5. Corruption (1)
Thoma was looking over the abbey’s most recent financial records in his office.
“It’s… not adding up.”
Money was definitely missing. No matter how many times he re-checked, more than half of the donations were gone. The only conclusion he could come to was this being another case of embezzlement.
‘Brother Faron again…?’
Thoma had his doubts. There wasn’t any reason for Faron to repeat his crime.
“I have to look into this myself.”
Thoma rose from his seat and quickly made his way to the chapel. Upon entering, he was greeted by an all too familiar scene. Everyone was gathered in a crowd around two shouting men.
“Didn’t you steal it again?! I saw you!”
“What are you talking about? I did it…? Lies! I only said something because I saw you taking it! And now you’re trying to turn the crime back on me!”
While the shouting match continued, Thoma heard two nuns near the door whispering back and forth.
“Was it Brother Faron again….?”
“Yes, I saw it myself.”
“Oh my, how shameless!”
He sighed internally. It was obvious that something had just happened to the donations again.
‘Could it be that Brother Faron stole from the donations again!’
Thoma pushed through the crowd and pulled the two bickering men apart.
“Please stop fighting, you two. What is it this time?”
The young monk immediately shouted. “Brother Faron stole money again! The donations!”
Hearing this Thoma let out a groan, but a flustered Faron shook his head in earnest denial.
“No, Brother Thoma! It was I who witnessed him! I watched that bastard take money out of the donation box, so I warned him quietly to return what he took! But instead, the bastard suddenly…!”
Thoma blinked in surprise. Sure, Faron’s denial couldn’t simply be taken at face value, but he did sound more sincere than last time. Rather than an act, it felt like he was actually the victim here. His voice may have sounded panicked, but he pleaded with sincerity and his gaze did not waver as it had before. To be absolutely certain Thoma looked into his soul and saw that it was blue. This was a soul free of deception. He was telling the truth.
Thoma couldn’t hide his surprise.
‘… It wasn’t Brother Faron?’
He was starting to find this entire situation all too suspicious.
“Haha, yes. That’s right!” the young monk exclaimed. “I must’ve been mistaken. Brother Faron wouldn’t have committed the same crime twice.”
The young monk’s anger vanished in an instant and now he was suddenly contradicting himself, leaving Thoma thoroughly confused. His breathing was erratic, his lips were chapped, and sweat was starting to form on his forehead. The young monk had gone from confident to a nervous wreck in a matter of seconds.
Thoma finally looked at the young man’s soul. It was dyed red.
“That’s not true!” Faron shouted. “I watched the bastard touch the money and stopped him! This kid is putting on an act! Brother Thoma! Please… please believe me!”
Thoma heard his pleas and looked around at the crowd surrounding them. Most of the monks and nuns turned away from his gaze. They were afraid of meeting Thoma’s eyes. Their unease was palpable, as they fidgeted around nervously.
The young monk drew closer to Thoma’s side.
“Ha, I see. Yes, yes! I understand now. Tsk…! Brother Thoma, we should just overlook this incident.”
The young monk whispered in his ear. “Seeing as this is all Brother Faron’s fault again… we should just pretend it didn’t happen. It would be troublesome if the problem became larger than it already is.”
‘What… what is this man saying? He wants to overlook this incident? What crime had Brother Faron committed here…?’
All around him, the other monks and nuns began to chime in.
“Yes, Brother Faron is guilty this time as well.”
“That must be it.”
“I saw him as well. Brother Faron did it.”
They were all lying. Thoma couldn’t hide his dismay.
“Why are you all lying?”
Everyone froze in surprise at his question. Still, they couldn’t look him in the eye.
“Let’s stop here!” The young monk pleaded. “We’re all tired of this. For this minor thing…!”
What were they tired of? What filled them with such discontent? Just what was so…
Thoma was struck with a sudden epiphany. “Why did all of you… steal the donations?” He mumbled the last part under his breath.
The perpetrator hadn’t been Faron. Rather, everyone else here were the true thieves. Thoma was aware of this. They had colluded, lied, and ostracized an unfortunate fellow to commit this wrong.
‘This is wrong! You all know this isn’t right!’
Before the words could escape his lips, a nun burst through the door of the chapel.
“Brother Thoma!” “Pope S-salem… has arrived!”
Pope Salem Gottschuranche surveyed the office. He dragged his index finger across Thoma’s dust-caked desk, frowning at the large amount of filth stuck to his finger. He wiped the grime off with a handkerchief and tossed it into the trash bin. Thoma, who was sitting on the other side of the desk, finally broke the silence.
“It has been a while, Your Holiness. What brings you to this backwater land…?”
Salem responded with a smile. “It’s been a while, Sir Hero. You’ve aged quite a bit.”
“The same could be said of you, Your Holiness.”
Salem adjusted his posture several times, having trouble getting comfortable on the hard chair.
“Ah… In the past I would have considered this chair more comfortable than most. This is a bit awkward. It seems I’ve grown too accustomed to the luxuries that come with being the Pope; plush chairs are one such example..”
“Is that so?”
“Don’t be so formal with me. Aren’t you the Hero of the past? I am merely a humble priest.”
Thoma scratched the back of his head. “I am just another man of the cloth as well, and Lord Salem is now His Holiness.”
“Still, it will make me feel more comfortable if you ignore such formalities.”
Thoma reluctantly nodded. “Yes, I shall… No. Ugh. Okay.”
“It’s awkward, isn’t it.” Salem asked with a chuckle.
“Well, you’re not wrong. That’s just how it is.”
Thoma feigned a smile while Salem nodded in agreement.
“That is indeed how it is. The contrast is stark, after all. One was once a Hero, but became a common monk in some small, backwater abbey. The other was just another man of the cloth, but eventually rose to the top of the Church’s hierarchy, ruling over the continent.”
Thoma was feeling increasingly uncomfortable as Salem spoke. He remained silent as the Pope continued.
“Looking at it this way, it feels like there must be a God guiding us. No, there is one…” Salem smiled. “He has always been watching over us, bestowing upon his believers small miracles—though it appears as if only those He selects may reap the rewards. Not you, but someone like me.”
Thoma frowned. “Salem, just what are you…”
“It’s just the drivel of an aging man!” He exclaimed. “Why listen to it so seriously?”
Salem turned to look out the office window. He could see the children playing outside.
“How many children reside in this abbey?”
Thoma sighed with relief at the change of topic, and replied. “There are eight.”
“Oh, that’s quite a few,” Salem mused. Are any of them above the age of thirteen…?”
Thoma forced himself to answer, despite knowing what was coming. “… There are three now.”
“Then it’s time for them to start paying taxes.”
Thoma’s face froze.
“This abbey’s taxes are already four months behind. Other churches and abbeys pay right on time, the sole exception being your abbey. This makes things difficult. Very difficult, for me that is. If other priests noticed this, they might begin to suspect an unsavory relationship between you and I. As the Pope, I must treat all fairly. Normally, there’d be an investigation after a month or two of missed payments. I’ve been putting it off on purpose, but… I don’t know if that’s possible any longer.”
Thoma clasped his hands together, before speaking pitifully. “Salem, our current state is poor. Of course, I am aware that taxes and donations must be paid. I know these funds serve a greater purpose, but… don’t you think the burden has become too heavy to bear? The tax rate is high. We ask for so much in donations as well. Our abbey is located in a forest far away from the capital. There are many wild beasts, and demons appear from time to time as well. The few visitors that come here are all elderly and their health has only grown poorer. It’s impossible for these people to both pay their taxes and make proper donations…”
“Quite audacious, aren’t we?” Salem sneered.
Thoma looked at Salem in shock.
“No, I’m not talking about you, Sir Hero, but the subjects you speak of. The Kingdom receives taxes from its subjects. Donations as well, but you of all people should know this already. The Kingdom must keep moving forward. The subjects of this Kingdom exist only as long as the Kingdom itself exists. However, don’t you find it strange?” Salem began drumming his fingers on the desk. “We are protecting them from the monsters and demons.” He was smiling, but Thoma saw no warmth in his eyes. “We distribute food during the winter. Provide them with a warm place to sleep. Feed them so they don’t starve. We protect them from all things evil and those that wish them harm. All victims of injustice are protected by us, by our laws, and these mere serfs want their taxes lowered? They’re asking us to stop collecting all of the money we spend on them? Bastards… do they even understand their own situation?”
“Well… they’re not asking for taxes to be done away with, just lowered,” Thoma pleaded. “With your authority, something like lowering the rates of taxes or donations…”
“Hah,” Salem scoffed, finding the idea ridiculous. “The tax rate is a mere 40%. We’re not even asking for half of the money you earn. I fail to see the issue?”
Thoma kept his mouth shut, but he knew the truth. It was 40% in word only. Combined with one’s daily donations to the church, most people were forced to give more than 50% of their earnings away.
“Is everyone truly so clueless as to where their taxes go? Do they scratch their heads in bewilderment at the purpose of their donations? Yes, some does go to the priests and nobles working for the Kingdom, but that’s only to be expected. We have many other uses for that money, such as helping children who have lost their parents.” Salem was becoming increasingly irate as his ranting went on. “Look at this abbey! The Holy Kingdom continues to supply you all with provisions despite your failure to pay what you owe. We show such benevolence so that those unfortunate souls can continue to eat warm food and sleep in warm beds!”
It was becoming clear to Thoma that his words were not reaching him. “Salem, all I’m trying to say is…”
A sudden, loud slam interrupted him. Salem had smashed his fist onto the desk. “Thoma.” The old Pope interlaced his fingers. He was smiling. It was a gentle smile, but Thoma saw past the facade. Salem’s eyes contained sinister emotions. “There was a time in the past when I would raise pets. Things like dogs or cats, and such.”
Unnerved by the sudden change in topic, Thoma remained silent.
“I cherished them dearly and loved them all so very, very much. I fed them and brushed them every single day. And as I did so, they followed my every command. Seeing those cute little simpletons looking so happy, I couldn’t help but continue pouring my affection onto them.” Salem’s smile was slowly twisting into a scowl. “But, you know what? You know what!?” His demeanor changed in an instant. Now his eyes were filled with rage and malice. “It turns out that those pets I raised were just as obedient to anyone as they were to me. Do you know why? It’s because others fed them and brushed them for being cute as well. Their loyalty to me was that fickle. Those stupid bastards forgot who their true owner was and followed other people.”
Salem suddenly recalled an incident from the past.
One of his priests felt sorry for the poor and made the mistake of lowering their daily donations. He even went as far as to distribute food provided by the Holy Kingdom to these needy peasants. Salem still remembered what he had managed to overhear when he had gone to visit the territory.
“He’s such a generous man! It’s truly a blessing from God that such a man exists within this rotten land!’”
Salem shivered. An insult to the land was no different than an insult to him.
He spoke, quivering with rage. “I am their owner, yet they dare thank another? Hahaha… wouldn’t you be upset? I’ve paid for their food, cared for them, and given them shelter… And still, after all that, those fools forgot who they owed their lives to. It’s like they all suffered from dementia. They had to be punished. Do you know what I did to them?”
Salem’s expression was grotesque. He looked and sounded like a madman.
“I spanked them.”
He was laughing hysterically as he said this, as if it were a joke. The man sitting across from Thoma couldn’t be described as a man of God, let alone the Pope of the Holy Kingdom.
“I kicked them, paddled them, hung them from crosses, seared them, tortured them, and made them struggle in agony. Whenever they cried ‘Spare me!’, I asked just one, simple question.”
His laughter stopped abruptly, then he spoke with a smug, self-satisfied smile.
“Why didn’t you recognize your master?”
Thoma gulped. He was fully aware of it, that the Pope had truly committed these heinous acts exactly as he described. He could sense the truth in his words.
Noticing Thoma’s expression, Salem waved his hand. “… It’s all a joke. Why are you acting so stiff? How can animals cry out ‘Save me’? Haha! Sir Hero, I just wanted to lighten the mood with a joke between friends. Don’t be so humorless. It’s hard for me when you take all of my jokes so seriously.”
“I… apologize. You’re right.”
Now, it was lies. Thoma groaned in his mind. The Pope’s disposition had grown rotten to a terrifying extent. Realizing this, Thoma knew he had to match Salem’s mood if he hoped to avoid his wrath.
Salem abruptly rose from his seat, as if to express an end to their conversation.
“Well then, you won’t have to worry about donations any more.”
“What?” Thoma was left bewildered yet again.
“Aren’t we friends?” Salem asked innocently. “I’ll also let the children be exempt from taxes if they can perform a small favor for me. It’s simple enough…”
“No, I’m not saying we won’t pay taxes. All I want is a bit more time!”
“Sir Hero.” Salem gripped Thoma’s shoulder “Leave it to me. Now, this…” Salem pulled out a single gold coin from his pouch and placed it on the table. “Is a donation. It should be more than enough to cover however much you owed. I’m sure there will be some left over as well. Use it as you wish…”
“I’ve come all this way, so I must go and pray before I leave.”
“Too… much.” Thoma mumbled. “This is too much. I cannot accept this.”
“Buy something nice for the children to eat. Those children are my children, after all. But, don’t go spending it all on the peasantry. It would pain me to see my gift wasted so.”
“But, this is…”
“Didn’t I say it before? A master always takes care of his pets”. The Pope’s eyes narrowed. “Ah, don’t misunderstand me. I am the embodiment of the Holy Kingdom! I’m simply fulfilling my obligation, to protect my flock of faithful lambs. That includes you… and the pets you keep.”
He had referred to the children as ‘pets’. Even if he was the Pope, Thoma couldn’t let it go so easily.
Salem’s body grew stiff under Thoma’s gaze. It felt as if the former Hero’s golden eyes were piercing straight through him.
“Do you know what the color of your soul is right now? It is dark and murky—like a storm cloud.”
Salem bit down on his lip, drawing blood. He really hated those eyes. Those eyes that held such strong conviction. Those eyes that could see right through him. He wanted to at least avoid meeting that gaze. The gaze of the eyes with the power to see into ones soul, discerning truth from lies.
— Ω —