Then I was off, adventuring in China, leaving my party up to their own devices. We're still paying for that. Here’s the filler before all hell broke loose.
It had gone from blissful reunion to sober disbelief. Our party was hailed as the heroes of Illium, returning at their hour of need to fend off a hostile invasion. We had won, but as I gazed over a burnt and bleeding city, I realized the cost that came with it.
I turned the symbol of the five-headed dragon in my hand. Tiamat. I didn’t know what the goddess of evil dragons had against Illium, but she had made an enemy out of the kingdom. Out of me. I was positive it wasn’t the last we’d seen of her and the cultists, but part of me was glad. I wanted revenge.
There was a knock at my door and my mother, Irielya, walked in. It’s funny, no matter how old you think you are, or how independent, your mother can always make you feel like you need her at that moment. Dress swishing, she rushed toward me, arms open and taking me in a tight embrace. She just held me there, cheek against my head.
Eventually she pulled away. At arm’s length she studied me with the same green eyes, evaluating the woman I had become in the years I spent away.
She smiled softly as she pinched my chin. “My daughter,” Irielya said simply, fondly.
“Hi, mom...” was all I could reply.
“Come,” she said, taking me by her smooth, slender hand and leading me to my bed where we sat at the edge, like when I was a child crying after my father scolded me. She folded aside her elegant robes, and I was reminded I was still covered in dirt and blood, having had no time to myself after the battle. Now, in the late hours of the night, she was first on my list before I told the world the truth. She waited, patient as ever.
“I have something for you,” I said, digging into my bag and handing her the scroll Viceak intended for her.
Concern swept over her elven features, but she unraveled it and read. When she was done, she put it down, eyes watching me intently. “Will you tell them, Taelim?”
“I have to,” I responded quietly, looking away.
She brushed a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “I will support you no matter what.” She paused to consider her next words. “But I think it best I return to the Green Court. You’re always welcome with me.”
“I...appreciate it. I do. But I have to stay and help. Killian will need someone to teach him.”
“There’s no one better,” she said, patting my leg.
I laughed, enough disbelief for the two of us. “You’re my mom, you have to say these things.”
Her smiled widened. “No, but I know you take after me, and we’re stubborn that way.”
That we are.
We pushed everything back until morning, mother insisting she knew best. So I settled for washing up and trying to sleep in my old bed, but having a hard time of it. The prospect of tomorrow worried me, but it had to be done. Right? I grinned at the thought that at least my friends still considered me that, titles or no titles. Then I fell asleep.
Even if this classified as a break from adventuring, I knew it wouldn’t last. It never did. That in itself brought me comfort as I sent for my audience. One last thing before that.
The attendants, older since I last saw them, remembered my favorite foods. They flooded the table with what they could spare, stuffing my party--their heroes. I begged for privacy with my friends, wondering if this was my last meal as their "princess."
“So, you’re going to tell them?” Maziel asked, cutting into her pork and taking delicate bites.
“That’s the plan,” I said, sitting back in my chair. “Feeps and I will stay on to help Killian get settled.”
“And what about us?” Cosmo demanded with a mouth full of eggs. Barnaby was sitting in his own seat, wolfing down the kender's bacon.
“Hello? Help find Klotonk.” I reminded them incredulously about our friend. “I’ve already asked my aunt for help.”
“Mmm, unnecessary,” Maziel said, waving her fork. “He sent me a message last night. He ended up at some dragon den apparently as a succubus. He’ll find a way to teleport to Illium today.”
I blinked at the drow who spoke in a perfectly calm manner. I, however, wasn’t. “You tell me this now?!”
Maziel shrugged, and continued with her meal.
“Are you really leaving us, Taelim?” Cosmo butted in again.
“No.” I blurted out almost immediately. “Well, not for long.” I hesitated, and found all eyes on me. “But I do have a favor to ask…”
“What?” Maziel questioned, enunciating the word and all it encompassed.
I licked my lips, squirming in my chair. Part of me recognized this was my responsibility, but I didn't want to delay it any longer. “Will you rescue my dad from Magaat?”
“Didn’t we bury him?” Cosmo blinked at me, cocking his curly red head.
“Her biological father,” Feeps corrected. “Elroar is a prisoner there on Viceak’s orders.”
The kender formed an O with his mouth.
“Please,” I begged quietly. “I would do it myself, but not anytime soon. Knowing he’s there because of my father--er, Viceak--I just…”
“We’ll do it,” Maziel responded coolly. “Once Klotonk gets back.”
I closed my eyes, trying not to appear too relieved. Then a thought came to me, one which was supposed to convince them to rescue my dad before I asked. “Oh, I hired someone for you guys.”
“Gods not another!” Maziel snapped.
“Me too!” Cosmo exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “I made friends with a dwarf, his name’s Dagon.”
“He’s a scoundrel,” Maziel snarled.
“Uh, huh.” I said. “Well, Illium paid for a cleric of Kord, his name’s Yaup. He’ll help you until you get back.”
Maziel rolled her eyes and pushed away her plate, apparently full.
The rest of breakfast went by uneventfully, my friends readying to part from my company for the first time in over a year. Just before the group set off, Cosmo approached me. “What happened to Valium?”
Feeps and I exchanged looks, then I cleared my throat. “In a safe spot. Until I decide whether to remove the petrification.”
"If she decides." Feeps corrected.
I sat in my father’s study--now Killian’s--facing him and my aunt. Feeps hovered by my side, always the moral support. A handful of Illium’s highest advisers waited nearby, hearing it all as was their right. I told them everything, emphasizing the bastard part which fully relinquished my responsibilities, but lending my support to the Azure Prince’s claim.
“Me?” Killian repeated, for what felt like the tenth time.
“Yes, Killian, you. I think you’re the obvious choice.” I peeked at Aunt Tylda, feeling like a traitor. Did I even still call her aunt? She definitely cried when she saw me again. Maybe because I was her worst student, and she was thankful that was all over with. Unlike Viceak, she didn’t bother with age magic, and it reflected. I lost count after seventy, and just relied on Feeps to remind me when it was her birthday.
Aunt Tylda nodded in my direction. She had spent most of her life devoted to her studies and the universities in Illium, heading all research within. She helped the kingdom advance alongside my father. She didn’t have the desire to rule, only to learn. Yeap, I’m definitely my mom’s bastard.
“I-I can’t,” Killian started to say. “I wasn’t born for this life. You were, why can't you just do it?”
What part of illegitimate don’t you understand? We’re both bastards, but you happened to inherit the correct lineage. I sighed. “Because that’s not how it works, Killian.” I replied calmly. I moved to the edge of my seat. “I promise, I’ll stay for as long as you need. I’ll teach you what I can,” I gestured to the group of advisers who gaped, but had the decency to say nothing. “Everyone here will help you. You’ll make a great king. Illium loves you.”
“And not you?” He answered back. “The princess who came back to save them? She just ups and leaves?”
I rubbed my forehead. “Killian...I get it. I do, but Illium needs you. An heir. You said you’d do anything for them. Remember?” The words struck him, and his posture softened. Maybe I was guilting him. Too bad. “Besides,” I started in a lighter tone. “You’ll settle down soon enough, marry some royal’s daughter. She’ll be able to help, I’m sure.”
That’s when they looked at each other, Killian and Tylda. They turned to the advisers who seemed to entertain the thought as well, even Feeps was in on it, if uncomfortably. I was the only one who didn’t notice.
“That is a thought,” Tylda thought aloud. “I’m sure Illium would accept it under these circumstances. Embrace it even...”
“See!” I said to Killian. “You’ll be fine.”
“Taelim,” Feeps put his metallic hand on mine. “They are talking about you.”
I held my breath and furrowed my eyebrows. “What?”
“Taelim,” Tylda began. “The people expected you, they would support the union. They'll take comfort knowing you’ll help alongside our new king--”
By now I was gritting my teeth, furious. I stood up, shaking. “A day back and I’m already a pawn again!” I glared at them a final time, then stormed out. I wondered how long I had to catch up to Maziel and the group. They only have an hour on me, so maybe if--
“Taelim, wait!” Killian ran down the hall, sliding to a halt. I briefly considered a wild shape and bolting, but he threw up his hands, pleading. “Please, hear me out!”
I pressed my lips into a thin line. “One minute before I pack my bags. Go.”
“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “That was--it’s not what I meant. I don’t want to marry you--I mean I would! Don’t get me wrong, but you wouldn’t want to--and I just--” He forcibly stopped himself, flushing as I crossed my arms across my chest. He took a deep breath before managing to make eye contact again. This time, he spoke slowly, quietly. “This was all so sudden. A world I only dipped my feet in, and now I’m expected to rule it. War I’m good at, but politics?” He shook his head vigorously. “I was grateful you wanted to stay and help, then when you talked about settling with someone... it made sense. I was wrong to assume, to demand more than you’ve already done. I’m sorry for that. I can’t imagine everything you’re feeling, and with both of our backgrounds...I get it.” He paused for a heartbeat, and put his hands together as if in prayer. “Please, don’t go. Help me. I’m begging you.”
My hands fell to my hips as I studied his pleading face. I could feel my anger ebbing away, and I knew he won. He was hard to stay angry at. “It’s not fun,” I said at last. “Trust me, I ran away once.”
“Yet, here you are.” He shrugged, daring to smile. “I’m sure we’ll make it work.”
Definitely hard to stay mad at. “All right. Come on.” I started down the hall.
“Where are we going?”
“Illium is aligned with a conclave of metallic dragons. A representative wants the body of the chromatic dragon.”
“We have dragon allies?” Killian wondered aloud, almost excited.
See, that was my reaction too, I thought to myself. That’s why we have Feeps. This is going to be a learning process for everyone.