Chapter 1: The Start of the Fall Term
The 13th day of the ninth month, the year 3305 of the World Calendar.
There was a blue planet with a very large moon.
90 percent of the planet was covered in water, and the poles were covered in ice.
There was an oval, potato-shaped continent in the northern hemisphere of that planet.
The southern part of the continent was a brown desert. But as the latitude increased, the land exploded in a splash of green.
There was a massive mountain range in the middle of the continent, beginning at the desert. The mountains, capped with snow even in the middle of summer, ended abruptly about halfway up the continent. The two rivers on either side of the mountain range converged there, creating the massive Lutoni River that flowed straight north and into the sea.
There were two nations on the continent, one on either side.
In the east was the Roxcheanuk Confederation, also known as Roxche. It was made up of 16 countries and territories.
In the west were the Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa, also known as Sou Be-Il. It was made up of the kingdoms of Bezel and Iltoa, along with a handful of small subordinate countries.
For eons, the people of the East and West had warred against one another with the Lutoni River between them.
In more contemporary times, each side of the continent forged alliances, and Roxche and Sou Be-Il were formed almost simultaneously. What followed was a cold war, one massive war, and many smaller conflicts.
But about 20 years ago, the cold war was ended by a certain incident.
The threat of another Great War was beginning to fade.
The capital of Roxche was the Special Capital District, a region independent of any country within the confederation.
It was on the northeastern end of Roxche, very far from the East-West border but also a fair distance from the sea.
The Special Capital District was a circular area about 30 kilometers in diameter. It had been built when Roxche was first formed.
The city center was home to the presidential residence, the Confederation Assembly Hall, civic centers, and courthouses. Outside the center was a business district crowded with department stores and hotels. Further outside was a residential district full of apartment buildings.
And on the outskirts of the Capital District, in the 9:30 direction, was the 4th Capital Secondary School.
The 600 meter-square campus was surrounded by apartment buildings, and housed class buildings, the grounds, gymnasiums, and the dormitory building, among others.
The dorms were on the edge of the campus. It was a symmetrical building divided by gender on either side of the lobby in the center.
Unlike the drab grey concrete of the apartments over the wall from the school, the majestic stone design of the dormitory was a perfect match for the rest of the campus.
It was early in the morning, in the lobby on the first floor lined with phone booths.
“It’s been a while, buddy! How’re you doing?”
“Great, Larry. I had an awesome summer.”
Seron and Larry greeted each other with smiles.
Seron Maxwell was 15 years old and a third-year student. He was of average height and had a slender build. He had slightly long black hair and light grey eyes the color of clouds.
Seron was dressed in street clothes. Beige pants with a navy long-sleeved shirt, along with laceless shoes. On his left wrist was a simple watch, which he wore every day.
Larry Hepburn was also 15 years old. He was shorter than Seron but muscular and fit. His blond hair was cropped short, and he had bright blue eyes.
“You’re looking braver than usual, Larry.”
Larry was wearing a military uniform.
He wore a Confederation Army-issue dark-and-light green summer combat uniform. Strapped to the belt around his waist was a magazine belt for rifle rounds and a water bottle tucked inside a cloth pouch. On his feet were a pair of laceless black boots that had been polished to a shine.
Larry also carried a large rucksack laden with a rolled-up sleeping bag, a folding spade, and a metal helmet.
“Cool, eh?” Larry grinned, pushing up his hat. “They haven’t even started issuing this new camo gear yet. Anyway, the military sciences training camp is over!”
“How was it?”
“Incredible! This time we had an officer from the department of strategy as an instructor telling us how we can deceive the enemy and take them off-guard. It was great! He said the louder the diversion, the more effective it is. But at the same time you have to keep in mind what the enemy might be thinking, to make sure you’re not the one falling for a trap. We also learned that you have to move with the sun at your back when you’re conducting an ambush and—”
Larry was as energetic as ever, with the same old grin on his face.
“Anyway, that’s enough about the camp. …Sorry I gotta bring it up so soon, but please help me with my homework, Seron!”
But his face quickly took on a desperate hue.
* * *
Seron’s room was on the third floor of the boys’ dorms.
The 4th Capital Secondary School gave each dormitory student their own room out of consideration for their privacy, but the rooms were small and cramped to compensate.
The rooms were furnished with wooden beds, desks, closets, and dressers. All the plumbing was concentrated at the center of each floor, so the kitchens and bathrooms were communal.
The clear blue sky outside the window seemed to declare the start of autumn. It was warm for the season, however. They could leave the windows open and still be comfortable in summer clothes. The light green curtains fluttered gently in the breeze.
“Aw, man… year in, year out, all this homework drives me insane…”
Larry had taken off his uniform jacket, and was in a T-shirt with the word ‘ARMY’ printed on the front. He sat at Seron’s desk with his own notebook and printouts spread open.
Seron sat on his bed behind him and explained all the questions Larry had given up on.
Taking a brief tea break partway through, Larry plowed through his homework until sweat dotted his brow.
“Done… mission accomplished…”
It was a little past noon by the time he finally finished.
“Tell my family… I fell bravely in battle…” He gasped, collapsing onto the desk.
“Good job, Larry.” Seron said. “Would you prefer to stay dead a little longer, or do you want to head to the cafeteria?”
“Food!” Larry leapt up.
Larry and Seron, both in T-shirts and shorts, entered the dormitory cafeteria.
The dormitory cafeteria was the size of a hotel banquet hall, and was usually reserved for breakfasts, dinners, and weekend meals for dormitory students. However, non-dormitory students could also use the cafeteria if they were using the dorms for school-approved activities.
A few students were already in the cafeteria. Some were in uniform, and others were not.
The former were students who had come to school for club activities. The main cafeteria was closed, so they had to use the dormitory cafeteria. The latter were mostly dormitory students like Seron.
Only one of the counters was open that day. Seron ordered cream of mushroom soup with chicken with a side of bread. Larry did so as well, and also ordered a fish burger for two servings for food.
Larry was a big eater, but because he exercised every day, he did not gain much weight. He also scooped up a heaping helping of vegetables at the salad bar.
Afterwards, Larry wrote down his student number on the record sheet so he would be billed later.
Seron and Larry sat away from the other students, prayed, and started on their food.
“It’s my turn to help you out, Seron. Let’s start our strategy meeting.” Larry said, chewing slowly.
“A strategy meeting? What for?” Seron asked, not a hint of emotion rising to his face. Larry looked around to make sure no one was around before replying.
“For helping you get closer to Megmica in the fall term.”
“It’s too bad the camp was canceled early, but you made some progress this summer. A lot of progress, considering where you started.” Larry said with a smile, looking into Seron’s expressionless face. Seron replied, still expressionless.
“It was the greatest summer in the history of Roxche.”
“That’s some sense of scale, buddy. I guess this summer was basically like your own personal Mural discovery. Anyway, this is where things are really gonna get started. How do we get you and Megmica together this autumn?”
Seron had frozen, deep in thought.
“You can keep eating, Seron. Just hear me out. We know Megmica’s gonna be coming to school every day this term. That obviously means you’ll have a lot more chances to meet her. And the more you meet her, the closer you’ll get. That’s how it works.”
Seron slowly scooped up a large mushroom from his soup.
“But… it’ll be hard to take the same classes as her.”
Larry had to agree.
In secondary school, most students could plan their own timetables. Other than the mandatory classes, they had free rein to choose their electives. This meant that everyone’s curriculum was different.
Students had to choose the classes they wanted to take and submit their choices in the term before. And because there were so many students and classes, it was unlikely they would end up in the same class by chance.
“But! But! Starting this term, you can see her every day! You know why, right?”
Seron swallowed the mushroom and replied.
“The newspaper club.”
“Exactly. You’ll get to see Megmica every day once class starts in two days. Talk to her about a bunch of things, show off your good side. And when you find the right moment, take a deep breath and ask her out.”
“What if she turns me down?” Seron asked immediately. Larry was taken aback.
“Don’t be so pessimistic.”
Seron was expressionless yet clearly anxious. Larry cut him off.
“Never mind. I guess there’s no real rush. Let’s just keep the asking out part as a final resort. Like for if her family suddenly has to move back to Sou Be-Il next month or something.”
“You can see her every day now, so we can go with a simple strategy: spend as much time with her as possible and take your time getting to know her. Sound good to you?”
Though it was a conservative conclusion, they arrived at one nonetheless and finished their lunches to boot. Larry picked up his cup of tea and changed the subject.
“You said you moved back in two days ago? What’d you do yesterday? Was Jenny at school by any chance?”
“No, I haven’t spoken to her since the telephone call. Yesterday I went shopping at the department store in the morning and spent the afternoon at the Roxee Museum of Art. It was my fifth time going there, but I think I finally managed to look at all the exhibits.” Seron replied casually. Larry cut in.
“Huh? Yeah. Of course.”
Larry fell into deep thought.
Why couldn’t Seron have called Meg and asked her to go with him? She lived in the Capital District, after all. Seron could have called Natalia or Jenny or Nick to help him out. Larry agonized over Seron’s timidness, but he did not go so far as to question him over it.
“M-makes sense. The museum’s massive, I mean. Last time I went was on a class trip in primary school. I remember yelling about how the weapons exhibit had stuff just like my house, but the curator glared at me so I had to shut up.”
“Too bad. You were telling the truth, too.” Seron said sympathetically.
Seron had visited the Hepburn family in the past. The Hepburns were a military family boasting a 400-year-plus history. Their halls were lined with swords and suits of armor passed down through the generations.
“The ones at home are all dented and stuff, though. I feel bad for my ancestors, but that’s part of family tradition too.” Larry said with a grin.
Larry was not the only one who horsed around with the family’s weapons. His brother, their father and uncles, their grandfather, and all the men of the Hepburn family—and some of the women— trained or played around with the weapons and armor, denting and damaging them over the course of generations.
After lunch, Seron and Larry picked up their trays and headed for the counter.
“Thanks for helping me out with homework, buddy. I’m gonna head over to the military academy armory and drop off my gear and head back home. I’d invite you for dinner, but we’re having relatives over for a conference at my place. Sorry.”
“No worries. I’ll see you when classes start.”
They placed their trays on the return counter and left the cafeteria.
At that moment—
A girl came up to them.
Two girls had been waiting for them at the doors. Both were in uniform, and seemed to be a little younger than Seron and Larry.
The one who had spoken was the taller of the two, with curly brown hair and light green eyes, along with a pair of glasses. And her eyes were fixed intently on Seron.
The other girl was petite. She was only a little taller than Jenny Jones, with short black hair and light brown eyes. Unlike her clearly-determined friend, she looked at Seron even more blankly than the way he looked at the girl.
“What is it?”
Seron knew exactly what the girl wanted, but he responded as calmly as ever. Larry also understood what the girl wanted, from her desperate and passionate gaze.
“Er… SC Maxwell! M-my name is Margaret Whistler! I’m a second-year! I’ve liked you ever since I first saw you! I’m sorry this is so sudden, but I happened to see you today and I just couldn’t hold back any more! Will you please go out with me?”
The bespectacled girl’s fists were clenched tightly. She was pouring out her heart. Seron did not avert his eyes all throughout the confession. For some time, Larry and the dark-haired girl looked on.
Finally, Seron spoke.
“Thank you, but—”
And he gently followed Larry’s directions on how to turn someone down without hurting their feelings. He had done so many times in the past.
Seron had several set responses ready for when someone asked him out in person, or when someone left a love letter in his locker. Each time he made sure to avoid any word that could possibly be misinterpreted, emphasizing that he was not interested.
The bespectacled girl seemed sad for a moment, but she listened to Seron until the end and relaxed.
Perhaps she already knew that Seron had a track record of rejecting confessions; perhaps she knew it was hopeless from the very beginning; perhaps she considered the attempt more meaningful than the outcome; or perhaps all were true.
“I understand. Thank you so much!” She said with a bow, looking refreshed.
Larry waited for the lull in the conversation before butting in cheerfully.
“That was pretty cool, both of you. I’ve never had a crush on anyone and no one’s asked me out as long as I’ve been here, so it was kinda moving to watch!”
A faint smile rose to the bespectacled girl’s face.
“Thank you. I’m so sorry for bothering you, SC Maxwell. And… er…”
“Larry Hepburn. I’m a friend of Seron.”
“I’m so sorry for bothering you. If you don’t mind, could you please keep this—”
“I know. I won’t tell a soul.”
The girl thanked them one more time before walking away. The black-haired girl followed expressionlessly.
Two seconds later.
Neither Larry nor Seron, nor the bespectacled girl noticed the sliver of a smile on the black-haired girl’s face.
* * *
The 15th day of the ninth month.
The fall term of the year 3305 began.
Countless cars and students swarmed to the school, which had previously been occupied only by students doing club activities and dormitory residents. The street outside the gates and the school hallways were packed.
It wasn’t as chaotic as the start of a new year, when first-years were bound to get lost, but the students were nonetheless streaming through the buildings.
Their uniforms consisted of green pants, a button-up shirt with the school emblem over the right breast, and a necktie.
Wearing his uniform for the first time in two months, Seron neither panicked nor hurried as he headed for the class he had selected. He had wanted to sign up for Bezelese, but he had decided too late and his options clashed with his timetable.
And, as he had expected, he did not see Strauski Megmica in any of his morning or afternoon classes. He did not see anyone else from the newspaper club, either.
“AHH! I’m so glad I picked this class! This term is going to be great!”
A girl in one of his classes was almost in tears at the sight of him.
“I remember that guy from last term. The one Meg told me about.”
A certain girl with a very long name muttered to herself in another one of his classes.
The first day of classes ended with introductions and a quick look through their textbooks and curriculum.
Seron’s afternoon classes ended early, so he headed to another building. His bag was light because he did not have any of his textbooks yet.
On the vast school grounds were buildings both old and new. Seron headed to one of the older ones, on the first floor of which was the newspaper club’s office.
Seron knocked on the door. He waited for a moment, but there was no response. The handle would not budge, either.
Seron took out a key from his bag and unlocked the door.
Beyond was the most lavish club office on campus.
The office was about half the size of a classroom. In the corner was a kitchenette with a sink and a hot plate, and a dish rack.
In the center of the office were two three-seater sofas and an imposing coffee table set. Beside them were work desks and chairs.
Against the wall stood a floor-length locker. It was used to store bags and equipment. Against another wall was a display case and a telephone.
The office had another room further inside, built by erecting a wall that bisected the room. It was the club’s very own darkroom.
Seron entered. There was no one inside.
Seron put his bag on the sofa and opened the window. Fresh air wafted in through the lace curtains, slowly replacing the faint odor of developing solution.
Seron sat in the middle of one of the sofas and waited. Soon, a girl opened the door.
“Aw, man. Could’ve sworn I got out first today. You win, Seron.”
Though she did not specify what Seron had won, the tall, bespectacled girl—Natalia Steinbeck—swept into the room.
Natalia was a third-year like Seron. Her parents were an internationally famous musician couple. She played the violin in the orchestra club and did double duty with the newspaper club as well.
Natalia was tall for a girl, and her long hair was tied up neatly. She wore black thin-rimmed glasses and had dark eyes. She wore stockings with her skirt.
Today she was carrying a school-issue bag and had a guitar case on her back. Natalia waved as she strode in.
“Yo, Champ! How’s it going?”
“Pretty good. It’s been a while, Nat.” Seron replied. Everyone but her childhood friend Larry called her ‘Nat’.
Natalia pulled off her guitar case and gingerly set it on the coffee table. Then she took out the guitar.
“Had to come back here over the summer for this baby ‘cause we weren’t using the office for a while.”
Natalia took a seat on the sofa across from Seron, but on one of the side seats. She leaned back and began to play some chords.
“So tell me~ is the tea ready yet~?” She sang, almost as though performing in a musical.
“Shall I brew some?” Seron asked stoically. Natalia grinned.
“Nah, I’m kidding. I’ll make Larry do it when everyone gets here.”
“That’s cruel of you.”
“It’s my fault we didn’t have any club activities over the summer, huh. Sorry, Seron. I had fun, though.” Natalia said, not sounding sorry in the least.
“It’s nothing to be sorry about.” Seron replied. “Where did your family go, anyway?”
Natalia strummed another chord.
“Ikstova? Ah, the Kingdom of Iks. They changed their name, didn’t they.”
Ikstova was a mountain kingdom at the westernmost edge of Roxche, nestled in the Central Mountain Range.
“That’s quite far. Almost as far as Sou Be-Il.”
“Sure was a long trip~ so wanna know more~?”
Natalia briefly recounted her trip to Seron.
She explained how she had been suddenly taken by her parents on a performance trip to the Kingdom of Iks, taking the sleeper train and a bus. How the cheese in Ikstova was so good she stuffed herself silly. How she was invited to the palace in the capital city, Kunst, and watched her parents perform for Queen Francesca and Sir Benedict. How she performed alongside her parents at the reception. How a documentary crew had joined the reception, and that she might receive a brief close-up in a documentary film detailing the sights of the Kingdom of Iks.
“That’s a big deal, isn’t it?”
“Sure, but I’m already a celeb. Want me to sign your shirt? It’ll sell for a lot in a few years.”
“Later~? Then I will~ I’ll sign it later~.” Natalia began singing again, filling the office with music.
“I wondered for a moment if I’d come to the music room by accident. You’re both quite early today.”
A boy stepped into the office.
“Been a while~ Nick~. Still a beauty, I see~!”
Seron greeted him normally, and Natalia in song. Nicholas Browning was as beautiful as ever, his uniform still the only way to tell that he was male. He had a slender build and fair skin with brown, back-length hair and narrow green eyes. There was a cream-colored cardigan over his uniform shirt.
Carrying his bag, Nick took a seat next to Seron.
“It’s been a while, Seron. Nat. How were your summers?”
“Great. And you?”
“Lovely, as usual.” Nick replied with a smile. “By the way, it seems I do not share any classes with any of the club members. What about you two?”
“Same.” Seron said, shaking his head. Natalia responded with a strum of the guitar.
“I just happen~ to have a class with~ the pigtailed girl from the West~ Miss Strauski~!”
“Which one?” “Oh, which class?”
“‘Family studies 403: Sewing’~.” Natalia replied in song. The boys sighed.
“I… can’t take that class.”
“Nor can I. Which classes are you taking this term, Seron?”
“‘Roxchean 410: Modern Literature’, ‘Social Studies 305: Modern History of Roxche’, ‘Physical Education 301—’”
“Sorry I’m late!” Larry cut Seron off, striding inside. Like Seron, he was wearing his uniform this time. Larry was also carrying his bag.
“Hey Larry.” “It has been a while, Larry.” Seron and Nick greeted him.
“Try to open the door~ more quietly~ Larry boy~ do you hear me~?” Natalia sang grimly, playing an arpeggio with her fingertips. Larry grimaced.
“Wh-what are you doing, Lia?”
“Can’t you tell~?”
Larry sighed. “Seron. Nick. If she’s getting on your nerves, just say so.” He put down his bag and took a seat—
“Hold it. Brew up some tea, Larry. Punishment for coming in last.”
“Unless two of our club members suddenly turned invisible, I’m pretty sure there are only four of us in here. Or are they in the darkroom?” Larry asked. Natalia narrowed her eyes with an elegant smile.
“You got me. I suppose once Megmica and the chief get here I can just order them to make us tea.”
“…Fine, I’ll do it.”
Larry grabbed the kettle and the teapot from the dish rack and took them to the sink.
He washed his hands and filled the kettle with water, then placed it on the hot plate. And as he waited for the water to boil, he expertly prepared the platter, teacups, and tea bag.
“I must say I am quite impressed, Larry.” Nick commented.
“Hm? You gotta know how to do this kind of stuff in the military. Brewing tea for your superiors is part of the job.”
Once the water came to a boil, Larry warmed up the teapot and teacups with the water, then steeped the large tea bag in the teapot. Then he looked up at the wall clock to check how long he had to wait.
The tea was finally ready.
“I am here now!”
Two girls joined the group.
One was a petite girl—the club president, Jenny Jones. She had short red hair and big brown eyes. Naturally, she was in uniform. She carried her school-issue bag on her back and had a large leather camera bag slung across her shoulder.
The other was Strauski Megmica, a girl with long black hair tied into pigtails. She was from Sou Be-Il, and had lived in Roxche for over two years. She had dark eyes and fairer skin than anyone else in the room.
It was the first time in nearly a month Seron was seeing Meg’s smile.
Silently and blankly, he fell into deep thought and reminiscence.
“Hey there! Good afternoon, chief~! And you, Megmica~!”
“You two seem to be well.”
“Perfect timing. The tea’s just about ready.”
Natalia, Nick, and Larry greeted them. Seron also chimed in with a brief hello.
Jenny strode over to her desk and carefully set down her heavy camera bag. She began to empty it out, taking out a camera and the lenses.
Meg stood beside the sofas and bowed lightly.
“The school has again started. This is a new term. Please let me do my best from now on, everyone.”
‘That’s my line. Please please please let me do my best for you forever and always.’ Seron replied in his head. At that moment—
“All right, all right. Take a seat!”
Natalia pulled Meg onto the girls’ sofa.
Larry carefully brought over the teacups and poured tea for everyone.
And he called Jenny over as she tidied up her gear.
Six students sat on the sofas. Each had their own teacup. As usual, Larry’s was the expensive one adorned with pink flowers.
“Any words to start off the new term, chief?” Natalia suggested. Jenny rose to the occasion.
“Ahem. Thanks for coming, everybody! We’re now starting off the new term. I just officially registered our club with the school, so we should get permission to operate any day now!”
“Do we even need to register?” Larry wondered quietly. Jenny ignored him and continued.
“Today is the beginning of our legend! The legend of the newspaper club! As your president, I couldn’t have asked for more! I’ll be bossing you around like crazy starting tomorrow, so do your best! That is all.”
The club members sipped their tea.
“…I have something to tell you, Jenny. I fear you may not like what you hear.” Nick finally spoke, his tone dropping. “I will not be able to visit the office for some time.”
“Wh-what…? Why?” Jenny shot him a glare. Nick continued solemnly.
“I believe Nat and Megmica will be absent for the same reason.”
Larry, who was usually the last to pick up on such implications, understood as well. “You’re right!”
“The fall performance. There’s only a month left, isn’t there.” Seron said.
“That is right! Ms. Krantz contacted to us. I, who am in the chorus club, am at practice nearly every day after school starting from tomorrow!”
“The orchestra club too. I’m spending the next month with my violin tucked under my face. Farewell, sweet guitar~!”
“Seriously?” Jenny groaned. “So Seron and Larry are the only ones who can do anything for the next month?”
Everyone agreed in silence.
“I don’t believe this!”
Jenny was furious. The others could not say anything; they simply met her gaze.
“Calm down. More tea?” Larry offered.
Jenny held out her empty cup and ordered, “yes! And a serving of something newsworthy, blondie!”
“How am I supposed to know? Something interesting. Something that’ll bring all the students flocking to our papers when we post them on the walls. Something that’ll get our papers stolen.”
“Easy for you to say.” Larry said, putting down the teapot and falling into thought. “Hmm…”
That was when an idea came to him. Larry’s eyes flew wide open and he slammed his fist against his open palm.
“I got it! I can guarantee it’ll be popular! And I seriously want to try looking into this one. It’ll be perfect for our first issue!”
All eyes were on Larry. Jenny silently urged him to continue, sipping her tea.
Larry Hepburn stood up straight with his head held high.
“We’ll run a special! The headline’ll be ‘The Secrets of Jenfie’s Mysterious Past’! We’ll print the picture of her from three years ago with a recent one and put it on the front page!”
Aha! The others gasped in agreement. But the president—