Taking the Long Way: Part Five
Part Five: Completing Quests
He found it odd that there had been some bizarre attempt
at making the dungeon "festive". The place still held its usual dark, dank,
cheerless atmosphere, but now, due to the season, it was broken up here and
there by a few dozen dry, wilted holly wreaths, likely last year's discards.
Alexien was unable to see it from his current vantage point, but when he had
been brought in the day before, he had seen a transplanted axe shrub near the
door, which had been strung with some non-functioning tree lights and the most
pathetic paper ornaments he had ever seen, likely created by the dungeon's inhabitants.
Alexien was pacing his cell, able to take a full
four steps back and forth to either side before meeting the opposite wall. His
eyes kept brushing past scratched initials and messages carved into the stone
by previous occupants. He re-read them for what had to be the sixtieth time,
bored beyond description, since most of the other cells were emptied for the
holidays. Skarl had apparently succumbed to some sort of holiday-induced streak
of benevolence and had allowed the lesser criminals their freedom, though Alexien
was fairly certain that most of them would find their way back through some
sort of mischief before the new year was rung in.
He looked up at the sound of a voice just outside
his cell door and saw a pair of green eyes staring back at him through the bars.
"Should I track down your owner?" called the
guard. "She might get you out of here quicker."
"I don't have an owner," Alexien sneered back.
"I have an assistant. Don't bug her."
"All riiiight," came the drawled response, as
though the guard felt certain Alexien would be waiting in there a long while
if his release was contingent upon the return of Skarl's good humor.
And so the waiting continued, endless, interminable,
and the longer he was left there, the more ornery he became. Alexien knew that
Skarl's curiosity about the events in Sakhmet and the rediscovery of Qasala
were probably driving him just as mad at this point. He settled himself on the
floor, ignoring the dinner the guard shoved through the flap, mind full of satisfying
images, such as Skarl pacing his audience room, and Skarl forgoing dinner due
to sheer distraction -- okay, that last one was quite unlikely, but it was
still a nice mental picture.
And when they finally came for him, hauling him
free of that broom closet of a cell, he had worked himself into such a state
of self-righteous indignation that he was sure it was written across his face
as he was led up the slippery, spiraling staircase, through the dungeon doors,
and into the first breath of fresh air he'd been exposed to in almost a full
day. A stark contrast to the filth underneath the castle, the upper floor was
immaculate, swept clear, gleaming floors and decorations and servants dressed
in freshly-ironed clothes, which only served to remind him that he was still
wandering about in the same drab, dirty brown garment he'd worn out of the Lost
Desert. Not exactly a grand impression, certainly….
He and his guard escort were met at the door
to Skarl's audience room by Riezin, who had managed to reappear in time for
this confrontation, whether to be helpful or just to observe the coming tirade,
Alexien was not certain. Riezin opened the door and gestured for the guards
to release Alexien, who stepped into the room to find King Skarl, crown askew,
slouching lazily on his throne, the remnants of what looked to be a full eight-course
meal off to the side. Alexien's stomach growled at the sight, and he recalled
that it had been quite a long time since that pathetic bowl of gruel he'd wolfed
down upon crossing into Meridell the day before.
Upon Alexien's entrance, Skarl stopped gnawing
on the turkey leg in his hand and dropped it back onto the platter, exhaling
a heavy breath, pure displeasure radiating from him in palpable waves. Around
him stood a half dozen or so advisors, sycophants, and the usual hangers-on,
who alternately shook their heads at his behavior, smirked at his misfortune,
or appeared concerned that the king's temper might take a nasty turn in their
"I'd start with an apology," Riezin quietly suggested
in Alexien's ear before moving to stand to the side, an armed spectator.
"The last time you did this…," Skarl began slowly
in his gruff voice, scratching at his head as though bringing the memory back
to the surface, "…I told you I was going to send you to the dungeon for a week.
Maraqua, wasn't it? When you wandered back a full month after a resolution was
"There were extenuating circumstances, Your Majesty,"
Alexien answered reasonably, smiling with the supreme innocence of the wrongly-condemned.
"And you had others there as well…."
"They didn't come back with the same information."
"That's because they didn't pay attention," Alexien
nodded sagely. "They were well-paid and unmotivated, and so they took the lazy
way out. Not surprising."
"Would you like me to pass on your assessment
of them?" Skarl inquired with a humorless smile, reaching once more for the
discarded turkey leg.
"Feel free, Your Majesty, but it's the same thing
I told them back then," Alexien replied calmly, mind conjuring up the rather
nasty brawl those comments had provoked at the Marauder's Inn earlier that spring.
A half dozen of Meridell's elite spies being arrested on Scurvy Island over
a fistfight; not exactly the highlight of their careers, but he remembered it
fondly, at least….
Skarl blinked in surprise at Alexien's admission,
and then, quite unexpectedly, he began to chuckle, a slow laugh that built into
a humorous roar, and Alexien watched out of the corners of his eyes as the advisors
shifted restlessly and whispered into each other's ears. Skarl inhaled a loud,
choking breath and pointed the turkey leg in Alexien's direction, like a scepter
about to bestow a whim.
"You know, I was going to be rather hard on you
this time," he began, dark eyes lighting on his errant "emissary", as though
graciously providing him a cue for an apology. When none came, he frowned, the
skin on his forehead furrowing into deep ridges. "I should remove you from my
service and lock you up just for being so aggravating."
"You probably should," Alexien easily agreed.
"I'm not terribly obedient; however, I suppose the swift return of bad information
is more valuable than good information that is sometimes delayed. It is, as
always, your decision entirely, sir."
Skarl's expression sunk back into a sulk at that,
and Alexien cast a glance at Riezin, whose face fell forward to rest in one
hand, a gesture of pure disbelief at the regaining and subsequent loss of Skarl's
"You're not very circumspect for a spy, are you?"
Skarl barked at him.
"I'm not spying on you, Your Majesty," Alexien
replied, smiling disarmingly. "If I was, this conversation would have gone completely
"And what was the cause of your…delay?" the king
inquired, putting a delicate stress on that last word, as though he disliked
Alexien hesitated, aiming a furtive look of warning
in Riezin's direction. "A personal matter," he said unhelpfully. With Skarl's
mood swinging back and forth from angry to amused, bringing up the subject of
leniency for Celleny's farm was not a smart course of action. The king might
decide to go against extending the tax deadline for her simply because it was
what had delayed his return. Thankfully, Riezin said nothing, and Skarl decided
to change the subject.
"What can you tell me about Sakhmet? And Qasala?
What of this Prince Jazan?" he sneered the name, sounding as though he highly
doubted that the mysterious Jazan's noble lineage could ever measure up to his
"Plenty," Alexien assured him wryly. "I was lucky
enough to be caught inside the city when it disappeared and was cut off from
Neopia. It's quite an interesting story, actually, and I can tell you a great
deal about Jazan and his new wife, as well as a few interesting things about
the Princess Amira. However, first…."
"Yes?" Skarl prompted, leaning forward in his
chair, palms resting on his knees.
"Are you comfortable with everyone here hearing
everything I have to say?" Alexien hinted for the king's benefit, as Skarl was
not one to consider the fact that treachery could easily be standing around
him and wearing a trusted face, just as he consistently planted his own people
in the various lands around Neopia.
Skarl gestured quickly for the room to clear,
and it did, though some moved slower than others, faces turned nearly in profile,
as though hoping to catch something worth hearing, and Alexien made a mental
note of those he caught doing this. When the heavy wooden door was shut behind
the last courtier, Alexien turned back to the king, a pleased smile crossing
his face as he added, "And secondly…"
"Secondly?" Skarl questioned. "What now?"
"Discussion of payment," Alexien said flatly.
"Payment?! For what? You haven't told me anything!"
the king roared back incredulously, thumping his glass down on the tray with
enough strength to nearly upend the table of leftover food.
"Yes, sir, I realize that, but I wanted to request
a different form of payment this time, and I'd like you to agree to it before
"What do you want?" came the suspicious request,
Skarl's eyes narrowing into unhappy slits at being kept waiting, like a child
whose favorite toy is consistently being dangled by a mean elder sibling and
then moved out of reach.
"There is a farm at the west end of Turnip Close,"
Alexien began, carefully modulating his tone into pure indifference. "It's about
three kilometers from my own property. Its owner has failed to pay the marrow
tax this season and I'd like to take the opportunity to snatch it up. It's good
land, you know."
Skarl bellowed another laugh. "My, my, and to
do such a thing to someone during the holidays! You're rather heartless, aren't
you? And since when are you a farmer?"
"I'm not, but it's good land and it's not being
taken care of properly. I can guarantee it will be turned around and producing
by next summer. An investment."
Skarl was silent for a moment as he considered
it, and then he finally nodded in agreement, loose crown bobbing. "Done. I shall
write a note to the Exchequer as soon as we're finished here. But first, answer
this question…," he requested, brow furrowed in genuine confusion as he studied
Alexien through squinted eyes. "What in Fyora's name are you doing wandering
back into my court looking like that? You're casting a glare…."
The sun was just sinking into the west, pale
orange-pink light curving around the towers of Meridell castle, when Alexien
exited the Exchequer's office, deed to Celleny's farm in hand. It was signed
and sealed and free of a tax burden. And, he realized, he had just spent three
additional months of his life being baked in the desert, suffering sand-filled
shoes and the smell of Apis and, even worse, the Sakhmetian version of court
life, all for the ownership of a rundown, unproductive marrow farm. Skarl had
certainly gotten the better end of the deal.
No sooner had that thought completed itself when
a familiar impatient step came up beside him, and he turned to find the dark
faerie smirking at him out of the corner of her eye.
"You turned me in," he commented, more a conversation-starter
than an accusation, and she nodded, purple-coated lips curling into a wicked
"I did. It was quite satisfying, actually. Now
reject my quest so that I can move on."
They headed down the stairs that led to the front
gate, the castle lawns sprawling out in front of them, full of perfectly tended
winter plants and bushes that were carefully trimmed into various shapes, most
notable of which was the massive spiky bush that had been carved into King Skarl's
likeness, expression triumphant…though over what, exactly, always perplexed
Alexien. He glanced upward as fat snowflakes began to waft their way downward
from the darkening sky, then turned to the dark faerie to ask the question that
had been nagging at him for the last few days. "Why do you need that plushie
so badly? Really? What do you intend to do with it?"
"World domination," she sneered sarcastically.
"Mind you own business. Either get it for me or reject."
Alexien heaved a tired sigh at that all-too-familiar
demand. "Fine, fine. At this point, I just want to get home and---"
He looked up toward the front gate at the sound
of those two familiar voices and saw Celleny hurrying toward him, Wiltshire
hopping madly right behind her, feathered hat perched awkwardly on his head.
Breathless, Celleny reached him first and grabbed onto his arm as though she
expected him to flee from her in the other direction.
"Did it go all right? Did they keep you in the
dungeon very long?"
"It's fine, just as I said it would be." He shrugged
carelessly, reaching into his dusty, travel-worn cloak and extracting the farm's
deed. He handed it to Celleny, who opened it and eyed the wording and signature
first with astonishment, and then with open confusion.
"It's…in your name," she murmured. "What did
you do to get this…? Did…did you have to buy my farm?" she asked, sounding horrified
at the thought, brown eyes widening.
Quietly considering the best way to answer that,
Alexien figured the easiest way to settle this entire affair was to tell a half-truth,
seeing as how pure honesty would have her banging down his door each week with
a mortgage payment, and the very thought of that was exhausting. All he wanted
now was to go home, lock himself inside, and gorge on gourmet foods until his
stomach bloated him into a useless lump of fur and flesh. "I own it, but I acquired
it through completely treacherous means, I assure you," he lied, deadpan.
"You…did you gamble for it or something?" she
asked, shaking her head, clearly not understanding. Wiltshire, too, seemed confused,
his overly-large eyes blinking from over Celleny's shoulder, as though he was
trying to put the pieces together in his head.
"Yes," Alexien agreed emphatically, gratefully
seizing on the excuse. "The king's Exchequer is from Krawk Island. Bilge Dice,
I just can't get enough of it. It's a terrible habit."
"But, sir," Wiltshire interrupted, frowning thoughtfully,
"the Exchequer is from Brightv--"
"Be quiet, Wil," Alexien said quickly, falsely
cheerful as he pointed to the line on the deed that bore his name. "I'm willing
to sell it back to you, Celleny."
"Sell it?" she repeated quietly, glancing from
the deed to his intent face. "For how much?"
Alexien glanced just over his shoulder at the
dark faerie who was practically seething at being kept waiting yet again. He
then turned back to the waiting Celleny with a firm demand. "I'll sell it to
you for a Red Meerca Plushie," he offered, but then his eyes narrowed sternly
as he added, "…and that letter of apology to Leto."
Going home did not initially prove to be as thoroughly
relaxing as Alexien had hoped. He had first walked in to shrill shrieks of "Intruder!"
from Julitta, who had failed to recognize him at first sight as a Kyrii…but
he had noticed quickly enough that she had stolen his best winter coat and was
apparently prancing about the house in it. His brother had raided the pantry
of gourmet foods during his absence, but Senya had quickly smoothed Alexien's
rising temper and ravenous stomach by scurrying into the village for a quick,
replacement shopping trip. That night he had eaten until he was full to bursting,
nearly ill, really, satisfyingly so, and he'd had to fight the urge to crawl
his way up the stairs to his room, to the comfort of his own bed. And, of course,
he had dead-bolted the door behind him.
Still, it was nice to be back home. The house
had been run smoothly while he was gone. Everything was in place and unchanged,
just as he liked it. Wiltshire had returned to the king's service, though several
of his fellow Quiggles had become permanent helpers on Celleny's farm. Due to
that, the place was rapidly shaping up into something halfway decent.
Celleny had fulfilled her end of the bargain
by purchasing the Red Meerca Plushie in town (though, as she was broke, she'd
had to borrow the neopoints from an exasperated Alexien). He, in turn, had presented
it to the dark faerie who had smirked, waved a hand to bless Wiltshire, then
evaporated with a few rude parting words for the scowling Alexien.
Proof of Celleny having fulfilled her second
obligation came by post about a week later, hand-delivered to him by Julitta,
who had seemed impressed by his receiving a letter bearing the seal of the royal
court of Sakhmet. Upon opening it, he quickly recognized Leto's neatly-scrawled
I hope this letter finds you well and at home,
as I presume that you are by now. I received a rather strange letter from someone
who claims to be an acquaintance of yours, a note of profuse apology and a money
draft to cover a debt of which I have no memory. So, certainly, I felt compelled
to write and ask you…what in the world did you say to this poor girl to convince
her to repay a nonexistent debt to someone she has never met? I do hope you
have not caught me up in one of your "intrigues". If you have, details would
be appreciated and, perhaps, advance warning next time…?