The Ordeals of Setsuna

 

The Ordeals of Princess Setsuna and the Minister’s Intrigues

“Secchaaaan! Would you restock the onions and bananas, please?”
“All righty!”

Summoned by her nickname shouted from the register, the girl quickly picked two cardboard boxes out of a pile nearby and carried them from the storage area into the shop.

That nickname, “Secchan,” always made her cringe, but since she was the one who asked everybody to call her that, she couldn’t exactly let anyone see this less-than-thrilled reaction.

“Also, while you’re setting them out, will you put these time sale stickers on, too?”
“A fifty-yen discount on both, right?”
“Oh, and Secchan, once you’re done with that, could you also take care of the side dish department? Use the half-off stickers!”
“Yep, will do!”

In this small grocery supermarket, everyone—not just the girl, but everyone, from the middle-aged women working part time to the manager—was busily bustling around.

When the girl exited the store, beneath the evening sky, the whole area was abuzz with activity. This was the most crowded part of the day.

The shopping district in front of Suetsugu-cho Station—compared with the next station over, at Minamisuetsugu, it was nothing big, but for this small space, there were plenty of people coming and going.

Married couples stopping by to pick up ingredients for dinner, men on the way home from work slightly early, elderly people ambling around with no clear objective or regard for the hour.

And…

“This year’s entry deadline for Miss Houjou High is coming up soon, right?”
“But, I mean, it’s pretty obvious Ogiso is gonna grab her second win.”
“I dunno about that, this year. There’s that first-year, Yanagihara, who’s gaining some pretty serious ground.”
“Ohhh, that girl. I guess I’ve at least heard some rumors that she’s got pretty high advance reviews, but…”
“If a first-year wins two years in a row, it’ll be the first time in the school’s history. Apparently everyone’s in an uproar about it.”
“…Well, last year Ogiso was the first first-year ever to take the grand prize, so that makes sense.”
“Anyway, she’s got a pretty overwhelming approval rating among the first-years.”
“I do think her level is pretty high, but when it comes to the ‘Miss Houjou’ image? Ogiso is a lot more orthodox, and it seems like it would be hard to shake the reign of last year’s queen.”
“Maybe you’re right… At this point, it’ll be difficult unless she can get the votes of the upperclassmen.”
“Or unless Ogiso somehow loses the support of the second- and third-years.”

The students from the Houjou University Attached High School, in the midst of an animated discussion concerning the school festival that was merely a month away.

Both Houjou University and the high school were closer to the Minamisuetsugu station, so there weren’t many students passing by here at all.

“…”

Nevertheless, every time those few students—all close to her age—did come through, the girl turned away and stood rigidly, waiting for them to go past her.

And every time, once she confirmed from the corner of her eye that they had disappeared through the station ticket gate, she gave a sigh of relief, then resumed her work.

“‘Orthodox,’ they called me… Huh.”

The name of this slightly suspicious, hard-working girl was Setsuna Ogiso.

Houjou High School, second year, class F.

The year before, as a first-year, she had won the title of “Miss Houjou High,” and there were whispered rumors that she might carry off a second consecutive victory—this so-called “orthodox” beauty.

…Although, right now, this look of hers, with a tight braid, glasses with thick black rims, worn-out sneakers, and an apron bearing the grocery store’s logo—completely unimaginable for her school self—served as the perfect disguise for detective work.

“Good morning, Setsuna!”
“Good morning, Natsumi. Is there not any morning practice for the basketball club today?”

The next morning, the usual Setsuna stood in front of the Houjou High School gate, her transformation magic having worn off… or, rather, her disguise having been removed.

She looked so lovely as she glanced over her shoulder, smiling and greeting her friends, that several male students on the way to school got caught up in staring at her and couldn’t look away.

“Yeah, but instead, we’re gonna play five practice games this weekend…”
“W-wow, that sounds tough.”
“Our new captain is a demon, I tell you, a demon. A team like ours would never be able to break through to the district tournament, no matter how hard we tried, and yet…”
“Mizusawa-san, you mean? From class D? Whenever I watch your practices, I get the sense that she’s on a different level from the rest of you.”
“Oh, sorry. I guess we’re all just holding her back.”
“Ah, no, that’s not what I… I’m sorry.”
“Eh, it’s fine, it’s fine. I don’t really think we’re gonna try all that hard to reach her level anyway.”
“I-I see.”

That said, if one were to strain one’s ears to hear her conversation with her friend, it wasn’t nearly as gorgeous or erotic as the gallery all around imagined.

Nevertheless, the “Setsuna Ogiso” brand that had been built up to this point put a variety of filters over her expressions, her mannerisms, even the way she walked, and somehow gave her that “pure young lady” image.

Ever since her first year, she had been worshiped as the most beautiful girl in the whole school, and with her every move being under constant focus, everything people saw or could see about her was accepted as “how she was” from the start.

This was true today, and would likely remain true hereafter.

Yes, until Setsuna passed through the door of her own classroom…

“Wait! Wait up, Setsuna!”
“Good morning, Kanako… Why are you freaking out so much?”
“I can’t help freaking out over something like this!”

As the girl herself had said, the one who rushed up to Setsuna, wearing a face of extreme panic, was Kanako Anjuu, part of her group of close friends.

Maybe she was the leader of the group, or maybe she just talked the most, but she also had a small tendency to exaggerate, and the occasional bit of tactlessness—well, there were plenty of girls like that.

“Anyway, this is terrible! Look at this!”

Kanako made a big show of presenting her cell phone to Setsuna.

Of course, what she wanted to show Setsuna was not the phone itself, but the email displayed on its screen.

“What…”

Kanako’s agitation wasn’t unwarranted; the email was quite disturbing to Setsuna.

sub. Fw: [BOOST] About Setsuna Ogiso, from 2-F…

The next line of text contained the sort of sensational phrasing that often accompanied emails like this—“My friend sent me this—do you think it’s true?!”

And next, in the quoted message itself, were the standard dubious speculations and gossip—again, the same old thing when it came to this type of email.

The contents suggested suspicions that “Setsuna Ogiso might be involved in paid dating”—which, for Setsuna, was an absurd false accusation.

It was pure speculation, lacking any photographic evidence or concrete information about her alleged dating partners.

The single point that this baseless slander clung to was Setsuna’s “disturbing” behavior patterns on a daily basis.

According to the message, every Wednesday and Friday, Setsuna Ogiso went home stealthily, without accepting any invitations or telling anybody her destination.

But on those two days, she did not in fact arrive at home until much later at night.

Nobody knew where she went or what she did in the meantime.

In other words, Wednesday and Friday must be when she had her so-called “work shifts.”

“…”
“Whoa, this is serious.”
“I mean, I guess publicity is publicity, but…”

As Kanako showed the email to their classmates, they all spoke up in indignation, one by one.

“Who the hell is spreading this nonsense around?!”

Of course, there was very little in the way of anything that would pinpoint the one who started it in the first place.

The original sender’s name had long since been deleted.

Or, maybe, it had been sent in the form of a forwarded message from the beginning.

“I got this from one of the junior students in my club. Apparently it’s making the rounds among the first-years…”
“First-years…”

The moment Setsuna saw the content of the message, a notion came to her of who had written it.

Not that she had a clear picture of who precisely it was, or knew their name, but it was probably one of the girls who had been following her around from time to time since last month.

She first noticed it on the Wednesday before last.

As she exited the school gate and made her way toward the grocery store, she had a strange sense that she was being watched.

At the time, she picked up her pace slightly as she passed the park, and by the time she made it to the main street, she couldn’t find anyone behind her, so she just shook her head at her own excessive self-consciousness.

But then there was the second time, last Friday.

She changed her usual route, following the same path as the other students until she came to Minamisuetsugu Station, but the pair of girls kept following her, keeping a reasonable distance.

At that point, she entered her favorite karaoke club at the stationfront, then immediately left through the back door and jumped on a train.

And the third time was this Wednesday… in other words, yesterday.

She realized that the same pair were following her, took the same route as last week to Minamisuetsugu Station, and this time, she changed clothes in a restroom in the shopping center, then walked right past the two girls in her disguise and made her escape.

Based on the color of the ribbons on their uniforms as she slipped past, they must have been first-years…

“Then, this must be…”
“Yeah, I’ll bet it’s some of Tomo Yanagihara’s hangers-on.”
“Seriously? They’re going this far over some informal contest…?”
“Even if they aren’t really, they sure are acting like it. Why else would weird emails like this be flying around?”
“Y-yeah, huh…”

Her friends’ conversation slid around inside her head.

If anything, Setsuna was less resentful of the people doing all of this, and more regretful of her own weak spot.

From the point of view of others, this might come off as arrogant, but to Setsuna, it was only natural to be made the target of others’ gazes and gossip.

At this point, she couldn’t help wishing she had gone home before going to work, just that one time, if it meant avoiding baseless suspicion like this.

Because her pursuers were of the same sex, she hadn’t taken it as a serious threat—rather than feeling frightened or creeped out, she actually took some joy in outwitting her opponents. That was careless of her.

“What are you going to do, Setsuna?”

“Huh? What am I going to do?”

Suddenly—or maybe, to her friends, the time was ripe—Setsuna found all of the focus gathered on her.

In the face of all these gazes, full of worry, righteous indignation, and even curiosity, Setsuna couldn’t help feeling a bit lost.

Exactly what was everybody expecting of her?

“You have to dispel everyone’s suspicions, Setsuna!”
“Wait… But, why?”

Kanako’s impatient suggestion gave rise to an indescribable sense of distance within her.

She appreciated the belief in her innocence, but why did that mean she had to go to the trouble of making an appeal to the entire school?

Kanako hadn’t taken the measures that were best for Setsuna in the first place.

She could have been indignant, she could have snorted with laughter, she could have told only Setsuna about the email.

But why did she have to show it to all of their classmates?

Surely she must have realized that, in doing so, she was fully taking over the original sender’s aim—to spread the rumor.

“Are you really going to let something this stupid crush your chances of being Miss Houjou High two years in a row? Wouldn’t that be frustrating for you, Setsuna?!”
“Frustrating…?”

To be totally honest, the idea did not frustrate Setsuna.

In the first place, if Kanako hadn’t forced her to enter this year, she probably wouldn’t have done it herself. She didn’t really want to.

She just couldn’t find a suitable excuse for the inevitable hounding—“Then why did you enter last year?”—if she refused, and that was all.

With all of this nonsense, she wished she hadn’t bothered with it last year, either…

But, at this point, Setsuna didn’t have many options for refusing her friend’s recommendations.

She certainly couldn’t throw away her friend’s “pure good will and favor.”

Ever since “that incident” in middle school, Setsuna had resolved herself to stop “venting her strong feelings to others.”

“…By the way, Setsuna, what do you do on Wednesdays and Fridays?”
“…”

And now, the flow of conversation was heading in the direction that Setsuna most feared.

The people who had been entirely on her side until mere moments before now rounded on her, the forefront of a suspicious interrogation. This scene was all too familiar.

“Come to think of it, you never come out with any of us on the weekends.”
“Well, I guess she doesn’t go along with many invitations in general, anyway, but…”

In a sense, the complainant’s grievances were true.

Because Wednesday and Friday were Setsuna’s “work shift days.”

But it wasn’t anything like paid dating—it was a supermarket, right near the school…

“That’s just because… I usually go and study.”
“Yeah? You must be going to cram school, then. Where?”
“N-no, I mean… at home.”
“Hmmm. That won’t serve as proof of your innocence, then.”

But she absolutely couldn’t speak this slightly uncool, trivial truth of the matter.

Becoming the kind of funny story that made people go, “What? Seriously?”, an image of her as an ordinary person spreading not only among her class, but through the whole school, the bonds between her and her friends deepening further, the degree of attention on her from surrounding students suddenly dropping… She couldn’t picture any of these futures, which would be nothing but convenient for her, panning out.

After all, lately, she hadn’t found herself experiencing anything that pleasant…

“Come on, it’s fine, just tell us!”
“That’s right. If you have nothing to feel guilty about, then there’s no need to hide it.”
“We’re best friends, right?”
“…”

One day in autumn, a month before the school festival and the Miss Houjou contest…

Setsuna, surrounded by friends who were worried about her… experienced a feeling of deep isolation.

“Phew…”

As her sigh echoed around the bathroom, Setsuna submerged her just-washed body in the bathtub, and ran her mind back over the tedious time she had just spent.

The weekend night, the party, the karaoke that she had so long awaited—

She hadn’t put in a single request, or even sung backup—just smiled and played the tambourine the whole time, and the regret she felt over wasting her time like that slowly soaked into her heart together with the warmth of the water.

A week had passed since the uproar over that inflammatory message.

To Setsuna, those days had felt like she was standing on a mat of needles… or rather, brush bristles—painful and itchy.

Naturally, the one behind the message still hadn’t been found.

And, for this week alone, she hadn’t even been followed on Wednesday or Friday.

One could say that there was no longer any need.

After all, the offender’s duty had been taken over completely by Setsuna’s “best friends.”

Ever since that message, every member of Setsuna’s friend group, beginning with Kanako, had started aggressively inviting Setsuna to go places, focusing on Wednesdays and Fridays.

And if Setsuna tried to turn down these invitations, they insisted upon prying into her reasons.

“Why?” “Come on, you gotta go with us sometimes.” “You don’t have anything else going on, right?” “Quit being so reserved.” “If you act like this, they’re just going to take more and more advantage of it.”

Unable to turn down their reasonable but pushy good will, Setsuna was forced to take two days off from work and go along with the other girls.

Yes—as of today, she had skipped work twice in a row.

But this much apparently hadn’t been enough to dispel the suspicions of the aforementioned gossip, and the email was still making the rounds.

…On top of that, every time somebody new received it, her friends went out of their way to tell her so.

For all she knew, this “favor” of theirs might well continue even after the school festival and Miss Houjou contest were over.

If this situation did continue, then the day might be near when Setsuna had to quit her job altogether.

Really, that might be the most respectable conclusion for Setsuna.

Her pocket money would decrease, she would have to abandon her efforts to keep her “school idol” status solid, her gold covering would peel off a little at a time, fewer boys would pine over her, some of her friends might distance themselves, or stop giving her special treatment…

But, before long, she would cease to care about anybody else, and eventually return to the way she had been before “that incident” in middle school…

“I wonder whether the shop is doing okay…”

Still, at this point, Setsuna couldn’t see that kind of detour as anything pleasant.

The lack of money and the drop in her superficial value were of little consequence to her.

She just didn’t want her world to be restricted to that cramped classroom.

“Kashiwada-san did say that her kids have the flu right now… I hope they’re all right.”

After missing only two days, the faces of Setsuna’s middle-aged, part-time colleagues at work floated in and out of her head.

Yes—what hurt the most to Setsuna now was the loss of that social interaction at her workplace, the loss of that sense of fulfillment.

The fact was, being called “Secchan,” and doted upon and teased by the ladies at work, had become a very comfortable daily routine for Setsuna.

They had their own moments of tactlessness, just like her classmates, but thanks to the calmness and experience that came with adulthood, they had never caused Setsuna any pain or bitterness.

More than anything, they treated her like a daughter, rather than an idol. To Setsuna, who found it natural to put family before all else, this was something that felt very nice.

“I have to go next week… No, I want to go…”

Once the week started, preparations for the festival would begin in earnest.

This week was also the deadline for entry into the Miss Houjou contest.

Which meant that this coming Monday was a day of decision for Setsuna.

Would she choose the world within the school, or the world without?

Would she choose to be Miss Houjou, or would she choose to be independent, with nobody to interfere with her?

Would she choose her friends from class, or her friends from work?

This was “a choice between one and the other—one must be cast away.” There was no other option.

She couldn’t think of a way to continue keeping both sides alive.

…Not as the fundamentally good person that she was.

“Huh…?”

And, at the start of the week…

After school, in the student council room that had become the temporary office of the school festival action committee…

The words of the committee chair, whom she had only just met, left Setsuna tongue-tied.

“Well, of course, if you object, Ogiso-san, we can pretend this conversation never happened, but… I’d really like you to consider it constructively, if you would.”

The petite chairman with silver-rimmed glasses and swept-back hair, speaking extremely politely in spite of his status as an upperclassman, bowed his head deeply before Setsuna.

“You want me to be on the poster for the festival?”
“No, not only that—I’d like you to work in full cooperation with the action committee, as our school festival campaign girl.”
“F-full cooperation…?”
“Yes. For example, between now and the day of the festival, making advertising broadcasts during lunch, collecting data from each club and class for publicity videos… Then, on the day of, serving as the award presenter for all of the various ceremonies—ah, with the exception of the Miss Houjou High award, of course.”
“…”

Setsuna had actually come here with a completely different purpose in mind.

This morning, after deciding that she would withdraw from the Miss Houjou contest, she finally shook off her depression, slipped out of bed, and came to school.

It might create a breeding ground for future trouble for her class—especially those who called themselves her best friends—but she had had more than enough of attention that she never asked for.

So she marched up to the action committee, with every intention of declaring this herself.

“For the next little while, two days a week should be fine, so could I ask for your cooperation? Monday and Thursday would be ideal for us, but if there are other days you would prefer, that’s perfectly all right.”
“W-wait just a minute, please. What do you mean…?”
“What do I mean? Exactly what I just said.”

However, the third-year committee chair showed her in, saying, “I had a feeling you would be coming,” and it was clear that this was going to prove difficult.

“Ogiso-san, you are well-known not only within the school, but in the college as well, and the whole region. I simply must have your help in order to make this year’s school festival a success.”
“B-but, right now, I…”
“What?”
“…There are some strange rumors about me floating around the school right now. Is that okay?”

She swallowed her real excuse—“I was actually trying to turn down the Miss Houjou contest to begin with.”

The flow of the conversation was already hurtling down the complete opposite direction of what she had anticipated.

…In a sense, the committee chairman had led her perfectly by the nose and trapped her.

“Ah, that chain letter, you mean.”
“So you know about it, too, chairman.”
“Well, is it true?”
“O-of course it—”
“—isn’t, right? Then, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no problem.”
“Huh…?”
“That’s all you needed to hear, right? Then, if you have no further objections…”

It really seemed like this committee chairman standing before her had seen through absolutely everything.

“B-but, if I do that, then weird rumors will start cropping up around the school festival itself…”
“I don’t think they will.”
“How can you be so sure…?”

He had all but predicted Setsuna’s reaction, and had already gone ahead to establish her escape route.

That was how it felt.

“If you will promise to offer your full cooperation to the action committee, then we in the action committee will back you up fully. And we will make that announcement as soon as tomorrow.”
“Y-yes?”
“First, we will post a large-scale notice to our home page that you have taken on the role of School Festival Campaign Girl.”
“Um, what exactly does that…?”
“On our blog, we will ‘reveal’ that this plan has been in the works for over a month.”
“…Wait, wait.”
“We will ‘disclose’ everything—that we and Ogiso-san have been meeting ‘twice a week’ for detailed briefing sessions lasting until nightfall, and that you have been cooperating with us behind-the-scenes in order to build up the festival. We’ll say something like, ‘We’re sorry to have kept this from you all for so long, but…’”
“Then, you mean…”

Having heard all of his, Setsuna now understood perfectly what the action committee was trying to do.

In other words, this was about thwarting that email.

Using a lie with evidence, to shut down a fact without evidence.

“…Um, Ogiso-san, this is a serious problem for us, as well.”

The committee chairman gave a small, slightly wry grin.

Given a kind look like this after having such a bomb dropped, Setsuna found herself less and less able to read the face of the person standing in front of her.

“If you were to withdraw your entry into the Miss Houjou High contest, to be perfectly frank, the damage to this year’s festival, which has been prepared with that contest as a pillar of the whole event, would be unfathomable. In other words, our interests in this matter correspond with one another perfectly.”
“But telling such a public lie…”
“If it turned out that you were doing anything like what that email indicated, we ourselves would never work with you. We are endorsing you because we have faith that you aren’t lying.”
“But I’m not the one about to lie, here… No, never mind.”

It seemed that there would be no merit in pushing this any further—in fact, it would be completely meaningless, and serve only to tire her out—so Setsuna made the decision to drop her attack on his word choice.

She didn’t get the sense that she would be able to beat this upperclassman in an argument.

“Why do you trust me this much, in the first place?”
“Ah, well… Maybe it’s confidence, maybe it’s fear…”
“Huh?”

When she posed this question, the committee chair’s wry smile changed for the barest moment into something truly unpleasant.

“If the ones above believe you, then the ones below will have to believe you, too…”
“So, chairman, since you stand above, I’m asking why you believe me.”
“…Who ever said that the committee chair is the highest?”
“Oh?”
“Ah, no… nothing.”

And this line that followed, connected with the refined logic that he had used up to this point, seemed more like a grumble.

“W-well, anyway… How about it? Will you consider it?”
“Chairman…”

It wasn’t even a matter for thought.

All of Setsuna’s reasons for hesitating to accept the conditions had been eliminated.

The schedule that deliberately avoided Wednesdays and Fridays.

This collaboration that would make it seem as though she were with the action committee every day.

Indeed, the cover-up that stretched back in time, even to before these suspicions broke out.

The accusations would be fully, publically refuted, and the Houjou High School Festival would be completely unified in support of Setsuna.

It was perfect.

Almost too perfect, in fact, and she couldn’t entirely sweep away some misgivings, as though she might be falling into a nasty double-layered scheme…

But, starting the next day, Setsuna Ogiso became the face of this year’s Houjou High School Festival.

Setsuna’s smiling face was plastered absolutely everywhere in the school.

Every day at lunch, Setsuna’s voice rang through the school like a bell.

Setsuna’s video reports adorned the top of the school festival homepage every week.

The content of that email, the sender, the atmosphere of investigation, had all been blown away…

When the festival started, the Miss Houjou High contest received its highest number of votes ever—a smashing success.

…But there was one thing that nobody had realized about the outcome, since before the voting even started.

“Secchaaaan! When you’re done with that, come to the register, please!”
“All righty!”

As she worked on applying the discount stickers as usual, Setsuna could tell from the queue forming at the register that they had reached the busiest part of the evening.

Soon it would be hot pot season, and napa cabbages, daikon, and all sorts of other vegetables meant to warm one up from the heart peeked out of the storefront and customers’ baskets.

One month after the school festival ended…

As it turned out, Setsuna had kept on with her job at the grocery store ever since.

There were no longer any suspicious underclassmen following her, and it seemed that her perfect disguise, bespectacled and braided, would hold up for a little while yet.

“All done!”

After she finished placing the stickers, Setsuna looked briskly up at the winter sky.

The sun was setting earlier, and in the long-since-darkened night sky, a full moon was beginning to rise with abandon.

Even in this cold, there were many people coming and going through this stationfront.

Married couples stopping by to pick up ingredients for dinner, men on the way home from work slightly early, elderly people ambling around with no clear objective or regard for the hour.

And just a few Houjou High School students.

“I’m taking the register!”

Nonchalantly escaping the stares fixed on her from the male students outside the store, Setsuna returned to her task inside, brimming with vigor.

Oden, or hot pot…?

She pictured the menu for that night’s dinner in her head.

“…I’m glad I was able to keep working here.”
“What are you doing, standing around here?”
“What do you mean, what am I doing? You were taking forever to get back from the music store.”
“Hey, look, a really nice second-hand one just came in, and I couldn’t help myself. Lost track of time.”
“Takeya, you already have three guitars. Don’t tell me you’re gonna buy another one?”
“What are you talking about? This is for you, Haruki. Real easy-to-use model, perfect for a beginner. Think about it, will ya?”
“You seriously think I’ll be able to play something like that?”
“You’ll be popular, dude. The girls will come running. You’ll be the hero of the school festival, I’m telling you.”
“Why would I play it at the school festival?!”
“Well, I guess that would be a pretty busy time for you… They do call you the ‘secret action committee chairman,’ and all.”
“Oh, hell no. No way am I gonna be the chairman next year.”