Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
Soon after we made it out of the forest. As we made it back to our camp, Theo, who was up in the trees like I instructed, jumped down.
“Gramps, Zero! You took so long! I thought you left me behind!”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t have picked you up in the first place if I was gonna dump you anyway.”
“I get your point, but you should know how a kid would feel.”
Theo turned his face away, and saw the saint, priest, and the bandits standing there. Astonishment dawned on his face. And fear.
“It’s you!” the saint exclaimed.
Theo jumped and tried to move back. The saint ran towards the kid, embracing him tight.
When the bandits saw Theo, they looked at each other, their eyes widening slightly.
What’s this? Something’s fishy…
“Oh, thank goodness you’re safe! I thought the bandits killed you!”
“Ugh…!” Theo’s whole body stiffened.
“You know Theo?” I asked.
“This is the child I told you about earlier. He was lying in the middle of the road.”
It all came together now. I see. Theo’s a member of the bandit gang.
Theo pretended to be unconscious on the road to stop the carriage, giving the bandits the opportunity to attack. A child like him would be useless in a battle, so his job was to take the carriage and escape. Then unable to control the vehicle, he crashed into the inn.
Theo looked at me with pleading eyes. He must’ve realized that I had pieced the puzzle together.
Don’t worry. I’m not stupid enough to reveal things I don’t have to and make matters worse.
“Are you hurt? You weren’t feeling well, were you? That’s why you collapsed. Did these people help you? Oh, thank heavens!”
“Wait a minute, Your Eminence,” the priest said. “Using a child to stop a carriage is a common tactic employed by bandits. We can’t be sure that this child is not one of them.”
That’s a priest for you, all right. After all that talk about faith earlier, he readily doubted a helpless child. This is why you can’t trust churchmen.
“What can a scrawny kid like him do? You’re only saying that cause you can’t see a thing.” I decided to give Theo a helping hand. “Take that eyepatch off and look at him. He’s practically skin and bones. I can crush him with one hand.”
The priest heaved a flabbergasted sigh. “It does not matter whether they are scraggly, or a child. The wicked must be judged. What matters is the heart. Age or appearance is merely its vessel.”
“Really, now? But didn’t you treat me like scum just because I’m a Beastfallen?”
“Beastfallen are not humans.”
I see. No room for a debate. It’s almost impressive.
“Father,” the saint chided, but the priest would not yield.
“Anyway,” I continued, “let’s say for the sake of argument that Theo is a member of the bandit gang. Are adjudicators from Dea Ignis so incompetent that they can’t even protect a lone saint from a kid?”
“Cursed beast. You just don’t know when to shut up, huh?”
He was clearly offended, but he didn’t offer any rebuttal. I must have hit a nerve.
“I-I’m sorry!” Theo cried. “A blacksmith asked me to go to the inn, but he didn’t let me eat. I was too hungry to move. Then a bunch of bandits appeared. I was scared! I saw the carriage, and I knew it was wrong, but I took it and escaped. I was going to call for help, but the carriage got out of control!”
I was surprised he could spout lies so rapidly. That’s too forced, kid. He wore a frightened look, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. Overreacting would only make people more suspicious.
At least, that’s what I thought.
“Oh, you poor thing,” the saint muttered.
I froze on the spot, shocked.
“You must have been scared. It’s okay. I’m not angry at all!”
This woman actually believed him. Not only that…
“Oh, God in heaven! Forgive me for doubting such an innocent child!” the priest added. “No need to cry, young man. You should be glad that you’re alive and safe.”
Not you too, man! You’re kidding, right?! Is this what saints and churchmen are like?!
I shivered, turning pale under my fur. That excuse just now was too weak. How could they believe him?
No, forget the saint. That I can understand. But the priest too? Come on, man. Aren’t you a member of Dea Ignis, the Church’s terrifying death squad?
At this point, my impression on the saint and the priest was closer to the fear of the unknown.
“Mercenary, I am having goosebumps for some reason.”
“It’s called the willies,” I said. “My tail’s been itching too.”
As Zero and I watched the three of them tearfully embracing each other—although one was crying fake tears—my eyes darted to the attendant standing just outside their little circle.
“Are those two always like that?” I asked.
The attendant looked up at me, clearly surprised. Perhaps she didn’t expect me to speak to her. Some people even believed that Beastfallen could not speak the human language.
Did I scare her? Oops, my bad. I didn’t mind being ignored, though.
For a moment she hesitated, then eyes on the ground, she muttered, “Yes. They’re kind people.”
“I think they’ve gone past just being kind. Are they all right in the head? I mean, that kid’s clearly suspicious. At least doubt him a little.”
The attendant’s shoulders shook lightly. She must’ve been laughing.
I thought the woman and I were similar, in a way. Given the saint and the priest’s personalities, things wouldn’t go well without at least one realist nearby.
“So what’s the plan now, Saint?” I asked. “Are you returning to the Holy City? As Theo said earlier, the carriage is a wreck and the horses are in the innkeeper’s stables.”
The saint quickly lifted her head. “Oh, that’s right!” she exclaimed. “We need to get to Ideaverna! The letter said there was no time to lose.”
I think she mentioned something about the son of a governor having lung problems.
According to the map, the Holy City and Ideaverna were in opposite directions. The place we were in was closer to the Holy City than Idea Verna, but if she returned to Akdios now, she would not make it in time to heal the son. She’d be attending a funeral instead.
“What do we do?” the saint asked on the verge of tears. “How far is it to that inn? Maybe they’ll return the horses. If not, perhaps we can ask the innkeep to lend their carriage.”
“It’s a full day’s walk to the inn,” I said. “There’s no proof that the horses belong to you. If the carriage was still there, it could serve as evidence, but it’s long been dismantled and tossed into the fireplace.”
“No…” the saint managed in a tearful voice. The priest held her shoulders. “W-Walking all the way to Ideaverna from here will take five days. We’ll have to climb many hills along the way.”
“Let’s return to the previous town,” the priest said. “It’s the same one-day walk, but we’re sure to get a carriage there. Then we can hurry to Ideaverna.”
“But what if we don’t make it? We’re already a day behind schedule. If we’re delayed another day, a child will die.”
“We cannot waste time worrying about this. There’s no other way.”
“If we cut through the forest, we can get to a town with a carriage in half a day,” Theo cut in, wiping his fake tears with his sleeve. “We’ll also be getting closer to Ideaverna. If we go now, we’ll be there in the morning. From there you can get to Ideaverna by noon the next day if you drove fast. I can show you the way. The path’s dangerous, but with Gramps around, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
I was often targeted by bandits because of the high price on my head. Yet it was also a fact that ordinary thugs avoided Beastfallen. Hunting one required elaborate preparations and considerable determination, after all.
Beastfallen attracted a few experienced bandits, but they could also keep the small fries at bay. Whether or not it was appropriate to choose one as a guard depended on the time and circumstances, but in the current situation, hiring one would be the wiser choice.
I could ignore Zero. She wouldn’t get killed that easily. The priest counted as a guard. So that meant I would be protecting three people—Theo, the saint, and the attendant.
True. With me around, we can pass through the forest safely…
“Hiring a Beastfallen as guard is outrageous!” the priest shouted. “I alone am enough.”
Yup. Saw that coming.
If he alone was enough, the bandits wouldn’t have been able to kidnap the saint in the first place.
Zero showed signs of saying what I was thinking, so I quietly covered her mouth. Her tongue was the root cause of too many disasters.
“Theo, was it?” the priest asked. “Can you lead the way? If this brute hired you, I suggest you quit. I will rehire you.”
Hey, servant of God. Can you be a little more considerate? I got feelings too, you know.
“I can’t go without Gramps,” the boy replied. “If bandits appear, you’ll protect the saint first, then the lady. Then me last.”
“Of course not. I will protect you all—”
“A lying priest?” Theo gave him a disapproving stare.
The priest flinched. Even a fool could see from his behavior that he would put the saint first.
The saint looked at me expectantly. They had apparently decided to hire me.
“It’s not my decision to make.” I wagged my tail casually, pointing it at Zero. “That woman right there is my employer.”
All eyes turned to the witch. We came to Cleon to look into cases involving Magic. Now that we had reason to believe that a copy of the Grimoire of Zero was taken out of Wenias, any excuse to get close to the saint, the one most likely connected to our current investigation, was more than welcome. There was no reason for Zero to refuse.
Nevertheless, Zero acted like she was giving it some serious thought.
“What do I do?” she said. “I have my own purpose in traveling. I do not have time to get involved in other people’s affairs. While I do wish to help…”
“Please help us!” the saint pleaded, hands together as if praying. “We’ll do our best to repay you!”
Zero’s mouth curved into a smile. She then jumped off the ground and gently landed on my shoulder.
“Very well. I cannot possibly ignore your pleas,” she said in an extremely patronizing tone. “Me and my mercenary accept the job!”
I expected nothing less from my employer, a legit witch and a cunning woman.
Deeply moved, the saint jumped up and down, regarding us with bright eyes.
“Thank you! Ah, thank goodness! It’s a pleasure to work with you, um… Mr. Mercenary?”
Oh. That’s not really my name. It’s my occupation. Not that it matters at this point, I guess.