Sticky Stingers - Information and Reviews
Sticky Stingers by Norm ThabitPower is a gift of birth. And each person who wields a Power, is measured by how much Power they can control and use. They will be Graded early in life and labeled with a Power rank.

All of society centers around your Power or lack of it.

Unless you are Steef.

Then you get all seven Powers in a strength beyond measure. If you’re Steef, you grow up in the Valley of the Cats, with a HornCat named Kivverr as your brother. An idyllic life.

And now we meet the only girl he could ever want.
- Horray for sequels!!
Norm quite obviously has an amazing imagination. I love the Steef Guild... after reading this... how could you not? Surprisingly, my favorite character is neither Steef nor Leezel. I have fallen in love with Cassa's character. I wish I could be more like her. In this book, I love her even more.

Norm does an amazing job of describing the relationships between the characters. You really get a
... Read Full Review...
by Leslie K.
Jul 06, 2006 (Paperback Edition)
Quick Book Info
Published2005-Nov-11 (Print)
2012-Apr-21 (Kindle)
Page Views4,326
Reviews1 Reviews
Rating5.0 of 5 Stars
Paperback528 pages
LanguageEnglish
ISBN-100595370896
ISBN-13978-0595370894
ASINB007WMQJOU
Dimensions1.2" x 5.9" x 8.9"
Weight1.7 lbs
GenreFiction, Fantasy, Action & Adventure, Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology, Contemporary
Order LinksAmazon

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Sticky Stingers - Chapter 1 Excerpt

Sticky Stingers



By Norm Thabit



All Rights Reserved © 2003 by Norman Joe Thabit

      Author's Note
      Dear Reader,
      You are about to enter the world of the Master Clear. Sojourners cannot leave unaffected. You will want to find your own cave ( or tree ) and stay. You've been warned.
      In my first book, Sticks & Stones, we met a young Steef and grew to love him. We all loved the Cove and his beloved tree, Seafwood. We wanted to meet our very own HornCat. We wanted to play with the same Powers he enjoyed.
      Welcome to the Steef Guild. You just became a lifetime member. No dues necessary.
      Now... we get to meet the only woman he could ever want.
      Steef's world... it's a rich place. Rich in passion and feeling. Rich in life. Rich in natural wonder and beauty. Rich in magical powers and beasties.
      It's a poor world, too. A world poor in technology. Society has come to depend on Power to get things done, so there are no machines here. Admittedly, it's spoiled them, some. They don't seek new discoveries much, preferring to enjoy a simpler life through the ease of their own Power.
      This story starts quickly and doesn't slow down... sssooooo... you might need a little catching up. Maybe this will help.
      In Steef's world, there are people with Power and... everyone else. If you are a Power with couth, you refer to the 'everyone else' as Powerless. If you're crude, you call them Nerts, which is short for Inert.
      There are seven different Colors of Power. White is a Healing Power. Red controls peoples' minds. Blue controls weather. Brown moves stone and dirt. Green makes all plants and rees grow. Yellow Heals beasts. Black... well, Black can burn and kill.
      What happens is this... any person of Power absorbs energy from their world. That energy passes through their body and becomes Power that they can Pulse. Their bodies serve as 'converters' of raw energy into useful Power. There are seven primary sources of energy that a Power can draw from. Sunlight. Gravity. Magnetism. Skybolt. Crystal Power. Heat from the ground... the sixth primary. And the seventh primary Power splits things apart. Only the Master Clear can control the seventh primary. The seventh primary also leaves a residual glow-in-the-dark blue light behind when it's used. Think about it.
      Power is a gift of birth. And each person who wields a Power, is measured by how much Power they can control and use at a time. They will be Graded early in life and labeled with a number which Ranks them. One being lowest and Ten being highest. Some Tens have the added privilege of being able to discharge their Power in a huge, focused burst. These gifted people can be trained and acknowledged... as Masters.
      All of society is structured around the ranking and Color of Power.
      Unless you are Steef. Then you get all seven Powers in a strength beyond measure. If you're Steef, you grow up in the Valley of the Cats, have a HornCat named Kivverr be your brother and have five Masters to train and love you. If you are Steef, you discover the real world in the hardest way imaginable. If you are Steef, you take a Mate named Leezel, who is a Powerful White, herself.
      Anything touched by Power gets an honorific, hence HornCats are honored, but cows and sheep are not. If a Sighted Power Sees something, it's a view with Power. If that same person sees something, that means there's light to see by. It's even possible to be Looking and looking at the same time.
      In the first book, we met some magical beasties, too. This book spends a lot of focus on Buzzbies. There are four Buzzbie families left. Pill is still Steef's favorite, though all four families serve him in one way or another. The others are Peel, Paal and Pull. Pool, the fifth Buzzbie family, left in disgrace at the end of book one. But Pool isn't dead.
      There are other people in this world, too. They are mysterious, sinister and ambitious. They live 'in the east'.
      Finally, I would like to mention to my fans that this book is not just 'more of the same' from book one. It's the same world and the same characters, but the tone is different. I'm really happy with Steef's 'coming of age' in Sticks. I don't need to do that again. This book is less 'gee-wiz' and more 'hmmm'.
      You'll see.
      I'm really glad you're here.

ONE

      No one ever asked. Not once. Never.
      They just watched. They would watch what she did, what she said, even what she ate. Everywhere she went, for as long as she could remember, people had been watching her. Sometimes, some of them would point and whisper. Mostly though, people just avoided her. It was always people of Power. She never noticed the Powerless acting that way. She had learned early and often that Power people... had an opinion about her. Even when she would just walk down the road, Powers would stop and... watch.
      She didn't know it, but they'd been watching when she was birthed, too. Her mother was a Master, so it wasn't particularly odd that the Healer in attendance was also a Master, but there were three other White Masters n attendance at this birthing and that was odd.
      All three of them were Graders. And that was odd. And they were nervous, which for a Healer at a simple birthing, was also odd.
      When the cord was cut, there was a Power flash that the mother had been told to expect. An unusually bright flash. An unusually bright... White... flash. But the mother wasn't a Grader and not experienced to judge Power. Besides, she was preoccupied with birthing her daughters. The three Graders Saw the flash, too. They Saw the intensity of it. They Saw that it was White. And they were experienced to judge. They didn't know, really, if they'd been hoping for it or... not hoping for it. Well, two of the Graders had mixed feelings. One didn't. She was the shortest of the three and carried an ornate staff. At least one of these babes was White. Breathtakingly Powerful... White. The short, fat Grader with the ornate staff was scowling.
      Then the second daughter was birthed, with a much smaller Red flash at the cutting. The three Graders left, concern obvious in their faces. They committed the first whispers then, of what would be cycles of whispers about the White child. In whispers, they determined amongst themselves to watch this firstborn child. This strong White child.
      Her father, who was trained to observe human behavior, noted the concern evident on the Graders as they departed the birthing. He knew why they were concerned about his daughters. It was because of the father's sister.
      His sister, his daughters' aunt, was also a strong White. Another breathtakingly strong White. His daughters' mother was a strong Master, too. The Graders had been expecting at least one of the girls to be strong and they weren't wrong. But they were hoping the 'strong' and the White wouldn't be together. Strong anything else wouldn't have needed watching. At least not by them.
      Later, when the birthing Registrar had asked the father what names to record for the new daughters, the father was reluctant, but resigned. He had a deal struck with the mother and he was a man who kept an oath. The parchMaster's face gave no sign of the wonder he must have felt. He didn't ask about the name.
      At the Vault next day, when glad greets were given, naturally people asked what the girls had been named and the father told them. No point in avoiding it, it wasn't going away. His co-workers gave no sign of their wonder, either. They were all trained Reds, after all. And they didn't ask the father about the name, odd as it was. After that day though, no one asked again. About the name... or even what the name was. Anywhere in GuildTown. Not once. Never.
      The firstborn should have been named Marzel. Or Marlin. Instead, her given name was Leezel. And her father was a prominent Red Vaulter and her mother was a Master Black. And though Leezel didn't know it yet, her aunt was shrouded in whispers and headshakes. Strange family. Leave them alone. Especially don't make the mother angry.
      So no one ever asked Leezel why her name was different. Everyone just quietly watched her. She really started noticing in her fourth cycle. None of the children wanted to play with her and she couldn't understand why that was. They'd been told... more than once by their parents... to leave the little White alone. 'And don't ever ask her about her name'. Her mother was a Master Black and no one wanted a Master Black to be aggravated. Especially later, when Leezel had reached her teens and the Black Guild started turning really ugly. So Leezel was left... alone, for reasons that she couldn't glimmer. Since no one ever asked, she never thought about how odd her name was.
      Only her sister Zelmar would play with her and that had its own burdens. Zelmar was a Seven. Mother was constantly cautioning Leezel to stay drained of Power, lest she touch her sister carelessly... and kill her. A child with an adult burden.
      Life as a student in the White GuildHall was no better, for she was virtually shunned by most of the Whites. Another secret. Another thing that Leezel didn't know, was affecting life at the Guild Hall.
      She had an enemy.
      Well, her aunt... Master Arima... had an enemy. Unfortunately, that meant Leezel had an enemy too. This, in spite of the fact that Leezel had never met Master Arima. Her aunt had left White service, and GuildTown, while Leezel was still small.
      But the enemy's presence was felt. As a strong Ten, Mastery was an assumed goal, so training should have been intense. But training that Leezel should have gotten early... was put off. 'I'll teach her later' was what Vinntag kept telling the other Masters. 'I'll apprentice the child myself, once she's old enough. She's bound to show a gift, you know'. Which was likely. Leezel was Arima's niece, which was why her birthing had been watched to begin with. So the other Masters gave Leezel only basic training. Vinntag was a prominent Grader, and though not many liked her any more, most heeded her. Leezel's schooling kept falling behind where it should have been. A little here. A little there. But by the time that neglect was evident, Vinntag had seized control of the White Guild and couldn't be challenged. Not even on a student's training. Publicly, all Vinntag would say about Leezel was, 'I'm waiting until her true gift shows itself'.
      And a gift finally did manifest in Leezel, though not the Sight that everyone expected. Empathy. To a young girl whose life already had sadness and burden, this didn't appear to be much of a gift. It did serve to put off Vinntag's plans for her death, but Leezel didn't know that.
      Life got more difficult still, for Leezel's sister Zelmar developed a gift, too. Beauty. Not just average beauty. Pump-stopping, breath-stopping, make-men-stupid ... beauty. From the bottom of her sculpted feet to a full-blazing mane of red hair, there was nothing visually average about her. So of course, Zelmar became popular everywhere she went, despite her family's mystery, which only served to contrast Leezel's life. Worse, Zelmar's head became filled with Zelmar, making her even more of a burden to Leezel.
      Then... the terrible day of blood amongst the Guilds. Masters were killed. Mother was unstaffed and shunned. Father became cold from fear.
      Leezel's only hope... and a desperate one at that... was to complete her Mastery, and get out of Town!
      Vinntag had other plans. Vinntag wanted to be White GuildMaster. Then, Vinntag became White GuildMaster and she knew... and every other Grader knew... and every other Master White knew... that if Arima didn't return, then Leezel... and only Leezel...  possessed enough White Power to ever be a challenge to Vinntag's status. So what should have taken four cycles at most... Leezel's apprenticeship to gain Master's accords, which would give Leezel the right to challenge Vinntag... was dragging and lagging. Never mind that, like her aunt before her, Leezel showed no interest at all in Vinntag's ambitions.
      Only one person at White GuildHall was willing and generous... and courageous... enough to truly teach her. Ormis. A non-Master. Apprenticing with Ormis was informative, helpful and immensely instructive. With stiff, formal speech always separating them, the older man and his young student became respecting friends. Leezel's first friend. But Leezel would never be given a Master's accord by apprenticing under Ormis... which is why Vinntag allowed it.
      A forlorn and sad life.
      Her gift... her Empathy... was no gift. To use it meant to burden herself with the pain of others. Trouble was, everyone in the White Guild expected her to develop it. She was 'The first and only Empath in thirty cycles. She couldn't just ignore it'.
      Father had struck a deal for her to Mate with a young man... boy... whose family could assure a secure future. A secure future. With a boy named Nessel, who barely spoke to her at all, and then usually in growls. She finally understood that her badge and status were what they were trying to buy.
      So Leezel, Master apprentice Healer and Empath, was hopeful of a new life. Prepared for a new life. Eager... if only because it would mean leaving this one. Prepared for even a glimmer of anything new. Solitude and burdens had worked a maturing in her that far exceeded her cycles. Prepared, because giving was her nature, and her spirit was meant for joy... and oppression had dulled what she should have been. Prepared. Ready. Eager. She would need that, in the life that did find her.
      She was unprepared, too.
      Who could have prepared? Not Zelmar, surely, and Zelmar thought of little else. Zelmar talked of little else. All of the different shapes a woman's life could take... as a Mate. Leezel had never heeded her sister's dreamings, schemings and hopings... for it was Zelmar who wanted to be a Mate... she said. But... not Leezel. Still, Leezel had listened politely to Zelmar's ramblings. And Leezel assumed that she had heard of every possible type of man there could be, for Zelmar went through them all. And Leezel assumed that she had heard every plausible possibility of a woman's life with a man.
      She was wrong.
      For Leezel reached a beat in her young life when her Empathy finally did become a gift... to Leezel. A night like many others, Healing people in need, down in Nert Hollow. And in that night, her unCloaked hand had touched the hand of a young man she barely knew.
      The gift of Empathy. In a single beat... less than a beat... the nature of this young man was revealed to her. No man... no person... could have that much joy! But, he did. The dinginess of her bleak life was exposed against the glare of that joy. Whatever else happened, Leezel knew from that beat on, she would be unable to accept dinginess again.
      The gift of Empathy. The very next night, her Empathy allowed her to gift that same young man like no other could have done. By then, she had already refused him. An understandable mistake, given the brief time they'd known each other. But her spirit screamed at her that refusal had been a mistake! She needed pardon from this young man. She needed him to ask again! She didn't even know where to find him! He was gone!
      And then suddenly... there he was! And... her Empathy gave her a second chance. A beat of of shared compassion. And mercifully... he asked... ...  again.
      Master apprentice Leezel. The young woman... girl, really... that would become, for all time...  'The Lady Leezel'. From that night forward, nothing in her life would ever be the same. Her Empathy could be a gift, after all.
      She would need that, too.


__________

      Pop! "Arima, Wingor has met the ClanCat."
      "Thank you, Pill." She glanced at Linzel. The two women shared worried brows. There would be no emotion wasted on the now-dead Red GuildMaster, but both women were concerned for their children. These were not the kinds of events that began joyful lives.
      "The Moaning has begun," Pill concluded. Pop!
      "Again, thank you," she responded absently. Sigh. It couldn't be helped.


__________

      Until a few days ago, her entire life had been spent learning to despise a HornCat. Well, okay. Maybe not despise. But at least disdain.
      Until she met one.
      No one that Leezel knew had ever even seen a HornCat, except GuildMaster Vinntag. And Leezel's first viewing of the great beastie had been a spectacle slaying... an unsavory event. She hadn't wanted to see one, then. Touching one was unthinkable.
      Leezel had done both... in the same night. Nineteen cycles of disdain were dashed in a beat... replaced with wonder and new admiration. Which was good, because three days later she found herself surrounded by HornCats. In the Valley of the Cats. A place of dread in any story she'd ever heard. This, after a two-day journey in the first boat ride of her life, with a young man she still didn't know well.
      And the first event upon arrival was something called a 'victory meal'. Her head knew that Wingor deserved what he got, but her pump was already crowded with new emotion. And deserved or no... it was a killing.
      And then... Kivverr's Moaning began. Whew!
      Seven days and nights in a crowd of enormous, moaning Cats. A forest of furry legs and pointy, white longteeth. The noise was deafening... the anguish, a physical thing, even Cloaked. She never saw Steef sleep, though her own exhaustion mercifully took her several times, her body curled between roots of the largest and strangest tree imaginable. She Freshened Steef twice, without his even noticing. She didn't touch him, either, keeping her distance, not wanting to intrude on his pain.
      Near the end of the sixth day the ClanCat bumped her for attention. She was glad for the diversion.
      "Leezelrr," He said, "You can taste us... yes?"
      Taste? Oh... her Empathy. "Yes... yes, your Majesty. I can taste you."
      "This is a great gift. No two-leg has tasted a Cat before. You can choose to do this at any time?"
      "Yes sir. I can tune it off and on." Just not 'off' enough for this she added to herself.
      "You must taste me now. It will help you understand."
      Oh, dear. With the intensity of emotion that surrounded her, unCloaking was not something she wanted to do right now. But denying a request from the ClanCat was already something she wouldn't do. At least she wasn't touching Steef. Turning, she placed both hands on the ClanCat's chest, breaking contact from where He'd been against her head and shoulder. Flinching in anticipation... she shifted her tune, and Pulsed.
      The despair that she was expecting... never came. There was loss, for true, but over-riding everything was... pride... and honor. The ClanCat... Plivverr, was... rejoicing! Exulting in the life that had been His brother Kivverr, a life that had met... exceeded... the expectations of the Clan. Tribe of Rivverr. Line of Kings. Every howl or screech that came to their ears then, caused a jolt of increased pride that ran down her arms.
      "My brother benefited the Clan and represented our tribe well. He will be missed, but his deeds will not, for they are still with us. Kivverr is Resting well, and we will join him with gladness when it is our time. We have noticed that you have not touched Steefrr while he moaned. We wondered at this, for you are his female. I ask your pardon, for I am not experienced with many two-legs, or I would have understood sooner. You are too new to the Clan to have known about Moanings. Kivverr's Moaning will end in one day, so there is still time for you."
      Time? She wondered. Time for what?
      "Steefrr was brother to my brother. His loss is greatest amongst us. But he is still Clan. He is good Clan. He understands these things as I do. You need not fear to taste his moaning."
      Abruptly, the ClanCat stepped away. Completely away, letting her make her own decision.
      Still, she hesitated. Both times that Steef had impacted her while she was unCloaked... had been overwhelming. But Plivverr was right. She was Steef's... Mate. And that had responsibility to it.
      So she took a deep breath and re-tuned again, going to half-Cloak. Then Leezel, tribe of Steefrr, reached out a tentative hand and... touched... her Mate's shoulder.
      The loss was keener, sharper... deeper... than Plivverr's had been. But the ClanCat had been right. Her new Mate knew what the Moaning was for. The pride he had for his brother served as a balance, and the pain was manageable. She knelt with him then, sliding an arm around his bare ribcage and slowly completed her unCloaking, catching the rhythm of his emotion.
      Opening her throat in time with his... Leezel gave her first moan.


__________

      Pop! "Arima, the Moaning has concluded."
      The old Healer frowned. "Pill, I'm not sure I want a beat-by-beat report of what they're doing."
      "That's good, because we wouldn't give it to you, anyway. But the Moaning is a Clan matter. The others have been informed, too." Pop!


__________

      The young couple slept all of the next day, waking the second morning after, to find Plivverr standing over them.
      The great Cat nudged, "Steefrr, it is time to cleanse the Valley, as we agreed."
      Had Steef had any experience with girls at all, it might have occurred to him that now would be a good time to spend beats with his new Mate. But he didn't. So it didn't. And he had oathed Plivverr before he left that they would sweep the Valley upon his return and he was returned. Besides, He was Plivverr.
      Leezel listened quietly as plans were made. When the ClanCat moved off towards the Landing area and the sled, she asked, "Should I stay here? Will this take long?" Her eyes began wandering around the cove. As many days as she'd been there already, none of it had been explored or explained yet. What was worse, the cove was still in shambles from a contest between Cassa and the family Pool. It looked like a swirlfury had hit, because of course, it had. And... it smelled. There was the expected animal musk, which she could tolerate, for she had spent cycles in the Hollow. But something else assaulted her nose. A smell of death was here in this cove. She couldn't know this yet, either, but the slime on the cove walls used to be that same family Pool. Tens of thousands of Buzzbie bodies had been smushed onto the stone. Steef hadn't had time to clean it all, yet.
      So the thought of just... sitting here... midst piles of rubbled stone, hundreds of leagues from home, surrounded by HornCats she didn't know, breathing foul air in the shadow of a large, strange tree... waiting for Steef to wander around a Valley she didn't know... now would have been a good beat to feel really... really... ... .alone.
      Steef pondered only briefly. His first decision as Mate confronted him, though it's import wouldn't be realized for cycles. In truth, he would never fully know the impact his next words would have. Because he was Steef, and in spite of being Steef, he happened to pick the right ones.
      "Leezel, I offer regrets to you that we have yet another intrusion on beats that we should spend in acquaintance. But I am obliged to do this, by an oath I gave before we met... and by my loyalty to the Clan... and Plivverr. This trip will take at least two, and perhaps as many as four days. Whether you remain here, or make the journey with us, will be your choice, for I can't imagine... commanding... you to do anything. But were I to choose, you would never leave my sight." He'd let Kivverr out of his sight... once too often. He was a young man who learned, sometimes single-mindedly.
      The creeping chill that had started in her pump... just blew away in the warmth of his response. Thankfully, Leezel couldn't know the caution in his words, just the devotion, which was also real. Everything bizarre that was Steef and his life... that might have given conflict to their Mating... lost the battle on that early morning. A spark had kindled. It would become a firestorm.


__________

      "Your pardon, Mum, but we were wonderin'... if... well... you might ha' somethin' we could be doin'?"
      Linzel regarded the three Greens before her. Their recovery was almost complete. Her hut was not small by Town standards, but it had been a little crowded, nonetheless. A welcome crowding, and happier, than she would have imagined for many cycles.
      "What do you mean, Stem? What would you like to do?" She still didn't know these people well, but she'd already decided that she wanted to. Arima adored them. Linzel turned to Arima now, noticing the humor in her White sister's face.
      Stem continued, "Y'see Mum,... we bein' all Healed up an' all, why we're ready to earn our way, y'know. You an' the good Vaulter ha' been grea'ly kind to us... an' we're ready to catch up."
      Almost in unison and without looking at each other, Maleef and Malem nodded agreement.
      Linzel was not a woman accustomed to a shortage of speech, but nothing came to her now. She looked again to Arima, for help, seeing the Healer's face break into a broad grin.
      "No, Linzel," Arima chuckled, "He's not jesting. And no, you won't talk him out of it." There were worse problems to have than comforting her friends.
      "They really don't know, do they 'Rima?" Linzel asked, amazed.
      "No, not a glimmer."
      Except for when they'd gone to Register the Mating, Steef's family had not been out of the hut.
      "Will it hurt them, if they see?"
      "Their bodies are Healed," the Healer replied, "And they have the strongest spirits you'll meet. Their humility will get in the way, though."
      The objects of this discussion stood bewildered. "Mum?" Maleef inquired to Arima.
      A Black Ten badge intimidates people, for good reason. Linzel had seen the look, so... hoping the smile she gave now was as warm as she felt, she turned back to the family of three, "You are welcome guests and family in this hut, for obvious reasons! You will never be allowed to labor one beat here! And you simply must call me Linzel!"
      Arima took the few steps that separated herself from Maleef, putting her arm around the younger woman's shoulders. "That will never happen, Linzel," she said, confidantly, "They still call me 'Mum', and we've been dearest friends for seventeen cycles." To prove the point, she took her friend's hand and kissed it, making Maleef's cheeks flush. Arima continued, "But, let's do show them who they are!"
      "Yes," agreed Linzel, now sharing Arima's grin, "Let's!... .Pill?"
      "Linzel?"
      "Would you please mention to all of the different Guilds, that the family of the Master Clear is still in Town, and will be visiting the Square in an eighthday? Companied by Masters Arima and Linzel!"
      "We're not eager to risk the Boss's family, Linzel."
      "No one will hurt them, Pill. Besides, I am a Black," she reminded the insect. They were all still trying to adjust to Buzzbies who had a very new agenda.
      "All right." Pop!


__________

      "Leezel, may I ask you something?" He had to almost-shout in the wind.
      Steef's sled was sailing north up the Valley of the Cats, with an empty boat trailing behind on a tether. Plivverr was in the seat that had so often held his brother Kivverr. Steef was Steering, with Leezel in the seat right behind him. For a Town girl, she had really had a limited life. This was her second flight on anything. She was gawking some.
      Not Steef. He was Pulsing Yellow, looking for any more giant snakes. He didn't expect to find any, but it didn't hurt, either. There had been five snakes in the north end, so naturally, they had come north first.
      Plivverr's head was swiveling back and forth above them both, lordly eyes overseeing his beloved Valley from a different perspective. A new experience for all three of them.
      She leaned onto his shoulder, "Of course you can! You can ask me anything!" She was delighted, in fact. Almost giddy. Steef hadn't asked anything of her since they'd met.
      "What changed your mind... in the Moaning?"
      So he DID notice! "The ClanCat!" she replied excitedly, her delight now doubled.
      "Oh? How?"
      "He came and talked to me! He made me 'taste' Him... to understand. He knew I was afraid of being overwhelmed."
      Steef nodded, "That was thoughtful of Him. I can understand why you would wait, though. It must have been very... trying... for you."
      She shook her head, "I didn't wait. He didn't speak to me until the sixth day. Asked pardon for not thinking of it sooner... "v
      The wind died suddenly, the sail going quickly limp.
      "... Is something wrong?" she asked. Quick, bewildered concern cut a slice out of that delight she'd been enjoying.
      With the sled now just floating to a stop ten staffs off the ground, Steef unstrapped himself, stood and turned around, amazement plain in his face. He asked, "The ClanCat... asked pardon... from you?"
      She mistook his meaning, "Is there a reason why He shouldn't ask from me?"
      "No!... No!... Now I ask pardon! There's nothing wrong with you! He just never asks pardon... ever! Your Majesty!" Steef looked up to the great eyes, which had come to focus on the young two-legs, "May I inquire?"
      Plivverr's jaw tilted up, invitingly. One male and one female arm reached up and touched.
      "There is only one MixMaster and he has only one female."
      "Have you ever asked pardon before?"
      "There has never been a need."
      Steef slowly rocked back against his mast, as he brought one hand up to scratch a head that didn't itch. He met his Mate's eyes again. "Well!"
      "What's a MixMaster?" Leezel asked.


__________

      "Make way, please! Make way! Thank you." The Square was full of people, who gave way quickly when they saw the Ten Black badge. Arriving at the center, they found Cassa waiting. The Blue Master was carrying one of the many ornate staffs they'd found in the White GuildMaster's workcloset. The former owner wouldn't be needing them now.
      Bows were exchanged, then Cassa spoke through her glad-tears, "I don't know if this will be good, but it feels good so far!" The Blue Master embraced Malem, and kept one arm around her, protectively.
      "We'll know in a few beats!" Linzel shouted. She stepped up onto the crier's stand and began to glow. Silence spread tangibly as the glow spread. No one ignores a Black glow. "Good people!" Beat. Beat. Beat. "People! I don't have Red to help me here!" Beat. Beat. Beat. "That's good... People!... Masters, and assembled ladies and sirs! In just a beat, I will introduce to you... the Master Clear's family!"
      Cheers broke out. She had to wait.
      "These are decent and humble folk!... And they are newly recovered from deep hurt, as you have heard! You must be gentle with them!" Linzel motioned for Stem to join her. His face was pure stun, reminding Arima of the first day she'd taken the young family to the Valley. Stem stepped up and Linzel continued," This is Stem! Father of the Master Clear!" Again, the crowd made her wait.
      "This is Maleef! Mother of the Master Clear!"
      "This is Malem! Sister of the Master Clear!"
      The next half-day was a whirl of bows, cheers and offers...  of food, lodging, service... anything. Zellin arrived with a group of excited Greens of all ranks and pried Stem from Linzel's grasp, almost carrying the hapless man off to discuss his cycles with Seafer, and 'The Tree'. Malem, though barely thirteen, got offers of Mating from thirty four different males, some of whom were easily old enough to know better. An amused Cassa, overseeing her young charge, pointed that out to each of them. Malem thought it was funny.
      When the ruckus finally died down, and Linzel was inquiring from Pill what had become of Stem, the fresh quiet of the aftermath found Maleef clinging tightly to her Healing sister, against whose shoulder she now rested her head. "Arima?" she queried softly.
      Cassa looked up from Malem. She'd never heard that sound come from Maleef's lips.
      The Master White gave a smile at the compliment, "Yes, pumpkin?"
      "It's wha' you saw, all those cycles ago...this fuss an' ruckus?"
      "Yes... well, part of it, at least." This was the friendly half of it, anyway.
      "You saved my boy... is wha' you did, Arima."
      "I think we all did, Maleef."
      "No, Arima... no," and Maleef pushed her old friend to arm's length, looking up straight in the eye. This was no longer a Two speaking to a Master. It was woman to woman. "I was there! Cassa helped, for true. Ever'one helped. Bu' I don' mind sayin', front of Cassa... you!... you saved my boy! I won' live... enough days ..... ...  to ... ... ....  thank... "
      Arima's long arms wrapped around the smaller woman.
      Cassa waited quietly for the two of them. She took no offense from Maleef's words. They were true. Cassa had known for most of their time together that Arima was always ahead of her. Antee, too. She'd only recently discovered how far behind she really was, all those cycles. Didn't matter, she'd have done it anyway. Just with more fear.
      "Maleef," the Blue said, "There's something you should know. There will be parches written about Shortstick. Lots of them. For cycles and cycles. Some of them will even mention five crazy Masters who were blessed enough to be there. Those parches, Maleef, they'll say those five Masters were the most blessed of all people who ever lived. They'll say that, Maleef, because of Shortstick's Power. Those parches will be wrong when they say that, but that's what they'll say... and they'll leave something out."
      "They'll be wrong, pumpkin, because the blessing wasn't Steef's Power, it was Steef himself. And you. And Stem. And Sissy. And they'll leave out the most important thing about the five of us. Every beat... of every day... we knew we were blessed."


__________

      The latest recipient of that blessing was just beginning to realize it, despite the strangest of events. She had already witnessed the burial of two snake carcasses. Snakes so large...
      Then there were the casts. That's what her Mate called them. Round balls of bones and fur that he said were the remains of HornCats. Steef said he couldn't find them with Yellow, since they were too-long dead, giving no returning Pulse. So, the ClanCat had sniffed a trail back from the dead snakes, finding a few of the Cat remains. They were loaded into the boat for later burial.
      That had taken a while and it was almost dusk now. Leezel's next lesson in 'Steef' was coming. They'd found human remains.
      "How did they get here?" she asked to his back. He was kneeling at one of the... pieces.
      "Pill, are these the bodies you told me about when I was at Sassy's?"
      "That's right, Boss."
      "Leezel, we'll never know for true, but I think this is where they captured Kivverr and the females." He stood and solemnly walked around the field, Lifting the remains, gathering them gently into one spot. He then opened a hole and carefully lowered them down. The hole closed.
      Leezel's amazement grew with every beat. Her new Mate was... These were the people that had captured Kivverr! Most people would... , "That's more reverence than most people would offer." She didn't even realize she'd spoken aloud.
      "Maybe," he replied over his shoulder, "But, it's likely that these people didn't even know much of what they were doing. The three people who were really responsible have been punished... and I've already had enough anger to last me a lifetime. It's your Valley, your Majesty, do you agree?" He never noticed Leezel's mouth hanging open.
      The great Cat stroked Steef's arm with His head. A startling show of affection,      "Yes, Steefrr. It is time for Healing. But we should remember this spot."
      "That... I can do." A mixed Pulse went out, Brown and Green, with a reverse charge. A circle five staffs across was fused with permanent Locks. "Nothing will ever grow here now."
      "It is enough."
      The cleansing journey took seven days instead of four. All of the casts they found were returned to the Clan and Steef helped bury them where Plivverr instructed. No specific Moaning was given, as the casts were not identifiable. It was decided that any tribe with missing members could Moan them privately. Those tribes still intact, offered to split up and contribute.
      Steef and Leezel found themselves at dusk of the twentieth day of their Mating, finally alone at Seafwood's roots, looking up.
      Her Mate had spoken of Seafwood on their journey from Town. He'd told her about his uncle Seafer, with every word a loving testament to the old Green Master. He'd told her about the unusual 'soaking' dirt. He'd told her that Seafwood was huge. He'd told her that Seafwood was really a living staff. He'd told her that Seafwood 'listened'... whatever that was.
      What she hadn't told him... she had never climbed a tree in her life.
      "Leezel?"
      "Yes?"
      "We don't have to live in Seafwood, if you don't want to."
      "But... you said that you grew up your whole life in this tree! You're connected, you said."
      "We are connected, Seafwood and me. So much, that wherever I go, there's always a connecting charge between us. I feel her, and she can feel me. So... we don't have to live here. I can fashion us a cave, or build a hut... any size... anywhere you like."
      "This connecting charge. You could feel it even when you were in Town?"
      "Yes... We can go back there, if that's what you want."
      "You would do that?" More amazement.
      "I'll admit," he admitted, "It wouldn't be my first choice. But, yes... I will do that, if you want that." He understood responsibility, too.
      Days ago, Leezel had had a spark kindled in her pump, from just a simple set of words out of Steef. She shouldn't have been surprised, really. She'd had warning, the night they met, when she got her first 'taste' of him... Empathically. She knew there was something... amazing... inside this young man. Her Mate. Her amazing Mate. Since the kindling of that spark, almost everything he had said or done... had added fuel to that spark. Indeed, it really wasn't a spark any longer. It had become a flame in her pump. It 'flickered' up with every amazement. And... tt was starting again, "Why don't you show me your tree, first. Then, we'll talk about it."
      "No."
      Huh? "No?"
      "She's not my tree any more. She's our tree. Whatever we decide about shelter, she's our tree. I told her when we arrived that you would be coming. She's ready to welcome you."
      Flicker. Flicker.
      Climbing was awkward at first, but secure. Awkward, because it was unfamiliar to her. Secure, because there were footpads and handholds... grown... into the shape of Seafwood's trunk, and it almost seemed that the tree was gripping back as she moved up onto the first tier of enormous branches. Then Leezel saw where Steef got those unusual staffs of his. He'd told her, but... hearing and seeing aren't the same. They were growing... everywhere! Hundreds of them, growing straight up, off of every branch and bough. The vertical spirals here on the lowest branches were almost double Leezel's own height. Eighteen or nineteen spans, at least. If one of them were lying on the ground, she doubted that she could pick up even one end. And the leaves! Unlike any she'd ever seen. She stooped to gently stroke one. Soft. Almost as soft as the ClanCat's fur.
      Steef reached a hand out then and touched the massive trunk. The interior of the tree lit up! Sparkling Crystals of all sizes, embedded into the twisting wood, all began to glow White. There were hundreds of them, too. Most of them small and twinkling. A goodly few were middle-sized. A less-few few large ones on the lower boughs. And down here on the very bottom base-limbs, some of those Crystals were huge! Double the size of Steef's fist, at least! Maybe triple! Those... weren't twinkling, they were blazing! The very wood glittered, from the Dust that had grown right inside the sapwood. White Power reflected off of everything. Even the leaf that she was holding!
      Steef saw the wonder in her eyes. He'd seen that look all his life... from his Masters. So he waited while she soaked in the first-wonder that was Seafwood.
      Finally he did softly say, "She's glad to meet you, Leezel."
      The young Healer was still pivoting slowly in place, eyes up and wide as she asked, "She can... talk to you?" Nnnoooooo.
      "No. Well, sort of. The Power that runs through her... has moods. Tune shifts. hen I told her about Kivverr, she went sour. Dark. She's light and sweet right now."
      "You said that you can talk to her?"
      "Uh-huh. A couple of different ways. I can tune shift, too. She feels it, and knows if I'm happy or sad. But she also understands me. I used to have to shout, 'cause she obviously doesn't have ears. But we came up with a better way... didn't we Seafwood?"
      Helpfully, there were spirals everywhere down here. She was in fact, standing between two of the tallest-biggest at that very beat. Which was good, because she had to grab one suddenly... as the massive limb under her feet... and all the other limbs above and around her... swayed once and stopped. She couldn't help it... her mouth dropped open.
      Steef didn't notice. He was pointing. "See this burl on the trunk here? It opens to the center of her trunk. There's a small passage all the way up. My voice goes up and through, and she can hear just fine. We grew burls like this all up and down. There's even one at ground level, though no one's ever noticed it. If I'm within voice distance of the trunk, she hears it. If I go 'way out to the ends of her branches, she can't hear from there."
      Now, he turned and saw her white-knuckle grip on a spiral, realizing suddenly how... odd this might be. Softly, then, "Uh... .would you like to say something to her?"
      "She'll listen to me?" Leezel swallowed. Hard.
      "Oh, sure! I told you. She's our tree. We are hers, too. She understands that you and I are Mates, now. You are her family and she is yours. Go on, say something. Not too loud, though. From here, she hears almost too well."
      That suited Leezel, whose voice wasn't working at full charge anyway, "Seafwood... I am brightly honored to meet you. Truly."
      The limbs swayed again. But Leezel hadn't let go yet, so she was fine.
      "Uh... would you like to see the rest of her?"


__________

      "We can tell you what he's going to say."
      They had to hold it in the arena, there being no other place large enough to hold everyone. It had never been a problem before, because each Guild had always kept to themselves, meeting in their own respective GuildHalls. But this was a new day, with a unique problem. Six of the seven Guilds were without a GuildMaster. Only Black had a GuildMaster, and that only because Black was almost out of Masters entirely. Of the five remaining Masters of Black, Leemin had assumed leadership without a quibble from the other four, and no one else was going to quibble, either. But there were still six Guilds that needed leadership, and while they had more Masters to choose from, the uniqueness of the problem was that they all wanted the same one.
      They all wanted the Master Clear to be their GuildMaster.
      And they were all here... in the arena... every Master that was in GuildTown... of every Color. Six Guilds worth. Surrounding Arima, Mokam, Antee and Cassa. Oh, and Leemin and Linzel were in there too, but more as a show of support for the Steef Guild than anyone else. Not that they'd heard of a Steef Guild. Yet.
      Cassa had had about as much of this as she wanted. No one was being offensive to her, but everyone was being more persistent than she had patience for, "He's not going to want to be Master of any Guild! He's probably not even going to join a Guild!" How many times... ?
      "Which we would know for true, Cassa, if any of the Buzzbies would ask him for us!" cried several Masters, together, "The four of you are close to him! They'll go if you tell them to!"
      "No," replied Mokam, "They wouldn't." Then he added, "And we're not going to anyway." These are his Mating Days, people! What's wrong with you!?
      "Pill," Antee interjected. The Yellow Master was ready to end this hubbub, and had a glimmer how that might happen. He raised his voice to reach as many as he could, "Pill, tell us for true, now! Tell everyone here who has a Buzzbie! If I asked you to, would you deliver a Guild message to the Master Clear?... Right now?"
      Buzzing spread across the arena, quick and abrupt, "No."
      Antee raised both hands, palm up. He'd phrased that question carefully. The four of them already knew that Steef would receive personal messages from them. Even Linzel could get through, if she desired it.
      But these people didn't need to know that.


__________

      "I keep a few sanitary pots, here and there, in case... well, you know. Kivverr always went down to the dirt."
      "You don't keep any food up here?"
      "Most meals we took at the fire, with the others. I didn't want to bring any meat up here and mess her up. Kivverr would always fuss about that, but he didn't mean it."
      "It's a long climb back down, if a hunger growls you."
      "There's always fruit."
      "Fruit? She's a fruit tree, too?"
      "No, she makes babies with acorns. But I've taught her some tunes for fruit. Would you like to... "
      "Yes, please."
      "Seafwood? A tangyfruit for Leezel, please." Then, in a whisper to Leezel, "Auntie likes the tangyfruits the best."
      As Leezel watched where he pointed, a small stem emerged from the trunk. It expanded rapidly, then flowered. Then budded. Within beats, a tangyfruit had formed. When Steef plucked it, the stem pulled back into Seafwood's trunk, but Steef gave no heed. He was already pulling the fruit in half and removing some of the skin. He then offered the first bite to Leezel, with a, "Thanks, Seafwood." When Leezel didn't reach for the fruit, Steef gently placed a piece into her mouth, which was helpfully open again.
      "She can grow them fast," he explained while she chewed, "'Cause they're mostly water, anyway. I've taught her four different fruits. They're always sweet, and between the four of them, give pretty good nourishment." Another thought, "They don't have seeds, though. The only babies she makes are her own. Did I already say that?" Did I already say that? Okay, even a Master Clear can get nervous under the right circumstances.
      The fruit was truly sweet. Leezel swallowed. "And Master Arima comes up to get fruit?"
      "No, Auntie's only been up once, cycles ago. Uncle Seafer used to visit a lot, until she got so tall, and he got kind of... too old... to climb. Then... we killed him... didn't we, Seafwood?"
      Every leaf on the tree suddenly drooped.
      "It's okay, Seafwood," Steef hugged his tree, "He pardoned us. We were both young then. We didn't know. Actually... ," he turned back to Leezel, "It was the last thing he ever said."
      Slowly, the leaves came back up.
      "No, no one climbs Seafwood, except Kivverr and me. And now... you. That's why I had to tell her about you first, so it would be safe."
      "Safe? It's not safe to climb her?"
      "Safe? Well, no. If she doesn't know you, then you're not gonna climb her. You're gonna die. That reminds me... Seafwood, we have to change that tune. I oathed Kivverr that I wouldn't ever kill anyone. He was kind of insistent."


__________

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