This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table
-Vell Eden, 14 years old-
I scratched my head furiously as I tried to make sense of the words in front of me. Comparative advantage? Exchange rate? Factors of production? These terms were still difficult for me to understand, despite trying my best to understand the economics textbooks in the royal libraries. Looking in the books I had bought randomly in Japan wouldn’t help either; they used advanced vocabulary that I didn’t know yet or were in the dictionaries. They would be even more incomprehensible than these Chartreusian texts.
Ever since Filaine’s illness had flared up, she had become fully confined to her bed, unable to even go outside of the castle occasionally as she had a year prior. Because of this, Mother and Father decided that I would have to become the crown princess in place of Filaine; even if she didn’t die from the illness, they said, she wouldn’t be able to fulfill the duties of a queen from her bed.
Now, I was stuck reading these treatises on economics written by some royal advisors centuries ago, in an earlier form of our language that made my head spin. It felt as if I were reading the confusing script of an old play, with its concealed meanings and strange comparisons - but instead, it was an academic text, which made it so, so much worse. So many of these words weren’t even in use anymore. Surely, it would be easier to ask one of the archivists to translate the text to a more comprehensible form - in fact, why hadn’t I thought of doing that yet?
Ahh… there’s no way I’ll be able to figure out this elasticity of demand thing today… I should take a break…
Dropping the thick textbook into the growing pile at the foot of my bed, I got up and looked out the window. The view outside was phenomenal since my window overlooked the main courtyard of the royal castle, where Filaine and I often played before she fell ill. We would run in circles around the fountain and between the rows of neatly trimmed hedges, sometimes with the eldest Wiltshire brother if the family happened to be visiting. The younger Wiltshire would cling to his mother as she sipped tea, afraid of running into the briars and getting pricked.
These memories were bittersweet for me - they were some of my best experiences, yet I knew I could never create any more of them so long as Filaine was bedridden. Her disease was completely unknown to the royal doctors, and she had not been given a conclusive diagnosis, despite the efforts of the doctors in searching the library for any clues. And yet, I was here, reading works on politics and economics, studying the specialties of Chartreuse, occupied with trying to do what Fior had asked of me. I had seven months until the door to Japan activated, plenty of time to study and prepare, yet I wasn’t using any of it to focus on what was closest to me. If I were using this time to study medicine for Filaine’s sake, then maybe…
Just maybe, if I were able to cure Filaine’s illness, then we would be able to have a normal family life again. We would be able to go places, have fun with the Wiltshire brothers together, eat at the same dinner table…
A tear trickled down my face as I stared out into the distance, looking past the memory-laden castle grounds towards something further away - a future where Filaine was able to survive her illness. Would it be so wrong to ignore my duties as the current crown princess for the sake of trying to save my family? Surely that would be forgivable, right? If I could figure out what disease afflicted Filaine, then perhaps I could fetch a treatment for her while I was in Japan. However, if the royal doctors couldn’t diagnose her, then that would be my first roadblock. With Japan’s superior medical advancements, perhaps I could find something in one of the Japanese books…
I sat at the foot of my bed, pushing the pile of political texts aside and replacing it with a stack of Japanese books. Even with my meager knowledge of Japanese, I thought, there could be some slim chance I find something on medicine and diseases.
Oceanography… History of American Agriculture… The Pillow Book… The Geography of Nepal… Internal Combustion Engine Fundamentals…
With a sigh, I pushed this stack of books aside too. None of them would be of use to me right now… though Alistair might appreciate it if I gave him the one on engineering. Had I somehow not bought any books on medicine, even though I tried my best to pick out books of all fields? I would have to pick out new books carefully at the next festival, then…
“Yes?” I was unsure why someone, likely one of the maids, was here. A visit from one of them was rare.
“His Majesty would like to see you in his office.”
“Alright. I’ll be right there.”
Father had never requested for me to visit his office before, especially now during his work hours. The only thing that could cause this was the proposal for inter-world trade, something that he had already accepted. What could he possibly want me for? I thought, nodding to the maid that she was free to leave.
Making my way down the hall to my father’s office, I found myself hesitating to open the door. Possibilities raced through my head; was he going to withdraw his approval of the trade negotiations? Was there bad news that he didn’t want to relay to me through the maids? What could possibly compel him to summon me to his office instead of sending a note to me by maid?
“Vell, I can hear you outside my door. Stop fidgeting with your dress and come in already,” came Father’s muffled voice through the thick wooden door.
I took a deep breath and opened the door. To my relief, Father’s expression was neither angry nor stern. Rather, he looked relaxed, as if calling me to his office was not unordinary. He motioned for me to take a seat, which I did, before pulling out a stack of papers.
“Here is the surplus inventory that the granaries and storehouses provided us,” he said, handing the packet to me. “You may use these, and only these in the negotiations with your friends.”
Flipping through the inventories, I found that it contained only agricultural products - no livestock nor dairy. There were millions of bushels of wheat, barley, sorghum, and millions of tons of squash, turnips, carrots, and the like. While it was surprising that no livestock nor dairy was included, as we certainly produced a lot of them, I supposed it made sense; it would be much harder to transfer boars and cows than crops, especially in a discreet manner.
“As to what you are to trade for… I suppose metal would be good. We could upgrade our existing technology for cheaper - Orems has been raising metal prices recently, after all.” Father said, stroking his chin.
“Yes, Father. One of my friends - no, one of the participating kingdoms has already been established to be a rich source of metals. As for the other, their forte is technology, although I do not know what specific technologies they possess.” My cold, formal tone surprised me. When it came to business matters, was this what I was like? Stiff and disconnected from my friendships?
His eyes lit up in surprise. “Ah, that’s good! I suppose you’d do well to acquire iron from him, then. As for the boy with the technology… I suppose you could ask him for anything relating to farming? We don’t have any technology that we currently desire, after all.”
“Are you sure? If he were to present us with any other types of technology, for example, something for long-distance communication, would that not be beneficial to the kingdom?”
“No,” he replied, waving his hand dismissively, “Chartreuse is already successful enough as-is. If we introduce new technologies that we don’t understand, it could ruin our processes. Besides, who’s to say that the technology they give us will be functional? It will take time for us to inspect it, and with a year between sessions, we would be stuck with nonfunctional equipment for a year.”
“Surely, we can trust them! I know Alistair, he wouldn’t sell us broken equipment, his pride wouldn’t allow it-” I stopped abruptly as Father held his hand up to silence me.
“Friend or not, we cannot dismiss the possibility that he makes an oversight.”
“Okay. Will that be all?” I asked, eager to return to sorting through my collection of books.
“Before you leave, let us talk about Filaine.”
A chill went down my spine. Was this the bad news that I had dreaded? Had something happened to Filaine? Or perhaps, was there just the tiniest glint of hope, and the doctors finally diagnosed her? I could only hope.
“I understand that your visits to Filaine’s room have dwindled, and the maids have expressed their concern. They say that she has begun to exhibit a lack of energy, and they wish that you visit her more frequently for the sake of her health.”
“O-oh. If that is all, I will be taking my leave.”
Hurriedly, I curtsied and left the room. My visits to Filaine had waned not because of malice, but because I was occupied by other things, like my recently acquired duties… or so I had told myself in the past couple of months. In the deepest, most-locked-away parts of my heart, I feared seeing a disease-stricken Filaine, a sister who no longer looked like the one in my memories. If I were to walk into her room to see her in pain, I would be unable to live with myself, knowing that I could do nothing to help her. Not once had I considered that not visiting her would bring her harm, further exacerbating her suffering.
I must repent, and visit her at once. But showing up empty-handed would be far too awkward… Lack of energy… What could I possibly make for her to alleviate that?
Without ideas, I returned to my bedroom to continue to sift through the Japanese books - this time not to look for a disease to diagnose her with, nor a medicine to cure her with, but a recipe. Something that would cure… lethargy, was it?
In the very corner of my bookshelves was the cookbook section. The books there sat there, collecting dust, as I did none of the cooking in the castle, and there was never a request from the maids to try cooking food from the other side. Instead of seeking tinctures from a medicine book, perhaps it would be better to try those.
“Ah! This has to be it!”
“Ah, Vell! It’s nice to see you!”
Filaine’s delighted expression made me feel incredibly guilty. Even though I hadn’t visited her in her room in a month and a half, she showed no disappointment or anger towards me, just joy. How could I face her, knowing that I had ignored my familial duties for so long?
“L-long time no see.” I smiled awkwardly, unsure of how to spark a conversation. How would I word my apology to her? “Here. I made you peppermint tea.”
She took the teacup and slowly lifted it to her lips to take a sip. I could see her arm trembling, as if lifting the cup had become a difficult task, and my guilt intensified. It had gotten this bad without me knowing - why didn’t I ask the maids to give me a status update? How had I let that slip my mind?
“It’s quite nice. There’s a hint of lemon, which makes the taste refreshing. It’s sweet, too - I suppose you added sugar? Or honey? And this mint, where did you get it from? I don’t recall it being native to our kingdom.”
“Ah, the mint is from our royal gardens. The groundskeeper acquired some a month ago, and the chefs asked her to cultivate it so they could experiment with their cooking. You know how Wiss is - she demanded that they give her the right to taste-test the dishes with mint first.” The two of us chuckled for a moment, reminiscing about the antics of the groundskeeper with whom we often messed with in our childhood.
“Is that so?” Filaine turned towards her window, looking at the setting sun. “I suppose that in the time I’ve been stuck here in my bed, the world outside has been changing without me knowing. I wonder what the courtyard looks like now - it’s so close, yet so far, and I can’t see it from my window on this side of the castle. Knowing Wiss, she’s probably changed the whole selection of colored flowers, hasn’t she?”
I stood there for a moment, thinking of what to say next. If there was any time to make amends, this was it. Should I apologize and offer an excuse? Should I come out and say that I feared seeing her in a sorry state?
Before I could speak, Filaine turned back to me. “So, how have your studies in governance been? I figured that Mother and Father thrust that on you - after all, you haven’t visited me in a while, and I know how tedious those concepts can be to learn. If you need help, you can always ask me!”
So she knew all along that Mother and Father had determined that I would have to be the new crown princess. I couldn’t imagine having to bear a burden like that, watching as our parents gave up on her being able to live healthily, and still being able to smile at me. She probably also wondered if her sister had given up on her too, not even caring to visit her. If I were her, I would be in despair, watching as the maids walked around her room, wondering if I could ever see any of the mundane sights they saw ever again.
Could I still call myself her family? I thought, clenching my fists tightly.
“I-if I tried to make a cure for your illness, would you be willing to take it?” I stuttered.
“I’ll throw away learning politics and economics, and I’ll learn medicine, I’ll buy books from Japan on medicine and find a cure, you’ll be healthy again and we can live a normal life again-” By now I was just babbling, unable to keep my emotions in check. I understood that the chance of finding a cure was slim, and it would be foolish to pursue medicine instead of governance, but the chance wasn’t zero.
Filaine put a single finger to my lips, stopping my rambling. “You don’t need to do anything. If the royal doctors can’t find a solution, that’s it. I’ve already accepted that I won’t be healthy again.”
“How could I abandon you? There isn’t any reason that you should give up on being able to live again-”
“Do it for Mother and Father - and the kingdom. If I succumb, only you will be left - we have no cousins to be the heir to the throne. Be as capable as you can.”
What a cruel world, I thought to myself as I held back tears in front of Filaine. Why can’t I save Filaine AND fulfill my duties? What sick, twisted prank of fate made it this way?