The Replacement Courtier: Part Three
Part Three: Pleasing the Princess
He was certain this had to be worse than those council
meetings Skarl had inflicted upon him. Alexien was sprawled out in a large,
overstuffed chair in Madame Aishiri's Boutique, surrounded by endless racks
of overdone gowns and swaths of shiny fabric. The place looked like a nightmare
he had once had following three slices of apple spice cake and the rather rude
discovery that he was, in fact, horribly allergic to apples. It was abysmal;
pink and purple and white, chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and bouquets
of roses stashed everywhere to the point where the place reeked like a floral
abomination; everything was silky and expensive and looked as though touching
anything would warrant a fine.
Eyes glazed in unhappy boredom, he resentfully
watched Julitta as she pirouetted in front of a mirror in what he was sure had
to be at least her fifteenth dress. She was intent on bankrupting him for his
comment about her upbringing the day before, there was no doubt in his mind,
because she was already wheedling him for more than one.
"Please?" she tried again, tossing a sweet look
in his direction.
"No," Alexien firmly responded for the tenth
time. "You'll likely only wear the one dress for this single event. What could
you possibly do with two?" Even as he asked the question, he knew exactly what
she would do: she would return home and enshrine the dresses in her closet for
a few days, and then look for excuses to wear them no matter how inappropriate
the time: breakfast, lounging about the house, a game of bowls, it wouldn't
matter. Julitta's sense of timing was unique and her own, certainly.
"But I can't decide..." she whined uncertainly,
flouncing a bit to make the poufy purple bows move. Madame Aishiri, the Aisha
who owned and operated the shop, moved about adjusting the fabric as though
she were a painter placing the last finishing touches on a masterpiece.
"Take the cheaper one," he advised, drumming
his clawed fingers absently on the arm of the chair.
"You're so cruel," Julitta sighed, spinning
again for the mirror. "Don't you like one more than the other?"
"Cruel?" he repeated, ignoring the question.
"I let you talk me into this place, which happens to be the most unbelievably
expensive clothing shop I've ever had the misfortune to enter. And don't act
as though you aren't aware," he added to Madame Aishiri, who had sniffed
her offense at his comment. He then turned back to Julitta. "I've been sitting
here for over an hour while you play dress up, and I'll tell you what... you
have one minute to make a final decision, because that's how long it's going
to take me to wade into that pile over there and choose the first thing I find.
You'll be wearing whatever I pick, Julitta," he warned.
That had the desired effect, because suddenly
Julitta turned to Madame Aishiri and said she would take the pink one. There
was a flurry of movement as the dress was carefully packaged up for the walk
back home. Alexien was handed the bill, which was as painful as he had expected,
but he was only too happy to pay if it would just release him from the torment
of dress-shopping with a diva. Julitta was given the dress, and then the ribbon-wrapped
box that contained the shoes, which she hugged to her as though it were a life-preserver.
As they exited the shop, evening was coming
on, dimming the sky and sending most of the other shoppers toward home for their
dinners. The food stands were still doing a steady business, but several others
were closing up for the night, drawing shutters, shaking out welcome mats, and
putting 'CLOSED' signs out for public view. As they stepped out into the street,
Alexien watched out of the corner of his eye as Julitta turned and beamed at
"That really was so much fun!" she declared.
"Delightful," he said sarcastically.
She appeared displeased by his tone, but let
it slide, instead eyeing him hopefully as she asked, "Are you coming with me
to the rehearsal tonight?"
"I don't see how I can avoid it," he said, stepping
over a puddle that Julitta skirted, dress and shoe box held high. "The guards
don't know you, so they're not going to just let you walk in and wander around
until you find Tanezy."
"Good!" she exclaimed, obviously relieved. "At
least with you I know I'll get brutal feedback about how I did. You'll be completely
honest, right?" she asked him,.
He cast a worn look in her direction. "Sure,
I'll be honest, but just remember that you asked for it, Julitta... ."
The castle was wide open and welcoming, with a light
shining in almost every window. Walkways were being swept, gardens were being
tended, and as Alexien and Julitta ascended the stairs to enter the main hall,
they found a commotion of individuals running back and forth. A Spotted Draik
came running by with a large silver bowl that was nearly overflowing with fruit.
In his haste, the grapes began spilling out onto the floor and a Blumaroo dressed
in the Meridell livery bounded after him, calling for him to slow down. Furnishings
were being dusted, the floors were being polished, and Julitta was watching
all of the activity with wide-eyed fascination, so distracted by it all that
she jumped in surprise when the ear-splitting voice of an old Elephante trumpeted
ahead of her.
"And just where do you think you're going, young
lady?" the Elephante asked sternly in a tone that boomed across the foyer. He
stepped forward, using his massive bulk to block her path and causing Julitta
to draw up short. "We're terribly busy at the moment; there is no time for sight-seeing."
"She's in the dinner play, Akrios," Alexien
explained, halting just behind Julitta. "Kettria came down with NeoPox, and
they needed a replacement."
"Kettria?" the Elephante repeated, enormous
eyes widening even more as his head came up. "She didn't seem sick. I saw her
scurrying up from the dungeon earlier, or at least, an Ixi that looked just
Alexien paused at that strange bit of news.
"I see. A quick recovery, I guess," he said blandly, then turned to gesture
for Julitta to follow him. "Come along, I'll show you where you need to go,
and then I'm going to look into something."
She quickly fell into step beside him, face
already screwing up in complaint. "You were supposed to watch me---"
"Yes, I know," he answered swiftly, "and I will.
What I need to do won't take very long," he assured her, leading her past the
arched doorways marking the entrances to the various living areas, and the formal
dining hall which was getting extra special treatment judging by the teams of
workers that were scurrying about as they walked by. A suspicious creature by
nature, Alexien's thoughts were still centered on Akrios' revelation about an
apparently healthy Kettria skulking about the castle. Something about that bothered
him, and so he located Tanezy and left a still-protesting Julitta with her before
turning and heading toward the door that led down to the dungeon.
Quite familiar with the path, he descended the
slimy stone steps which were barely lit by the dim lanterns that were hung sporadically
along the wall. The staircase twisted and spiraled deeper and deeper into the
bowels of the castle until he reached the bottom. The on-duty guard swept a
glance in his direction, but did not comment and let him pass, and so Alexien
meandered his way past the cramped cells, working his way by memory, intent
on locating one particular prisoner...
... and his timing was rewarded, because he found
Kettria kneeling on the cold stone floor across from her brother's cell, her
fingers wrapped around the bars, whispering quietly. She looked up quickly at
Alexien's approach, startled, and he saw her draw back from the cell as though
her hands had just been scalded. Rather odd behavior, Alexien thought,
but he kept his face and voice pleasant.
"You're looking surprisingly well, Kettria,"
Alexien commented. "I had heard you were suffering from NeoPox, but I see that
I was misinformed." He watched as her eyes averted, and then he glanced toward
the cell which held a gaunt male Ixi, white fur dirty and matted, his expression
sullen. The stone walls of his cell displayed hundreds of scoured marks created
by sharpened horns, each slashed mark detailing a full day spent within the
prison. "And you look absolutely dreadful, Orelis," Alexien remarked honestly.
"Get lost," Orelis growled, eyes flashing furiously
at the interruption. "I'm trying to speak to my sister."
"Well, that's the thing," Alexien replied in
a tone laced with the most insincere sympathy. "When you graduate from unapologetic
thief to treasonous plotter, you lose the privilege of private conversation.
It's one of the hassles of being locked up down here."
"You don't have to remind me of why I'm here,"
Orelis sneered, hands resting on the metal bars. "I've had plenty of time to
think it over. Two years, actually, you filthy spy."
"Oh, you're still just sore that I was the one
to catch you," Alexien carelessly brushed off the insult before leaning forward
to glare coldly at Orelis through the bars. "If you were better at being a traitor,
I wouldn't have tracked you down so easily."
Orelis looked as though he very much wished
to say something else, but he glanced at Kettria and then went quiet, withdrawing
further into his cell until he was just a shadowy outline near the back corner.
Alexien took the opportunity to turn back to Kettria, but noticed that she seemed
incapable of looking him in the eye. Either some fascinating pattern had been
found in the smattering of mold that trailed across the floor... or she was hiding
something. "I'm surprised that you withdrew from the play so suddenly, Kettria,"
Alexien began slowly. "Especially after the king was kind enough to give you
a job so that you could be near your brother."
Her hands nervously twisted themselves together,
but her head finally lifted and he found himself the recipient of an indignant
glare. "I didn't feel well. There's no crime in asking to be excused, is there?"
"No, no crime in that," he agreed, delicately
emphasizing the last word, then flashed the insincere smile he was so skilled
at producing, eyes traveling once more to the lurking shadow at the back of
the cell. "As for whatever else is going on, I cannot say. But I'll have to
leave you two to your private conversation. As charming as this has been, I
really am supposed to be somewhere else."
Starlight was peeking through the high-set windows
as Alexien waited for the rehearsal to end. He was perched in an intensely uncomfortable
chair, the kind that was more for show than for sitting, and he watched as Julitta,
in her role of Lisha, sobbed in complete despair over "Jeran's" supposed demise.
As scripted, the actor portraying Meridell's favorite hero woke to a happy reunion,
Tanezy clapped her hands quickly to gain everyone's
attention and the group of courtiers huddled together like a herd of cattle,
awaiting instructions. Alexien noticed that she paused to say something to Julitta,
something that was beyond his hearing, but it must have been complimentary because
Julitta blushed happily. He supposed she had turned out to be quite good after
all. It seemed all these months he had spent putting up with her melodramatic
fits of temper had led her to the point where she could summon convincing tears
on command, and he filed that knowledge away for the next time she tried
to manipulate him through one of those horrific crying fits.
Alexien rose to his feet as Tanezy dismissed
them, everyone scattering to put away the various props and change from their
costumes. Within moments, Julitta had pounced him, looking completely prepared
for lavish praise.
"I was good, wasn't I?" she demanded without
"Quite good," he agreed.
"And you're being honest?" she prodded uncertainly.
"Julitta, if you were terrible, I would do you
the courtesy of telling you so," he assured her, eyes rising from the young
Acara's face to Tanezy, who was heading their direction. "Go on and change.
I'll wait and walk you home."
She scurried off to do just as he had suggested,
and Alexien turned to Tanezy, who was smiling politely.
"She really did very well. I'm surprised, considering
the short notice," Tanezy said. "She must have worked very hard to learn her
lines so quickly."
"She has been working hard," he agreed, watching
over Tanezy's shoulder as two workers began disassembling the part of the set
they had used for the last scene. "She wants to do this well. I think she wants
to prove that she can fit in here."
"Why would she feel like she wouldn't?" Tanezy
Alexien smiled ruefully. "I may have made her
feel that way, actually. I made a rude comment about her background yesterday
and she's still in a huff over it. It was meant to get her to focus on her etiquette
lessons with Shannun."
"I see," Tanezy said archly, looking disapproving.
"You really are as sensitive as barbed wire, Alexien. You should apologize."
"I'll apologize tomorrow night after all of
this is over. For now, she's dead set on showing that she can blend in with
the crowd up here and I intend on giving her the pleasure of proving me wrong."
He looked Tanezy in the eye then and lowered his voice, changing the subject.
"Tanezy, was Kettria the one to recommend Julitta for this?"
Tanezy blinked at the shift in conversation
and, at his lowly-voiced question, looked over her shoulder with habitual nervousness.
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
Alexien drew back and smiled vacantly. "No reason.
She appeared unconvinced at that as she replied
slowly, "I don't know about that, Alexien. I've learned to be suspicious of
your 'curiosity'... "
To be continued...