Stand behind yer sheriff Circulation: 113,598,787 Issue: 227 | 10th day of Awakening, Y8
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Taking the Long Way: Part Five

by senya


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 direction.

     "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 reached?"

     "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 favor.

     "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 differently."

     "And what was the cause of your…delay?" the king inquired, putting a delicate stress on that last word, as though he disliked using it.

     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 own.

     "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 we begin."

     "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 smile.

     "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 handwriting:

          Dear Alexien,

     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…?

           Most Sincerely,


The End

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Other Episodes

» Taking the Long Way: Part One
» Taking the Long Way: Part Two
» Taking the Long Way: Part Three
» Taking the Long Way: Part Four

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