The Real Question
The gray-robed priests bow, then file one by one out of the room . Arnaud, meanwhile, has managed to produce a small cart from somewhere . He then fills a thick glass bowl with tea leaves, likely the head priest’s favorite . As the tea starts to steep, he turns towards me, pulling out glass jar after glass jar full of tea leaves, describing their variety, the region from which they came, and the season during which they picked .
“Sister Maïne, which of these may I serve you?”
…Honestly, I have no idea .
“That one seems quite excellent,” I reply, pointing at one that looks good enough . Next, however, comes the question of what milk I would like put in it . Again, he sets out a series of jars, asking me if I had any preference for the farm or the breed of cow .
…I honestly, truly, seriously, have no idea .
However, because of my social status, I must be the first to choose . I can’t just let Benno pick and then ask for what he’s having . Suddenly aware of how terrifying even drinking tea is for the nobility, I glance over my shoulder at Fran and employ my new secret technique of passing all my work onto him .
“Fran, which milk do you think would best suit this tea?”
“Let me see… I would recommend the milk from the three-year old Glauvache from Holger . It carries a gentle sweetness that would best complement the flavor of tiphgaft . ”
“Alright . Then, might I try the Glauvache from Holger?”
The tea I’m drinking today is tiphgaft . I’m having it with the milk of a Glauvache from Holger . I have no idea when I’m going to need to know this, but I’m going to remember it . As I chant it to myself, wondering what mnemonic I’ll need to actually remember it, I can’t stop my head from tilting thoughtfully to one side . Arnaud, meanwhile, asks Benno what kind of tea he might like . As he does so, the last of the gray-robed priests finishes exiting the room .
“Your tea, Sister,” says Arnaud .
“You’re much too kind,” I reply .
I carefully pick up the glass cup, careful not to make a sound, and take a sip . The mild flavor of this particular blend of tea fills my mouth, mingling with the gentle sweetness of the milk . Everything from the ingredients to the brewing must have been amazing . It’s almost entrancingly delicious .
Arnaud, having finished serving everyone’s tea, wheels the cart away to tidy up . As soon as I realize he’s gone, he reappears, firmly closing the door to the room . I watch his crisp, vigorous movements, in awe at how he avoids wasting even a single step . He takes his place behind the head priest, who then begins to speak .
“Benno, you were among the first to support Maïne, weren’t you? From my reports, I am told you have an excellent eye . ”
“I am flattered, sir . ”
“What does that discerning eye of yours tell you about Maïne? There are certain members of the clergy who view her as a dangerous person who lets her mana run rampant . What is your opinion, as someone who knows her well, of her character?”
“Letting her mana run rampant…? Ah, that…”
Benno glances at me, not even the faintest trace of a smile in his eyes . I’m pretty sure that if we were anywhere else, he’d be thundering “and you didn’t tell me, huh?!” . I meet his gaze evenly, lifting my cup to my mouth .
“I am but a mere merchant,” he says . “As such, I don’t know much about the intricacies of magic . I can, however, describe the Maïne that I know . ”
“Hm,” says the head priest, leaning forward interestedly . “Please, continue . ”
I suddenly feel like I’m back in elementary school, sitting in on a parent-teacher conference . I force myself to sit quietly, but what I really want to do is run right out of the room, yelling “No, stop! Don’t say anything! Not in front of me!”
“Madam Maïne is a genius, at least in terms of her faculty towards bringing new products into being . She is without equal in conceptualizing these products, but ultimately the boy who makes her ideas reality is an apprentice at my humble shop . Over the course of working on her inventions, she has shown only mild recognition of her own genius . Ultimately, I believe that she has a gentle, tolerant character, as do others at my shop . ”
I’m going to guess that “gentle and tolerant” is how he sanitizes “absent-minded, thoughtless, and oblivious” for a noble audience . I honestly never thought I’d hear Benno describe me that way . I guess that old adage holds true: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it .
“Hold on,” says the head priest . “Putting aside ‘gentle’, what do you mean by ‘tolerant’?”
The head priest frowns deeply, looking between me and Benno with extreme doubt . This is a natural reaction, I think . I did, in fact, let my mana run berserk, causing the temple master to faint in front of a fair number of priests . I’m sure this has gained me some notoriety . On top of that, since the head priest is getting reports on my behavior from Fran, he probably knows that I released my mana in order to drive off Gil while he was interrupting my reading time . So, from the head priest’s viewpoint, I am definitely the furthest thing from “tolerant” . He probably thinks I’m dangerous, liable to let my magic explode at the slightest provocation .
“There are things which she refuses to surrender… those would be her family, her friends, and, also, books . As long as nothing threatens to affect those, Madam Maïne is tolerant to an astounding degree . She lacks a strong sense of vigilance, and when she is deceived, she largely does not learn from experience . An apprentice at my shop who knows her quite well would likely describe her less as tolerant, and more as indifferent . ”
When he says that, I hear Fran mutter “indifferent… I see,” from above me . I think back on my actions this morning, realizing that I really have no room to complain .
The head priest hums thoughtfully, looking at me . He hums again .
“Maïne, is there anything else? If you’ll let your mana run rampant over anything besides your family, your friends, or books, tell me . ”
“I cannot think of anything at this moment that I would find quite as precious to me,” I reply .
“Very well,” he says, nodding, looking slightly relieved .
After momentarily looking up towards the ceiling, mulling over Benno’s words, the head priest exchanges a look with Fran .
“Ah,” says Fran . “If I may, Master Benno, might I ask you to share with Father Ferdinand whatever information you have on Maïne’s exceptional feebleness?”
“Feebleness?” says the head priest, glancing at me . “Ahh, the reason why she requires someone to monitor her physical condition . ”
I notice Fran tremble slightly in agitation . It seems like he’s remembering how Benno had taken him to task back in the corridor .
“Madam Maïne has an astonishing lack of physical strength and stamina,” replies Benno . “If details such as her complexion, the amount she speaks, how quickly she walks, and how far she travels are not carefully monitored, then she runs the risk of suddenly collapsing, no matter how energetic she may appear . Afterwards, she is indisposed for several days as she recovers, often while feverish . As of now, I know none who are capable of monitoring her condition besides the apprentice of which I have been speaking . ”
“That apprentice is the boy named Lutz, I assume? …Fran, do you think you can do it?”
When the head priests asks his question, the eyes of everyone in the room turn to Fran . His eyes dart agitatedly around the room for a moment, then hangs his head ashamedly .
“No, not yet… this is inexcusable . ”
When I glance back over my shoulder, seeing him towering above me, I notice that his fist is clenched so tight that his hand is trembling . I strongly sympathize with how awful he must be feeling, to not be able to meet the expectations of the man he looks up to so much .
“Fran was assigned to be my attendant merely this morning,” I say . “To ask him to be able to understand my condition so quickly is to ask him to be able to do the impossible . Even Lutz had to spend many months together with me before he was able to completely recognize the warning signs . ”
“It would be problematic if it takes him that long,” says the head priest, blasting through my carefully-crafted followup with a single retort . “It is likely that the knightly order will be convened in the fall . Fran, you will need to be able to monitor her condition by then . Understood?”
The head priest looks seriously at Fran, who inhales slowly, then replies with a crisp nod .
“…As you wish, Father . I shall definitely learn how to do so by autumn . ”
Judging by the way he was able to take charge in the entranceway, and by how expertly he was able to judge the tea, it’s obvious that Fran is a kid who can put in tremendous amounts of effort if it’s for the head priest’s sake . I think that since he just received a direct order, he will tackle the task of learning how to manage my condition with utmost seriousness . If nothing else, I’m just happy that going forward at least one of my attendants will be interested in trying to maintain my health .
Benno glances over as I quietly sigh in relief, then looks back at the head priest with a worried expression on his face .
“Father, Madam Maïne is terrifyingly intelligent for a child of her age . However, she has little experience in society, and knows nothing of the knowledge common in the temple . Worse, she has lived a life very distant from noble society . ”
“Ah, I’m aware . Please don’t be worried . That’s why I’ve assigned Fran to her . He is one of the most excellent attendants on my staff . If she has any questions, he will be more than capable of answering them . Of course, I myself also intend to participate in her education . ”
Behind me, I can hear Fran’s breath catch in his throat . When I instinctively glance over my shoulder at him, I see that his eyes are wide with disbelief as he stares at the head priest .
Huh? Did he maybe think that him being reassigned to be my attendant was a punishment for his lack of skill? If that’s the case, then does this mean that all I need to do to get him on my side is to say something like “let’s work together so that we can be useful to Father Ferdinand”?
As I swallow another mouthful of tea, contemplating how I might win him over, they head priest glances back and forth between me and Benno, narrowing his eyes .
“Incidentally, Benno . What does it mean when people say Maïne is your goddess of water? It seems that you care quite a lot for her, but are you really a man of such tastes?”
Benno yelps, his cup falling from his fingers to crash hard onto its saucer . The head priest frowns concernedly, crossing one leg over the other as he watches Benno sink into obvious panic .
“What kind of eyes do you look at Maïne with, I wonder? Please, tell me . ”
“What kind… you ask…? I, uh, myself, don’t really understand, why people around me, insist on saying that . Father . ”
It’s actually a little funny to see how flustered Benno is now despite usually being so composed, but I actually don’t understand what the head priest means when he’s talking about a “goddess of water” . Come to think of it, I do recall Otto saying something like that once and Benno getting angry about it .
I tilt my head in confusion . “Um, I apologize for the interruption, but what might you mean when you are referring to a ‘goddess of water’?”
I look around the room for answers, but no matter who I look at, every single one of them refuses to meet my eyes . Everyone seems to be wishing that I’d ask someone else . This is an extremely uncomfortably awkward situation .
When I tilt my head again, a troubled frown on my face, Benno slips me another note . “Be quiet,” this one says . I decide to interpret it as him telling me not to speak so loudly, so I turn to Fran and quietly whisper to him .
“…This is a matter of the gods, so it is related to the temple, is it not? Fran, would you kindly tell me what it means?”
“Ah, um, uhh…”
Fran turns desperately to the head priest, hoping for help . Benno sighs, clutching his head in his hands . The head priest, making a sour face, reluctantly answers .
“The person in his thoughts . His sweetheart . The one who makes his heart beat . Those are the typical meanings people use that phrase for . ”
The person in his thoughts? His sweetheart? No way . Benno is a man of principle who has remained a bachelor ever since his actual sweetheart died . Even still, if you look at me and Benno, it’s just weird to think anything like that could be happening .
“…Well, Father, such a thing is simply impossible . Master Benno is old enough that he could be my father, after all . ”
I can’t hold back my objection . Benno, too, immediately latches on to what I say, adding his strong denial as well .
“It is exactly as Madam Maïne says . It’s simply impossible . ”
The head priest looks at him, still frowning doubtfully . “It’s not uncommon for a man to marry someone young enough to be his daughter, right?”
In Japan, back in my Urano days, I definitely heard stories about celebrities marrying people much younger than they were, but I haven’t heard anything like that since becoming Maïne .
After all, even if it’s a second marriage, if someone were to marry someone young enough to be their child, then that person would wind up needing assistance from their spouse’s children in a lot of things . Plus, since this is effectively increasing the number of dependents in a family, this would definitely breed discord with the breadwinner’s children . And, of course, the world isn’t kind enough for the younger spouse to be able to live on their own earnings .
“I’ve heard of nothing of the sort, though . …Ah, now that I think of it, perhaps such age differences are not uncommon here at the temple? One of my own attendants told me that she wishes to have such a relationship with the Reverend . ”
I’d tried to cover for Benno by implying that the head priest might be unaware of how us commoners live, but another strange silence falls around the room . Benno passes me another note, this one saying “please, shut up . ” As requested, I shut my mouth, but now nobody is saying anything, and the silence is only growing more and more oppressive .
All we do is take frequent sips of our tea, exchanging questioning glances with each other . This is unpleasant . This is making me extremely uncomfortable .
“…Father Ferdinand, I am aware that it is exceedingly impertinent for a servant such as myself to ask this, but may I be permitted to add a remark of my own?”
The one to finally tear through this strange, heavy silence is Mark . The head priest looks up in surprise, and when he turns to Mark, it’s plainly written on his face that he doesn’t care who does something about this situation as long as somebody does it . He quickly raises both his hands .
“I’ll allow it . What is it?”
“I will confess that I am saying this in part because I would like to protect Master Benno’s good name, but I wish to clarify that the common meaning of ‘goddess of water’ does not quite apply in this case . I am sure you are already aware of this, Father, but the commodities that Madam Maïne has been so continuously creating has spurred Master Benno into starting new enterprises . She has been causing new projects to bloom within a company that previously only worked in clothing and accessories . It’s perhaps more accurate to describe Madam Maïne as being the goddess of water not just for Benno, but our entire humble establishment . ”
“Hmm, is that what that means? I understand, then . Now, lastly, about Maïne’s Workshop…”
He didn’t look like he particularly understood the answer he was given for the question he’d been the one to bring up, but he doesn’t press the subject any further, instead deciding to change the topic of conversation .
“Just how much of your proceeds are you willing to donate? We agreed to discuss your promise of the portion of your profits we will be receiving, I believe?”
Benno nods, hand on his chin, making a show of pondering the topic . His long, trailing sleeve drapes over his lap, and tucked in it I can see a number of little pieces of paper that already have things written on them .
I suddenly realize that the pieces of paper that Benno has been passing me are the same notes that Mark had written during the cart ride here . My face stiffens with shock .
M… Mister Mark?! Was it you that wrote “idiot” on that paper?! I thought you were a perfect gentleman! How could you come up with all of those mean words!
I know he was just writing things down that Benno would want to say, but it’s still a massive shock to realize that he’s was the one to write things like “idiot” and “shut up” . I really wish he didn’t give me the same reassuring smile as always when he was writing all that, too .
As I slump in my chair, Benno passes me another little piece of paper . “Keep your mouth shut,” this one says .
“…It will depend on the product being produced,” he says, out loud, to the head priest . “I am sure you are aware of this, but it is not possible to guarantee a fixed amount of money at a fixed interval . In addition, we are currently in the process of developing new products, and we are still in a state where we are not presently making any profit, as we are continuing to pour money into our initial investments . ”
“That may be so, but—”
“Considering the money that we must spend on maintaining the workshop and developing new products, I believe we should be able to donate ten percent of our net profits to the temple . ”
Benno interrupts the head priest, immediately presenting him with the figure of ten percent . The head priest frowns at the number .
“Ten percent seems rather small, doesn’t it?”
“…I apologize for my impertinence, but ten percent is actually almost an excessive sum . There are costs involved with the distribution of the finished product, the acquisition of the raw materials, and the salaries of our workers, none of which we can decrease . ”
“There are times when one must still sell one’s products even if margins are slim, but I cannot imagine that you would wish for Maïne’s workshop to be forced to operate at a deficit, would you?”
The head priest remains silent . He probably doesn’t want to place that burden on us . After all, the temple itself is currently running in the red .
Also, it would be difficult for him to actually object . The temple gets its labor from the orphans in the orphanages, and its income comes from the lord of the land and the families of the blue-robed priests . The income and expenditures of the temple are fundamentally different than those of a business . I think the head priest might not have any idea how a shop is organized or what wages might be paid .
“Madam Maïne is certainly free to donate as much of her own share of the workshop’s proceeds to the temple as she wishes, but there is little of the workshop’s income that could be donated to the temple without impacting its ability to do business . ”
“…I see . Ten percent it is, then . ”
Benno seized control of the conversation by constantly pressing the head priest for answers, and quickly established the amount I’d be paying to the temple . Benno’s share, of course, is thirty percent, so I can’t help but admire how he was able to so calmly keep the temple’s share down to ten . As I marvel at this turn of events, Mark smoothly retrieves a piece of contract parchment, spreading it out on the table .
The instant terms were agreed on, he produces the contract . Mark’s role in this transaction is much more subdued than Benno’s, but he’s still amazing . He absolutely matches up to these attendants that have been trained to serve these blue-robed noble priests .
Since the temple is an organization of nobles, the contract spread out on the table is, of course, a magical contract . The contract is quickly filled out, stating that ten percent of Maïne’s Workshop’s net profits would be donated to the temple, that the representative of the temple is the head priest, that the workshop’s head is myself, and that my guardian, who will be tasked with delivering the financial reports to the temple, is Benno . We each in turn sign the contract and seal it with our blood .
Blood again?! I really hate contract magic…
“Maïne,” says the head priest, “what are you staring at? It’s your turn . ”
Even after all this time, I still can’t get used to the idea of taking a knife to my own finger . At the head priest’s urging, though, I reach out with a trembling hand to pick up the knife . As I do so, someone from behind me gently reaches out to take it instead .
“Please avert your eyes, Sister Maïne,” says Fran .
I clench my eyes shut, and a sharp prick of pain shoots through my finger . When I cautiously open my eyes, a fat drop of blood is welling up on my fingertip . Fran holds the contract out for me, and when I press my finger against it the same golden flame as always ripples across it, burning it away into motes of light .
“That is all I had to say today,” says the head priest . “This was a most fruitful use of my time . I thank you, Benno . ”
“Your gratitude is most unnecessary, Father . ”
As the head priest and Benno exchange their pleasantries, Mark neatly tidies up the implements for the contract magic, Fran clears the teacups and utensils from the table, and Arnaud spreads out a carpet .
“Now, let us offer our prayers and our gratitude to the gods for their guidance in this meeting and in this contract . ”
He motions for Benno and I to come stand on the carpet . As we take our places, I look up at Benno and Mark, trying desperately to keep myself from laughing .
So now Benno and Mark are going to do the Gl█co pose?! I need to see this! I really need to see this! But my sides will absolutely give out!
My brain is already conjuring up the image of them lined up and posed perfectly . As I struggle valiantly to keep a straight face as that explosive image blasts through my brain, all of the strength suddenly leaves my body .
An extremely unladylike noise emanates from my mouth . I fall with a thud to my knees, and after a moment, the weight of my head pulls my upper body down to the ground .
“Sister Maïne?!” shrieks Fran from behind me .
Everyone turns to look at me . The head priest lets out an amazed sigh, looking down at me as I lay there in a heap .
“Maïne, get up, please . This is most unsightly . ”
The head priest didn’t need to tell me that . I’ve tried several times already to push myself back up, but I can’t move my arms . I can’t lift my head .
…What the hell?
“Umm, my body’s being weird . I can’t move anything right now . But I really don’t feel like I’m getting a fever . My hands and feet are actually feeling kind of cold . Mister Benno, what’s happening?”
“Why would I know?!” he shouts . “Don’t ask me!”
He stoops down to pick me up . I try to grab on to his clothes for support like I usually do, but I really can’t move my arms at all . They’re completely limp, hanging heavily from my shoulders . It’s like they’re not even my arms .
“Father Ferdinand,” says Benno, “I cannot apologize enough for this disturbance . I beg your forgiveness, but I would be much obliged if we could cut our farewells short at this time . ”
“Th… That’s… that’s alright,” says the head priest, his face ghastly pale as he stares at me . “Take care of Maïne . ”
Benno quickly takes his leave . Even after all that, I still don’t feel any of the signs that I have a fever coming on . I actually feel comparatively cool . In fact, despite the fact that it’s the start of summer, it feels like my body is quickly cooling off .
Mark frantically finishes getting everything ready to leave, and Arnaud and Fran both step forward to open the door for Benno as he carries me out of the head priest’s room . Benno, however, walks a little too quickly and is forced to stop, clucking his tongue impatiently, as he waits for the door to finish being opened .
Unlike when I usually collapse, I haven’t passed out . My arms and legs just feel a little weird as they dangle limply . As my heavy head jostles about, only one regretful thought flashes through my mind .
…I didn’t get to see Benno and Mark do the Gl█co pose .