"There are two hollows under this site?"
"Yeah," I turned to Starchy, "The gnome cave and Dad's dungeon. If you don't count the basement of the treehouse itself."
"With the river so close, the watertable level is bound to be high." Starchy looked around. "How about this spot? Is there anything under here?"
"Not that I know of."
"Okay, I'll get a shovel and start digging to check."
"Let me help you with that." Sholeh handed Ray to me. "Both of you stand back. No, further." She smiled, transformed into a pillar of flame, and vanished.
"Sholeh!" I ran up to where my wife had stood, but only saw a hole in the ground. I jerked back as I saw a fireball emerging from the depths. The trail of flame moved to my side then reformed back into Sholeh.
"My apologies, my prince." She took our baby back from me. "I keep forgetting that such things are unusual for you."
"I was just worried for you." I put my arm around her waist and she leaned against me.
"Are such things usual for even the Fire Kingdom?" Starchy held a hand to his chest.
"I am the strongest of the fire elementals, and I have been called the strongest elemental in all of Ooo." Sholeh looked down at the child in her arms. "But clearly not the wisest, or the most experienced."
"Also, your ability to shift to a solid form. Never have I heard of such a thing from a fire elemental."
"It's a trick I picked up, to survive my captivity. I admit that it has it's advantages. For example, I can find comfort in Finn's embrace, without harming him."
"Now that I can hold you, I will never let you go." I bent forwards to kiss her on the cheek. Her hair of flame tickled at my cheek, warming it, but not burning.
"Still that was a mighty quick dig." Starchy leaned over to peer into the darkness. "How far down to bedrock?"
"I hit a tunnel and headed back."
"Which way was it running?" Starchy pulled out the map of the treehouse area he had made.
"What little I saw was a straight line twenty degrees west of north to the same east of south."
"How can you tell directions underground?"
"Oh? Sorry, Finn. I forgot again that you do not know the ways of our kind. Earth's magnetic field is very obvious to my plasma form. Though now that I've spent time north of the Fire Kingdom I've been nagged by a disturbance to the far northeast. Whatever it is must be huge and very far away because it varies so little from place to place."
"There is a hole in the Earth."
"I saw it on my trips to Mars. It's like a big chunk has been bitten out of the Earth. Like you said, it's northeast of Ooo."
"Are you sure, my prince? I trust you in all things, but still the core of the Earth is molten metal, overlain with lava. Only the outermost crust is solid. Surely any hole you could see from space would just fill in. You can't dig a pit in lava."
"It's true your highness." Starchy looked up from his map. "We've known in the Candy Kingdom of the wound in the Earth for a long time, but we don't know what caused it. Perhaps it was something that happened during the Great Mushroom War. It looks like this tunnel is a continuation of that dungeon you mentioned, Finn."
I looked over towards the rock with the goofy expression on its face, and then back to Starchy. "Yeah, I guess it must be. I didn't look at all of it. I just took the right route to the final chamber. No sense poking around in every stray corridor."
"Is the right answer always so obvious?" Sholeh looked at me with some puzzlement.
"Just dungeons. I've been solving them for years. After a while you get the knack for them."
"Let's try again on the north side of the treehouse." Starchy folded up his map and gathered his tools. "If your highness is up for it?"
"My strength is nowhere near tapped. And it is glorious to finally exercise it, for the first time in over a year. For better purposes this time. Wait." Sholeh looked up. "Finn, hold Ray please." She handed the baby back to me and ran out in the field.
A small flame leapt into her arms. She stopped there for a moment and then walked back to us. "Prince Finn, Mr. Starchy, may I introduce my cousin, Flambo."
"I've met them both before, your highness."
"Oh, that's right. You were with Finn when he came to our court.
"But this one is new."
"Yes, our son. His name is Ray."
"So this will be our future king? Pleased to meet you."
Ray reached out for Flambo and I pushed him forwards so they could touch hands. But then I pulled back when I saw Sholeh's frown.
"What is the matter?"
She shook her head. "No, it's nothing. I had just not considered the secession. My father seemed well at the wedding. Is there some cause for concern, Flambo? Oh, excuse me, perhaps you would prefer to tell me privately. But know this, I hold no secrets from Finn and trust him with my very soul."
"Naw, the old man burns as brightly as I've ever seen him. It's just you know, one day."
"That is a relief to hear, for I do not know how our people would react to having a king who was half human."
"Three quarters human. Unless you know something about Finn, your highness?"
"Finn is fully human!" Sholeh raised Flambo to face her as her hair blazed fiercely. "Of what do you speak?"
"Oh darn it, I promised never to tell nobody."
"We shall speak of this in private now. Finn attend us, and Starchy?"
"Old Starchy's getting hard of hearing in my old age. I didn't nothing that Flambo said. I'll just be heading out to the north side to look around for a bit. Here comes Jake, I'll ask him to help me."
"We thank you for your discretion. Come Finn."
"If it's private, maybe I should let you hear it first, and then you can tell me later, if you like."
"No, my prince. I can not speak for others, but I will hold no secrets from you."
Sholeh led us inside, placed Flambo in the fireplace and motioned for me to take a seat next to her. Then she turned to Flambo. "Well?"
Flambo looked down, then raised his face to match her gaze. "The Fire King is not your real father, your highness."
"I gathered as much from what you said before. Then who is?"
"The adventurer Billy."
"I am the daughter of that villain?"
"He's a hero to the rest of Ooo. He had his reasons for killing your uncle, the Fire Duke. Your mother didn't hold it against him. Billy didn't force her."
"This comforts me little. And my so-called father, the current Fire King?"
"He stepped in after Billy left. Hardly anybody knows. I doubt Billy knows nothing."
"I've met Billy. I can take you to him, Sholeh."
"No, Finn. I will maintain the trust of the Fire King. If it wasn't worth Billy's time to find out if he had fathered a child, then this Billy is not one I have any words for. But at least the question of the secession is settled." She rose and curtsied to the smaller elemental. "Hail Prince Flambo, future king of the Fire Kingdom."
"No way, Sholeh! You ain't dumping this one on me."
"You don't want the crown?"
"What? Why should I sit around the Fire Kingdom hearing the same old jokes year after year, when I can see all of Ooo this way? Besides, I've got a job to do. Any fool can sit on the throne, no offense. Ain't nobody better at me at being a spy."
"But, I already have a kingdom. I am married to the prince of the grasslands."
"Begging your pardon, your highness, but Finn's so-called Kingdom barely extends to this treehouse. And Bubblegum Princess lets herself in here to collect what she calls taxes."
Sholeh turned to me. "My prince, you must not allow that."
"She only takes a little bit. It's not like I've got room to store all the treasure I find."
"It is the principle of the matter. You must be sovereign in your own domain."
"Him, not you, Sholeh."
"What?" She turned back towards the fireplace, where her cousin sat.
"Sorry, but you will never be accepted as the ruler of the grasslands. Not after what you did to the Goblin Village. And the Fire Kingdom will never forget that little stunt you pulled on your way out. Out here you're just another monster that Finn has overcome. For his sake they'll give you a pass. It's Ray who's the big hope for the Fire Kingdom."
"How so?" She raised an eyebrow at this.
"He's the only one who might be acceptable to both the Fire Kingdom and the independent villages of the grasslands. The pirates of the Island of Steam have got us surrounded on three sides, but if the Fire Kingdom includes the grasslands then we'd have the advantage."
At this point Ray woke up and began crying.
I looked down at the baby in my arms. "I think our future king needs to be changed."
"Here." Sholeh took him from me and walked over to the table.
"Sholeh, big talk about the rights of kings from a girl who doesn't have a single servant yet."
"Should I ask my father to assign you to my court? No, you've proved your point, Flambo. You've got your job to do and you've given me a great deal to think about. Finn?"
"Are you bothered by what you have heard? About Billy being my father?"
"No. I was a big fan of Billy even before I met him. I sorta took him as my role model. I guess this is why you've got a solid form, in addition to your body of flame."
"Still it's strange. If Billy is human then how was he able to operate so freely in the Fire Kingdom?" Sholeh looked up from changing Ray. "Flambo, did Billy use the Flame Shield?"
"Not from what I've heard. He just toughed it out."
"So I may have a few questions to ask my absent father after all. But not today. Here, let's go help Starchy with his survey."
Thanks to Sholeh's power, we completed the survey that afternoon and Starchy returned to the Candy Kingdom to arrange for materials. Flambo said that he had errands to run and with a quick look to the skies, set out on his way.
That night after dinner I made love to Sholeh on the platform of bricks we had laid out on the balcony. When I released inside her she blazed brightly and I wondered from how far off that could be seen. She lay there beside me for a moment then rushed inside at Ray's cry.
I lay there for a few minutes more, and thought I could almost make out the now unlit cave of the Ice King in the far distance. Then I rose and went inside, putting on a night robe to ward off the chill.