The Replacement Courtier: Part One
Part One: Begging a Favor
The council room was filled to capacity, smotheringly
hot and containing a crowd of individuals whose livelihood was made by advising
Meridell's king. Or, more accurately, deluding themselves in their importance,
according to one agonizingly bored shadow Kyrii.
Escape. That was the only thing on Alexien's
mind, either through the final sleep-deprived nod that would send his forehead
crashing down onto the polished table... or through less drastic means, like
ducking low and slipping out the door that lurked behind him. After all, he
made his living doing just that: quietly blending in followed by a silent exit.
He was paid to watch people; he was good at evading them, but somehow he had
managed to get himself trapped unwillingly in this room full of expressionless
politicians. Curse you, Skarl... only you would send a spy to a party-planning
The booming voice of the speech-giver was echoing
off the stone walls; he looked to be quite passionate about whatever he was
saying. Something about a banquet. Brightvale. Hagan. The usual nonsense. It
was drifting in one pointed ear and out the other. The assembled audience of
nobility, both foreign and local, was at least giving the appearance of listening,
though, knowing this group, Alexien was certain that each and every one of them
was trying to look attentive, all while mentally rehearsing their own next line.
The council excelled at that sort of thing; not listening, exactly, just waiting
with feigned patience for their own turn to speak.
Desperate, he quickly rubbed at his burning
eyes and tried to pinch himself back to some semblance of alertness. It was
to no avail, though... the voice continued, each word like an insistent lullaby,
dragging him down... and then it stopped, mercifully ending before he'd been
forced to truly drastic measures, such as faking sudden illness or starting
a raucous argument in order to liven the place back up. As the last words of
dismissal were spoken, Alexien all but leapt from his seat, freeing himself
from the council who would no doubt spend at least the next half hour solidly
congratulating themselves over having gotten absolutely nothing done. They excelled
at that as well.
As he fled the room, Alexien quickly paced down
the corridor, making good his escape before he was noticed as missing and pulled
back in for another round of painful discussion. The foyer doors were thrown
open in the distance, the shadowy outlines of guards standing sentry against
the last auburn rays of daylight. And that was when it came, his name echoing
down the hallway from behind him, that traitorous, identifying label. He turned
before the idea of ignoring the summons could fully come to mind, finding a
richly-attired yellow Zafara hurrying toward him, arm waving madly to gather
"Hello, Tanezy," he replied blandly, the lure
of the nearby exit exerting a nearly magnetic force on his body. He found that
he was taking measured backward steps even as she approached, and forced himself
"I need a favor..."
"If you're sick, too, you're going to have to
find someone else," he said quickly, face descending into a scowl.
Her eyebrows rose in confusion. "Huh?"
"Nevermind," he sighed, rubbing at his eyes
once more. "I just got back this morning. There's been some sort of NeoPox epidemic
flitting about the castle, and it struck down most of Skarl's crew of sycophants.
Serves 'em right, too, the way they stay flocked together like a coop of chickens."
He opened his eyes again and smiled wryly. "Instead of the sleep I have earned,
the king had me fill in as a replacement in the meetings his people were forced
to miss today. After all, we can't risk spreading germs to the nobility," he
leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, tone one of mock horror.
"No, I'm not sick," she said archly, "but I
am looking for a replacement. Not you!" she added quickly, hands raised in proclaimed
innocence. "You see, the king is throwing a banquet this Thursday night and
he has invited King Hagan. Naturally, this---"
"---this quiet banquet with elder brother will
turn into a three-ring circus, since Skarl can hardly pass up the chance to
show off. He'll probably order Skeith ice sculptures fresh from Terror Mountain
and a twelve-course meal that had better put the Brightvale chefs to shame,"
Alexien finished for her.
"Sshhhh!!!" Tanezy hissed at him, glancing over
her shoulder as though she expected to find an eavesdropper in the form of the
king himself. When she had assured herself that the corridor remained abandoned
save for them, she turned back to Alexien.
"Say what you like about the banquet, but you
know you'll be ordered to attend. The king will want all eyes and ears open."
"Oh, of course, since Brightvale is notoriously
underhanded in its dealings with Meridell," Alexien replied sarcastically. "I'll
tell you what will happen. I'll be told to show up... and I will. I'll eat a
free meal and then I'll end up in the kitchen playing Bilge Dice with the servers
for the rest of the night. I can't seem to make the king understand that he
doesn't need my division for this sort of thing. Hagan is nearly obnoxiously
honest and well-mannered. The problem with Skarl is that he believes everyone
thinks like he does. He has us spy on his brother because he's petty and bored
and suffering from a ferocious inferiority complex."
"Sshhhh!!!" she shushed him again, eyes flashing
"Don't be so paranoid," Alexien snapped back.
"Now what did you want? A replacement for what?"
Tanezy's face morphed from angry to sweetly
hopeful in an eyeblink. "Some of the courtiers are planning a short play as
part of the dinner entertainment," she began, "and I happen to have been placed
in charge. We thought we would reenact the last battle with Lord Kass, but Kettria,
who was supposed to play Lisha, was 'struck down', as you so delicately put
it, by the NeoPox that's been going around. Everyone else is already busy with
preparations for the banquet, so I figured, since you live outside of the castle,
maybe you knew someone---"
"Why not just ask Lisha?" he asked, grinning
widely as he waited for the anticipated offended response.
As expected, Tanezy looked as appalled as though
he had just flung a fistful of mud in her direction. "Because I would look utterly
stupid asking her to play herself in a play," she said firmly.
"Indeed you would," he agreed somberly. "This
is your way of hinting that I should ask Julitta, isn't it?"
"She's a good candidate," Tanezy admitted, appearing
smug that he had caught on so quickly. "And she was recommended."
Alexien made a derisive noise. "She'll have
to come to the dinner as well, right? She's the daughter of an ex-pirate, Tanezy.
She most certainly does not have court manners."
"Neither do you, but we let you in, don't we?"
Tanezy quickly countered.
At that statement, Alexien faltered and blinked.
"Point taken," he answered agreeably. "Fine, I'll see if she'll agree to play
pretend with the rest of you. And fortunately for you, my brother Shannun is
disgustingly polite and patient to a fault. I'll get him to give her an etiquette
"Thank you!" Tanezy responded with airy glee
at having accomplished her agenda. "You've taken quite a worry off of my mind,
He smirked. "Julitta is my houseguest. I know
her like the back of my hand, and I can promise you that you will definitely
not feel that way once she's wrecked through your little production in the usual
The house on Royal Parade was typical of its
neighbors: towered, moated, and immaculately kept. Unlike the other homes that
were arrayed up and down the winding road, however, the peaceful facade was
masking the chaos that had settled in behind the stone walls. The only outward
sign that anything was amiss was a thick plume of smoke that was curling its
way out of a small half-moon window that was settled near ground level, allowing
the basement to vent the noxious fumes.
On the second floor, Alexien was evilly eyeing
his younger brother Shannun, who was wearing singed clothing, a smoke-streaked
face, and a penitent expression. Outside, the sun was sinking beneath the distant
treetops, and Shannun looked as though he would have loved the opportunity to
drop out of sight along with it.
"You set my house on fire," Alexien spoke finally,
tone brittle with accusation. He was pacing quickly about, arms folded, expending
anger through movement. "Again."
"Accidentally, but, yes, I---"
"How many times does this make, Shannun?" Alexien
asked, as though he had not been keeping his own running mental tally.
"Four times," Shannun carefully admitted. "I
was distracted and I miscalculated. It won't happen again. I sincerely apologize,
Alexien, and I will, of course, pay for the damages."
"Yes, you will," Alexien quickly agreed. He
sternly eyed the unhappy Kyrii, even though, honestly, he really wasn't very
angry with him. Shannun was a certifiable scientific genius, and his experimental
successes occurred far more often than his disasters... and were generally quite
profitable when sold to the local potionery shops. "You're banned from that
lab for a month... and you're also forgiven," Alexien added graciously.
Shannun's head came up at that sudden reversal,
expression suspicious. "That was uncharacteristically quick... ."
"I'm feeling generous today, little brother."
The suspicion did not fade. "What do you want,
Alexien?" Shannun asked wearily, afraid to even ask. Alexien was one to sulk
and brood over an offense; forgiveness generally only came this quickly when
there was something he wanted in return.
Alexien flopped down on the sofa then, all traces
of irritation gone as he smiled disarmingly at Shannun. "You have wonderful
manners, you know. I admire you for that."
"Huh? Since when?" Shannun asked, baffled. This
from the guy who's always said I'm the strip of worn carpet everyone's allowed
to walk on…?
"Since I need you to give Julitta an etiquette
lesson," Alexien bluntly admitted, appearing bored now that the possibility
of a tirade over the basement fire had passed him by. "Full-on court manners
so that she won't humiliate herself. Consider it part of your repayment for
the damage to the laboratory."
"Humiliate herself doing what?" Shannun
questioned in confusion, feeling as though he had missed out on half the conversation.
All Julitta ever did was shop, eat, and lounge lazily by the pool, activities
that didn't generally necessitate an etiquette lesson. "And why doesn't she
just ask me herself?"
"Because she doesn't realize she needs them,"
Alexien said patiently before rising back to his feet and heading toward the
staircase. "But she will as soon as I finish telling her just how she's going
to be spending Thursday night."
To be continued...