This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table
-Vell Eden, 27 years old-
The clip-clops of our horses’ hooves slowed as we approached the rusted castle gates. With a single push, they fell off their hinges, allowing our group of three to pass through into the castle garden without any trouble. Where a neatly trimmed tapestry of hedges once stood was a bare field of dirt in its place, neglect and decay having washed away all the colors.
“Here, a handkerchief,” Alistair offered to Olivia. As she accepted it, the golden rings on their ring fingers glinted in the setting sun’s light.
Tracing my fingers along the vertical grooves of the pillars that remained of the gazebo, I was able to scrape away a thick layer of dust, revealing the pristine white marble underneath. It was a surprise that it remained standing - the enormous dust storms that had passed through Chartreuse, with the royal castle in the center of its path, had choked out the economy. I imagined that the valuables of the castle had been pillaged by drought refugees, yet the valuable marble had not been chipped away and sold off.
We dismounted at the main entrance, and Alistair tugged on the door handles, but to no avail.
“Move aside.” From my pocket, I produced a leather pouch, eyed the lock carefully, and pulled out a pick. Within seconds, a satisfying click came from the lock.
“When did you learn to pick locks? You’re not a bandit, you’re an apothecary,” remarked Alistair.
“I lock myself out of the medicine cabinets sometimes. You’d pick up a roguish skill or two if you had to deal with those old things,” I retorted, pushing the door open. “Besides, you two deal with those rough types more often - Temmes is packed to the brim with them, surely you have a healthy influx of bandits and mercenaries in your combination smithy-tavern?”
“Ha, you wish. Nowadays the policing is strict, so all we get is drunken sailors and housewives that need me to fix their cutlery.”
Slivers of sunlight filtered through cracks in the walls of the main hall, driving home that the royal castle, just like the prestige of the royal family itself, had become ruins. The floor was strewn with debris and dust, so I crouched down to examine the rubble. Dust storms wouldn’t be able to do this kind of damage… had an earthquake happened in the area? I hadn’t been in the kingdom for nine years now, ever since the three of us fled to the coast with the knowledge that there would be an inevitable environmental collapse in the plains.
“You two go ahead and check on the door, see if it’s still intact. It’s down the second hall to the right, go down the stairs and turn left. I… have something else to check on,” I said.
The two of them shrugged, and as they began walking towards the hall, they intertwined their fingers together.
“Can the two of you do anything without flirting?” I shouted at their backs.
“Maybe the reason you’re unable to get married is that you’re so bitter from all the medicine you handle?” he chuckled as they left my line of sight.
I suppose I’ll go there, then.
Standing up and dusting myself off, I headed in the other direction, the third hall to the left. Down a flight of stairs, down a hall to the right, through a door, down a dirt path to a manmade glade, and there it was. Surrounded in dust and rubble was a solitary gravestone that had toppled over. The beautiful flowers and trees that once formed a circle around it had long withered away, painting quite the decrepit image.
I crouched down and set the gravestone upright again, pushing it into the ground where, hopefully, it would stay without disruption. From within my cloak, I pulled a sprig of Tatarian aster and stuck it on the grave, pushing up the dirt around it so it wouldn’t fly away in the wind.
“... I’m back, Filaine.
“You know, Father and Mother haven’t come back to the castle yet. From what I’ve heard, they’re still up in the north, trying to run the kingdom from a new capital city. They found one of our cousins to serve as the Crown Prince, since I ran away.
“I’m doing fine now. I’ve opened up an apothecary shop in Sefrett, so I get to have a view of the ocean every day; you always said you wanted to see the sea once. Let me tell you, it’s not all that great. The water by the docks is always murky, and there’s seagulls everywhere. I’ve had entire loaves of bread stolen from my groceries before. The smell of brine can be really nausea-inducing sometimes.
“The knowledge about medicine I studied back then has really come in handy - I have so many customers that I’m known as the ‘miracle witch’ now. In my spare time I’ve started writing my own novels… I still have the original copy of Lyre and Strum in my bedroom, kept safe in a chest. I haven’t published them yet, but I wish you could read them.
“You never got to meet them, but the two boys I mentioned that I met in Japan? One of them came to Chartreuse with me… It’s a long story, but he’s married to a maid he brought over here with him. They’ve settled down in Temmes, and they decided to open a store that was both a smithy and a tavern - would you believe it? I told them that it was too strange of an idea, that people would prefer to just go to a normal tavern, but apparently their business has been doing well…
“As for the other boy, I left Chartreuse before the next year came around, so I have no idea what happened to him. I heard that he had a fiancee, though, so he’s probably living a happy life back in his world. Maybe he’s had kids already!
“... I don’t have a family right now.
“What do you think counts as a family?
“Alistair and Olivia say I’m part of their family… but does that count? We rarely talk, since we live in different seaside towns, and when we do, I feel like an outsider. I don’t really have any opportunities to start a family, either - most of my customers are housewives and the elderly. If there’s a sailor that walks in, they always have a wife in another port town waiting for them to come back home.
“Do I need a family?
“... Nevermind that.
“I want to hear your voice again. It’s a shame that I didn’t think of buying a voice recorder in Japan.
“You had so many things you never got to do…
“I still haven’t found Death and given him that beating that I promised. If you see him visiting your corner of the afterlife, do give him one for me, will you?”
Sighing, I produced a carnation from inside my cloak and stuck it beside the sprig of aster, finishing the conversation.
When I returned to the door to Japan, Alistair and Olivia were crouching beside it, with a mound of rubble beside them.
“Took your sweet time, did you? We had to move all this debris by ourselves - I expect payment for our manual labor,” he elbowed me jokingly. “Did you bring the trinkets?”
Unhooking a cloth bag from my belt, I loosened the drawstring and let Alistair confirm the contents. Inside it were the remnants of the stash that I had brought with me when we fled to the coast; I had sold the dresses first, so all that remained was jewelry.
“I guess we’re all done here, then?” Olivia spoke for the first time today.
I breathed deeply. This was the first time I would be visiting Japan in ten years - who knew how much it had changed? For Chartreuse, the once prosperous agricultural kingdom, to have fallen from grace so quickly, it could be the same for Japan. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a lively city on the other side to greet us. Perhaps Shibuya had become a ghost town. Perhaps war had broken out, and Japan had been erased off the map by weapons of mass destruction.
“What are you hesitating for? Let’s just go through already.” Alistair turned the doorknob and passed through, leaving Olivia and I on this side.
Exiting the door, I found myself facing a familiar sight: the concrete wall of the building adjacent to the restaurant that was host to our door. Shibuya didn’t seem like it had changed; from the alley, I was able to hear the sounds of laughter and joy, so the festival was definitely running this year.
“But Daddy, I want to go to the festival already! Why do we have to wait out here for an hour every year! I! WANT! TO! GO!” came the whining of a child at the entrance of the alley.
“Now, now. Just wait another ten minutes and you’ll be able to go to the festival with Mommy, okay?” the voice of an adult male answered.
“Hmph! Why do you never come to the festival with us until it’s almost closed?! Do you not love me and Mommy?”
“It’s not like that, Kuina-chan… I’m waiting for some old friends.”
Waiting for an old friend… here?
“But we’ve waited here every year, and your friends never show up! Let’s just go already!”
I turned to Alistair, who could hear the conversation as well. Silently, we nodded to each other. There was no one else it could be - who else knew that this alley was special? Why would anyone from Japan choose this alley as a meeting spot? We ran towards the entrance of the alley in a hurry, excited to see him for the first time in years. Likely having heard our footsteps, a figure moved to block our path, his back turned to the warm city lights.
Warmly smiling, Fior spoke.