Ascendance of a Bookworm – 047
Interlude: The Power of Money
“If I ever pass out from the devouring, Lutz, it’s not your fault at all . It really, really does come without any warning . …And there’s no way I’m gonna lose anytime soon . I haven’t made a single book yet . ”
Maine’s voice is quiet, right next to my ear, as she tries to reassure me .
I don’t want her to see my miserable, crying face, so I’m carrying her on my back . However, since I’m doing so, I don’t have a free hand to wipe the tears running down my face . One by one, the teardrops fall onto Maine’s sleeve, leaving little wet spots .
I want to help her, but I can’t . I can only grit my teeth at how powerless I am .
Maine always keeps saying that she’s completely useless, but I don’t know what I’d do without her .
When I said I wanted to become a trader, my family disregarded it completely, telling me not to be ridiculous, but Maine just smiled and told me to follow my dream . When I was first introduced to Benno, I was so terrified that I wanted to flee on the spot, but Maine held my hand and helped me through it . When there wasn’t anything I could do on my own, Maine stuck with me, helping me think and helping me act so that I could become an apprentice . Even now, when I’m wondering if it’s even a good idea for me to become a merchant, Maine’s teaching me how to write, how to read numbers, how to do math, how to think about money… everything .
And despite all that, there’s nothing I can do to help her when she’s suffering from the devouring .
I don’t have the kind of money to help her . I’ve started to earn a little bit of money, but all that was things that she thought of . If I hadn’t helped her, if she was stronger, if she’d gotten more help from the adults, I wonder if she’d have been able to make paper a lot faster and earn a lot more money? If that’s the case, would she have made enough money to save herself?
I can’t think about anything else . I’m so weak that I’m miserable, regretful… shameful .
If I wasn’t a kid, if I was an adult, I wonder if I’d be able to help her? If I was a merchant like Master Benno, if I had that kind of money, maybe I…
I swallow everything down, grit my teeth, and keep walking forward, Maine on my back . If there’s anyone who can help Maine, anyone who has enough influence and money to help Maine, I’ll find them at Benno’s .
Master Benno will surely save Maine . He knows just how much the things Maine can make are worth, so I’m positive he’ll help .
When we arrive at the store, Mark and Benno are lying in wait for us . Mark has a worried look on his face while Benno is scowling unpleasantly . Since I still haven’t been able to wipe away my tears, I hang my head low, not wanting them to see my soggy, miserable face . As I stare down at the ground, the tips of Benno’s shoes come into view .
He sighs heavily . “…this kid . ”
I thought he’d just walked up to sigh at us, but suddenly all the weight disappeared from my back .
“Eeek?!” cries Maine, startled .
I snap my head up to see Benno hold Maine up roughly and then toss her over to Mark . My heart nearly jumps out of my chest when I see Maine hurtling through empty air .
“Whoa?!” exclaims Mark .
As soon as I’m sure that Mark’s caught her securely, I allow myself a moment of relief before turning to face Benno angrily . The instant before I start to yell “what are you doing to a sick little girl?!”, he jerks his chin towards the shop .
“Lutz, let’s go . You and me . ”
I open and close my mouth wordlessly, my fervor suddenly evaporating, then follow Benno into the shop . As I try to convince myself that there’s no problem entrusting her to Mark, or at least that it’s far better than letting Benno take care of her, I hear the door close behind me and frantically wipe my face clean with my sleeve .
Benno motions to the table we always use . As soon as I sit down, he fixes his glimmering, reddish-brown eyes on me . He studies me from head to toe, then opens his mouth .
“…Was it the devouring?”
“How did you…”
“Despite the fact that you were carrying her, Maine seemed to be doing pretty well . I thought that her fever must have suddenly spiked and then gone down again just as suddenly . You’re together all the time, but is this your first time seeing that?”
I nod, gulping . Even though I’ve been by Maine’s side whenever we went to the forest, went to the store, and worked on making paper, this is my first time actually seeing the symptoms of the devouring manifest .
There wasn’t a single sign that her condition was worsening, but suddenly she got a fever so hot that I wondered if her body was going to melt . Something wispy and yellow drifted off from her, like steam rising from her whole body . It was astoundingly terrifying .
“Master Benno, please, help Maine . I can’t do anything . I’m just a kid, I don’t have any money, I can’t do anything…”
“I can’t . ”
In a quiet voice, Benno immediately shoots down my request .
“Why?! You’re a grown-up, you have money, you do a lot of business with the noblemen…”
As I desperately make my argument, Benno’s face twists as if in pain, or regret . Grinding his teeth, he shakes his head .
“I told you my business was rapidly growing . When it comes to trading with the nobility, I’m a newcomer on the scene, relatively speaking . I don’t have many connections . I’m still at a point where they see me as someone at their feet, ready to be ripped off . …I can’t do anything, either . ”
“Master Benno… even you can’t…?”
I’m left speechless by Benno’s completely unexpected words . Benno, who owns this huge shop, who does business with the nobility, is saying that he’s powerless to help Maine; is curing the devouring completely impossible? As everything in front of me starts to grow dim, I remember the one person I know of who has been cured .
“But, I thought Frieda was cured… then maybe the guild leader…!”
“I already talked with him . ”
Benno takes a shallow breath, then reaches up to scratch at his head . A wry, sarcastic smile floats over his troubled face, and he shrugs .
“He said that, if you have money, you can temporarily stave it off . Since he’s willing to spend any amount of money so that his granddaughter could keep living, he’s been working with a disgraced noble family this entire time, constantly paying them to use a broken magical tool . Using it just once costs him two small gold coins . ”
When I got the one small silver coin for selling that paper, I’d been so thrilled at how much money I’d just earned, but it seems like Maine needs gold, not just silver . The thought of such an unattainable amount of money makes my head spin .
“However, even that’s only enough to buy about a half year’s worth of time . Even if I spent that much money once to keep her alive, I’d have to spend it again before you know it . Maine, especially, is very young . As she grows up, the symptoms of the devouring are only going to get worse, and more and more frequent . You think I have that much money to spend on a single apprentice? It’s impossible, for me . ”
If what Benno’s saying is right, then it really is impossible . There’s no way he’d be able to spend that kind of money . However, just saying it’s impossible and giving up is giving up on Maine’s life .
“There’s not much I can do,” he says . “I can buy the unusual knowledge that she has from her, giving her some gold to make up for it . When it starts to get too bad to deal with, I’ll probably hand her over to that old bastard . …So, what can you do?”
Benno stares at me with sharp, predatory eyes . Without thinking about it, I glare back at him . He’s an adult, with power, brains, money, and everything, and he still can’t do anything to help Maine . What could I possibly do?
“…I can’t do anything at all . I’m just a kid . I’m not strong, I’m not smart, I don’t have any money… if there’s something I can do, tell me, please . ”
“Don’t make her have to look after you . Don’t make her worry . ”
His immediate response makes my breath catch in my through . He’s hit the target so cleanly that I have no way to respond at all . My eyes grow hot with chagrin . Benno’s facial expression softens a just a little bit, but his eyes are still sharp as he opens his mouth to speak .
“Listen up, Lutz . That kid out there is not the little girl she seems to be . At the very least, even when she’s suffering, she doesn’t want to make you worry, so she puts on a brave smile for you . Make sure you don’t let her trick you with that . ”
I remember that after the devouring fever went back down down, when her breathing was still heavy and ragged, she had a bright, happy smile on her face . Seeing her smiling like that really did make me feel relieved, but it looks like maybe that was a mistake .
“You’re a man, so don’t give her anything else to worry about . You can’t pretend like you don’t know anything, so cooperate with her so that she can buy herself a little more time to live . If you’re going to say grandiose things like ‘I’m going to make whatever Maine comes up with’, then take every single one of her ideas, make them, and sell them! If you’ve got time to cry, then you’ve got time to think . You’ve got time to work . Make some money!”
“…Alright . ”
I raise my head, full of determination, and Benno’s lips stretch into a broad grin .
“Now that’s the right kind of face, hm?”
“Oh, Lutz!” says Maine . “You done with your conversation? Look, look! I finished up getting us paid for the hairpins we brought today . ”
She’s smiling, as usual, as I come out of Benno’s office to meet her . She has a very carefree expression on, but when I remember Benno’s advice and look more closely I can see that despite her smile there’s a hint of worry in her eyes . Feeling like I should be scolding myself for making her worry, I put on a smile, refusing to be defeated .
“That’s a lot,” I enthuse .
“I think we’ll be good for about two or three more days with this . ”
“Two or three?!”
“Honestly, I have no idea just how far my mother’s going to rampage through this project, and Tory’s just as fired up as my mother is…”
As we banter back and forth, I can see Maine start to loosen up, bit by bit . I think I probably managed to give her a little bit of peace of mind . Behind me, Benno comes out of his office with his usual stern expression, shrugging his shoulders .
“Don’t just chit-chat in my shop . If you’re done with your business here, then go straight home and, Maine, get right to bed . Lutz says you’re not a hundred percent right now . ”
As Benno waves his hands to shoo us out of his shop, he seems to suddenly think of something and amends his previous statement .
“Mark, go with these two . It’s dangerous for kids like these to be walking around with that kind of money . ”
“Certainly, sir . ”
In order to make it easy to pay Tory and the others, Maine got all of the money in medium copper coins . Since there’s thirty-three of them, they’ll probably jangle loudly when we walk around . If unbaptized children such as ourselves carry around that kind of money, then, of course, we’d be incredibly conspicuous .
Now that the danger of being robbed or attacked has been pointed out to her, Maine forgoes her usual “no thank you, it’s all right” routine and obediently offers the bag of money to Mark . Mark exchanges a brief look with Benno, then reaches down to pick up both the bag and Maine herself .
“I–I can walk on my own!!”
“Were you not just carried here by Lutz, Maine? You’re such a good girl, so please come along quietly so that the rest of us can rest easily . ”
Maine, having lost any means of resistance, stops struggling and just hangs her head . It seems like she doesn’t have any way to fight against Mark’s gentle words .
This is a good discovery . I should work quickly to learn how to talk like Mark .
On the way home, Maine and Mark discuss things like how to handle the winter handiwork and how to manage the finished products . I pay close attention, since I’m going to be doing the exact same thing too .
I thought that we were going to go our separate ways when we reached the plaza with our water well, but Mark doesn’t put Maine down, saying that he’ll bring the money all the way to her home and explain things to her family . I part ways with the two of them, deeply appreciative of how considerate Mark is .
“Lutz, I’ll stop by later,” says Maine .
I wave goodbye at them as they head into the building, then I turn towards my own home . My feet suddenly feel like lead weights as I drag myself forwards .
“I’m home,” I say, as I close the door behind me .
“What, empty handed today?”
Zasha, my oldest brother, looks me up and down, raising an eyebrow . For unbaptized kids like me, going to gather things from the forest is effectively a full-time job, but since I’ve lately been going to Benno’s shop a lot, I haven’t been able to do enough gathering . My family, I know, doesn’t actually care about the circumstances why .
“Seriously . You didn’t even go earn any money, huh?”
If I’d come back with some money, things might have been a little better, but only a little . Ralph really doesn’t like how much money I’ve made in such a short period of time, and lately he’s been really strict with me .
I put my things in my room, lie down on my bed, and let out a long sigh . Ever since I started saying that I wanted to be a merchant, everyone in my family has been uncomfortably icy towards me . I know that if I just said I was going to give up on that and be a craftsman instead, things would instantly improve, but I also know that I’d regret that forever .
“Good afternoon, Miss Carla . Is Lutz here?”
“Oh, Maine! It’s good to see you . I just heard him come home a little while ago… Lutz, Maine’s here!”
At the sound of my mother’s voice, all of my older brothers immediately rush forward, dragged by Maine’s invisible grip on their stomachs . By the time I manage to make it out of my room, she’s already been completely surrounded to the point that I can’t even see her anymore .
“What’s up? Do you have a new recipe?”
“I’ll help! What do you need?”
“Nuh-uh,” she says, “not today . I’m just here to pay Lutz what I owe him . ”
“You owe him?”
“Yep! He helped me with my winter handiwork, so I owe him for that . ”
Maine squeezes her way out of the crowd and walks up to me, with the kind of self-satisfied smirk she gets when she’s scheming something . “Lutz, your hand, please,” she says, and I stick it out . Then, she exaggeratedly places coins into the palm of my hand, one by one .
“You helped with five pins, so I owe you five medium copper coins . One, two, three, four, five . That’s right, right?”
“Yeah . ”
The coins clink against each other as she places them into my hand, and I’m suddenly aware that the gazes of all of my older brothers are firmly fixed to the spot . My palm seems to tingle under the pressure of their stares, and I hear someone gulp nervously .
“Hey, Maine . You said Lutz helped you, was that those sticks he was making yesterday?”
Maine, waiting for Ralph to say those exact words, puts on a sweet, but very, very forced, smile .
“That’s right! I’m making hairpins, so I asked him to help with the pin part . One pin is one medium copper coin . ”
“That’s worth that much?!”
Zasha’s eyes fly wide open, staring again at the coins in my palm . Zeke, his doubts seemingly erased now that he actually sees me holding money, takes a sharp breath and looks over at Maine .
“…Does it have to be Lutz that does it? Can I help too?”
Zeke is the one to ask the question, but it’s on all of my brothers’ minds . All of them turn to look at her . She looks back at them easily, smiling and nodding .
“No, it doesn’t really have to be Lutz . But, they need to be a specific size, and they need to be polished really smooth so that they don’t catch in anyone’s hair, so it’s not really casual work, you know?”
As soon as my brothers hear those words, they all scramble to be the first to talk themselves up .
“Maine, Maine . I’m way better at woodworking and carpentry than Lutz is . I do it every day at my job, you know . ”
“Me, I’m definitely better than Lutz . ”
“If we’re talking about experience, then I’ve got the most of it, right?”
Whoa, whoa, wait a minute, guys . Who was it yesterday that told me I should go off and make those boring little sticks all by myself?
“Oh man, I can’t believe we were so stupid yesterday!”
“Lutz, why didn’t you tell us you were getting paid for these?”
“Were you going to hog all the money for yourself?”
I’m pretty sure I told them about it, but they probably ignored me, thinking I was making things up . My brothers’ memories have been repainted by the power of cold, hard cash, making me into the bad guy here . All of my brothers are staring at me with a dangerous look in their eyes, and I’m suddenly extremely aware of how terrifying money can be . As my brothers start closing in around me, Maine claps her hands together .
“So, would you three make them for me, then? I’d need five from each of you . If you make more than that, I won’t be able to use them . I’ll be back in three days to get them, okay?”
“Yeah, leave it to me!”
“I don’t even need three days . ”
“I can do them right away . ”
Maine holds up a single finger, grinning impishly .
“Precision is more important than speed! If you don’t make them exactly, I won’t be able to use them and you’ll have to redo them . …Oh, right! You should ask Lutz about how big they need to be and what kind of wood you should be using . Okay then, I’ll see you guys in three days to pick these up!”
My brothers, with big smiles on their faces, wave to Maine as she heads out the door . The instant the door shuts behind her, though, their attitudes immediately change . They grab onto me tightly and drag me to our room .
“So, what kind of wood do we need?”
“How big are they?”
“You’re not getting anything this time, heh . ”
Their tools are already in their hands as they close in around me, demanding an explanation . I’m left dumbfounded by their complete and utter turnaround from yesterday, where they didn’t even bother paying attention to what I was doing .
“Don’t just stand there!”
“Tell us, quickly!”
I answer all the questions they have about the kinds of wood and how to make them, and they immediately set to work . In the blink of an eye, I’ve been completely tossed aside . Then, most frustratingly, my brothers start immediately churning out beautiful hairpins, far faster than I could have made them, thanks to their job experience .
Ah . Is this how Maine feels when she’s always saying she isn’t good for anything?
I, having been forgotten in a corner, get out my slate and calculator . This is something that I should be doing . I can leave the crafting to the craftsmen .
On our way home, Maine had told me to do three things .
First, on a board, I should make a note of the number of pins that we make . Then, I should make sure that I keep that board hidden securely, so that nobody can arbitrarily add more to it . Lastly, I should use my calculator to work out what my total commission on these is, remembering that my commission for each pin is four medium copper coins .
“Man, I’m way ahead of you . ”
“Ralph, that looks kinda sloppy . If you don’t do it right, Maine can’t use it, right?”
From the sounds of it, my brothers have started competing to see who can make them the best .
“Lutz, how’s this look?”
“…Yeah, that looks great! Good job, Zasha . ”
Zasha has finished one, so I’ve made four coins .
“Look, I’m done too!”
“That’s perfect, Zeke!”
Zeke finished another, so now I’m up to eight .
While I’m sitting here practicing my writing, I’m not actually making anything myself, but when see my commission fees steadily ticking up on my calculator I suddenly understand .
Now this is being a merchant, huh? Now that I’ve seen the power of money firsthand, my desire to know how to handle it well has only been strengthened .