Around this time last year, my friends were heading off on their next adventure, leaving me to clean up the mess Tiamat and the Wroth wreaked in Illium.
Had it already been a year? A year of trying to get Illium back on its feet. A year trying to rear a new king. A year of being engaged, not just to Killian, but to this kingdom and my responsibilities. Where had the time gone?
I’m still here. At least I'm trying.
“Taelim!” Klotonk came scuttling into his living room, appearing from some trapdoor that led into his basement lab. I lounged on the couch, petting Mug and chatting with his new roommates, a succubus named Minerva and the black dragon, Munari. Apparently this was the same succubus Klotonk had swapped bodies with after the Tiamat ritual mishap. She seemed nice, for a demon living passively in Illium. Besides, she offered me a drink.
“I'm here, as promised,” I said. “What's up, Klo?”
“You forgot? I figured you'd be the first ready to go!” Klotonk answered excitedly.
At that moment, Maziel and Cosmo burst into the house. Somewhere down the street I could hear the drunken laugh of Dagon not far behind. Maziel slammed the door shut.
“Go where?” I asked cautiously.
I had been bound to the castle the past few weeks, a house arrest of sorts. My aunt was still miffed about the dragon, and the kidnapping, and the…it didn't matter. To worsen matters, Feeps took her side. Of late, the warforged had taken to berating me about my choices, and I was afraid we were growing apart. He was bound to me and Illium, not both when I ran off.
“The Goblin Market of course!” Mug added, stretching leisurely on my leg. “I'll take you! It's going to be fun. You like fun, Taelim.”
That's one way of putting it.
Still, the Goblin Market was on a whole new level. Located in the Feywild, it was a yearly market, meets expo, meets anything you can think of. Operated by the Unseelie Fey, it was considered neutral ground for all to attend. An endless showcase of the amazing and bizarre.
I was sitting upright now, giving away my enthusiasm at the prospect. There was going to be a tournament, and the thought of returning to action riled me up.
Then I winced. Krow. Illium’s Fey ambassador. He would tell my aunt if I showed. I wondered if I could bribe him, but knew the odds were slim. Cranky, old troll.
“I don't know, guys. I'm already on thin ice…”
Dagon kicked open the front door. “All the booze and women and fighting! Are we leaving yet!?”
“See? You'll be missing out,” Cosmo half sang, hopping on his feet gracefully.
I gazed up at Maziel as if for direction. The drow said nothing and shrugged.
I jumped up. “Screw it, I'm in. Lead the way Mug!”
Apparently a gateway to the Feywild existed in Illium. Had I known, my excursions might have been more frequent, and far easier. Hidden in some warehouse run by genasi, the owners panicked when I walked in, seemingly escorted by an entourage. I quickly explained I was just here for a way to the Goblin Market. Their postures relaxed, showing Mug the gateway. The grinning, magic cat opened it with ease. We stepped through, transported to another plane.
I felt like a child on holiday, overwhelmed by an endless stream of sensory overload. The place was packed, a constant bustle of movement, with even more people teleporting into the hub behind us.
Maziel pushed us off to the side, hands on her hips. She addressed all of us, but her eyes were locked on me. “I've booked us stay at an inn,” she shoved a small piece of parchment in my hand that had a name and address. “Do what you will. Shop, carouse,” she leaned in, “but stay out of trouble.” Her eyes flickered to Dagon warninly. “I've got errands to run, then I'll enroll us in tomorrow's tournament.” She waved a hand, and with a swish of her black cloak, she melded into the crowd.
I glanced around, finding only Dagon staring around excitedly. In another moment, he ran off in search of his own pleasures. So I wandered aimlessly around the market, stopping at peculiar stands, trying new foods and hoping I wouldn't regret it later.
It didn't take long for me to be recognized and stopped. I found myself in a secluded alley away the main thoroughfare. Here stalls melted into actual shops, guarded by shadowy characters.
“There she is,” said an old woman, obscured by a ragged hood. She cackled beside a double-wide door to a candle-lit lounge.
A second woman behind her snickered. “The princess, just as predicted.”
A third woman said nothing, and just watched me from under her hood.
I stared at the trio, checking the scimitar at my side. They hadn't barred me in anyway, but we were alone.
“Alright,” I faced them squarely. “You have my attention.”
The trio cackled. “Baron Slith, the Wroth Leader of the South, he sought you out.”
The vampire lord? I thought to myself. One of my many future problems.
“Is that so?” I asked, pleasantly enough. “And what could he possibly want from me?”
“A truce with Illium.” They said in tandem.
I folded my arms across my chest. “So the Wroth side with Tiamat, fail their invasion, and we destroy them. Then they go silent for a year, and suddenly a truce is on the table?”
They nodded, again in unison.
I suppressed a shudder. A truce. At what cost I wondered. Still, I had enough problems on my plate. If Illium didn't have to worry about the Wroth, we wouldn't need to battle them on the southern front. For now.
“The catch?” I questioned.
“Just the truce,” the old women said together.
I shrugged. “Fine. I'll send an envoy to Slith. Let's see who holds up the truce longer.” I started to walk away. I heard their laughter echo behind me, but when I looked back they were gone.
Time to find a drink.
I was the first back to the inn, and the common room was sparsely crowded. I took a seat at the bar and ordered something I couldn't pronounce. Admittedly, I didn't handle boredom well. A new place, a new experience, I created my own entertainment.
After a few drinks, I quickly found myself surrounded by other patrons, chatting enthusiastically and exchanging tales of my adventures, each of us trying to best the other. I think I won, because the drinks kept flowing, and I never found myself without one as I sat there, engaging the crowd around me.
Then I saw her. She had been watching me gloat over my party's prowess. When our eyes met, she slowly made her way over. By then the crowd had dispersed, and we were left sitting at a small table as she bought me another drink. Her name was Lysandra. She smiled as she listened to me ramble, laughed at my ridiculous mannerisms, and kept the alcohol flowing.
I think it was the way she watched me. Curious, yet intrigued, as she if actually wanted to know more about me, not just the figure associated to the kingdom of Illium. Which I had definitely given away. No, she asked about me. Taelim. Not the bastard princess forced to uphold a title.
Was it more than that? Even impaired by booze I could feel my uncertainty, but it was wholly overcome by her presence. I wanted to find out more about her, to push that line I blurred. So, in my drunken stupor, I let her lead me upstairs, and forget about my friends for the night.
You know when you wake up with the sudden realization you made a huge mistake? While I did that often, somehow this felt worse, because I knew, in part, I had wanted this. To damn all my obligations and do what I pleased. As I rolled out of bed as quietly as I could, I hurriedly strapped on my armor and weapons. It wasn't fast enough.
Lysandra was watching me with those intelligent, ever-curious eyes. While she had the appearance of youth, something about her stare betrayed years of wisdom, and so much more.
I faltered halfway through buckling my belt. “I don't remember much…” I admitted. The only thing I knew was a pounding headache, currently my companion.
Casually, Lysandra folded her arms behind her head. “Let's see,” she began slowly, taunting me. She laughed at my expression, which must have been some mixture of sheepishness and horror. “We mostly talked, Taelim. All night. You mentioned Killian. A fascinating choice of king you're engaged to.”
A disgruntled groan escaped my lips before I could stop it. “Technically engaged, yeah.” I replied, recognizing my own misery. I found her eyes again, unable to look away. An olive complexion could not stop me from blushing wildly.
“Oh, and something else,” Lysandra said, swinging her legs off the bed. “I convinced you to join the Unseelie. Which stopped the assassination Timony ordered on you.” She finished coolly.
I just blinked at her.
Bits and pieces began filling in. She was an agent of the Unseelie Fey, she asked me to join her. Almost begged. I couldn't say no, I didn't want to say no.
Wait, did she just inadvertently save my life? I closed my eyes and finished collecting my gear. Gods dammit.
“I'm sorry. I have to go,” I mumbled. “We can't...I, um…”
She shook her head. “It's alright,” Lysandra said, though something in her voice suggested it wasn't.
I hesitated for another moment. “Bye, Lysandra,” was all I managed, not even making eye contact as I hurried out the room.
I started to wonder if leaving was my mistake, but I rushed out of the inn all the same, sprinting to the arena.
The stadium was packed with people of varying degrees, and I had the misfortune of sitting between two half giants. I gave it a solid five minutes of reconnaissance before making my escape.
Screw it, we can handle whatever comes.
I found my friends in one of the waiting halls. Dagon had seen better days, and Maziel was hovering beside him mad about something I must have missed.
The others were missing.
“You're early,” Maziel said, “the free-for-all got moved to this evening.”
I shrugged. “Figured I watch some of the competition, but...that didn't work out.”
Maziel was studying me quietly, and I got the strange feeling she knew something I planned to keep from her as long as possible. If anyone kept to the company of secretive folks and dangerous orders, that was my dear drow.
“Where's your dagger?” Maziel said instead.
I glanced down at my belt, noticing with a sickening feeling my father's dagger was gone. My temper spiked, and I could only think to accuse the last person I was with. Lysandra.
I turned on my heels.
“Be back in time to discuss tactics!” Maziel shouted after me, but I was already sprinting out the door.
I ended up back at the inn, panting. The place was empty except for the innkeeper.
I bolted up the stairs, and just as I feared, the bedroom was empty. Curling my hands into fists, I stomped down the stairs angrily.
The innkeeper smiled at me warmly. “Don't worry, girl. Your friend said she'd be back. What's her name…?”
“Lysandra,” I offered hopefully.
“Aye, that's it. Take a seat. Drink. Hah! Surprised your head ain't swimming from last night.”
“Oh, you have no idea.” I replied dryly, taking the cup he offered. There I waited, forced to sit with my fury.
True to his word, Lysandra showed not long after. The moment she walked through the door I forgot my anger, and anxiety replaced it.
She grinned coyly, taking a seat besides me, buying me enough time to gather my courage.
“Didn't think I'd see you again so soon,” she began.
I raised my eyes and met her intense stare. “I lost my dagger. Last I checked, I had it last night.”
She rested her chin on her hands, unperturbed. “And you think I took it?”
I shrugged, glancing away.
Lysandra chuckled softly, spreading her arms. “If I had know it would bring you back here, maybe I would have. But no, I didn't do it, Taelim.”
I turned to face her, and felt my composure shatter. Taking a deep breath I shook my head. “I shouldn't blame you, I just...it's important to me.”
She put her hand on mine. “Describe it to me.”
I did so, and when I finished, she lightly jumped off her chair, beckoning for me to follow.
“Come on,” Lysandra said. “If someone took it, I know where it will end up.”
I trailed her confident steps like a puppy. Never before did I feel so out of my element. Not like I minded, by the time we stopped at the dilapidated storefront, sandwiched between two buildings, I almost forgot what I came for.
Inside, the little room was impossibly packed with odds and ends of all sorts. Books were piled to the ceiling, dividing the place into tight aisles. Trinkets and questionably filled bottles littered any available surface. I found my way to the back where an old man in gray robes watched me attentively.
“Hi,” I started quietly. “I'm looking for a dagger. I lost it today…” I described it briefly.
The old man reached under the counter and placed my father's dagger on the counter.
“Wonderful,” the old man said. “What will you pay for it?”
I said nothing at first. I forgot all words and ire won out. Pay for my own dagger?
“What?” I snarled.
He smiled, unamused. “You have something of value I think. A special collar. Right?”
I placed my hands on the counter, leaning forward dangerously.
“The fact you know that makes me...very unhappy. Like this is a setup.” I was breathing hard now, very much aware of the small space and how shifting into a fire elemental would match the wrath I felt. Alongside setting this place ablaze.
My hands curled into fists, and at that moment, a small arm tugged at my shirt.
I glanced down hotly. It was Klotonk.
“Taelim!” He laughed, evidently uneasy. “Can I talk to you? Like now?”
I gritted my teeth and let myself be lead away by the gnome. Lysdandra followed without saying a word.
“I caught the gist of that,” Klo started hurriedly. “I know you can get...ahead of yourself,” he held up his hands before I could bark out a reply. “Just hear me out...this might be one fight we don't want to start.”
“Give me one reason,” I replied, arms on my hips. “Go.”
“We're inside of a dragon. He's a dragon. An old, strong, BIG dragon. But he's Gold, and actually quite nice.”
I heard Lysandra whistle softly.
Klotonk looked at me pleadingly.
“Fine.” I stormed back to the old man. As calmly as I could muster, “I can't give you the collar. But the dagger is...important to me. What else do you want for it?”
“It was my fath--it belonged to the man who raised me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”
“Will you tell me what he meant to you?” The old man continued without falter.
I sighed. “He guided me to the best of his abilities, despite how...defiant I was. He was the strongest man I knew, and he deserved better than me. He's gone now, and all I have left of him is that dagger.”
The old man nodded, and slid the dagger across the counter. “It's yours.”
Hesitantly, I picked it up and returned it to my sheath. “Thank you.”
“Can I make you an offer?” The old man asked.
I nodded. “Sure.”
“If you ever want to know about Viceak, in exchange for the collar, call my name three times. Grayleaf.”
“I'll keep that in mind.”
With that, the three of us left the store. Klotonk exhaled audibly beside me.
“Come on, I'm not that bad,” I patted the gnome’s back.
He didn't comment, which said it all. He did add, “I think we should head to the arena. Maziel is probably docking us.”
“Meet you there?” I offered.
The gnome nodded. “Bye, Lysandra!”
When he was gone, I turned to her. “I'm not even surprised you know each other.”
She smiled crookedly. “I'm very well connected.”
“Listen, I, um…” I scratched the back of my head uncertainly. “Thank you,” I eventually blurted. “I couldn't have done it without you.”
She inclined her head playfully. “Good luck in the tournament.” Then moved to go.
Lysandra stopped and looked back at me.
“Maybe after you can join us for dinner?” I smiled, starting to regain my confidence around her. “We'll have a lot of gold to spend.”
She laughed and waved, sauntering away. “Count on it.” Then she was gone, leaving me staring after her.
I took my time getting to the arena.
Our group handled the arena competition, it was largely unseasoned fighters trying to make a name. That wasn't a surprise to me, but they weren’t the only creatures there. Devas and demons brawled violently, which was to be expected given their history. At some point, Dagon and I even began tallying our beaten opponents, to the roaring cheers of an enthusiastic crowd.
What wasn't expected, or legal, was when the Devas were decapitated. We quickly realized the last ounce of any good alignment was us. This wasn't just a tournament. It was personal for our familiar enemies, or the hired hands of them.
This proved even more true when Tiamat cultists revealed themselves, joining forces with the demons. Suddenly, two of the cultists turned into twin blue dragons, going for the kill.
That's when the arena managers intervened, teleporting the dragons out of the Feywild. They gave us the pleasure of handling the remaining demons. The crowd was wild by now. Maziel, for once, looked happy to publicly accept the victory and gold on our behalf.
That night we drank, feasted and caroused like the celebrities we were. I reveled every moment of it, because soon after, I was homeward bound.