Ascendance of a Bookworm – 025
Meeting With the Merchant
Making Lutz wash up, despite his protests, and having him make a last-minute effort to think up answers to the questions he might be asked in the interview, was absolutely the correct decision . Otto and his friend both have meticulous personal appearances, a significant cut above the rest of the people coming and going through the central plaza . As I thought, it would have been much better if Lutz and I could have gotten our hands on our older sibling’s nice clothes .
Their clothing design is strange… no, their clothing design isn’t what I’m used to seeing . The many layers of fabric draped over them show no signs of either stains or patches at all . This is not something I see very often at all in my daily life, where it’s only natural to use the barest minimum of cloth and thread at all times . Based solely on his clothes, I imagine that Otto’s friend is someone who makes quite a bit of money . His garments, his demeanor, that calculating look in his eyes, everything about him is vastly different than the shopkeepers I see in the town market .
When I say he looks like a merchant who makes a lot of money, I do not mean that it seems like he’s the owner of an old, well-established shop . Rather, he moves with the force of the president of a venture firm in the middle of a tremendous rise . At first glance, he has curly, pale, milk-tea colored hair and gentle-looking features, but his red eyes overflow with self-confidence, and they glitter with the raw ferocity of a carnivorous beast .
“Hey there, Maine!” says Otto . “And you must be Lutz?”
“Good morning, Mister Otto . Yes, this is my friend Lutz . Thank you for taking the time to meet with us today . ”
I’m not entirely sure what the most suitable way to greet him is, so I tap my chest with my fist twice in a salute, like I always do . Otto returns the salute, so I think that I didn’t at least make a big mistake .
“Good morning, sirs, my name is Lutz . It is nice to meet you . ”
Lutz seems very nervous, but he refuses to give in to the intimidation of their discerning stares, and he recites the unfamiliar greeting without stammering and without a quiver in his voice . The first hurdle has been cleared .
“Benno,” says Otto, “this is Maine, the girl who works as my assistant . She’s my squad leader’s daughter . Maine, this is Benno, an acquaintance from when I worked as a trader . ”
“Mister Benno, sir,” I say, “My name is Maine . It is nice to meet you . ”
Despite the fact that I compulsively want to bow as I introduce myself, I don’t forget that it’s not customary in this culture to do so, and instead give him my best smile .
“You’re quite polite!” says Benno . “I am Benno, nice to meet you . ” He looks over to Otto . “…She’s quite well-mannered for such a small child . ”
“She’s not as young as she looks,” he clarifies . “She’s six years old . ”
I probably look somewhere between three and four years old . Benno frowns slightly, then the corners of his mouth turn up in amusement as he glances over at Otto .
“…Your assistant’s a girl who hasn’t even been baptized?”
“Ahh, well, how should I put this . I’m teaching her to read and write so that she can become my assistant in the future . ”
“I thought you said before that she was already working as your assistant, did you not?”
“…Don’t worry about it too much . ”
As they banter harmlessly back and forth, I notice that there’s a lot of information being conveyed purely through subtext . Chills run down my spine . Are Lutz and I even capable of handling an interview with these people? What the hell . When he brought up that I haven’t been baptized yet, I got the keen feeling that he was intimating that I wasn’t actually capable of doing the work, and that Otto was simply going easy on me .
With a dubious expression on his face, he stares at a spot just above my eyes for a little bit, then opens his mouth to speak .
“I’m very curious about something that I’d like to ask about first, is that alright?”
“Yes, sir, what is it?”
“What’s that rod you have in your hair?”
I see . Asking such a silly question after rejecting me would be hard, wouldn’t it? Is this man perhaps already intending to dismiss me?
Forcing a smile onto my face, I quickly undo my hairpin and hand it over to him as he carefully studies me, seeming to get a lot of information out of every little move I make .
“This is a ‘hairpin’ . I use it to keep my hair in place . ”
Otto seems to be curious as well, so they study my hairpin closely, looking it up and down, turning it around, and giving it careful scrutiny .
It’s just a stick, you know? There’s no gimmick or trick to it, you know?
“…It’s just a stick, huh . ”
“Yes, it’s a stick that I had my father whittle for me . ”
“And you’re able to keep your hair in place with just this?”
“Yes, sir . ”
I take the hairpin back from him, then put my hair back up into its usual style . I gather up the half-up part of my hair, twist it around the hairpin, spin it until it’s tight, then with a quick jerk fix everything in place . It’s something I do every day, so I’m very practiced at doing it .
Lutz and Otto stare at me with wide eyes . This is the first time they’ve seen me as I put up my hair like this . Benno touches my hair, frowning slightly .
“Say, Maine . Your hair’s pretty impressive too . What do you put in it?”
His touch may be careful as he studies my hair, but the discerning gleam in his eyes is breathtakingly sharp . Between the glitter of profit in his eyes and the ferocity of the women’s questions back on baptism day, I can clearly see that my simple shampoo could be quite the valued commodity .
“It’s a combination of relatively common things, but the details are my secret . ”
“Boy, you use the same thing?”
“Maine insisted on making my hair look nice yesterday…”
Ah, Mister Benno, did I hear your tongue click just now? Did you think that it would be easy to get us to teach you how it’s made, since we’re merely children? How unfortunate . I’m not going to play my high-value cards in a little skirmish like that; Lutz’s interview hasn’t even started yet .
Benno and I exchange smiles, mine sweet, his stiff . Otto lets out a little sigh, running his fingers back through his hair .
“Well then, Lutz . You said that you wanted to become a trader?”
The main question has arrived . Next to me, I hear Lutz’s breath catch as he gulps nervously . I sneakily reach over and squeeze his hand reassuringly, quietly cheering him on .
You’ve thought about this long and hard since last night, right? Now is the time to stand tall, Lutz! Tell us of your ambitions, and seize your victory!
“Ah, yes . I w―”
“Give it up . ”
Lutz was stopped before he could even start telling us what he wanted . In my heart, I scream . He worked so hard to come up with that answer, at least hear him out! Otto, however, looks like he’s swallowed a bug as he looks down at Lutz .
“Only an idiot would throw away his citizenship like that . ”
“…Mister Otto, what do you mean by citizenship?”
The question slips out of my mouth before I even have time to think about it . This is the first time I’ve heard that word used here . I know that citizenship, in this context, would be the set of basic rights afforded to those who live in this city . Just like how you can still enjoy the rights granted to you by the Japanese constitution even if you haven’t studied them, there seem to be certain obvious rights granted to the citizens of this town . However, I have absolutely no idea what they could be .
“It means the right to live in the city . It’s also something that records your identity . When you turn seven and go to the temple to be baptized, your name will be registered, letting you work in the city, get married here, rent a house, and so on . The ways you can interact with the city are vastly different when you do or do not have citizenship . Outsiders can register at the temple, be granted citizenship, and settle down here, but doing so is ludicrously expensive . ”
“Mister Otto, did you have to pay?”
He nods . “Yes, that’s right,” he says, smiling bitterly, perhaps in recollection .
Benno, next to him, points at Otto and laughs . “This guy sold everything he had so that he could stay here and marry Corinna!”
“I wanted to open up a shop here and continue selling things here if I could, but buying citizenship was an enormous effort that left me nearly broke . ”
I don’t know how much money the average trader has saved up, but it looks like it’s not enough to cover buying citizenship, paying for a wedding, and opening a shop .
“On top of that, a life on the road is vastly different compared to living in a town . Tell me, Lutz, do you have any idea what it means to live your life while riding on the back of a cart?”
“…No,” he replies, slowly shaking his head .
It takes only two hours to walk across this town from end to end, so children in this town move around almost exclusively by walking . Lutz might have ridden in a hand-drawn wagon before, but he’s probably never ridden in a horse-drawn cart before, and most likely has no idea at all what it’s like to actually travel by cart .
“Let’s take water, for example . When you need it right now, where do you get it?”
“From the well . ”
“Of course, right? But when you’re on the road, there aren’t any nice wells that are built for you . You’d have to start searching for places you can find water . ”
When we go to the forest, we use the river as a source of water, so that’s the first thing that pops into Lutz’s head . However, when you’re on the road, you aren’t at all guaranteed to be traveling near a river . Plus, since paper is so expensive and hard to get, how many traders actually have maps to go by?
“Lutz,” I say, “when you’re just starting out as a trader, you’re not going to know where those rivers are . There’s no way you’ll be able to follow the rivers all the time…”
“It’s just like she says . That’s why traders generally travel the same routes all the time . When you do, you make friends and contacts in the towns you visit, you can deal in information, and you start to learn where you can find water and the safe roads to travel on . Then, you teach that to your kids, and those kids take those same routes on when you retire . When you spend your days riding in a cramped cart like that, there’s no room for another person in there . …Also, and this is the most important part, is where traders eventually end up . Lutz, do you know what a trader longs for, more than anything?”
“Citizenship . ”
“They want to give up their difficult lifestyle, and someday settle down in a town somewhere . They want to open a shop in a town and conduct their trade in safety . That’s what a trader dreams of . You’re not going to find a single trader who’ll take you on when you already have citizenship . If you absolutely want to do it, then you’ll have to do it all on your own . There’s no apprenticeship program for traders . ”
If citizenship is every trader’s dream, then Otto’s already fulfilled his . It seems like he really wanted to open a store here in the city, but I don’t know why a merchant like him would give up on that and become a soldier instead .
“Mister Otto, why did you decide to become a soldier?”
“Wait,” interjects Benno “no, don’t… ngh!”
Otto puts his hand over Benno’s mouth to silence him, then grandly, majestically states his answer .
“It was all so that I can marry Corinna!”
“Ooh,” I say, “I want to hear everything about this!”
Benno, in a panic, tries to shush me . “I don’t want to hear anything about this, young lady . ”
Otto, however, starts his story, his eyes glittering . “That’s right,” he says, “this happened was just after I became an adult . I was passing through this town when I caught a glimpse of Corinna, and it was love at first sight! It was like an arrow through my heart, or a flash of divine inspiration, but all I could see in that moment was her . I couldn’t marry anyone else but her, I thought, so at that very moment I started to woo her . ”
“…Mister Otto, that’s unexpectedly passionate of you . ”
This former merchant, who hides his darkly calculating nature underneath a gentle smile, seems to be a passionate romantic . The color of his black tea-colored hair and his light brown eyes gives him such a composed, honest image that I never could have imagined he could pour out such passion .
“She was just so charming that I couldn’t help it . So, I resolutely made my advances, but at first she rejected me . You see, she’s a seamstress famous for her excellent skills, and on top of that she treasures the bonds she has with everyone here . She told me that she couldn’t live her life on the road . ”
Ahh, of course . If you have a stable life, with enough skill and enough regular customers to earn a steady income, you won’t be able to abandon it all for an unstable life of travel . Plus, looking at it from Corinna’s perspective, wouldn’t a trader suddenly walking up to her and trying to woo her seem very suspicious? Surely she’d be wondering if that was some kind of con, wouldn’t she?
I nod along intently as I listen while Otto’s love story starts to heat up . He starts putting more and more passion in his voice, and his gestures start getting bigger and bigger .
“Corinna said she planning on marrying a man from this city, and a shock like thunder came crashing through my brain . The thought of Corinna marrying another man was completely unimaginable! After frantically trying to figure out what I needed to do, I immediately marched over to the temple and obtained my citizenship . ”
“Huh? Wait a minute . Weren’t you letting your passions run a little too wild?”
I look over at Benno, wondering if Otto’s actions were at all normal by this world’s standards . Benno has his hand to his head, squeezing on his temples, an exhausted expression on his face .
“…See, even a child can see it! On top of that, the money he spent on his citizenship was all of the money he had been saving to go back to the city where his parents lived and open up a shop, right?”
He then explains that if you purchase citizenship in the town where your parents had citizenship, the price would be reduced by more than half, so the rest of the money could be used to open up a shop . For a trader to spend so much time amassing enough money to retire from his uncertain existence and move up to owning a shop, then spontaneously spend it all in one go on a woman he had just met… those are not the actions of a calculating merchant, but of a wild stallion who has eyes for nothing but his beloved .
“I wanted to open a shop in this town, but I didn’t have enough money left over to afford one, and I didn’t yet have any connections in this town that would lend me enough money . I had to quit my job as a merchant, then became a soldier in order to show Corinna my dedication to live in this town . I asked a favor of the squad leader who I’d made friends with after seeing him every time I came to this town, and he got me hired for a position that primarily involved a lot of paperwork . …By the way, when I bought my citizenship, became a soldier, and proposed, Corinna was shocked!”
Well, uh, it is rather shocking . I don’t think a single young woman of marriageable age exists who wouldn’t be shocked if someone were to sell everything they have, buy a citizenship, and become a soldier just because she told him that she couldn’t live a life on the road . I want to hear things from Corinna’s viewpoint, whether she thought Otto should have reined himself in or whether her chest tightened as she wondered what about her could be so captivating . I’m absolutely sure her story is going to be very different from Otto’s .
“I kept chasing after her for many days, until I finally married her, which felt a little like being adopted into her family . She was so cute when she laughingly told me she couldn’t help falling for me after all that time! And, now…”
After that, he starts going on and on about how adorable his wife is . There was no stopping him . I really want him to not use the first-class sales pitch skills he honed during his career as a merchant when describing his wife . Lutz is left completely flabbergasted by the deluge of praise . I’ve heard of husbands so devoted that they’d never lay eyes on another woman, but I thought it was fathers who were so prone to exaggeration like this . These exaggerations, though, are pretty harmless .
What should I do about this? I had no idea Otto was this kind of person .
I look over at Benno, silently pleading for help . Our eyes met for a brief instant, then he clapped a hand on Otto’s shoulder and sighed lightly . He looks like he’s had practice at this .
“Otto, you stopped talking about being a trader a while ago, you know! That’s enough about your wife, get back to the main topic . ”
“Ahem! Sorry . So, as I was saying, give up on being a trader . ”
I want to make a sarcastic quip about his use of “as I was saying”, but I force myself to keep my mouth shut . He may have gotten significantly derailed, but now I know that there’s no apprenticeship system for traders, the life of a trader is fraught with difficulty, the citizenship Lutz and I possess is extremely important, and that drowning in love is absolutely terrifying .
After being so plainly told to give up, Lutz gloomily hangs his head, looking so sad as to be almost pitiable . He’d spent so long thinking about his reasons for becoming a trader, but before he could get a single word out, he was told that his dream was impossible . After being beaten over the head about how difficult a trader’s life is (and how awesome Otto’s wife is), it’s only natural to be so sad .
“…Lutz,” says Otto, “this was Maine’s suggestion, but instead of becoming a trader, how about doing your apprenticeship under a merchant? You’ll eventually be able to leave the town on your own to go purchase supplies . ”
Lutz raises his head abruptly, turning to look at me . Rage flares up in his green eyes, accusing me of having known all along that they were going to tell him he couldn’t be a trader .
“I thought that you should really hear it from the mouth of an actual trader,” I say . “I’ve lived in this town all my life, so would you even believe me if I told you to stop?”
“…Ah . ”
From the look on his face, I’ve hit the bullseye . He looks away, seemingly lamenting about how unfair life is .
“When I asked Mister Otto about it, I thought that being a trader sounded way too difficult, so I started wondering is there was a job that would let you travel out of town that your parents wouldn’t object to . Also, I might have just heard about this now, but I think you should stop thinking about letting go of your citizenship so that you could be a trader . ”
“…I guess you’re right . ”
Now that he’s heard Otto say it, it looks like he’s really letting it sink in . The fanciful tales he heard from people traveling from out of town truly are entirely different from the harsh reality of being a trader .
“Daddy told me that Mister Otto has connections to some of the merchants in this city, so I asked him if he’d be willing to introduce you to someone, if you wanted it . It’s your choice, though, you know?”
“…Oh, wow . You’ve really thought this through . ”
Benno looks up, letting out a deep breath . I look up as well, watching him closely . If Lutz wants to be introduced to a merchant, then the opponent he needs to beat isn’t Otto . It’s Benno .
“So,” he says, “it seems we’ve been introduced, but… kid, do you want to become a merchant?”
Lutz nods, and Benno smiles widely, his reddish-brown eyes narrowing . The light-hearted atmosphere from when Otto was bragging about his wife has completely blown away . Not a wisp of it remains . Benno looks down at Lutz like a carnivorous beast, his cruel eyes fixed on the opponent he will beat into submission .
“Hmm! Well now, what will you sell? If you become a merchant, what kind of things do you want to sell?”
It’s only natural to be asked questions about your aspirations during a job interview, but the ambitions that Lutz spent yesterday contemplating were all about being a trader . To be suddenly forced to spin those around into reasons for wanting to be a merchant’s apprentice instead is no trivial matter at all .
“I’m asking you what you want to do when you become a trader, and if you can even do it . ”
Eeek! This is a very high-stakes interview to be giving to a child who isn’t even old enough to be baptized!
I want to say that he’s not being as cruel as he seems, but for a merchant, taking on another apprentice means incurring a lot of additional expense . Also, Lutz is only the friend of Otto’s assistant . Benno doesn’t have any obligation to take on such a large burden . If Lutz doesn’t show his willpower, his determination, his knowledge about what goods he might be able to sell, and his ability to be of some use to Benno, then nobody could possibly complain if Benno cuts off the conversation right now . From Benno’s standpoint, the fact that he agreed to this meeting is something that Lutz should be grateful for .
“If you don’t have anything, this conversation is over . ”
Lutz drops his head slightly, chewing nervously on his lips . I don’t know if I should say anything . I don’t know if it’ll be a lifeboat for him, or a step down a painful path he shouldn’t tread, but it’s ultimately up to him . In a low voice only he can hear, I quietly ask him a question .
“…Could you make my paper?”
“Yeah . ” “Hmm?”
Lutz suddenly looks up, grabbing my hand and squeezing it tight . I can feel him trembling, but the firm glare he fixes on Benno burns with raw ferocity .
“Of course I’ve got something I want to do! I’m going to make everything that Maine comes up with!”
“Yeah,” I say, “he’s always been helping me . ”
“Maine can barely do anything by herself, so I’m going to do it for her . ”
Lutz, that was a great job . You said it perfectly . Benno’s eyes have gone wide .
I haven’t the slightest idea if any of this happened because I was the one dragging Lutz along or if he was the one dragging me along, but if Lutz is going to take on all of the things that I can’t do, then I’ll take on all of the things that he can’t do either .
Unlike Lutz, I already have plenty of experience with taking entrance examinations and applying for job interviews .
I calmly look up at Benno, a smile on my face . I take a slow breath and let it out gently, getting my breathing in order, then open my mouth to speak .
“I have an idea for a kind of paper that I’d like to sell, one that doesn’t use any animal skin . I believe that I can get its production cost down below that of parchment, so I think that it will be a very profitable good to sell . ”
As I talk, Benno’s face turns sour, like he’s swallowed a particularly bitter bug . When he turns to look at me, his eyes glow with an even more ferocious light then he did when he was staring down Lutz .
“…You want to become a merchant as well?” he asks, in a low voice that almost sounds like a growl .
“Yes, sir!” I nod, smiling brightly . “It’s my number two aspiration, though . ”
Next to Benno, Otto doubtfully tilts his head to the side .
“Is your number one aspiration doing paperwork at the gate?”
“No, sir, it’s to become a ‘librarian’ . ”
As soon as I say it, all three of them look at me in unison, identically dubious expressions on each of their faces . It looks like they really didn’t understand that word .
“…I’ve never heard of that . ”
“I mean that I want to manage the books in a place that has a lot of them . ”
After I finish my simple explanation of a librarian’s job, Benno suddenly bursts out in riotous laughter .
“A… ahahaha! There’s no way you can do a job like that if you’re not a member of the nobility!”
“…Really? I thought that was the case . ”
Those damn noblemen .
If it’s a fundamental truth that it’s only the nobility that has books, then I think it’s only natural for the librarian who manages those books to be a member of the nobility as well . I never had any real expectations about it, but this reminder of my difference in social status is still really irritating .
“Even so, a paper that isn’t parchment, huh… Do you have any of it?”
When he glances back down at me, his eyes are bright and alert . Most likely, thoughts of how much profit could be made if I really could make paper without using parchment are tumbling around in his head .
“I haven’t made any yet, sir . ”
“Then don’t be ridiculous . ”
He may be telling me not to say ridiculous things, but there’s no mistaking that his interest has been piqued . I think we’re just one word away from finding some common ground . I smile even wider .
“If actual paper is what you want to see, then we’ll make it . Our baptismal ceremony is summer of next year, so by spring we’ll have a prototype of my paper design, and then I hope that you’ll be the judge of whether or not we can actually make it . ”
“…Alright then . ”
I have somehow managed to wrangle an extension out of Benno, despite the fact that he came here with the full intention of dismissing us outright . This truly is an amazing victory .
“Thank you very much, Mister Benno . ”
“We still haven’t settled on anything yet . ”
“Even so, I’m grateful that you’ve given us the chance to prove ourselves . ”
All that’s left is up to Lutz’s persistence . I think that he’s going to work extra-hard, knowing that my job is at stake as well . It may have been sudden, but I can’t help but smile at the fact that it suddenly looks like I’ll be able to obtain real paper .
“Lutz, let’s do our best!”
Lutz and I also convey our gratitude to Otto, with big smiles . Thanks to him, Lutz has given up on his dream of becoming a trader, and has taken his first step towards becoming a merchant’s apprentice . Out of all of the outcomes I’d considered, this is by far the best one .
“Mister Otto, thank you very much for introducing us to Mister Benno . ”
“You made my day off very fun! Looking forward to seeing you at the gates next time!”
We somehow managed to get passing marks from Otto as well . I let a big sigh of relief . I pick up on the hint in Otto’s last remark, realizing that it’s time to break up the meeting, and start to leave the town square with Lutz .
…Ah, I almost forgot .
I stop walking after just one step, then turn back around to call after Otto and Benno as they walk away .
“Um! Mister Otto, Mister Benno, I have something to ask!”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Do either of you know of a sickness that can cause a fever that can suddenly spread throughout your body, then shrink back down again?”
Between Otto, who has been to many places in his life, and Benno, who has many connections around the area, it’s possible that one of them might have heard of something like the fevers I have .
“It felt like it got big enough to swallow me whole, but then I frantically fought against it and forced it back into a tiny shape . I’m sorry that this is such a subjective description…”
“Who knows? I haven’t heard of it,” says Otto, loosely shaking his head .
Benno looks off to the side, glances down at the ground, then slowly starts shaking his head too .
“…I don’t know . ”
If this is something that even those two don’t know about, then I don’t think I can find someone who knows anything more . My illness must really be rare, then .
…Could this disease actually be extremely dangerous?
As I entertain this touch of anxiety, the meeting comes to a close .