This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table
-Fior Deniev, 14 years old-
I could never get used to the feeling when I cross the door into Shibuya. The temperature difference was always a shock, even with the door exiting into an air-conditioned department store. Plus, even with the air-conditioning drying up the air in the store, it was still noticeably more humid than the year-round chilling, dry air of the Deniev Empire. While I had put on a jinbei before crossing, I had no doubts that it would still be terribly hot when I stepped outside of the Shibuya 108. Without fail, as soon as I exited the automatic sliding glass doors (which I still was amazed at), I was hit with a blast of hot, humid air.
Just down the street was the statue of Hachiko – where Alistair, Vell, and I agreed on as our yearly meeting spot. 6:57 PM – nearly the time we had settled on. I sat down on a bench off to the side, tapping my foot to the beat of the street musicians.
Aaaah. The heat is unbearable. Maybe I should go ahead to the festival – I can get a paper fan from one of the stalls there. Or maybe some shaved ice. What time is it now?
As I reached into my pocket to get my pocket-watch, two old women approached me.
“You don’t look like a Japanese person – are you a tourist?”, one of the busybodies asked.
“Did you get separated from your parents? Let’s go look for them – where did you last see them?” The other woman reached for my arm, but I swatted it away.
“I’m old enough that I can take care of myself, but thank you.”
“Wha – how rude! Come with us, you can wait for your parents at the police station.” The same woman grabbed my wrist and started pulling.
-Alistair Vermilion, 12 years old-
Lucky! Only one of the model kits I wanted was left at the camera store, and I had just enough Japanese money from last year’s festival to buy it!
Exiting the camera store, I checked my wristwatch. 6:30 PM, it read – surely, I had more time to mess around before the meeting time, right? I didn’t have any Japanese money left on me, though, so I decided to head to the meeting spot early. As I rounded the corner towards the Hachiko statue, I got a glimpse of blue hair – it was Fior, already at the meeting spot, engaged in a tug of war with two old ladies.
What the hell is he doing?
I felt a soft tap on my right shoulder and turned around to see Vell behind me. Evidently, she had had the same idea as me, to go shopping prior to meeting up at 7, as she held in her right hand a small paper bag.
“Do you think he’s okay…?” she whispered.
“There’s only one way to find out,” I replied. I took a big breath, and -
“FIOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR! ARE YOU OKAY?”
A familiar voice rang out, somewhere on my right. I turned to look, and sure enough, it was Alistair, at the corner of the street, with Vell standing behind him. Before I could shout a response out, I felt my shoes begin to slide on the ground – the two old women were overpowering me.
I saw a face of concern flash over Alistair’s face as he realized what was happening. He wasn’t dumb, after all. Unfortunately for me, a devilish grin was the next expression he displayed, and he reached into a pouch by his waist.
Oh no. What is he going to do now?
All of a sudden, he broke into a full sprint in my direction, his right hand closed tightly. The old ladies, also alerted by his shouting, had set their eyes on him, and one of the women let go of me to intercept him. Alistair then made a strange motion, flicking his hand downwards, and, as he slid to a halt in front of the woman, raised his right arm as if he were pointing a sword.
“CLOSE YOUR EYES!”
Then came an excruciatingly bright flash which painted the world white momentarily, and the bang sound of a firework.
“YOU KNOW WHERE TO MEET!”, Alistair shouted over the chaotic aftermath of whatever he had done. Startled, the old lady let go of my hand, and I took the opportunity to run into the crowd at the scramble crossing, with Alistair and Vell doing the same.
After pushing my way through the crowds at the crossing and turning into an alley down the street, I was the last one to make it to the pawn shop.
“What did you do back there?” I asked.
“Nothing much. Just used one of these.” Alistair opened his hands to reveal a small metallic cylinder with a red button at one end. “I call them flash bombs.”
“Bombs… did you make those yourself?”
“They’re easy to make, you know? Just have a trigger mechanism, which is this red button here, light a spark, and fill the chamber with…” Alistair trailed off as he noticed the disinterested looks on Vell’s and my face.
“Were you two late because of those?” I pointed at the bags each had by their feet.
“Late? We arrived early to the meeting spot, you just arrived earlier. See, right now it’s 6:47 PM!” Vell held up her pocket-watch, which did read 6:47 PM.
“Eh?! I thought it was 6:30?”
Both Vell and I turned around to face Alistair, who was holding up his wristwatch… which read 6:30 PM. Silently, I held up my pocket-watch, which read 7:13, and pointed at the clock on the wall inside the pawn shop, visible through the window, which read the same.
“Ah.” Alistair and Vell both looked downwards sheepishly, realizing that they had both adjusted their watches incorrectly. The three of us stood there awkwardly, and I was unsure if I should scold them for being so careless with timekeeping on a night where inaccuracy meant being trapped in Japan. Right as I opened my mouth, the door swung open, with the jingling noise from the bell hung on the inside handle breaking the awkward tension between the three of us. Leaning through the doorway, the pawn shop owner squinted at us.
“You three coming in or not?”
I entered the store first, with the two trailing behind me. It looked the same as it had for the past 2 years - dimly lit, with various memorabilia and antiques cluttering the shelves behind the shopkeeper’s counter. There was never a distinct smell despite the aging merchandise, which I always found odd; I expected it to smell of antique books, much like the imperial library.
“I don’t know why you three come here at the same time every year. You don’t even look Japanese – European, more like it. What’s with your hair, boy? Light blue? Bit too young to be dressing up like them cosplayers, don’tcha think?” The shopkeeper held out his right hand, turning the screw to turn on his magnifying lamp with his left.
From my pocket, I pulled out a pendant and handed it to him. It was, by all measures, a work of art – an eagle, my grandfather’s emblem, with blue sapphires embedded in its eyes and throughout its spread wings. I had one of the court jewelers create it for me, with the excuse that I would be gifting it to my fiancée. It was the perfect excuse since she was a girl who disliked wearing jewelry, so the jeweler would never find out if I did gift it to her or not. In reality, the “gifts” I requested that the jeweler make for me every year were to be sold here for spending money for the three of us, at the pawn shop in the alleys of Shibuya.
The shopkeeper held the pendant up to his lamp, murmuring approximate values. I could feel the anticipation from Alistair to my left and Vell to my right – how much spending money would we get this year? The previous year, I had brought a ring made of a silver alloy, which had netted us 20,000 yen; enough to enjoy the festival for sure, but we barely had enough to buy things to research the culture of this world with. Vell would always leave early to go buy books for her collection – she had the firmest grasp on the Japanese language out of the three of us. On the other hand, Alistair would always buy plastic model kits – he always went on and on about how the designs of this world’s fictional mechanical warriors were way more interesting than the ones in his kingdom. As for me, I would always keep the leftover money, and bring it for the next trip; nothing had caught my eye yet, but if there was an expensive item I wanted, I knew I should save up for it. Finally, with a sigh, the shopkeeper turned to me.
“I can give you 45,000 yen for this. That okay with you?”
I nodded my approval, not knowing enough about this world’s jewelry to haggle, and he opened the cash register, pulling out nine 5000-yen bills. As soon as he handed them to me, I felt the energy of the two beside me peak. I separated the money into three equal portions, and distributed them – Vell put the money away in her paper bag, while Alistair held the money upwards triumphantly as if holding up an award for honor.
Turning back to the shopkeeper, I bowed to convey my gratitude. As the three of us walked towards the door, I heard him sigh.
“Tanabata every year sure is strange. I bet those two kids will pop in later, too.”
By the time the three of us arrived at the festival, it was nearly time for the fireworks show to begin – about twenty minutes left. Our stomachs were beginning to grumble, agitated by the fragrant smell of okonomiyaki and yakisoba. Thankfully, the food stall lines were beginning to thin, as people began leaving for optimal spots to view the fireworks from. The three of us split up to browse the stalls before heading to our own spot. I got my usual – a tray of takoyaki, another of yakisoba, a candy apple, and a bottle of ramune. A total of 1100 yen, barely a dent in the wallet.
As I made my way out of the festival grounds to the building that we watched the fireworks from every year, I thought about what it had just cost me to purchase the festival fare. 1100 yen – from what I could tell from the prices of other merchandise sold in stores around Shibuya, this was very affordable, likely less than an hour’s wage. Back home, ingredients like these were of the most luxurious. Apples were near impossible to get, as they were native to a kingdom far past our enemies with which we did not have trade deals, and sugar was reserved for special occasions for the nobility; sweets were not something the commoners had access to.
If sweets were so affordable here, what made them so impossible to get for the working class of the Empire?
Almost as if the gods were reading my mind, the firework show began with a thunderous, cannon-like bang to answer my question. Cannon fire was a sound I had heard far too often from my room, with the nearby training grounds for the imperial guards firing cannonballs on a weekly basis. The crack of the fireworks reminded of the sour reality that the Deniev Empire had been fighting a territorial war for the past thirty years, all to secure a port or two.
I despised it – and my father. The economy was struggling, with the Empire having little land to grow the necessary food to support the citizens; most of our food had to be bought from wealthy merchants from the nearby neutral Gideault kingdom, who traded resources to both the Empire and its enemies at a steep markup. Even worse, our only resource in abundance as a mountainous land was metals – something we could not trade away in a time of conflict. Because of this, the kingdom’s coffers were suffering. The entire imperial family knew this, yet my father stubbornly refused to choose peace and negotiation for access to trade routes. And so, our Empire suffered, unable to afford reallocation of resources to making the lives of our subjects better.
Reaching the top of the stairs, I again was the last one to reach our meeting spot. Alistair and Vell sat at one of the small round tables, with the food already half-eaten. They didn’t notice my arrival – everyone on the rooftop lounge had their eyes glued to the brilliant fireworks display. Silently, I stood behind the two, unwrapped the candy apple, and took a bite.
The outside coating may have been sweet, but the apple inside was sour.