The Beginning of Winter
The day after I breathed a sigh of relief upon coming home, I head to Benno’s shop, accompanied by Lutz . Although the first sprinkle of snowflakes has started to fall, it’s imperative that I both inform Benno about my recovery and give him my thanks before the snow really starts to pile up, so I’m forced to leave my house .
“Master Benno’s been wondering if you’d been pressured into something, or if you’d been recruited out from under him . He’s been really worried about you . ”
“Ahh, I kept praying for him to come save me, I wonder if he heard me?”
When I was trapped in Freida’s house, I’d silently called for him, over and over, to come and save me . Maybe he picked it up on some strange wavelength?
As I hum thoughtfully to myself, head tilted to the side in contemplation, Lutz scowls at me with a somewhat dissatisfied expression .
“…What about me?”
“Didn’t you pray for me to come save you too?”
When I look at Lutz’s wounded expression, I just want to leap forward and tickle him without saying anything . Thinking about that makes me smirk, entirely unintentionally, and Lutz starts pouting even harder .
“Why are you laughing?!”
“I mean, you really did come and save me, didn’t you?”
Lutz freezes, startled, like a deer in the headlights, and I can’t help but laugh out loud .
“Lutz, didn’t you tell Freida that I’d get a fever if I was too active? Thanks to that, I got to sleep soundly, so I didn’t have to sit through dinner, which meant I didn’t have to listen to another sales pitch and feel bad about it… you really saved me!”
“Heh heh, oh really?”
Lutz smiles proudly, gripping my hand a little tighter, then moves a half-step ahead of me . Maybe he thinks that if he can block a little bit of the wind that’s hitting me, there won’t be as much snow falling on my head .
“Good afternoon,” I say, upon reaching Benno’s shop .
“Ah, Maïne,” replies Mark . “I am overjoyed to see that you’re well again . ”
The inside of Benno’s shop is both lively and warm . When Mark saw the two of us enter the shop, breathing little sighs of relief, he quickly came over to greet us . It seems to me that, even though the snow has started to fall, the number of people coming and going hasn’t decreased a bit, even though I’m hearing that some workshops have already closed down for the winter .
I murmur this to myself, looking around the store, and Mark smiles down at me .
“That’s because this shop still sells things during the winter,” he says .
“Oh, is that so?” I reply .
Since the days during which the snowstorms make it impossible to move around only increase as the winter goes on, I’d thought that people here lived in such a way that would make it impossible to spend money . It seems that I was wrong .
“When the noblemen are shut indoors by the snow, they have a lot of free time to spend . Their purse strings slacken a surprising amount for the sake of finding things to stave off their boredom . ”
“Ah, I see, entertainment, huh…”
I can’t make a game console, but things like trumps, karuta, hanafuda, sugoroku, and other familiar card games start bouncing around in my head . If I have the spare time to do so, maybe it would be a good idea to try making something like that .
Lutz tugs firmly on my sleeve . “Did you just think of something?”
“Something that would really be better if we had paper . ”
It’s possible that I could make card games work with very thin, wooden cards . However, that would require the skill to slice wood very thinly, as well as cut them to approximately the same thickness and size . It would be relatively simple to accomplish if I were to get someone skilled in woodworking to do it for me, but since we’re operating under the premise of “I’ll think of it and Lutz will make it”, I at least don’t want to make these until after our baptismal ceremony .
I wonder if Lutz actually can make thin sheets?
Besides, I have yet to actually see any evidence of paints in this world . Since I know dyes exist, it’s not unreasonable to think that paints might too, but there’s nothing in my house that could possibly be used to paint playing cards .
For something like Othello or shogi, though, we might be able to make it work with just ink and a board . When it comes to the most ways to play with something, though, playing cards are number one .
While I mumble to myself, deep in thought, I’m led into the office, where Benno abruptly leans in close to look at me .
“Maïne, you’re all better now, right?”
“Whoa?! Y… yes,” I say, blinking quickly . “I’m sorry for making you worry . ”
Even with my reassurances, Benno still looks at me with deep suspicion, and won’t stop scrutinizing my face .
“Master Benno,” says Lutz, “she’s fine . She was just thinking about something, there’s nothing wrong with her health . ”
“If you say so,” he replies .
Perhaps Lutz’s words finally convinced him, as he suddenly turns away, walking to a table over by the fireplace . He sits down, letting out an enormous, heavy sigh .
“Those magic tools were something that old bastard had gathered up, and he said he had to be extremely persistent in order to get that many of them, so I had to gamble on whether or not he’d actually let you use one of them, but…”
“Ah, he tried to force me to work at his shop . If I hadn’t had enough money to pay him, he’d have wanted me to transfer over to his shop, you know, to pay off the debt?”
“Debt… well, that’s to be expected . But, it looks like you had the money?”
He grins a wide, triumphant grin . I nod at him, laying out the facts of the trap that the guild master and Freida had laid out for me .
“Yes, sir . For the use of the magic tool, the guild master quoted the price to you as one small gold and two large silver coins, but the actual cost was two small gold and eight large silver coins, so―”
“That old bastard!” shouts Benno, roughly scratching his head in frustration .
“I just barely had enough money to cover it, which was a relief . It looked like the two of them were not expecting me to have the necessary funds, and were quite shocked . ”
As I continue explaining, Benno is momentarily taken aback, then murmurs to himself, “that’s right, I did increase her information fee…”
He smiles broadly . “Well, if it gave those two a shock then that’s alright with me . However, be careful around those two . If you keep hanging around them like you do with your complete lack of a sense of danger, they’ll gobble you right up . ”
I, with my complete lack of a sense of danger, had made what I’m pretty sure was a pretty grievous mistake, but I think it should be best to tell Benno about it . However, as I start thinking about that, I find myself wanting to delay the scolding that’s inevitably coming, and can’t stop myself from picking the most roundabout way to broach the subject .
“Umm, Mister Benno . I have a question . What kind of sweets are common around here?”
“What do you mean?”
I flinch as he glances at me with his reddish-brown eyes, and start adding to my explanation .
“Well, sweet things are rare at my home, and are just things like honey and fruits, and then paru during the winter . ”
“Ah, that’s right . ”
“…So, y-yes . Mister Benno . This is a little off-topic, but Freida had sugar at her house . Is that particularly unusual?”
Considering that there’s no sugar for use in cooking around my house, I think that it would likely be something that would have only spread amongst the upper classes . Even still, I want to ask someone who knows things about its distribution, if possible, hopefully be told that it’s something that’s actually pretty common for the majority of the town and it’s just that my family is too poor to buy it, or something like that .
Of course, there’s no chance that the answer will actually match my fervent desire .
“Hm, it’s rather unusual around here . It’s only recently started to be imported from foreign countries, and it’s gathered quite a lot of popularity in the royal capital and amongst the nobility, but… wait . You . Did you do something again?!”
Seeing as how I’m already guilty of so many things, Benno almost immediately notices my scheme . His eyebrows go straight up .
“Um, I made a kind of sweet called ‘pound cake’, and they seemed to really latch onto it…”
“Oh, that!” says Lutz . “That was super tasty . It was really moist, and it melted in my mouth, and it was the first time I had something sweet like… wait, Maïne!”
Although sugar has started circulating amongst the nobility, it seems that there aren’t enough kinds of sweets being made to consider this place as having anything of a pastry cuisine . A pound cake is a very simple, orthodox cake, but there’s no mistake: I overdid it .
The two of them glare at me, and I am, as expected, filled with the sense that I’ve done something terrible .
“Why in the world would you, confronted by carnivorous animals, stick your head out of the bushes like that?! Isn’t it obvious that you’d be devoured in an instant!”
If pound cake has gotten him so enraged, then I can take some small comfort in having not instead made sponge cake or shortcake . Sure, that’s because I was nervous about the scales and that wood-fired stove, but, ultimately, that saved me .
“I mean,” I say, “I’d promised Freida that I’d make sweets with her, and I was trying to think of a way that I could show her my thanks―”
“If you wanted to thank her, your money is good enough!”
What Benno is saying lines up nearly with what Freida had said to me earlier . To merchants here, once you’ve completed your transaction, anything beyond that is unnecessary .
“Urgh, Freida said that to me too . ”
“Again?! What do you do when the person you’re negotiating tells you these things? Didn’t I already tell you to make sure if your opponent is actually okay losing?”
Noooooo! I have no learning ability at all . Although, isn’t it only natural to want to give thanks to someone who just saved your life?
“I just wanted to thank her for saving my life…”
“So, in other words, the fact that her old bastard of a grandfather just deceived you fell right out of your empty head, did it?”
I’m at a loss for words after that . I can’t deny that, in the end, since I had the money, they saved my life . However, if I hadn’t had enough, and I’d been forcefully pulled away from Benno’s shop to work at the guild master’s, I’m sure my feelings would have been more complicated .
“…Seriously, since you have the devouring, they can’t really bank on having you for any real length of time, so they’ve been going easy on you . If they were serious, you’d have been acquired long before you even noticed it . Don’t do anything to explicitly get yourself caught . ”
Ah, I see, I think I understand a little more clearly now . I’d been thinking that these traps they were spreading out to try to recruit me were a little too easy . It seems that they’ve only just been poking at me, since I’m someone who’ll either get crushed by the devouring or have to enter into a contract with a nobleman .
“Umm, when you say they’d acquire me before I noticed it, what would that look like?”
“The simplest thing for them would be to approach your parents and lay the groundwork there . There’s no way that they’d refuse someone offering to become your patron . They’d attack you from there, after your baptism, sending over an associate to say they’ll take care of you from now on, and without you even knowing about it you’ll suddenly be engaged to their son . The only reason they haven’t done that yet is because they don’t know whether or not they’ll still have you after a year . ”
“That’s, that’s terrifying!”
I tremble, goosebumps covering my arms . Benno looks at me in amazement .
“You finally got it? Looks like there’s a limit to your lack of fear . …So, you just delivered them this dessert?”
I tilt my head to the side, not really understanding the meaning of his question, then explain how Freida and I made it together .
“No, I don’t have the physical strength in order to be able to make sweets, so I explained the process to Freida’s household chef and she helped us make it . They had a lot of white flour, and sugar, and even a wood oven in their house, it was amazing!”
“Yes, amazing, amazing! So, in other words, you gave them the entire recipe…”
Benno has his head in his hands, a sight that makes me rather anxious . I had no idea whatsoever that a cake I made just to show my thanks could make such enormous waves .
“Er, did I do something wrong?”
“You gave away something that could be sold to the nobility for free . You’re an idiot, aren’t you?”
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what gets sold to the nobility and what goes to the working class . I get that a cake recipe is something that’s worth some money, though . I should be more careful in the future .
“Urgh… So if that’s the case, then would it be okay if I taught a chef here how to make it so we can sell it here too? There’s no way they could have started selling it by now…”
“Acquiring sugar is still difficult . ”
Benno gives me a clearly disgusted look when I suggest that everything might be okay if we could get it to market first . Giving me that look doesn’t help the problem, though . Acquiring sugar isn’t my domain . That’s Benno’s job, the man who does business far and wide .
“Well, I guess I’d better give up for now, then . If you can find a cook with easy access to sugar and an oven, I’ll give you the recipe to ‘pound cake’ for free!”
“…From the way you’re talking, it sounds like there’s more . ”
Benno, having caught on immediately, looks at me, but all I’ve got are recipes that you can’t make work without any sugar . Even if I were to tell him, there wouldn’t be any meaning to it . I, having recently been taught how recipes for sweets could be quite valuable, puff up my chest and turn my head away towards the door .
“Any more will cost you,” I say .
“Show them that stubbornness!”
“…I’ll do my best,” I say, slumping dejectedly .
I am not at all used to having things I’ve done out of good will turned into raw calculation, but since this is what the world of merchants is like, I have no choice but to get used to it .
“Is that all you had to tell me?”
“Ah, no . This is much more personal information, but I’m unable to leave my house in the winter, and I won’t be able to come to the shop until spring . Please don’t worry about me . ”
Benno and Mark, who’ve become overprotective after I collapsed right in front of them, are both here . Although I’m sure that even if I didn’t come to the shop there wouldn’t be any problems with managing the store, but it would be bad for me to make them worry about my health again, so I think I need to make this statement .
“Unable to leave your house, you say?”
“If I do, I’ll be stuck in bed again . ”
“Hmm? Didn’t you say you’d be helping Otto, though?”
It seems that Benno somehow got the idea that I’d be going to the gates frequently during the winter, but that’s not quite right . There’s no way my family would let me do something that reckless .
“Ummm, only on clear days, when my health is good, and my father is working either the morning or the day shift . I don’t think that’ll be more than ten times over the course of the winter . ”
“…Will you really be able to hold down a job after your baptism?” he asks .
“That’s something I worry about every day,” I reply .
Benno, deeply concerned, may have asked me that question, but I’m really the one with questions for him . Is there work that I can actually do?
“Well, it’s good that you’re thinking about it so hard . So then, how are you planning to deliver your winter handiwork? As the spring baptismal ceremony starts coming around, it would be a big help to have some stock here at the shop . ”
We’d previously discussed delivering our merchandise in full when spring came around, but it seems like that won’t be in time for the spring baptismal ceremony . It also appears that he doesn’t have much stock left from what we rushed to create for the winter ceremony .
Lutz cheerfully raises his hand . “I can bring them,” he says, “depending on the weather . Clear days are for picking paru, so I can come to the shop on cloudy days, I guess?”
“Ahh, paru, huh… I miss it . Paru juice is such a treat for children . ”
Benno smiles wistfully . Perhaps even Benno used to go picking paru back in the day? I smirk, suddenly imagining Benno splitting his spoils of war with Corinna . Lutz, sitting next to me, thinks about gathering paru for a moment, then gets a sly grin .
“I’m definitely going to eat parucakes this year too,” he says .
“…Parucakes?” says Benno, dubiously . “What might those be?”
I start thinking of what the world would be like if the recipe for parucakes got out, then suddenly break into a cold sweat .
“Ahh, Lutz . How about we keep that recipe a secret, alright? Otherwise we won’t be able to get any paru anymore . ”
The dried-up pomace left over after squeezing all the juice out of a paru isn’t something that humans can eat . It’s animal food . People, believing that, bring those rinds to Lutz’s family, trading lots of it in exchange for fresh eggs . However, if word of its usefulness were to spread, then paru pomace would likely be very valuable . In that case, I’d have caused a huge hassle for everyone expecting to be able to use it to feed their livestock .
“Okay . It’ll just be ours to enjoy, then!”
“Yeah, let’s leave it just between us . ”
When it comes time to head home from Benno’s, snow has started to pile up, bit by bit, on the sides of the road . I look upon the signs that a full-blown can’t-leave-the-house winter has finally started, and breathe a small sigh .
“Looks like the days I can’t go outside have started, huh . ”
“…Yeah, you’re right . ”
Lutz nods slightly, looking down at the snow accumulating on the road . Karla, his mother, had told me that the mood around the house wasn’t great . Lutz, the reason behind it, must be feeling that pressure even more . Winter, when everyone’s locked inside their homes, must be an especially harsh season for him .
“Hey, Lutz . Come over to my house every few days, okay? Bring your studying stuff and any pins you’ve got finished . ”
The only thing I can offer him is a little room to breathe . Since it looks like Lutz’s family treats him harshly every day, and he can’t leave his house without good reason, it seems like it would be good for him to use his discretion about how many pins he should bring at a time .
Lutz’s expression opens up a little at my suggestion . “Yeah, I’ll do that,” he says . “Thanks . ”
As the days of snowstorms continue, fewer and fewer people walk the roads . To endure the bitter cold, people refrain from going outdoors, passing the time away inside their homes .
Since my father’s a soldier at the gates, even though it’s wintertime he can’t take a vacation from work, just like last year . Even during snowstorms he still has to work, so it’s rare for him to be home .
At home, Tuuli works diligently on making hairpins whenever she has time . Since she knows for sure that this will bring in money, she works even more seriously at this than she did with weaving baskets last year . My mother, still showing interest in our winter handiwork, has to put making clothes for the family her higher priority . Since my baptismal ceremony is this year, she said, making me a good dress is her first task .
“Altering Tuuli’s dress from last year won’t work, now, will it?”
Tuuli, over the last year, grew even more . By summer, her dress had already started getting a bit tight . As such, she’d barely worn it . Altering it to fit me, though, wouldn’t actually save all that much labor, it seems?
“Your sizes are way too different, so altering this would be a huge task!”
My mother, troubled, smiles wryly as she says this . Ordinarily, nice dresses aren’t something you have to make a lot of . If there’s sisters in the family, it’s especially common for there to be hand-me-downs . However, Tuuli and I are very different sizes . When Tuuli was just turning seven in time for her baptism, she already looked like she was about eight or nine . I, however, still look like I’m four or five . Wearing the same clothing as her is, frankly, impossible .
When I try it on, standing in the light of the stove, it drapes loosely off my shoulders and down my sides, the knee-length skirt hanging around my ankles .
“Hmm…” I say . “Although, if we take the hem and take it in like this we could hide the length, and then if we pleat it like this it would be cute, I think, wouldn’t it? Then how about we decorate the areas around the stitches with little flowers?”
“Maïne, that’s not just alteration,” laughs Tuuli as I stand there holding my hem in a pleat . “That sounds really extravagant!”
It seems like they’re saying that since our sizes are so different, they’re going to alter the dress by undoing all the stitching, cutting it down to my size, and resew it entirely . It seems my suggestion of hemming it up to hide the actual length of it is practically heresy .
I’m pretty sure this is the part where I’d rather not get scolded for doing something unnecessary .
“Oh, is it? If it’s too showy, then I guess we shouldn’t skip that . I guess I was just thinking that if we just took it in like this, then when I start getting bigger we could just let it back out again…”
The only people who can use extra cloth like this are the kinds of people with lifestyles where they can afford it . Nobody who isn’t rich wears clothing with pleats in it, nor can they afford to add too many decorations, either . That’s why Tuuli’s dress had been made exactly to her size . Even if we’re only adding pleats to make it fit me, it’ll still wind up standing out a lot .
My mother, who has kept her mouth shut during this, seems to have come alive with a strange eagerness . She grabs me firmly by the shoulders, smiling broadly .
“…Let’s try doing it like you say, Maïne . If it doesn’t work, we can always do it the regular way . Right?”
Ah . Crap . I got my mother fired up . She’s… not going to stop, even if I tell her the regular way’s just fine, is she? I’m already going to be way busier than I was last year, between making my own hairpins, tutoring Lutz, and cooking, though .
Of course, there’s nowhere for me to run away from my overeager mother . At some point, while standing in front of the stove, wearing nothing but that nice summer dress, and holding it up while my mother pins it together, I, thanks to my frailty, catch a cold .