The Replacement Courtier: Part Four
Part Four: Plots and Plays
On the night of the banquet, Meridell Castle was lit
and decorated to the hilt, and clearly on display for King Hagan's contingent.
An enormous Brightvale flag was hung ostentatiously beside an equally-sized
Meridell flag, both flapping in the gentle breeze as the formally-attired guests
filed toward the front entrance. The path to the entry hall was flanked by yellow
and white poppies situated in urns that were overflowing with green, leafy plants.
The lilting chords of distant music could be heard, but as was his habit, Alexien's
ears were trained more for picking up on the murmuring conversations he passed.
Julitta was walking beside him, nervous and seemingly unable to decide what
to do with her hands, as she kept clenching and unclenching her fingers.
"We should have brought Shannun," she whispered
hesitantly, and he noticed that the closer they got to the entrance, the slower
she was moving, as though she was about to walk into the belly of some giant,
"Shannun wasn't invited," Alexien reminded her.
"You're not allowed to bring an entourage to these things, you know." Weary
of moving at a slorg's pace, he grabbed her arm and pulled her along, ignoring
her hissed protests as he hauled her up the stairs. He rushed them past the
crowd of people, headed for the receiving line. He could see King Hagan over
the crowd of heads standing next to his shorter brother, and could hear that
familiar rumbling laughter. Alexien shifted and manipulated his way until they
reached the line, shoving a mortified Julitta up ahead of him. At that point,
she began to tremble.
"Who do I greet first?" she whispered anxiously,
and then sheer panic crossed her features. "Oh...oh, no...I've completely
forgotten everything Shannun said."
Alexien shook his head in exasperation and traded
places with her, moving ahead. "Calm down. Just go through the line. They're
standing in that order for a reason."
"What if I trip?" she hissed breathlessly.
"I'll make fun of you," Alexien admitted honestly.
He spared her a worn look before stepping up
to take his turn greeting King Hagan, a quick bow, some exchanged words, and
then on to Skarl for another round of pleasantries. Julitta tried to hear what
he was saying, but she could not. It was as though her ears were filled with
wool, and her mind was completely betraying her with its emptiness, not providing
her anything to say, witty or otherwise.
"This one appears to be frozen," King Hagan
declared good-naturedly, and Julitta turned a horrified look on him.
"She's shy, sir," Alexien interjected quickly,
moving back to retrieve Julitta who was now conspicuously blocking the line.
It was that motion toward her that broke through the ice and she quickly sank
into a curtsy and greeted him with a shaky "Good evening".
"Shy?" Hagan repeated, chuckling as he turned
to Skarl. "She looks terrified. What sort of slanderous stories have you been
telling your court, brother?" He turned back to Julitta and nodded. "A pleasure,
my dear, and a good evening to you."
As they moved from the line to the formal dining
hall, Julitta hoped desperately that the floor would do her the favor of opening
up and swallowing her whole. That desire must have been written on her face
because Alexien gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Cute and amusing.
That's all you have to worry about, and you did that. This place is full of
fake smiles; friends here are merely enemies without opportunity. That's why
you shouldn't worry about being nervous; they enjoy watching someone new stumble
about in a charming way."
"My, you're certainly jaded, aren't you?" she
"Well, yes, there's that, but I also know how
these places work. The currency here is not neopoints; it's information, and
so the people here have to be careful of what they do and say. You, on the other
hand, being completely innocent and naive, have nothing to worry about."
"I was hoping to blend in," Julitta murmured,
unconsciously slowing her steps as the imposing entry to the formal dining hall
came into view. Everything shone like it was brand new, cleaned and polished
to an impressive standard. The food smells coming from inside were tantalizing,
and her empty stomach began to growl as she hesitated at the entrance. She noticed
that several castle staff members were lurking about directing the guests into
the glittering room.
"If you blend in, you'll be ignored, and I can't
imagine that you would ever be happy about that," Alexien replied wryly. He
said something to one of the staff, and then turned back to Julitta with a grand
gesture. "And now this is where I depart. He'll show you to your seat."
"D-depart?" she stammered, wide blue eyes turning
from the dining hall to lock on his face. "You're not sitting with me?"
"No, sorry," Alexien said, sounding as though
the coming affair was already boring him. "I'll be at Skarl's end of the table
tonight. Since his group of closest friends was zapped by NeoPox, he's had to
scramble to fill his side of the table with people whose names he's actually
been bothered to learn. You can find me in the kitchen after dinner."
"The kitchen?" she repeated stupidly.
"That's where the interesting people are," he
said with a shrug, making a move to walk away before she stopped him with another
"You're not going to watch the play?" Julitta
could hear the whine in her voice, but there was something disconcerting in
feeling that her only friend was being seated at the other end of the world.
"Do you want me to watch it?" he asked grimly,
and he did not bother to disguise his dismay as she nodded vigorously, looking
faintly panicked. "Fine. I'll watch the play and then I'll escape to the kitchen.
Deal? Good. Now go eat...and don't cause a scene."
He was engulfed on all sides by false, polite
laughter and smarmy small talk, reminded yet again as to why he always did his
best to manipulate himself around forced attendance to these mind-numbing dinners.
Alexien, bored to distraction, tuned out the monotonous conversation that was
filtering around him, and, instead, turned to eye Julitta, who was seated near
the end of the other table.
She was sitting stick-straight, and he was fairly
certain she hadn't touched anything that had been put in front of her. Chicken
and gammon...aubergine surprise...loveberry pastries; none of it had been appetizing
enough, apparently, because each dish had been taken away nearly as whole as
it had been delivered. Her hands had remained folded in her lap for most of
the evening, and she was wearing an apprehensive expression. He was half-tempted
to get up and go tell her that the majority of these people were too absorbed
in their own appearances to give much thought to her, but he was distracted
by movement out of the corner of his eye and turned the other way to watch as
Kettria began removing the dishes from the table.
Her eyes remained focused on the task at hand,
but he noticed that her fingers shook as she reached for the plate. She made
no sign or sound of recognition, turning from the table along with the other
staff, and Alexien swiveled to watch her as she walked away, finding it interesting
that she had been demoted to kitchen staff. Perhaps it was punishment for lying
about her supposed "illness" or maybe it was just that, because of the NeoPox
problem, the staff were shorthanded.
She seemed nervous, though, he thought,
that earlier unease about her returning to tick at the back of his mind.
He tried to tuck his suspicions away in order
to focus once more on the conversations occurring around him, but found that
it was impossible. The room was hot; overheated by the sheer number of bodies
crowded inside. Alexien's eyes flickered across the table to the pair of monumental
Skeith ice sculptures he had so accurately predicted days earlier, glossy now
as they began their slow melt. His sight went past them then, toward the doorway
where he noticed Kettria once more, this time standing near one of the hanging
woven tapestries and furtively whispering into the ear of an Aisha, another
staff member, and this one appearing older and disagreeable. They kept casting
quick glances toward the table behind him, and he looked over his shoulder once
more at Julitta, whose head was bowed now, battling her nerves.
The staff continued working to remove all of
the used dishes from the tables, and Alexien took the stall in the festivities
as his opportunity to escape the heat. He moved back toward the entrance and
decided to lurk there, pulling uncomfortably at his collar and silently cursing
the thing as he watched a gowned Tanezy rush in to collect Julitta. The other
play participants left the room to change into their costumes and the middle
of the floor was cleared for the workers to come in with the set for the first
scene, which resembled Skarl's throne room and was erected with admirable efficiency.
The lighting was changed and the room darkened, the hum of conversation falling
into a softer murmur along with the dimming light. Workers hurried to and fro,
and the actors filed out once more, assembling on the stage: the court dancer,
the king, and Julitta-as-Lisha wearing those ridiculous foam Aisha ears.
Alexien could have guessed the play would not
go especially well given that from the very beginning there were glaring inaccuracies...in
Skarl's favor, of course. In this version of the retelling, only the king and
Lisha escaped the court dancer's enchantment, and so it was easy to tell that
the thing had been "adjusted" in order to keep Skarl from appearing to be a
gullible dimwit in his brother's company. Julitta's voice shook every time she
spoke, wavery and uncertain, and Alexien supposed that perhaps she had been
truthful when she had said she was shy. Julitta loved to be the center of attention,
certainly, but there was a difference when public humiliation was a distinct
possibility. By the end of the first scene her nerves were apparent to everyone,
as she forgot her last line. An uncomfortable silence descended and Alexien
watched as she blinked in confusion, as though the right line was hovering in
memory but demonstrating about as much stage fright as she felt.
One of the other actors put her out of her misery
by quickly hissing the line, and she stumbled through it, bringing the scene
to a close with the king having sent off his soldiers to the battle at the Citadel.
Julitta appropriately evaporated during the next scene, which was the fight
between Jeran and Lord Kass, stiffly orchestrated and clearly choreographed
by someone who had never even held a sword, much less used one in an actual
battle. Probably Tanezy, Alexien thought wryly.
The play faltered to a close with Julitta displaying
another remarkable crying scene, her embarrassment over forgetting her earlier
line probably providing more than enough motivation to sob hysterically over
"Jeran". Then there was the miraculous return to life and a happy ending. Lights
lifted, and the uproarious applause began as though it had been a masterpiece
from start to finish. Alexien sincerely hoped that the real Jeran and Lisha
were nowhere in the crowd so that they could be spared that humiliating rendition.
Having made good on his promise to watch the
doomed play, Alexien moved across the room toward the exit that would take him
to the kitchen. The play actors rushed away to change with a somber Julitta
trailing behind, her expression distant as though she was still reliving her
awful performance. Alexien blinked in surprise, drawing up short as Kettria
slipped around the corner of the staff entrance carrying a silver tray that
held two gilt cups and an uncorked bottle. Kettria thrust the tray into Julitta's
surprised hands, whispered something urgently to her, gestured toward the king
and his honored guest, and then turned quickly in flight from the room.
Julitta froze for a moment, staring blankly
at the empty space Kettria had just vacated, then turned uncertainly toward
King Skarl. That urgent ticking in the back of Alexien's mind resurfaced, and
he recalled that strange meeting in the dungeon with Kettria and Orelis...Kettria's
feigned illness...her suggestion that Julitta fill her place...
Summoning her nerve, Julitta clenched the tray
between her fingers as though she feared she would drop it and humiliate herself
yet again. Alexien altered his course to intercept her as she began walking
toward the table where Skarl was seated, immersed in a rowdy, boastful conversation
with Hagan. The king looked up as the nervous Acara blankly tried to recall
any sort of etiquette lesson that could be used in a circumstance such as this,
but Shannun had only taught her the role of a guest. She never had the opportunity
to offer the contents of the tray to him, however, because her arm was grasped
and she turned to find Alexien leaning forward to whisper into her ear.
"Don't serve that to him," he warned grimly.
Julitta frowned, her eyes traveling to the king
who seemed to be growing impatient at being kept waiting. "Why? Is it something
in the etiquette that Shannun didn't cover? She said the kitchen is understaffed
because of the NeoPox problem and asked if I could please take this to---"
"It's got nothing to do with etiquette. The
problem is the person who gave this to you." Alexien picked up the chilled bottle
and quickly poured some of its contents into one of the cups. Julitta stopped
speaking, watching as he halted a passing Eyrie by grasping a sleeve and extending
the cup. "Drink it."
"Huh?" the Eyrie questioned stupidly, eyeing
the cup as though he was being offered a glass of swill. "That's the king's!
I can't just---"
"What in the world do you think you're doing?"
Skarl demanded, turned in his throne-like chair now to watch the unfolding scene.
"Drink it," Alexien sternly ordered the Eyrie
again, face darkening.
The drink disappeared in three quick gulps and
the Eyrie shoved the heavy golden cup back toward Alexien, as though he'd rather
not be caught with it. The king's table stirred with discontented tones at the
disruption. The Eyrie paused for a moment, eyeing Alexien and Julitta as though
he was forming a question, one that he never voiced. Without preamble, he dropped
to the floor like a sack of potatoes, instantly halting conversation at the
nearby table. The silence traveled, and curious eyes turned their direction
as Alexien placed the cup back on the tray, eyebrows lifted at Julitta in that
infuriating "I-told-you-so" manner.
He then turned to the king, a wide apologetic
smile crossing his face. "It seems to have gone bad, Your Majesty."
To be continued...