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The Replacement Courtier: Part One


by senya

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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 committee...

      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 his attention.

      "Alexien!"

      "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 to halt.

      "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 angrily.

      "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 lesson."

      "Thank you!" Tanezy responded with airy glee at having accomplished her agenda. "You've taken quite a worry off of my mind, Alexien."

      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 Julitta fashion."

***

      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...

 
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