The Replacement Courtier: Part Six
Part Six: An Unexpected Compromise
Julitta was silent for most of the walk home, arms folded
together against the cool evening air. It was clear that she did not feel like
discussing her humiliation at the castle, and Alexien did not prompt her. He
knew her well enough to understand that soon she would implode into one of her
hysterical episodes, and his only wish was to get her home for fear that she
would blow up in the street.
When they got home, it was to find that Shannun
had waited up for their return. He began to walk down the stairs toward them,
but Julitta all but fled past him in a blur of silky pink fabric, nearly knocking
him over in her haste.
"How'd it go?" Shannun called after her, but
the only response he received was the slamming of her bedroom door. He then
turned to carefully eye Alexien who began walking up the stairs at a more sedate
pace, peeling off the restricting dinner jacket as he ascended. "Well?" Shannun
"It was a disaster," Alexien said bluntly as
he passed him on the carpeted steps. "If you want to know all the details, go
talk to Julitta. I'm sure she's preparing a hysterical meltdown to put all of
her previous ones to shame."
Shannun frowned at those ominous words, following
Alexien down the hallway toward his bedroom. Immediately upon entering the room,
Alexien headed straight for the closet and the more comfortable casual clothes
that lurked behind the doors. He halted and did a double-take as he noticed
that Julitta's Gallion was now sprawled across his bed, the chubby overgrown
beast eyeing him with a silent challenge, as if daring Alexien to order him
out of the room as he usually did. Alexien chose to ignore him this time.
"What happened, Alexien? Really, was it that
bad?" Shannun solemnly questioned.
"It was bad," Alexien admitted, sweeping an
honest look back at his brother. "She froze. She forgot her lines. She was nearly
arrested. The king was targeted in a plot. Like I said, get the details out
of her. I'm going to change out of these monkey clothes so I can go help track
down the two idiots behind it all."
Before Shannun could voice the myriad of questions
that came to mind, he quirked an eyebrow at Alexien and his rolled up sleeves.
"Did you eat something with an apple ingredient at dinner?" Shannun asked slowly.
"Look at your arms."
"Heh." Alexien grinned, holding his hands up
and rotating his arms back and forth to display the rash of red blotches that
patched their way unapologetically across skin and fur. "That's no allergy,
that's Neopox. Excellent timing, because I'm long overdue for a vacation." He
glanced meaningfully at Shannun. "I'm going to finish this job tonight, Shannun,
but starting tomorrow, I'm on my deathbed for the next week as far as that castle
and its king are concerned, got it?"
"Only you would be excited about the prospect
of Neopox to get you out of work," Shannun replied with an exasperated shake
of his head.
"I always say that those people make me sick.
Literally, it seems," Alexien said with a smirk, shrugging on another more comfortable
jacket and shutting the closet door. "I'll be back soon. See if you can do something
with Julitta while I'm gone."
"Do you have any idea of where the people you're
looking for are hiding?" Shannun asked skeptically.
Alexien paused at that, appearing thoughtful
as he absently scratched at one of his beleaguered arms. "If you were escaping
prison, where would you go, Shannun?"
"I've never given it much thought," Shannun
mused, watching as Alexien headed back toward the door. "I suppose I'd go somewhere
"Wrong," Alexien answered, smiling faintly.
"And that's exactly the mistake the guards that are searching for them are going
to make. You may be the family genius, but your mind is so straight-laced, I
doubt it's capable of a devious thought. In an escape situation, you're going
to consider where people are likely to look for you and go somewhere else entirely,
"All right," Shannun conceded, "but how does
that help you know where to look for them?"
"Orelis was a thief before he turned traitor,
Shannun," Alexien said seriously, halting at the doorway on his way out. "A
half decent one. He's also extremely recognizable due to having been kept in
close quarters for the past two years with the guards that are pursuing him.
He can't retreat to his old haunts because they'll find him. He was born and
raised in Meridell, which makes it unlikely that he would try to leave the kingdom.
And so what would you do if you needed to hide in a crowd full of people that
"Morphing potion," Shannun murmured instantly.
Alexien's grin returned. "Very good. Kayla's
potion shop is closed and abandoned for the night. How convenient for an escaped
thief, wouldn't you say?"
The night was shadowy and dark, despite Kreludor
looming brilliantly overhead in crescent form. It served their purposes well,
though, because it was easy to slink back into the cover of the building whenever
they would hear the sounds of running feet...presumably guards from the nearby
castle searching for them. Kettria's heart was pounding as Orelis deftly unsealed
the window and removed it, handing it down to her so that she could lay it quietly
in the dewy grass.
Kayla's shop was dark and silent, and so she
supposed it was rather a good thing that they had been delayed in arriving here.
The longer they went unsighted, the more likely the guards were to think that
they were moving further and further away from the castle. Little did old Skarl
know that they were both literally right under his nose, as Kayla's shop was
just down the road from the castle and in plain view of the many arched windows
that spired upward into the sky.
Kettria glanced up as Orelis crawled his way
through the window and then turned to offer a hand to pull her in after him.
As she crept through the window, she saw that he was crouched cat-like atop
a wooden table that was littered with bottles, some empty, some containing various
unidentifiable ingredients. As she moved to clamber off of the table, Kettria
knocked over one of the glass containers and the shattering crash seemed deafening
in the heavy silence. Orelis tensed, listened, and when the quiet resumed he
crept toward a thick, heavy door that led to the storeroom. Kettria trailed
after him, shivering in the chilly air as he pulled open the door, the hinges
creaking lowly. A waft of air escaped the closed room, bringing with it the
unwelcome smells of old dust and fresh mildew.
Orelis slipped inside, gesturing for Kettria
to follow him, leaving the door cracked so that the faded moonlight would allow
them some ability to make out the labels that identified each of the bottles.
There were dozens of shelves of them, all shapes and sizes and colors. He didn't
particularly care what morphing potion he ended up with as long as he could
just locate one and quickly. He ran a finger across each of the labels, searching
diligently, Kettria doing likewise at another shelf.
"They're completely out of order!" Kettria finally
hissed. "How does she find anything in here?"
The vague light source was blocked then, and
both Orelis and Kettria turned to watch as a shadow entered and shut the door
to the storeroom with a heavy wooden thump. There was the sound of a match striking
something, and then the faint glow of fire as an oil lamp on the table was lit,
a ruddy, flickering light that tinged the room to a dim orange.
"You don't like my organizational system, Kettria?"
Alexien asked, sounding wounded. "That's funny. I can remember exactly where
I put everything...well, mostly. The locations of the morphing potions seem
to have slipped my memory." He smiled unkindly. "I'm a bit under the weather
at the moment, so I'm afraid my mind is acting like a sieve..."
"You!" Orelis raged, mouth curling into
a snarl as he recognized the intruder. "If you guessed that we were coming here
and had enough time to switch the bottles around, then why didn't you just summon
Alexien sighed as though it really was too troublesome
to form an answer. He seated himself on the end of one of the tables, strategically
blocking the door. "Yes, an excellent question. Well, as I said, I'm feeling
a bit unwell. I seem to have contracted Neopox during my various forays up at
the castle this week, and I really didn't feel like expending the extra energy
to return and track down an entourage."
Orelis sneered at that, a mocking laugh croaking
from his throat. "If you're sick, then you're hardly in a position to arrest
two unwilling prisoners."
"Oh, I'm only here for one of you," Alexien
quickly clarified as though it were an oversight in manners. "And really, Orelis,
sick or not, I've spent much of the last two years training with Ryshu on Mystery
Island. You, on the other hand, spent the last two years withering away in a
cell. Do you really think an irritating rash is going to give you the upper
hand?" Alexien shook his head, smiling indulgently. "Let's be reasonable, shall
"Reasonable?" Orelis spat back. "You think I'm
just going to walk back there with you? No way, I---"
"Save the tirade," Alexien snapped irritably.
"I have no intention of bringing you back, Orelis. I think two years is enough
time in prison for having betrayed your kingdom. Skarl would disagree with me,
but he's not here to round you up, is he? Run off and hide if you like. I don't
care, but I will be bringing her back with me," Alexien informed them,
nodding at Kettria, who was standing to the side in the shadowy orange glow,
stiff and quiet.
"Me?" she repeated, startled back to life. "But---"
"But what?" Alexien inquired politely. "Where
shall I begin with you, Kettria? You set up Julitta. You attempted to assault
the king. You caused me an evening of sheer aggravation. All of that just to
free your worthless brother."
Orelis took a step toward him and Alexien shot
a warning stare in the Ixi's direction. "I'm the one that's armed, Orelis,"
he cautioned him with the reminder, then turned back to Kettria. "How about
it, Kettria? Your little brother goes free, and you take his place. Seems fair
to me. The alternative is that you both go back. It seems a simple decision."
Neither of them said anything, but Orelis looked to be seething and Kettria's
expression became very grave.
"I have a younger brother, too," Alexien added
wearily, watching as Kettria's head came back up. "I'd probably have done the
same thing...well, I wouldn't have set up an innocent girl, and I wouldn't have
tried to attack the king as a diversion, but I would have worked out
a way to free him if he'd been left to rot in a prison cell. Orelis was locked
up and forgotten. Others that have done worse have come and gone since then.
The king's memory is selective, and his temper is unpredictable. I'm not opposed
to speaking on your behalf, Kettria, and with King Hagan visiting, now's the
best time to do this. Skarl isn't going to want to look like a raving tyrant
in front of Hagan."
"If you felt that it was unfair for me to have
been left there for so long, then why didn't you speak up earlier?" Orelis muttered
resentfully, eyes flashing in the odd light. "All of this might have been avoided."
"Because I don't like you, Orelis," Alexien
admitted with blunt honesty. "I think you're going to be set loose, and you're
going to return to your thieving ways, and you're going to end up back in that
same cozy little cell within a few months. But that'll be up to you to prove
me wrong, don't you think?" Alexien turned to Kettria. "Until tonight, I've
had nothing against your sister. Once I've brought her in, I'll consider us
even for what she pulled with Julitta. I don't like what she did, but I understand
why she did it." A vague smile crossed his face then as he added, "I'm pretty
good at talking things out with Skarl. He can be worn down to agreement if you
just frustrate him enough. So how about it, Kettria?"
"I preferred the idea of finding a couple of
morphing potions and running away," she murmured uneasily.
"Ah, well, then continue looking, by all means,"
Alexien invited with a magnanimous sweep of a poxed arm, encompassing the myriad
of shelves and their contents, "but I should warn you that I might have switched
a few labels as well. You can't really be sure of what you're drinking, and
Kayla stores some pretty nasty concoctions in here."
Kettria's eyes closed in utter vexation at that
admission, and she finally sighed, "I'll go back...but Orelis goes free, right?"
"As a freshly-hatched Pteri," Alexien cheerfully
confirmed. "As far as Skarl is concerned, I never saw him."
"Kettria---" Orelis started to protest, but
she shushed him with a look and a vehement shake of her horned head.
"I'm ready when you are," she said unhappily
Alexien nodded agreeably, snuffing out the lamp
as he hopped down from his perch. "Then let's get out of here. I wouldn't want
to be around when Kayla sees the mess I made of her potions..."
By the time he had safely delivered Kettria
to the king, explained her motives, and squeezed some leniency out of the old
monarch, the pharmacy had closed, leaving Alexien to glare sullenly at the dark
building. Its CLOSED sign stared unhelpfully back at him as he scratched relentlessly
at his arms and neck. Thankfully, Skarl had all but ordered him not to show
his face inside the castle doors again until there was no further sign of the
rash, and so despite the discomfort, Alexien was blissfully ensconced in at
least a full week of vacation, hopefully more if he could find a way to drag
When he returned home, he found Shannun and
Julitta in the main living room, Julitta clearly in the middle of a dramatic
rant over the indignity and humiliation she had suffered that evening. Now that
she was safely out of the castle, she had turned from being terrified and weepy
to haughty and angry. "Alexien! Did you catch that horrible girl?" she demanded
without so much as a greeting when she saw him reach the top of the stairs.
"Yes," he answered succinctly.
"And?" Julitta prompted. He noticed that she
was still enveloped in that ridiculous pink gown.
"And she's up at the castle, likely enjoying
the limited comforts of a very small, cramped cell," he replied, turning toward
Shannun with a pathetic expression. He held up two pox-ridden arms, one hand
taking advantage of the close proximity to start scratching at his neck. "Okay,
little brother, the pharmacy was closed...work your chemical magic and find
a way to keep me from clawing my fur off in clumps."
"You are sick! Didn't I tell you just
the other day?!" Julitta exclaimed, sounding nearly triumphant as she moved
to separate herself from him and his germs via a conveniently located sofa.
Shannun's eyes widened at the plea. "I thought
I was banned from the lab for a month because of that fire?"
"Consider yourself unbanned," Alexien muttered
resentfully. "And burn the place down for all I care, just find a way to put
me out of my misery."
"That leaves so many options," Shannun answered
thoughtfully, a slow grin crossing his face.
"You're not funny," Alexien grumbled as he moved
toward his room and the blissful comfort of the bed that lurked inside it. "Julitta,
quit whining at Shannun. I'll be able to hear you through the walls."
"I'm not whining!" she insisted, trailing slowly
after him at what she supposed was a germ-safe distance. "I'm expressing dissatisfaction
with how I was treated!"
"Yes, loudly and shrilly. I heard you as I was
coming down the street. Go to sleep. I've had enough drama for tonight."
He entered his bedroom and turned to shut the
door, but found a pair of pathetic blue eyes blinking back at him. "Alexien,
was I really so terrible tonight?" Julitta asked in a worried voice. "During
the play, I mean?"
"No, you were perfection," he lied.
"Are you being serious?"
"Yes, completely," he lied again.
"Are you going to sleep now?"
He exhaled an exasperated breath, resisting
the urge to bang his head against the nearest wall, anything to get the sound
of her voice out of his ears for a few consecutive hours. "I'm going to try
if you'll let me shut the door."
She brightened visibly, as though a fluorescent
light bulb had suddenly been switched on behind her eyes. "All right, then I'll
go help Shannun!"
"You do that," he agreed, shutting the door
in her face.
"Good night!" came the cheerful echo from the
other side of the door. He was consistently amazed at how quickly her moods
could shift, from the lowest depths of despair to obnoxiously perky in the space
of a sentence.
"G'night, brat," he muttered in reply, shuffling
the last few steps to the bed before dropping onto it, determined to ignore
that infernal itching...and within moments he was dreaming of mountain-sized
Skeith ice sculptures and endless, itchy etiquette lessons and shrill Acaras
begging for just one more dress.....