With the voice, the air turned deathly still. There was not even a zephyr or the flickering of candle flames.
As the words fell, Rodrigo instantly thumped his forehead to the ground in obeisance.
“I am honoured to receive your glorious words,” he said.
“Although Mara does not question your loyalty, She was extremely disappointed in you this time. Your task to properly carry out the sacred ritual failed. Why was Her Holiness not present for the ritual?”
“I dare not make excuses for myself. This worthless man has ruined your grand design. Please, I will accept any punishment.” He was quaking in fear.
The red eyes looking down on Rodrigo turned icy.
“Your punishment is not our most pressing matter. Is anything amiss with Her Holiness?”
Rodrigo gulped hard before replying, not daring to look up.
“I met with her not long ago. She is fine, but I was unable to find out in better detail. She only said that she would send for me again later.” He reported honestly.
A crease appeared on the High Priest’s brow.
“I am planning to send one of our followers to meet with her secretly in the coming days.”
Rodrigo had heard that the palace would be hiring temporary workers and had prepared someone to enter the palace. He was in the midst of working on a cover story for them so that no trail would be left behind. In a few days, the follower would enter the palace through the route he had arranged.
“It seems I must meet with Her Holiness myself. Make preparations.” The voice instructed.
The prostrated Rodrigo’s expression twisted. A flash of hurt and resentment suddenly surged within him.
Even though he offered ardent prayers seeking Mara’s words and asked sincerely countless times, the High Priest rarely bestowed him a reply. The High Priest treated him so stingily and yet showed such excessive generosity to Her Holiness, Jin Anika. He was embittered.
Since the beginning, despite her status as a saint, he had been suspicious of her. He had not sensed a trace of Magi in her. Nor was she a devoted follower of the Church. She had never once demonstrated her faith as a servant of Mara.
If the High Priest had considered themselves a saint, he would have accepted it wholeheartedly. The glorious miracles of Mara that the High Priest showed them were real. And he had never once doubted it.
Rodrigo had dedicated his whole life to the Church, and while he would willingly sacrifice his life if it was so that Mara could descend upon the earth someday, he also believed that the only person fit to lead the Church was him.
Yet this young girl had appeared out of nowhere, taken up the position of a saint, and gone around acting like Rodrigo’s superior. How could he endure it? His years of hard work were snatched in just a click. He, who was the leader of the nine, capable and deserving was unjustly discarded upon the appearance of a girl who had yet to show her allegiance let alone capabilities.
But he was a shrewd man who wouldn’t succumb to jealousy and jeopardise the greater gain. Nor was he an impulsive being who would wear his heart on his sleeves. Thus, he treated the girl with respect on the surface because it was the order of the High Priest, one he didn’t dare defy, adeptly concealing his deep-seated jealousy.
Although he held indubitable faith in the cult, he feared that if things continued like this, the whole Church might be quickly swallowed up by that girl.
“The Great Mara wishes to meet with Her Holiness? Do you doubt the will of Mara that I have conveyed?”
The High Priest’s voice was not loud, but the air vibrated. As the little lights in the air sparked, small bolts of lightning struck the ground here and there – one directly in front of Rodrigo.
“N-no! I do not doubt. I am merely voicing concern that difficulties may arise for Her Holiness.”
“It seems that there are some problems in the palace. The follower that was attending to Her Holiness got into an accident and lost their life. When I met her not long ago, she advised me to stay quiet and lay low.”
He held back the fact that she had stopped sending them funds. How ridiculous it had been when he sent his men to the bank with promissory notes only for them to return empty-handed.
If she had even stopped her donations to the Church, just what exactly was that woman even doing as a saint?
He worried that if he voiced such complaints, it would sound like a personal grudge than a just concern. He was confident that he only acted for the sake of the Church, and not out of his own self-interest. But how would he convince the other of this?
The High Priest narrowed their eyes.
“Has there been any sign of the dogs of Mahar returning?”
“They haven’t appeared since the end of the previous dry season. Ever since we received your order to inform you immediately if they were sighted, we have not taken our eyes off the paths into the kingdom.”
The king’s knights, who were known as ‘the Dogs of Mahar’ in the Church, had not entered the capital since the beginning of the active season.
“Have you found a way to keep in contact with Her Holiness?”
Now that the said follower was dead, they had to re-establish the communication channel.
“I am preparing to send a follower into the palace to act as our contact. If I manage to reach Her Holiness, I will be sure to deliver your words to her,” he said hurriedly.
He wanted to appease the High Priest, and redeem himself… perhaps even be escape punishment.
The High Priest thought for a moment and then spoke.
“Prepare the ritual once again. After this active season ends, the ritual must go ahead at the interval between the next dry season and the next active season. Her Holiness must be in attendance this time.”
“I will be sure to remember.”
“Mara is merciful, but she will not give you a third chance. This is your last.”
Rodrigo thumped his forehead against the floor in answer.
“If Her Holiness requests a meeting with me before the ritual, I will see her at any time. Deliver Her Holiness’ will to me as soon as possible.”
“Yes. I will remember and obey.”
“Raise your head.”
Rodrigo hesitated before lifting his upper body. Then, he slowly raised his eyes.
Rodrigo’s eyes were filled with an entrancing light. It was as though a halo of light was radiating from that sublimely shimmering golden hair. The youth of the High Priest, whose appearance had remained unchanged for decades, was a miracle of Mara.
Even while Rodrigo was in awe, he dreamed of the day that he too would be able to attain such a holy existence.
“Rodrigo, faithful servant of Mara, Mara commends your devotion. Repay her favor.”
Rodrigo replied in a dazed state.
“This servant of Mara follows only the will of Mara.”
With that, the High Priest turned away.
Rodrigo, who watched with a vacant expression as they retreated, bowed his head to the floor again. Even after all the lights which had filled the warehouse had disappeared, Rodrigo remained in the pitch darkness for a long time.