This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table
-Alistair Vermilion, 16 years old-
The sea breeze wafted through the hangar as I placed the finishing touches on the Vassar’s armor, dipping my paint roller into the can for one last stroke. After months spent on performing test flights, finding errors and inefficiencies, and making adjustments, the Vassar had finally reached a point where I was satisfied with my work. With the hybrid system that Lowell had proposed, the fuel efficiency was now sufficient to fly a circle around the island several times. Then, after installing solar panels on the shoulder armor and converting the roof of the hangar into a sunroof, I had ensured a way to conduct short test flights even when gasoline was scarce.
Stepping back to the far corner of the hangar to view the paint job, I was pleased with how it turned out. I had painted the Vassar light blue so that it would blend into the sky, allowing me to take future joyrides with less worry that I would be spotted mid-flight. To keep it interesting, I had added dark blue accents in less noticeable places, like in the seams of the wing panels or around the exhaust vents.
I reached for the can of topcoat as well as a fresh paint roller. As I applied the protective coating on top of the quick-drying paint, I immersed myself in the strangely familiar light blue. It wasn’t the color of the sky; although it was intended for camouflage, I had deliberately picked a more faded tone for aesthetic reasons - sky blue was too garish, in my opinion. It wasn’t the color of aquamarine, either, since the gemstones that we imported had a more greenish tint than this. So what made it feel so familiar…?
Then it hit me: subconsciously or coincidentally, the shade of blue I had picked matched the color of Fior’s hair.
Forget about him, I thought, gripping the paint roller tightly. Someone who bloodies their hands with the affairs of war isn’t someone I should be friends with. Becoming a merchant of death is the last thing I’d want to happen.
… But I wonder why he didn’t ask for firearms, and went for a siege weapon instead…
No! No hesitating. I’ve only talked to him for eight days total over eight years, that’s like… barely an acquaintance, right? Besides, I have a friend in Lowell now. Without him, I would’ve never finished the Vassar. Since the guards and Chief Engineer recognize me, I can visit the Clockwork Palace and Lowell anytime I want with the excuse of being on royal business. I don’t need to be lonely anymore. I don’t need Fior anymore.
Silently, I continued to paint the Vassar with the topcoat, solitary as always.
Hisss… went the steam that escaped as I pushed aside the sliding door, towel slung over my shoulder.
Exiting to the changing room after wiping the dried paint off my skin and letting my exhaustion dissolve away in the warm water, I realized that I hadn’t brought a change of clothes in with me. I couldn’t call the maids and wait in the bathing room, either; many of the maids had resigned from service in the past month, thanks to the mounting popularity of rumours of an anti-monarchist faction amongst the commoners. Now, the castle was short-staffed, and I didn’t want to agitate the maids, who now constantly had their hands full.
Ugh… I guess these will have to do for now.
I picked up a silk bathrobe that was in one of the baskets - probably one of the maids’, I would have to return it later - and peeked into the hallway. Seeing that the coast was clear, I rolled the paint-stained clothes into a ball and ran down the hall in bath slippers.
Things would be so much easier if I had a private bathroom in my room… I wonder why the castle was designed like this? Why is there just one large bathing room that everyone uses in turns?
As I turned into the open-air hall that overlooked the island, I noticed loud voices coming from Father’s office. Before I could tune in to eavesdrop, a gust of wind blew through the hall, tickling me through the thin robe, and I sneezed loudly. Eavesdropping would have to wait; first, a change of clothes was in order.
Arriving at my room, I disrobed and went to my closet, rummaging for something proper in case I happened to be discovered while listening in. Unfortunately, all that was on the clothes hangers were casual clothing, so I settled on a polo shirt I had brought back from Japan and a black coat on top of that. At the foot of my bed were my non-work boots, which I promptly slipped on.
So that I could catch the last snippets of conversation at Father’s office before they fizzled away, I briskly walked back to the baths to return the silk robe I had borrowed. This time around, however, I noticed a group of people at the castle gates. Holding picket signs and raising their fists, they yelled at the guards. While I couldn’t tell what the signs read from this distance, I had a good - and frightening - guess.
It can’t be… is it the anti-monarchist faction? I thought the rumours were baseless; what could Father have done to incite such a group to exist?
From where I stood, their yells were just murmurs, but it spurred me to action anyways. After hastily grabbing a random basket in the bathing room and depositing the robe, I sprinted down the stairs to the lower level of the castle to confirm my suspicions. True to expectations, the people at the gate were spewing vitriol at the monarchy.
“Down with the King!” yelled one.
“He shall not control us any longer!” shrieked another.
I turned to the captain of the guards, who had arrived just before me. “... Have they given any specific reason as to why they want to overthrow the monarchy?” I asked.
“According to the guards, no. They’ve been shouting the same phrases over and over again, apparently, and my men down there are just as confused as we are.” He scratched at his beard, before shouting down to one of the guards below. “Hey, Elliott! How long have they been there?”
“Twenty minutes, sir!” came a voice, almost drowned out by the raucous screeching of the mob.
That’s strange… They’ve been protesting for a third of an hour and have yet to specify why they hate the King?
Leaning over the balustrade and cupping my hands, I shouted down to the mob. “Excuse me, but why do you want to overthrow the king?”
It took them a couple of seconds to realize that the voice speaking to them was above the gate rather than behind it, and soon, their attention turned away from the guards to me. “What’chu say, son?”
“I said, why do you want to overthrow the king?”
The people below went silent and turned to each other, muttering and gesturing with their hands. After a moment, one of them looked back up to me. “Because he exerts too much control on us commoners!”
Too much control? Father was rarely on the island itself… What could they possibly mean?
“In what way?” I shouted back. “How does he control you?”
Again, the mob buzzed in discussion as they came up with a response. “Because… uh, the taxes are too high!”
The taxes are too high? The tax rate in Redjuve is one of the lowest in the larger region… Wait, why are they so indecisive? Do they… not actually know why they think the monarchy should be overthrown?
“Who told you the taxes are too high?” I asked.
This time, the mob below went quiet. Swapping glances with one another, it was clear that they were trying to hold some sort of secret - they had probably been paid to keep their mouths shut by whoever was trying to incite unrest.
“Leave this to me.” The captain of the guards pulled a portable megaphone from his pocket, adjusted its amplification value with the knob, then spoke. “If you do not reveal who gave you such information, we will be arresting you under suspicion of treason,” he boomed.
Now that they had been threatened, the mob entered a state of panic. Each of them looked at each other, shaking their heads vigorously, seeming as if they were saying “I’m not going to be the one to do it.” The captain of the guards sighed, and shook a bell that hung by his waist. In response, the guards below brandished their spears and rope, causing those at the front of the crowd to shriek.
Finally, one of them spilled the secret. “It was Duke Westoff, sir! The Duke paid us to stand here and gave us a list of phrases!” As soon as she finished speaking, the panicked crowd covered her mouth and attempted to make a retreat. The guards below moved to pursue them, but the captain shook the bell on his waist once more, and they halted.
Duke Westoff? But why would he try to cause unrest? The last time I saw him was… three years ago, when he…
Suddenly coming to a realization, I sprinted away from the balcony overlooking the castle gate in the direction of Father’s office. That loud voice that I had heard earlier arguing with Father… it had to be the Duke. In that case, I had to go warn Father immediately of his plans to revolt.
Almost colliding with the marble pillar at the top of the stairs as I raced to alert Father, I heard their voices come within earshot. Crouching behind a planter outside the King’s office, I cupped my right hand around my ear to better hear what they were saying.
“Your Majesty, these accusations are very serious. If they turn out to be true, you realize that many major powers on the continent will be turning their attention and militaries on us, correct?” said Duke Westoff; I could imagine him sneering as he spoke.
“... I just don’t understand how such a thing could slip under my nose!” Father, clearly exasperated, thumped his desk, causing the stationery holder to tumble.
“Yes, yes, I understand that you’ve been quite careful, making sure to personally scrutinize each and every trade deal anyone on this island makes with the outside. But, the fact remains that they have the appearance of being produced in Redjuve, something that other nations could never hope to emulate on a conceptual level. Even if they were produced in other nations, the design had to have come from us first.”
“But where could such a design have come from?! The lower-level workshops in the city shouldn’t have the manpower and resources to experiment with to create something that has been forbidden in Redjuve since its founding!”
“Oh, but there is a place: the Clockwork Palace. I happened to hear they recently came into a large fortune. While even us high-ranking nobility don’t know what goes on in the top floors, who does know is…”
“Westoff, I’m not a damn weapons dealer! The common man knows this, and I shall be vindicated!”
Before I could gather my thoughts, the sun that was shining on me was blotted out.
“Kukuku, I’ve caught a spying rat, haven’t I!” Viscount Marbesias, the short man who always accompanied the Duke, shrieked gleefully. He grabbed my collar and lifted me up, dragging me into the view of the Duke and my father.
“Oh, why hello there, young prince! Eavesdropping, were you?” Duke Westoff bowed to me, then motioned for the Viscount to release me.
“A-Alistair, it’s not what you think-” stuttered Father, scrambling to clean up the traces of his frustration.
I had just broken off a friendship I held dear because I thought Redjuve was a nation of peace… and now you’re telling me that the Clockwork Palace could have been making weapons all along? I resisted the urge to vomit; would weapons ruin everything I thought to be respectable? Was my worldview a lie all along? Was I too naive?... Would Vell ask for weapons next?
“... Father, answer me this. Is there any possible shred of doubt that those weapons he made originated from within Redjuve?” I asked, voice trembling.
“... N-no. The weapons are unmistakably designed with the signature Redjuve aesthetic.” His voice faltered, and I was unsure if he was hiding anything more from me.
“Oh, my! I wouldn’t want to intrude in a private moment between father and son. I will be taking my leave now.” The Duke bowed once more and walked out of Father’s office grinning, with the Viscount in tow.
Standing silently in the office, Father stood there paralyzed at his desk. As for me, I could only feel a sense of despair as everything I once thought to be true about Redjuve, this island that I loved, fell apart.