The woman looked up and met the priest's gaze head-on as she spoke.
"If the conditions are the same as always, then so is my answer."
"You refuse, then?"
"I'm afraid so."
The priest leaned forward.
"Your achievements and prestige are practically unequaled. Such a personage ought to receive suitably compensation, don't you agree?"
The woman — Sasha Folmoon — answered clearly. Her gaze never wavered.
"I am a hero, and a hero is one who gives people courage, protects them, and supports them in their need. If I were to live in the palace, I could not help becoming distant from the people, and then I would be unable to give them hope. I want to stay here as the people's support."
The priest appeared stunned by Sasha's answer, delivered without hesitation.
"Humph. Fine, then. If you change your mind, come let me know any time."
"Thank you very much."
Sasha maintained her perfect manners, even faced with the priest's merely superficial courtesy.
◊ ♦ ◊ ♦ ◊
An ornate carriage with the crest of Lescatié engraved on its roof, a rare sight in the slums, stood parked before the district's only church. Armed palace guards secured the area around it.
At length the door of the church opened, and an old man came out. His body, wrapped in a white robe, could be called robust or fat, depending on how the speaker was disposed to him. The guards formed a perimeter around him as he walked laboriously towards the carriage.
Sasha stood by the door and saw off the priest until he got into his carriage and departed. When it had completely vanished from her view, Sasha let out a sigh so small that no one but herself could notice it. It was probably because he feared assassination that he took such precautions. Even if that were not the case, he the slums were teeming with discontent and grumbling against the upper classes. Some might say that it was only natural for him to be wary.
It was a sad state of affairs when even a priest, who the masses ought by all rights to have greeted with open arms, had become a target of their animosity. It showed how twisted the country had become.
She suddenly became aware of the weight of two small bodies clinging to her legs. Glancing down, she discovered a pair of little girls wrapped around them.
The girl on Sasha's left leg was cheerful-looking, with brown hair gathered in two bunches, and she was staring determinedly in the direction the carriage had gone.
The blonde girl snuggled up to her right leg was slightly younger than her companion, and she looked, by contrast, rather timid.
The girl on her left stuck out her tongue after the departed carriage. The girl on her right, seeing that, stuck out her own tongue as if to mimic her neighbor.
"Now see here, Lisia, Emiyu, you mustn't do that."
Sasha scolded the girls on either side of her, but her soft expression belied her words.
"But... aren't those people trying to take you away, big sis? That makes them the enemy," said the brown haired girl called Lisia, and gave Sasha's leg a tight squeeze.
"Yeah..." the blonde girl muttered quietly, and hugged Sasha's other leg every bit as tight as Lisia.
Sasha knew that she ought to scold them for calling a priest of the faith an enemy, of all things, but she could feels the girls' uneasiness through the desperate strength with which they clung to her legs. Sasha flashed a kind smile, then crouched down and wrapped her arms around the pair.
"I'm not going anywhere. I mean, how could I when I have two little troublemakers here to look after?"
"...But... big sis... don't you really want to live in the castle? If you were in the castle, you could eat tastier food, and sleep on a fluffier bed, right?"
Lisia looked up at Sasha with eyes full of unease. Emiyu didn't say anything, but she tightened her grip on Sasha's leg.
"Oh my, do I seem like such an insensitive person to you? You're making your big sister sad."
Sasha made a sad face and put on a show of sobbing.
Lisia saw that and panicked.
"N, not at all! You're nice, big sis! The nicest person in the world!"
"Y, you're... k, kind, Ms. Sasha..."
Emiyu looked up too and added her own frantic words to Lisia's. Seeing that, Sasha chuckled.
"That's the way. Believe in your nice big sister. I'll never leave this church, no matter what."
She gave the pair a gentle pat on the head, and they finally looked reassured.
"Now, let's go inside. We've got to get ready for lunch."
The three stood up and were about to go back inside the church, when Emiyu stopped in her tracks and turned back to face the way the carriage had gone.
"Emi? What's the matter?"
Lisia called out to Emiyu, but she remained motionless, staring fixedly across the way.
When Sasha called out to her as well, Emiyu suddenly ran off without a word.
"Hey, Emi! You can't just get out of chores by—!"
Lisia began to chase after Emiyu, but noticed an approaching figure and came to a stop before she caught up to her.
It was a young man. He was walking towards them with a bag dangling over one shoulder. He was clad in the inner suit that the soldiers of Lescatié wore under their armor, and his bright red hair stood out even at a distance.
The instant she recognized him, Lisia ran off again like a shot. She abandoned her pursuit of Emiyu and leapt into the young man's bosom.
"Woah there... That you, Lisia?"
The young man just managed catch the leaping girl without being knocked down, and flashed a wry grin at her rough welcome.
Emiyu, who arrived at the young man's feet a moment later, wrapped her arms around his legs.
"Have you grown a little, Emiyu?"
The young man tousled the golden hair of the girl clinging to his legs. Emiyu narrowed her eyes and looked pleased.
"Me too! I got taller too!"
"Yeah, I can tell; you're a little heavier."
"Oh, you're awful!"
Sasha approached the three in the midst of their lively back-and-forth. There was a smile on her face. It was subtly different from the smile she had shown earlier, which had imparted a feeling of safety. This smile seemed to well up gladly from the very bottom of her heart.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it, Elt?"
"Sasha... Sorry I've been out of touch."
With the girls still clinging to him, the young man — Elt — inclined his head.
◊ ♦ ◊ ♦ ◊
The church in the slums was not a very large building, and the more orphans it took in, the less space apportioned to each. But no matter how many people the space was divided between, one room was always kept empty. That room, which was plain and certainly not spacious, but was always kept clean, was reserved for Elt, who returned to it once a week. Elt insisted that he could sleep in a huddle with the others, so that they didn't need to go out of their way to set aside a room for him, but Sasha and the other orphans kept it empty by common consensus.
Elt had finished dinner with the orphans in the dining room, and was now in that room with the two girls. Lisia and Emiyu were seated on the room's single bed with Elt squeezed between them.
"And, and then Emi..."
"I, I never did... anything like that."
The pair talked to Elt with enthusiasm, as if they were trying to make up for the time they had been unable to see him. They could hardly be blamed for that — Elt normally never failed to put in an appearance over the weekend, but there had recently been a large campaign, and Elt had been unable to visit for around two weeks. To the girls, who had been looking forward to the day they would be able to see Elt again, those two weeks must have seemed an overwhelming length of times.
"It looks like you two saved up a lot of stories."
Sasha stepped in to visit the trio. Lisia and Emiyu exchanged winks, then stood up and moved away from Elt.
"Yup, but we've already talked plenty."
"We're going to... play outside for a bit, so..."
So saying, the pair left the room.
"Ha ha... It looks like they're trying to be considerate to me," Sasha chuckled. "I'll admit, it's a little embarrassing."
Sasha sat down beside Elt, and for a while neither spoke. It wasn't exactly an awkward silence, but each seemed to be waiting for the other to begin speaking.
At last, Sasha opened her mouth.
"How did the campaign turn out?"
"I guess I'd have to call it a wasted effort. The place was completely deserted."
In Lescatié, a "campaign" meant the suppression of monsters. There had been complaints from nearby villagers that monsters had formed a settlement in a certain forest, and the troop Elt belonged to had been dispatched to the scene. But it had all been in vain. There were certainly traces that monsters had been there, but they had failed to find even a single actual monster.
Sasha let out a complicated sigh, like she was both regretful and relieved. Elt stared fixedly at her. Sasha noticed his gaze, and quickly resumed her usual smile.
"Sasha, are you getting enough rest?"
"Yes, I'm fine. I know my own body."
"You're not telling the truth, are you?"
Sasha looked perplexed at his immediate reply.
"I know you spend so much time worrying about everyone else that you never have time to worry about yourself."
"Th, that's not..."
"Don't try to deny it. You're thinner than the last time I saw you, and you've gotten paler, too."
Sasha made no reply. It was true that she hadn't been getting enough rest, either physically or mentally.
"I know how serious and dedicated you are, and I wouldn't change that for the world, but wrecking your body because of that will only backfire and end up hurting the people who love you."
"That's... I'm sorry."
Sasha shrank and apologized. Those who knew her would probably have been astonished to see the woman whose all-embracing smile never faltered, who guided and advised, crestfallen and being scolded like a child.
Seeing Sasha in that state, Elt's expression softened.
"Really... Please take care of yourself, Sasha. Lisia, and Emiyu, and the townspeople... and me too, of course, all love you."
A faint red tinge suffused Sasha's face the moment she heard Elt's last few words.
Elt was the only one who could urge her to take care of herself like that. Sasha, who had spent such a long time guiding people as a hero, as an apostle of god, was the sort of person that others tended to rely on, and she was more than happy to respond to their requests.
Elt, however, although her junior, was one of those rare people who sometimes spoke with her as an equal. He had often told her, "Please don't just let other people rely on you for help; rely on someone else yourself sometimes." When he was like that, he was the only one to whom Sasha was able to reveal a little of her own vulnerability.
◊ ♦ ◊ ♦ ◊
She had almost lost her confidence once before. Due to a question she had asked, she had ceased to hear the voice of the Chief God. Elt had sensed that she was worried but unable to talk to anyone about the cause, and had kept on asking her if something was the matter. Eventually, Sasha had broken down and revealed to Elt that she could no longer hear the voice of the Chief God.
Elt had laughed and said, "What, is that all?"
Sasha told him that it wasn't a problem that could be dismissed so easily, but Elt insisted that it was and laughed off her fears.
"The reason everyone loves you isn't that you can hear the Chief God, Sasha; they love you because you're strong and kind."
He was always her mental support.
"...I've stayed too long. You must be tired, so have a good rest tonight."
"You too, Sasha."
"I know. If I push myself too hard a certain someone will get mad at me again."
"I, I wasn't really angry or..."
"Hee hee... Good night."
Sasha left a smile behind her as she went out.
◊ ♦ ◊ ♦ ◊
Sasha, having put Elt's room behind her, was lying on the bed in her own room. As he had said, her body was tired and needed to rest. But when she lay still, thoughts whirled through her mind and she could not get to sleep.
She had revealed to Elt that she could no longer hear the voice of the Chief God, but there was something she had not told even him, and that was the reason she had ceased to hear it.
Lord, are monsters truly evil? They were born into this world, so are they not also children of God?
That question had been the turning point. After she asked it, she had ceased to hear the Chief God's voice. What did that mean?
She had begun to harbor doubts about the teachings of the faith she had followed since birth, and to take actions that seemed paradoxical even to herself. While acting as a hero in public, she had working behind the scenes to protect monsters. Even the fact that Elt's unit's "campaign" had come up empty-handed was due to her passing the monsters information under the table. And that wasn't all; she was even working to make a secret orphanage, deep in the forest where no one would find it, to shelter monster orphans.
Sasha's worries piled up due to the conflict between her two selves, between the her who wanted to believe in the church and the her who could not be rid of doubts concerning it, and those worries were putting a strain on her body.
Sasha heaved a sigh and turned over in bed, recalling Elt's face. It had been so long since she had seen him last, and the thought caused a tightness in her chest. That was another thing to worry about.
As a human who had given her faith to the Chief God, she was expected to treat all people equally. It was improper for her to harbor special feelings for a particular person. In spite of that, these forbidden feelings in her breast were growing by the day. Her doubts about the Chief God spurred it on. If she had not been an apostle of God, if she had been an ordinary woman, then perhaps...
No. She chided herself that she must not harbor such thoughts. But that couldn't make the feelings in her breast disappear.
Lord, what should I do...?
She could not even ask the question. She, who sheltered monsters, had no such right.
Her harried thoughts were sinking into the shallow, troubled bog of sleep.
◊ ♦ ◊ ♦ ◊
"I wonder how Big Sis is getting along with El."
Lisia and Emiyu were in a corner of the church's small exercise yard. All around them the voices of the other orphans at play could be heard.
"She should just come out and say she likes him," Lisia said while swinging from a branch of the tree that grew in the corner of the yard.
"...But... Ms. Sasha is..." Emiyu, who was drawing pictures in the earth at the base of the tree with a sharp stone, raised her face and replied.
"I know. Big Sis isn't allowed to do things like that."
Lisia swung her legs, rocking her body back and forth.
"...Because Ms. Sasha is the Chief God's bride..."
Emiyu dropped her gaze back to her hands, smoothed the ground with the stone, and went on with her drawing. It appeared that the magnificent knight brandishing his sword was meant to be Elt.
Lisia let out a grunt of frustration. She was swinging her body in a wider and wider arc, and when her swing was at its greatest she stretched her legs and arms out straight and released her grip on the branch, so that she flew through the air. She touched down a good distance from the tree.
"Hey, a groom's supposed to make a bride happy, right?" She turned and asked.
Emiyu continued to scratch her picture into the dirt without looking up. Beside the knight that resembled Elt, she had begun to draw a female figure. It seemed she intended the long-haired woman to be Sasha.
"So what does the Chief God do for Big Sis? She tries so hard, but the Chief God never rewards her."
Emiyu went on moving her hands without answering. She added two little girls to the drawing, one standing close on either side of Elt.
"Right now, Big Sis doesn't look happy at all, does she? She looks miserable, and the Chief God doesn't do anything for her. Doesn't that bother you?"
A sad note entered Lisia's voice. Emiyu continued to stare wordlessly at the picture she had drawn.
Lisia realized that she had been asking Emiyu questions she could not possibly answer, and apologized.
"...We could give up, but..."
Emiyu said in a small voice.
"If Ms. Sasha could at least be happy with El... we could give up, but..."
The pair sank into silence. They had grown up together and knew most of what was in each other's hearts. They even realized that they both harbored feelings for the same unattainable person.
Lisia stood up, still hanging her head. She looked like she was about to cry. Emiyu stared fixedly at her drawing, hugging her knees to her chest. A drop of water fell, plop, onto the picture.
"I want everyone to be happy, but..."
◊ ♦ ◊ ♦ ◊
When Sasha woke from her shallow, dreamless sleep, her condition had worsened. She felt hot all over and her joints ached.
It looked as if she had broken out in a high fever. She hadn't believed there was anything really the matter with her, but it seemed Elt had been right and her exhaustion had been getting to her.
Sasha took an absentminded glance out the window and saw that full darkness had descended.
...If I go on like this I'll end up making everyone worry about me.
She tried to raise herself, but the strength would not come, and she ended up collapsing limply back onto the bed.
"...Pathetic..." she muttered, heaving a sigh.
...I want to see Elt.
The thought suddenly popped into her head. Elt planned to stay at the church all weekend. If she wanted to see him, she could do so at once.
Even though she could see him at any time, she couldn't help feeling that he was far away. Unable to communicate what was in her heart, she was forced to wear a mask in his presence. Even though she could confide more of her feelings to him than to anyone else, she had to go on dissembling to him. Before she knew it, tears had begun to coalesce in the corners of her eyes.
It wasn't just about Elt; it was about the little church, where the country was headed, the monsters she was sheltering, the difference between church doctrine and her own ideas... All the things she could do nothing about suddenly seemed a terribly heavy burden to bear.
No, I'm just weak from the illness...
She knew that, but the tear drops still continued to grow in the corners of her eyes, and finally flowed down her cheeks.
She called out to him unconsciously in her febrile daze. But her voice was hoarse and frail, and it melted into the dry air of the room without reaching any ear but her own... or so it seemed.
She would never have expected to sense it in a place like this. But she did sense it. She would probably have noticed it earlier if she had been in peak condition. And now that she did notice it, she could feel the mana gradually thickening.
Here...? No, the children...!
The thought spurred her to make another effort to shift her groaning body, but it refused to obey her commands. Strange. She had thought her condition due to fever, but to be crippled to this extent was abnormal, almost as if...
I'm already under a spell...? Good lord...
Her thoughts raced for a solution, but her fever-clouded brain refused to perform at even half its normal level.
Then a faint voice sounded in the struggling Sasha's head.
Just now, that was...
Sasha was still bewildered when she heard the voice again.
Can you... me...
This time she was certain. It wasn't a voice she could hear by her ears picking up vibrations in the air; it felt like meaning sounding directly in her brain. She had experienced this sensation before.
...Lord... is it you...?
Sasha mentally called out.
Can you hear me? Oh, good. Well, to start with, you should know that I'm not "Her."
That was not the voice of the Chief God she knew. The voice she had heard before has impressed her with its dignity and majesty. The voice she had just heard, however, had been a terribly seductive one; a voice that made her keenly aware of the speaker's femininity.
...Who are you?
Sasha asked more warily. Any being capable of transmitting meaning directly into a person's mind like this must belong to a much higher plane. That made remaining ignorant of its true identity dangerous.
Me? I'm... Oh yes, I believe you humans called me "The Fallen God."
She'd heard that there was a god who presided over lust and depravity. A counterpart to the Chief God, who stood for integrity and chastity.
...I have nothing to say to you.
Hee hee... It was your voice that called me here, you know?
Yes. You made a wish, didn't you? You wished for everyone's happy, smiling faces, and, most of all... you yearned for him, didn't you? For your beloved?
Sasha's body grew still hotter. She couldn't keep secrets from a god. She could only maintain her silence. Poor thing, shutting it all away, faithfully keeping to "Her" teachings...
Those were words no apostle of God could ignore, no matter who said them.
"Take that back," Sasha said aloud. No one used to her usual gentle tone would have imagined her voice could be so stern and hard.
But the god of corruption just giggled.
Hee hee... You're cute. Truly adorable. I'm looking forward to seeing how you'll change...♪
A shudder ran through Sasha's whole body. What did the Fallen God plan on doing to her?
There's no need to be so afraid. I'm just going to grant your wish, that's all...
That's right, a world where everyone can live happily, with smiles on their faces...
I'll never borrow your power...!
But can you do it alone, I wonder? With things as they are?
Sasha gritted her teeth. The Fallen God was right — As things stood, Sasha couldn't even protect the smiles of the people close to her, no matter how hard she tried. Not even those of the children in her church.
Of course, she wasn't so arrogant as to think she could solve every problem herself. Even so, Sasha had a strong sense of responsibility, and she could not help feeling pained and chagrinned.
Well? For starters, do you think "Her" — Shall I call her the "Chief God"? — Do you think the "Chief God's" teachings are really correct?
Of course they...
Oh really? You're sure it's not just because they've been crammed into you since you were a child that you think so?
Even the church that's supposed to be preserving her teachings is starting to decay, and so is this country. You can't deny it.
And ever since you started to realize that, you've been disobeying God's teachings... Am I wrong?
...! When have I ever disobeyed God...?
The church in the forest. Did you think you could hide it? You're talking to a "god."
Sasha's voice faltered for the first time. She sounded timid.
I don't know... I just don't know.
The Fallen God's silence seemed to invite her to continue. Sasha began to make a clean breast in spite of herself.
"In the Lord's teachings... it is written that monsters are evil things born of darkness. But... they take husbands and make children, care for them, and share their happiness with them. I just can't bring myself to believe that they are evil. As an apostle of God, I mustn't think that, but..."
At some point, she had stopped asking mentally and begun speaking with her voice.
Hee hee. And why is it so wrong for you to think so?
"...Because... I'm God's..."
Because you're God's apostle? An apostle of God mustn't think about good and evil? Is it your duty to leave all those decisions to God?
There were both ridicule and pity in that voice. Sasha wanted to retort, but she had no reply. Even though her failure to reply would mean that all her pride had been for nothing, she couldn't do it.
Let me guide you... I'll show you how to put a smile on every face, and, most of all... how you can become happy yourself...
"...I can do that?"
You've been denying yourself all along, haven't you? You've just been ignoring it and letting it build up all this time. I feel sorry for you.
What could she mean?
It was your words that called me, you know?
What could it be? What had she said?
Suddenly, Sasha realized that the character of the heat filling her body had changed.
"Haa... haa... ah..."
Until a moment before it had unmistakably been a high fever caused by illness. Her joints had groaned, and her whole body had been overrun by listless discomfort. But now something was different. Her body was still hot, but the heat was no longer unpleasant. On the contrary, it felt like every cell in her body was revitalizing and radiating heat. It was a sensation she had been avoiding and denying since she gave herself to God.
The female organ buried deep inside her abdomen, a part of her she usually tried not to be conscious of, was throbbing like it had become a second heart. The tips of her breasts stood so stiff and sensitive that rubbing against her clothes was enough to make them tingle.
"N, no... Not... like this...!"
Sasha let out long, hot sighs as she writhed, making the bed creak.
Hee hee... I was right. Just look how pent up you were♪
"Such a... cowardly...!"
Oh? And what's so cowardly about it?
"U, using magic to make a human's body...!"
I didn't exactly force you; I just woke you up.
"Woke me... up...?"
To all the things you've always pretended not to see, all the things you pretended weren't there even though they really were, all the things you kept ignoring in God's name...
Sasha wracked her brains for a way out of her predicament, but her thoughts refused to fall into line. The ache assaulting her entire body, which seemed to be boiling hot, was obstructing her thoughts.
"Aah... Ah... El... Elt...!"
The word emerged half-unconsciously. It was the name of the one person Sasha, who refused to rely on anyone, would turn to for help. And the moment she uttered it...
A great pulsation ran through her, almost as if her whole body had become one gigantic heart. As it did so, Elt's face flashed across her brain.
"Ah... El... El..."
Each time she spoke his name, a palpitation resounded through her body, centering on her loins.
The heat was changing into pleasure with each palpitation.
Sasha had begun with desperate cries for help, but before she knew it a coquettish note had entered her voice, and her features began to droop with pleasure.
"...No! No, no!"
But then Sasha let out a scream and hugged herself with all her might, curling into a ball like a fetus.
"Not like this...! I don't want this...!"
She desperately clung to her own body, trying to drive out the lascivious sensations that had begun to fill it.
Hee hee... I know what you're thinking...
"I... I'll never do... anything to betray the Lord...!"
You've certainly gotten good at deceiving yourself... Come now, you don't really believe in the Chief God anymore, do you?
"That... That's not...!"
Oh really? Is that so? Come, try asking your heart who you really believe in. Who can you trust completely? Who do you want to give yourself to completely?
Sasha bit her lip and continued to shake her head. She sensed that something would happen if she didn't. She struggled desperately to erase the image of Elt's face that flashed across her mind each time she was questioned.
Who do you really love?
Sasha felt that it was not just her body melting; the Fallen God's voice was penetrating even her mind and eating away at it. She mustn't let it happen. At this rate, the feelings she had been suppressing would...
Yes, you have been suppressing them, haven't you?
Don't keep them locked away... Show your desires, your hopes... Set them free.
Without warning, Sasha experienced an intense pressure and overwhelming pleasure at the same time. When she looked down, she saw her own hands grasping her breasts through her clothes. She hurriedly tried to release her grip, but her hands refused to obey, as if they had separated from her will. The hands squeezed her breasts tight, causing them to deform obscenely.
Sasha moaned with shock and pleasure, making the bed creak as she writhed. Both her hands refused to leave her chest. On the contrary, they slipped inside her clothes and began to touch her teats directly.
Her left hand twisted her nipple, while her right glided down to her loins.
"Stop...! Not there! Not..."
Her right hand ignored its owner's pleas and inserted itself into her underclothes.
Sasha realized that was so dripping wet down there that her underclothes had ceased to serve their purpose. She didn't even have time to feel shame as two fingers of her right hand together began relentlessly rubbing the source of that wetness.
Shlick, shlick, shlick.
Sasha's moans, the creaking of the bed, and small, wet sounds continued to fill the room.
"Stop...! Stop...! Not like this...!"
Hee hee... I'm not controlling you or anything, you know? You see, your body is taking revenge on you.
Your body's been yearning for it for so long... It's been begging you for it...
Her right hand, which had been playing with her genitals inside her underclothes, now split them open with two spread fingers.
It's ripened longing to welcome him in...
Her middle finger caressed her newly-exposed virgin soil, smearing it with a coating of her love juices.
It's grown so sensitive longing to feel him...
Her middle finger strummed her stiffened clitoris. Having imparted vivid pleasure, the hand, now soaked with her love juices, returned to her upper body.
It's borne fruit longing for him to harvest it...
Both her hands squeezed her ample teats as if trying to milk them.
But you've gone on betraying you body for your mind, haven't you?
"You're wrong... Wrong, wrong, wrong...!"
Sasha continued to writhe, no longer even sure what it was she was denying.
Hee hee... Aright then, if you won't admit it, you can just stay like that foreeever.