Chapter 3: Meg
The sun was shining high in the sky.
Seron and Larry pushed their carts of luggage along. Meg and the chorus club were walking at a slight distance.
Seron and Larry whispered under their breaths.
“This is great, Seron! I can’t believe your luck!”
“Yeah. Thanks… But I…”
“But what? Let’s talk to her over lunch!”
“Yeah, about that. …You know what? Let’s save this for later.”
“Hm. All right. It’d be bad if she overheard.”
Behind them, the chorus club girls were also whispering amongst themselves.
The topic of their discussion was easy to figure out. The girls whispered about how handsome Seron was, how cool he was, and how they were jealous that Meg had taken the same class as him last term.
“But you see, this is the first time that I had the chance to speak with that person.” Meg said to the other girls without much thought.
Finally, the six of them arrived at the gymnasium.
Portman was introducing the members of the orchestra to Ms. Krantz and the senior members of the drama club.
“It’s an honor to be able to play at the annual performance with you. We will do our utmost to match your wonderful performance.”
Then she added, as though in an afterthought,
“Ah yes, Ms. Krantz. Those four over there are members of the chorus club.”
Every eye in the gymnasium was on the chorus club. The drama club and the orchestra watched as the girls feebly introduced themselves in turn.
Meg was up last.
“Er… My—my name is Strauski Megmica. I will do my best work. Please take good care of me.”
Even from a simple greeting, it was clear as day that Meg’s intonation and pronunciation were stilted.
“Oh? Are you hard of speaking?” Portman inquired loudly, as though announcing to the whole gymnasium.
Meg flinched like she had been whipped. The other chorus club members hung their heads.
Larry, who hated people who bullied the weak, bit his lip.
Seron glared silently.
“Er… erm… I… I am still not very skilled in my Roxchean speaking. I am a person from Sou Be-Il.”
That was all Meg could say.
Portman pounced the moment she saw her chance.
“I see. I have nothing against international students, of course. But I’m not sure I want the drama club and the orchestra’s wonderful performance to become a laughingstock on account of a badly-pronounced song.”
“Yes? But… er… I…”
Meg could not go on. She went silent, her gaze falling to the newly-marked floor.
“I believe everyone else is also in agreement?” Portman said, looking over the other orchestra members.
No one spoke up in agreement, but no one disagreed.
Her long hair aflutter, Portman turned her wrath on the other chorus club members.
“I did ask for four vocalists. But I remember clearly asking for the four best members. Was there a problem?”
The other chorus club girls looked even more taken aback than Meg. They looked like three frogs being strangled by a serpent.
Larry’s bitten lip became more pronounced. Seron’s glare was sharp enough to kill.
Ms. Krantz stood beside Portman and Meg with her arms crossed, an interesting look on her face. She waited to see if the chorus club would argue back, and planned to step in at the end if the students could not work things out among themselves.
“You can’t tell me a thing if you don’t speak.”
Portman was controlling the atmosphere now.
“The orchestra is made up of students who passed a rigorous audition. We can confidently and proudly call on each and every member to give a worthy performance. And what about your chorus club?”
Portman looked over Meg and the chorus club members. Suddenly, one of the girls spoke.
“Megmica here is the best singer in the club!”
It was a resounding voice worthy of the chorus club. The other two chorus club members loudly voiced their agreement.
“I suppose I can’t disprove that.” Said Portman. “But if the rest of you aren’t very good, wouldn’t that imply something rather unflattering about her?” She shot.
The chorus club girls frowned visibly. The one who had spoken up earlier retorted,
“How rude! Are you implying that the four of us are poor vocalists?!”
“I wonder. Well, I suppose I can’t pass judgement until I’ve heard with my own two ears. Let us hear your singing, right here and now. If you manage to surpass my expectations, I will apologize.”
The chorus club went quiet again. They couldn’t very well sing without warming up, and in their situation—and without any accompaniment to boot—it would be a difficult task.
“If someone could at least accompany us…” The tallest chorus club member said, but there was no way Portman would let them have an advantage.
“Has anyone in the orchestra finished prepping their instruments?”
Naturally, no one responded. The drama club members paused their work as their attention was drawn to the commotion, and silence filled the gymnasium.
Several seconds passed.
Ms. Krantz took a deep breath, ready to step in.
“I see you’re as passionate about music as ever, SC Portman.”
A female voice resounded through the gymnasium.
The voice was deep for a girl’s, and words aside, scorn was clear in the tone of the voice.
“Oh?” Miss Krantz raised an eyebrow, turning.
“What do you mean by that?” Portman shot back almost on reflex as she turned. Seron, Meg, and everyone in the gymnasium looked at the source of the voice.
She stood behind the chorus club, at the gymnasium doors 3 meters away.
“I meant exactly what I said, SC Portman.”
The girl was in uniform. She stood with the bright outside air at her back. She was tall for a girl, and wore her long brown hair tied up in a ponytail. Her eyes were dark and a pair of thin-rimmed glasses sat on her face. She was pretty, but her expression was stern and cold.
“Sorry I’m late.” The girl said loudly as she stepped into the gymnasium. In her hand was a rectangular violin case.
The girl passed Larry and Seron—who were still visibly outraged—and stopped in front of the chorus club. In that instant, Larry glimpsed the girl’s profiled face.
“Hm?” He furrowed his brow.
Portman was glaring daggers, but the bespectacled girl acted as if she didn’t even exist.
“I’ll accompany you. What do you want to sing?” She said to the chorus club.
And before the three senior-classmen could answer,
“If it is possible to do so, may you accompany me with ‘Memories of the Four Seasons’? I will sing this song solo on my own.” Meg said. ‘Memories of the Four Seasons’, was a famous song in Roxche that—as the title made clear—described the beauty of the seasons.
“Sure. I like that song.” The bespectacled girl said, finally smiling.
She opened up her case on the floor and pulled out a dark brown violin. Then she attached the shoulder rest, placed the violin against her face, and brandished her bow.
The girl played the second string on the right. A gentle tone filled the gymnasium. She then began playing two strings at once, creating a resounding chord.
She gave Meg her cue.
Meg clasped her hands before her chest and nodded.
Without warning, the violin girl leapt into the song.
The gymnasium was filled with a powerful sound. The smooth, gentle introduction began.
She made the performance look easy. But the sound born from her violin was clearly backed up by incredible skill.
The moment the introduction began, Med closed her eyes and moved her clasped hands with the rhythm.
Then she took a deep breath—
And she sang.
The air in the gymnasium changed.
Meg’s soprano voice became a great wave that surged and rushed over Portman and Ms. Krantz—who were right next to her—along with the entire orchestra and the drama club members further away.
The bespectacled accompanist smiled and made minute adjustments in her playing to match Meg’s volume.
Meg’s voice resounded through the room.
Seron could say nothing. He simply stared, transfixed, with his eyes wide open.
Larry managed a gasp as he listened.
Like a magic spell, the song froze every movement in the gymnasium.
Meg’s Roxchean was perfect. It was beyond reproach. It was impossible to tell from the singing that she was a foreigner.
Peacefully and gently, she finished the first verse and its imagery of spring. She opened her eyes with a smile and turned to her accompanist.
The accompanist gave her a look asking, ‘Verse 2 too?’.
When she saw Meg lightly shake her head, the accompanist dragged out one final note and put an end to her splendid performance.
Silence returned to the gymnasium.
Five seconds later.
“That was magnificent!” Ms. Krantz exclaimed, breaking into applause. “Brilliant! That was a moving performance, you two. There’s nothing more to say; I think the chorus club will make a splendid contribution to the drama club’s performance. Don’t you think so, Portman?”
Portman, who had been listening in awe, snapped out of her daze and floundered.
“Huh? Er… I—that is to say… I have nothing to criticize. It seems that there are many talented people at this school.”
“As the supervisor of the drama club, I’m happy too. Keep up the good work, chorus club. Portman, could you introduce our accompanist here?”
“Of course.” Portman replied promptly behind a thinly veiled look of discontentment, averting her gaze. “This is Natalia Steinbeck. She’s a third-year student and a member of the orchestra club. As you have all just heard, she’s quite talented. I’m sure most of you will understand if I tell you that she’s the daughter of the Steinbeck couple.”
Several people in the drama club, three of the chorus club girls, and Seron reacted to the name. The club members were very—and Seron was slightly—surprised.
Meg stood in confused silence.
“…Who’s what now?”
Larry wondered, tilting his head a full 45 degrees.
With her violin in her left hand and her bow in her left, the accompanist put on a cool smile.
“Natalia. It’s a pleasure. And sorry I’m late—someone must have made a mistake and forgotten to count me when the club met at the gates.”
Observant people like Seron, Meg, and Arthur quickly realized that Natalia and Portman were not on good terms, and that most of the problems between the orchestra and the chorus club stemmed from the orchestra side.
“Dearie me, I’m sorry about that.” Portman said flippantly, as though she had simply stepped on Natalia’s foot by mistake.
“Please don’t let it bother you, SC Portman. It never bothered me, either.”
“That’s very kind of you, Natalia Steinbeck.”
“Enough of the fake apologies, SC Portman. I’m used to them by now. And here I was, thinking you’d matured a little.”
“Oh my. Were you planning on becoming a psychiatrist in the future, Natalia Steinbeck? I’m sure you can do anything when you put your mind to it. I’m cheering for you.”
“Not mentioning any names, but I’m not sure I have what it takes to look after self-centered patients. I’m going to have to turn down any offers from medical school if it means I have to suffer into adulthood, too.”
“Of course. With your skill, I suppose you’re destined for a career in music. And a much more celebrated career than mine, considering your talent.”
“But I could never beat you for music criticism, SC Portman.”
If Portman and Meg earlier were a serpent and a frog respectively, this time it was a pair of serpents were engaged in a fierce battle.
The orchestra club, clearly not wanting to get involved, shrank back.
“Girls’ fights are scarier than a war.” Larry whispered to Seron.
Silently, Seron nodded.
“Although I don’t know much about wars.” He added quietly.
Arthur, who had been in the background of the conversation for quite some time, gently elbowed Ms. Krantz.
“Oh! Er… Yes. That was great!” She said. “No objections here! We have high hopes for both the orchestra and the chorus club. Let’s all enjoy ourselves and play nice! All right, everyone? Yes?”
* * *
The club representatives had a schedule set for the morning.
The drama club would do voice projection exercises and practice blocking, or make costumes and props in the clubroom.
The orchestra would start off with a full practice in their usual haunt, music room 1.
The chorus club would go to practice at their usual location—music room 2, located in a separate building from music room 1.
Ms. Krantz would supervise the combination of acting and music, but only starting the day after tomorrow.
As for Seron and Larry, they would continue to work as gofers.
Just before they set off for music room 1 with the orchestra club’s luggage,
“Here.” Seron said briefly, handing Meg her bag.
“Thank you very much.”
Politely, Meg bowed her head. Then she left the gymnasium with the other chorus club members.
Seron watched in silence until Meg’s bouncing pigtails disappeared.
“All right. Let’s go.” Larry said, giving him a push.
The orchestra club walked ahead of Seron and Larry as though in a funeral march.
Including Natalia, the orchestra club numbered at over a dozen members. And they all walked in a straight line through the building in complete silence.
Soon they arrived at music room 1, which was on the first floor or a nearby building. The orchestra members took out their instruments, and Seron and Larry gently placed their luggage on the desks.
“Thank you. You’re free to go.” Portman said.
“Feel free to call us if you need anything else!”
Seron and Larry left the music room with the carts.
Natalia glanced at Larry as he departed.
“Hmph.” She snorted.
When they returned to the gymnasium, Arthur asked them to go on an errand. The drama club was using up marking tape faster than they had expected and needed more rolls. Seron and Larry received the money and left on foot for the shopping district about a kilometer away.
Temperatures were rising in time with the season, but because of the low humidity it was not very uncomfortable. The northerly winds squeezing between the buildings were refreshing.
Seron and Larry walked out the gates and into the residential district. Because it was still morning, the streets were practically deserted.
Larry suddenly pointed at Seron.
“Seron! You’re the luckiest guy in the world! This is great! So that was Strauski Megmica, eh? She’s definitely a cute one, with those big eyes and all. And she’s an incredible singer, too! She’s perfect for you! Ask her out next time you get to talk to her! —I’ve got it! You can ask at lunchtime! Here’s hoping she didn’t bring her own lunch!”
Larry’s hands and feet were trembling in awe. But Seron—
“W-wait. That’s a bit sudden…” He said sadly.
“Er… you can keep walking, Larry. —I, well… I don’t plan on asking her out right away. And please don’t say a word about it to her. Please.”
“Wh-why?” Larry stammered, resuming his walk.
“The practice camp is going to last seven days, right?”
“So if I ask her out today—”
“Aha! Then you could go on campus dates together every day for the next seven days! You can tell SC Arthur that you’re helping out, but stick with the chorus club all week long. I can do both our shares of work, and—”
“No, I mean—that makes sense, but that’s only if I get a positive response.”
“If she turns me down… what am I supposed to do for the next seven days?”
Seron’s attitude had darkened so quickly it was almost scary.
“Whoa, whoa. Wait a sec here. You have a point, Seron. But—but you’re a good-looking guy. I think you’ll be fine.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to be interested in me. Remember what you told me before? ‘Don’t ever roll out a plan under the assumption that things will turn out for the best’.”
“So please don’t tell her anything, Larry. At least, not until the last day of the practice camp. …Please.”
“Seron… you really like Strauski Megmica, don’t you?”
“I love her!”
Larry’s jaw dropped at the prompt response, but he soon nodded to himself.
“So you’re happy just being around her. …All right. I got it. I promise I won’t say a word.” Larry said, then added, “But until then, I’m going to do everything I can to push you two together. If you think you see your chance, ask her out! Sound good to you?”
* * *
Seron and Larry came back with everything Arthur had asked for, but there was no work for them to do.
“I think we’re good for now, so you’re free to leave if you’d like. See you in the afternoon.” Said Arthur.
With the drama club’s voice projection exercises behind them, Seron and Larry left the gymnasium.
Larry suggested that they drop by the chorus club, but Seron vetoed the idea because it would be too unnatural. So they went straight back to the dorms.
The usual hustle and bustle of the campus nowhere to be heard—it was tranquil in the school that day.
It was rare to see the campus so deserted, but this was one such moment. The old, towering buildings were silent, and the grassy field spread quietly across the grounds.
Seron had seen such sights often, living in the dorms. But Larry, who commuted to school, was relishing the unusual atmosphere.
“Hey, wanna check out that old building?”
At Larry’s suggestion, they took the long way around and headed for the old building that was used as a storehouse.
Among the buildings on campus, the storehouse was furthest away from the main buildings. Around it was a stone-paved path and a small flower bed.
The storehouse’s wall and foundation were made of grey stone, and its roof was covered with red tiles. It was shaped like a rectangle, longer from east to west than from north to south. The building was about 30 meters long and 10 meters wide. In terms of height it was about two stories tall, and the roof was very steep. Next to it was a steeple that could serve as a lookout tower.
The building was a remnant from the campus’s history as part of a small town. Signs of repair were clearly visible.
Because the storehouse was old, foreboding, and far from the other buildings, not many people approached it—especially not students, who had nothing to do with the storehouse.
There were more buildings of a similar design there when the school was first built. But the rest had been deemed unsafe demolished.
“They must have spared this one because they didn’t want to get rid of all the historical buildings. This storehouse was built over 300 years ago. There are other old buildings around here, but this one tops them all.”
“I see. Thanks for the info. This is the first time I’ve come so close since I took a peek back in first year.”
Seron and Larry circled around the building toward the northern side.
An angry male voice echoed from around the corner.
Larry stopped. So did Seron behind him.
As their eyes adjusted to the shadow, they spotted three men in blue coveralls glaring at them.
The men ranged in age from their twenties to their forties. And they all wore the same grim looks on their faces. Put nicely, they looked strong. Not so nicely, they looked positively menacing.
The 4th Capital Secondary School took appearance and approachability into account when hiring even the security guards. People like these three were a rare sight on campus.
Seron and Larry had already seen one of them earlier.
“Ah, it’s you guys. From the gymnasium earlier.” Said Hartnett.
Seron and Larry nodded.
“As you can see, we’re working. Leave.”
“Right, Mr. Hartnett. —Do you mind if we ask what you’re doing?” Larry asked, genuinely curious. Although he didn’t expect an answer.
“Oh, this? Orders from the ministry of education. We’re blocking off the latticed windows. Can’t have any little kids falling inside, right? Even if no one falls in, it’d still be trouble if anyone got stuck.”
Though Hartnett looked as menacing as ever, he answered Larry’s question with little reservation.
There were windows along the wall, low and close to the ground.
The windows were about 40 centimeters high and 1 meter long. They were placed at regular 1-meter intervals in the wall and were dozens of centimeters deep. But instead of panes of glass, they were installed with bare-bones iron bars.
The building basement was not used as a storehouse. High up on the wall were windows that let in light and fresh air.
“A basement, eh? Wish I could check it out.” Larry said curiously.
Hartnett said no more to Seron and Larry. He turned back to his coworkers for a discussion.
“Let’s not bother them. C’mon.” Said Seron.
“‘Scuse us.” Larry nodded, turning on his heels.
Watching them leave, one man grimaced.
“This isn’t good. A drama club practice camp? Now? After all the trouble we went through to get entry during summer break…”
The man in his forties chimed in,
“‘It’ll be fine because the sports clubs aren’t practicing yet’, they said. This is ridiculous.”
Hartnett finally spoke.
“No use complaining now. It’ll be fine as long as none of them go into the basement. First, let’s double-check the lock.”