3. The Abbey (1)
“Hm? Ah, well…”
The old man carefully gauged Thoma’s expression before revealing his foot. What greeted Thoma was a black and blue colored, swollen mess of flesh; it gave off the impression that his bones were broken.
“I haven’t been able to feel anything for a while now. I’ve sought out a pharmacist, but… he said it might already be too late. The only options I have left are to amputate it or have it healed using holy magic, but the money… I’m already skipping meals! Not to mention there are already back taxes piling up! How could I ever afford an expensive treatment from those priests?”
“…I understand.” Thoma sighed in response to the old man’s earnest cries and reached his hand toward the old man’s foot.
When he chanted something under his breath, light poured out from his palm and seeped into the foot. Slowly but surely, the swelling died down, and the dark bruising faded away.
The old man watched, eyes wide, before staring daggers at him. “Didn’t you hear me?! I can’t even pay my taxes or make paltry donations to the abbey, and you give me this kind of expensive treatment?!”
“I won’t ask for any payment.”
Thoma gave the old man a wide smile.
“I only ask that you visit this place every once in a while to help care for the children. They enjoy it very much, and the past experiences of the elderly make for great stories. That’s all I ask of you.”
“Ah-ah… Lord Hero!”
“And the donation… I’ll overlook it for today. Do not forget it next time. Okay?”
The old man gripped Thoma’s hand in response. “Thank you! Thank you! There’s no one else who’d go so far for an old man like me!”
The old man wept pitifully as he firmly gripped Thoma’s hand. His calloused, dirty hands were small and frail from malnutrition, like a thin branch that would snap at any moment. People such as this old man were a common sight, but in the end, their hearts were still pure and innocent. Thoma was the sole ray of hope for these people who had been abandoned by both family and country.
“Lord Hero! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
After the elderly group left, Thoma turned toward the altar containing the donations. Peering inside, he saw scant few coins staring back at him
‘We’re finished. It’s not even worth offering this little to the Holy Kingdom.’
A 40% tax. This was the tax rate that citizens of this country had to pay every month. On top of that, each person had to visit a church or abbey near them once a day to offer more money in the name of ‘donations’. After an entire month of donation, nearly another 10% of one’s money had been taken. Abbeys and churches were supposed to count these donations at the end of the day. If they suspected anyone of withholding what was due, their faith was called into question and they would be handed over to the Religious Court. In short, the citizens of the Holy Kingdom had to pay a total of 50% in taxes every month. This made it difficult for the poorer peasantry to get by, who didn’t have wealthy households and resources to fall back on. It was common to see a son or daughter being sold into slavery just to sustain their family’s meager lifestyle.
‘This… is too unfair.’
Thoma was well aware that this was a heartless way to rule, but money was necessary to maintain balance and keep the country moving forward. The higher the taxes, the stronger their country would become; recruiting and training top-quality soldiers wasn’t cheap. Considering this, it wasn’t surprising that the tax rate was so high.
‘Everyone still manages to get by despite the struggles. There’s always some way to survive. The fact that this poor little abbey’s still around is proof enough. But… can anyone actually have a happy life living like this? Can we even be called alive when we’re all no different than slaves to the nation?’
Later in the day, Thoma discovered his concerns were shared by the children of the abbey.
“This is because of all the bad people!”
Thoma cocked his head in bewilderment.
“The bad people?” he asked curiously.
The children put down the blocks they were playing with and nodded or held their hands up to speak.
“The king and the nobles!”
“Ah, the priests as well!”
Thoma was stunned by their words.
“People say they’re the ones taking all of our money!” One of the sisters nearby trembled at that comment.
Thoma felt conflicted at their disparaging remarks.
‘Someone said so? Just who had told them this?’
“Who told you all this?”
The children pointed toward one corner of the room. When Thoma followed their fingers, a sister playing with the girls caught his eye. Her signature silver hair and red eyes made her easy to identify, it was Ellie.
She looked shocked by both the childrens’ accusations and Thoma’s gaze, sheepishly scratching her cheek with her finger. Ellie had also been eavesdropping on the children, trying to gauge Thoma’s reaction. The children continued to confidently shout out their ‘knowledge’, without understanding what it meant to repeat the things Ellie had taught them.
“She said it was because all the kings, nobles, and priests are eating too much!”
“Yeah! All the t-taxes and d-donations,” one particularly young child stuttered. “They said they’re only doing bad things with them!”
“Look! The nobles and priests are all fat!”
The children held up their arms and walked around clumsily, imitating the nobles and priests in their imaginations. Thoma’s eyes twitched, remaining latched onto the young nun.
Thoma wore a bright smile, but his narrowed eyes betrayed his inner annoyance. Clearly he blamed her for the children’s biased mindset. Ellie giggled awkwardly, walking over to Thoma and the children.
She looked back at him apologetically before speaking to the children. “Yes, that’s right. Kings and nobles, even priests do bad things!”
‘… Just what is she saying?!’
Thoma tried to silence her, but Ellie spoke first.
“But, what did I tell you before that? How about people in general?”
The children answered in unison. “There are good people and bad people!”
Ellie nodded at their response. “That’s right. That must mean that there are bad people and good people among the kings and nobles and priests too, right?”
The children looked back at her in confusion.
“Mmm. For example, over there!” Ellie pointed toward Thoma. “How is brother Thoma to you? Is he good or bad?”
“Good person!” The children shouted.
“That’s right, but he’s a priest as well. He’s not a bad person, is he?”
The children looked toward Thoma, then back at Ellie, still unable to wrap their heads around who was good and who was bad.
“There are very good people and very bad people among us all. There are bad people among the kings, nobles, and priests that you all spoke of, but there’s also good people like us—that help the poor—among them as well. It’s because of these good people that everyone here is able to keep living happily!”
Thoma shut his mouth at her words. He no longer wanted to stop her from speaking. Rather, he too had become interested in her unconventional lesson.
“The terrible people can become good, and the good people among us can become bad. They also have hearts, just like me or you, so doesn’t it make sense that they can change as well?”
The children looked toward Thoma and Ellie.
“Can brother Thoma and sister Ellie become bad as well?”
The pair were dumbfounded by the children’s question.
Ellie quickly replied with a smile. “Yes! High marks for you! That could happen! However, I have Brother Thoma, and Brother Thoma has me, so we will not become bad! We support each other and correct our path to remain good! Don’t you all agree? What do you think, Brother Thoma? That’s what a family is, isn’t it?”
Ellie turned to face Thoma, waiting for his response. But as she did so, she realized the implication behind her words and began to blush.
“Ah, that is…”
Ellie scratched her cheek timidly at his hesitation. “Ah, did I say something too embarrassing?”
“No, that’s not it,” Thoma assured her. “It is the truth after all.”
“I also believe that Sister Ellie keeps me on the right path when I stray away from the light, and it is because of my faith in her that I know I can remain good. I am extremely happy that you are here with me, and I am grateful for your constant support. Please, sister Ellie, continue looking after the children as you have been.”
Thoma beamed a smile at Ellie, certain that his response had satisfied her.
In a flash, Ellie quickly stood up and announced her departure. “Ah, that’s right! I’d forgotten there was laundry to do! Silly me!”
She scurried away as if she was fleeing. Thoma couldn’t help but shrug, which sent the children into a frenzy as they whispered among themselves.
“A sudden confession? Isn’t that what they call a proposal?”
“…Sir monk, he was secretly a player.”
“What’s a player?”
“A host? Someone that take advantage of women?”
“I think he’s just a pushover.”
“What’s a pushover?”
Thoma’s mouth twitched at their gossip. ‘These children… just where did they learn such things?!’
Thoma’s gaze was drawn to one shelf in particular as he organized the library. The bookcase filled with old texts and manuscripts. Behind it, there existed an entrance to a dungeon of sorts, where some heretical cult once worshipped an ancient devil.
‘From the look of things, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s touched it since then. No, they shouldn’t have. There’s no reason for the other monks to move this bookcase, and it’s impossible for the children to move it with their strength. I should report it to the Holy Kingdom later and have them take care of it.’
He didn’t feel reassured with just sealing and hiding the entrance.
‘Of course, I have to pay the back taxes and prepare the donations first.’
Thoma sighed internally as he continued to dust the books.
“Um… sir monk.”
Thoma turned to find a young monk standing behind him.
“Well…” The young monk moved closer and whispered into Thoma’s ears.
“Donations… are lacking? Thoma asked, repeating what the monk had told him. “Part of that is because the elderly couldn’t pay…”
Thoma grew concerned as to whether this was a problem of his own creation, but the young monk shook his head.
“No. That’s not it… Even with those elders not making proper donations, the amount in the records should still match, but it doesn’t. The only explanation is that somebody is embezzling donations.”
When Thoma jumped in shock from the unexpected news, the young monk’s expression darkened.
“It appears that Brother Faron is the culprit.”
Thoma moved with great haste, followed by the young monk. He couldn’t help but feel pathetic as he let out a sigh. Faron had always been an honest and devoted monk. He was also an outstanding man who garnered much respect from the other brothers and sisters, due to his age and experience.
‘Why would such a man steal donations…?’
Thoma arrived to find the Chapel packed to the brim with other members of the abbey. They were all surrounding one person, arguing loudly.
“Wait! What did I do wrong, huh? I’m telling you, I didn’t take it!”
“Don’t lie. I saw you taking money out of the altar myself.”
“You saw it?” Faron asked incredulously, “Proof… bring proof!”
Thoma squeezed through the throng and began to calm the crowd. “Stop this at once! Do you all find such bickering acceptable in this holy room?”
Everyone was visibly startled by Thoma’s outburst, and looked away from him in shame. His voice made them aware of their surroundings.
Thoma cautiously peeked toward the monk named Faron. He was an old-looking man— perhaps in his 60s—with a bald head and a deeply wrinkled face. Not unlike the elders from earlier, his physique was gaunt, nearly skeletal, from malnourishment.
The young monk looked at Thoma and whispered quietly. “…What will you do?”
“Did brother Faron truly commit this act?” Thoma asked apprehensively.
“I witnessed it myself.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes, it was not just me, but others as well…”
Thoma let out a groan. He had to maintain a neutral stance. If he were to believe Faron’s denial, he would also have to weigh the other monk’s and sister’s claims equally. The easiest way to decide which side to take would be for him to uncover who was telling the truth.
Thoma turned to Faron, who took his gaze as an accusation. “C-could it be that Sir Hero is suspecting me as well?!”
“… I am no Hero.”
“I-I apologize. Brother Thoma, a-are you perhaps doubting me?” Faron’s voice sounded shakey. He gulped and looked down. Sweat had even started trickling down from his brow, and his body trembled anxiously.
Thoma’s golden pupils gleamed as he studied the color of the man’s soul. Initially clear blue—small red specks began to appear—until Faron’s entire soul had been dyed red. This change meant he was ‘lying’, and no lie could escape Thoma’s sight.
Now knowing the truth, he looked at Faron with a soft smile.
“Yes? Ah… yes.”
Faron found himself being calmed by Thoma’s languid voice. However, he lowered his head even further, unable to bear the weight of Thoma’s gaze.
“Did you… steal the donations?”
“Brother Thoma! I…” Faron hurriedly raised his head, but immediately lost his voice in the face of Thoma’s gentle smile. After a moment of reluctance, he spoke. “I-I’m sorry. My wife… She’s so sick, but the price of medicine…”
Thoma consoled Faron and rubbed his shoulders. Rather than add fuel to the fire, he asked the old monk how his wife was faring.
“So, is she feeling better?”
“Yes? No… that is…”
Seeing that Thoma was more concerned with his wife’s health than the stolen donations, Faron couldn’t help but feel a sharp pang of guilt in his heart. A torrent of tears burst forth, and his knees buckled from the flood of emotions.
“I’m sorry. I am truly sorry! Brother Thoma…! Yes, my wife is doing well. Thankfully, she’s gotten over the worst of it. She’s still quite ill, but… She will recover! Yes, she will definitely get better!”
“I see. I’m glad.”
Thoma turned toward the other brothers and sisters who were staring at Faron with disdain.
“I’m sorry! I lied… I’m so sorry! I stole the money…!”
“It is not for me to receive the apology,” Thoma interjected. He helped Faron to his feet, and made him face the other members of the abbey. “Now now. To everyone…”
“I… am sorry. I am very sorry.”
Faron faced the other nuns and monks, bowing deeply, and apologized at Thoma’s urging.
“The… money. I will definitely pay it back. I will pay it back at any cost! So… please forgive me.”
Upon hearing those words, the eyes of the other nuns and monks softened. However, their disappointment was another matter. None of them had expected someone as trusted and respected as Faron to betray the abbey. Thoma had also been caught off-guard by Faron’s actions, but rather than disappointment, he felt sympathy.
‘It can’t be helped.’ He thought to himself.
The abbey wasn’t earning money like it used to. The monks and sister were barely able to escape starvation, let alone afford a luxury like medicine. Brother Faron had been forced to make a difficult choice: betray his brothers and sisters or let his wife die.
‘However… if something like this happens again, things will be very difficult.’
This abbey was in dire straits after all.
— Ω —