Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
I ended up leaving the saint’s residence with Zero.
When I jumped out of the bathroom, Zero was waiting for me, looking incredibly amused, and I finally realized that she was poking fun at me.
“It is hard for me to abandon you when you are chasing after me like such a pitiful, wet cat. If you really want to, then I will allow you to accompany me.”
Her arrogant attitude pissed me off a little, but considering my ingratitude towards her, I let it slide. Zero hired me as her bodyguard, yet I was supporting the saint.
As a mercenary, severing ties from Zero and then working for Lia would be the correct move. The saint’s attendant mentioned finding a reliable bodyguard once the priest’s job was done. If I stepped forward, they might easily hire me. It was less dangerous than the dodgy job of guarding a witch, and it wasn’t a bad idea to live my life as the guard of a saint loved by the people.
But if I became Lia’s bodyguard, Zero would become my enemy, And if the latter tried to kill the saint, I would have to fight her. Zero would, no doubt, kill me then. She had a ruthless side to her, after all.
I glanced down at Zero. She was walking next to me, munching on the grilled fish she bought from a food stall.
“Hmm? What is it? Do you want some?”
Noticing my gaze, Zero took a break from eating and looked at me. She glanced back and forth between me and the fish, then frowned.
“Very well,” she said. “Just one bite.” She reluctantly offered me the fish.
Feeling somewhat mischievous, I devoured the whole fish in one bite. Zero screamed in despair when she saw the skewer with only the tip of the tail left on it. Such a trivial thing was enough to satisfy me. Man, I’m so petty.
“I-I shared it with you out of the goodness of my heart! This is the second time, you greedy brute! Do you intend to devour my everything?!”
“Can you not yell out scandalous things in public?! I might get reported!”
“My fish… My white and soft grilled fish…”
“You can just buy another one. Why are you making such a big deal out of a fish?”
“It was good fish! If I buy another one, it will still be different! You do not understand that. Each one has a unique flavor. Oh, my beloved fish… I am mortified!”
I ignored her and surveyed the townscape instead. Everywhere I looked, I saw goat crests. There were many sick people, but everyone seemed happy and at ease, probably because they believed that if they stayed in this town, they would be cured of their illness one day. I could see many clinics where people waited to get treated by the saint. The city looked peaceful at first glance.
I strained my ears and heard conversations from people around.
“Her Eminence cured me of my illness. I have been suffering from a chest problem for a long while. I was told I didn’t have long to live.”
“I couldn’t move my fingers after an injury a long time ago. Now that it’s healed, I can go back to work.”
“Ah, how blessed we are. Doctors are useless. Cleon will be at peace with Her Eminence around.”
Before we arrived in the Holy City, I heard plenty of people calling Lia a witch, though.
“Of course you would not hear anyone talking ill of the saint here in the Holy City,” Zero said as if reading my mind. She nibbled regretfully on the remaining fish tail. “As long as human principles and way of thinking remain diverse, there can be no such thing as a perfect unanimity. Some will call kindness a weakness, and strength as arrogance. The least they can do is to gather only those who consider the saint to be perfect.”
“And that’s what this city is?”
“It seems to me that extremely biased people gather here. Everyone seeks the saint’s healing hand. They rely on her.”
Fearing they would get forsaken by the saint and left to die, the residents glorified her. In fact, no matter who we asked, the only response we got was,”Her Eminence is a wonderful person,” as if they were trained to recite the line.
Beloved rulers did exist, with the governor of Ideaverna being a prime example. Although he had many faults, he was competent and cared about his people.
“He has some flaws, but he’s a good person. Could be better if he got that womanizing side of him under control,” a subject would say while laughing.
Blind admiration was a typical characteristic of a reign ruled by terror. This city was distorted, no doubt, and whether Lia was aware of it or not, she was the cause of the distortion. This distortion would probably spread to the entire Republic of Cleon someday.
Suddenly, I remembered the woman back in Ideaverna who called Lia a witch. The distortion was already beginning to spread.
We passed through the main street and entered a back alley. Unlike the houses facing the main street, the houses here were small and looked economical—most likely houses of servants that worked for the rich people living on the main street.
The city was small to begin with; we’d seen almost everything there was to see. After going around, we made it back to the vicinity of the saint’s residence. Then, I saw a man in tattered clothes walking briskly out of the mansion, carefully carrying a heavy bag.
“What’s with that guy? Doesn’t look like a servant.”
“A disciple of sacrifice and devotion.”
Hearing a child’s footsteps and a familiar voice, I turned around. My eyes opened wide.
“Theo! What’s with the getup?!”
The bandits’ ragged errand boy had dramatically transformed into a servant of a noble wearing neat clothes. The change was so drastic that for a moment I couldn’t recognize him.
Theo shrugged and looked away, feeling uncomfortable. “I’m on my way back from an errand. I was told that if I had to go out as the saint’s errand boy, I needed to dress myself appropriately. They threw me into a bath and scrubbed me down. It was awful. They even cut my hair.”
Theo’s shoulder-length hair was now neatly trimmed. As he pinched his hair and lifted it, I noticed a new bandage on his hand.
“An injury?” I asked.
“Just a little burn,” he replied, frowning. It didn’t look like it hurt that much. “Her Eminence said we’re having a big feast tonight. We’re busy making preparations. I’m helping out already.”
“You look good,” Zero said. “I hardly recognized you.”
“Yeah? People are so nice to me when I wear these clothes. I can walk up to any fancy store without getting chased away. It feels weird. Only my clothes changed. I’m still the same me.”
“What was that about a disciple of sacrifice and devotion?” Zero asked.
“Hmm…” Theo’s gaze wandered about. “You receive the brand of a goat, a mark that says you’re willing to take on some of the pain and suffering of the sick and injured. Once you have the brand, you receive money. Also there’s a sanitarium for those with the mark. You don’t get healed there, but you’ll have a roof over your head and food to eat.”
“Ah, that’s pretty common,” I said.
Sometimes devout believers hurt their body to prove their faith. By doing so, they gained the trust of the Church and received some kind of aid. In this case, it would be money, a roof over their heads, and food, in return for promoting the saint’s magnificence. From what Theo said, the sanitarium was more like a poorhouse.
“I heard that people who come to the Holy City but can’t wait for their turn to be treated and are broke, choose to be branded to enter the sanitarium, or use the money to find a doctor,” Theo added. “That’s how my mom looked for a doctor, too.”
“I see… A contingency plan in case they can’t receive treatment here.” I nodded in admiration. When I looked at Zero, I was startled by the grim look on her face. “What’s wrong?”
“There is something bothering me.”
Zero shook her head. “I am not certain. I do not want to impair your judgment by giving you information that is not certain. Besides, there are some things you are better off not knowing if we are going our separate ways.”
I went silent. It felt like she just put up a wall between us.
However, I also feel a little uneasy about giving too much information to someone who might change sides and become my enemy in the future.
She might have been half-joking, but it was also a fact.
Theo’s gaze darted between me and Zero. He then crossed his arms and glared at me.
“You haven’t made up yet?” the boy asked. “Going separate ways means you’re breaking up, right? You’re so hopeless! Just apologize already! I’m sure it’s your fault, Gramps.”
“It’s not that simple, you know.”
Zero’s expression softened, and she stroked Theo’s hair. “Indeed. This is a matter of choice and decision, Theo. Mercenary is now standing at a crossroads, wondering which way to go.”
“So he’s cheating on you with Her Eminence? That’s just horrible!”
“Not at all. I would be happy if he chose me after considering a myriad of choices, instead of choosing me because he had no other choice.” Zero chuckled.
Theo looked like he couldn’t quite understand what she was saying.
“I am suffering, but I am also enjoying myself. I pray that Mercenary would choose me. I cannot force him, of course.”
“So you say, but I can feel the pressure coming from you,” I chimed in.
“Of course. Choosing one thing means you abandon another. Choices are not easy to make, Mercenary. But it is much more painful when you do not choose, and the worst happens. You will be filled with regret, thinking, ‘If only I did something, perhaps the outcome might have been different.” Zero looked at me with serious eyes. “I do not want you to become like me.”
The book of Magic that she wrote, the Grimoire of Zero, caused much chaos. Zero regretted entrusting the search for the stolen grimoire to Thirteenth. She should have searched for it herself. She should have been suspicious of Thirteenth. She should not have trusted him. Above all, Zero regretted not burning the grimoire.
Unwilling to throw away the craft she produced, she dreamed of a bright future, but then tragedy struck. A tragedy so devastating that she couldn’t just say it was unavoidable, that it wasn’t her fault.
Some things must be abandoned to avoid tragedy, no matter the pain and regret. Zero knew that all too well.