The Replacement Courtier: Part Five
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
"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
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
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
"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
To be continued...