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Chapter 1: The Lost Libretto

"Hah, hah, hahh..."

I ran breathless down the path to the main street of West End. "Late" - every time that ominous word arose in my mind, I took a deep breath to drive it off and calm myself down, but it wasn't working out very well. I'd gone to bed early last night knowing I had to prepare for today's performance. But I suppose I was too nervous to fall asleep, even as the date changed... I did finally manage to drift off as the sky was brightening, but I was woken by a terrible dream.

A dream where someone died from an accident during the play - even the vague details were fading now, so I really couldn't remember it at all. Either way, witnessing that purely horrific tragedy woke me up with a start. I pulled the covers up again to get some more sleep, but the nightmare still lingering in my mind, I only got in a few light naps. When I next woke up, the meeting time was fast encroaching.

Why today, of all days? Why was the one day I slept in late the one that could very well be the most important of my life? And to think that I always fell asleep before midnight, no matter how late I tried to stay up... I'm an idiot, such an IDIOT! I mentally berated myself for the nth time today, cursing my stupidity.

Main Street finally came into sight. There were crowds all around the area, despite morning rush hour being hours ago. In fact, "morning" was nearly over, and yet this normally not-particularly-busy area was, just for today, flooded with people - the street, the alleys, even the back streets. Cutting through the inordinately large crowds, I kept bumping into people, apologizing, and being jostled this way and that. I was in quite a hurry, but alas, all the people made it difficult to get anywhere. Not good... At this rate, I really will be late -

Whump!

Suddenly, something black blocked my vision.

"Wah!"

I smacked into something, knocking me magnificently on my bottom. Rubbing my pained behind, I reopened my eyes shut by the impact. Someone had forcefully bumped into me. The man, who'd popped out into the main street from a narrow alley, smoothly picked up the antique silk hat that had fallen off his head and put it back on. He extended a hand to me, still sitting on the ground.

"Terribly sorry, miss. I was in such a hurry, I wasn't looking where I was going. My apologies. Are you hurt?"
"Ah... No, I'm, I'm fine..."

I felt like I'd slipped into a story from a distant land; he held his hand out to me in such a reverent, elegant way, as a prince would to a princess. I nervously grabbed it, and he lifted me up. The unique fairytale impression he and his actions had given me in mere moments started to feel somehow embarrassing, so I couldn't look him in the face. But I snuck a sidelong glance, and observed him to be a tall, slim gentleman, with a black suit and silk hat.

"That's good. I'm one to talk after crashing into you, but please be careful, miss. Quite a few rubberneckers about this morning..."
"Rubberneckers...?"

"Indeed. Have you seen it? There was a fire at Harrods. You see the western sky filling up with dark smoke? And it is quite a large department store... It's taking a while to put the fire out. There also seem to be many people on this street for some kind of event today. So not only are there people running from the fire, but also rubberneckers seeing what all the hubbub is about. Such a noisy morning. Let's hope the damages don't get any worse."
"...So there was a fire..."

I somehow hadn't noticed at all in my hurrying. As I acknowledged how that would explain the crowds today, I recalled the reason people always called me "slow-witted" and sighed again. I always had a problem of becoming too focused on one thing and losing sight of everything else.

When I calmed myself and listened closely, I heard the word "fire" being shouted here and there, and the unending sirens of firetrucks in the distance. And when I looked up at the sky to the west, while I couldn't see the fire, black smoke continuously poured up into it. It was more bizarre for someone on this street to not realize there was a fire - such was the area enveloped in that particular tumult brought about by one. Following up my blunder of oversleeping on this day that could hardly be any more important, now I'd run straight through this chaos without even noticing there was a fire... My self-loathing resurfaced.

"So you see, you should stay away from that area if possible. It's quite dangerous."
"Yes... Thank you, sir..."
"You really never know what can happen. It's all too common for what seems like a perfectly peaceful day to be switched out for a living nightmare. Or for a fire like this to stop you in your tracks on an important day, hm?"
"Ah... Um, I'm sorry. I was the one running and not looking... You must be in a hurry."

"No, no, that's not what I meant at all. There's a play I really wish to see today, so that's why I was hurrying. I bought special seats, so even if I'm a little late, there's still time before the show begins. Yet to arrive early, have a glass of wine on the foyer while I flip through the pamphlet, imagine this and that as I wander for a bit, and finally enjoy the main event to the fullest... That is what I truly look forward to. Still, the slight delay brought about by this fire won't have a significant effect on the course of my life. The ones truly pained are the owners of the department store, the customers, the staff. Such a shame... Yet such a common tragedy, isn't it?"
"...It really is..."

This person said some very interesting things. I came to suspect each line he spoke had an important message hidden behind it. His every word and action seemed to induce a feeling of wanting to hear what was next.

"Well, though I certainly prefer comedies to tragedies. What else can I say in times like these? War and military expansion, mechanized industry and stale amusement, and on top of it all, a prohibition boom from the continent. Our great ancestors taught that beer moistens the dry journey of life, that it is the tears of angels, but this has been forgotten by the empty-headed politicians of our time. And this is why people get so fiercely upset, starting wars and trading pie-in-the-sky theories. The gloss, so to speak, is leaving people's lives... Truly a shame... Well, never mind that. Hm...? Say, have we... met somewhere before?"

After speaking at length while gesturing as if a spotlight were on him, the man peered at my face and gave his head a slight tilt.

"Ah..."

Maybe he noticed. After all, my face had been put up all around town.

"No, I think it's our first meeting. I do have a pretty ordinary face... I get it all the time... Ahaha."

I tried to dodge the question, but the gentleman still pondered, staring at me with eyes hidden behind his bangs. If we talked any longer, he might find out who I was. It would be very bad to get a crowd around me in a place that was so crowded to begin with. He observed me for a while as I awkwardly let my gaze wander elsewhere. Suddenly, I felt I saw his eyes light up, despite being theoretically invisible behind his thick bangs.

"...What a magnificent bracelet. Rather old and used, it appears..."
"T-Thank you. I know it's really worn out now... But it's very important to me..."
"I see... Take good care of it. They say objects come to possess a consciousness of their own over a long period of time. I'm sure your ancestors... and your grandmother, will watch over you always."
"...!"

I looked up in surprise. But indeed, his glaring eyes were obscured by his hair, and I couldn't see their expression. His kind voice had a curious resonance. And he'd certainly just mentioned my grandmother... How would he know this was from my grandmother? Was he an acquaintance of hers...?

"Er, why..."

Just then, I heard the bell of the nearby clock tower ring. The heavy metal booong rang out twelve times.

I listened to it briefly, but remembered at once. Oh, no. I got so absorbed in what he was saying, I completely forgot what I was in such a hurry over. The meeting time was 12 PM -

"Oh my... That time already. I guess I spoke a little long."

The gentleman rolled up his left sleeve and checked the antique watch underneath.

"Thank you for telling me about the fire! I just remembered I was in a hurry... Today's a very important day... I need to go!"
"Yes, take care... Have a magnificent day, miss. I should be going as well."

I quickly bowed to the unfamiliar gentleman and left him, taking off running. Maybe he really was an acquaintance of grandma's... I wanted to talk just a little more, but I was dragged back into the unavoidable reality of already being late.

Plus, if we had kept on talking, he would have noticed who I was. That I was the Cinderella of West End, performing in a brand new story today. All of a sudden, the reality hit me again. Happiness and a little bit of shyness welled up in me, and I couldn't resist grinning. The walls of the main street I was running through, the streetlights, the billboards. My brilliant smile was plastered all over town. Posters of me, the lead role in the play that would be put on tonight. I met eyes with the girl smiling so brilliantly in the photo. Refilled with vigor, I ran faster than ever down the path to the theater.



As I swung open the door to green room #1, I found three actors already there, elegantly enjoying an after-lunch tea time. I checked the clock on the wall; it was a little past 12:30. The meeting time was supposed to be 12.

Needing to squash my fear, I squeezed the handkerchief in my skirt pocket. It wasn't a good-luck charm or anything; since I was little, I just had an unconscious habit of reaching for it when I was particularly stressed or afraid.

The soft feel of the cloth calmed me down a little. Though still out of breath, I felt I had to apologize immediately, so I practically made a 90-degree angle with my body and shouted from the bottom of my stomach:

"Um...! I'm so sorry!! T-That I'm a whole thirty minutes late!!"
"So you are, Miku. Did you sleep in?"

Kaito, the leader who organized the company's actors, approached me not angrily, but with a wide smile. As I continued looking down at the floor, he stooped into my field of view and handed me a towel.

"...U-Um."
"You should wipe off your sweat first. You'll catch a cold."
"Thank you..."
"Then once you've calmed down, you should get changed quickly."
"Okay..."

All three of the actors already had their makeup fully done, and were dressed in their costumes for the main event.

"My, my... He's sparing no expense, I see."
"Miss Luka...! G-Good morning! I-I'm so sorry I'm late!"

Luka sat in the most luxurious seat in the back, one situated by the window with a lot of exposure to sunlight, and she spoke languidly as she raised her eyes to look at me. Her beautiful long pink hair glittered in the light of the sun now high in the sky. She was fiercely beautiful today, as ever - as she wearily swept aside her forelocks, the sight gave me the picturesque impression of a moon goddess mistakenly winding up at a sun god's tea party.

After giving a quick greeting to all three actors, wiping myself down with the towel, I sat in the cheapest chair nearest to the door and opened up my bag. I'd checked it once before leaving in the morning, but I had to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. For instance, I had to be sure I brought back the props I'd taken home for practice. As I rummaged through my bag, Meiko, who'd been reading a newspaper on the sofa beside Kaito, came over and sat on the three-seater sofa opposite me.

"Here you are, ice lemon tea. Hot outside, wasn't it? Did you sleep well last night?"
"T-Thank you! Um... Actually, I was kind of too nervous to sleep much. I almost got to bed toward dawn, but then I had a scary dream... Then I fell asleep two more times... Then I noticed it was nearly 12... So yes, I slept late..."

Meiko's expressions and actions emanated elegance and maturity, so one might think she was hard to approach. But in truth, she was rather meddlesome, and would candidly interact with anyone. Even with me being a newcomer who had only been in the troupe for half a year, and her being such a mature individual, she'd pour tea for me and actively start conversations with me all the time. And whenever I felt shameful and nervous about it, she'd shoot me a playful smile and naturally diffuse my worries... She was a very warm person.

"I see... That's rough. This morning's been such a noisy one. First with the passing of the prohibition bill, then the congestion in the streets after the fire at Harrods..."
"Y-Yes..."

Meiko spoke with a very pained expression, like the end of the world was coming, much like she had while reading the newspaper - perhaps because she was reminding herself of it again.

"But it's all right. You're not the only one who's late."
"I'm not? Ah, uh, I'll take this tea."

I took the cold glass and gulped it down. My parched throat was filled with just the right amount of bitterness from the faintly sour tea. Delicious. The spring plants were only just budding, so the nights were still chilly, but it was a warm enough season to work up a sweat from running. A cup of cold lemon tea after that exercise was a cup of bliss. I noticed Kaito had come over, and he sat beside Meiko.

"Hey, Mei-pie? I'd like to have some lemon tea poured by you, myself."
"It is getting rather hot with the sun out, isn't it? Very well, very well. But haven't I told you enough times? You really have to stop calling me that, you lecher."
"Eh? So cruel of you. Let's stick with "gentleman," please. Besides, aren't you and I on that level?"
"Please don't make comments that'll be misconstrued. Miku, he's always like this. As soon as he lays eyes on a woman, he's polite as can be, then before you know it, he's seducing her. You should watch out."

Meiko slowly stood up and got chilled lemon tea from the fridge, then poured it into the cold glass on the table.

"Ahaha... She's harsh. But this is practically how we say hi."
"A greeting like that will never catch on in this country, Mr. Gentleman. Here you are."
"Thanks."

Kaito ignored Meiko's remark and put on a kind-hearted grin as he reached for the tea she poured. The movement of his hand resembled that of a high-ranking noble or royal, having a unique elegance to it. Sometimes I thought that maybe Kaito planned out every action he performed from start to finish. Even when it came to such a simple action as taking a glass, I could imagine the setting of a royal palace behind him.

"Hm...? Miku, do you want a refill?"
"Uh...?"
"Well, you were just looking at my glass so passionately. Unless, don't tell me... You were looking at me?"

He winked at me. Picturing how I must have been spacing out and watching his every action filled me with embarrassment. That's not it - it's true I was watching passionately, but not really at him, just wondering about that sense of refinement that he engendered... I wondered how to best convey that, but I just couldn't find the right words.

"Ahh... Er, um, well..."
"Yaaawn... What makes you think she was looking at anything? She always has a habit of looking through everything. My, it's like she does it on purpose..."

Luka, watching our conversation from across the room, spoke up drowsily, stifling a yawn.

"Miss Luka?"
"Luka's eyesight never ceases to amaze. Miku, are you really that curious about how I drink a drink? I feel like you're always staring my way whenever I'm eating or drinking anything."
"Ahh! Um... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be that obvious... That must feel awkward."
"No, as long as it's not a time when I'm not looking so stylish, I absolutely welcome any woman to stare passionately at me."

"(Was I really staring that intensely...?) B-But really, so many of your movements, even off the stage, just have this elegance to them... You almost remind me of a royal or a noble, or something. So I just get caught up watching."
"Hm...? I-Is that... right? W-Well, I'm glad. That makes me a fine gentleman, doesn't it?"
"Yes! A gentleman... or, well, let's see... Maybe more like a butler?"
"B... Butler..."

Kaito lowered his head, heartbroken. Luka and Meiko burst out laughing seeing this unfold.

"A-And here I thought you were going a good direction there... I guess my eyesight isn't quite perfect. Heehee..."

Luka must have found it really hilarious, as she continued to laugh even as she spoke, then put milk into a fresh cup of coffee poured by Meiko. Come to think of it, this was different from when I'd had drinks with her on the foyer before. I got curious, so I asked.

"Um... Miss Luka, didn't you tell me the other day that you only drank your coffee black...?"
"Hm? Ahh... That's right, I did say that. You'll recall that was when our sponsor was there, yes? I figured black was better for my image. But really, it's too bitter for me to care for it at all. I like my alcohol, I like my sweets, and I just hate anything bitter."

"Oh, wow... You really looked like you were enjoying it, so I was so sure..."
"Oh? Well, I am an actress. Of course I should be able to pull that off. As should you. This is the Burlet Company, you know? All our performances must be perfect, or they won't be recognized as Burlet."
"Burlet..."

The Burlet Company - our acting troupe.

The troupe came into being a century ago by the hand of the legendary playwright Mr. Burlet, who began a golden age of theater here in West End. A troupe that performed Burlet's many masterworks, with a long-standing tradition of making no compromises in props, sets, stage directions, lighting, music, acting, costumes, anything that comprised the play's reception in order to invite the audience into an unreal world of theater.

Even while modernization, mechanization, and the recent movie boom put a shadow on the business of theater, our troupe retained the same craftsmanship and spirit since the very day it was founded. Certainly, it had lost its former vigor, and didn't have very good financial prospects these days. Yet amid the shift toward movies, there still existed a few troupes like the Burlet Company continuing to uphold the charm of the stage. For the sake of the passionate theater and Burlet fans who came to see them.

I admired the plays the legendary Mr. Burlet wrote, and aspired to be an actress. When I was little, my grandmother took me from my rural home village all the way here to distant West End to see my first Burlet Company play. It was one of his most well-known works, "The Silence of the Snowy Night." They never dropped any real snow on the set, yet soon enough, I began to feel the illusion of being lost in a silver world sealed within heavy snow. For days after the play, during day and night, the world of the play lingered with me.

Ever since, I became absolutely fascinated with Burlet's plays. Always carrying the dream of becoming an actress to someday perform his works, I moved up to West End a year ago. Working part-time as a live-in employee at a bakery on the edge of West End, I saved up to see the Burlet Company's performances.

Luka, the company's overpoweringly beautiful star actor who also worked as a model. Kaito, the tenured leader of the troupe's actors, who served as both an actor and a stage manager. Meiko, the older actress renowned for her precise, finely-detailed performances. I was enthralled by their acting and went to see them again and again, striving to practice my own craft when I could find the time between work. I had no money, so I couldn't go to acting school... but I watched real plays and imitated the actors. Everything else, I filled in with my vivid imagination from years of playing by myself.

About three months into that way of life, there came a turning point. Burlet's illusory posthumous work: the script of "Crazy ∞ nighT." Nearly a century ago, the title alone was revealed, and the script was thought to have been lost without ever being performed. The news of it finally being found in the Burlet Company's underground cellar spread worldwide in the blink of an eye. Every news outlet snapped up the story, and paid the declining troupe heed with grand headlines like "Long-Standing Troupe Shown Chance for Revival With Discovery of Phantom Libretto," and "An Infusion of Burlet for the Troupe's Financial Troubles? Now That's Dramatic!"

To accompany this miraculous event, the Burlet Company announced a special audition to recruit a new member. The best audition would be given the lead role in the lost, posthumous play; an actor could ask for no greater honor. But I knew it was too soon for me; while I had practiced alone for many years, having never actually stood on a stage before, there was no reason to expect that I would get the part. So I just agonizingly stared at the audition pamphlet for days. However, the proprietor of the bakery decided to put my name in herself, and suddenly told me this fact three days before the audition.

At first, I couldn't believe she'd do that, and thought about not even showing up to the audition knowing I didn't stand a chance. But all the bakery workers said "Challenge yourself, and if it doesn't work out, you can try harder next time," convincing me to give it a try on a puny amount of courage. And somehow, I got the part. In that moment, I was filled with unspeakable surprise and joy.

Maybe the fact that I happened to be born in the same village as Burlet was the clincher for the judges. A single ray of hope came down upon the struggling troupe - the lost libretto had been discovered, and for its first performance, the lead role would be played by a total unknown who just moved here, a village girl with the same birthplace as Burlet. A truly dramatic, Cinderella-esque story. That anecdote alone would be pivotal in getting the audience's interest. So perhaps I was chosen simply to be the face of their advertising.

It had only been half a year since I entered the troupe, but I wanted to quickly get my acting on par with the rest of the main cast, so I'd devoted myself to practice. I studied the others' acting and adopted techniques from them, and to learn more about plays, I did all I could to help in the creation of props and sets, with lighting, with acoustics, with being a prompter. I even helped the ticket sellers and guides out front and learned how to interact with visitors. But my skill still didn't even go above their socks.

"...I..."

Faced now with the main event, I was suddenly welling up with fear. I wondered why I hadn't noticed it before. In just a few hours, I would have to perform in the production of Burlet's lost libretto, the very first production, as the lead role at that. The Burlet stage, to anyone who devoted themselves to theater, was a holy place, a final destination. Maybe seeing nothing but that dream come true made me subconsciously not think about the fear that came with it actually happening.

An audience bursting at the seams with anticipation, surely filling the house; famous, first-class actors; a set made to thoroughly imitate reality. Was it really okay for me, with my total lack of redeeming features, to be in the middle of it all? Doubt and hesitation filled me. I began to tremble, and my pulse beat loudly. I felt the reality slowly thickening in front of me. The tension was crushing... I wanted to run out of here.

"Hey, Luka? Don't make people nervous right before showtime. It's a delicate time. Look, she's shaking. It's enough that she's debuting as the lead of such a production, so she must be especially nervous now... Listen, Miku? It's okay if you mess up. We'll do everything we can to support you, so just try to take it easy."

"That's right. Even if you forget a line, that's what the prompter's there for. You're a newcomer, and the audience should know that much. In fact, for a newcomer, a perfect performance isn't as endearing as one which has a few beginner mistakes here and there. Why, it could have more appeal that way. Besides, today is only the first day. The show will go on tomorrow, and the day after. Take it at your leisure."

Meiko and Kaito gave me kind, sympathetic encouragement. Indeed, it was a three-act play where one act would be performed each day. The veterans knew everything there was to know about plays, and they told me that for a play structured like this, most opinions would be decided based on the quality of the final act. So even if mistakes were made toward the beginning, by the last act you could know your part and the audience, and make up for it by putting on your best performance there.

Even so, Luka was still right. Everything had to be perfect, or it wasn't a Burlet play. I desperately lacked that kind of talent.

Mr. Burlet sought perfection from his productions. While he was alive, even prodigies and veterans were told they couldn't perform in his plays if they didn't meet his standards. Surely no one would expect a lead player in this troupe, which had always kept to that tradition, to think herself unworthy of the position. And many plausible legends had been passed down, as well.

For instance, it was said that if any actors omitted a large part from one of his scripts, or adlibbed their own additions... those actors would soon vanish from the stage. Two or three decades ago, when the war was going strong, a lot of cultural heritage and records were lost, so it was hard to know the truth or origins of such rumors.

But where there's smoke, there's fire. Any who profanes a Burlet play will meet an unhappy death... That legend was still believed like a superstition by no small number of people, including those in the Burlet Company. So they dedicated themselves to following the scripts to the letter, ignored harmonizing with others to focus on their own acting, and never adlibbed.

But for an actor to die because they made a mistake acting out one of his plays? It sounded like a serious embellishment to me. Burlet didn't seem as strict and scary a person as his company seemed to speak of him... is what I thought, at least. Because he...

Staring at one of the few personal effects he'd left in his hometown, the worn red bracelet now on my left wrist, I sighed quietly enough for no one to notice it.

"Sigh... Looks like I'm being made out as bullying the newcomer. I get stage fright too, you know? To any actor, the Burlet stage is both something to aspire to, and the embodiment of fear. In fact, I still need to mentally... no, never mind."

Luka tiresomely defended herself from the remarks made against her by the older two. Looking at her face, you naturally couldn't see a hint of nervousness, but perhaps even a star like her could get nervous on stage after all. And I had no idea what it was, but she seemed a little... no, no, she looked plenty mentally-prepared too.

"True... When you put it that way, we're all nervous. This time more than ever, it's something we can't mess up."
"...Yeah."

Silence came to the room. It was tranquil, with warm sunlight coming through the large window reaching up to the second floor terrace. Why, I wonder, when there was a strange tension that didn't match that at all? I felt like the tension they felt and whatever I was feeling might be somehow different. I was feeling it "again," I realized - at times, I had the impression that I still wasn't being allowed into their circle. And this was certainly one of those times.


Bang!

The door to the green room slammed open with a loud sound that broke the momentary silence. The force was so much that it bounced back into its opener, so a painful wham sound followed.

"OWWWWWWWWWW!"
"Sigh..."

The smallish girl Rin emerged from behind the large door, holding her forehead in pain. Beside her was her twin brother Len, who'd watched the whole thing from nearby. His expression didn't change one bit; he just gave a little sigh.

"Owowowowow... wh! M-Morning, guys! I guess we were a little late? I'm SORry!"
"Not often you two are late. I suppose the fire crowded the roads?"
"E-Eheh... a little, MAYbe."
"Hm...? Rin, did you get a bump on your head? Let me see that."

Kaito approached Rin, worried about the blow to her forehead, but she backed away in surprise. I felt like I saw the bag hung over her shoulder fidget a little, but maybe it was just me.

"What's wrong...? You look less energetic than usual."
"Eh?! N-No, uhhh, well... we've been getting stopped by enthusiastic fans all day... eHE."
"Fans...? Those bodyguards? They're strict about their rules, so unless someone slipped up, I wouldn't think they'd come talk to you in the middle of town..."

Rin's bodyguards, as Meiko called them, were a group of people who frequented the theater to a zealous degree. Thanks to their rigorous leadership, they had ironclad rules against bothering the actors in any way, and followed them well. I'd definitely never heard of them bothering Rin while she was on the move.

"Oh, that's
not it. I, uh... I meant Len's."
"..."


Rin glanced toward her brother. Len was still expressionless and said nothing, slowly closing his eyes.

"Ah, if it's Len's fans... I wouldn't put it past them. They're so radical, they're like a religious group..."
"Certainly true. And hard to turn down if they stop you in town, as well. They're all bigshots, after all."
"My, how nice. I wish you'd introduce me to one of them. Quite an impressive gathering of men in Len's fanbase."

Len was reticent as always, just standing there with a nonchalant look. But was it just me who saw him as displeased?

An impressive gathering of men - indeed, while Len had many female fans, the men outnumbered them by far. And for whatever reason, many of his fervent fans were gentlemen with fame and fortune - important politicians, businessmen, performers like him. They wouldn't normally reveal their hobby publicly, but they would send bombastic bouquets and expensive presents to Len's dressing room every show, and would apparently casually talk to him if he was spotted in town.

Bigshots from all fields supported Len as sponsors, Rin's supporters formed a passionate fanclub, and Luka worked as a model to do promotion, focusing on gaining popularity among young women. It was no exaggeration to say that these things helped fill the troupe's coffers amid its financial difficulties. All the members of the main cast had their own fanbases, but certain long-time members like Meiko and Kaito, with their reliable acting prowess, were the real face of the company. I'd heard the staff claim that the troupe as we now knew it was kept alive by the efforts of the seven main cast members.

"That aside... Already in "play mode," Rin? You're always quick with that."
"Eh...? AhaHAHAha! Yes, I'm all PREpared! HeeHEE!"

I thought I felt Rin was acting a little different from usual. Apparently, she had already put herself in the world of the play. In tonight's play, she had the role of the Doll Girl, and her acting certainly did suggest a doll that had come to life. Assuming a stoic pose, her natural acting talents and her boundless effort combined to create the image of a doll worth calling "real."

The Doll Girl, established as having a cheery naiveté, but just a little bit of foolishness. The doll speaking and moving, of course, demanded a performance that oozed eeriness and madness. Maybe even her hitting her head on the door had been on purpose, as practice for her "foolish" side.

"I just REmemBERED, I have busiNESS in green ROOM numBER two... gotta GO!"

With that, the Doll Girl, Rin, ran down the hall hurriedly. Once Rin was gone, Len came in and quietly shut the door, then began greeting everyone. He seemed apologetic about being late. After greeting the others in order of tenure, he came to greet me, the newcomer, as well.

"Morning."
"G-G-Good morning!"
"..."

He was two years my younger, but had been in the troupe for five years. Len had became popular with his sister Rin as twin prodigies, and they served as main cast members of the company ever since. Despite his age, he was very shy. Since he already had an aura of a dignified, bigshot actor, I was always nervous about talking to him.

"You don't have to be so nervous. Just treat it like usual."
"Eh...?"

Saying nothing else, he quickly went over to Meiko. I supposed that was his advice. I'd never talked with him at all outside of rehearsal. Neither he nor I would start a conversation with the other, and I felt like we only said a few words to each other when we happened to end up together. And yet he showed concern and talked to me. So happy...

I felt his casual words of concern slowly undoing the tension in me. I had been chosen as the lead role despite my lack of ability, so I was sure they felt resentment and irritation toward me. But the people of the troupe treasured their bonds with their companions and made them feel at home, which was very kind of them. It made me think how I wanted to become a part of that myself soon.

"Well, enough chitchat. You two go to your dressing rooms and get ready with your makeup and costumes. There's not much time left, you know?"
"Y-Yes!"

Hurried along by Meiko, Len and I quickly left green room #1.



By the time I was done with my makeup, changing, and doing some quiet reciting to myself, it was already past 3 when I returned to the green room. Only two hours until the show. The others were gathered in the room doing final script checks and rehearsing tricky scenes. But... there were two still yet to show.

"Hey, where's you-know-who? Don't tell me she's not here yet?"
"Seems not. I even stressed to her yesterday that she couldn't be late at any cost... My, how worrying."

"You-know-who" who Len and Meiko were talking about... It could be none other.

"Just unbelievable. Writers are hopeless, I tell you. In the eyes of society, it's actresses who are considered troublemakers, but the truth is they're nothing compared to writers. Because we're punctual - we have to be. Being just a few seconds off on the stage is fatal for an actor."
"Ah yes, I suppose she always has been bad with deadlines... But I hear she's at work on a mystery story right now, approaching the part where the butler reaches the climax or whatnot... She's been chipping away at it every night. I'm sure she'll be here soon. As late as she's been, she's never canceled last-minute."

Luka didn't look surprised at all as she spoke ill of she who still wasn't here. And then Meiko said some things I didn't quite get - I couldn't tell if she was worried or not, or if it was a follow-up to Luka or not.

"Um... What about Mr. Gack?"
"Gack? He's been here for quite some time. Though I believe he's still down below, working on the set since this morning. Come to think of it... Yes, he should be long finished with that by now, shouldn't he?"

"Meg truly never changes... Of course she'd cause such trouble at an important time like this. Having two doofuses in this script makes it hard to get a word in. And isn't the lady of a wealthy family meant to be the pinnacle of elegance? There's no elegance in a lady who responds to each and every folly of a bothersome maid."
"My, you're right there. Typically, the image of a diligent maid who must suffer the antics of a rambunctious lady would stick better."

"Hmm... At the same time, the somewhat unusual setting may be a breath of fresh air. A moody aristocrat with a hobby of collection inherits an old, eerie mansion from his grandfather. He lives there with his wife, a boozehound who enjoys partying, and between them is their selfish adopted daughter. Two servants attend to them. While one is an stubbornly serious butler, like a condensed ball of common sense... the other is his opposite, a troublesome maid who exaggerates and makes mountains from molehills. Then we have a slightly slow, but energetic girl, and a cynical, cruel boy... both of whom are dolls. And lastly, a mysterious village girl who comes to visit the mansion..."

"When you lay it out like that, it certainly is an odd setting, isn't it. Kaito and I being married, and Luka being our daughter, even if she's an adoptive one... Though our personalities, at least, aren't too distanced from the parts."

Meiko swung her head up and down, nodding to herself. Kaito and Luka's faces briefly twitched and they glanced at one another, tilting their heads with a bit of awkwardness.

Looking at this play's cast, it was as Meiko said: no one was playing a character particularly unlike their actual personality. Even the part I was given, the mysterious Villager. Not only had I made a sudden entrance into the troupe, the character description of "withdrawn, introspective, and slow-witted" seemed a perfect fit for me. What a bizarre series of coincidences.

"Everyone... You all seem so suited for the roles in this play. I mean, Miss Meg even has the same interest in classical mysteries as her role. Actually, she lent me this detective novel the other day and pushed me to read it, and... Well, the protagonist was a maid who worked at a mansion, and the way she magnificently cracked all kinds of cases that happened around the mansion... It kind of reminded me of this play. All these coincidences make it seem like destiny to me... I think it's just wonderful!"

As soon as I said this, everyone turned to look at me. Their faces could be interpreted as surprised, or caught off-guard. It was pretty awkward... After all, I had clearly implied that the character descriptions of "moody," "boozehound," "selfish," "stubborn," "annoying," "stupid," and "cruel" were "so suited" to their real personalities. That must have seemed the pinnacle of rudeness to them. I felt a pang of regret for not noticing until after I had already said it.

"Ah, erm..."

As I stumbled over myself in confusion, Meiko threw me a bone, albeit probably struggling to keep herself from shaking her head and sighing.

"Destiny, hm... Heehee. I see where you're coming from, but it's really just coincidence. Actually, once we found the script, we just naturally distributed the roles that we thought would be easiest for us to play. For instance, don't you think Gack's personality is a better fit for a butler than Kaito? True, you said he was butler-esque earlier. But a lewd butler would be, well..."

"Um, Mei-pie... You can't just sum up my whole personality as "lewd"... That's a little too concise..."
"Wouldn't that be something? I do feel like I've never seen a lewd butler in any plays before."
"Even you, Luka...? W-Well, anyway, a few commonalities with our parts just makes it that much easier to perfect our performances. Though, Rin and Len's parts aren't even human... but they are naturals, so they can master any part. Doll, animal, anything."

"It's said that great actors are capable of playing any part... but that doesn't mean it's not difficult to play a role completely distanced from who you really are. I happen to like drinking, but someone who hated alcohol wouldn't be able to fill this role, I feel. If you don't have a love for the stuff, playing a part that indulges in it just feels a bit fake, you know? So I'd just say this was a suitable role for me."

Meiko gave a convincing explanation, and I found myself nodding. I could sense an unconcealable aura of despair around her brought about by this morning's news that, inspired by prohibition laws on the continent, a provisional bill to that effect had been passed in our country as well. It gave a kind of credence to her words.

"Not to mention it's a Burlet script; those are practically legendary in that regard. Nothing would sway Mr. Burlet. He wouldn't make any compromises in selecting actors for his plays... In fact, it's said many of his works had their productions delayed until suitable actors appeared."

Meiko poured Kaito a new cup of tea and put it on the table. Kaito thanked her and flipped through the script in his hands, doing some final checks.

"...It's always best when you have a fool to play the fool... That's what they say, Rin."
"Ohhh? Is that right?"

Having finished with her makeup and costume, Rin was back and sitting on the sofa, hiding in Kaito's shadow. She was relaxing to the fullest in a position that looked like she was clinging to his left arm, passionately reading a magazine. Said magazine was unfolded in front of Kaito as he drank his tea, so it seemed like it would be bothersome for him. But the two must have really gotten along, as Kaito didn't particularly complain, and the scene quickly became familiar.

Previously, I'd seen the two of them together in a similar way, and accidentally let it slip that they reminded me of a father and his daughter, which got them both very angry. Kaito said "I'm not old enough to have a child this big," and Rin insisted "My body may still be playing catch-up, but in mind, I'm already a fine adult!" There were also semi-criminal rumors about them being lovers, but the others told me it was purely based on how affectionately Kaito looked after Rin.

"...It's nice that the idiot can enjoy herself."
"Rin, your brother's making fun of you. ...Hellooo? Idiot?"
"...Hm? Idiot...? Luka! What's that supposed to mean?!"
"It was Len who said it."
"...Len!!"

Rin turned her eyes from the magazine to glare at Len sitting across from her.

"I was just saying, you can really get into your role this time."
"...You're saying that like I'm really an idiot! I'm just PLAYing an idiot, SEE? It's acting! I'm perfectly playing THE part of a STUpid doll, THAT's all! Because REALly, I'm much smarTER than you, LEN! Right, KaiTO?"
"Uh...? Y-Yes, of course... yes."
"Seeeee? Got it now, brother?"
"Right... (There's no way Kaito was even listening...)"

"I think you can get rather into your cynical, badmouthing role as well, Len."
"...Sigh. That's not a compliment."

Not amused by Luka's comment, Len grabbed the teacup Meiko placed for him.

"Well, you're such naturals that of course you can take up any role. Even acting as dolls brought to life... It's so real it can give me chills. Like the other night, after rehearsal, I was walking down the dark halls to lock up... and when I passed by the reception area, which should have been empty... there was a life-size doll sitting there, grinning. I was so aghast, I couldn't speak. Then the doll began to move, stiffly and slowly. Before I knew it, it was over the fence, slowly, slooowly taking steps toward me... I was paralyzed with fear. The doll arrived right in front of me, and I thought I was done for... When suddenly, it cackled loudly. I was truly struck with terror... I thought my heart stopped."

"Heh heh. Kaito had this really funny scream when I went up and spooked him. "Wyaaaaah!" Like a little girl."
"That's not a nice prank, Rin. You should count yourself lucky I was your target."
"It's not a prank, it's practice! I was testing to see if I was convincing. Although since you seemed to have absolutely no idea it was me, I went all the way. Don't worry, I wouldn't do it to anyone else!"
"Who could possibly tell in the dark like that...? And... And was it really for practice?"

Kaito's smile twitched a little. He often was made to be a part of Rin's acting practice, but in reality, many of the things she did were just pranks. Kaito and Rin were often together, an especially friendly duo among the whole troupe. But for him to not notice who she was at such a close range, and with their level of familiarity, was a real testament to her ability to fully assume her doll role. I knew I would never, with any amount of effort, reach those heights. I thrust my hand into my pocket and squeezed the handkerchief within.

"That handkerchief... What an awful design. Let me see it."

Luka suddenly spoke, and I stared back at her with a start. She assumed a pose of putting her right hand on her hip and slightly bending her neck back, as if looking down on the person before her; it was her Pose #18, a big hit with fans. But most of the times she assumed this pose, it meant she was displeased, so I prepared myself for whatever should could possibly want to say. Like with Len, she rarely spoke directly to me, so I was nervous. I took my time pulling out the handkerchief sticking out of my skirt pocket and hesitantly handed it to her.

"...When did you buy this?"
"Er... About a year ago..."
"Hmm. Green and white polkadots... Isn't that a bit childish? It doesn't suit you at all. This is the "in" color right now. Use this instead."

Luka swiftly pulled out a handkerchief from her expensive bag and handed it straight to me. Without thinking, I took it in my palms.

"Huh...? This is... new... C-Can I...?"
"Of course! That is what I said. You should at least pick up on that much."

The handkerchief Luka handed me was totally out of my price range, a silk handkerchief with the logo for a famous brand. It had a motif of fresh green leaves with light pink roses on top, with golden embroidery and beads around the edges - a simple, yet fully realized and elegant design. I supposed it was all handmade, as each and every part was carefully-crafted, nothing the same, as if to keep the owner from ever growing bored. If I wasn't careful, I could get lost in it.

"Are you just going to keep staring? You're embarrassing me. Put it away already."
"Uh... sorry! Thank you so much! I'll take good care of it!"
"...It's really nothing at all."

Luka swept her head to the side. Maybe it wasn't a big deal to her. But to me, it was a precious gift from a star I'd always aspired to. Even after half a year in the troupe, I must have been unable to let go of my "fan" mentality, because being recognized in this way made my heart dance.

"Hmm, that handkerchief... Gosh, you're being as difficult as always, Luka. You big ice queen!"
"W-What's that, Rin...? Ice...? What does that mean?"
"I said you're an ice queen! Don't you know that term? You're so behind the times for such a hotshot model! But I can see your icy heart melting now... You're reeeally concerned about Miku, I know it..."
"Wha...! That's not it at all! Why would you call me..."

"It's written aaall over your face. You're sooo worried about dear Miku's debut as the lead... And with a packed audience staring at her, you know she'll be nervous, the poor thing... Ah, she's doing that thing again, reaching for her handkerchief because she's nervous... But that's only going to make her more tense right now... Oh, I know! Didn't want to give it to her so soon, but she can have this handkerchief..."

"Rin! I won't let you say another word!"
"Ahh! Luka, your face is all red! I must be right on the mark! Awww!"
"Riiiiin!"
"Waaaaah! Luka's maaaaad!"
"Stop! Get back here!"

Rin starting to tease Luka led straight into getting her angry. I was worried whether it was wise to let this happen right before the show, but Kaito, Meiko, and Len went on chatting without any visible concern.

I was surprised Luka's sharp eyes even picked up on my habit of reaching for my handkerchief to calm down, and admired that fact. But more importantly - if what Rin said was true, then I was, well... really happy, honestly. Did Luka really care that much about me? That thought made me much happier than her handkerchief. Though I also felt a bit guilty about Rin and Luka getting into a fight as a result...

"Um, is it okay for those two to be fighting right now? It's almost showtime..."
"Oh, it's fine. This happens all the time. Whatever it might look like, those two are the closest in our company, and for her behavior, Rin really is a smart girl. She's usually able to use her horseplay to dissolve the tension between herself and Luka... and between us, while I'm at it."

Kaito's eyes followed the two running around the green room as he spoke.

"M-Miss Rin thinks it through that much...? Wow..."
"It's a mystery if she really does that or not, but it's certainly true that everyone's nervous. For instance, that magazine she was reading was from ages ago. It's like a ritual for her to read it before important shows. We try to keep it hidden, but... we're all feeling a little frantic. So it's not just you, Miku. This is a very important show for us too, one that we've put a lot into."
"Miss Meiko..."


Just then, the door slammed open yet again. That door was going to break with all the beatings it was taking today. Of course, I hadn't helped with that either.

"Sooooorryyyyy! I toootally slept in! I can't believe it was past noon when I got up! Suuuuuper sorry, everybody!"

Meg appeared from behind the door. While it was an apology on the surface, she said it with such cheer and a smile as to indicate she didn't think she'd done anything particularly bad.

"Meg... Did I not tell you harshly enough yesterday?! "Don't dare be late tomorrow!" What time do you think it is now?!"
"Now, now, Meiko. Let's just settle for her being on time... barely. Meg, there is still a bit of time to go, so perhaps you should get some reciting in?"
"Right! Hm, I guess there are a few parts I wanted to check before the show..."
"Whew. So we made it all right..."

No sooner had Meg come in and started unpacking her bag did Gack poke his head in from behind, looking very tired.

"...Huh? Mr. Gack!"
"Good morning!"

"Wait, Gack... Could it be that the reason you weren't here was...?"
"...I went to pick up Miss Meg, yes. I felt sure she was still sleeping away at home. And sure enough, so she was."
"Snoozing away in a dream, I was! Thank you, Mr. Gack!"

"Don't mention it. Your magnificently joyous face in sleep was very relieving to see. Neurosis has been widespread as of late, so it's a magnificent thing to be able to sleep so soundly. Still, while sleep is important, it can cause great trouble for us all, so... you must learn to moderate, Miss Meg. This is the first day of a highly-anticipated performance, after all..."
"S-Sorryyy..."

Gack's chiding made Meg look less than cheery for the first time since coming in the door. The part about "causing great trouble for us all" seemed effective. She had some definite eccentricities and no reservations about them, but when she made a clumsy move like this, Gack would always rebuke her.

The total opposite of Meg, Gack was a serious and gentle soul full of common sense. Normally he wouldn't speak much, often just watching over others' actions with a charming look no matter what happened. But when Meg's absurd out-of-line actions caused trouble for the company, he would take the role of gently putting her in line. He must have anticipated that this time, hence taking the initiative to pick her up.

Meg was a member of the main cast, but also a playwright, so she was swamped with work daily. In addition, Gack was a farmer who managed his own independent farm. These two members who found it harder than the others to dedicate their time seemed to often be covering for one another. When Gack didn't show up for rehearsals, Meg would ask what sort of practice was being done and convey the message to Gack. But even so, anticipating that the other would be late and going to pick them up was simply impressive.

"If Mr. Gack hadn't come, I might still have been dreaming right now. Last night, I was working on some new material when I had an amazing flash of inspiration, so I stayed up all night... I guess until it got light out, actually!"
"No wonder you wouldn't answer the doorbell, then. It's a good thing I had that emergency key. Breaking in through the window would have looked a bit suspicious."
"That's why I sleep with the window open, just in case! It's not that unsafe, and I thought it would be bad if you came to wake me up and forgot the key..."
"Thank you for your concern. But as a gentleman, I try to avoid intruding through windows when possible."

Kaito's face twitched slightly watching the odd conversation and interrupted.

"...Somebody play the straight man for these two... Nobody? Meg, you told me your clock was broken the other day. Did you fix that?"
"Oh! Come to think of it, I..."
"...Were you late because you don't have a clock?"
"Err... um."
"Miss Meg. Take this."

Gack took the wristwatch off his left hand and handed it to Meg.

"Huh?! Can I really? This looks so expensive..."
"Not having a clock seems like it would be inconvenient. I have others, so don't worry yourself."
"Yaaay! Thanks so much! It's super cool! This is a real antique, huh?"
"Yes, it was made about five years ago now..."
"...Make sure you get your home clock fixed too, Meg..."

Kaito quietly sighed, but Meg and Gack didn't seem to hear, absorbed in conversation about the antique watch.

"Hey, Rin, Luka! Will you stop fighting already? Gack brought Meg along!"

Still in the middle of a fight at the back of the room, they both turned to Meiko simultaneously.

"Sigh... Meg's predisposition to trouble always wears me out. I'm thirsty."
"Oh, Len! Well then, shall I pour you some of my special milk tea?"
"...Sure. But are you prepared for the show yet?"
"Ahem! I actually got here a little bit ago, so I already changed and did my makeup down below. As you can see, I'm in perfect shape!"
"I see...", Len mumbled with exhaustion, dodging Meg's wink.

"Oh, right! These are for Miss Luka. Super-spicy cookies for our spice-lover! I have no doubt you'll be very satisfied! They're reeeeeally spicy."
"My... How thoughtful. Thank you, dear."
"Yikes... The packaging alone's making my face red! Those look way too spicy!"
"And that's just how I like it! Such a childish palate as ever, Rin."

Clinging to Luka's arm as she happily accepted Meg's gift, Rin stared at the bright red package of cookies. The two had made up so quickly, it was impossible to imagine they'd just been wrestling with each other. But that package... it stung my mouth the more I looked at it.

"The cast's finally together. All right..."
"Showtime's approaching, everyone! Take your places!"

Just as Kaito called everyone together, a liaison entered through the door. Our expressions turned serious, and the once-bustling green room was enveloped by silence like a encampment setting out for the front line. One by one, with faces as stiff as soldiers, we left the green room and went down the short steps to the stage wings.

"It's been a long road."
"It's finally beginning... I'm getting a little... scared. Hey, are you sure..."
"Meiko!"

Meiko shook momentarily at Kaito calling her name. Her eyes wavered, with a color like she was brooding something over.

"...It's all right. I'm sure it'll go just fine."
"Kaito..."
"It truly has been an eventful road..."

Perhaps set off by Meiko's unease, even Luka's face seemed a little grim. The main event that so much practice had led up to was approaching moment by moment. Even for veteran Meiko and never-cowardly Luka, this was a scary time.

"Yes... We've managed to make it this far. But it's what's coming that's important. The fate of the company is riding on this play. We'll succeed with it, and bring back the glory of the Burlet Company. So everyone, please..."

A heavy silence. Kaito stopped talking and closed his eyes to think of something. The settings for the first scene - the living room on the right wing of the stage, and the entrance hall on the left - had already been perfectly assembled. Scene shifters were making final checks for the set.

"...I know, Kaito. That's been my dream too. I vowed to get here no matter what."
"You mean we, right, Len? All of us feel the same way, Kaito! All of us actors here now... well, and the ones who didn't get cast, and the ones behind the scenes making the props and sets, and the producer, and the ticket sellers - we're all praying for the play to succeed, and for the honorable Burlet Company to make its comeback. For that, I..."

"Enough foolishness, Rin. At times like these, you should just pipe down and nod. Any unnecessary comments will just shake our resolve."

Resolve - as Kaito said, I could just feel Luka, Rin, and Len's extraordinary determination toward seeing the company succeed again. It was time to make it come true; this was a dream they'd had for many years. As much as they tended to fight and quarrel, suggesting they had their own individual wills, they were in fact connected by strong bonds in their hearts... myself not so much included.

Meiko took notice of how she'd made everyone uneasy, and while still feeling it herself, inserted an apology.

"I'm sorry for making you all anxious. ...A single person can't make a play. Each person is there for the play, and the play is there for them. That's something he once said - that he left behind for his company. We've made it here through years of treasuring our bonds. If we take this as we always do, no doubt it'll go fine..."

"Um, guys, I think you might be forgetting something, so I'll say it just to be sure... The most important "person" for us is the audience! Your first priority should be pleasing each and every person out there with your performance, okay? As much effort as we put in, if it doesn't make the audience happy, then it won't make for the revival of our troupe, or anything really. I mean, that's why we've put in so much preparation..."

"Magnificent, Miss Meg. I was thinking that myself. I agree, a good reception from the audience should be regarded as equally important to demonstrating our tight teamwork."
"She has a point. Naturally, a playwright would know what to say at a time like this."

Pleasing each and every person in the audience - I nodded as I digested Meg's advice. If my teamwork with everyone could move the audience for just an irreplaceable moment...

"The set is ready, everyone. Take your places, it's almost time!"

The liaison called to us. The backstage workers were all set.

"Let's all write a new page in the history of this company... no, of West End. Are you ready?"

The buzzer rang, and the thick curtain rose.



Chapter 2
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