82. Confusion (3)
In the dead of night, there was a knock at Tom’s door. When it opened, some seemingly ordinary middle-aged men in traveler’s robes stood before Tom. Tom knew they weren’t ordinary men: their garb, though plain, had mana-expanding magic etched beneath their robes. Mana stones were hard to find, Tom knew; only men of a certain privilege could have them.
They looked at Tom, holding their swords and short staffs at their waist.
“… He really looks like him!”
“… I told you my eyes don’t lie!”
“But that can’t be right… But it is true that he looks similar. For it to be as the Queen had said…?”
Tom found their words odd. There was only one person that was the queen of his land: The wife of King Paulie. They must have been referring to Akareal.
The reason that these strangers looked surprised was Tom’s appearance.
“Similar. Just too similar.”
“… I know. But seriously…? No, it can’t be that man.”
“What about the chance that he’s his son….?”
“None. He didn’t have any lovers. Even if he did, the nun that he loved was already…”
Tom cocked his head quizzically. He looked similar…? Tom looked at the people in front of him and searched his memory. They were all strangers he was eeing for the first time, but something about them felt familiar.
‘… Who are they? I don’t recognize them at all.’
However, Tom was beginning to feel unnerved. He hadn’t felt this way since becoming Arrtark’s incarnate.
“You look like knights of the royal court,” Tom said, “so may I ask why you’ve come?”
They stopped their muttering amongst themselves and bowed their heads at Tom’s inquiry.
“Ah, excuse us. We received orders to escort you.”
Had King Paulie found the need for him? It must be that he had decided on how to deal with the diplomatic relationship with the Demons. It was a good result, despite resolving quicker than expected. But, counter to Tom’s guess, the one the Magic Knights were referring to was someone else.
“The Queen has requested an audience.”
The Magic Knights guided Tom to the Queen’s secret tunnel. When he walked through the tunnel made of stone, the space twisted and fell away until he found himself walking through a hallway in the palace.
‘… Is it illusory magic?’
The secret passage of the royals was not something to be shown to just any foreigner. However, to have brought Tom here meant that they were that confident in his ability to keep a secret.
‘Amazing. Was this to be expected of the Kingdom of Magic? They distorted time in the secret passage as well through illusions. It couldn’t be an easy task maintaining this kind of magic.’
If someone else had entered, they would have hopelessly lost.
They lead him to a particular room. Once Tom entered, he saw a woman, with plum-colored hair and eyes. The wife of King Paulie, Queen Akareal. She sat up on the sofa wearing a wide-brim dress drinking tea. The picture of elegance, she gracefully extended her hand to lower her cup.
“Please come in.”
Akareal looked upon Tom with a faint smile, her gaze trembling. Tom could guess why she acted this way: confusion, fear, expectation, concern. All manner of emotions were churning inside her. Tom suspected that the Queen recalled Thoma’s appearance as the youthful Hero in the distant past. It was natural that she would be conflicted.
“It is an honor to meet you, Queen Akareal.”
Tom lightly greeted her. Akareal gestured for him to sit opposite of her. When Tom sat, Akareal peeked once in a while to carefully inspect his face. Tom’s eyes narrowed seeing her do this.
‘Does she suspect something? That I might be Thoma…?’
After a moment, Akareal sighed.
“Is there some reason that the Queen had called for me at this late hour?”
She might be Queen, but calling upon some man like this could undoubtedly be dangerous, especially at this late hour. The Queen would lose a lot of credibility to the King if rumors began spreading by mistake.
To Tom, this was not a woman calling him to ease her lonely night. She was after something: she wanted to know whether he was the man called Thoma or his son.
“Why did I? That’s a good question. It might be just that I wanted to confirm something. You remind me of the former Hero. I called because I wondered if you had some connection to him.”
Tom’s suspicions were correct.
‘But, she’s calm.’ Tom thought to himself
The Queen had accepted that ‘Thoma’ was dead and that Tom was someone else. However, she grappled with the possibility that he might be his son, carrying on Thoma’s bloodline.
“You talk like a noble-turned-courtesan for the night.”
Tom replied with a bit of a bite. It was also with a manner which was incredibly rude to speak to royalty; insultingly so.
Tom gritted his teeth in regret. He had spoken reflexively, with his personal emotions. What was important was his ‘objective’, and not his ‘grudge’. At worst, this outburst could become an obstacle to his attempt at diplomacy.
Akareal covered her mouth and laughed at Tom’s words.
“I am not such a loose woman. Would a man that could be my grandson even be seduced by such an old woman?”
“60? I’ve heard it before, but you look much younger. At the very least, you appear to be a beautiful noblewoman in her late 30s. Is there some kind of a secret?”
Tom spoke, quelling his emotions to their limits. He felt his hand tighten and sweat began to form. His head filled with a rage that threatened to overcome his rationality. The one before him, Akareal, was a monster that used life extension magic at the cost of the lives of children.
“I used magic, and this is the youth that followed it.”
“Hah…haha. Is that… so? That is… truly amazing.”
His hand twitched and his muscles grew stiff as he glared at Akareal with cold eyes. When Akareal’s gaze turned back to Tom, he was smiling.
“… It’s nothing amazing. Rather, it is something filthy.”
Tom stopped talking at her unexpected response.
“It is magic that extends one’s longevity and maintains youth. However, it is also a magic that eats up another’s life to maintain that youth as well. It was considered forbidden in the ancient era.” Tom was speechless at her honest reply. In contrast, Akareal looked at him, and faintly smiled as she continued. “And I am… truly human garbage; a woman that has broken that taboo and committed a grave sin.”
She spoke about it casually and easily.
Tom looked at her dumbfounded, mouth agape.
“For what… reason?”
It was what he had wanted to know all this time: the reason she broke the taboo and used children as a sacrifice for magic experiments. He wanted to hear it with her own mouth.
Akareal held her teacup to her mouth and spoke.
“Due to personal desires… I broke the taboo in an attempt to save someone.”
“… Save… someone? Who…?”
“Do you know of the Hero Thoma?”
Tom’s eyes grew wide.
“He is a Hero that has already faded from people’s memories… and isn’t even recorded properly in the history books. He was truly a person overflowing with justice. Someone who was good, friendly, and warm. Even though people might point at him and mock him… He sacrificed his whole self to save humanity. I accompanied such a person. And so… In order to help him, I ended up breaking the taboo. He was dying under an incurable illness known as the Petrification. I believed that it was the only way I could save that person.”
It was the first time Tom had heard such a story. The letters sent by Salem had only stated that ‘Akareal used children as magical ingredients’ without a clear reason why or what her goal in doing so was. But, to use children as sacrifice…!
“Do you think that that person will forgive you?”
All of a sudden, his voice began to rise.
“It was something that I did, knowing he wouldn’t forgive me. It was truly foolish. I researched the magic knowing that the person would definitely suffer knowing the costs it took. It’s fine if you call me optimistic. It’s fine if the world mocks me as a worthless woman that sacrificed innocent children. Only, only… I wish that that person had been saved. As a precious friend… knowing nothing, I only wished he could spend his remaining days happy. All the sin shouldered by me, that is.”
She was currently speaking the truth, and it was Tom who was in conflict as a result.
“… Are you still using that magic? Your youth was sustained by it.”
“Yes, you’re correct. Youth can be maintained through that method, and I will answer that question by simply saying ‘I am still breaking the taboo.’”
“With children’s lives still…?”
Akareal drank her tea and smiled bitterly.
“It’s the soul.”
“There are ways to maintain your youth by cutting away at another’s life, but there are other methods. I am cutting away at my own life to maintain my youth.”
Tom’s amber-colored eyes lit up. He was looking through ‘the color of her soul’. It was to see what color her soul was.
“What do you mean…?”
“… N…othing. It’s nothing.”
Tom shut his mouth. Akareal’s soul was riddled with holes, like a beehive. If she continued this way, her soul would be destroyed, and beyond her current life, she would be unable to receive the right to rebirth through reincarnation even after her death. She would be completely destroyed from this world.
“There were some side-effects at first. It allows one to maintain their youth, but without stealing another’s life regularly, the body deteriorates rapidly until death. To survive, no matter what, there is no other way but to extinguish the soul.”
“What is the reason you want to keep living… at the cost of your own soul?”
“To… be forgiven for my sins, maybe? Yes, I want to save more people than the number of children I’ve harmed. I want to live for them until this sullied life draws to an end. What kind of magic should I research for their sake? What could I do so that they may enjoy a better life…? And such. Also, it is a self-imposed punishment. I want to feel myself be completely extinguished through this magic I’ve developed, to the point that I can’t even go to hell.” Akreal’s hand was faintly shaking. She felt fear at the thought of being completely destroyed from this world. “There is no one that could understand. I am committing this act to force myself to atone for my actions… I am truly an evil and selfish woman.”
Akreal stopped talking. She shook her head as though she surprised herself. She was speaking all of her secrets unconsciously. The secrets not divulged for over 30 years to some stranger that she had met today. As though speaking to Thoma, she had been unceasingly told the truth without hiding anything. Maybe she wanted to unburden herself and ease her loneliness to some extent.
“I have spoken quite a bit. Only, I just wished to speak to you, who looks so similar to the Hero.”
When Akareal placed her cup upon the table and turned back to Tom, her eyes grew wide. Tom’s face was twisted up. He looked at her with sadness and agony. Seeing him, Akareal’s eyes grew wide in disbelief.
Tom brushed his face with his hand, and his expression was gone, replaced by a neutral face looking back at her, then he smiled.
“… I am not a person called Thoma.”
“… I’m sorry. I’ve mistaken you again.” Akareal turned her gaze outside the window. “It’s late. Thank you for being my conversation partner… It was joyful, I feel like I’ve spoken with the Hero of the past thanks to you.”
Tom walked down the hallway, dumbfounded. The conversation he’d had with Akareal swam in his mind. It was especially because she had spoken the truth that he now felt overcome with conflict. He turned his head toward of the the Magic Knights and asked him a question.
“… What kind of person is the queen?”
The Magic Knight peered over at him, and spat out a short reply, looking proud.
“A friendly and warm person. She is beautiful and appears to be strong, but in reality, she is a person with a soft heart… And she is also someone that is always worried that she hasn’t taken care of the orphans when she finds one. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that more than half of the orphanages within the Kingdom of Aylans were personally built by her. It could be said that most of the orphans are indebted to her. More than ten thousand orphans survived thanks to her.”
“… Did you know that she committed a taboo?”
The Magic Knight froze as he was walking, hearing Thoma’s question. His gaze turned to him, looking surprised.
“She told you about that as well?”
“You were aware of it.”
Only, it appeared that he wasn’t aware that she was cutting down her own soul. It was a secret that Akareal had been keeping for 30 years.
“… Yes, The reason that she takes care of the children is another way that she hopes to atone for her sin in some small way.”
“Does King Paulie know?”
It was a foolish question. There was no way that the most powerful magician within the Kingdom of Aylans wouldn’t have caught on that she had used forbidden magic. It could be that he was also aware that she was cutting down her own soul as well.
The Magic Knights looked at him, before the one who had been speaking responded.
“The King knows this truth and still keeps her around. Because he loves her. Because he wants to protect her no matter what.”
Tom reached for his brow, conflicted and lowered his head. His head was becoming more and more confused.
The Magic Knight looked at the silent Tom and tilted his head quizzically.
“Still, he does look similar.”
He had been hearing that he looked ‘similar’ for a while now. Also, he was feeling hectic with his conflicting emotions. Tom turned to ask them irritably.
“… Who are you talking about?”
Tom asked the Magic Knight.
“Like the Monk, Thoma.”
Tom stiffly turned his head.
“Ah, it could be that you’re not aware.”
His companions nodded his head in agreement after seeing Tom’s face.
“Yep, he’s similar to that man.”
“Definitely, it’d be his appearance if he was younger.”
“… Who are you all? Why do you know this person called Thoma?”
“What? You know Brother Thoma as well?”
He asked the wrong question. Tom maintained his calm and changed his question.
“This person called Thoma, what kind of person was he?”
“That is… he’s the savior that took us in.”
“He’s the person that took care of us at the abbey when we were abandoned as orphans.”
Tom finally realized who they were. The abandoned orphans. They were the children that Tom… no, Thoma personally raised at the abbey.
— Ω —