The temple master and the head priest look at me with gleaming eyes, and I falter . The head priest, perhaps noticing that my face has frozen up, goes to get the scriptures . While I wait for Lutz to come and pick me up, the head priest reads to me like before, letting me sit on his lap and teaching me various things . I’m happy about this, but there’s a weird sort of tension in the air, and I very much would like to run as far away as possible .
Shortly after the fifth bell rings, a gray-robed priest enters the room . “A boy named Lutz is here for Maïne,” he says . I breathe a sign of relief, having grown increasingly impatient as I waited for him .
“Lutz is here? I have to go, then . Father Bösewanz, Father Ferdinand, thank you for letting me come here today . ”
“Alright . Maïne, please, I’d like you to give this to your parents . ”
The temple master holds a written invitation . A written invitation from the temple master himself is nothing short of a summons that cannot be refuse . The day and time of the appointment is the day after tomorrow, at the third bell . I gulp, then take the thin wooden board from him .
“Luuutz! Thank you so much for coming for meee!”
The instant I see Lutz waiting for me outside the temple, I’m filled with an indescribable sense of relief . Swept up in my emotions, I leap at him, hugging him tightly to convey my heartfelt gratitude . He staggers a little bit, but manages to withstand it . As I press my head into his shoulder, Lutz sighs .
“Did you do something again?”
“…I think so, yeah . I have no idea what I did, but I think I blew myself up in the most spectacular way possible . ”
He pats me on the head, then grins at me .
“Master Benno’s waiting for you, with a smile that made it look like the veins on his forehead were going to explode . ”
“Huh? …Can I just go home? I’m already really tired . ”
“He told me to bring you even if I had to drag you by the scruff of your neck . Your color’s still looking pretty good, you’ll be fine . ”
Going to the temple had already frayed my nerves, yet now all of the warning flags that I’m going to be lectured by Benno have been raised . I trusted Lutz as my steadfast ally, but now I feel so betrayed .
Feeling like a calf being led back to its cage, I’m brought to Benno’s shop . As if he’d been laying in wait for me, I’m immediately brought back into his office . I’m told to sit in the same chair I usually do . Across from me sits Benno . Behind him stands Mark . Lutz, instead of sitting next to me, sits next to Benno .
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Maïne . ”
“…Y-yes . ”
“Now then, I have a mountain of things I want to say to you…”
I brace myself . It seems like this is going to be a very long conversation . Benno takes a long, slow breath, then opens his mouth to speak .
“Before I get started, I have a message from Corinna . She said she’d like to see the dress and hairpin you wore to the baptismal ceremony . It was a very unique outfit . Very eye-catching! What were you thinking, wearing something like that?”
“It was a hand-me-down from Tuuli that we’d altered . There was no real meaning to it . I don’t particularly mind showing it to her, but I don’t know what my mother, who made it, would think of bringing it out . I would have to ask her . ”
“I see,” he says, lightly . “Well, please do so . ”
He folds his hands together on the table in front of him . He leans forward slightly, staring at me evenly .
“Well, how about you just tell me everything? I have to figure out just what to do with you after I hear about whatever happened at the temple . ”
“Huh? Did Lutz not tell you?”
It’s already been a few days since the baptismal ceremony . I thought he would have asked Lutz about it a long time ago, but it seems like he hasn’t heard anything .
“Second-hand information always gets warped along the way . If I’ve got the chance to ask the actual primary source herself, why would I need to ask Lutz? Besides, there’s always the possibility that there’s some things you’re still keeping hidden . ”
He looks at me like a wild animal looks at his prey, and my breath freezes in my throat . It seems like he’s going to pursue me relentlessly .
“…Where should I start?”
“After you collapsed during the ceremony . Tell me everything that happened after you got separated from Lutz, and don’t leave anything out . ”
I tell him about how I collapsed, got lost searching for a restroom, and blundered into the nobles’ space . When I tell him about meeting the priestess and finding a library, his eyes widen in amazement .
“A library? I didn’t think the temple had something like that…”
“You didn’t know, Mister Benno?”
“Wandering aimlessly around in an area used by the nobility is the kind of extremely dangerous behavior that ordinary people usually don’t do . Reflect on your own stupidity . What would you have done if you’d gotten yourself in actual danger?”
It’s true, that wasn’t somewhere that ordinary people would come and go from, so when I look at it from where Benno’s standing I can see that he’s right . Of course, getting lost is what caused me to find the library, so for me it was actually a really good thing .
“The priestess told me that only people connected to the temple were able to enter the library, so I thought that I should become a priestess as quickly as possible, so I went to the temple master immediately to appeal to him . ”
“Use your damned head! You thoughtless little girl!”
“Ow, dat hurds! Dat hurds!”
Benno leans forward and starts pulling on both of my cheeks . Both Mark and Lutz look like they think this is a completely reasonable response, and neither of them lift a finger to help me . I rub my stinging face, and Benno, looking displeased, urges me on .
“And then? You got permission?”
“He told me that if I got my parents’ approval and gave him a donation, he’d let me become an apprentice priestess . ”
“A donation? Did you do it?”
He frowns sharply, looking very stern . I can tell that he’s concerned that I thoughtlessly made a donation without having actually gotten permission first . To put him at ease, I puff up my chest proudly and give him my answer .
“No sir, not yet . Based on a rough estimate of the price of the books and the amount of money I presently have, I calculated a usage fee for the library . I told them that I could donate up to one large gold coin, but that’s it; I have yet to actually make the donation . I’m not the kind of idiot that would hand over my money without knowing for sure that I’d actually be able to join!”
I’d planned to put him at ease, but Benno, followed shortly by Mark and Lutz, gives me a pained look, as if he suddenly has a massive headache, then slumps his shoulders .
“I shouldn’t need to tell you that you’re a colossal idiot when it comes to money . ”
“But thanks to that they treated me very well…”
“Well of course they did!”
I’d thought that it was a large sum, but it seems that the amount of money I’d presented is mind-bogglingly huge, even to a major merchant .
“Then, when I went home and talked with my parents, they said that being a priest or a priestess is a job for orphans, and got really mad and told me no . ”
“Well, they’re right, aren’t they?”
“The head priest said that there were noble children there too, though . ”
I tilt my head, not entirely understanding the reason why my father would have gotten so angry . Benno scratches roughly at his head, then explains to me some things about the clergy .
“You noticed that the clergy was wearing blue and gray robes, right?”
“I did . ”
“The ones wearing blue robes are nobles, the ones wearing gray are orphans . The gray priests and priestesses are effectively slaves working at the temple, making no wages, and serving as attendants and assistants to the blue ones . ”
I’d been thinking that the color difference was due to apprenticeships or formalities . I hadn’t even considered that there would be this kind of distinction .
“If you, who are not a noble, joined the clergy, you’d be a gray-robed sister-in-training . Of course you’d be cut off from your parents . ”
I gulp noisily . Now I know why my father had gotten so agitated . It’s not just that it’s obviously work that I am not at all capable of doing, so of course my doting father would be disgusted at the idea of my joining the temple .
“So, Lutz tells me that you went to the temple today to reject their offer, but did you really do it?”
“…Ummm, I mentioned that I had the devouring, and they brought out some sort of golden chalice that one of the stone statues in the hall of worship was holding, and then when I touched it it started glowing, and then they gave me a written invitation to take to my parents . ”
Benno firmly massages his temples, breathing an enormous sigh .
“…Well, now they really will bring you in . You should be thrilled, you’ll live a long and happy life . That’s some great luck . ”
I tilt my head curiously when he tells me that getting brought in by the church is good luck . Benno broods over something, ignoring the fact that I don’t really understand what he means . He suddenly raises his head, looking straight at me with utter seriousness .
“Maïne, what would you say to signing a magical contract with me? Saying that the goods you produce will be sold through this shop . ”
The sudden appearance of terms like “contract magic” immediately puts me on guard . Benno strokes his chin, looking at me .
“If we let things go as they are, you’ll be captured by the nobility . If we want to put them in check, we’ll need contract magic to do that . ”
“…When we did the contract magic before, were you maybe thinking that I was going to be captured by the nobility?”
“No, that was just insurance . I had no idea what kind of kids you were, so my first priority was to make sure I drew the boundaries as clearly as possible . …However, I did think there was a chance you had the devouring, and if you were going to live for a long time you’d need to make a contract with a noble . I thought it might be useful leverage against whatever nobleman you contracted with . ”
It seems that him making a magical contract with me and Lutz, who weren’t anywhere near his equals, was based on a hypothesis that the nobility might step in at some point .
“But I never made a contract with any nobles, though?”
“You haven’t made any contact with nobles until now, so you were able to make that decision yourself, but if you’re taken in by the temple then that’s all over . You need to start planning around being captured . I don’t think there’s a single noble alive that would pass up on the chance to take in a girl who invents things like you do and also has the devouring . Now, especially . ”
“What do you mean by ‘now’?”
“This is news that I’m only just starting to hear recently, but…” he says, lowering his voice a little . “The lord of this town has been proclaiming neutrality in this, saying it doesn’t have anything to do with him, so there hasn’t been a lot of impact here, but it sounds like the bigger, more central territories are caught up in an enormous power struggle . There’s a huge political purge happening, so the ranks of the nobility are really starting to thin out, or so I hear . ”
The conversation got really dangerous all of a sudden . I try to pull out my knowledge of history, but I can’t really make any guesses as to what kind of era we’re in in the first place or how things might actually unfold . I’m caught in a maelstrom with neither any information nor ability to take a step back and look at things from above .
“Of course, in order to fill up the holes that these nobles are leaving behind, members of branch families are being sought out, heirs are being adopted, and marriages are being held to build new ties and interests . All sorts of people, money, and things are going into motion . So, since there aren’t that many people, all of the outcast nobility that got sent off to be blue-robed priests and priestesses are being called back into noble society . Can you guess what’s happening to the temple now?”
Benno stares at me, and I tilt my head to the side . I look over to Mark and Lutz for help, but Mark is simply smiling demurely, and Lutz looks just as confused as I am .
“Umm, so is there something bad about what would happen if there’s no nobility in the temple? I don’t really know how the temple is organized, or what kind of work they do . Wouldn’t it be a good thing for the gray-robed priests if there’s fewer people around to work them so hard?”
“First of all, there would be fewer donations . Also, if there’s fewer people to use the orphans, then those orphans won’t have any work, and it’ll be difficult for them to even just keep living . ”
“That’s really bad, isn’t it?!” I blurt out, far louder than I was intending .
Benno sighs, shaking his head . “It gets worse . That chalice they had you touch? The priests call it a ritual object, but practically it’s a magical tool . The blue-robed priests and priestesses pour their mana into it when they use it for their spring prayers, but that power’s been dwindling . When that happens, the harvests don’t produce as much food . ”
I had no idea that that chalice was connected to such an absurdly important thing . I’d been startled by how it had glowed, but I was just thinking that it was purely an expensive, decorative thing, meant to show off the temple’s majesty . It’s a necessary tool for ensuring the existence of a bountiful harvest . If the harvest shrinks, then the people who will be hit the hardest are going to be poor people like me and Lutz .
“Before the coup, there were plenty of noble children sitting around . To the magic-monopolizing nobility, kids with the devouring were nothing more than eyesores . However, with fewer nobles, it becomes harder to make use of magical tools, so now kids with the devouring are extremely important to the temple . ”
“Um, sorry, but, what does the devouring have to do with magic?”
Benno’s jaw drops in sheer astonishment . He looks like he can’t believe what I’m asking him .
“Did you… seriously not know? The devouring is what happens when built-up mana in the body starts acting violently . ”
“Focusing mana into a magical tool how you make yourself able to control your power again . ”
“This is the first I’ve ever heard of it…”
It seems like I’m some sort of magical girl! Having tremendous magical powers is the kind of thing that reincarnation is supposed to get me, isn’t it? This is finally time for my grand reveal! I’ll blast away my enemies with my overflowing mana, and cast a tremendously flashy spell… wait, do I even have any enemies?
My thoughts drift off to a far away place thanks to this new information, but Benno bops me on the head, telling me to pay attention .
“It’s common for nobles with more powerful mana to be higher-ranked, and weaker mana to be lower-ranked . Plus, the poorer nobles don’t have enough money to get magical tools ready for all of their children . It’s not uncommon for a family to only keep the kids with the strongest magic around as their heirs, and send the rest of their kids off to the temple . ”
In other words, right now, the blue-robed priests in the temple are nobles whose parents weren’t able to raise them and had cast them out . Everyone would be in trouble if they weren’t there, but still, that’s a sad way to live .
“Ultimately, until now, the temple had been performing their miracles by just throwing bodies at the problem, since the nobles there didn’t have a whole lot of mana . However, now that there’s less and less of them, the burden on each person is a lot higher . If they’re not careful, they might wind up in a state where they don’t have enough mana to make everything work . How many blue-robed priests were there are your ceremony?”
“Ten, I think . ”
The memory of so many men proudly doing the Gl█co pose, destroying my sides, is still fresh in my mind .
“There’s usually twenty of them, but this time there were ten . Plus, since it’s the ones who have more mana that are getting called home, I bet you can guess how much mana the people who aren’t getting called back have . There’s no doubt about it: they’re so desperate that they’re practically begging on their hands and knees for someone with the devouring and lots of mana to show up . However, this is probably temporary . Keep in mind that there’s only a few years between this current thinning of the ranks and when any new nobles born after this point come of age . ”
If it’s a short period of time, then perhaps I could bargain based on an offer to donate mana to the temple? I wonder how readily they’d accept a deal where I exchanged mana for access to the library…
As I hum to myself, deep in thought, Benno somehow manages to walk around behind me without me noticing, and he starts grinding his fist into my skull .
“Are you even listening to me?!”
“Ow ow ow!”
“You have mana, money, and inventions . Have a little bit of self-awareness! You’d be the tastiest snack for the nobility!”
I straighten up when I hear how serious his tone is . Benno sighs, withdrawing his fist, then shakes his hand .
“That’s why I’m saying that making a contract before you get taken in by the nobility is the best thing to do for your sake . ”
“…What would the contract be for?”
“Guaranteeing that the goods you make will be sold through Lutz . ”
“Huh? What do we need that for?”
What this has to do with the devouring or the temple, I have no idea . I frown, wondering if he’s trying to take advantage of my confusion to secure some profit for himself . Benno, however, sits back down across from me, and starts to explain his thinking for me .
“Right now, this is just insurance . You’re careless, hasty, and thoughtless, and when that gets you caught up in some nobleman’s plans and dragged to the other side of the castle walls, this contract will guarantee that we can still communicate with you . Think of the case where you’re stuck in a contract with a nobleman, and we don’t have anything like this in place . You already know that in order to go inside the castle walls you need permission, right?”
“I do,” I reply .
Thanks to my work at the gates, I know that you need special authorization to enter the castle walls . I nod, and Benno gives me a small, wry smile .
“The guild master’s granddaughter will still be able to meet with her family, even after she goes inside the castle walls, because they’re merchants who have been recognized by the nobility . What about your family, though?”
I can answer with nothing but silence . The entire reason I didn’t make a contract with a nobleman is because I wouldn’t be able to see my family again . There’s no way I can answer that out loud .
“I can’t think of a single way your family would be able to get inside the castle walls . However, at the very least, if we have the ability to make magical contract that not even the nobility can interfere with, then why not make a connection with Lutz before the temple or the nobility manage to take you away? If you do that, then I can use that contract as a pretext to take Lutz into the walls . ”
My eyes open wide, and I look at Benno, then Lutz . When I make eye contact with them, they both nod at me .
“With Lutz as an intermediary, I can send you letters, verbal messages, or otherwise get in contact with you . You’ll be able to know how your family is doing . Best of all, I think, through Lutz’s information, your family won’t have to be so anxious about how you’re doing . Well, if you really wanted to make the contract with me instead, I don’t really care either way…”
“If I were to make it with you, I don’t think you’d really know much about how my family is doing, would you?”
I don’t want to imagine the possibility of being captured by the nobility, but, if that really did happen, then it wouldn’t be a bad thing for me to have already put things in place to be able to meet with Lutz . Freida had said something to that effect too, how even just being able to see her family was reassuring . However, is it really okay for me to be dragging Lutz into all of this?
“What do you think, Lutz?” I ask .
He shrugs . “I’d like to see the nobles’ quarter if I could, and I wouldn’t really mind being the person in charge of contacting you . I’d be worried if you were there all by yourself . I think I’d always have a headache, wondering what you’re getting yourself into . ”
It seems like he’d already decided he wanted to do this . However, this is a contract designed to keep the nobility in check . When I think of all of the extra burden Lutz would be put under if he was the other party in this contract, I can’t just follow along with this so easily .
“Making a contract like this isn’t something you should be doing so freely, is it? You might suffer, or experience some awful things, right? Plus, Mister Benno, aren’t you not really making any profit all of this? If Lutz gets hired somewhere else, wouldn’t that be it for you?”
When I taper my lips in dissatisfaction, Benno looks at me in amazement, sighs, and slowly shakes his head .
“You’re not in such a carefree position that you can be worried about other peoples’ safety . Lutz will profit from this, and that should be fine . ”
“How would Lutz be profiting off of this?”
“You don’t need to think about that . Think about what you stand to gain . Honestly, now that you’ve been given a written invitation, you don’t have very much time at all to get yourself ready . ”
Benno, who has much more information and a much broader view of things than I do, is plainly in much more of a hurry than I am . There’s a lot of things that will need to be done before I get taken in by the temple .
“First, you’ll need to establish the Maïne Workshop, register you with the merchant’s guild as its proprietor, and secure a market for your goods . If they changed how they were treating you when money got involved, then when you negotiate with the temple you’ll need to make sure you establish a way to make money . They’re strapped for cash as well, it seems, so depending on how negotiations go you’ll be able to work something out . ”
It’s true, that’s one of the benefits of having large amounts of money . Since their interactions with me got so much more polite as soon as I mentioned how much gold I could bring to bear, it would be best if I came to the table bringing money in order to protect myself . Also, even if I were to keep making things, if the temple takes all of it, then there won’t be anything left for me to profit from . I need an outlet for my goods that I can trust . Even though Benno has been constantly testing me and I keep bumbling into his traps, he’s still the most reliable partner that I have .
I nod, and he nods back .
“You’ll need to be careful of the fact that a single commoner isn’t worth much to a noble . If you can think of a path that will help you survive, secure it, and keep all of your routes of escape open . If you can think of any way to guarantee your life, any way at all, do it . Protect yourself . ”
“Yes, sir . ”
The head priest let me sit on his lap and read the scriptures to me and the temple master interacted with me so politely, so I can’t help but think that the two of them are fundamentally good people, but there’s no harm in making sure I’ve got guarantees and escape routes set up for myself . An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, after all . I’m vexed, though; I don’t have enough local common sense or information to know exactly how to prepare .
Benno watches me closely, then continues to speak .
“Right now there’s ten nobles in the temple, aren’t there? Don’t just let yourself be exploited by them . Find someone among them that you can use . If you get snatched up by the nobility, you’ll just be kept under their control until you die, so broaden your options, even just a little bit . Watch them carefully, then pick someone . Think . Don’t just float along aimlessly . Struggle to survive . ”
“Mister Benno, why’re you going so far for me…?”
These countermeasures that he’s laying out for me aren’t something that he could just spout off the top of his head without having carefully gathered information and given it a lot of thought . I can’t understand why he would go to all this effort for someone like me, especially now that I’m not going to be an apprentice at his shop .
“If you keep living, you’ll be making new products . If you’re connected to this shop, I’ll profit off of that . You’ll be able to get information out of this too, which you’ll turn into your own profit, won’t you? Just shut up and listen . ”
Benno starts to sulk, but Mark, standing behind him, laughs quietly, wearing a wry smile .
“Master Benno is simply worried about you . You could get into trouble or cause unexpected things to happen at any time, really; watching you is very hard on one’s heart . ”
“Shut up, Mark,” growls Benno, looking at Mark over his shoulder .
Mark gives him a thin smile, then continues to speak . “The children who usually apprentice at this store are generally taught all of the fundamentals by their own families . Until now, there haven’t been any children that he’s needed to watch over so closely . He’s certainly not treating you like he would treat his own children, but he does worry about you with the same care that he would have for any of his relatives’ children . Of course, the same applies to me as well . ”
“Thank you very much, Mister Mark,” I reply, deeply grateful .
When I convey my heartfelt gratitude, Benno interjects, sulking even harder . Mark and I exchange glances, and I can’t help but laugh .
“Of course I’m grateful to you too, Mister Benno! …So, please, help me with the contract magic and registering my workshop with the guild . ”