Although my body seethes with a boiling fever, my head is cool and clear . I feel like my body is lighter than ever . When I stare directly at the temple master, haughtily standing by the door, I can clearly see all the blood drain from his face, turning him ghastly pale .
Well, if you get like this just from being stared at, maybe you shouldn’t have threatened me with such horrible things, hm? Idiot .
“Maïne, your mana is leaking out . Control your emotions!”
The head priest, perhaps having seen the temple master quickly lose all color, stands up with a sudden clatter, face tight as he calls to me . I, hearing an unexpected voice from an unexpected direction, turn my gaze from the temple master towards the head priest . The instant the temple master leaves my field of vision, the sound of him collapsing heavily to the floor reaches my ears .
It seems like now that I’ve looked away, the gray-robed priests who had been standing stock still, like they had been stitched to the spot, are suddenly free to move . I hear them rush over to the temple master, frantically asking if he’s okay . The sound of their voices echoes distantly in my ears as I look toward the head priest .
“And just how do you expect me to do that?” I snarl at him, tilting my head to the side .
He moans, clutching at his chest . “Urgh… like… you usually do?”
“You called me out here to have a friendly conversation, and then suddenly start shouting orders and attacking us, and then when we dare to defend ourselves you threaten us with the death penalty . Please, enlighten me, how might I control my anger? I don’t quite understand how . ”
I snort disdainfully as I look away from the head priest and focus my gaze once again on the temple master . He sits, slumped against the wall . Unlike before, he can’t even bring himself to meet my eyes . He whimpers, terror written plainly on his features, and I can’t help but laugh a little, putting a bit of my rage behind .
What a funny face .
This isn’t the face of a kindly old man, nor the face of an arrogant noble . This is the face of a man who looks at a weak little girl and cowers like he’s seeing a monster . I get a little irritated at how this many-faced temple master can’t seem to stay anything to me, and take a single step forward .
“G… get away! Get away from me! Don’t come any closer!”
His breathing is ragged as he yells at me, like he’s in great pain . He’s just saying the same thing over and over, like he’s so panicked he can’t even come up with anything else to say .
Over my right shoulder, I hear the head priest hurriedly calling out to me .
“Please, wait! If you keep letting your emotions control your mana like this, Father Bösewanz’s heart will give out!”
“Hmmm?” I say, taking one slow, measured step after another towards the temple master . “I don’t mind if he dies, though . If he lives, then he’s going to have my mother and father killed, isn’t he? So perhaps he should die before he has the chance to do that . If you’re willing to kill someone, aren’t you supposed to be prepared to be killed yourself? Perhaps you should be happy about this! Aren’t you next in line for his position if he dies?”
With my fourth step forward, the temple master goes limp, his eyes wide and mouth frothing . In the next instant, the head priest steps in to block my view . He kneels down in front of me . He grits his teeth as if in great pain, a cold sweat dripping down his face, but looks at me with a very serious expression .
“Let us talk . ”
“‘Talk’? You mean with our fists? Ah, or perhaps with our magic?”
The head priest’s eyes open wide, and he starts coughing violently . A bit of blood leaks from the corner of his mouth . I am captivated by the sight of the bright red drop .
“Don’t kill him,” he says . “If you kill Father Bösewanz, your entire family will be killed by the nobles . I don’t think that is what you want, is it?”
His words give me a moment of clarity . I can’t let my desire to protect my parents run so rampant that I get my entire family executed . I blink, rapidly, and a long, exhausted sigh slips through the head priest’s lips .
“Have you come to your senses?” he says .
“…Probably . ”
The head priest slumps with relief . He pulls a handkerchief out of his breast pocket, wipes his mouth, and straightens his disheveled bangs . And, with that, he looks as cool and composed as he would have been if nothing had ever happened at all .
“Let’s have a conversation,” he says . “Like you want . ”
“And you’ll actually listen to all of our demands?”
He flinches, then lightly shakes his head . He lays a hand on my shoulder .
“…If you want that to happen, I need you to get your mana under control . Do you think you can do that?”
I take in a slow, deep breath, gathering up all of the heat that had spread throughout my body and compressing it deep down, back into my heart . This is something I do a lot, but I can’t help but feel like there’s more of the devouring fever than I thought there would be .
Ah, but it’s not the devouring fever, though . It’s mana?
I tell myself that it doesn’t matter either way as I finish tidying up the last of it and sealing it tightly away . In that instant, all of the strength leaves my body, and I collapse like a puppet with its strings cut .
“Oop,” says the head priest, reaching out to catch me as I crumple in front of him, saving me from falling to the floor .
“Are you okay?!”
My parents rush over, and the head priest picks me up, handing me to them . My mother kneels down and takes me, hugging me tightly against her . My father nervously looks down at me, eyes filled with worry as I dangle limply in my mother’s grasp .
“I’m okay,” I say . “The devouring fever went wild for a bit so my temperature went up and down very fast, that’s all . It happens all the time . I’m still wide awake . ”
“It happens all the time?” says my father, uneasy . “That?”
I manage a small smile . “It’s rare for my emotions to run wild like that, but half a year ago when it looked like the devouring was going to swallow me up, my fever was going wild quite often . ”
While I talk to my parents, the head priest stands up and talks to the priests, giving them instructions on how to deal with the present situation . He asks some of them to look after the temple master, and others to go prepare a room for us to have our discussion in .
“You two, get Father Bösewanz into his bed, then go to your rooms and rest as well . Taking that much magical coercion head-on must have left you exhausted . ”
“But Father Ferdinand, what about you…?”
As the worried-sounding priest says, the person who should be the most exhausted here isn’t any of the priests that had been off to the side, but the head priest himself . He’d stepped between me and the temple master, putting himself directly in front of me, and met me eye-to-eye as we talked .
“Are you… really okay?” I ask without thinking, suddenly remembering the blood leaking from the corner of his mouth .
The head priest looks at me, startled, then smiles wryly . “This is my punishment,” he says . “I had no idea just how much mana someone who had managed to survive the devouring up until their baptism might have, yet I sat quietly aside as Father Bösewanz made you so angry . It’s only natural . ”
Now that he’s finished giving instructions, he walks slowly over to me . Now that he’s closer, I can hear just how ragged his breathing really is . It’s plain to see how hard he’s pushing himself .
“Why were you just observing?”
“I had been thinking that it would be best for us if we could get you to join the temple without any extra conditions . It would save a lot of trouble for us, and I must confess I was a little greedy over what we would gain from the arrangement . I hadn’t even considered that your parents, commoners, would have ever refused an order from a nobleman, let alone be prepared to face capital punishment in order to protect you . ”
As the head priest murmurs about how far out of his expectations this was, my father narrows his eyes at him .
“Maïne is our precious daughter . How many times do I have to tell you this, sir?”
The head priest looks down at me . He smiles a complicated smile, with hints of self-recrimination and a thought that he had looked at something terribly radiant . He gently strokes my head as I rest in my mother’s arms .
“…Maïne, I am quite honestly jealous of how loved you are by your parents . After all, those of us here at the temple, whether we are orphans or noblemen, are people whose parents did not need . ”
These incredibly sad words, said to me in this dazzlingly extravagant room, will stay in my heart for the entire time I stay at the temple .
With the temple master put to bed, we relocate to the head priest’s room so that we can have our conversation . The basic arrangement of the room and the quality of the furniture is the same as the temple master’s, but there’s no display shelf here . In its place is what appears to be a work desk, covered with wooden boards and pieces of parchment . It seems like the head priest is responsible for singlehandedly managing the practical business of the temple .
This time, we’re properly asked to take a seat at the table . Since I still can’t move my body at all, I am propped up on a sofa . Then, we begin our discussion .
“On a previous note,” says my father, “you mentioned ‘coercion’, right? May I ask what that might be? Maïne’s eyes were glowing with a rainbow light, and yellow mist was rising off of her…”
What the hell?! I had no idea that such bizarre phenomena was happening! Rainbow eyes and weird mist, what the hell?!
My eyes almost pop out of their sockets when I hear him say that . I’m the only one who didn’t know about it (or, rather, hadn’t seen it), so my silent astonishment goes largely unnoticed and the conversation quickly continues .
“It’s a phenomenon that occurs when one’s emotions run rampant . Mana is circulated through the body and activated, and a coercive effect is applied to anyone that one considers to be an enemy . It’s something that happens frequently in children who have a hard time controlling their emotions; surely you’ve seen it at least once?”
My parents look at each other, trying to remember .
“I’ve seen her eyes change colors a few times,” says my mother . “Usually when she’s acting spoiled . It was never something that I’d describe as ‘coercion’, though . She usually settled down when I told her she was being unreasonable . ”
“Come to think of it,” says my father, “there was one time when she’d gone to the forest to make something, then Fey and the others destroyed it . I think that was the first time I saw it . It was a little intimidating . ”
My parents are having a lively conversation as they start remembering things, but I, the third party to this conversation, am only growing more and more intensely aware of my own strangeness . I’m pretty sure a little girl whose eyes change colors and starts to give off an intimidating vibe whenever she started being unreasonable would be described as, quite frankly, creepy .
It wouldn’t have been strange for them to get rid of me . Man, they’ve taken great care to try to raise me right…
“The amount of influence depends on the amount of mana used,” says the head priest, “so it’s likely that the difference in power compared to those previous incidents is caused by Maïne having gradually gained more and more mana . Please, take care not to cause her to run wild like that in the future . ”
“If nothing extraordinary happens,” I say, “I won’t lose control of my emotions . ”
When I indirectly point blame at the temple master for causing me to lose control, the head priest stares at me for a moment, narrowing his eyes .
“I’d heard that having the devouring generally means that someone has a comparatively large amount of mana, but I hadn’t thought that you’d be able to release so much that your coercion would cause the temple master to faint . …If I may ask, how are you still alive?”
I don’t know how to answer that one . I tilt my head, not fully understanding the question, and the head priest starts to explain .
“You need to have a force of will that is stronger than the mana you are trying to keep bottled up . For a child who doesn’t know that they must keep their emotions in check, the amount of mana that they can endure with their fragile wills is quite frankly not very large . If a child is born with strong magic, they die quickly . Since the amount of mana one possesses multiplies as one grows older, the magical strength of a child who has survived all the way to their baptism is not anything to fear . It is odd that someone with magic as powerful as yours has survived for as long as you have . ”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve been close to death . A very kind person sold me a broken magical tool, once, which allowed me to live a little longer . ”
The original Maïne died two years ago . Then, if Freida hadn’t saved me, I would probably have died half a year ago . Like the head priest says, making it all the way to my baptism while having the devouring was no easy task .
“I see . But did you not wish to have this kind person help you find a noble with which to make a contract? Without a contract you wouldn’t be able to continue living . Granted, it is only because you did not make such a contract that you were able to meet us like this, but I can’t help but wonder why you would have made this choice . ”
He really does look curious . I tilt my head to the side as well .
“If making a contract with a noble means I’ll be locked away, there’s not much point to living anymore, is there? I wanted to stay with my family . I wanted to make books . I wanted to live for my own sake, because otherwise it would be meaningless . ”
“…Living for your own sake… I simply can’t understand thinking like that . ”
He shakes his head, takes a slow breath to steady himself, then looks at me, my mother, and my father in turn before opening his mouth to speak .
“Maïne, I wish for you to join the temple . This is not an order, but a request . ”
“I heard from a merchant that the number of nobles here in the temple has been decreasing, so you don’t have enough mana, correct? Is it really true that you use magic to help the crops grow?”
“…What a well-informed merchant . Well, alright then . ”
It seems that somehow Benno managed to acquire accurate information . If that’s the case, then the lack of mana really will have terrible, far-reaching effects .
“Can you not cooperate with the other nobility?” I ask .
“There are various other magical tools that must be kept running in order to protect the city . The fundamental basis of our city’s defenses are its magical tools, after all . ”
I’d been wondering why the other nobles weren’t bothering to help, but it seems like they’ve got other things that they need to do .
“The temple master being who he is,” says the head priest, “the majority of the practical business of running the temple falls to me . It is very unusual for a child with the devouring to have as much mana as you do . As promised, I’ll accommodate you as best as I can . ”
“Dad, I’ll leave it to you . ”
He’s taking our conditions seriously . Now it’s time for my father, the head of the house, to take over . My mother gently strokes my head . “You look so tired . You should rest now,” she says, but I must make sure I stay awake to listen . This conversation is all about my future; if I don’t pay proper attention, Benno’s going to smack me on the head again . As I continue to recline on the couch, I watch my father’s discussion with the head priest closely .
“Then, sir, here are our conditions,” says my father . “If what you need most from Maïne is her mana, then we would like for her to be treated more like a noble priest . She absolutely cannot be put to the same work as the gray-robed priests . ”
The head priests nods, not having to give it much thought .
“I’ll have a special blue outfit prepared for her . She’ll have the same duties as the younger nobles, which largely consist of tending to the magical tools here . This is what I was originally intending to suggest, had the temple master not gone so wild, so I have no objections . How would it sound if I were to have her both tend to the magical tools and, as she has requested, work in the library as well?”
My opinion of the head priest, who is offering me permission to enter the library with no strings attached, is skyrocketing .
He may have a cool demeanor, but he risked his own well-being to stop me, he’s skilled enough to singlehandedly manage the temple’s affairs, he read the scriptures to me, he’s letting me into the library, he’s letting me into the library, he’s letting me into the library!
“Father Ferdinand, you’re such a good person!”
It seems my deeply heartfelt joy did not reach him . He and my father give me a single, fleeting glance, and then simply return to their conversation .
“Next, if our daughter were to be kept here at the temple out of our sight, we would be constantly worried sick . We would like for her to be able to come home . We don’t have any intention of giving her up . ”
“…Hmm, I see . Since Maïne is not an orphan, she should be able to go home . Practically, many of the nobility here have homes to go back to as well, so this shouldn’t pose any problems . ”
“Pardon me,” says my mother, “but Maïne is very frail, so she won’t be able to perform her duties every day . Is there something you can do about this?”
My mother lightly covers my mouth with one hand, prohibiting me from speaking, as she moves the conversation forward .
“There’s no need for her to push herself when she’s not feeling up to it . You implied that she’s able to go to the forest when she’s well enough; she’s not incapable of moving, is she?”
Frustrated at myself for having spoken out of turn before, I shake my head, making eye contact with the head priest .
“Even if I’m feeling okay, it’s pointless if I don’t have Lutz with me . ”
“Lutz? The boy who came to pick you up the other day?”
“Yes, sir . He’s always been helping me manage my health . If he’s not with me, I often collapse suddenly and my fever comes back . I need to have someone to help me with managing my condition . ”
Before I can continue onto my next thought, which would have been that I’ll only be able to come at Lutz’s convenience on days when my health is good, the head priest nods . Without saying anything, he jots something down on a nearby board .
“Ahh, so you’ll be needing attendants? I have no objections there . Blue-robed priests and priestesses generally have several assigned to them . ”
Did he just say “attendants”? Having several people assigned to me would actually be really hard on me, though?
As I sit there in mute bewilderment, the head priest looks away from me, glancing at my parents .
“Do you have any objections so far? Any further conditions?”
He’s absolutely fine making whatever compromise he needs to . It seems like Benno was right: these people will do anything to make sure that I join the temple .
“Um,” I say, “Father Ferdinand . I’m currently registered with the merchants’ guild . Will I be able to continue operating my workshop?”
“…The temple master must have told you that you’ll have no use for that while in service of the gods . ”
This is the first thing he’s disapproved of . He frowns intensely, deep in thought . Just as Benno taught me, I start to negotiate .
“…However, I’ve been operating this workshop forever . It’s my main source of income . You run an orphanage here, don’t you? If I hired the orphan children to work for a wage, and set aside some of the profits from my products to donate to the church, could we possibly work something out?”
Unlike the temple master, who I’m sure would have rejected me without a second thought, the head priest is in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the temple . This, of course, must include their accounting . As Benno said, with fewer nobles, there are fewer donations coming in, so the temple must be in need of money . As I watch him, waiting patiently for his answer, he sighs, rubbing his temples . “Just how much do you know?” he mutters, sadly .
“…Very well . We’ll have a more detailed discussion in the future about the percentage of your profits that you’ll be setting aside, then put that in writing . As of now, I don’t have enough information to be able to talk about this . ”
“I understand . Let’s leave talking about donations and money until a later date . ”
I don’t really want to have the conversation about donations in front of my parents . The head priest, perhaps noticing this, quirks one eyebrow, but says nothing, instead looking back at my parents again .
“Any other conditions?”
“No, sir . If she’s given blue robes, is allowed to live at home, and can keep an eye on her health, then as her parents we have no objections . Thank you for your consideration . ”
When we finished our discussion, the head priest invites us to lunch . However, the three of us leave immediately, with my mother saying that it would be best for us to let the head priest get some rest . As we pass through the towering gates of the temple, I see the refreshingly clear, blue skies spreading out before me, and I’m struck with a renewed sense of liberation . I’ve solved all of the problems that have been plaguing me .
We head home, my father carrying me in his arms . We walk in silence for a while, but when the central plaza comes into view, signaling that we’ve returned to our usual sphere of existence, my father murmurs, “We did it, huh…”
“Yeah,” I reply .
“We just won, didn’t we?” he says, expressionlessly .
I give him my biggest smile, nodding vigorously . “Yeah! A really big win . Mom, Dad, thank you for protecting me . ”
I finally have recovered a bit of my strength, so I make a loose fist and bend my elbow . My father, breaking into his usual smile, holds me in one arm, and makes a fist with his other .
“Nah, you were the one protecting us, weren’t you? With that ‘coercion’ thing . ”
“Nuh-uh, that just me getting so mad that my fever went wild . I don’t really remember it that well . ”
Chuckling to each other, my father and I tap our fists together . We managed to get every single one of our demands met, though the financial conversation will come later . I’ll have to talk to Benno about that and come up with a really solid plan so that I can definitely win next time, too .
“I’m a little relieved myself,” says my mother . “Since that head priest is there, I’m sure things will turn out alright . ”
I tilt my head curiously . Certainly, the head priest seems like a very capable person, but I don’t know why looking at him would set my mother’s mind at ease .
“He stopped you, didn’t he? You always just take off running in whatever direction you please, so not having anyone to stop you would be terrible . Even if something happens that makes your mana go wild, you’ll have someone there to hold you down and scold you . That’s a very important thing . ”
That’s exactly the kind of reason I would expect my mother to give . I can easily imagine my days at the temple being full of the head priest scolding me with my mother’s full approval .
“…He’s going to get mad at me a lot . ”
Both of my parents laugh at my prediction .
I think about how if I hadn’t been able to stop the temple master, I wouldn’t be looking at this scene right now . I let out a sigh, relieved that I’m actually able to return home with my family .
I’m so glad . I went a little wild, but I didn’t mess up .
We turn off of the main road and head along the narrow alleyway that leads to our building . When the plaza comes into view, I see Tuuli, pacing nervously by the water well, obviously waiting for us to come home .
“Tuuli!” I call out, beaming broadly .
“Maïne! You’re okay! You really came home!”
When she sees me, she immediately starts running towards us, trampling the weeds in her path . My father sets me down, leaving a hand at my back to keep me propped up . Tuuli leaps at me, hugging me tightly .
“I’m so glad you’re back, Maïne! I was waiting forever!”
Tuuli is so happy that tears are welling in her eyes . I smile back at her .
“I’m glad to be back too . ”