Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
We left the priest in Tito’s care and followed Cal to another room. The doctor said we should not talk about disturbing matters near someone injured, so Cal had no choice but to leave the guest room.
The room he showed us to was similar to the one we just left, located just across the hall. I took a seat at the rickety table in the corner and drank the water that Cal poured for us.
“It all started with these words,” Cal started once I’d calmed down a little. “Those who bear this mark will take on the suffering of the people and become a devout disciple of the saint. For their devotion and sacrifice, they will receive God’s blessing after death, and for their pure spirit we will bestow upon them a reward.”
He spoke the words—words that sounded like something straight out of the Church’s manual—with such emotion. While Zero and I stared at him blankly, he chuckled.
“It was a notice put out when the saint became governor of Akdios to gather ‘disciples of sacrifice and devotion’. But in order to get the reward, you must endure the pain of the branding. Desperate poor people flocked to the city as a result.”
“What about the rich? Enduring pain and becoming a disciple of the saint sounds like their kind of thing.”
“They did, in fact, go to the city as well, but the saint turned them away. She said the ordeal was not some kind of amusement for the rich. She made it clear that only those pure of heart who endure poverty have the right to the mark of the goat.”
“That probably made her popular with the poor,” I said.
Only the poorest of the poor, the oppressed and downtrodden, could become disciples of the saint, a status that the rich sought. There could be no better feeling than this.
“It did. Her fame shot up rapidly. Some people even said that the mark of the goat cured their illness. Because of that, the poor who couldn’t afford to see a doctor vied for the mark.”
“How ironic,” Zero said bitterly. “People came together with the desire to cure their sickness, only to become sacrifices taking on the pain of others. I can appreciate a good plan, but at the same time, I find it revolting.”
“Some people realized the truth and tipped off the church that the mark of the goat was a witch’s curse, but the saint had already gained the immense trust of the neighboring churches. The claims of the poor and powerless were dismissed. They said it was just an ordinary brand. The saint anticipated this situation from the start, which is why she gave the mark to the powerless.”
“But I’ve seen fishermen and powerful-looking merchants in Ideaverna with the same mark, and they looked perfectly healthy,” I said. “Don’t they suffer from it? If victims are not only limited to the poor, the Church might listen.”
“That’s a different thing,” Cal said, shaking his head. “Those guys get their own tattoos as a symbol of their faith in the saint. The saint never gives the mark to the wealthy. Only the brands she gives in her residence are special.”
“Well, then. I guess the Church really won’t listen.”
“Yeah, it’s a hopeless case. Accusing a saint of witchcraft might even result in the accuser being executed instead. Still, the rumor that getting the mark made one sick circulated. But why though? A rumor is just that, a rumor. It could very well be a lie. But if you get the mark, you are guaranteed to receive money. There were even people blinded by their greed who got more than one mark, and then died without being able to use their money.”
“What is the point of obtaining riches if you cannot use it anyway?” Zero sighed in disbelief.
“I gotta admit. It’s hard to feel sorry for them.” I voiced what I honestly felt.
Cal smiled, showing no sign of being offended. “Yeah, they had it coming. I have no shred of sympathy for them at all. Anyone who sells their body of their own will can do whatever they want. But then parents started selling their kids.”
“Huh. Better than just abandoning the kids to reduce the number of mouths to feed, I suppose. They can earn more efficiently this way instead of selling them directly to slave traders.”
“And once a sick child became a burden, the parents just abandoned them at the infirmary.”
“I guess Theo’s mother is still better than them, even though she abandoned her child all the same.” I looked up at the ceiling.
Cal cocked his head quizzically. “Theo was abandoned by his mother? What makes you think that?”
“Theo said it himself. He said his mother was in Fort Lotus, but he had no reason to come back anymore. Her husband died and she found another man, didn’t she? Then Theo became a burden.”
Cal stood up. “Follow me,” he said. “I’ll take you to his mother.”
“What? Where’d that come from? I don’t really wanna meet her, and it’s not like we have anything to talk about.”
“Just shut up and follow me.”
Zero and I exchanged glances. I had no other choice but to follow the man.
Cal left the room and led us out through the hallway and into the back of the fort. The forest had taken over half of the rundown yard, but there was a section that was well-kept.
Neatly arranged wooden stakes, piles of dirt, and a circle of flowers.
“A graveyard,” Zero muttered.
Cal stopped in front of a grave. “This is Theo’s mother. She died two days before we ambushed the saint.”
“What?! Theo didn’t say a word about—” I shut my mouth.
His mother was in the fort, but she was not waiting for him. So this is what he meant.
“So his mother didn’t abandon him,” I said.
“It’s the other way around. They were close. He was on her mind right until her very last breath. After her death, Theo wanted to join the ambush. He said he would avenge his mother.”
“I know it’s a little too late, but shouldn’t you have stopped him?” My voice sounded reproachful despite myself. No respectable adult would allow a child to avenge his mother’s death like that.
“Of course I stopped him,” Cal answered. “But Talba took him anyway. He’s a nice guy, but he always lets his emotions get the best of him. I’m sure he had good intentions. But then they failed, utterly. I heard Theo started accompanying the saint after that, so I had to go pick him up. I’m sure you’d do the same.”
Cal sounded like he was telling a joke, spreading his wings a little. There was nothing funny about the whole matter, yet strangely enough, I couldn’t sense any malice in his gestures.
I shrugged in response. “Sure. I thought it was too fast for pursuers to be in Ideaverna that time, but after seeing you, it made sense. Damn it. I wouldn’t have left him at the mansion if I knew his story.”
He smiled when he said there was something he needed to do. I never imagined that his goal was exacting revenge.
Theo was pretending all this time. He was trying to win Lia’s favor by smiling at her, devoting himself to her, and sometimes even fawning on her. All so he could get the chance to kill her.
“Did she suffer?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was terrible. She had a high fever for several days, and kept calling her child’s and husband’s names over and over. Theo never left his mother’s side until the end. And after she died, he said, ‘I couldn’t do anything. I’m just a kid, so I couldn’t protect my mother.”
Curling his fingers, Cal gently stroked the tombstone with the back of his talons.
“But Theo’s mother didn’t hold a grudge against the saint. She said that would be unreasonable. They knew what they were getting into. Thanks to the money they received, they didn’t starve to death. They survived for a while, and they should be grateful for that.”
“But…” Cal clenched his fists. “They only starved in the first place because there were no doctors to treat their breadwinner, Theo’s father. The saint, on the other hand, was busy treating the wealthy. Desperate to survive, the wife went to the saint’s residence and sold her well-being. Do they really deserve their fate then? They were forced to make a choice: either starve to death tomorrow, or offer their health so they could buy some bread to survive another day. How is that fair? You can’t say that they willingly sacrificed their health, can you?”
They knew the suffering that awaited them, yet they still had to do it to survive. A poisoned apple offered in their times of starvation.