*Featuring Characters from "Message from the City" and "A Trickster's Tea Party"
You would think that a human left to wander the fae court of Madness alone would be doomed. Countless stories depict unhappy ends for such unlucky folk. While bathing the muck of the hunt off, Iki made a mental list of all the ways she could have been ensnared if the fae so chose. And yet, here she was. If anything she'd been ignored. She runs her fingers through her hair, delighted to find it already dry. The efficacy of their facilities almost made her want to stay. Some mischievous creature chose that moment to burst into eerie laughter that seemed to climb the walls themselves. Iki sighs. Just like that the feeling was gone. She dresses in the clothes she came in and lets herself out of the modest room she'd been lent. As Neri's friend and Pascal's girlfriend, Iki could have thrown a fit and insisted on a better room, but why should she? Her stay was temporary, just long enough to go on the hunt, wash off the hunt, and head home. Her stomach tightens with the beginnings of hunger. "Just a little bit longer," she tells herself, patting her belly. She gives the room a quick once over to be sure nothing was too disturbed and stepped out into the mini yard. Luz had been quick to assure her that her room was housed in the least potentially damaging, so Iki felt content walking across the bluish-green lawn. Crystal flowers, the largest the size of her pinkie nail, dot the yard in a rainbow of colors. The way they meld with the grass reminds Iki of wild violets in the spring. She looks around to make sure no one was watching before crouching and tapping one that reminds her of sea glass. It shatters at her touch and she instinctively flinches away but nothing happens. Iki blinks. Two more crystal flowers sprout up in its place. "Is that why there are so many of you?" Iki wonders aloud. "You're the flower version of the hydra." She pushes to her feet and dusts her hands off on her jean shorts. She walks until she finds a pixie gardener with silver hair and eyes. The pixie directs her down a path lined with thorns and blood-red roses dripping from trees shaped like weeping willows.
"Iki!" A vixen with a red and white tail and dark eyes pops out from behind a weeping willow. Greer was kind to her during the scavenger hunt and even shared a bit of netting. "I thought I smelled you. You are much cleaner than earlier. They should have told you that ravine was rather nasty."
"Someone really should have," Iki agrees with a laugh. "Though it's a little discouraging that I really was disgusting."
Greer swishes her tail. "We all needed to bathe after that. Especially Phineas. He fell right in the Mud of Insanity." She shakes her head. "Not a pleasant smell."
"It didn't have pleasant effects, either," Iki says, shuddering at the memory. Phineas had to be bound until he calmed down. "Why is there so much around here that even makes the residents weird?"
"Weird?" Greer blinks. "I don't feel weird. It's just all part of the court of Madness. We're just excited. We only get to rule every 1/4 a year."
"I mean like what the Mud of Insanity did," Iki explains. She leans around to pluck a florescent green leaf from Greer's fur. "Not that you are weird normally."
Greer purrs happily and twitches her tail. "I'm glad you think so. There are just a few spots to avoid in the Jungles of Insane Thought but all in all, this is a rather fun place to live." She giggles.
"It has its perks," Iki says, her heart warmed by Greer's adorable antics. "I need to get back home, but I hope I'll see you again soon?"
She cocks her head to the side. "What do you mean?" Before Iki can answer, a loud trumpet sounds and Greer claps her clawed hands. "It's time for marmalade and crumpets. Are you coming?"
"I can't." Iki smiles at her friend. "But you go on. Have fun!" She waves goodbye and continues down the honestly creepy path. The farther she walks the darker it gets, progressing from cheerful sunlight to the dark of a coming storm. Just as Iki is seriously beginning to question if she was led astray by the silver-haired pixie a soft amber glow draws her eye. A few paces from the path, an abnormally large tree looms. Iki is absolutely certain it wasn't there before.
"What are you doing down there?" a voice calls from deep within the tree's branches.
"Lilu?" Iki calls back. "I thought you said you hated thorns? Why are you out here?"
"What thorns?" Lilu asks. She weaves her body down the tree, roots, and branches coming together to form her body as she reached the bottom.
"These thorns," Iki says, gesturing behind her. As she turns she realizes the path she'd been on has vanished. Lilu's tree now stands in the center of a clearing where little glowing lights drift, lending a magical air to the place. Beyond the clearing's ring a grove of trees similar to Lilu's stand. "Is this the nursery?" She asks, awed.
"One of them. In more ways than one." Lilu laughs softly. "Our young are safest here." She guides Iki inside to look around at the little saplings. They were in rooted bassinettes that their mothers, fathers, and parents rocked to calm the fussy infants. The saplings were clusters of roots and branches woven together in the form of newborns with big eyes, flailing limbs, and some had little leaves on top of their heads.
"Oh my gosh," Iki croons. "They're all so precious!"
"Thank you. We're always very proud." Lilu grins at her. "Just wait until you see them in winter. We have special canopies designed to keep them warm."
"I'll make a point to stop by," Iki says, puzzled by Lilu's wording. The fae sure was confident. She gently touches Lilu's elbow and nods to a more private spot. "You've probably guessed I'm lost," she says.
"I assumed you were sight-seeing," Lilu says. She loops a rooted arm with one of Iki's human ones. "I don't mind. You were rather kind to me when we met and I take my inklings of people seriously."
"I'm glad you thought so favorably of me," Iki says, leaning against Lilu somewhat. She feels a certain kinship with the mysterious fae. "Lilu, could you give me some directions?"
"Happy to. Just take the path out of here, then go straight to the Crying Tree, then take a left until you reach the Pond, and then just go left from there to the main house." Lilu pats her arm. "I hope that helps."
"It does!" Iki enthused. On a whim, she hugs Lilu. "Goodbye! I'll visit when I can."
"Goodbye?" Lilu hears her name being called. "I must see about that. I will see you for the flowers. And I do hope that when the time comes you'll want to keep your own sapling here." She gets to her roots and smiles before making her way into the nursery.
"Flowers?" Iki asks, utterly confused. "What flowers?" She lets the sapling comment slide as a kind gesture on Lilu's part. She shakes her head. She can ask Pascal about the flowers later. She really must be getting home. Iki walks around outside to make sure there's only one path before setting off to find the Crying Tree. She has no idea what that might look like but very little would surprise her at this point. Or so she thought. The Crying Tree was a miniature Bonzai tree whose limbs shook as it sobbed. Mushrooms grew all around it in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. A few even grew upside down. Iki is hesitant to leave without trying to help but she's truly hungry now and the Crying Tree doesn't notice her so she rushes away to the left. Every few feet there is a new sign touting the Pond's location, history, and romantic attributes. Iki pauses by one declaring the Pond as a popular location for after-dark dates. She's tempted to ask Pascal about it but thinks better of it. After all, she isn't overly fond of crowds.
"Hello, Iki," a voice practically purrs. Coming from the opposite direction is Aralyn, a she-wolf she first saw at the tea party. She had on a large hat with lace and pearls. It was an ideal match to her elegant apparel of pearl white pants and a dark blue overcoat that had tails. "You look a little mixed up darling."
"Aralyn," Iki says, feeling a little put out. "Is the Pond very romantic?"
"It does have … an intuition for such things. Are you looking for romance?" Aralyn twirls her cane as she takes a step to the pathway that led to the pier of the Pond.
"Not where there's a lot of people," Iki mutters.
"The Pond isn't quite what you think." Aralyn giggles. "Ask Pascal to show you sometime. It's really very unique."
"All right," Iki agrees. She blushes a little at Aralyn's knowing look. "So," she says, changing the subject. "Why are you out here alone?"
Aralyn laughs. "I wasn't at the Pond. I was hunting down by the Swamp of Discourse." She points with her cane toward the east. "It is a rather pleasant spot for a bit of sport. Perhaps I can take you in a day or so. You might enjoy it."
"I appreciate the offer, but I don't plan on coming back so soon," Iki says, surreptitiously looking Aralyn over. There wasn't a spot of blood on her. The she-wolf was something else.
"Of course not," she says with a smirk. "Next hunt maybe. I shall be getting off before my pack wonders where supper has gone." She pokes Iki with the end of the cane. "You know how that goes."
"Hunger makes people testy," Iki agrees. "Take care of yourself." She waves Aralyn off. "Okay," she says to herself. "I'm supposed to go left from the Pond..." she sighs. This was taking forever.
Finnick lays stretched out under a tall tree that was upside down with its roots reaching outward toward the sky. He lay up against the branches and stretched out his long legs. It always felt good to take a cat nap in the sunlight. This is where Iki found him when she took the wrong left from the Pond.
"Finnick?" Iki asks. "Finnick! Hey!"
He yawns, showing off his sharpened teeth. "Hey, Iki!" He stretches out his arms. "You come this way for a nap?"
"I'm actually heading back to the main house," Iki says. She sits next to him. "How do you all stand walking so much?"
Fennick shrugs. "Never noticed before. Guess my feet don't get tired." he wiggles them.
"Lucky," Iki laughs, reaching over and bonking his feet together.
Fennick laughs. "If you'd like I can take you to the main house? Probably find it quicker that way."
"Please!" Iki groans. "I'm starving."
"There's fruit all around you." Fennick gestures wildly with his arms. "Why haven't you eaten anything?"
Iki looks around and all of a sudden fruit blossoms before her eyes. "Okay, this is ridiculous!" She stomps her foot.
"It's the Court of Madness... What do you expect?" Fennick hops to his feet and plucks a silver apple. He tosses it to her.
"There's Madness and then there's just being rude," Iki grumbles. She sniffs the silver apple. There's a faint pear-like scent to it. She takes a bite. "What is this?"
"It's a Sour Truth Fruit... Have you ever thought maybe you are the rude one?" Fennick picks another one off the tree. "The main house is up this way." he points toward a bush that rearranges itself to reveal a path. "You just need to know how to talk to the trees."
"I didn't mean you," Iki says. "It's just... I feel like the trees have been holding out on me." She gestures with the Sour Truth Fruit. "I'm sorry."
"They only reveal themselves when you ask or you need something. Fennick gestures for her to follow. "You'll see. It just takes time to learn. But you'll get there."
"I hope so," Iki sighs. She munches on the fruit while they walk. "Maybe you could teach me to communicate with trees. They seem to have an affinity with you."u
"I'd be happy to." It only takes a few turns down the path for the main house to come into view. "Here we are."
"Thank you so much!" Iki enthuses, hugging Fennick. "For many things."
Fennick hugs her in turn. "I will see you for dinner."
"Oh, no, I'm not staying," Iki says.
Fennick laughs. "See you later." He shakes his head and continues laughing as he makes his way off down the path.
"Bye!" Iki waves until he's out of sight. She finishes the Sour Truth Fruit on the short walk to the main house. The outer wall was dark gray stacked stone. It only came up to Iki's hip and looks fragile but Iki knows instinctively that there's more to it than meets the eye. She eyes the core, unsure what to do with it.
A face with cat eyes pops out from behind the stone. "Hi!" Eisley chirps. By all appearance, he looked about twenty years old but you never with the fae. Twenty could mean two hundred.
"Ah!" Iki stumbles back, dropping the fruit core in her shock. "Eisley?" She asks, peering at the adorable fae. "You startled me!"
Eisley hurries up onto the stone and plops down. He swings his legs. "Sorry. I saw you coming and thought I'd say hi."
"You know I'm always happy to see you," Iki says, pressing a hand to her chest. "What have you been up to?"
"Not much." Eisley stretches out his legs. He still had a sweet round face, dark hair that had a floppy tendency, and his eyes were a brilliant green. He gestures at the main house. "Lots of commotion here today."
"Is everyone still going on about the hunt?" Iki asks. She picks a spot beside Eisley and hops up.
Eisley tilts his head and laughs. "No... it's about you."
Iki blinks owlishly. "Me?" She asks.
"Of course. Pascal has been trying to negotiate all day but once the queen has made her mind there's no way to go against her." Eisley nods. "But I think you'll enjoy it here."
"I..." Iki trails off as all the pieces come together in her mind. It all makes sense then. Her friends kept talking like she was staying, not because they assumed she was, but because they /knew/ she was. "Where are Pascal and the queen now?"
"In her chambers. Pascal has been pretty upset with her and he's one of the few that can actually tell her like it is without her smiting them... or cursing." Eisley smiles at her. "But I think you'll like it here."
"I can't stay here, Eisley," Iki says, panic squeezing her heart. "Neri will worry. I have to go home!"
"But... the queen said you were staying. That's why Pascal has been talking to her. He said you should go to the manor." Eisley tilts his head. "I thought you knew"
"No," Iki whispers. "I've been telling everyone goodbye this whole time... I've been trying to tell the court goodbye this whole time..." she drops her face into her hands. "...Which is why it's been delaying me."
"Oh... yeah... the court won't let you go unless the queen says you can." He bites his lip. "Look on the bright side, it never gets boring here in the land of Madness."