Chapter 2:

Cold Blood

This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table

-Fior Deniev, 14 years old-Bookmark here

The door between Japan and the Deniev Empire was in an inconspicuous location – on the fifth floor of the Shibuya 108, at the end of the hallway with the restrooms, there was a locked janitor’s closet. For anyone from this world who opened it, that’s exactly what it was, but for those from other worlds, swinging the door open would reveal a different scene on the other side of the door frame. I couldn’t explain the mechanisms that made this possible, but I doubted anyone could. Since it was late in the night, few were around the floor—much less the hallway—to see me going through or feel the ensuing blast of cold air.Bookmark here

Unexpectedly, the one holding my summer coat on the other side was my younger brother, who was leaning against the wall to my right. I had never been close to Erik; we were as different as the sun and moon despite only a year’s time between our births. I was thin and tall and had inherited Mother’s light blue hair and eyes, while Erik was well-built and had my father’s brown hair and eyes. While I was a recluse and academically inclined, Erik was sociable and athletic, talented enough at swordsmanship to be a regular sparring partner for the captain of the Imperial Guard. Undoubtedly, he was the favorite son of the entire imperial court, and I was the black sheep.Bookmark here

Without a word, I took the coat out of his hand, put it on over my jinbei, and walked past him. Bookmark here

“Your fiancée is waiting for you in your room. Go keep her company after you report to Father.”, he said from behind me, not looking my way. I gave no reply.Bookmark here

As I walked down the marble halls of the imperial palace to my father’s office, I felt the chill begin to numb my feet. Erik had not brought me my boots - not that I expected him to. He had never gone through the door to Japan, so he knew nothing about the other side. Since I had met Alistair and Vell, I was the only one who went through the door every year. My father knew they existed, but as far as I knew, he simply believed them to be children of that side, not knowing even their names. He had never indicated that he knew otherwise of their origins.Bookmark here

Displayed on pedestals on both sides of the hallway were marble sculptures depicting my ancestors and their heroic deeds; from off the top of my head, I knew that one had slain a lion with a shortsword, and another had led an outmanned army to a decisive victory centuries ago. It was tradition in the imperial family to have done something considered heroic, and there were few who failed to fulfill that. Those who did were considered a stain on the imperial family’s long history of glory - and the corrupt nobles of the court, along with my father, expected me to turn out that way. They all backed Erik as a more suitable candidate for the throne, but there was no precedent for anyone other than the eldest son to succeed it, so I remained the heir. As long as I was around, I was an obstacle to their plans. A shiver ran down my spine, not from the cold, but from the thought that I might be assassinated one day.Bookmark here

Finally, my walk came to an end. I stood in front of the heavy wooden door of my father’s office - the only thing separating me from whatever cold words my father would speak to me soon. With hesitation, I knocked twice on the door.Bookmark here

“Come in.”Bookmark here

Entering the office, I felt the oppressive presence of my father, the Emperor. Despite the back wall of the office being a large window, his imposing frame blocked much of the sunlight from flooding in. He sat at his neatly organized desk, stroking his full beard as he read over construction proposals and other paperwork, not looking up to acknowledge my arrival.Bookmark here

“Give your report,” he commanded, still staring downwards.Bookmark here

“Nothing much occurred, sir. The night’s activities consisted of having a meal and watching a firework show.”, I replied in an inexpressive voice. Going any further could tip my father off to Alistair and Vell’s otherworldly origins, and I knew that as long as nothing I said piqued his interest, he would not ask any further. I stood there, silently, as he gave no reply, continuing his work.Bookmark here

“If that is all, I will be taking my leave,” I said coldly. Pivoting on my right foot, I turned and took a single step away before one word stopped me in my tracks.Bookmark here

“Wait.”Bookmark here

I remained facing away from him, but a thousand thoughts were running through my head.Bookmark here

What does he want? Does he know about Alistair and Vell? Is this it?Bookmark here

The sound of his chair sliding on the carpet put me on high alert. Then came his footsteps, which were as heavy as the dread I felt.Bookmark here

“The other day, the imperial librarian brought this book to my attention,” he said as he paced back and forth behind me. “He said he had discovered a secret about the imperial family.”Bookmark here

Heart racing, I turned around to face him. In his hand, he held a thin, worn-out book - something that would not look out of place in the maze of bookshelves that was the library.Bookmark here

“And that secret is…?” I swallowed the lump in my throat, hoping that whatever was written in those pages would not tip off my father to the existence of the other worlds.Bookmark here

“You see, this is no ordinary book. I’m not sure how the archivists at the library acquired it, but it is the diary of one of our ancestors who lived long before we began the war with the Coalition - probably from about ten generations before mine. In it, it appears that he also had gone through the door to Japan.” He began flipping through the diary, stopping at a page he had bookmarked.Bookmark here

“Here, it writes about some children he met while he was there,” he said with a grin on his face, “who wore ‘clothing unlike this world nor ours’, and spoke about ‘technology that did not exist in his understanding’. Does that sound familiar?”Bookmark here

My blood ran cold as my worst fear had been confirmed. Out of the hundreds of thousands of books that sat untouched in the depths of the archive, a single diary with the information to turn my life upside down had reached the hands of my father. Although I tried my best to not let my face express my despair, my father closed the diary and set it down on his desk, as if he knew the answer in my mind.Bookmark here

“So, those two children were from other worlds all along. How old are they now?”Bookmark here

“... Both of them are twelve years old.”Bookmark here

“Ah, so if I am to assume they are also nobility or royalty, they are already of the age to know about their nation’s affairs.”Bookmark here

“Possibly so.”Bookmark here

He walked forward with thunderous steps until he was right in front of me, blocking any glimpse of sunlight. “I want you to establish trade with them. You are only to work with the surplus metal in our reserves. In exchange, I want you to acquire their technology and foodstuffs for the war effort.”Bookmark here

“And if I don’t?” I responded with a glare.Bookmark here

“Both you and I know that there are many in the nobility who wish to see Erik ascend the throne. You may not be so fortunate as to escape their schemes.”Bookmark here

It was a threat I was already well aware of - for the corrupt nobles of the court, assassination was not off the table as a means to achieve their goal of getting me out of the picture. For my father to say it out loud was different, and it made the threat much more tangible and terrifying. If I did not act to support the war I hated so much, my life would be snuffed out as punishment. We stood there in silence, glaring at each other. In that moment, I could feel that any sort of familial bond that remained had soured, and I had just become a tool in his eyes.Bookmark here

Finally, he broke the silence, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. As I left his office, I spotted Archbishop Alexei having an amiable chat with Erik in the corner of my eye.Bookmark here

Tch.Bookmark here

-----------------------Bookmark here

With a sigh, I pushed open the door to my room. I was exhausted, and the thought of spoiling my friendship with Alistair and Vell against my will gnawed at me. In the first place, I didn’t know very much about their worlds at all - or about them, for that matter. Being together for only one day a year meant there was little time to converse, and we hardly spoke about our worlds. If they had the knowledge and power necessary to begin trade was another concern; Alistair’s immaturity made me think he might not be ready to understand these things yet, and Vell was even quieter than I, making her a complete mystery.Bookmark here

The bed creaked under my weight as I laid face-up, staring at the ceiling, trying to organize my thoughts.Bookmark here

How will the logistics work? It would be impossible to hide crates of ore moving through the department store - would I have to reveal our existence to its owner? Is there possibly another door on our side that opens up to a more discreet location in Japan? Can the same be said about their worlds? Are our metals something that they even need? What if they can’t offer the things that he deems useful for the war-Bookmark here

“How long are you going to lie there moping?” came a quiet voice from the foot of the bed. Sitting cross-legged there was Lady Irette, a girl whose appearance was like that of a porcelain doll, with elegant, long black hair draped over her summer coat.Bookmark here

“Is there anything wrong with moping?” I responded, much to her dissatisfaction.Bookmark here

“I’ve been waiting all night for you to show up,” she pouted, “and the first thing you do when you get back is to lie down, not even giving me a greeting?” She then paused to think, and I could see the gears turn in her head as she thought of a fitting punishment. Then, with no warning, I was pulled off the bed by my arm and into the hallway. Irette dragged me along with a bounce in her step and a confident look on her face.Bookmark here

“Wait, where are we going? I’m still wearing this robe, I don’t have my boots on, I’ll freeze to death outside!” I protested. Bookmark here

Staring straight forward as she led me down the hall towards the west wing of the castle, she did not answer. Her forceful nature had led me around by the nose since we were children; we had gone on many an adventure around the palace grounds, not without our fair share of scoldings. Of the many places in the palace we could be going to, I had no idea.Bookmark here

After a long march, we finally arrived at a familiar, unassuming door, which opened to reveal an unused cellar that she and I had hid in often in our childhood. With the help of one of the maids, we had created a space for ourselves when she was visiting, so that we could talk about the things unbecoming of nobility that came to our minds without the oversight of our parents. Her regular visits had dwindled ever since Mother died four years ago, so the room overran me with a feeling of nostalgia. Sitting down on the dusty chair immediately brought to mind memories of those bygone days before my father had changed and the difference between Erik and I had become noticeable.Bookmark here

“So? Why did you bring me here?” I asked, nervous that she would pry into where I had been for the day.Bookmark here

“Well, you looked like you were worried about something, so I brought you here so you could speak your mind comfortably.”Bookmark here

“Ahh… it’s not something that I can talk about, even with you…”Bookmark here

“Does it have anything to do with that door in the basement of the palace?”Bookmark here

I nearly choked on my spit - how did she get her hands on a secret of the imperial family?Bookmark here

“Erik didn’t do a very good job of hiding his tracks, you know,” she continued, seeing the shock on my face.Bookmark here

That blasted fool - just how careless can you be? I cursed Erik in my head. However, now that the secret was out, I didn’t have anything to hide from Irette; she was already aware that the nobility were not fans of me, her father himself being a prominent member of the faction. So, I poured out all my thoughts and fears for her to hear in that candlelit cellar as the unreasonably eventful day came to an end.Bookmark here

Real Aire
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