This cover was illustrated by the author.
Late afternoon, paws drifting through the rustling seas of leaves, I pulled down my scarf for a breath of fresh air. The wood was wide and wild with winding willow trees. Glades of crumpled pine needles heaped beneath the barren branches above.
I hadn’t seen life in this world. Sometimes simply a long walk in an empty land is fine enough company to fill the vacant mind. Peridot fluttered beside me, though she admired the quiet land as much as I did, and we each retreated into our solitude, for dreaming in the day with wandering mind is an incomparable pastime.
I dreamt of the orchards back home, as rustling leaves always tickled nostalgia for a time long passed, and I thought of That Time—of my friends, and my family. There was peace in my mind. It was like shaking hands with a long forgotten friend. There was no melancholy, only acceptance of the past and a sincere acknowledgement of what once was but could never be again.
My mind, stumbling on That Time, inherently wandered into games. How much I missed games. Games required players. And being so often alone, games were not a favored fun of mine—only a reminder of my family who I could not bear to dwell on.
After all, my closest friend was a universe-spanning God—playing her in any sort of contest couldn’t possibly be fair. Either she would win automatically, or she would let me win. Both embarrassed me in equity. Neither satiated any desire for fun.
Best I could do was imagine playing games. That was almost worse than not being able to play anything at all.
Peridot’s purple form flew through the lovely wind as if on silver ribbons of light. What did she dream of? Could a God even dream, or did her thoughts alone create warps in time and space?
A knife of reality stabbed my daydream and the vision bled out like the red leaves from the canopies. Out in the wilderness appeared a society. A small society, which was comprised of a single iron garden table cloaked in a checkered, patchwork red and white cloth. The scene stood beneath a great birch tree, whose thick branch extended out with a buzzing honeybee hive.
On the table rested a single cup of tea surrounded by a plethora of wooden figurines. Someone poured the tea freshly from the kettle—I saw the heat waves curling my perspective just above the cup. An unoccupied iron chair enjoyed it’s loneliness beside the table.
This miniature civilization led me to believe that my daydreaming was done for the day, and that maybe some company would be nice.
“How cute,” Peridot said. The Dragon landed on my nose—the best way to see her. “This could be creepy, though.”
“Depends on perspective,” I shrugged, “most humans think rodents are creepy. I think myself quite fun.” I made way to the little table. The hive of honeybees buzzed in swirling spirals above our heads. The benevolent bees circled the sun’s rays, black and gold bodies shimmering like golden dew.
I ran my paw along the length of patchwork table cloth, and my touch rippled with the iron patterning underneath. I navigated my paw through the collection of around thirty figurines. Carved of wood and layered in oils of hands and dusts of time, each piece seemed a small shrine of variously dressed badgers. Badgers in armor, badgers in farming cloths, badgers in waistcoats and on and on. I reached out to inspect a figurine—.
“What do you think you’re doing?” said a youthful, bubbly child’s voice. The attempt at authority fumbled.
The voice came from below the table.
“Uh, I’m sorry.” I took my paw from the piece and lifted the checkered quilt, “I didn’t realize anyone was here.”
No one was there.
“Hello, yoo-hoo, Scarf Badger, are you blind?”
“I am not a badger, I am a mouse,” I said, not annoyed at his honest misidentification but lashing out due to my failing in locating the originator of this voice.
“Look up,” said Peridot. The Dragon pointed to the surface of the table. I lifted my head from beneath the quilt and perused the figurines laid over the surface in search of the strange speaker. All I saw were the kettle and the steaming tea cup—on which was painted an exquisite porcelain face.
This face then moved, and produced a “Hi there.” The teacup’s cherub cheeks squished as he said, “What’s a mouse?”
“A rodent. Like rats, or squirrels.”
“Careful!” the cup whispered, “Badgers don’t like when other rodents invade Badgerwood. . . there can only be one king.”
“But badgers aren’t rodents.”
The teacup said, “You’re right. Then I guess it doesn’t matter!”
I eyed the honeybees above, and took Beep’s folded slip from my pocket. I tapped the page and Beep materialized before me. The half-bee half-sheep buzzed with the smaller bees and they fell into a procession around her fluffy, legless flying form.
“What is that?” Teacup said. “My name is Tee, by the way.”
“As in Tea?”
“As in Timothy Turbulon Tiberius Tamara-Lane. Blame my last owner. He named the candlesticks after his sisters—Claire, Cadence, Caroline, Constance, Cabernet, Cabinet, Cashier, Coffee, Cards. . .” The teacup smiled. His child-like way of speaking reminded me of a lost puppy in the woods—running fast in no particular direction. He continued, “Wait, those are just things, not people. Whoops! Mixed up my names. Anyway, the rest after Cabinet were—.”
“One of his sister’s names was Cabinet?”
“Yeah! After his dad’s favorite place to hide from his mom. She used to run around with pans because he would ‘sleep around’ and ‘fool with the barkeep,’ though I always sleep, and love to fool around and nobody beats me with pans.”
I didn’t even want to ask why anybody would name their child after their favorite hiding place, and why this teacup knew so very much about the lives of his owners. Though the greatest gossip is shared over tea. I suppose it is always the silent ones—in this case the dining ware—who absorb scandals like sponges.
“You never answered my question!” Tee exclaimed. His little handle outstretched like an arm, “What is that weird little fluff ball with the lamb’s head?”
“Oh, that’s Beep.”
“As in a bird’s beep or an instrument’s beep?”
“As in a ‘Bee’ and a ‘Sheep’ being magically combined.”
“That makes way more sense. Sort of like Cabinet being a father’s abused terror being combined with the potential hope of redemption of his last born daughter.”
“. . . Sure.”
“Hey, could you drink me? I’m feeling a little heavy.”
I squatted beside Tee and admired the steaming tea within the living vessel. The amber liquid stirred as if by an invisible spoon. It felt strange to think of drinking anything from this living teacup. I declined.
“Oh but please!” he said. “You don’t understand, all I want is to be drank from. I am a cup. I am to be filled and then emptied. How would you like it if you never died?”
“You’re a mouse-rodent-not-badger-thing, all fleshy and furry, and one day you’ll die. Your whole purpose is to rot into the fundamental layers of soil so that the maggots can eat you, poop you out, so that the worms can eat you. And then seeds fall into your decayed matter and blossom from the nutrients. Then they breathe what’s left of you into the air for everyone to swallow up in their lungs. Now imagine what it’s like never to be pooped out by a maggot and tasted by worms!” Tee opened his handle-palm pedantically, “My purpose is to be drank from. So please. Think about living forever and just how terrible that would be. That’s how I feel now!”
With that kind of argument, I couldn’t say no. My paw grasped Tee, and his handle-arm wrapped around as if we were friends crossing arms. I sniffed the tea and sensed no foul play. My Aura detected no strange magics. Peridot nodded gently—implying the beverage was safe.
I took a sip of Tee’s tea. When my lips touched the cup, he made a whispering “Whoohoo!” sound. The liquid tasted of preserved berries, then fell down my throat. In wake of the beverage fell a mighty herbal yet indistinguishable flavor.
When I set Tee down, his porcelain eyes wouldn’t leave me.
“It was great,” I said, then proceeded to embellish the tea’s flavor to satiate the kid’s need for approval. I asked, “The figurines are for?”
I took one of the badgers in my hand. The wooden piece wore a crown of thorns and a cape made of denim. In its hands stood a tall scepter with a honeycomb on it. The sculpt was over fifteen centimeters tall. This Badger King in dark wood was slightly larger than the other pieces. There was an opposing pale wood Badger King on the opposite side, with a crown of moss rather than thorns.
“What kind of game?” I said, inspecting the pieces, and noticing the red and white squares of the tablecloth were divided into what seemed to be separate armies of the pieces. Pale wood and dark wood were separated by varying sculpts. “Looks like wargaming—practice for the real thing.”
“Practice for war?” Tee rattled nervously. “This is only my game, nothing about war, here.”
I had spent countless hours with war pieces during That Time. Days upon days cataloging battle strategies, defensive maneuvers, ways to protect outgoing and incoming caravans during resupply. . . everything one could imagine. My mind was keen in such thinking.
“You created this?” I asked. “How do you play?” I sat in the iron chair.
“Well, each side starts with their pieces on opposite sides of the table. Each piece moves differently—and the goal is to murder the king.”
I chuckled at his casual application of the word “murder,” then asked, “How do you do that?”
“By ‘taking’ him. If a piece you have lands on an opponent’s, then you murder it. The goal is not to be murdered.”
“I see. Each piece has to move across the board while avoiding—or murdering—the opponent’s pieces. You use your pieces to both protect your king,” I poked the thorn and moss crowned badger sculpts, “or take the other.”
“And you invented this? That’s impressive, Tee.” I smiled. Peridot hovered above the teacup, admiring the vessel’s creation. She nodded along, interested in the concept, wanting to play and subsequently defeat me, no doubt.
Tee said, “Well, after everybody left me here, all alone, I thought what better way to pass the time than dream. So I dreamt. And one day the badgers in Badgerwood found my abandoners all dead and rotted—just like you’re supposed to be—and said ‘Hey, sorry Teacup, they’re dead.’ And I wasn’t too sad but asked for company anyway. So the badgers stayed, and we made a game. And now I wait.”
“Company. People always walk through Badgerwood. Badgers, humans, fairies, you know? And I thought, ‘Well, maybe somebody will be abandoned like me, and I can give them some company.’ So here I am, with my Patchwork game, once again with company.”
“That’s quite sad. But quite nice.”
“Pathwork is a game of wit and murdering. You can’t murder well without wit, and you can’t have wit without murdering. It distracts me from the pain inside.”
“You’re quite a dark little teacup, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been told I have a cutesy disposition. I was also told to ‘Please stop,’ once during a story, as I made a poor old lady cry.”
“What story was it?”
“Well it has to do with my owner before the Cabinet Father. Her name was Melanie, and when she was ten her granddad died. And so her mother got her a puppy—.”
“You can stop.”
“But I haven’t even—.”
“Animal stories never end with anybody being happy.”
“The puppy dies.”
“. . . but that is your purpose. Maggots and worms and. . . ” he kept going, this time as if reciting a biology textbook from some sorcery college.
While he monologued, I studied the board, and occasionally asked him questions to interrupt his speech, such as, “What does this piece do?” Or “Where is the starting position?”
By the time he was finished, I was also finished resetting the Patchwork pieces. I leaned back in the chair and said, “Tee?”
“. . . and that is why babies are cute. It’s a thing to make sure nobody murders them. Oh, what is it?”
“Want to play?”
“Why did you move the pieces?”
“So we can start a game.”
“But Blubs isn’t back yet. His turn is next. Oh wait, never mind. There he is.”
I turned around, expecting a badger-person, and was surprised to find myself staring at a sizable thumb-shaped pile of fur bluer than blueberries and striped like a candy. He fumbled forward—giant two eyes farther apart than they needed to be—and said, “Rat wants in on the Patchwork play, aye?”
His tree-trunk legs waddled across the glade. He was so tall that the honeybees above swarmed briefly around his stubby white horns. He sat on the ground opposite me and still could reach the table.
“Blubs, this is my new friend. He said my tea tasted good,” Tee said.
Blubs smiled, “Hello, New Friend. I’m Blubs. I found the tea disappointing. Would you like to see who can murder the other first?”
Peridot—invisible to the other two—snuggled on the head of my dark wood Badger King piece. She yawned, and motioned with her claw as if saying, ‘Play, entertain me.’
“I’m always up for a game,” I said.
Beep buzzed by, and before we could start, Blubs said, “What is this—a bee-sheep?”
“Yeah, that is actually exactly what is it.”
“Do you have more?” Blubs took out a bottle labeled, ‘Empty, Useless, Entirely Unappealing Bottle,’ and said, “I’ll trade you my bottle for one. Who doesn’t want both honey and wool from the same animal? What a fine natural resource you have, there.”
“I’ll keep her, though the offer is. . .” I politely said, “tempting.”
“Pale moves first!” Tee ordered, and Blub listened.
We played Patchwork for several hours into the afternoon. The game seemingly went on forever, with each of us moving our different badgers back and forth across the board until eventually the our opponent submitted.
The pieces came in all sorts of specific names, such as the “Pontif Regulus,” and “Siege Engine of Marrowbor County,” and even the “Moss King,” and “Thorn King,” were named badger-names such as, “Moss King Amaru, Slayer of the Foxes of Delerine and Savior of the Valley of the Damned Dire Dingos,” and so on and so forth. We played for quite some time, until Blubs needed to continue his journey out of Badgerwood, and I needed a break.
But I didn’t leave the strange teacup named Tee. We spent a week on that world. And I sat with him, playing Pathwork with the travelers, learning the game, and finding new ways to play it. And when I spun my top and said my farewells, Tee told me to take a piece of the quilt.
“You were a true murderer to all our visitors,” said Tee, “and to celebrate our friendship, take a piece of the cloth.”
I cut out a small square section of autumn-colored quilt. The lengths of twine which were sewn to the rest of the blanket stayed in. When I blipped, Peridot and I came to the next world in a grand stone city full of hardy, grey-skinned, mighty masons.
I went to the market, and searched for a checkered blanket. Then I grabbed some wood and took a knife from my Boundless Bag. I carved thirty two pieces, and named them a more generalized, WorldWalker friendly roster, so that Tee’s game could be played anytime I needed company, with anyone, from any world.
Pawns, Rooks, Bishops, Knights, Kings, and the most mighty of them all, the Queens—for what is a king without the Queen? And I carved my wooden pieces outside the city walls, under the shade of a fine nut tree, enjoying the sun and remembering my own queen, and how we used to play games in the garden. . .
I tied Tee’s autumn patch to the dark wood Queen like a cape.
Perhaps I would let my mind stumble into games more often, and dwell on the family I had avoided for so long since my departure.
I prayed, so silently, and without any hope at all, that one day I could see my Queen again, and show her this lovely little game made by a semi-deranged cup of sentient tea, and tell her how lonely I was without her. . .
And how dearly her company meant to me.