This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table
-Fior Deniev, 17 years old-
“What did you say?”
“You heard me right. Father says that if you fail to acquire weapons from the boy with technology, you will be stripped of your privilege of going to the other world.” Erik stood between me and the door to Japan, sneering. “You’ve been enjoying it for far too long, my brother. Now it’s time for the superior one of us two to take the main stage.”
“... You understand what this entails, and you have resolved to follow through with it, correct?”
“Of course I have.” He tilted his head back so he could look down on me. “The Empire doesn’t need someone as weak and soft-hearted as you.”
I wasn’t shocked by what was effectively being stripped of the title of Prince Imperial by my father. After all, it was the perfect timing and method; there were still three months until my coming-of-age ceremony, so the political power I wielded was still at a level where disowning me wouldn’t cause enormous conflict in the Imperial Court. In addition, the task of acquiring weapons from another world, if failed, could be spun as an act of treason easily with all the influence held by high-ranking nobles in Erik’s faction.
However, the lack of surprise I felt didn’t soothe the throbbing headache that now assailed me. On one hand, being stripped of the title of Prince Imperial before my coming-of-age ceremony would be a blow to the influence of the Vicets’ faction, and I had a favor to repay to them. Not having the privilege to go through the door would also eventually lead to the undesirable scenario that ended in Cella being engaged to Erik - something that I wanted to avoid.
On the other hand, supporting the territorial war effort went against my morals. I had gone to great lengths to distance myself from the war, refusing to meet with any of the nobles I knew was heavily complicit in maintaining the conflict. While I had taken the swordplay classes expected of me, I avoided associating with the higher-ups of the military that were the instructors. Even when my father had pressured me to acquire technology from Alistair “for the war effort”, I had made sure to ask for items that did not directly harm anyone, and were usable in cases outside of war. Now, with him having specified “weapons”, I had no room to interpret things differently. All I could do was try to negotiate for weapons that would cause as little disruption as possible.
“Have you been frozen still by the chilly Denievian wind? Or are you scared of my presence?” Erik boasted.
“Don’t fool yourself,” I retorted. “There is nothing about you, who hides behind other nobles, that scares me.” Walking around him to get to the door, I heard him whisper something before I passed through.
“We’ll see about that.”
Arriving at the Hachiko statue, I found myself still without any ideas of what I could ask for… if I should ask for any weapons at all. The Empire’s weaponry, compared to what I had read about in the Japanese libraries, was outdated by about six hundred years, probably even more compared to Redjuve’s. For close-quarters combat, we had spears, axes, and our signature sword, the Therommer, which the people of this world referred to as a “flame-bladed sword”, due to its wave-shaped blade. For long-ranged combat, we had longbows, as well as siege weapons like the trebuchet.
From what I could tell, the one weapon type to avoid entirely would be firearms - something that didn’t exist in my world. When I discovered their existence in a book I had brought back to the Empire, I burnt it that very night so it couldn’t fall into the wrong hands. The lethality offered by even the most basic of firearms would change warfare as my world knew it - and I was fortunate that gunpowder had not been discovered yet, thanks to a lack of chemistry advancement.
Following that line of logic, close-quarter and long range weapons would have to be ruled out too - there was no possible advancement that could be made to them without increasing their lethality. I didn’t know how far melee weapons and bows had advanced in Japan or Redjuve, but I figured that with the introduction of firearms, perhaps they had never been improved on in the first place anyways.
That left only one option: siege weapons, more specifically the battering ram. An improved trebuchet or ballista would directly lead to fatalities, but there was only one use for the battering ram, namely, to break down fortress gates. Advancing the structure-destroying capabilities of the ram wouldn’t increase the chances of people dying; rather, I thought, perhaps speeding up the process of sieging a stronghold would lead to less unnecessary deaths, as long as the Empire didn’t commit war crimes by executing those who had surrendered.
A thought popped into my mind: would Alistair even be willing to trade weapons to me? Anyone would have reservations about arms dealing, especially if they didn’t know what the weapons would be used for. Perhaps he would cut off trade entirely if I tried to request some… a prospect that sent a shiver down my spine.
“Is Vell here yet?”
I snapped out of my state of focus and looked up to see Alistair, who held in his two hands a large box. “Nope. What’s that?” I asked, pointing to it.
“This? Something for one of my personal projects,” he replied, opening the box to show me a gray box with two colored knobs on top. “It’s a car battery.”
“Oh. Okay.” A moment passed before I realized that a car battery cost quite a sum of money, probably more than Alistair should have had accumulated from past festivals. “How’d you get the money to buy it?”
“Well, at the pawn shop we used to go to, they had watches for sale, right? I figured that they would be willing to buy watches, too, so I used my royal authority to find a watchmaker to make a piece for me to sell. Redjuve doesn’t have an abundance of jewels, after all.” Alistair sat down next to me, placing the car battery on the bench.
As we sat there, waiting for Vell, I realized that Alistair had changed since I had met him. The Alistair of then was immature and impatient; this Alistair was responsible, independent, and carried himself as expected of a royal. In my reminiscing about the past, it occurred to me that the Alistair from years ago was much like Erik when he was younger - impulsive and careless. If Mother had been alive longer to have more of an influence on Erik… would he have been more like Alistair?
“Y’know, at the pawn shop… the old man wasn’t there,” Alistair said, looking straight ahead.
“Seems like he’s been sent to the hospital. Some girl who said she was his granddaughter was the one running the shop.”
“Ah, yeah. I met her two years ago. Her name’s Makoto… I think?”
“Is that so?”
A half hour later, Vell arrived, skidding to a halt in front of us much like Alistair had last year. Out of breath and sweating profusely, she clutched a sagging paper bag tightly in her hand.
“Haa… I’m sorry… that I’m late… haa… something came up… back home… Had to help… family out… with something,” she said in between pants.
“Are you okay?” asked Alistair.
“Yeah… it’s just that… Can we make… this quick?” Finally catching her breath, Vell produced a handkerchief from her coin purse and wiped her sweat away. “I have to return home as soon as possible… so let’s get it over with, alright?.”
As curious as I was about what family situation could cause such urgency, I fully understood that there were things we wanted to keep private about our families. Alistair and I looked at each other, silently agreeing to not ask about the specifics.
“So, what have you two been doing this past year?” I asked as we walked to the Shibuya Barco, worming our way through the thick of the crowd.
Dodging a pair of energetic children at the crosswalk, Alistair gave me a look. “Odd of you to ask about our personal lives. First time this has happened, hasn't it?”
“I’m just… curious. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“I guess not. Curiosity is the soul of an engineer, after all, and I could never slander it.” Alistair put a finger to his chin as he thought for a moment. “Well, I secured the door in the Clockwork Palace, like you asked… and worked on that personal project I mentioned. That’s about it, really. What about you, Vell?”
“I… just read some books,” Vell said hesitantly. Looking closer at her now, I realized that her eyelids were swollen, and her usual elegance was gone, in its place such delicateness that I feared the wind would shatter her to pieces. “W-what about you, Fior?”
“I spent time with my fiancee, I guess.” While that sounded pleasant, I had spent much of the time at the Vicets’ summer home going through the collection of Japanese books that was discovered in one of the rooms, rather than with Irette.
“You have a fiancee?” Alistair looked at me enviously as we entered the air-conditioned department store. “Must be nice. The only girls in my life are the maids.”
“I think it’s strange that you don’t have a fiancee, you know? You’re royalty, after all, and it seems that it’s customary for royalty to have arranged marriages for them when they’re young…”
“Nah, there’s no custom like that in Redjuve. Besides, my father and mother don’t really pay that much attention to…” Alistair’s voice trailed off, probably realizing he was going into a sensitive topic.
Finally arriving at the same round table that we had discussed at last year, I realized that I had still not come to a decision as to whether I should ask Alistair for battering rams or not. If I didn’t ask, I would be returning empty-handed to the Empire, and being replaced as Prince Imperial by Erik would be inevitable. Losing access to Japan through the door in the castle wasn’t a concern of mine; I could go through the door in the Vicet summer home and be within walking distance of Shibuya. Being heir to the throne wasn’t something I cared for, either.
If I did ask for the battering rams, and succeeded in negotiating for one or more, I would remain Prince Imperial and still have access to the door in the castle. In addition, it would give me time to go through with the coming-of-age ceremony, which would be a boon to the Vicet faction. However, if I did ask and fail… how would my relationship with Alistair change?
“Well, since I suppose we’re in a hurry to get it over with, what about just using the same system we used last year? After all, coming up with a new system would take some time…” Alistair took a sheet of paper from his folder and tore it in three, forcing the issue to a definite conclusion.
Sitting there with the paper slip in front of me, I had now hit the deadline. The consequences I already determined, and the plates of scales that determined my fate were roughly equal. Not asking for the ram would be the stable option, and asking for the ram would be a gamble with my relationship with Alistair on the line.
“... Right now, the goods are probably being transferred in the warehouse… I wonder if it’s going well…” Vell commented offhandedly as she picked up her pen and began to write on her slip.
Don’t worry, I asked Irette to help supervise the transfer of goods. With how she is, I’m sure things are going smoothly, I wanted to say, but they didn’t know Irette.
Then it all came back to me. Irette. If I failed to secure the battering ram, I would eventually have to flee under the wing of the Vicets, which would lead to Cella being forcibly married to Erik. I remembered the night I had first been brought to the Vicet summer home… and Irette’s post-crying face after she had spilled her worries out, the target of her concerns ambiguous. She had placed her expectations on me, and now those expectations tipped the scales.
Ah… I’m hesitating again, aren’t I?
I gritted my teeth, for now I had to take the gamble. If I succeeded, all would be well in my world, and presumably, my friendship with Alistair would remain intact. If I failed… Perhaps my friendship with Alistair would survive, perhaps not, but more importantly, I would be causing suffering for those back in my world.
Hastily, I scribbled down the request on the slip before I caught myself hesitating again. As the tip of my pen lifted from the paper, I began grasping at all the positive possibilities in my mind. Was Alistair the type who would understand that I was aiming to reduce the amount of deaths? If not, and he refused to trade me the siege weapons, there was still the possibility that we could remain friends, right? Would he even ask what they would be used for?
“Fior? Are you done with your slip?” asked Vell, whose legs were bouncing underneath the table impatiently.
“Ah - yes, I’m done.” I pushed the scrap of paper to the middle of the table, joining Alistair’s and Vell’s. As Alistair moved to turn his slip over, my heart began to race. This was it; there was no backing out now.
“From Fior: eighty tonnes each of copper, zinc, aluminium, iron, and nickel, and twenty tonnes of platinum. From Vell: twenty tonnes of wheat and rice,” his slip read.
Without waiting for Alistair’s requests to be acknowledged, Vell flipped her slip over. “From Alistair: robotic horses or something for travel by land, forty of them. From Fior: Twenty tonnes of copper and iron each.”
Last was mine; as I moved my right hand to turn it over, I could feel it begin to tremble from the anxiety. Grabbing my right wrist with my left hand to quell the shaking, I drew quizzical looks from Alistair and Vell.
“From Vell: Rice, millet, and wheat flour, twenty tonnes of each; pigs and cows, two hundred of each; radishes, carrots, onions, tomatoes and lettuce, fifteen tonnes of each. From Alistair: three airships, machines for digging holes through mountains and some sort of land-based vehicle with storage capabilities, ten of each, and twenty battering rams.”
For a moment, time slowed to a crawl as I waited for their reaction to the last item. Will they notice? Will they call me out for it? As Alistair’s lips parted, I found myself closing my eyes and praying to the heavens above.
“... I guess since we all listed our desired quantities, that makes things easier?” he said, much to my relief. “I suppose we can just either acknowledge or renegotiate quantities if necessary, then.”
“Ah - for your requests to me, those quantities are fine,” said Vell, hurriedly. Her eyes seemed to say, Get on with it! Accept all the terms so I can go home already!, as she gripped her paper bag even more tightly than before.
Having my own reason to expedite the process, that hurrying the issue would give Alistair less time to scrutinize my request, I followed suit. “Same here. All the quantities are alright with me.”
Alistair’s mouth opened, and I expected him to continue the pattern. Moments later, however, he picked up my slip of paper and looked at it closely. My heart began to race again, now that my hopes I thought had been locked in were now in jeopardy.
“I can understand asking for airships, tunnel-boring machines and mining trucks… but what would you use battering rams for? We don’t have anything like that in Redjuve so I would have to make a request to the factories, so…” He paused to think, and I crossed my fingers underneath the table, hoping he would dismiss his thoughts.
But he didn’t.
Alistair squinted at me, setting the slip down. “These battering rams would be used for war, wouldn’t they?”
All I could do was stare back. No excuse I could give would be satisfactory; battering rams only had one use, after all.
“... I thought you and I were the same,” he gathered his papers and put them back into his folder, standing up. “But I guess not. Everything but the battering rams are fine. I don’t want to see you here next year.”
As Alistair walked away, shoulders slightly shaking, the first fireworks of the night burst in the air. Vell soon followed suit, shooting me a worried glance that lasted only a fleeting moment before turning away to direct her concerns elsewhere. I raised my hand as if to take hold of them, but I knew that nothing I could say would bring them back.
Looking up to the crackling sparks in the sky, I couldn’t help but feel the irony. The firecrackers that had felt like they were celebrating our bond last year now were jeering at me, who was unable to keep everything I wanted to hold dear.