The day of the Shinryoku Festival had finally arrived.
There were normally no classes on Saturday, so today was treated as a voluntary attendance day by the school. However, it was a festivity held by Seiran High, which was known for its fondness of events. Though no parents attended unlike the cultural festival, the school was still quite bustling.
The cheers and shouts of the students echoed throughout the school, reaching from the gymnasium to the music room.
And here was the home economics room.
It was the venue of the [Boxed Lunch Contest] held by the Home Economics Club. It was almost time for the food to be sampled.
Until then, only pictures posted alongside each entry were used as reference material for evaluating them.
Affixed to them were the entry numbers, titles, recipes, photos of the ingredients before cooking from various angles and even receipts from the supermarket to prove that they made the food within the designated cost of materials.
However, the rest of the information did not indicate the name of the maker or their club.
“So you came, Makichi.”
Makino showed up in front of Homura as she was anxiously waiting by the window of the home economics room.
“Tahaha, I got hungry, you know? I skipped out on helping my club. The student council should permit food stands for the Shinryoku Festival.”
As the jersey-wearing Makino complained, Homura bowed her head in apology.
“Sorry for not coming to visit you. I ended up preparing for this till the last minute all morning…”
“Then you managed to make it in time?”
Homura nodded again in relief, but Makino peered at her closely.
“…And yet, you don’t look like you stayed up all night, Homuran… Well, in that case, good job on finishing it!”
“All right, I’m going to taste the results of Homuran’s home cooking training for sure~. In fact, I’ll make you my wife~”
As Homura responded with a carefree laugh, Makino whispered in her ear.
“Hey, Homuran, whisper to me your entry number.”
“Sorry. I was warned not to say anything since the people in charge will find out right away.”
Even now, the upperclassman in charge of executing the Home Economics Club’s event was glaring at her.
If votes for a specific boxed lunch were biased due to being in the same class or club, they would suspect it being a case of fixed block votes.
“So it’s made completely fair… Well, I suppose that’s a good thing.”
Nodding with her arms crossed, Makino suddenly raised her head and surveyed their surroundings.
“…Where’s Touya-kun, the enviable taste-tester?”
“He ran away. He said he couldn’t stand to watch.”
“Ahaha, sorry. That was a joke. Apparently he can’t come due to circumstances on his end.”
Just when she thought she was getting a call from him on her cell phone for the first time, that’s what he said to her.
However, it wasn’t like she had called him or texted him either. She’d really prefer it if her first call to him would be to convey wonderful news.
“Hey, how are things going with the [Yamato Nadeshiko Contest]?”
“Fufufu, so you really are interested? I brought the official predictions list.”
Grinning, Makino took out a folded printout from her pocket.
The page looked just like the kind of thing used for horse racing predictions, making Homura wonder where she’d gotten such information from.
“Who made that? People are really enjoying themselves with this.”
The two of them unfolded the official predictions list.
“Here, look here.”
From among the pictures of pretty first years, Makino pointed at a corner of the list and read it out.
“[Mysterious Transfer Student’s first entry upon her first attendance! A Dark Horse for whom even her affiliated club is unknown!]”
“Entry #9, [Fujimori…Ameno]? Her last name’s the same as Fujimori-sensei’s…? But they don’t look like sisters at all. Are they half-siblings?”
“What’s this? Err, the comment she gave right before her appearance on stage was—[Serving tea is a robot’s duty!]—What the heck is this? She’s getting more and more mysterious.”
As the two of them grew interested in the suspicious description on the printout, things became noisy over by the entrance to the home economics room.
Several tall upperclassmen had showed up.
The one who appeared at their head was a familiar face to Homura.
“Hey there, sorry for making you wait, everyone. Seiran High’s Fourteenth Student Council President, Rokujizou Takara, has arrived!”
She came in trailing about ten people along with her.
“So the special judge is the student council president, huh? As usual, she’s quite a noisy and boisterous person.”
Makino was bewildered by the president’s exaggerated entrance.
Behind Rokujizou was the accountant Yamashina who Homura had met back then, accompanying her like the manager of a busy performer.
However, the person who caught Homura’s eye was a third year female student who accompanied Rokujizou.
“That’s… the beauty from that time at the jazz club!”
Their eyes met.
The girl had a transparent gaze that saw through Homura.
After Homura stared at her unconsciously, the girl once again nodded in greeting at Homura in a bashful manner.
President Rokujizou also noticed Homura’s presence and walked over to her.
The camera of the event’s record keeper energetically made shutter noises.
“Hello, Hinooka-san. I heard you were participating in this contest. But I have to warn you that I intend to critique fairly and impartially as a special judge.”
“Yes, of course. I look forward to hearing your judgment!”
While she replied in kouhai-mode, Homura couldn’t help being interested in the beauty next to Rokujizou.
She repeatedly glanced at the girl.
“Her? This girl here is my friend—no, just ‘friend’ is incomplete as a description.”
Rokujizou placed her fingers on the beauty’s sloping shoulder.
“This is my best friend, Misasagi Mayo.”
After being proudly introduced by Rokujizou, Misasagi-senpai shrank her shoulders and acted embarrassed once again.
Apparently, she was already a celebrity among the upperclassmen, and there seemed to be a strict practice of watching over her lovingly so as to prevent anyone from ever stepping over a fixed line.
Homura hadn’t been able to clearly see her in the dark and crowded jazz club the other day, but now that she directly faced her like this, she could see that Misasagi’s beauty was even more outstanding than she had imagined. She was blessed with a tall figure that rivaled President Rokujizou’s, making Homura wonder why she hadn’t noticed her at school until now.
Although both of them stood out in people’s eyes, compared to Misasagi-senpai who gave off the aura of a high class young lady, Homura was like a worthless commoner who acted as a pretty signboard girl at a downtown shop.
“—And she’s also the president of our school’s prided Exploration Club.”
“Misasagi-senpai, is—the president, of the Exploration—Club—?”
This person, this senpai, was the president, of the Exploration Club?
In Homura’s mind, an image of Touya making a curt expression made the paltry excuse, “I didn’t tell you? Sorry, sorry.” Mentally, Homura squatted down and delivered a peerless, anti-aircraft uppercut aimed at the sky.
An imaginary mountain gorilla let out a war cry and fell down a ravine of skyscrapers, and the black-haired beauty that was left behind looked at Homura apologetically with closed eyes.
Naturally unperturbed by slight eccentricities of any student, Rokujizou continued the introductions.
“Today, I’m looking around the Shinryoku Festival with her while doing official business on the side—”
“You got it backwards. The official business takes precedence first and foremost.”
Rokujizou ignored Yamashina’s remark as he tried to keep them on track.
“Could it be that you and Misasagi are already acquainted, Hinooka-san? You’re kinda giving off that feeling.”
“Yes, umm, the truth is, I met her the other day in Honmachi—”
At that point, Homura’s words trailed off.
I really shouldn’t mention here that I went somewhere minors aren’t allowed, should I? The teachers are watching, after all.
“Umm, i-in other words…”
After grasping at straws for an answer, Homura suddenly stood up straight and propped up her hands on her forehead.
“It was like, just when you thought that Nomi’s space pilot did a lap around the earth, the earth was actually a cat, or something like that!”
“Hmm—I have no idea what you mean!”
Rokujizou nodded with a radiant smile, seeming happy somehow.
Next to her, Misasagi quietly joined her slender fingers together.
“In other words, the world is, a small place.”
Misasagi spoke her words bit by bit, as if whispering.
Homura gasped in surprise.
“Yes… that’s right! It’s a really small place!”
Homura squeezed her forehead in the space between her hands.
Misasagi let slip a smile.
“We need to move along soon, president.”
Yamashina spoke up again while checking the time.
“—True. It seems some people are getting hungry too. Let’s hurry up and begin.”
Coming back to her senses, Homura backed away unsteadily with Makino supporting her.
“Careful there. As expected, even Hinooka Homura isn’t a match for the third years.”
—The Exploration Club.
Then that meant that that girl was the ringleader who had nominated Homura for the Exploration Club along with Touya.
The president and Misasagi-senpai headed towards the contest venue at the center of the home economics room.
The number of contestants in the Boxed Lunch Contest was twelve.
Each of them had prepared five boxed lunches apiece.
In other words, there were sixty boxed lunches lined up here.
“Then let’s begin the judging! Also, there are contestants among the people gathered here. I won’t mince words, but I, Rokujizou, hold neither malice nor ulterior motives here. I’d like for all judges to speak frankly.”
Homura and Makino were hidden amidst the crowd of students gathered in the home economics room.
Makino whispered in Homura’s ear.
“Does the special judge have greater voting power than the others?”
“No, her vote is the same as the other students. But she has the right to eat in whatever order she wants before the others and announce her critique first.”
“I see… It’s actually hard to compare boxed lunches, isn’t it? I’ll use this as future reference.”
Makino nodded in understanding.
“Depending on the case, it could turn into poison-testing, huh…”
Rokujizou went to stand in front of a certain boxed lunch. The record keeper’s video camera followed her.
“All right, let’s start with this one. [Today’s Boxed Lunch]—”
Rokujizou began her critique.
“—Among the rest of these elaborately made entries, this one’s gentle on the eyes and its standard food arrangement conversely stands out. White rice with dried plums and ginger tsukidani1. Spinach gomae2, thinly sliced eggs, carrot glace, and finally, beef jigureni3 as the main dish. Hmm, assorted grains are casually used in the rice. It lacks a distinctive characteristic, but I like it. I’d even want to eat it every day.
“This one is red… the [Red Lunch]! Truly red, absolutely red! Has there been any recipe before that has a boxed lunch overflowing with such fighting spirit? The impactful and distinctive pink tint that colors the ten kinds of rice grains is plum vinegar. And these Chinese yams are also soaked in plum vinegar. It makes my hunger well up. Furthermore, there’s boiled chicken flavored with sauce along with fried olives spiced with paprika. For dessert, there are strawberries and raspberries. This one is even more impactful than last year’s [Black Lunch].
“The main dish here is hot sandwiches of various colors filled with mashed potatoes—No, these are gougères! I know about it. Gougère is a choux pastry mixed with cheese and baked in an oven. At first glance, it seems long and complicated, but it’s actually simple to make. The side dishes are steamed chicken piccatas and apple sauté. I seem to remember that they’re cooked by using a two-tray oven. The name is a nice play on words: [Tricolor Sandwich]. It can change the rooftop or courtyard into a Montparnasse café in Paris.”
—Thus continuing to speak at such a high tempo, Rokujizou critiqued the boxed lunches one after another.
Eventually reaching the end of the line-up, the president retraced her steps with a depressed gait. The audience, who had all been salivating terribly, followed after her while holding their empty stomachs.
“Now then, lastly… I suppose I’ll challenge this one which I purposefully ignored… Entry #8, the [Fried Udon Boxed Lunch]!”
Rokujizou grabbed hold of a boxed lunch with a round bottom and raised it up above her head.
“—Who the hell made this boxed lunch!? As if I could eat something like this! Is this place supposed to be a beach hut!? There’s an obvious problem with it even before sampling it!”
However, at that moment, Rokujizou felt an inexplicable shiver as she saw the audience’s gaze forcefully torn away from her.
“…Hah… Misasagi!? What’re you doing!?”
When Rokujizou followed the direction of their gaze, she saw Misasagi-senpai bring her chopsticks to the Friend Udon Boxed Lunch that the Home Economics Club members had divided up into individual plates for each dish.
“H-Hey, Misasagi! Are you trying to steal my privilege as student council president!?”
The president fell into a frantic panic.
“‘You’re taking, too long, *chew, chew*, to talk,’ you say? Sorry about that. I was influenced by the manga I read yesterday in preparation… Eh, it tastes good?”
Misasagi gave a small nod.
Not willing to let herself fall behind, Rokujizou vigorously separated her chopsticks using her mouth.
“I-In the first place, what’s with this slovenly food arrangement!? This dark drown color just like the depths of the ocean is red ginger—no, this… isn’t a heap of red ginger…?”
The president looked astonished as she timidly poked her chopsticks into it.
“This is purple cabbage marinade! T-This is quite gentle on the stomach, I suppose.”
She picked up some of the udon with trembling chopsticks.
“And… These pieces of dried bonito sucking up the moisture and clinging to it catch my attention, but this fragrance… this is…”
Rokujizou chewed and swallowed it.
“I-It’s miso seasoning…!”
A shock ran through the audience.
“Not soy sauce or any other sauce, let alone mustard or mayonnaise—it’s miso! This fried udon is seasoned with miso!”
The people listening to her critique all took a step back instinctively.
Feeling a sense of oppression surrounding her, the president looked around at the audience.
“You all… Are you that absurdly weak to the taste of miso!? Since the moment we were born, the taste we were raised on from a young age, the miso malt genes we’ve inherited over the generations cry out, ‘Give me miso! Give me miso!’ Amino acids!”
Rokujizou was at her wits’ end, trapped in ambivalence between intelligence and instinct.
“I won’t acknowledge it. I won’t acknowledge it. Fried udon is the taste you eat along with the heat of the iron plate. It’s fried, therefore it’s fried udon. This is just udon that’s cold from the beginning!”
Amidst the dead silent room, the president once again didn’t miss the quietly uttered whisper following her declaration and turned around.
“‘If you say that, then even frying the rice in a bento would be tasty,’ you say!? That’s exactly right, Misasagi! As usual, your discernment is calm and accurate!”
Rokujizou brought more of the udon to her mouth.
“I see, using splittable chopsticks makes it easier to eat. Mumumu… the bits of fried batter with squid also smell savory! But this is junk food. To hell with nutritional balance! On the other hand, if the amount of vegetables was increased, you would lose the true texture of udon going down your throat that just barely remains here. Aah, it’s no good, no good, this boxed lunch is no good!”
Giving off an inexplicable sense of defeat, Rokujizou supported herself with her hands on the nearby desk.
“Is that all?” asked Yamashina.
Quickly regaining her gallantry, Rokujizou surveyed everyone in the room.
“With this, my critique is finished. Sorry for making you all wait. Please go on and sample the food, everyone. I wish every boxed lunch-chan luck.”
The student council president threw a piece of paper into the ballot box that the Home Economics Club members had respectfully brought out.
“I will merely cast my vote on what I believe in,” she said as a parting remark, and then headed off to the next venue. Misasagi-senpai also cast in her own vote and gave a bow to the remaining students before leaving.
The results of the [Boxed Lunch Contest] tallied that day—
Hinooka Homura’s [Fried Udon Boxed Lunch] earned great popularity and acquired first place alongside the Home Economic Club members’ entry [Medley Sushi Boxed Lunch]. The grand prize was a gift certificate for books. The extra prize was the right to use the demonically-remodeled electric bicycle that served as student council equipment.
On the other hand, in the annually uproarious [Yamato Nadeshiko Contest]—
The female secretary sent in by the student council achieved victory and recovered the title for the student council after their loss last year.
The conspicuous dark horse Fujimori Ameno, after performing the tea-making perfectly, unveiled a school swimsuit with a bewitching way of undressing that you wouldn’t expect from a first year and vigorously jumped into the pool, but when she showed no signs of surfacing after several minutes, Professor Fujimori rushed in and saved her, and while the audience was left dumbfounded, Fujimori dragged her off somewhere… Hah.
Chapter 7 END
(1) Tsukidani: small seafood, meat or seaweed that has been simmered in soy sauce and preserved.
(2) Gomae: dish dressed with sesame sauce.
(3) Jigureni: seafood, etc. preserve made with mirin, ginger and soy.