swapped one of the vowel runes. ‘Vessel.’
He blinked. “Oh, have I been mispronouncing it?”
‘You’ve misunderstood everything. You think you have a lot of company today.’ He waited while they cleared the board and wrote again. ‘The only person here is me.’
He didn’t bother to hide his confusion.
‘Vessels are not servants. They’re body parts that aren’t attached to me. They don’t have minds or senses of their own, just like your foot doesn’t.’
He tried to wrap his head around that. Surely they had to have some awareness, even as puppets…? The withering look they gave him – sorry, that he gave him – seemed to read his mind. One person, many bodies… Many bodies, one person… But his brain couldn’t draw a picture for how that would work.
‘Do all humans from Earth struggle like this?’
Mesimialum gave a collective sigh. It swept through the forest like a soft breeze.
‘We’ll get there eventually.’
From that day forward, Mesimialum stopped giving him the silent treatment. How he’d kept his hands to himself those first few months was a mystery – Daiki ended up bringing two boxes of chalk and a spare board to him by the end of the week.
“Eventually” turned out to be rather a long time. “Multiple bodies, one person” sounded like a simple concept, but wrapping his head around the way Mesimialum would be talking to Daiki in one part of the forest, playing with Cotee in another, and hunting or investigating everywhere else, was much harder. Mesimialum drew countless diagrams trying to help him.
Once they were past that, the hours flew by. Mesimialum was a passionate and honest speaker, always saying plainly what he meant and cutting right to the chase, and his perspective was fascinating. He also had surprising patience. Knowing how little Daiki knew about the world, he expanded on the stories he told by explaining how the nations had formed, what creatures lay in the deepest seas, and even what the Wood Wide Web was like for plants. He drew any number of sketches or diagrams that Daiki asked for, and even wrote in English to make it easier for him.
Academia was not his style, of course. Daiki’s parents would have waxed on about the beauty of marine creatures, the complexity of their inner systems and habits, and their great importance in the cycle of life; Mesimialum was prone to saying, ‘It’s a fish. Dumbest of its kind. If it didn’t breed so fast, it’d be gone by now.’
To Daiki, it was a thousand times better.
Autumn fell upon them before they knew it. The leaves on the trees turned red and laid a carpet on the floor around them, and the weather turned blissfully cool. As the rainfall left the ground too wet to sit on, Mesimialum insisted Daiki sit on a covered boulder and use one of his Vanguards – the proper name for those muscle-pumped giants – as a backrest.
The soul-soothing scent of damp soil was a great medicine for Daiki’s nerves, and he took a grateful puff as he leaned back. Lulls in their conversations weren’t unusual, but they were comfortable. The tree’s vessels poked about the clearing while he rested, casually investigating holes or scrutinising overgrown plants. If he fell asleep, he’d watch over him until he woke up.
But Daiki didn’t want to nap today. “Can I ask something?”
They all turned to him, giving him Mesimialum’s complete attention in this area.
“Why are you so afraid of medicals?”
Their brows furrowed. The twink – sorry, the Scout – with the board began furiously writing at once but, when only half was filled, the tree stopped and wiped it clean again. He tapped a piece of chalk thoughtfully against the surface. When he wrote again, it was uncharacteristically slow.
‘It’s an excuse to monitor me, harvest my pollen, and maybe even poison me.’
Daiki read over it as carefully as it had been written. It would be easy to laugh and call him paranoid – to insist on the safety of the procedure, not least because Daiki would be the one carrying it out. And yet, the gravity in his eyes sucked him in. It would cost nothing to give Mesimialum the same chance he’d given him.
“You think I’d do that?” he asked without accusation.
‘Yes. Without meaning to.’
He considered that, laying his head back on the Vanguard’s shoulder. Although there was no heartbeat or rise and fall of the chest, the slight warmth was comforting.
“Not that I want to tangle myself up in tree politics, but do you really distrust Lady Telmatia that much?”
‘She burned saplings and imprisoned our friends for so much as saying, “Hey, don’t you think we have enough humans now? We’re out of space!” Only a complete moron would trust her.’
With a flick of his eyes towards Daiki, he added a little post-script at the bottom.
‘You didn’t know this. You don’t count.’
He wished he was more surprised – Earth was full of corrupt leaders. “Seems a bit extreme…”
‘Everything Telmatia does is extreme. She’s a dangerous, unhinged harpy who gets off on playing this little “wise, benevolent queen” act.’
“So why are you free? Just because you didn’t speak out as much?”
His silent, bitter laugh washed over the clearing.
‘Because she couldn’t bring me down if she tried. If I wanted to, I could destroy every settlement between here and the capital with the flick of a branch and still have enough momentum to rip Telmatia up by her roots.’
He smiled, believing it. “But you’re not going to stop her or rescue your friends?”
‘What’s the point? They were becoming boring old oafs anyway. Only ever wanted to argue about philosophy. If I let them out now, they’d cull humanity as revenge, and I don’t care enough to let that happen.’
“Oh, apathy – humanity’s most loyal servant…”
Still, Daiki would need that medical in order to stay by his side. Not to mention that eons without a single check-up was risky.
He lifted his head to address him properly.
“I understand your concerns. Having been through a lot of procedures myself, I know how important it is to be able to trust the professionals you’re placing yourself in the care of.”
Mesimialum raised every eyebrow he had. ‘You’re a professional now?’
“A professional gardener, at least,” he grinned. “If I can look after those fragile trees back on Earth, I think a big, burly Nephrotus like you is going to be alright.”
That earned him a chuckle.
“So… What if I give you my word, on pain of death, that I’ll perform your examination without letting anyone else profit from it?” he continued carefully. “I’ll burn any samples I take for testing as soon as we’re finished, right here in front of you, and I’ll put the bare minimum in my report. You can read it before I send it.”
The tree watched him from every angle, his faces giving no hint of an expression. One set of hands moved to scrawl on the board.
‘How many transmutations did you go through? Was your body sick or unsatisfactory?’
His chest tightened. If it had been anyone else, Daiki would have considered that rude, but it was simply Mesimialum’s way.
“There were a lot.”
‘You don’t want to talk about it?’
He hesitated. To be honest, nobody had been cruel to him or disapproved of his transmutations in the five years he’d been here. Mesimialum was unlikely to reject him whether he understood or not. But somehow, it never stopped being harrowing.
He pushed on without really looking at him, doing his best to explain what that meant, how uncomfortable his original body had been, and how the physical transmutations available here had been a godsend. He clumsily resorted to listing off rounds of transmutations he’d gone through – height increase, vocal transformation, and so forth – to buy time before the tree could react. When he glanced over, he found Mesimialum listening quietly.
“So, any questions?”
‘No. Makes perfect sense.’
“And your opinion?” He tried not to let his anxiety leak into his voice.
‘You have a good taste in bodies.’
Fifteen cocky, pulse-quickening grins flashed his way. He let out the breath he’d been holding. He should have expected no less from this guy.
“You’re too kind, my Lord, but I’m nothing compared to your skill.”
‘Debatable. I might even ask you for advice the next time I create a new vessel type.’
“And, about your examination…?”
A soft puff of air – the slightest of soundless chuckles – escaped the Scout with the board. ‘I trust you.’
His heart lifted off his ribcage, ready to take flight.
‘But I don’t need or want a check-up. I hope you can respect that.’
The bare forest was an eerie sight. Very few of the trees were evergreen and, as the end of the year hurried in, Sheylin lost its natural fortress and grew cold and vulnerable. Daiki could see the vessels clinging to the branches from his window. There were less and less of them every day.
His time with Mesimialum was also disappearing. Daiki’s armour could only shield him for so long before he developed hypothermia. They were limited to the daylight hours, where the weak sun offered some reprieve to sneak an hour or two of conversation in – but the tree always knew when his body temperature dipped, and he was forced back long before he’d had his fill.
One day, instead of greeting him, Mesimialum asked to carry him. It was a strange request, but easy enough to agree to, and Daiki soon found himself shooting through the forest on a Vanguard’s back.
After thirty minutes at the speed of a bullet train, they slowed to a stop and he set him gently down on a boulder. Daiki’s head still spun and his feet couldn’t quite believe the ground was under them. A whizz of static against his cheek stole the air from his lungs. He was mere inches from the containment field.
“Good morning, Daiki.”
Though slightly distant, the stertorous voice cut easily through the space between them. It was rough and youthful, with a predictable arrogant lilt and a surprising lack of depth. The fondness in it seared his heart and cheeks.
“Good morning, my Lord…” He cringed at how small it came out.
“Are you okay?” The vessels crowded around to peer into his face. “Did I hurt you? It’s supposed to be safe out there.”
“No, my Lord.” He cleared his throat quickly. “I was overwhelmed by the honour of hearing your voice.”
For once, he wasn’t exaggerating.
The vessels drew back, creating a mob of smug smirks. This time, he could hear the arrogant chuckle that accompanied them.
“I suppose it’s been a long time since I spoke to anyone like this. But all that bowing and scraping doesn’t suit us. Call me by my name.”
“As you wish… Mesimialum.”
A heavy silence fell. He looked to the vessels for any sign of displeasure, but they were as blank as dolls, their eyes staring straight through him. A sudden fear flashed through him. Technically, nothing stopped people and creatures from passing through the containment field – they were likely to die instantly – but if Telmatia had sent someone…
A Scout caught his wrist just as the crackle of the forcefield rang against his fingertips. “No way. If you want to peek at me, choose a better season. I’m naked right now.”
Daiki felt his face grow hot before he could stop it. His brain provided a very vivid image to match those words – before he remembered Mesimialum was a tree.
“Oh, you’re deciduous.”
“Duh. Why so disappointed?” Thankfully, he didn’t wait for an answer. “As a professional gardener, you probably already know, but I’ll be reducing my energy use soon. You’re too weak to walk here every day, so stay in your beloved mansion.”
A wave of disappointment crushed him. “You’re going dormant?”
“Yes and no. Unlike these wimps, I never fully sleep. I’ll be around if there’s any danger.” He flashed a collection of cocky grins to support the statement. “But it’s harder to maintain vessels that are far from my main body.”
“Guess I’ll only see you right before I go...”
“Or you can take me with you.”
Right on cue, a selection of vessels he had never seen before slipped through the field. There were femme vessels, masculine vessels, and some even more androgynous than the tree-clinging Surveillance vessels. The largest that appeared was a real giant, only capable of dipping its head out without disturbing the nearby trees. A tiny flash of movement caught his eye.
“Is that a fairy?”
He held out his hand so it could fly onto his palm. It was no larger than a butterfly, with delicate, leafy wings that propelled it here and there. Its slight frame and unassuming features were complemented by a tiny green tunic and a pixie cut.
Its nose crinkled at him. “Don’t say, of all my vessels, this is the one you like? Really, don’t say it.”
“All your vessels are handsome, of course. But this is adorable. You’re adorable, my-! Mesimialum.”
“It’s just a Cleaner…” The tree didn’t bother to hide the intense dissatisfaction from his faces. “Well, take that and three others of your choice. They won’t survive the whole winter, but I’ll stay with you until the last one withers.”
He chose not to question why he didn’t simply assign him four. With the dizzying number of options presented, he picked the three he was already familiar with before the tree could change his mind.
“You know, normal people would have reported you for workplace harassment by now.”
Mesimialum finally lifted his eyes to his face, huffing at his grin. At least he had enough shame to avoid meeting his gaze.
Daiki chuckled. “It’s me, so I don’t mind,” he half-lied, “but don’t stare at other people like that. You’ll upset them.”
With another huff, the tree grabbed the board from the desk. ‘Why would I admire other people?’
Winter had come in fast and hard for Sheylin. The snow had made the forest trails unpassable, and the village paths were tough to tread. Most days they were confined to the mansion, where magic stones kept a fire roaring in every room – to Mesimialum’s discomfort.
Still, the tree made himself quickly at home. He had refused the offer of a guest bedroom or four, choosing instead to squeeze under the covers with Daiki every night. His velvet skin and soft warmth made sleep difficult, and Daiki could only be thankful that the vessels had Ken-doll anatomy; yet nothing was more soothing than being cradled in his many arms.
The fairy had survived a total of two weeks. One day, while flitting confidently around the room, Mesimialum made some kind of miscalculation, and it shot straight into the fireplace. It was traumatic for Daiki, but the tree shrugged it off. ‘Happens all the time. Cleaners are born to die.’
The Surveillance vessel was the next casualty. He had no idea what had happened to it – a month into the visit, he returned from the market to find it lying in the snow near the forest. If not for one dark hand sticking out from behind a snow pile, it would have gone unnoticed. The Scout had succumbed a week ago. It still sat in the corner of the room, eyes closed and head tilted against the wall, as if it were merely sleeping.
Now there was only the Vanguard. Poor Mesimialum, reduced to a single pair of eyes, struggled to take subtle glances.
Since Daiki had given him permission, he set aside the translation he was working on – the latest of the many books he had converted to English for him – and openly watched. The knight was glad to have his back to him. Try as he might to focus on the weights he was lifting, Mesimialum’s fixed stare made his whole body hot, and he’d break if he had to look at his face.
He glanced back in time to see the tree’s eyes flutter closed.
They opened. His heart caught its next beat, flooding him with relief.
“Don’t scare me like that, big guy. You’re not allowed to leave me yet.” He set the weights down carefully. “Come to think of it, you haven’t completed today’s challenge.”
‘You didn’t set me one.’
“Then how about this? You have to stay awake until midnight, minimum.”
Tomorrow’s challenge would be the same. And the day after, and the day after…
He glanced at the snow speeding past the window.
“Looks like it’s time to clear the paths again.” He grabbed his jumper from the nearby chair. The sound of chalk on blackboard reluctantly drew his eyes back to the tree.
‘You’re not going to wash the sweat off first?’
“I’ll get sweaty again while I work.”
“I’ll warm up in no time when I get back.” He tracked his heavy coat to the bookcase in the corner, and discovered his hat, gloves and scarf rolled up underneath. “You stay here and conserve your energy. You’re going to need it to win.”
Mesimialum’s uncharacteristic silence only weighed his stomach with dread. Forcing a smile, he grabbed his spade and made his way down to the side entrance – where someone crashed into him like a speeding bullet.
He caught her just in time.
“Cotee, you should really knock before entering someone else’s house…”
She scowled at him. “I’m here to see Lord Mesimialum, not you.”
“What does that have to do with anything? It’s my house, not his.” She just rolled her eyes and sighed disdainfully. That expression always meant she’d stopped listening. “Ugh, never mind… He’s in the master bedroom.”
“Great. Thanks!” And she darted around him and ran up the stairs.
Knowing that Mesimialum had someone with him did put him at ease, though. He refocused his efforts on shovelling the snow out of the village’s connected trenches, working from his own house down to the market. It was admittedly colder than he’d given credit for. The once-hot sweat on his body threatened to turn to ice.
He hadn’t been working twenty minutes when he heard a crunch in the snow behind him. Cotee was standing with tears in her eyes.
“Lord Mesimialum, he…”
He dropped his spade, racing back to the mansion, back through the corridors, leaping up the stairs to their room–
The Vanguard was lying with its head on the desk, as if napping. The board, propped up beside it, read: ‘You win.’
Spring, bittersweet and unrelenting, swept the snow away like it had been a dream. The first letters from the capital came as soon as the roads were clear. Sherin gushed about introducing him to her latest girlfriend, and Fadmose described the hot new plays that would be showing when he returned. His superiors thanked him for trying, and already they spoke of where he might be stationed when he came “home”. Telmatia apologised for the many troubles he had gone through. No specifics, of course.
But Daiki had nothing to send back. He watched the forest return to life each day, with new annuals pushing through the soil where the old had departed, and the buds on the trees swelling and unfurling into new leaves and blossoms. The glass-root who guarded the border hung out a new chandelier of flowers.
The plant he most wanted to see didn’t arrive until the fourth month of the year. Like everyone else in this village, the concept of knocking seemed alien to him: Daiki awoke at dawn one morning to find two Scouts stationed over him, cracking that signature brazen grin as soon as he opened his eyes.
“Did you get enough beauty sleep?”
A silent laugh was the only reply. Mesimialum pulled the blankets back, beckoning with one set of arms and gesturing towards the door with the other. Breakfast, a bath, and his armour had been set out waiting for him. He helped him clip his favourite purple cloak into place when he was dressed.
Mesimialum really did look healthier. Daiki had barely noticed the change to his vessels across the year but, meeting them again after weeks, it was obvious their skin glowed. Their hair had far more volume too and, to his surprise, the bottom of it was fluffed up with long, thick anthers, heavy with pollen.
He kept his eyes trained respectfully on the ground while the tree lead him out into the forest. It was harder when he invited him to ride on a Vanguard’s back again. Its hair had been let out of its bun to make room for the anthers, and Mesimialum only swept it lazily over one shoulder before lifting him.
Although they paused at the containment field, he didn’t set him down. A Surveillance vessel emerged holding a small bowl of milky pink liquid.
“This is the juice from one of my fruit,” Mesimialum called. “Those transmutations they prescribe in the Order might help you meet face-to-face with the likes of Telmatia, but you’ll need way more than that to survive me. This will give you the strength.”
He shuddered at the thought of drinking parts of him but, with no other choice, he bit the bullet and downed it. It was sweet and sharp, like a delicious, somewhat spicier cranberry juice.
Mesimialum only waited a moment more before carrying him through. The electric pulse crackled harmlessly over his skin like a veil. His lungs struggled instantly. The air was heavy, almost resisting being pulled in, and weighed like lead in his chest. He pressed his head into the Vanguard’s shoulder and fought to hold down the panic.
In a few breaths, his body adjusted.
“Are you okay?”
He finally lifted his head. Vessels. Vessels as far as the eye could see. Here were true giants, standing as tall as the Empire State Building, or putting it to shame. Fairies as small as greenflies flitted about. A sea of them must have stood between him and his main body yet, when he looked up, his perspective swam, unable to place the distance between him and what had to be a monster of a tree.
Rather than a single leaf type, he had a collaboration of shapes and colours, switching over in quantity as he stretched into the sky and disappeared from view. Flowers bloomed at intervals around his lower branches, displaying breath-taking geometric shapes in royal purple and fuchsia. Even from here – wherever here was in relation to him – the heavy, sensual perfume wafting from them invaded all his senses. He unintentionally relaxed.
Every face grinned at him. “Enjoying the view?”
“You are… Astounding.”
A gentle smile rippled its way across the vessels. Guiding his head back behind its shoulder, the Vanguard took off again. It was an hour before he was actually let down.
Up close, it became impossible to piece what his eyes fell on into a single picture. There was a trunk with dark wood – practically black, with a mysterious red hue to it under the light. He couldn’t begin to see where it started to round into a circle; it might as well have been the Great Wall of China.
There was no sunlight here. The day-like brightness was provided by organic phosphorescent orbs that hung from Mesimialum’s branches. He made the mistake of trying to track them back to where they were connected – and found the criss-cross of branches, arcing higher than his mind could process, dizzying. Thousands upon thousands of faces stared back at him from them. Judging by the apparent size of the Surveillance vessels, a single one of his leaves must have been the size of a city.
“So, we meet properly at last…” said Daiki, not quite sure whether he should look at the tree or a vessel. His voice sounded pathetically small. “It’s an honour to stand in your presence.”
Mesimialum snorted. This close, his voice was deafening, ringing down from every side. Daiki felt his body vibrate under its strength.
“Forget about honour this and-!” The pain forced a hiss from him. Immediately, the tree dropped to a near-whisper – still louder than any human scream. “You alright? Well, forget about all that, anyway…”
Silence fell between them. It was gentle, but ultimately in the way of everything that needed to be said.
“Let me say it at least once more, since I mean it,” Daiki said at last. “Lord Mesimialum, it’s been an honour to have met and served you. I don’t have much time left until I have to return to the capital. If I could, I would stay and be your knight forever, but-!”
“Wait, but you can?”
“I won’t force an examination on you over a farce of a challenge like that. In all honesty, I never intended to force you from the start. It was a ruse to get closer to you.”
Booming laughter knocked him off his feet. The vessels quickly closed in to catch and support him.
“You didn’t win that challenge! My vessel died off, but I stayed awake.” He flashed countless charming grins at him.
That was cheating, but never mind.
“So, what about the message you left…?”
For once, the confidence was sucked out of him. The vessels holding Daiki set him carefully back on his feet and drew back, leaving a conspicuous empty ring around him. He actually heard the tree hesitate.
“Sir Daiki Wright, you have defeated me as no other has ever defeated me before. You have conquered my – metaphorical – heart…”
The vessels nearest him shyly averted their gaze. He could feel his own face heating up.
“I once offered you a choice. Today I offer you another – a very different one. The politics of trees has nothing to do with you, so don’t go back to Telmatia and let her use you. I won’t ask you to fight for me either.”
“But she’s trying to violate you. That has everything to do with me!”
The vessels glanced at him. A few shot bashful smiles.
“Thank you, but I’m a big tree who can win his own battles. We both value our freedom, and I want you to have yours.”
A Scout fondly tucked his hair behind his ear from behind. He hadn’t even noticed the vessels at his back creeping forward.
“Become mine, Daiki Wright, and I’ll give everything to you. Stay here with me, not as my servant, or my knight, but as… Mine. And I shall be yours.”
Mesimialum’s hands were softly playing with his hair. He struggled not to melt into their gentle touch. The tree was talking about very important business.
“Defying the Order won’t be that easy. I would be caught up in the politics either way?”
“Don’t defy them. Give them the bare minimum and forget about them.”
“You’d let me examine you?”
The first line of surrounding vessels nodded.
Daiki hesitated. It was the ideal situation, but Mesimialum would be sacrificing everything he had worked for, and who knew how Telmatia would twist the situation. One human with less than a century remaining couldn’t be worth that.
“Thank you, but I can’t. Our friendship is important to me, but it’s not worth the danger to you.”
The tree groaned. “You don’t get it at all, do you?”
He moved in closer, pinning him tightly yet comfortably between his vessels again. His hands caressed his cheek, his arms clung to his cuirass, and several of his faces hung inches away from his. A dangerous, non-platonic heat pooled in Daiki’s stomach.
Before he could empty his mind to chase it away, a box clicked open in his face. There was a solid gold ring engraved with birds sitting on blue silk. He met the eyes of the vessel holding it out to him.
“Well, that’s sudden…” He was even more aware of Mesimialum’s hands on him. That dangerous heat threatened to spread out of control. “That’s quite…” He cursed his fluttering heart. He was definitely going to be kicked out of society for this. “Umm…”
Mesimialum waited quietly, his gaze never wavering. Those eyes were soft but resolute. They held the wisdom of an eons-old tree, one who had watched societies rise and crumble, one who was now foolishly proposing to a small, squishy human, because…
Because they loved each other, nature be damned.
“Yes. Nothing would make me happier.”
He fumbled to remove his gauntlets and let Mesimialum slip the ring on his finger. It was a perfect fit. The hand that put it on didn’t retreat, but intertwined their fingers, clasping tightly. It was bigger than his but, with a hot face, Daiki had to admit that this, too, was a perfect fit.
“But I still won’t conduct Telmatia’s tests…”
“Fine, fine, we’ll find another way.” Mesimialum sent a smirk through every vessel in the area. “But you could always take a sample of my pollen for yourself…”
The vessels with their hair tied up reached up in unison to let it down. It didn’t, as expected, fall limply down around them. They were moving parts.
His instincts screamed at him to look away. They told him not to let his eyes linger, to quench the fire in his groin, and be civilised; but Mesimialum’s gently swaying stamen were hypnotic, and the hunger in his eyes pulled him closer. He swallowed.
“I’ll need a lot to be really thorough…”
In the next moment, he was overwhelmed by warm lips, strong hands, and soft, soft anthers.
‘Good job, my boy. I always knew you’d make us proud.’
Those were the opening words of Captain Kelro’s first letter. It was followed by certificates, medals, congratulatory letters from what felt like every member of the Order – accolades upon accolades poured in, just as they’d promised. Telmatia thanked him for his monumental work but lamented that he hadn’t managed to send samples back for “more reliable testing”. Of course, that was impossible, since all the numbers had been painstakingly faked. It was easy to write a reply that sidestepped her enquiries, now that his illiteracy had been cured.
The villagers’ congratulations were far more sincere. They were the only ones who knew the truth, and had kindly put together a small ceremony in the square for them. Only Cotee had a problem, and her parents prevented her from jumping up when the officiator asked for objections.
With visits from the Order, his friends, and all the paperwork to follow up, it was autumn before they knew it.
‘If the Cleaner is your favourite, what would your dream vessel be like?’
Mesimialum’s Surveillance vessel flashed him the question on the board as soon as he returned from his bath. It had been left in the bed since that morning, naked and tangled in the sheets with lazy elegance. Daiki knew he ought to complain about the state of the bed, but the exposed curve of his ass overrode all rational thought.
“I didn’t say the Cleaner was my favourite. I was excited that you had a fairy. They’re a big deal back on Earth.”
Said tiny vessel was currently sitting on the desk, providing a second pair of eyes for the sketches the tree was making with his Scout. Daiki slipped past the Vanguard – bravely stoking the fire – to hunt through his drawers for a shirt.
‘But if you had to design the perfect vessel, what would it be?’ He tapped the board until he glanced over to read it.
“If you insist, then how about a man with ebony skin, wine-coloured hair, and the ability to survive the whole winter with me?”
He didn’t have to turn around to recognise the four judgemental looks he was getting. He met the Vanguard’s with a wink. “You’re always perfect, except when you leave.”
Ignoring his four-fold huff, he found the shirt he was looking for and pulled it on. The Scout slid aside the paper it had finished filling and moved onto a new sheet. The bouncing sherons and prancing bambeens were so detailed, Daiki half believed he could feel their fur if he stroked the page.
“I hate that you call that doodling.” He picked it up to take a better look. “Are you practising drawing animals?”
‘I’m drawing everything I want to eat but can’t,’ he wrote casually on the upper corner of his paper. ‘They migrated for the winter.’
“Huh… Is there anything I can do to help a little?”
‘My favourite food is right here,’ Mesimialum wrote, wrapping the Vanguard’s arms around his waist, ‘so you can keep me fed instead.’
And that was how they passed their winter, and every year they greeted afterwards. If the world was cold and dark, and the seasons ever-changing, they never felt it: their world was always in spring.