Ascendance of a Bookworm – 029
While doing our gathering in the forest, Lutz and I start work on building the paper frame . The basic part of it is just a wooden frame, which we can build relatively easily out of wood and nails . The hardest part will be cutting lumber to size and making sure it’s straight; apart from that, the rest of the construction isn’t particularly difficult . In particular, since we’re not making a particularly large sheet of washi, just something about the size of a postcard, we don’t need to have any extra beams to support the paper mat .
I’ll try constructing this following the pattern of the little frame I used when I made paper in home economics class .
“Umm, if you could make it kinda like this…”
On my slate, I show Lutz a sketch of the general shape of the frame, then write out the list of necessary components . As he looks it over, we head off to start cutting timber .
“We have to make sure they’re perfectly straight, or it’s not going to work . It’s okay if we have to shave things down to make them fit together at the end, though . ”
“That’s harder than I thought . Straight, huh…”
He cuts the wood into pieces for two rectangular frames, so that the inner dimensions are about the same size as a postcard . Once we finish building the structure for the upper and the lower frames, we attach boards to prevent the upper frame from sliding around as we spread out the pulp and a handle so that we can easily hold the upper frame by hand .
“That’s it! Lutz, this is looking great!”
“Is this what you wanted?”
“Yeah! We’re going to put the paper mat between these frames like this, then grab the handle and rock it back and forth to spread out the fibers evenly . This is about the right shape for that . ”
Seeing Lutz’s dubious expression, I set the two frames on top of each other, then rattle them a bit to point out the uneven gaps between the two of them .
“We need to make sure that there’s as few gaps between the two frames as we can get . Once we shave and polish these down so that they’re precisely flat, it’ll be perfect . ”
“Precisely?! I can’t ask my dad or brothers for help, and I don’t have the tools for that, you know…”
“…Can you borrow the tools?”
Although Lutz may have given up on becoming a trader, he is still refusing his parents’ wishes for him to find a job relating to the woodworking or construction industries and has instead decided all by himself that he’s going to become a merchant’s apprentice . He must be getting an incredible amount of pressure from his parents . He’s not really in a circumstance where he can just walk in and ask to borrow some tools or get some help building something .
Lutz’s father thinks that merchants are cold-blooded people who think about nothing but money, and is absolutely opposed to his son becoming someone like that . His mother, Carla, is very glad that he’s given up on being a trader and is instead looking for a job in the city, but she still wishes Lutz would give up on being a merchant, too .
No matter what kind of opposition he might face, Lutz isn’t going to give up his dreams and will just keep forging ahead, despite his family’s disapproval . As for me, there’s not much I can actually do . My interactions with his family are usually restricted to indirectly talking about his tenacity and grabbing hold of their appetites with my recipes .
Since we were able to get the frames in more-or-less the right shape, in the worst-case scenario we can whittle them down if it turns out we can’t actually use them . The biggest problem now is probably the mat we’ll be spreading the paper on . It’s a series of thin, rolled cylinders, almost like calligraphy pens, and we’re going to need to make it entirely from scratch . We need both bamboo rods of equal diameter and thread . Strong thread, at that, stronger than the kind of thread that Lutz and I ordinarily have access to . Getting bamboo rods down to the right size is going to be difficult as well . Even though we’re only making something postcard-sized, it’s easy to see that this is going to be an extremely difficult process .
“Since we were able to make the frame today, tomorrow let’s start whittling down bamboo in order to make our rods . Although, can we actually make them round so easily, I wonder? Since we need them to be about the same size and thickness, I wonder if we should make them rectangular, instead? What do you think?”
“I can’t really say I know anything about either making or using them…”
Since I’m still not very good with my knife, I’m not particularly useful, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to need a lot of these, and that they need to be very thin . However, I’m still very happy, since we managed to meet our goal for the day and make our frame .
As we pass through the gates on our way home, Otto calls out to us . “Maine, ah, Lutz, too! Could you come here for a minute?”
It wouldn’t be unusual if he were just calling me over, since it could be something relating to my job as his assistant, but this is the first time he’s called Lutz over as well .
“Me too?” Lutz asks as we walk over .
“That’s right . I have a written invitation for the two of you . ”
He delivers us another invitation, just like the one Corinna sent to me the other day . My studying has born fruit, and I quickly skim it, picking out who the sender and addressee are . It’s an invitation from Benno, addressed to me and Lutz .
“From Mister Benno, to me and Lutz?”
“Huh, I wonder why?” says Lutz .
I thought we wouldn’t see him again until we’d successfully made paper . I have no idea what this invitation could be about, since the two of us aren’t his apprentices yet .
“This says tomorrow,” I say, “so this must be really urgent . What could it be? …Maybe, is he rejecting us without even seeing our product?”
Perhaps someone with a stronger connection to him asked for a favor and he decided to take someone else as an apprentice, or perhaps he was able to piece something together from bits of information I’ve let slip and intends to make it himself so he doesn’t need us anymore… all of the worst-case scenarios start tumbling around in my head .
“What?!” exclaims Lutz . “Are you serious?!”
“No, no!” says Otto, quickly . “It’s not that!”
I frown up at him . “Mister Otto, do you know what this is about?”
“…Aaah~, well, so after Benno saw Corinna’s hair, he started hammering me for information, so I just kind of let my part in all of it slip out, so it’s about all that . ”
“So this invitation is your fault, then! Why would you just let that slip out?!”
“Isn’t it only natural for a husband to brag about how his wife has become so beautiful?”
Did he specifically go to Benno’s place to brag about Corinna to get back at me for taking every last nail from him?
Although I have plenty of complaints for Otto, that doesn’t change the fact that this invitation has been delivered into our hands, and since we’re hoping that he’ll accept us as his apprentices, this isn’t something that we’re going to be able to decline .
“This says we’re supposedly going to meet him for lunch,” I say . “I wonder if we’ll be able to eat something amazing?”
“Ohh! I’m going! I’m absolutely going!!”
Lutz is suddenly one hundred percent all-in on going to this thing . A poor child who is always hungry would be dazzled in a single instant by the thought of a sumptuous meal . I’m also actually fairly interested in what rich people eat .
The written invitation also lists the time and place at which we should meet . Benno would like us to meet him at his shop, when the fourth bell chimes .
“…Where is Benno’s shop?” I ask Otto . “We don’t know where that is, you know?”
“It’s on the first floor of my building . ”
Otto’s home is above Corinna’s family’s home, and was prepared for Corinna by her much older brother who was worried about his adorable little sister . So, Corinna must be Otto’s younger sister, so Otto and Benno must be…
“…Is he your brother-in-law?”
“That’s right . ”
I guess it isn’t strange at all for the things I talk about with Otto to go straight through to Benno, then . I don’t really feel like saying anything more .
The next day, Lutz and I put on the nicest clothes that we can, then start heading towards Benno’s shop . After we pass through the central plaza, the buildings around us start steadily becoming nicer . Lutz has never gone past the plaza to the castle walls before, so he is constantly looking around, taking in everything he can see .
“Wow, this is amazing…”
“Yeah, it’s totally different, even though it’s still the same town . I was super surprised as well, back when I went to Otto’s house . ”
“If the town can change this much, I wonder if lunch is going to be this much better than what I get at home! I’m really looking forward to this . ”
Lutz’s smile is both broad and innocent . I sigh lightly, and give him some advice .
“You should be careful about how you eat . ”
“I think he’s absolutely going to be checking our table manners, like how we eat . ”
“What?! I don’t know anything about that, though!”
I don’t know anything about it either . More accurately, I don’t know whether or not I’ll be able to pass my own table manners off as what they have here . We have only a single countermeasure .
“Be careful about your posture . Then, instead of just immediately shoving food into our faces, let’s watch how Mister Benno does it first . I don’t think it’ll be a big mistake to copy what he does . ”
“…Aw maaan, now I’m nervous!”
Uneasy with uncertainties over what might lie in store for us, the two of us continue forward, holding hands for some reason . We arrive in front of Benno’s shop well before the fourth bell has rung . Since our meeting is at the fourth bell, we need to kill some time waiting by the shop .
“What do we do now?”
“Hm? Well, since we’re already in the area, I want to take a look at the shop . I don’t know anything at all about how it’s managed, how many people work there, what apprentices do there, or anything at all, really . ”
“…You’re right . ”
I’m used to using the internet or magazines when it comes to researching a potential place of employment . Here, though, I have neither of those things . Instead, you have to either pick things up by word of mouth or go to see things with your own eyes . If you don’t do either of those things, you can’t get any useful information .
Normally, you’d learn about how a particular industry worked by hearing about your parents’ jobs, and then you’d learn about the place you’d be working by listening to what the person to whom you were referred had to say . However, since Otto kept the fact that he and Benno were brothers-in-law, I don’t know if he’ll let any useful information flow . When I brought Lutz to hear Otto talk about being a trader, even Benno introduced himself as “an acquaintance from when Otto was a trader” . He didn’t say a single thing about the actual job, perhaps because he had every intention of rejecting us outright . So, since I’ve got an opportunity right now to observe how this shop works right now, I want to make the most of it .
“They don’t have very many things lined up for sale,” I say .
“There’s also way fewer people going in and out than at the town market . I wonder if this shop really is profitable?”
“I think it has to be . It’s very tidy, and the employees’ appearance and manner are much nicer than shops closer to the wall, I think . Since they’re so well trained and well groomed, maybe they do business with rich people or the nobility . ”
Even the man standing in front of the store like a guard is dressed in better clothing than we are . That alone is proof that this shop is frequented by those who care a lot about appearance . It seems like there are many barriers that Lutz and I will have to overcome if we want to work here, since we come from such different worlds .
The fourth bell rings through the town, telling everyone that it is now noon . At the same time, the shop’s employees start closing everything down .
“Huh? Huh?! They’re closing down?!”
I grab Lutz by the hand, then frantically run towards Benno’s shop, pulling him along behind me . If everything is closed down and everyone goes home, I’ll have no idea what to actually do . I call out to the guard as he turns to head into the shop, holding up my invitation .
“Excuse meee! The two of us were invited here by Mister Benno; would you be able to tell us what we should do next, please?”
“Ah, there’s no need to panic . I hear you, but would you mind waiting a bit until we’ve finished closing up?”
After they finish closing the shop for lunch, all of the employees head off to get some food, leaving just the one guard behind . It seems like I didn’t need to call out while they were in the middle of closing the shop, I could have just greeted the guard afterward . Immediately after the shop is closed and the employees have all scattered, the guard leads us inside .
“Sir, you have guests,” he says .
“Ah, show them in,” comes a voice from another room .
The guard opens a door, lets us in, then closes it behind us with a respectful bow . At a single glance, it’s obvious that this room is used for business discussions . The shelves around the room are lined with a variety of things that I’m not used to seeing . Behind the wooden desk at which Benno is seated are more shelves, where piles of wooden boards and scrolls have accumulated .
Are those bookshelves?!
There aren’t any books, so it might be more accurate to call them document shelves, but those are shelves that are packed with writing . I start to unsteadily wander over towards them, but when Benno stands up I manage to stop myself, planting my feet firmly to the ground .
“Sorry for calling you out here on such short notice,” he says . “I thought I absolutely needed to have a talk with you . ”
“About what, sir?”
“How about we have lunch first? We can talk afterwards . ”
I take the seat Benno offers me, though my line of sight to the bookshelf-like shelves is cut off . Lutz sits next to me, looking just a little bit nervous .
“I’ll have it brought right in . ”
Benno picks up a small bell from the desk and rings it three times . A door at the back of the room opens, and a young woman comes out, bearing food on a tray . It seems like there must be a stairway to connect this floor to the second floor above .
“Maine, Lutz, welcome,” she says . “I hope you’ll enjoy your meal . ”
I thought she might have been Benno’s wife, but since he didn’t introduce her at all, it could be that she’s one of his employees or perhaps a servant .
“Thank you very much,” is all I say as I study the tableware set out in front of me . We each have an empty plate, a fork, and a spoon . There isn’t a great difference between the amount of cutlery we’re using here and that I use at home; the only difference is that Benno is the only one with a knife in front of him . It seems like it’s the responsibility of Benno, the master of the house, to serve our plates . He serves salad and meat onto our plates, and gives us bowls of soup .
“Please, enjoy . ”
Lutz had been trying his best in his own special way, but as soon as we start eating it seems like all of my advice immediately spills out of his head, and he starts shoving food into his face with great gusto .
Perhaps Lutz should also learn some table manners before we start working .
I pick up my fork, then start to eat . I keep an eye on Benno as I do, but it seems that his table manners aren’t much different from mine . Although I think this to be the case, for some reason Benno keeps studying me closely . I wonder if I’m making some sort of mistake? I eat timidly, nervous that I’m making some small errors that I just can’t notice . I don’t think I’m doing anything exceptionally rude, though, so I have no idea what he could be quite so focused on .
For today, at least, the manners I know tell me that leaving just a little bit of food left on the plate would show that I’m full to my satisfaction . I had been thinking that leaving any leftovers would be rude, so I kept eating, but at some point my mouth just clamped shut when I tried to eat any more .
I’d had some degree of expectation for a rich man’s lunch, but the only real difference is in the quantity, not the flavor . It seems like their cooking methods are still the same . Yet another letdown . Lutz, however, thinks quantity is king, and looks absolutely satisfied .
“Now that our bellies are full, shall we talk?”
“Yes,” I reply .
Benno sips on some dark, coffee-like beverage with an unusual scent, and we’re given herbal tea as we start our conversation .
“First, I’d like to ask you something . ”
“What is it?”
“Why did you rely on Otto for that?”
Benno’s expression and tone show both irritation and a little bit of anger . Lutz draws back, and I tilt my head to the side a little .
“I’m sorry, but I don’t quite understand what you’re asking . I’ve always relied on Otto for many things, so to what and to when are you referring?”
“Otto told me that he’d lent you nails, and that you’d exchanged that liquid you put in your hair for it, didn’t you?”
“Yes . …Was there a problem with that? I don’t think there was anyone else I know that I could have asked to get me nails . ”
I have no idea why Benno would be upset that Otto gave me nails . Perhaps he’s upset that I gave him some shampoo? I sit there, head tilted to the side and not understanding at all . Benno lets out an enormous sigh .
“This is common sense to a merchant, but it would have been best for you to consult with me first . ”
“With you, sir?”
“That’s right,” he says, with a solemn nod .
It seems like it this would indeed be common sense for a merchant of this world, but I still don’t understand it .
“But, the two of us aren’t your apprentices yet, right? I thought that making paper was going to be our test, so asking you for help seemed to me like it would be illogical . ”
“Not true . If you can make that paper, then you’ll work here as an apprentice, and it’ll be a good sold through this shop . The first person you should be consulting is thus me, and not Otto . ”
Although we’re still not officially apprentices, it seems that we should perhaps still be thinking of him as our superior, since we have a conditional employment agreement . I had thought that making paper was our test, but I should consider it to be an extension of our jobs . If I think of it like that, then this matter is simple: Benno’s sub-apprentices asked someone who was not him for assistance in a matter related to their work, which reflects poorly on him as a supervisor .
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I understand what you mean . We damaged your reputation, or, rather, hurt your honor as our supervisor . We’ll be more careful of this in the future . ”
Seeing that I’ve understood and reflected on my actions, Benno nods several times, then straightens up in his chair .
“Now then, let’s negotiate . I’m prepared to offer you all of the materials you think necessary to make paper in exchange for the manufacturing method for the liquid you use in your hair . ”
“Huh? Making paper is our test to become your apprentices, isn’t it? Are you okay with supplying us like this?”
I thought that the test was to see if we could put everything together on our own . If Benno were to provide us with the materials we need, then our task suddenly becomes much easier .
“There’s no way that you could start a new industry like that when you have no tools, no manpower, and no prior investment . Still, you can’t be asking someone who, at least on the surface, has nothing to do with the project for assistance . If you had some form of collateral, you could get a loan, but you don’t have anything to offer, do you?”
It goes without saying, but Lutz and I, the children of poor people, have absolutely nothing we could use as collateral on a loan .
“Information isn’t something you could return to us when we’re finished, so we can’t use it as collateral, right?”
“That’s why, in this case we’re not discussing a loan, but a trade . I’m buying your recipe . In exchange, I’ll provide you with everything you need to make paper . …Surely you don’t think this is a bad deal?”
“It certainly doesn’t seem to be a bad one . ”
If we commission the custom tools we need and purchase the materials through Benno’s suppliers, there’s a chance the paper manufacturing method might leak out, but for someone like me, who can’t even procure a single pot, getting this assistance would be like removing the noose from my neck .
“Lutz, what do you think?”
He’s been sitting next to me this entire time, wordlessly listening . Making paper is both of our jobs . It wouldn’t be right for me to make a decision like this without getting his input as well . However, he looks away a little bit, shaking his head .
“…Thinking about these things is your job, right? Whatever you think is fine by me . ”
If that’s what Lutz thinks, then I should try to get us the best terms for this arrangement that I can . If Benno will agree to provide us with both tools and, of course, raw materials, then we can focus entirely on making the paper itself .
“I’d like to clarify something, sir . When you say you’ll provide us with what we need, do you mean just the tools, or does that include the raw materials as well?”
“I don’t mind if we include the materials . You want to experiment with a variety of things, correct? I heard that Lutz was asking a lumber dealer about different kinds of wood . ”
That’s right, a merchant’s broad network of connections can be terrifying . If unfamiliar children are wandering around and gathering information, that news is of course going to immediately start to spread .
“How long will this support continue?”
“Until your baptismal ceremony . Before then, you can’t become apprentices, after all . To keep appearances, I’ll sell whatever you manage to bring me . From the gross, I’ll withhold the cost of the materials and the sale, plus a commission; the rest will be yours . After your baptisms, you’ll come to this shop to operate the paper trade, and ten percent of the net profits will be added to your wages as a bonus . ”
There’s no problem with what he’s proposing for before the ceremony . We come to him with any completed paper we make, and he sells it . Even if the commission he charges is relatively high, our profits will still be assured .
However, I’m somewhat uneasy about what would happen after the ceremony . Having our share of the profits added to our wages sounds good, but, what happens if we’re dismissed? If he’s no longer paying us any wage, then it’s possible that he won’t pay us our share of the profits, either . It feels like there’s an enormous gap between the common knowledge we should have in this circumstance and the knowledge we actually have from our daily lives . If paper production goes according to plan, once its profitability is realized we don’t actually have any guarantees after that .
“In addition to the bonus to our wages, please let me retain the exclusive rights to manufacture the paper, and let Lutz retain the exclusive rights to sell it . ”
“…What do you mean?”
“Once we’re able to make paper, it’s possible that you’d fire us as soon as you got your hands on the actual goods, and that would be very bad for us . I would much rather have a long-term guarantee over the chance for immediate profits . ”
Benno’s eyes briefly glimmer as he strokes his chin .
“Well, looking out for yourself wasn’t bad at all . Your childish reasoning is, however, full of holes . ”
“Urgh… I’ll have to study . ”
Since I still lack the necessary bits of local common sense, no matter how hard I wrack my brain, my reasoning will always still be childish .
“So, then, if we leave the rights to the paper at that, are you going to stake any claim with regards to the rights to your hair-glossing liquid?”
“No, sir, I won’t contest you for the rights to my ‘simple shampoo’ . I’d be selling those to you . ”
I have no intention of demanding rights to something I am trying to sell . To me, the circulation of paper is the best possible outcome, and I’d like to be able to offer Lutz’s family some kind of guarantee of his long-term success as a merchant’s apprentice, since they’re still opposed to this path .
“Well, that’s fine . The various rights relating to the manufacturing and sale of the paper will be yours . However, as long as the two of you are working here, you’ll do all of your sales through this shop . You’ll have no right to determine either the price of sale or your profits, and there will be no bonus to your wages . That should cover everything, right?”
“That sounds alright to me . This is simply just insurance, after all . ”
Right now, guaranteeing a place where we can work and earn a steady wage is the most important thing . I’m fine with earning our profits slowly, over the long term . Beyond just the hairpin that first caught Benno’s eye, my recipes, and even my beauty products, I can think of quite a few things off the top of my head that I can turn into serious profits if I can first get the necessary raw materials, after all .
“Alright then . That’s all for now, then . I’ll be heading out to the noblemen’s residences for the afternoon . I’ll be back in the evening, so until then, the two of you should stay here and fill out the orders for your supplies . Write out everything you’ll need in order to make your paper . ”
I’m happy with how quickly our work is progressing now, but I still haven’t learned how to write up supply orders while working at the gates .
“…If I don’t know how to write a supply order?”
“I’ll have someone teach you . If you’re able to finish by this evening, I’ll show you something nice, as a prize . ”
“When you are absolutely serious about ensuring your own profits, or making deals with the nobility, there is a way of forming a contract that is almost never used outside of extremely profitable, high-stakes transactions . This isn’t something either of you would have seen if you’ve just been doing your business in the town markets . This isn’t just a verbal agreement, I’ll guarantee you your rights . ”
Certainly, I was hoping for a written contract, not just a verbal agreement, but I hadn’t thought Benno would be the one to bring it up .
“…Why would you go that far for us, sir? Wouldn’t it leave you in a better position if this were to remain a verbal agreement only?”
Benno shakes his head, smiling broadly .
“What I want is to promptly and contractually protect my rights to this ‘simple sham-poo’ . If we simply had a verbal agreement, then it would be quite problematic for me if you were to assert your own claim on it once it started to become profitable . This contract will guarantee your own rights to the paper, in exchange for completely giving up your rights to the ‘sham-poo’ . ”
“Thank you very much . ”
I wonder if he wanted to say that we shouldn’t be fully trusting each other, since the two of us have only ever met twice . If we have a written contract, then both of us can rest easy .
As the employees start returning from their lunch break one by one, Benno appoints one person to serve as our teacher for the afternoon . The prim aura of a butler practically rolls off of him, so heavily that I instinctively want to call him Sebastian . 1
“Mark, this is Maine and Lutz . Please teach them how to write up a materials order . I’ll leave them in your care until I’m back . ”
“Very well, Master Benno,” he replies .
Benno gives further directions to the other employees as he gets ready to leave . As he heads out the door, he stops briefly and turns his head to call out to Mark .
“Ah, I almost forgot . Mark, while I’m out, get everything set up for the contract magic . ”
I think I heard him correctly .
Huh? Was this… a fantasy… setting?
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
1 . “Sebastian” is the name of the title character from the anime Black Butler . He is a butler .