When I get home, my entire family is waiting for me, extremely worried looks on their faces . The instant I open the front door, Tuuli and my mother let out sighs of relief . My father looks relieved as well, for a moment, but then raises his voice angrily .
“Do you have any idea what time it is?! How worried did you want us to get?”
“Sorry for making you worry, Daddy . ”
Since I had stayed out so late after listening to Benno telling me all those things about the temple, I fully recognize just how deeply worried my father must have been, so I immediately apologize . I take a sidelong glance at the dinner already sitting out on the table as I head towards the bedroom to put down my things . Now that I’ve gotten home, both my hunger and fatigue have suddenly caught up to me .
“I went to the temple, then I went to Mister Benno’s shop, and then I went to the merchants’ guild . That took so much time . I’m tired, and I’m really hungry, too . ”
I wash my hands and slowly make my way to the table . My father narrows his eyes at me, eyebrows knitted tightly together .
“So just what happened, then?”
My father’s question seems to be the one on the entire family’s mind . Both my mother and Tuuli look at me uneasily .
“I’ll tell you everything, but can I eat first? I’m hungry, and it’s a long story . ”
“…Alright . ”
Everyone eats their dinner in gloomy silence, whether it’s because they’re caught up in brooding over things or just because they’re dissatisfied with having to wait until after dinner . I wrack my brains, looking for a cheerful topic of conversation, and suddenly find one . If I talk about Corinna, we’ll surely have at least a slightly more lively conversation .
“Hey, um, Mommy . Today, when I went to Mister Benno’s shop, he asked me to tell you something . He said that Miss Corinna wanted to see the dress I wore to the baptismal ceremony and my hairpin, too . Can I show them to her?”
My mother drops her soup spoon, and it clatters noisily as it hits her bowl . Her eyes go wide and she starts looking around the room frantically, her face turning bright red as she starts frantically shaking her head .
“W… what?! Th… that’s not something that I’d be fine showing Miss Corinna at all!”
“…Oh, okay . I’ll tell Mister Benno you said no, then . ”
I thought that she might be a little bit hesitant, but I had no clue that she’d give such an adamant rejection . I feel bad for making my mother this flustered, so it’s probably best that we turn down the request .
Even though I thought I was being kind by saying that, it only served to make my mother even more flustered . She frantically waves her hands, her eyes darting around everywhere .
“N… no, wait, Maïne! We can’t just refuse . Hold on a bit . Aaargh, I can’t decide how to answer!”
My mother is in complete shambles . It seems like she’s happy that Corinna is praising her, but because she’s dealing with someone so spectacularly above her in society, she has no idea how to react . I smile a little, having figured out what she’s thinking . Seeing her like this, so far from her usual demeanor, is pretty funny, and also a little cute . I amuse myself watching her panic, muttering to herself as she flips back and forth between all her options while her dinner goes untouched before her . Tuuli, sitting next to me, pokes me in the arm .
“Hey, Maïne . Does that mean you’re going to bring it to her house?”
Since my mother herself said that we can’t refuse, then it’s probably safe to assume that she’s decided that we’ll be showing Corinna my dress and hairpin . I don’t know if my mother would come along, or if it would just be me, but someone is going to have to bring them to her . There’s probably no way that she’d come here to see them .
Tuuli looks at me with wide eyes that glitter with radiant hope, hands clasped in front of her chest . I tilt my head curiously, wondering why she’s deploying her strongest, most maximally cute begging style .
“Can I come too, this time?”
Last time, when I delivered the rinsham to Corinna, the written invitation was addressed only to me . Tuuli, who had wanted to go, had to stay behind and keep an eye on the house . This time, though, we weren’t sent an actual written invitation . So, when I go to Benno to deliver our reply, then maybe it would be okay if I ask if Tuuli could come along as well .
“Miss Corinna is really nice, so I don’t think she’d say no if you came too, but… if I tell her in advance that you were the one who made the really big flower on my hairpin, then I think she’d say yes . ”
“You’re the best, Maïne! I love you!”
The pure, innocent delight that shines from her face is astoundingly cute . As expected of our angel . To her, an apprentice seamstress, an established and charismatic seamstress like Corinna would obviously be someone to admire .
As I look at Tuuli, my heart warming, my mother suddenly holds out her hand .
“Hold on, you two . Please hold on . I haven’t even decided if we’re going yet…”
“Huh? But you said we weren’t going to refuse, though?”
“Well, yes, but, see…”
The words falling out of my frantic mother’s mouth seem to have lost all meaning .
“I think that Miss Corinna would have questions for the person who actually sewed the dress,” I say, “but… if you really don’t want to go, then you don’t have to, you know?”
When I imply that only Tuuli and I would be going, my mother immediately shakes her head .
“When did I say that I didn’t want to go?”
“Okay!” I say, smiling widely . “Then I’ll tell Mister Benno that all three of us will come . ”
My mother is at a loss for words . Tuuli looks at her and giggles . I can’t help but start giggling too . My mother sighs resignedly, then laughs as well . My father, watching the three of us, smiles, but it’s a complicated smile, like he’s not laughing along .
“Now then,” says my mother, once dinner has been cleaned up and tea has been served, “I think you had some things you were going to tell us . ”
In an instant, the cheerful mood vanishes and the room grows heavy . Everyone looks at me, urging me to start talking .
“Ummm, let’s start from what happened at the temple . I told them that I wasn’t going to be a priestess, but then when they found out that I had the devouring, they said they wanted to speak to my parents and gave me this invitation . It’s for the day after tomorrow, on the third bell . ”
When my father looks at the wooden slip I pull from my bag, his face goes completely white . Since he works as a gatekeeper, he probably has seen countless written invitations like this before, and probably knows all too well what kind of meaning a written invitation from the temple master, a noble, carries .
He stares at the official order of summons, his lips tight . “Maïne, what did you do?!”
“I didn’t really do anything . All I did was talk, and they read the scriptures to me–”
“You had a nobleman read to you? You–”
“–I mean,” I say, pouting, “I didn’t know that the head priest was a noble!”
When I go on to explain how I made the chalice shine, I can see in both of my parents’ faces that all life has left their bodies . It seems like this is far more than they can bear . I wave my hands in front of their empty eyes, tilting my head curiously .
“Can I keep going?”
My father comes back to his senses with a start . He shakes his head vigorously, as if to clear it .
“Yeah, keep going,” he says, scratching his head .
“After I went to the temple, I went to Mister Benno’s shop . Mister Benno knows a lot more about the devouring than me, and also knows a lot about the temple and the nobles, so he taught me a lot of things . ”
“What kind of things?”
I glance around the table and see everyone looking at me suspiciously . I nod, and take a long, slow breath, in and out .
“So, um, he said that the fever is caused by mana . And that means that I’m not going to be able to get away from the temple or from the nobles . ”
My mother and Tuuli clap their hands over their mouths, quivering in terror . I don’t know if they’re scared because it turns out I have magic, or if it’s because of the authority of the temple, but either way, I avert my eyes and continue .
“But, if there’s magical tools at the temple, then if I go there I can live longer . ”
My father, my mother, and Tuuli all look at me with a mix of hope and fear . When I see them looking at me with worried eyes, not with fear over my having mana, all of the built-up tension leaves my body .
“Hey, Maïne,” says Tuuli . “If you go to the temple, then even if you live a lot longer, we won’t be able to see you, right?”
“At this rate, yeah…”
Tuuli’s eyes start filling with tears as she shakes her head desperately .
“What’s different from you being locked up by a nobleman, then?” says my father, sounding like he’s choking the words out . “I don’t want to send you to the temple . ”
It’s true, if things keep going along the same path that they have been, then there’s no reasonable outcome besides me being taken in as a gray-robed sister-in-training in exchange for my mana and my donation . It’s an outcome that is nothing but good for the temple .
“Hey, Daddy . Do you know what’s happening in the other parts of the country? Did you hear about the coup, and how all the nobles are being shuffled around differently?”
“There was a merchant saying something like that a few days ago . I’m a gatekeeper, so I hear about sorts of things, but… that doesn’t have anything to do with this, right?”
As I wonder if Benno might have heard about this through Otto, I shake my head .
“That’s why I’m being told to go to the temple . There’s not as many nobles around right now, and the temple needs mana in order to do their jobs . I don’t really know if what Mister Benno said is true or not, but you would, wouldn’t you?”
My father’s breath catches in his throat, like he’d just remembered something . He strokes his chin, eyes cast down, thinking about something .
“The nobles are definitely scattering to other places, hm . I’ve been seeing nobles leave, but lately, I haven’t been seeing any come back . ”
“So Mister Benno was right about that?” I mutter to myself . “Okay, then in that case, I think we can make this work . ”
“What do you mean?” asks my mother . The entire family leans forward expectantly .
“Mister Benno said that I was lucky . The temple is in trouble because it doesn’t have many nobles left, so he said that I might be able to negotiate things so that I can get treated more like a noble . ”
“Tell me everything,” says my father . He has the serious, fierce look in his eyes that I’ve seen when he’s at work .
I spell out everything that Benno told me in the finest detail that I can, in a way to make it easy to understand . I also tell them about the magical contract and the fact that my workshop has now been registered .
“…So, although I don’t know if it’ll work until we try it, Mister Benno thinks that we might be able to play up how weak I am and get them to both treat me well and let me come and go as I want . He says that with the way things are for them right now, we should be able to get those kinds of concessions out of them . He told me that I need to struggle for my life . ”
My father’s eyes gleam . “Struggle for your life, huh? Now’s a great time to think like that, isn’t it?”
“Yeah . ”
Emphasizing both my ability to provide them with magical power and my weakness, get them to treat me more like a noble .
Emphasizing both my weakness and my love for my parents, get them to allow me to come and go .
Emphasizing my ability to bring in money, get them to allow me to continue operating my workshop .
“I’ve got other, more selfish goals, like being able to browse the library and avoid having to do any heavy labor, but even if we can only get those three down then I’d call that a win, I think . ”
“Got it . Let’s give that a shot . I became a soldier to protect all of the families in this town . If I can’t protect my own family, then what am I protecting? I’m going to do my absolute best to make sure you get to live . ”
His eyes burning with passion, my father gives me a confident grin, wearing the expression of a man with a hard battle before him .
The next day, both of my parents go to their workplaces to ask for the day off . After how much I did the day before, it’s only natural that I could barely move, so I took the day to rest .
The day after that is the day that we are to be summoned by the temple . My parents put on their only nice set of clothes, I put on the apprentice’s clothing that I have been using to go to Benno’s shop, and the three of us head towards the temple .
“Keep me safe,” I tell my father .
Like I’d seen the soldiers do at the gate, I make a fist, then bend my elbow as if flexing my bicep . My father looks down at me in amazement, watching me do what the soldiers do when they wish each other a victorious battle, then smirks . He makes a fist and bends his elbow as well, then strikes my fist with his own .
“Leave it to me,” he says .
It seems that people at the temple gates have already been told to expect us, because gray-robed priests are already there to guide us through the temple, leading us to the temple master’s room . We cut through the worship hall and through the part of the temples where commoners would be lodged, straight towards the area used by the nobility .
The corridors around us gradually grow more grand as we pass through them . My father is full of determination, his temples quivering and his fists tightly clenched . My mother, looking nervously at my father’s expression, is pale with tension . I glance at the hand she’s holding mine with, and see that all the muscles on it are standing out, quivering .
“Father Bösewanz,” says the gray-robed priest, “the girl Maïne and her parents have come to see you . ”
The priest opens the door for us . Inside, the temple master and head priest are seated at the table, waiting for us . In addition, behind the table are four gray-robed priests, standing in a line .
I hadn’t known that they were orphans the other day, but even when I look at them knowing that now, they’re still so well-groomed that I wouldn’t be able to tell . I wonder if the treatment they get here isn’t actually all that bad? Either that or people serving as the attendants of nobles are required to have a neat personal appearance .
“Good morning, Father,” I say to the temple master .
“Ah, Maïne,” he greets me .
Just as I remembered, he looks like a kindly old man when he greets me . However, when he looks at my parents, his eyes widen . He looks at them in disbelief, fists trembling .
“And these are… your parents, if I’m not mistaken?” he says .
“Yes, that’s correct . ”
“And what might their occupations be?”
“My father is a soldier, and my mother is a dyer . ”
When I give him my answer, he looks them over, scrutinizing them so closely that it’s rather impolite . Then, he snorts dismissively, looking down his nose at them . Even though he hasn’t said anything, I can immediately tell that he’s looking down on them, thinking of them as mere commoners .
I blink, shocked by how quickly his demeanor changed .
There is not a trace of the kindly old man I saw a moment ago in this man’s expression as he suddenly starts sneering at us . I am suddenly faced with the reality of how wide the gulf is between our social status, and understand entirely that the entire reason he had been so kindly towards me was because of my money .
“Alright, well, let’s get this over with quickly . ”
Without offering a greeting, without beckoning us to the table, while we are still standing just inside the room, he moves straight into the order of business . I wonder if this might be an ordinary sort of thing, but when I compare this sort of behavior to the kind temple master I’d known so far, I can’t help but frown .
The head priest, sitting next to the temple master, is keeping his face neutral, so I can’t see any of the same sort of disdain in his eyes . However, he doesn’t seem inclined to stop the temple master, merely content to watch, expressionless . The temple master clears his throat, raising his eyebrows in a very self-important manner as he opens his mouth to speak .
“I know Maïne had some interest in becoming a sister-in-training, but it seems like you have some sort of objections . ”
“That’s correct, sir,” says my father . “I don’t have any intention to put my beloved daughter in the same conditions as orphans . ”
My father is quietly returning the temple master’s dismissive stare with an intensity like sparks flying, but the temple master doesn’t seem to take any notice, ignoring my father’s attitude as he idly strokes his beard .
“Hmph . That might be the case, but Maïne has the devouring . That means that if she doesn’t get magical tools, she won’t live much longer . There’s magical tools here at the temple . If you have any compassion, you’ll let her join the temple . ”
This is clearly an order, with no room for negotiation . His snide tone and his rude demeanor are very oppressive and I, unused to this sort of social stratification, can’t help but get irritated . I can tell that I’m not the only one getting irritated at how clearly we’re being looked down on, because my father twitches a little before he replies .
“I must refuse . I will not let Maïne live in the same conditions as orphans . ”
“That’s correct,” adds my mother . “Even if she didn’t have the devouring, she’s still very frail . She collapsed twice during the baptismal ceremony, and after that was laid out with a fever for several days . She can’t survive here in the temple . ”
My mother’s hands are tense as she replies, ready to protect me . Refusing something a command like this despite the tremendous difference in social stature is basically putting their very lives on the line . Naturally, the temple master hadn’t expected to be so openly refused, let alone by both parents . He grows bright red with rage, all the way to the top of his balding head .
“How impertinent! Be obedient and hand over your daughter!”
This man is acting so indecently that I can’t even imagine that he could be a clergyman in any sort of church at all . My breath catches in my throat . I know that what we commoners are supposed to do when facing a nobleman like this is obediently bow our heads, but I really don’t want to acknowledge it . My father seems to be trembling in anger, but not a trace of it shows in his voice as he calmly refuses a second time .
“I must refuse . There are many orphans here at the temple . They are worked hard, used as playthings, and ultimately discarded . I absolutely will not allow my daughter to be thrown into the midst of that . ”
When my father says that, my mother grips my hand painfully hard, nodding firmly . I’m so happy and proud of them that I can’t help but smile, but it looks like these words have only thrown oil onto the temple master’s fire .
“You dare!” he yells . He looks over his shoulder at the gray-robed priests standing behind him . “Seize these impertinent parents, and lock up the girl!”
I don’t know if he’s being too hasty or if he isn’t even thinking about this conversation anymore, but after having suddenly escalated the situation he stands up, quickly enough that his chair falls behind him .
“Stand back,” says my father .
He steps in front of me and my mother as the gray-robed priests come toward us . Thanks to the table between them and us, they can’t charge us all at once, so they come at us seconds apart from each other .
The temple master looks at my father as he quickly adopts a fighting stance, and gives him an irritated smirk . “If you dare to strike a priest, then you shall be executed in the name of the gods!”
“If it’s what I have to do to protect Maïne, then I’m ready to face the consequences . ”
He launches his fist directly into the stomach of the first priest to reach him, then when the priest starts to double over in pain, brings his knee up hard, directly into the man’s jaw, knocking him immediately unconscious . The second priest tries to get behind him, but he swings around, catching the man in the temple with the back of his fist before launching another kick .
With strike after strike, he unhesitatingly went for their vitals, the clearly incompetent priests no match for his fluid, trained motions . There is no way that these priests, who spend most of their time taking care of nobles, could possibly be any match for my father, who has practiced fighting for countless hours as a soldier . The remaining two priests, perhaps unused to this kind of violence, look terrified of my father, inching backwards away from him .
“Hmph, you can fight one or two people, but how many can you really hold out against?”
The temple master sneers at my fathers resolve, throwing open the door to the room . I don’t know how he managed to summon them, but on the other side of the door are at least ten more priests, and all of them immediately rush into the room . When I see how victorious the temple master looks, something inside of me snaps .
That is enough!
My entire body flushes with heat, like my blood is suddenly boiling . Despite that, my mind remains clear, a strange serenity wrapping my thoughts . My anger has flooded every cell of my body .
“‘You dare’, hm? That’s my line . Do not touch my parents . ”
When I take a step forward, the smugly-smiling temple master, the head priest who had been quietly observing this entire time, the priests pouring into the room… all of them, for some reason, turn to me in sudden fright .