The True State of the Orphanage
It has been a few days since Delia started working as an attendant . Since it was decided that I have to take days off, I stayed home on the day of earth, which Tuuli and my mother have off as well, but apart from that I’ve been going to the temple every single day . Since I’ve had to spend so much time on things like taking receipt of the things I ordered from Benno and writing up new recipes on wooden boards to teach to the cooks, I’ve been trying to get even just a little more reading time back into my life .
During these past few days, my attendants have sorted out each of their assigned duties amongst themselves . Delia is in charge of the bathtubs, the toilets, and laundering my expensive clothing, as well as looking after my daily needs and cleaning the second floor . It also seems like Fran is teaching her how to prepare tea, as she’s started helping with that as well .
Gil primarily handles cleaning the first floor and sweeping the grounds outside, as well as keeping an eye on the cooks as they work . He’s also currently in the middle of having proper speech and etiquette drilled into his skull by Fran . When I’d mentioned in a conversation that Lutz had spent last winter learning how to read and do math, Gil got fired up and declared that he’s going to do that too, but according to Fran there’s a huge mountain of things that he needs to learn before he can start on anything else .
Speaking of Fran, not only does he spend time checking the other attendants’ work, but he does everything else that needs doing as well . On top of his regular duties, he’s in charge of reading the recipes to the cooks as well as taking regular inventory to make sure that they aren’t misappropriating any of the ingredients or trying to sneak out any of the finished product .
In the morning, he accompanies me to the head priest’s chambers as I work on the paperwork . After delivering the leftovers from lunch to the orphanage, he starts the afternoon by explaining the menu to the cooks and verifying that they have the right ingredients, then accompanies me to the library room . He monitors my condition, is there to receive Benno when we have advance notice of his arrival, educates the two apprentices, and teaches me anything I need to know about the nobility, which is everything . Right now, everything is left to Fran .
I’ve been concerned about how he might be overworked, but when I asked if perhaps his workload was too intense, he replied that since he is never summoned unexpectedly at night, he finds it quite pleasant . He is just too amazing . As my gratitude to him, my trust in him, and his salary skyrocket, I’m becoming more and more thankful to the head priest for having backed me up by assigning me such an excellent attendant . I wouldn’t have gotten this far without him .
Today is, strictly speaking, my day off, but I’ve come to the temple anyway . I had a marble bathtub, which I was told was in vogue with the nobility these days, installed in the second-floor room that I had thought was for storage, so I need to go pay for it .
Honestly, carrying enough water for a bath seems tremendously difficult, and I already bathe myself at home with Tuuli, so I don’t think there’s any need for me to actually have a bathtub . However, when I’d asked if just a washbasin would be good enough, Delia got mad . “Ugh, what are you saying?!” she had said . “As an attendant to the temple master, I need to be taking far more baths to remain decent!”
Delia wanted to use the tub as soon as it arrived, so when it did I told her she could go right in, but, of course, she got mad again . “As if I could use it before my master has even touched it! Ugh!” It seems that baths for blue-robed priestesses are able to use both water and firewood, but gray-robed priestesses are only allowed to use water .
“Now then, perhaps you could ready the bath for me?” I ask .
She has to carry hot water all the way up from the kitchen, so I thought it would be an onerous task, but Delia, who is almost always prickling with anger, bounces happily up the stairs as she does so . I decide that if she’s enjoying herself I might as well leave her alone .
Delia washes my hair with rinsham, helps me get dressed, dries my hair, and, after absentmindedly making sure that my hair looks good, declares that she’ll be making use of the remaining bathwater and jumps in . I imagine that she’s so enthusiastic about this because of her own desire for self-improvement .
“Sister Maïne,” says Fran, having brought me something to drink while Delia is in the bath, “please do not place too much confidence in Delia . She is still connected to the Reverend . ”
He scowls in discomfort as he delivers his warning . When I see how serious his face is, I can’t help but chuckle a little .
“I know,” I reply . “She just described herself as ‘an attendant to the temple master’ a few minutes ago, after all . ”
It seems like Delia is still firmly convinced that nobody could get rid of someone as cute as her . However, it also seems like she’s not able to return to the temple master’s side and has made me the foundation of her daily life instead . I’m fairly sure that she’s doing this not just because she can use this to get a lot of information about me, but also because the work itself is easy and the pay is good .
From what she’s said, the temple master keeps two gray-robed priests and three gray-robed priestesses in his chambers . He also has three apprentice attendants, including Delia . Those three apprentices are required to take care of six people’s daily necessities . Here, however, the only person that really needs taking care of is me . On top of that, compared to other blue-robed members of the clergy, I really don’t have a whole lot that needs taking care of . On top of that, Fran, who distrusts her, isn’t making use of her like he might with a different apprentice, so he is giving her a lot less work than what might otherwise be expected .
So, it seems like Delia is still fixated on the idea of becoming the temple master’s mistress and is thus keen on particular kinds of self-improvement . As an attendant, she isn’t looking to be useful to someone, she’s looking for someone she can use . Her particular goals aside, though, she is very hardworking in pursuit of them .
“Even if Delia still passes everything along to the temple master, as long as she still works hard at her job, I do not particularly mind either way . We just need to be careful about what information we’re willing to let her have . …I am not entirely certain as to what information we must keep concealed from her, however . ”
He sighs . “You’re quite clearly audible right now,” he says .
He tells me that the most important things to keep from her is anything about my family or about Lutz . Those are my weakest points, he says .
Delia returns from her bath, and we have lunch . Today’s lunch is fluffy bread rolls, a consommé, bacon, and vegetable soup, and baked chicken with herbs . Gil and Delia take turns waiting on the table, and those who aren’t serving the table eat at about the same time I am . Fran isn’t serving the table because he’ll be going to the leftovers to the orphanage as the blessings of the gods, as after lunch he’ll be accompanying me to the library .
“Then, Sister Maïne, I shall deliver the blessings of the gods to the orphanage,” he says .
“Please do,” I reply .
Outside, a wagon has already been loaded with the leftover soup, bread, and chicken, which are still warm . Since the wagon is quite heavy, Gil and Delia don’t yet have the strength to push it, so the task is left to Fran .
“Oh? Did Fran leave already?”
Shortly after Fran takes off, Gil exits the kitchen carrying a basket with a few more rolls in them . When he looks out the front door and sees that the wagon has already been taken away, he looks down at the basket he’s carrying .
“What’s wrong, Gil?” I ask .
“Delia was all, like, ‘As if you could eat all of that! Ugh!’ so I thought that if I hurried I might be able to make it before the cart left . I’d been thinking that it would be a good idea to save a little so that we could have some left when it’s time for dinner, but it sounds like the cooks are going to be baking some different bread this afternoon, so…”
“The gods’ blessings are lacking right now, are they not? Perhaps it would be best for you to bring those there yourself?”
“Sure, I’ll do that!”
Gil smiles confidently, hoisting up the basket in his arms . There’s only four rolls in there, but I’m sure that the orphans will be happy to get more food .
“Hey, Gil,” I say . “might I perhaps come along with you? I’ve never seen the orphanage myself . ”
“I’ll show you around! I actually know a shortcut . Here, this way!”
With Gil leading the way, we head towards the orphanage .
Even though the entrance to my rooms is different from the orphanage’s entrances, the orphanage is still fairly close by, so it wouldn’t be odd for me to see younger children around . Strangely, though, I never have . I’ve seen children around Gil and Delia’s age, who’ve already been baptized, doing things like sweeping the corridors and the worship halls, doing laundry by the water well, and tending to livestock in their pens, but I’ve never actually seen any children who haven’t been baptized yet .
“Alright,” says Gil, “so once we leave, then we take the walkway that goes around the building there . The wagon can’t go on any stairs, you know? So this way is way shorter . We’re probably gonna even beat Fran there . ”
Gil, with the kind of boastfulness you only see when someone’s spoiling a huge secret, starts heading towards the temple gates . As for me, if he really does know a shortcut, I’d very much like to take it to save what little stamina I have .
We make our way around the building, reaching the stairs in front of the hall of worship . As we descend, the radiant summer sunlight makes the white stone of the stairs even more brilliant . I really haven’t been walking around outside that much outside of the cool hours of the morning and evening, but here beneath the noonday sun I can feel the true heat of summer .
“The orphanage’s cafeteria is in the girls’ dormitory . The girls’ dormitory has all of the kids that haven’t been baptized yet and also any gray-robed priestesses that aren’t anyone’s attendants . When boys are baptized, they go to the boys’ dormitory . So since the gods’ blessings are given out equally to everyone, it’s way easier to have the boys come to the girls’ dormitory from wherever they’re working instead of making the girls bring the little kids with them to the boys’, right?”
“Huh…” I say, thoughtfully .
I listen to Gil talk about the orphanage as we make our way down the stairs and head towards the girls’ dormitory . Near the stairway, there’s a hidden back door to the orphanage . It looks like it’s barred from the outside, like nobody’s particularly worried about any intruders breaking in but are instead trying to make sure that nobody can get out this way .
“Basically nobody but me knows that this actually opens . From the other side, it just looks like the rest of the wall, and you can’t open it from that side either . ”
“How do you know about it, then?”
“Once, when I was really little, I saw it open in the middle of the night . Someone was beckoning from outside, and a gray-robed priestess ran out to meet them . I wanted to go out too, but the door closed right away . Back then, I really wanted to be able to go outside, so I kinda thought that maybe someone had come to get me out of there . ”
Gil, a nostalgic look in his eyes, sets the basket down at his feet and undoes the bolt . The door doesn’t seem to want to move, as if it’s rusted, so he throws his entire weight into pulling it open .
As soon as the door cracks open, a gust of hot, foul air rolls out, and I instinctively clap my hands over my nose . Gil, making the same face, pinches his nose shut . Even though I’m used to the stink of the city, this stench is more than I can handle .
The door swings wide and I can clearly see what lies beyond . A number of completely naked children lie on filthy piles of straw that stink of stale shit and piss, staring blankly at the ceiling with lifeless eyes . The room appears to be completely closed in, so even though the noonday sun is shining brightly outside the interior of the room is dark and gloomy .
“…Blessings of the gods?”
Perhaps drawn by the smell of the bread, a small, skeletal child, her skin smeared with something black starts crawling towards us, a desperate gleam in her eyes as she calls out to us in a raspy voice .
I’ve only ever seen anything like this in magazines or on TV, in pictures of emaciated children fleeing Africa . As I watch this child creep towards me along the ground, the first thing that crosses my mind isn’t pity, but fear . I freeze on the spot, unable to say a word, teeth clattering in terror .
“N… no…” I whimper .
Gil snaps back to his senses when he hears me, frantically shutting the door and slamming the bolt closed . There’s pounding on the other side of the door, like something’s trying to break out, but there’s no force behind the blows . There’s no way the door is going to be broken down and let whatever is inside come pouring out .
As soon as relief from having fled from my fear washes over me, images of the unthinkable scene I saw inside that orphanage crowd their way into my brain . My mind goes blank and my consciousness winks out as I faint on the spot .
When I wake up, I’m in my own room . I move my hand experimentally, feeling that I’m lying on something hard, and realize that I’m not laying on a cotton-stuffed mattress like a noble would use, nor a straw-stuffed mattress like I have at home, but the plain, unadorned boards of the bed that I’d never bothered to do anything with . I turn my head, looking around, and see Gil in a chair at my bedside, sitting in a fetal position, making himself as small as he can .
“…Gil?” I say .
“You’re awake? …Oh man . I’m so sorry . I…”
He looks like he might be about to cry as he starts talking, but before he can get another word out, Delia’s voice rings out from behind him .
“Ugh, seriously! You took Sister Maïne to the girls’ dormitory and of all things you took her to the back door?! You complete idiot!”
“As if I did that on purpose! Did you know about what was in there?!”
As soon as the words “what was in there” leave his mouth, images of what I saw in the orphanage flash through my head . The room, completely shut off from the outside world . The straw, soaked in human filth . The children, entirely skin and bones and completely naked . That is no environment to raise children . Even animal pens have better ventilation than that .
As I remember, my whole body breaks out in goosebumps, and something sour starts to surge up from my stomach . I bolt upright, swallowing hard, forcing it back down . Fran, seeing me suddenly sit up and clap my hand desperately over my mouth, brushes the helpless Gil aside as he approaches .
“I am deeply, unbearably sorry, Sister Maïne . I am truly regretful that you were shown such a disgraceful sight . Please, forget what you saw . ”
The way Fran describes the orphanage as a “disgraceful sight” and tells me to forget all about it makes me deeply uncomfortable .
I look over at Gil . “That was the orphanage?” I say . “That wasn’t like you described…”
“After my baptism, I moved to the boys’ dormitory, so I don’t know anything about what the girls’ dormitory is like right now, except for the cafeteria… The place you saw is for the kids that haven’t been baptized yet, but it wasn’t like that when I was there . ”
He hangs his head shamefully, mumbling out his answer . Delia glares at him, snorts, then starts to talk .
“It’s because there aren’t as many blue-robed priests around, so there aren’t as many grey-robed priestesses left either . There isn’t anyone left to take care of the children, so the littlest ones die off fairly quickly . If they can make it to their baptismal ceremony, then they can live on the first floor, so they’re just waiting patiently for that day to come . …That’s how it was a year ago, when I left, so right now it’s probably even worse . I don’t want to think about it . ”
She looks down at the ground, shivering .
Gil is ten years old, so it seems like when he had his baptismal ceremony three years ago, things were much better than they are now . Delia has only just turned eight, and it sounds like around the time of her ceremony things were already horrible . Based on the grim information she reveals, it seems like since at least a year and a half ago there were fewer and fewer girls living in the dormitory, to the point where the orphans were almost completely neglected, only having food brought to them twice a day .
“On the day of my baptismal ceremony, a gray-robed priestess came to get me . She said that I was too unsightly and dirty to be shown to the blue-robed priests . She scrubbed me until I was raw, and when she was done, she said that I was cute, and that I’d be beautiful when I grew up . Right after the ceremony, she took me to the temple master . There were three other girls who were brought with me . I got to become an apprentice attendant, but the other girls weren’t chosen, so they went back to the orphanage . ”
Now that I understand why she’s so fixated on her looks and so strongly against the idea of returning to the orphanage, I feel even more depressed .
“Sister Maïne,” says Gil, “please, help those kids . I’m begging you . ”
“Be silent, Gil,” says Fran, sternly . “Sister, you must not get involved . ”
Even just remembering the image of what I saw makes me feel terrible, so I don’t actually want to have anything to do with it, but I’m surprised that Fran, who grew up in the orphanage, would tell me not to get involved .
“What?! Why?!” objects Gil, saying just what I was thinking .
“It’s too dangerous,” says Fran, plainly . “Sister Maïne has shown a tendency to be particularly protective of things she finds important to her, such as when she turned her magic against the temple master in order to defend her family . If she were to develop deep ties to the orphanage and it were to become something important to her as well, then there is a strong possibility that she may stand in opposition to the blue-robed clergy in order to protect the orphans . It is my belief that reducing the number of situations where she may unconsciously release her mana, even if just by a small number, is a good thing . ”
Gil has begged me to help, and Fran objected to the idea . For some reason, I turn to Delia, looking for her opinion .
“…If you can help them, then I think you should . But I don’t want to have anything to do with it . I don’t want to have to remember . ”
She looks pointedly away, her expression hard .
Gil, hearing no sympathy for his desire to help the orphans, grimaces as if he’s been deeply wounded . Clenching his teeth, he looks at me with trembling eyes, then slowly lowers himself down on one knee before me . He crosses both hands before his chest, casting his eyes down .
“Sister Maïne, I’m begging you, please, help those kids . ”
His heartfelt plea makes my jaw tighten . There is some part of me that thinks that if I can do anything to help them, I should . If someone were to say that they wanted to do something concrete, and that thing were to be something that was reasonable for me to do, then I think I could help with that .
However, if they were to tell me to keep doing it forever, or if they tell me to do something without giving me any suggestions or advice, then I’d be at a loss for what to do .
In my Urano days, I did actually do some work helping with a fundraiser, but that kind of volunteer work was a compulsory part of my education . Outside of that, I had no interest in anything that didn’t involve reading books . And now, as Maïne, I’m weak and frail . People are always looking out for me and helping me with my daily life . If there’s something that I know that might be helpful, I could suggest it, but fundamentally everything that involves actual action has to be done by someone else . I can’t think of anything that I can do myself .
“Right now,” says Gil, “I’m really enjoying my work because you keep telling me I’m doing a good job, and I’m happy that if I work really hard, my wages go up . The food here’s delicious, and I can eat as much as I want, and I have my own room that’s big enough for me to stretch out when I sleep . But, those kids, they…”
“I’m sorry, Gil,” I say . “There’s nothing much that I can do . I’m a blue-robed priestess that isn’t actually a noble, so I can’t just ignore what Fran is saying, either . ”
Gil looks up at me, clearly hurt .
All I am is an ordinary commoner who wanted to trade my mana and money for the right to read more books . I don’t know anything about anything right now, so as I am, I can’t just freely promise that I’ll take care of the orphans, and I really can’t take any responsibility to look after them forever .
“But,” I continue, “I will at least try to ask the head priest about this . Since there’s a surplus of gray-robed priests, then perhaps he could assign some of them to take care of the orphans, or perhaps we could make a little more room in the budget for them, or…” I trail off . “I’ll ask him if there might be anything that can be done to improve the situation at orphanage . ”
“Thank you,” he replies .
The head priest is capable enough to be able to handle the entire temple’s daily affairs by himself . If I tell him about the current situation in there, then he should be able to do something about it, whether it’s allocating more funding or assigning people to look after the youngest kids . Now that I have a plan to talk with him, I take a breath to calm myself .
Fran frowns at me, his eyebrows knitting together . “Sister Maïne,” he says, “there is no need to involve yourself . ”
“…I’m just going to ask the head priest about it . Might I ask you to arrange a time for me to speak with him, if possible?”
If he refuses my request, then there’s nothing I can do . If he has a suggestion, then I could put it into action . But at the very least, what this would do is clear up my worries about whether or not I can actually do anything about this situation .
Fran hesitates, and I ask him again, finally getting him to set a time for me to meet with the head priest .
When the fifth bell rings, and the time arranged for my meeting comes, Fran and I head towards the head priest’s office . It seems that Fran had already told the head priest about what I wanted to ask about, because when I arrive, he looks me straight in the eyes and answers me immediately .
“Your request is denied . There is no reason to improve the situation . ”