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The Replacement Courtier: Part Five

by senya


Part Five: An Evening Interrupted

"What is the meaning of this?" King Skarl roared, seized by bad temper at the sudden collapse of one of his guests. He was clenching at the armrests of his chair, fixing Julitta with a malevolent stare. Behind him at the table, the murmuring had resumed, this time with a more urgent undertone. King Hagan was sitting quietly, hands folded and watching the scene with a light frown.

      Alexien bent to inspect the fallen Eyrie, then looked back up at the seething monarch. "He's only asleep, sir; he'll be fine."

      "And that was meant for me?" Skarl demanded, pointing at the prone body as though it were offensive.

      "Yes, sir, clearly," Alexien calmly verified, stepping aside as two of the other guests moved forward to extricate the dozing Eyrie from the floor. Alexien glanced carefully at Julitta who was visibly trembling, practically wilting under the king's unwavering gaze. She caught the look and swiftly placed the tray on the floor, pulling her hands back so quickly one would have thought she was expecting it to snap at her.

      Julitta's mind spun crazily with what she had suddenly found herself immersed in. Alexien had always complained about the ever-present scheming within the walls of this castle, but she could not imagine how she had managed to so easily stumble into this. It was naivete, he always accused her of that, and here was the proof. In her mind, it was courtesy to follow through when someone requested a favor, but things seemed to work so differently in this place...

      "Your Majesty!" came a shrill voice from behind, and Alexien and Julitta turned to watch as a white Aisha stepped forward, pale and unhappy-looking... and Alexien instantly recognized her as the same Aisha Kettria had been so furtively whispering with before the play. Her mouth was set into a firm line and she said with offended dignity, "No one on my staff would have ever done something so malicious. Every person involved in the preparation of the food has been serving in this castle for at least a year, many longer than that. They are all good, loyal workers."

      "What are you trying to say, Xaedira?" Alexien carefully asked in a tone that was equally unfriendly.

      She turned a haughty glare in his direction, as though he was something she would normally scrape off of the bottom of her shoes. "I'm saying that the situation is interesting, given the background of this girl. A pirate's daughter? Who on earth would invite such an individual to the king's table? And everyone saw how nervous she was all evening; she looked fairly sick with anxiety. That doesn't seem to be in order for someone with a carefree conscience."

      "Ah, repeating what Kettria told you, I see," Alexien nodded in understanding, noticing that, indeed, Julitta was once more wearing the ill look of which she'd been accused. "And can you think of any particular reason why Julitta could possibly want to poison the king? Even people with suspect backgrounds need motives, Xaedira. Or have you spent so much time closed up inside these walls that you've forgotten that not everyone spends their sleepless nights plotting and scheming?"

      "If she's a pirate's daughter, she probably hoped the commotion it caused would allow her to... steal or whatever it is those scoundrels do," Xaedira returned fiercely. "I also find it interesting that she resides in your home... and that your brother is a renowned chemist, known for his potionery skills."

      "And so now this extends to myself and my brother?" Alexien laughed at the absurdity. "Let me make this clear for you, Xaedira: Shannun doesn't have a duplicitous bone in his body and as infuriating as the king's service can be, I don't forget that part of my job is to prevent these sorts of things from occurring. If you'll graciously recall, that is exactly what I have done this evening. I acted on a bad feeling; I get paid to do that." He smirked at her then as he added, "Really, accusations carry so much more weight when there's at least a small amount of thought behind them."

      Alexien turned his back to Xaedira as though she were no longer worth his time, and focused in on the sulky king once more. "Sir, I admit that Julitta's father was once a pirate, but she has been a member of my household for some time now and I can vouch for her character. She would not deliberately harm anyone, and she came here tonight at the invitation of Tanezy."

      "If you do not believe it was her, then who was it?" Skarl asked skeptically, dark beady eyes glowering. "I trust my staff. She is the unknown factor here, and I do not believe in coincidence." With a wave of one ringed hand, Skarl summoned the guards that had assembled at the dining hall entrance to await his final judgment on the matter. "Arrest and hold her until this is resolved."

      Julitta, who had silently allowed Alexien to speak for her, was startled at the sudden order and became tearful as the guards moved toward her. She looked desperately to Alexien, who appeared angry and unhappy as he said, "Sir, your guards should be downstairs in the dungeon. I believe there's something far more serious going on down there."

      "What do you mean?" Skarl asked suspiciously.

      "Unfortunately, the one I suspect to be the real culprit behind this likely knew that I would think it was her, and so she has arranged a situation in which the accused individual is the one person that would detain me," Alexien revealed grimly, gesturing half-heartedly at Julitta. "Meanwhile, she is downstairs, likely freeing her brother from his cell as we bicker over this nonsense."

      "Are you accusing Kettria?" Xaedira demanded haughtily. "That's ridiculous! She's been---"

      "---waiting all this time for an opportunity to set her brother free," Alexien interrupted quietly. He cast a look at the guards; they had a hold of Julitta, but seemed to be lingering in order to hear the rest of the unfolding plot. Alexien took advantage of their hesitance by turning to the king in appeal. "If you'll remember, sir, Kettria's younger brother, Orelis, defected during the war with Kass. He was eventually arrested for treason and has remained in the dungeon all this time."

      Skarl rubbed thoughtfully at his chin as he summoned up old memories. "Yes, yes," he muttered absently. "I seem to remember something about that. The little Ixi brat, correct?"

      "Yes, sir," Alexien confirmed. "I was the one to catch him. Both he and Kettria have held me responsible for his imprisonment... and you for keeping him there. When Kettria came to beg you for his release, you denied it, but allowed her employment in the castle so that she could be near him."

      Skarl nodded once more. "But that was clearly a magnanimous gesture on my part. Assaulting me at my own banquet hardly seems fitting compensation for such generosity."

      "Your Majesty," Alexien went on patiently, speaking slowly as though to a child, "Kettria feigned NeoPox in order to escape preparations for the play. Doing that allowed her to suggest Julitta as a replacement, a friend of mine who happened to have a less than ideal upbringing. This allowed Kettria access to a role in this banquet that was more behind the scenes, as well as providing her with a convenient scapegoat. She orchestrated this commotion to disguise her true intentions, which were to hurry downstairs during the confusion and free Orelis. You only have a skeleton guard down there at the moment, sir; everyone is up here, attending to the dinner." Alexien leaned forward then, hoping the king would heed his words. "Kettria was the one who handed the tray to Julitta and ordered her to bring it to you. I saw it with my own eyes."

      Skarl was silent for a moment as he took in Alexien's words. He leaned his massive body back in his chair, eyes narrowing in thought. It was Hagan's voice who spoke first, quietly urging his brother.

      "He seems sincere to me, Skarl. His explanation, convoluted as it is, certainly makes more sense than that young girl attending this dinner simply for the opportunity to cause enough disruption to steal some trinket."

      Skarl nodded slowly at Hagan's words, as though his own brain had come to the same conclusion with no assistance. He casually waved the guards away from Julitta. "Go on. Go check out the dungeon. But you," the king added, rudely pointing a finger at Alexien as his guards did as they were bade, "had better be right. I don't appreciate my banquet being interrupted, and I'll appreciate even less having my guards sent on a hare-brained chase." Skarl made a dismissive gesture toward the tray and its contents. "Remove that and dispose of it properly."

      Alexien stood to the side with Julitta as one of the staff members hurried to see to the king's order. One remaining Chia guard glowered unhelpfully at them, as though he was already assured that the guilty party was in hand. Julitta's eyes were red-rimmed and worried, and she was biting nervously on her lower lip.

      "What if you're wrong?" she whispered in a broken voice.

      "I'm right," Alexien assured her, appearing confident. He leaned back against the cool stone wall, more than ready for the evening to be finished. His opportunity to spend an enjoyable night playing endless rounds of Bilge Dice into the wee morning hours had evaporated, thanks to Kettria's ill-conceived plot. He was hot... really, the dining hall is unbearable... and tired... sleep, yes, that would be good... and itchy... darned formal clothes. He scratched absently at one sleeved arm, waiting for the final verdict about his conclusions, and he was not disappointed.

      Only one guard returned to whisper something into the king's ear. Skarl's protuberant eyes widened perceptibly, and then he nodded and gestured the guard away before turning toward Alexien and Julitta. He crooked a finger in summons, and Alexien returned to his side.

      "They found the on-duty guard asleep at his post and Orelis' cell empty. If you have any idea where they might have escaped to, now would be the time to inform the guards," Skarl suggested.

      "I'll take Julitta home, and then I'll come back to help with the search, sir."

      The king nodded in hesitant agreement. "Make it quick. I want that traitor back in his cell by morning... and his sister with him."

To be continued...

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Other Episodes

» The Replacement Courtier: Part One
» The Replacement Courtier: Part Two
» The Replacement Courtier: Part Three
» The Replacement Courtier: Part Four
» The Replacement Courtier: Part Six

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