15. The Strong. The Weak. The King. (1)
Late in the night, Salem was heading to the bottommost floor of the palace—one even deeper than the basement. The commander of the Holy Knights was accompanying him as he did so. No light reached this far, so there was a lantern powered by magic hanging there, and it was not only quiet, but dreadfully so.
He arrived at a door made of wood. The pair of Holy Knights guarding the door noticed Salem and bowed their heads. Salem ignored them and knocked on the door. There was no reply from inside.
“…What is this?”
When Salem looked to his side, a Holy Knight lowered his head and replied.
“She must have tired herself out and fallen asleep.”
“Is that right? Well… she did appear to be pushing herself too hard.”
Salem opened the door and stepped in. A pungent smell which couldn’t quite be described agitated his nose. The room was filled with a thick, hazy smoke, and the study was full of books scattered about in disarray, waiting to be organized. Not to mention the various pieces of paper with relevant information scribbled across them.
After having surveyed the room, Salem crossed his arms and scratched his chin.
“Hmm… I thought you said you’d succeed within three months’ time. It looks like you’re continuing to fail at keeping your promises.”
There were complicated runes etched onto the floor, surrounded by stains of blood. In one area was a scorch mark in the shape of a small child, indicating that one had been burned to death there. Due to how many times it had happened, it had left a permanent mark which even repeated attempts at cleaning could not get rid of.
Salem tilted his head curiously. There was a steel cage to the side and within it were multiple children, each of whom were bleeding and crying out in anguish. However, their cries were silenced by a glowing rune etched into the floor, which shut out all sound from within the cage. Salem looked at the children and frowned. He looked at them like one would look at a cockroach.
“Oh my, the stench! They are sacrifices meant to extend my life. Please wash them. Do you think I’ll feel comfortable using such filth to extend my life?”
The Captain of the Holy Knights bowed.
“As you wish.”
Salem clicked his tongue as he shook his head. Moving deeper into the room, he saw a small hill made of books and papers, followed by a sleeping woman slumped over a table just beyond. It was a woman with violet hair, Akareal Morgana. She had been one of the Hero’s former party members and she was the woman Salem coveted. Seeing her exhausted form, he allowed himself a smug smile.
‘She must have been tired.’
Salem felt a bit excited. She had been conducting this research with all of her might for his sake. For the sake of extending his life, she had abandoned her morals to research forbidden magic. For him and only him…!
‘Aah, looks like you truly do love me!’
Looking at Salem’s rapturous expression, the Captain retreated and left the room, closing the door behind him. Salem reached out and brushed his fingers through her hair, trembling. He was making great efforts to not be overcome with excitement.
As he gulped and touched her lips, she frowned and muttered, as though in agony.
“S-sorry… Sorry… I’m really sorry… There was no other way. For him… It was the only way…”
Tears leaked out of her eyes. She must have been having a nightmare. It was only natural considering that she had been researching magic that required her to sacrifice children.
“To be undergoing such research for my sake, despite how torturous it is for you… It matters not, Akareal. There is no need to be burdened by such guilt! That emotion will not last much longer anyway. Humans are adaptive creatures.”
Salem placed his face closer to hers. When he was close enough to feel her breath, he whispered into her ears.
“You only have to forget your torment and follow me. I will bring you happiness. I will raise you to a position that will put you higher than anyone else in the world. As the wife of the Pope, all that you wish to do or to have shall be given to you. I, Pope Salem Gatteschurache, shall put a blessing upon your pitiful life and will let you live eternally and more happily than anyone else!”
His hand reached for her clothes.
“So, be mine, Akareal…!”
It was just as he was about to lose the very last modicum of control that he had over his lust.
Salem frozen. He pulled back his outstretched hand and stared at her dumbly.
“I… will surely save you.”
“… Aah? Aah? Aaaaaah!?”
Salem retreated. He began to babble something incoherent as he groped his face. His vision had turned red all of a sudden and he was overcome with embarrassment, an emotion he could scarcely understand. It was then that he looked toward a mirror off to the side.
It held the disgraceful image of him trying to hold back his tears, like a child about to cry. He was actually about to burst into tears.
‘No, this can’t be true! This can’t be how I look. This isn’t the image of the all-powerful Pope!’ Salem thought in despair. ‘Why do I feel so cheated? Why am I filled with rage?’
As Salem asked himself these questions over and over, he arrived at an answer. It was because she had been stolen from him by a slave.
In silence, he contemplated the truth.
She was not performing these heinous experiments while harboring feelings for him, she was doing it for an escaped slave wearing the mask of a Hero. She was casting him aside! Salem hated him. He loathed him! He resented him! He wanted to tear him to shreds!
But he knew he couldn’t. Salem calmed himself and regained his composure, continuing to think.
No, I… I can’t do that! That’s right, I can’t let him off so easily. How dare a mere slave look down on the Pope…
With these thoughts racing through his head, he left the research room.
As the Captain was lowering his head upon seeing the Pope return, Salem swung his fist at one of the other Holy Knights there, landing a heavy hit on his sturdy helmet. Along with the ringing of metal, crimson blood burst from Salem’s hand. The Holy Knight wavered, but thanks to his well-trained body, he managed to regain his balance after only a single step back. His surprise was more from the sudden change in Salem’s attitude rather than the blow itself.
“H-holiness? Your Holiness… w-why are you acting this way?”
Salem ignored the question and looked at his torn-up hand.
“Shit, it hurts! Why are you wearing a helmet!”
Salem roughly removed the Holy Knight’s helm and brought it down upon the knight’s face.
“Aaaahhhh! Why! Why! Why is it always him! Just why! Huh?! Why? Why? Why…?”
The Holy Knight collapsed, and Salem jumped on top of him while continuing to slam the helmet down on him. Over and over and over again, he kept going. Soon, the sound of meat being tenderized could be heard, followed by the sound of something bursting. Blood splattered everywhere in crimson arcs.
The other Holy Knights and their Captain stood frozen, unsure of what to do.
“Hah… hah…. hah…”
‘How much time has passed?’
Salem tossed the helmet onto the ground; he was exhausted. He stood up and looked down upon the fallen Holy Knight. His face had burst and was badly destroyed, but he was still breathing.
“Hah. Amazing. Truly amazing. Haha! You’re still not dead? Truly, as expected of a Holy Knight of the Holy Kingdom! I’m proud of you! Even a single Holy Knight’s life is this tenacious. Then, just how tenacious must a Hero be? Aah, yes. He needs to be tough, otherwise how would I enjoy it? Surely, I’ll have to make sure it’s so painful that he wants to take his own life. He’s made it this painful for me, after all.”
Salem licked his lips, produced a pouch that was on his person, and tossed it at the knight.
“For his treatment.”
He only said those words before moving on, stepping on the fallen Holy Knight’s face as he went.
“We’ll go and meet him immediately. Let’s see that so-called Hero’s damned face.”
The Captain swallowed hard as he stepped in line to follow the Pope.
“What are you saying?!”
Oskal grabbed the collar of the vice-captain. As Oskal had been known for his happy and jolly attitude, this new side of his superior left the vice-captain befuddled. The vice-captain replied with trembling lips.
“T-that is just something I overheard.”
“Is it true? I’m asking if it’s true!”
The vice-captain shook his head in reply
“I-I’m not sure. I-I only happened to overhear it from Prince Pygni when he was drunk myself…”
Oskal grit his teeth. His subordinate had only managed to hear one thing. It was that Thoma was being held prisoner within the palace. Not only that, he had been held on accounts of smuggling narcotics, abusing children, threatening priests, and other nonsense. If he had just heard it randomly, he might have brushed it aside, but it was different for it to have come from Prince Pygni’s mouth. More than anything, the timing of when Salem had chosen to confine them seemed to be too opportunistic.
“Shit, that bastard of a Pope! I knew he was scheming something, but I didn’t expect him to pull this kind of dirty stunt.”
Oskal knew the truth, that Salem hated Thoma. He also knew that Salem’s attitude toward Thoma had changed ever since he had learned Thoma was once a slave.
“W-wait a minute, sir! Just what are you planning on doing?”
“Huh? Isn’t it obvious? I’m going to punch that bastard, Salem, and free Thoma!”
“A-are you crazy?”
His subordinate was aghast at Oskal’s words. All the other knights gathered in the room also looked surprised and jumped up.
“Hey! Stop your Captain!” the vice-captain yelled.
They all quickly blocked the entrance in an attempt to stop Oskal.
“What are you guys doing? Are you guys talking back to your superior? Huh?”
“P-please think a bit before acting! Not only is it dangerous to badmouth the Pope when you’re our leader, but you’re intending to take a swing at his face? Isn’t this dangerous for the kingdom, diplomatically?”
Oskal was taken aback and went silent for a moment.
“If you’re not careful, it might even bring harm to the king!”
Oskal rubbed his forehead in agitation. Just then, the door to the room burst open.
“Puahaha! Fun. So fun! The alcohol here is really tasty, isn’t it? Haha! What would father do if he knew that I’d been drinking? He would definitely be angry!”
A plump little figure stumbled in. It was Prince Pygni fumbling with the door before finally closing it behind him. When he noticed the tense atmosphere of the room, he paused and hiccuped.
“…W-what is it? Why is the mood like this?”
The knights sighed in exasperation at Prince Pygni’s words. Oskal stared dumbly at the prince and muttered to himself.
“If I ask the prince…”
“W… wouldn’t it be okay if I asked for the prince’s help?”
The vice-captain looked pointedly at the prince.
“It’s possible, but… I wonder if the Pope will go along with the prince’s words.”
“Everyone, get out.”
His men were confused by the sudden order. Oskal looked around at the knights, then shouted.
“I said everyone leave!”
The knights were surprised by his sudden outburst and hurriedly left the room. Even the prince had never seen him like this and shrank back, looking meeker than usual.
Pygni tried to leave along with the knights, but stopped when Oskal said his name.
Prince Pygni flinched as he slowly turned to look at Oskal. The door had been closed by the knights after they left, leaving only the two of them in the room.
“I wish to hear something from you, Prince.”
“W-what is it, Oskal? That is, you know. I’m drunk right now, so I’m not so good at listening. S-so, can’t we continue this later? Hm?”
His cheeks shook softly as he trembled, and his pupils quivered. Seeing Pygni like this, Oskal grit his teeth.
‘Must I rely on this pig of a prince?!’
Having no other option, Oskal opened his mouth to speak.
“The news about the former Hero, Thoma, being captured. Who did you hear it from?”
At those words, Prince Pygni’s lips curled up.
Salem arrived at the interrogation room. The tail of his religious garb—which so long that it was trailing on the floor—was stained red from the bloody water. However, he didn’t have time to concern himself with such things. As he passed by each room, the interrogators doing their duty were surprised and approached him, moving to kneel and lowering their heads. He ignored them; his final destination was the iron maiden.
At his words, the interrogator hurriedly opened the door. Insects and filth poured out in a wave. Seeing what was inside, Salem, the interrogator, and the Captain of the Holy Knights froze in shock.
“… Good to see you, Salem Gatteschuranche.”
He was standing. His legs and arms had been tied. Normally, standing restrained in such a tight space would make one lose their balance and fall, but he was standing on his own two feet. He’d used the sharp spikes embedded into this back as supports to keep his body upright. He turned his head to face Salem, as though he could see him clearly despite being blindfolded.
“I’ll ask you this, Salem Gatteschuranche. What happened to the children and Sister Ellie?”
The torturer gulped at his words. His eyes were definitely covered, but he seemed to know both who was in front of him and where they stood
Salem turned to the Captain of the Holy Knights and spoke.
“Tell him the truth.”
The Captain lowered his head and muttered quietly.
“They’re children from an abbey behind on its taxes and donations. There was no other church or abbey in which they could be left, so they are going to be drafted into the allied forces of the Hero. Also, Sister Ellie was charged with the use of narcotics, but as there was no evidence apart from her symptoms, she is currently imprisoned. She’ll be sent to the front lines as a medic for the allied forces.”
Salem looked at Thoma expectantly.
“As he said, Sir Hero.”
Thoma thrashed around and the spikes skewering his body made terrible sounds as they began to pop out of his back. Blood seeped out of his many wounds, causing Thoma to waver as he approached Salem.
“… I can do no such thing, Sir Hero.”
“… You damned bastard. Son of a bitch… You utter piece of shit.”
A smile formed on Salem’s lips at Thoma’s muttering. They were insults, but they were more pleasant to hear than Thoma’s pain-filled screams. That was it. His opponent was angry! He was expressing resentment. To someone like Salem Gatteschuranche himself!
“Haha! This is the first time I’ve seen you use such profanities. I prefer it to when you’re acting oh-so-noble!”
Thoma’s face began to shift through several emotions in quick succession. At first, his eyes were filled with abject loathing, but before long his body shook and he relaxed. He knelt down and lowered his head, speaking only when his head was flat on the floor.
“… I beg you. Do not kill them. You’re bothered by my presence, right? Then I’ll leave this place! I’ll leave the capital! No, I’ll leave this country. I’ll live in hiding quietly and do anything you ask! So, please just let them be…!”
Salem looked down at Thoma and guffawed uncontrollably. It was so pitiful, he couldn’t help but laugh. The man he had been trying so hard to overcome had easily submitted. Yet, he’d gained nothing from this victory. Nothing at all. Nothing. There was nothing! Even now, Akareal was trying to save this former Hero with all her might! She had even gone to the extent of abandoning her morals!
Salem licked his dry lips and leaned back. He began massaging his shoulders; he couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable.
“Hah, you’re groveling now? What did Sir Hero do wrong? Want to know the truth? You did nothing wrong. Yep, nothing at all. So, do you know why I’m doing this to you?”
Salem squatted and undid the blindfold that was covering Thoma’s face. He quietly muttered, looking directly into Thoma’s eyes in order to let him know the truth.
“It’s simply because I don’t like you.”
Thoma’s eyes grew wide.
“That’s all. I didn’t like you. It bothered me that you were once a slave, and the fact that she is flailing about to save you further annoys me. That’s it.”
— Ω —