This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table
-Fior Deniev, 16 years old-
With a heavy thump, I dropped the stack of leatherbound notebooks on the floor beside my desk. Finally, after several nights of work, I had compiled all the necessary materials into just a couple of pages for the trade negotiations - just in time for the festival tomorrow. My ink-stained hands had been cramping for the past hour, and I let the quill slip out of my grip onto the table. Hopefully, Alistair and Vell had put as much effort into preparing for tomorrow; I would hate being the only one to show up ready with documents.
I looked up at the clock with bleary eyes, even though I already knew it was well past midnight. In an hour, the sun would be up, and I would be sound asleep. It was fortuitous timing - getting a full nights’ sleep would put my time of waking up just around the time the door to Japan unlocked.
Not having switched into my nightwear yet, I opened my closet and began to strip.
The sound of something colliding with my window put me on high alert - what could that be? Had the nobles gone ahead with their plans to kill me earlier than expected? Cautiously, I put my clothes back on and approached the curtains. Whoever or whatever it was, they were staying silent - what if they were hiding on the side of the balcony, ready to stab me when I open the windows? Just in case, I picked up my candlestick; it was better than having no weapon, after all.
Fwoomp went the curtains as I pulled them open dramatically, only to see Irette cowering on the balcony with her hands covering her eyes.
“I didn’t look!” she yelped. “I totally didn’t see your shirtless body!”
“... What in the blazes are you doing on my balcony, at five in the morning? Wait, how did you even get up here?” I was too tired to be angry, much less admonish her for peeking into my room.
Sheepishly, she pointed off the balcony at the longest ladder I had ever seen. My window was three stories up from the ground - the ladder she had used reached even higher. “Come with us! We have something to show you!” she said excitedly.
We? I looked over the balcony to see Irette’s father, Duke Vicet, holding the base of the ladder. She told him about the imperial family’s secret? I guess it can’t be much of a secret now, I guess, since that man is notoriously loose-lipped...
“It’s almost sunrise... I was going to sleep,” I replied, rubbing my temples, “and if you’re going to show me something the night before the festival, it better be worth my time.”
Suddenly, Irette grabbed me by the collar and hoisted me over her shoulder. “Oh, it absolutely will,” she said as she put my documents into her pocket, hopped over the balcony, and grabbed the rungs of the ladder with one hand. My legs dangled in the air as she descended, and I looked up at the starry sky, trying to distract myself from looking down at these heights. I had long accustomed myself to dangers like these in my childhood; thankfully, Irette’s monstrous strength was inherited from her parents, so I didn’t have to worry about the ladder slipping at the base.
When we reached the ground, Irette led me by the hand down the grassy hill to the coach, where the chauffeur stood. I thought to myself, surely Irette hadn’t told even the chauffeur about the imperial secret, but he was holding a handkerchief and blotting away tears. As we climbed into the carriage, he gave me a pat on the shoulder, as if to comfort me.
Come on, Irette! You even told the chauffeur? It’s an imperial secret, you know? What do you take a secret for?
Surprisingly, the coach began to travel down the side road, towards the forest, rather than down the main road towards the duke’s mansion. I looked to Irette for an answer, and received one: “We’re going to the Vicet summer home.”
Summer home? I didn’t even know that existed - what use could a summer home be in the Deniev Empire, where it was cold year-round?
Spotting the confusion on my face, the duke began to speak. “We were as confused as you are now when we discovered its existence two years ago. Its cleaning and refurbishing have only recently been completed, and we kept it secret so as to not have solicitations for visits.”
“... But why are we going to your summer home? Sure, it may be summer, and I would love to relax, but I do have something to attend to tomorrow - well, technically, today. You are aware of the imperial secret, correct?” I questioned the duke, giving Irette an elbow to the waist as punishment for blabbing, only to receive an elbow back twice as strong. “Is it possible for me to return to the castle before tomorrow afternoon?”
Irette’s eyes gleamed in the unlit coach, and she smiled smugly. “You won’t need to return to the castle, probably. You’ll really be in debt to me when you see what I’ve found, you know?”
“What do you mean that I won’t need to return to the castle?”
“Just wait and see,” she cackled, probably trying to figure out what she could make me do to repay this debt.
The rising sun shone in my tired eyes, much to my suffering. After the coach had exited the forest and gone through several mountain paths, we finally arrived at a small building nestled between two wooded hills. Whereas the mansion I had visited often as a child sprawled over many acres of land, and staffed dozens of domestic servants, this building could have been managed by a single maid, and couldn’t have been more than half an acre big.
However, the size wasn’t what shocked me. The architecture was not of this country, let alone this world. I did recognize it; I had seen it in bookstores… in Japan. It was styled after their traditional homes, often found in the countryside, from what I knew.
“H-how? Why is this here?” I stammered. To my knowledge, the imperial family was the only one with access to Japan. I had even borrowed the diary of my ancestors to check for any clues on possible solutions to transporting products from Redjuve and Chartreuse - there was no mention of other doors to Japan, nor any other people from the Empire crossing over besides the king from twelve generations ago.
“Surprised you, didn’t it?” Irette stood beside me, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Now do you see why I brought you here?”
The duke, imitating his daughter, put his hand on my other shoulder. “I hope you will repay the Vicet family in the future for this favor. Hopefully with children.” That last comment earned him a powerful kick from Irette around my back.
Before I could confirm whether or not there was a door to Japan on the grounds or not, a maid opened the sliding door, and Irette pushed me towards the interior. She kneeled on the straw mat floor of the home and patted her thighs.
As I stood there, unsure of what she meant for me to do, Duke Vicet pushed me towards her. My head fell on her lap, facing away from her. The maid slipped Irette a thin stick with a ball of cotton at one end, then left the room while blushing.
“What are you doing? Shouldn’t we be seeing the door to Japan? There is one, isn’t there? Otherwise, how could this Japanese building be here-” I was cut short as Irette stuck the stick into my ear.
“I’m going to clean your ear.”
“It’s a Japanese romantic ritual, ear-cleaning, right? We found a journal in our language in this house, and that’s what it said this was,” she said, scraping the inside of my ear with the tip of the stick. “It seems that one of my ancestors had a relationship with a Japanese woman, since his journal was full of his lovey-dovey memories of her. This villa seems to have been their main home after he passed his duties to his son.”
“Is that so…” It certainly was a pleasant feeling, so I decided inquiring about the door could wait. She continued cleaning my ear for a minute or two before what she said was fully processed in my mind.
“Wait, did you say your ancestor had a relationship with a Japanese woman?” I exclaimed.
“It seems that way - though from the dates in the journal, he was from fifteen generations or so ago, so I practically have no Japanese blood in me.” She removed the stick from my ear for a moment, wiping the tip with a cloth by her side.
“She was his wife?” If so, this meant that the Vicet family not only had discovered Japan three generations before the imperial family, but had close ties with Japanese people, enough that one had become the Duchess. For the family with the second-highest pedigree to have kept this secret so well that it disappeared into obscurity… Had they planned to use knowledge from the other world to gain leverage over the imperial family?
Having finished the cleaning, Irette put the ear-cleaning stick into a wooden box. I expected that that would be it, so I tried to roll off her lap, only for her to grip my head tightly, not letting me go.
“What are you doing?” I flailed my arms to no avail.
“Just… relax.” She began to sing softly, something that I had never seen her do. For once, she was doing something that matched her doll-like appearance. Somehow, I was reminded of my mother, though I couldn’t remember a single time when Mother had sung to me. Before I knew it I had fallen into slumber, succumbing to my exhaustion.
“Hmm, the green one looked better on you. Next!” Irette reached for yet another Japanese robe, this time a light purple one that was adorned with white flowers. While all the previous robes had been masculine or unisex, this one was unmistakably designed for women.
“Haven’t you had enough of this?” I was exasperated, having been treated like a dress-up doll by her for the past hour. After I had woken up, the Duke and Irette had unceremoniously revealed the door to me, which was in the linen closet. Having nothing to do for another hour until the door would unlock, she had found some surprisingly intact Japanese clothing in one of the storage rooms, and decided to force me to model them. I could do nothing; what could I have done to resist her strength? It would be better to accept my fate and strip of my own volition rather than be emasculated by being stripped by force, after all.
“Not at all!” She took a wide piece of cloth and tied it around my waist, giving it a powerful tug that made me grunt in discomfort. “We still have plenty of robes over there for you to try. Oh, right, there was a makeup kit in the maid’s belongings - can’t have you dress up as a girl without that, I would feel like there was something missing.”
As Irette scurried off to find the maid, I stood there alone in the main room with my thoughts. How did they find this house in the first place, and why were they looking for it? According to the Duke, it had been lost from all records of the Vicet family history, so it wasn’t as if they were tipped off to its existence in the first place. Their mansion was perfectly acceptable for use in the summer, as were all homes in the consistent climate of the Empire, so why had they put the effort into looking for a vacation home?
Even more confusingly, why had they brought me here to the other door to Japan? From what Irette had told me a year ago in the cellar, the Vicets would shelter me in their duchy if the worst came around. They were of the faction opposing Erik, after all, and if an assassination attempt occurred, they could acquire evidence to indict several of my brother’s highest-ranking supporting nobles. Helping me in my attempts at trade had no political benefit to them, I thought.
Irette returned, holding a sleek black case in her hands. “Sit down and close your eyes,” she commanded, opening it to reveal an array of cosmetics. I followed her order, kneeling on the ground in front of her, and she began fiddling with the brushes. “Ah, this makeup is cheap. Perhaps I should ask Father to raise the maids’ salaries - this could probably damage their skin, and we don’t want that.”
“Wait, what? Is it dangerous?” My eyes snapped open, and I gazed warily at the palette.
“Calm down, it’ll only damage your skin if you wear it day in and day out. Using it just this once is fine.” Using her index and middle fingers, she closed my eyelids.
For a couple of minutes, we sat there in silence as she applied the makeup to my face. It was heavier than I thought it would be - like a thin layer of clay. I felt her uncap something with a pop, and then something traced my lips, leaving behind a sticky residue. Moments later, she began fiddling with my hair, attaching a clip on my part.
“Time for the finishing touches. Open your eyes.” As soon as I opened them, she took a thin brush and began pulling it along my eyelashes, coating them in some sort of liquid. When she was done, she motioned off to the side to who I thought might be the maid, and a mirror rolled into view.
Irette puffed out her chest in pride, examining her work. Meanwhile, I found no interest in the surprisingly feminine me in the mirror, as pleasing as it was. I had questions that I wanted to be answered, and they couldn’t wait until after I came back from Japan.
“Why are you doing this for me?”
“I’ve always wanted to see you in girls’ clothes, y’know? After all, we never had clothes that fit your size back at the Vicet mansion.” She closed the makeup case, and, deciding that she had seen enough of me in the light purple robe, reached for another.
“I’m not talking about the crossdressing.” I pressed on. Irette wasn’t dumb; she knew what I was talking about.
“Whatever could you mean?” she asked, continuing to feign ignorance.
“Why did you look for another door to Japan? There was no reason for you to put this effort in - I can’t imagine it was easy to find this place. Obviously, if we were to find another entrance to Japan that was more convenient to transport goods, that would be a massive boon to me, but what could the benefit be for your family? ”
“Well, you’re my fiance, aren’t you? What duchy wouldn’t seek to protect their connection with a member of the royal family?” Irette gave me a smile - one that she had used often as a child when lying - before walking behind me to undo the tied cloth on my waist. “Father was quite furious when he found out what the Emperor was forcing you to do, you know?”
“Didn’t you say last year that the duchy would shelter me if I failed to succeed with trade? That would be a better outcome, politically, for your father. He’s a shrewd man - I doubt he would use the manpower necessary to find this place for no reason.”
Sensing that I was unwilling to let the matter go, Irette’s tone changed, although I was unable to see her expression change behind me.
“The day after you told me about the imperial secret, I told Father about it. At first, he agreed with me that the duchy would protect you if assassins sent by the Erik faction came after your life.” She breathed deeply, then continued. “However, two weeks later, the head advisor to whom Father revealed the secret came to us.”
According to Irette, the advisor had consulted the archivists, who were unable to find any precedent for something like this happening. However, one of the junior archivists had found a law put into place centuries ago, which stated that if a member of the imperial family eloped, the imperial family would have the right to order the duchies to arrange another marriage between a new Prince Imperial and a daughter of a duke. It had not been removed from the books of Imperial law, so it remained valid - a flaw in the legislative system of the Empire.
Naturally, the advisor reasoned, if the scenario came where I were to be targeted by assassins and went under the protection of the Vicets, and if the imperial family were aware of this law, they would use it to arrange a new marriage between Erik and the other daughter of the House of Vicet, Cella.
“You know how Erik can be - his boorish behavior and arrogance have turned many a noble family from arranging a marriage with him for their daughters, even with the prospect of marrying into the imperial family.” Irette’s voice sounded concerned, so I judged that she wasn’t lying.
The duchy’s judgment was sound; if Cella were to be married to Erik, there would be no doubt she would be mistreated. For such a doting father as Duke Vicet, the pain of having his daughter treated poorly by Erik would outweigh any political gain they had from protecting me and indicting the nobles of Erik’s faction.
In addition, Cella was a frail girl, unlike Irette. Though I had never spent much time talking with her nor did I play with her as a child, I vividly remembered her pale complexion and thin arms. In fact, Irette had been kept away from Cella as a child because the Duchess had feared Irette would accidentally injure her younger sister in her wild antics. The rough and ill-mannered Erik could prove too much for Cella to handle, mentally and physically.
“Ah… so that’s it.”
“... I’m so, so sorry for placing these expectations on you to succeed in your trade with the other kingdoms. I know you already have a lot on your mind. Please forgive me.” I heard a sniffle but decided not to turn around to see Irette crying. She would never forgive herself for allowing me to see her in a moment of weakness.
“It’s fine.” That was all I could say.
Moments later, Irette was back to normal. Her eyes showed no evidence that she had cried, and there was no sadness in her movements. She had probably resolved herself to be strong for Cella’s sake, I reasoned.
“Ah! Isn’t it nearly 6?” she yelped suddenly.
Looking down at my watch, which confirmed the urgency of the situation, I nodded to her. She whipped out the makeup case once more and pulled out a small bottle. Wetting a cloth with the liquid inside, she moved quickly to remove the makeup.
“Quick, get in place to go through the door as soon as it’ll let you. If it spits you out far away from your meeting place, we’ll have to bring you back to the Imperial Castle, which is three hours away by carriage.”
Before Irette could untie the cloth around my waist and change me into a robe meant for males, the doorknob made a clicking noise. Six in the afternoon had arrived. I folded my trade documents and slid them into the cloth around my waist, readying myself for what laid on the other side.
“I hope the trade is a success,” Irette said as I pushed down on the doorknob and began to open the door. At that moment, I couldn’t tell for whose sake she was concerned.