Ascendance of a Bookworm – 037
The Merchant’s Guild
Currently, I am being held in Benno’s arms as we make our way to the Merchant’s Guild . Originally, I was making every effort to walk there myself, but Benno started to get fed up with my walking speed . “So slow! This is a waste of my time,” he said, and picked me up . Then, he started ranting on and on about the importance of time, which I had no real way to argue against .
“By the way, Mister Benno,” I say . “What is the Merchant’s Guild?”
Finding out all of the little details that are different from what I think I know is my top priority .
“What, you don’t know?”
“I’ve never been to it . Lutz, do you know about it?”
“It’s a place where people who do business go, maybe?”
I asked Lutz just in case this was something that any child in this town should know about, but all I got out of him was what I was expecting . Benno sighs lightly, then starts to explain .
“…Well, that’s about right . Its main job is to do things like grant permits to people who want to open new shops or punish people who are doing bad business . If you don’t have the guild’s approval, you can’t run a shop and you can’t open a stall in the town market . Also, every person involved in a business must be registered; if they aren’t, the guild lays down very harsh penalties . ”
Based on what I’m hearing from Benno, I guess it might be something like a department of commerce? You can’t open a shop without getting approval, and you have to register new apprentices there, so I don’t think I’m too far off the mark .
“They sound like they’re a very powerful organization,” I say .
“That’s right . They’ve very powerful, and very greedy . When you register an apprentice, there’s a registration fee . When you start a new business, there’s a very large registration fee . No matter what you do, they take a commission from it . ”
It looks like things are the same whenever money is involved, no matter what world you live in . This is a terrible world for a poor person to live in .
“Either way, once the baptismal ceremony is over, my new apprentices are registered here, since everyone working at my store is involved in trade . In your case, you’ll need a provisional registration until your actual baptism . If you don’t, then you won’t be able to sell your paper or your hair ornaments… or any kind of good . ”
“So, in order to buy the paper from us today, you need us to be registered first?”
“Right . ”
Ah, I see . His rush to get us registered is so that he can purchase our prototype paper . I chuckle to myself, pleased that I figured that out . Benno, however, gets a stern look on his face, his eyebrows knotting together .
“I’d really like to get you through registration quickly, but that old bastard is going to get involved . Every time, that man never fails to find some bone to pick . ”
Benno’s brought out some less-than-friendly language . I thought that he’d be fairly high up in the guild himself; was I wrong? Or, perhaps, is there some sort of inter-factional dispute happening here?
“Right now, I’ve got a lot of momentum going, expanding on a few different ventures so I can grow my shop . It’s only natural that the guild chief would want to tear me down a little, you know? So, you two, don’t say anything unnecessary, got it?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, in unison with Lutz . Two highly skilled merchants are about to engage in a battle of wits against each other . I have no plans to stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong .
“Ah, that’s right . Maine, about that hairpin you brought…”
“This one?” I say, opening my bag slightly to show it to him .
He nods, then fixes his sharp, reddish-brown eyes on me . “How long does it take you to make one?”
“If I already have all the materials, and Lutz makes the wooden part, then after that, if my physical condition is good… ummm, this flower part, if I work really hard I can do it in a day, probably… I guess…”
It depends on the actual quantity of flowers, but at my speed it’s a day’s worth of work . My mother, though, who is good at sewing, could probably do it in about two bells’ worth of time .
“How about you, Lutz?” asks Benno .
“It’s just carving and polishing some wood, so it’ll take me about one bell, I think?”
“Hmm! That’s great,” he says, good-naturedly .
Benno’s tone of voice may be light and pleasant, but his eyes glitter with a sharp light .
“What’s so great?” I ask .
“I’m looking forward to what’s coming up after this,” he replies, smiling the same vicious smile a predator makes when it’s found its next target, his eyes locked on the Merchant’s Guild building as it comes into view .
The Merchant’s Guild is in a tall building on a street corner that overlooks the town’s central plaza . Just that alone shows that it is a very wealthy organization, but on top of that, not a single room in the entire building has been rented out to anyone else . The entire building is the Merchant’s Guild’s alone .
“When I think about how much of my hard-earned money gets funneled into this building,” muses Benno, “I can’t help but get a little mad, you know?”
“That’s true, but if you didn’t, you’d be in big trouble, wouldn’t you?”
“Yep . And that makes me even madder . ”
Before the door stand two guards, each carrying weapons . As we approach, they look us up and down, then ask us what our business is here .
“What are you here for?”
“Getting temporary registrations for these two,” replies Benno .
“Head on in,” says the guard, opening the door for us .
As soon as we step through the doorway, we’re suddenly faced with a flight of stairs, and I’m momentarily bewildered . While the staircase itself is wide, there’s no sign of the first floor at all .
“Mister Benno, what happened to the first floor?”
“Ahh, the first floor is for the traders to park their wagons and carts . It would be a huge nuisance if they all were lined up on the street outside . If you go around back, you should be able to see them . ”
We ascend to the second floor, entering a large hall, packed full of people constantly rushing about . I can’t help but be amazed by the overwhelming clamor . I hadn’t thought this town had this kind of people in it, until now . I feel a strange sort of admiration .
“We don’t have anything to do here,” says Benno . “We’re heading to the stairs on the other side so we can get up to the third floor . ”
Since I’m still being carried in Benno’s arms, I’m relatively safe as we make our way through the crowd towards the stairway, but Lutz, following behind us, keeps almost getting crushed in the crowd .
“Lutz, are you alright?” I ask .
“I’m fine, yeah… This is kinda like a festival, huh . ”
“That’s because this is the place where both people who want to open stalls in the town market and traders who want to do business in this town have to come to get official permission,” says Benno . “The closer it gets to market, the busier it gets . After the market closes, it’ll be quiet for a while . ”
The stairs we arrive at are sealed tightly behind a metal fence . In front of it stand yet more guards .
“May I see your registration card, please?”
Benno pulls out some sort of metallic-looking card and hands it to the guard . “The three of us are going up . ”
“Understood, sir . ”
For some reason, the guard holds the card up high . Suddenly, a brilliant white light runs along the bars of the fence, and it disappears into the ground as if it were melting away .
“Wha–?! What’s that!!” I ask, my eyes wide .
“A magical tool . Lutz, don’t let go of my hand . You’ll be pushed back if you do . ”
“G… got it . ”
Benno carries me with one arm, taking Lutz’s hand in the other, and starts to ascend the staircase .
“Didn’t you say that magic was something that only the nobility could use?” I ask .
“The upper levels of this organization are pretty well-connected with the nobility . There’s quite a lot of noblemen who’d give out magical tools like this if they thought it would give them some kind of advantage . ”
“It’s my first time seeing anything like this…”
I’m struck by the same thought as I had back when I saw the contract magic . Somehow, I’ve found myself in a world that’s even more fantastical than I thought .
When we reach the top of the stairs, Benno lets go of Lutz’ hand and sets me down . White walls extend past the stairway for a ways, until they arrive at a place in the back that looks something like a counter . While the second story handled business relating to the town market, the third story deals with the merchants who own shops . Compared to the second story, it is much quieter, and there are far fewer people here .
The floor of the second story was made of wood and slightly dirty, with small piles of dust accumulating in the corners . The third story, however, is carpeted, and swept scrupulously clean . The furniture is also well-maintained here, further emphasizing that this place has plenty of money . This is, in a single glance, a stunning example of how stratified this society is .
“There are conference rooms on the other side of these walls,” says Benno, pointing at the white walls . “You two won’t have much need to use them . ”
As he explains things, we start walking towards the counter . Lutz and I hold each other’s hands, feeling slightly nervous in the face of the kind of wealth that we don’t ordinarily see in our daily lives .
Passing the conference rooms, I can see that the counters stretch wall-to-wall, behind which children, perhaps apprentices, seem to be processing the income and expenditures of the Merchant’s Guild, reading from wooden notes and performing computations on their manual calculators .
“Lutz,” I whisper, “this winter you really need to learn how to read and do math . ”
“…Yeah, I really do . ”
Partway down the corridor, on this side of the counter, there’s something that looks like a sofa in what appears to be a waiting area, or perhaps a reception area where one could be invited to relax . I turn around, surveying my surroundings . I notice, against one wall, a set of shelves on which a variety of wooden cards and rolls of parchment have been arranged .
“Is that… is that a bookshelf?!”
My energy level suddenly skyrockets . Benno looks down at me with curiosity in his eyes, then nods .
“Yeah, those are bookshelves . They contain copies of the regulations that apply to shops, simple maps of the surrounding area, almanacs of the nobility, and so on . …Are you interested?”
“I am! I am!!”
I want to immediately charge towards the bookshelves, but Lutz’s grip on my hand is like a vise, squeezing so tightly that I can’t get away . Watching me struggle, a wry smile tugs at the corners of Benno’s mouth .
“You can take a look after we’ve gotten your application filled out . It’ll probably be a long wait, after all . ”
“Maine,” says Lutz, “calm down . You’re getting too excited . ”
I’ve finally found book-like things that are okay for me to read, do you think I can possibly contain myself? No, I absolutely cannot . Lutz’s warning technically does register in my ears, but it’s nowhere near enough to stop the wild dancing of my heart .
At least, that’s what I thought, until Lutz says something that forces me to stop dead in my tracks .
“If you get too excited, you’ll faint before you get a chance to read anything . ”
…That would be terrible!
Benno, who has been watching our exchange with some amusement, notices that this is a good breaking point . “Come,” he says, continuing to walk towards the counter . As we approach, an employee that seems to be familiar with Benno looks up, an ingratiating smile on her face .
“Oh, good afternoon, Master Benno . How may I be of service today?”
“I’m here for temporary registration for these two . Can you handle both of them for me?”
“Temporary registration? …These aren’t your children, are they?”
“They’re not . But, I need them registered . Quickly, please . ”
It seems that a temporary registration is effectively a loophole in the regulations, where the children of merchants can be allowed to help out with the family business even though they’re unbaptized and, by all rights, should not be allowed to be working, let alone be registered . Since it’s impossible to hire a child that hasn’t yet been baptized, children who aren’t directly related to a merchant would thus have no actual reason to be involved in any transactions . As such, it’s impossible that a temporary registration would be granted to a child that isn’t a blood relative of a merchant .
Although she squints dubiously at us, she dutifully begins to ask me and Lutz a series of questions, writing something down on the other side of the counter . From what I’d heard so far, I had been thinking this would be a long, bureaucratic process, but this is just simple data entry: our names, our fathers’ names, where we live, our ages .
“The son of a carpenter and the daughter of a soldier, is it?”
When she finishes her questions, her expression grows all the more dubious as she looks back and forth between the two of us . It seems that she’s searching for some reason why we should be registered, even though we’re not the children of merchants . Her eyes are not exceptionally pleasant .
“That’s right,” says Benno . “If you’re done with the questions, let’s move this along . I don’t think either of us have much free time to spare on this . ”
“Very well, I’ll be back shortly . Please, feel free to sit over there while you wait . ”
She gestures towards the reception area . I’m nearly crushed by my desire to immediately run off to the bookshelves, but I instead look up at Benno .
“While we wait, may I look at the bookshelves?”
“Sure . If there’s anything you’d like to know, I can show you . Come and wait over here . Lutz, don’t let her out of your sight . ”
“Got it . ”
Lutz and I calmly walk to the bookshelves, his hand clamped firmly around mine . I go through the contents of the shelves, unrolling the parchment scrolls and glancing through the stacks of wooden cards, looking to see what kind of information they contain . It’s all eminently practical information: maps and illustrated references, almanacs of the nobility, rules of business, block-printed news sheets with information from nearby areas, and so on .
“Whoa, look at this map!”
It’s a particularly rough and sketchy map, but this is the first time I’ve gotten a look at what this world looks like . I have no idea where even we currently are on this, so I tuck the scroll under my arm and head to the sofa where Benno is currently sitting . I sit down on the sofa in the manner in which one usually sits down on a sofa, only to realize that this beautiful clothy surface is, in fact, merely a piece of cloth attached to the hard boards of the wooden bench underneath . It has none of the softness or flexibility I was expecting, so instead my butt slams hard into the unyielding surface .
“How excited do you have to be to throw yourself into a chair like that . Are you an idiot?”
I whimper softly as Benno stares at me with frank amazement . I was deceived by something that looked like a luxurious sofa in this strange environment, you know! If I had been able to see the wood this is made of, I wouldn’t have thrown myself into it like that . I keep these excuses in my heart, though, as I spread the map wide on the cloth-covered surface of the bench we are sitting on .
“Mister Benno, where’s this town on here?”
“Right here . Elenfest . That’s the family name of the lord of the land, so that’s the name of the town . ”
This is the first time I’ve heard the name of this town . Come to think of it, this is the first time I’ve heard the name of the lord, too . Since there’s not been any reason for me to go outside the town, there’s never been any need for me to learn its name, and whenever people refer to the lord they just refer to him by his title .
Looking at the map, it seems that there is an agricultural village and a forest to the south of Elenfest, and if you go beyond that, there’s another small town . To the west, there’s a large river, with another town belonging to the neighboring province relatively close by . Since the lords of those provinces share a good relationship, it seems that it’s popular to come and go between those two cities . To the north is the aristocratic town where the feudal lord resides, so there’s a large blank area . To the east, a major highway stretches, where it appears the largest number of traders operate .
“Well, when you two wind up going outside the town to do any purchasing, you’re probably not going to need to go off this map, anyway . ”
After Benno teaches us the names of a few of the other towns on the map, I return the map to the shelves, and once again start going through every last document on the shelves . On the very bottommost shelf, there are books that seem to be intended for apprentices to learn how to read words and numbers . Lutz and I flip through it to study its contents . In addition to the words I already know, I see quite a few more vocabulary words relating to commerce . I want some time to memorize all of these .
“Mister Benno, could we maybe get a slate and a calculator so that Lutz can study…?”
“Sure, I’ll take the cost out of your pay today and get those for you . Study hard, kid . ”
“By the way, could you tell me something, please? When a merchant’s kid becomes an apprentice, how well can they read, write, and do math already?”
After we’re baptized, the two of us will be working as apprentices with the children of merchants . Until then, we need to do as much as we can to make sure that we can do all of the things that they can do .
“They can read and write simple things and do basic calculations . For reading, they mostly know the names and related words of the goods their family trades in . For math, they know how to do the conversions between copper and silver coins, too . ”
This is bad . I don’t really know anything about the local currency . I already know that large and small copper coins exist, as well as small silver coins, but I don’t know what the exchange rate between them is, nor their actual market value .
After all, at my house, all we really use is copper .
I don’t think I’ve ever really seen many coins that weren’t made of copper . Also, when I’m doing my work at the gate, I’m only working with raw numbers . Otto handles all of the actual money, and I haven’t really seen him do it .
“I think where the two of you are most lacking is knowing how to treat customers . The other children have watched their parents at work every single day, so it’s basically instinct for them by now . ”
That’s impossible for the two of us . In Japan, I was only ever on the receiving side of customer service, and never actually stood behind the register myself . Lutz, as well, probably knows nothing that a merchant might actually know .
What should we do?
Before I can fall too deeply into a labyrinth of thought, the employee behind the counter calls out to us .
“Master Benno, the guild leader would like to meet with you . ”
“…As expected of that old bastard,” he mutters, in a voice so low that only we can hear it .
He stands up from his seat, eyes glittering coldly, his hands tightly balled into fists, the very picture of a man preparing to head into battle .
“Let’s go, you two . ”
“Yes, sir . ”
Benno starts heading towards the counter . With a clink, the closest panel to us on the counter falls to one side, opening a path for us to go through . On the other side is another staircase, at the top of which is a door that opens automatically for us . Through it lies a room that, although it’s not particularly large, seems very comfortable .
A fire is already burning brightly in the fireplace, spreading warm light across the carpet . On top of that carpet stands an official-looking desk, with a gentle-looking old man who, despite seeming to be in his fifties, still possesses a somewhat decent physique . Since “guild leader” sounds very much like a purely managerial position, I had been imagining a much more grandfatherly type, but I can see that this man has not yet aged past the prime of his life .
“Hey there, welcome,” he says, standing up from behind his desk with a warm, genial smile . “I’m glad I could get a chance to chat with you .
“Now then, Benno, let me get straight to the point . Why on earth are you asking for a temporary registration for these two kids, who aren’t even your blood relatives? This isn’t at all like when someone managing a street stall comes to ask for permission for their kid to watch the shop for them from time to time, am I right?”
A crafty smile crosses the guild leader’s face, silently telling us that Benno’s insistence that the two of us be immediately registered without first waiting for our baptismal ceremony is basically exactly the same thing as him saying that the two of us possess some sort of goods that it is worth getting us registered for .
“…If I don’t know what you’re trying to do,” he says, “I can’t give permission to get these kids registered, you know . There’s no precedent at all here in Elenfest for registering kids that aren’t blood relatives . ”
The guild leader looks the both of us over, with a contemplative smile that is completely impossible for me to read . His smile and his general demeanor seemed quite friendly at first glance, but this man is truly not friendly at all . After all, he just threatened us with rejection if Benno doesn’t immediately answer his question .
Seeing the guild leader waiting expectantly for an answer is making me grow increasingly nervous, so I look up at Benno to see how he’s taking it . However, Benno wears the darkly triumphant look of a man who feels absolutely assured of his victory .
“You want to know what these two kids have that I want, yeah?” he says, smiling broadly .
“Yeah, I guess I do . Since it’s a thing, after all, any store could probably trade them, after all . Your shop is starting to reach a little too wide, I’m thinking . ”
If it’s something that could make some real money, he wants a chance to seize it, he’s saying . Mister, shouldn’t you be at least trying to hide your real intentions?
“These kids have said they want to sell things through my shop, so they’re going to sell them through my shop . Right, Maine? Am I right, Lutz?”
We’re still scared of accidentally saying something unnecessarily, like Benno warned us not to do, so the two of us gulp, then nod emphatically . Benno smiles even more brightly, then looks down at me .
“Maine, please show the guild leader the hairpins that you’d like to start selling at my shop . ”
“…Understood, sir . ”
It seems that Benno still intends to keep our new paper trade secret for now . I don’t know what thought process he took to arrive at this conclusion, but since I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t, I keep my mouth firmly shut as I reach into my tote bag . I pull out Tory’s hairpin, and hold it out for the guild leader to see .
A moment later, the guild leader’s expression completely changes .