Ascendance of a Bookworm

 
 
 

Ascendance of a Bookworm Chapter 51


Taking a Bath With Freida

I nervously watch the oven, wondering if this really is going to turn out alright. This pound cake is a dessert that uses liberal amounts of some very precious ingredients. Not only am I in someone else’s house using someone else’s ingredients, but this is also the very first sweet I’m making for Freida. I cannot mess up.

“Maine, is it done yet?”
“How about we take a look?”

Ilse cracks open the oven, and I peer inside. I can see that it’s puffing up quite nicely, but the back part of the cake seems to have browned more than the front.

“Miss Ilse, it looks like the back part is pretty well baked, so could you please turn it around?”
“Sure,” she replies.

She pushes the cake pan around in the oven, rotating it. Even if I were wearing the same sort of thick mittens she is, I definitely wouldn’t want to stick my hands into that blazing oven. I’m impressed by the kinds of things professional cooks get used to.

Ilse shuts the oven door with a clack, then looks down at me. “How do you tell when it’s done baking?” she asks.
“Ummm, I’d usually check on it by sticking in something like a bamboo skewer; do you have any sort of long, thin rod with a pointy tip?”
“Hmm, the first thing that comes to mind is the skewers we use for grilling meat.”

After rummaging about for a little bit, she produces iron skewers, like you might stick vegetables or meat on at a barbecue. I’ve never seen anyone use iron skewers to check cake before, but, honestly, the only way to find out whether or not it’ll work is to try it.

…These are going to leave behind some pretty big holes, but since I don’t have any bamboo skewers, I don’t have much of a choice, do I?

In the past, when I didn’t have any bamboo skewers I used a cooking chopstick, so I think it’ll probably be okay. Ilse quickly sticks the skewer into the cake. When she pulls it out and shows it to me, I can see that a bit of uncooked batter still clings to the rod.

“It looks like the inside’s not cooked yet.”
“How can you tell that?”
“See how some batter’s stuck to the skewer? When it comes out totally clean, that’s the sign it’s done.”

By the time the inside is fully cooked through, the top of the cake is starting to turn a fairly dark brown. I think the oven might be a little too hot. However, unlike the ovens I’ve used before, it’s not easy to precisely control the actual temperature, so all I can do is entrust this to the experience of this trained worker.

“Hmm, I’ll need to watch the oven more closely next time,” murmurs Ilse.

She pulls the pound cake out of the oven. Once it’s removed from its pan, it’s revealed to be a fluffy, round, almost sponge cake-like cake.

“Amazing!” exclaims Freida.
“Yeah,” says Ilse, “this looks quite delicious.”

As the two of them look at the finished pound cake with glittering eyes, an indescribable feeling of accomplishment wells up in my chest.

“It’ll be really delicious if we cover it with a firmly wrung-out wet cloth so it doesn’t dry out and then just let it sit for a couple of days, but how about we taste just a little bit right now?”

I ask Ilse to cut out a very slender slice from it, which I pick up with my fingertips and bring it to my mouth. Eating without a fork like this, before anyone else has been drawn to the kitchen by the smell, is the epitome of the kind of tasting that only those who make the dish can truly appreciate.

“Yeah, this tastes perfect.”

I’ve only ever eaten this when it’s in actual pound-cake shape, but even though it’s just a circle, and even if the cake pan was an iron saucepan, the taste is all right. Ilse, accustomed to tasting things, takes the next little slice and pops it into her mouth.

“Huh, this is…”

Freida had been hesitating a little bit to pick up her own piece, but once she sees Ilse taste it, she hurriedly puts it in her mouth.

“Well now!”

Their eyes go wide when they taste it, then their heads swivel around to look directly at me. Their expressions look almost predatory, like the guild leader’s did this morning.

…What’s up with this… kinda creepy atmosphere?

It would probably be best if I escape from here before I get asked any awkward questions. I grab onto Freida’s hand.

“Okay then, Freida! Let’s bring this out as a dessert after a meal so that everyone can eat it too. Let’s go take a bath next!”

As we exit the kitchen, I look back over my shoulder, remembering my manners.

“Thank you very much, Miss Ilse!”

The two of us didn’t do very much real work when we were making sweets, but thanks to all of the sifting we did, the cuffs of our sleeves are stained with flour. Since we have more than plenty of time, let’s go use the rinsham and get pretty.

When we exit the kitchen, the female servant who had helped me out earlier this morning is waiting for us.

“You two, before you two go running about, would you kindly take baths?”
“Well now, Yutte,” says Freida, “you’re saying exactly the same thing Maine is.”

Freida chuckles to herself as we walk. Yutte seems to have anticipated that making sweets would get us dirty and has already prepared baths for us. With a basket in hand containing changes of clothes, towels, and the jar full of rinsham, she guides us forward.

“This way, please.”

She starts descending the staircase in the center of the house, but I just watch warily. At Benno’s shop, the staircase in his inner office has a staircase like this one, so I know that it wouldn’t be unusual for there to be a staircase leading down into the shop inside a merchant’s home. Is it okay for me to walk down there, though? I quietly lean over to ask Freida.

“…Doesn’t this staircase go down to the shop?”
“It’s okay,” she replies.

Yutte passes the door that leads to the shop on the first floor, then goes down another flight of stairs. It seems we’re going to some sort of basement room. At the bottom of these stairs are two doors, one very sturdy and splendid, and the other ordinary.

Yutte opens the splendid door, ushering us inside. The floor underneath my feet is warm enough that I want to say that it’s got some kind of heating, and the room temperature is fairly high as well. There are two large tables here, covered with cloth, looking entirely like massage tables. (Later, I learn that I’m not at all wrong to think this.)

“Now then, please remove your shoes and clothing.”

It seems like this is a combination massage parlor and changing room. Prompted by Yutte, I strip out of the clothes I’m wearing. Freida disrobes as well, with the help of Yutte.

Then, Yutte opens another door, revealing a bathroom that’s about three by three-and-a-half meters in size.1 At the far wall sits an enormous bathtub, as big as a family-sized pool you’d see at a hot spring in Japan, able to comfortably hold two or three people. The wide floor is made out of something that looks at first glance to be white marble, as is the tub, which is filled with gently lapping hot water. Next to the tub is a statue of a young girl holding a pot, and from that pot pours a trickle of hot water. Matching the flow from the statue, a little bit of water runs out of the tub and, heated by that water, the rest of the room is quite warm. The ceiling is tiled, and the windows near the ceiling overflow with brilliant light. Thanks to the room being surrounded by gleaming white marble, the room gives off a very bright atmosphere.

“Whaaat?! What is this?!”

Taken aback by the utterly unexpected appearance of such a grandiose bath, I unintentionally yell out. My voice rings off of the smooth walls. Freida, seeing as how I’m frozen in place, staring through the opened door, chuckles mirthfully, walking past me into the bathroom.

“Heh heh heh, are you surprised? This is a reproduction my grandfather had made of the baths found in the houses of the nobility! It’s not something that we use very often, but since tomorrow is my baptismal ceremony, he gave me special permission to use it.”
“So, baths… do exist…”

After more than a year without taking a bath, there’s now one right before my eyes. On top of that, it’s way bigger and more extravagant than Urano’s was.

“They originally came from another country, and the nobles believe they they are good for your beauty and bodily health. Oh, just, please be careful, the ground is slippery.”

Yutte, still clothed, follows us into the room. Only her apron has changed. It’s made of a tough material that looks like it was picked under the assumption that it would get wet, and the skirt portion of it covers her entire lower body. The skirt is rolled up a bit so that it won’t get wet, and part of it has been tied off.

Upon entering, she immediately starts washing Freida’s hair, prompting me to hurriedly bring out the rinsham.

“Miss Yutte, when you wash her hair, please use this. You, um, pour it on like this…”

I try to explain to her how to use it, but her expression grows slightly troubled and she looks down at Freida.

“Yutte,” says Freida, “would it be okay for Maine to wash my hair today?”
“Oh, ummm,” I say, “yes, is that alright?”

Yutte surrenders her spot to me, and I start to wash Freida’s hair. Meanwhile, she rubs a wet towel against a bar of soap and starts scrubbing Freida’s body.

“When you have a place like this to bath someone in and can use a lot of hot water, you can put the rinsham directly in your hands like this and then apply it to their hair. You need to be careful to use your fingertips when you’re washing their scalp so that you don’t poke them with your nails.”
“It’s kinda ticklish,” says Freida, “but it feels nice.”

Freida’s hair is most likely already being maintained by Yutte, I think. It was already smooth before I started, and glossy, too. There might not have been a need to use the rinsham to begin with.

Since there’s a high chance that rich people have already established their own styles of cosmetology, I wonder if it might actually be kind of hard to sell rinsham?

I think about things like that as I continue washing Freida’s hair. I wonder if I should inform Benno about this.

“Once you’ve washed all of the hair like this, then you rinse it out. Please take extra care to make sure all of it gets rinsed off of the scalp.”

As I say that, Yutte pours a bucketful of water over Freida. When her entire body except for her head has been rinsed off, she quickly walks over to the bathtub and hops in. I stare blankly, wondering what in the world she’s doing getting into the tub with shampoo still in her hair2, but she rests her head on the edge of the tub, letting her hair hang down. Then, Yutte starts carefully rinsing off the hair that dangles out of the tub.

Oh ho, is that how you wash someone’s head? I’m glad I didn’t immediately say “oh, I’ll rinse you off” and dump a bucket of water on her. That would have been pretty awkward.

In the brief time it takes for me to marvel, wide-eyed, at how rich girls take their baths, Yutte finishes rinsing Freida’s hair off. Truly, an environment where you can just splash water everywhere is magnificent.

Now that Freida’s all clean, I reach out for the jar of rinsham so that I can wash my own hair. With a splash, Freida jumps out of the tub and runs up to me, looking at me with brilliant eyes.

“I want to try washing your hair, too!”
“…I can do it myself, though?”

Is it okay for a rich little girl to do something like that?

I quickly glance over at Yutte, silently asking if this is a proper thing to do. She sighs lightly, then comes over to sit down next to me too.

“Well then, young lady, how about you help me? I’d like to practice how to use this ‘rinsham’ as well.”
“Excellent!”

She says she wants practice, but I’m pretty sure she’s really there to fix up any mistakes that Freida might make. Thank you, Yutte.

The two of them wash my hair, big fingertips and little fingertips squirming against my scalp. It’s almost painfully ticklish, but I manage to bear my way through it without bursting into laughter.

“Maine, your hair is so silky smooth,” says Freida.
“It’s naturally very straight,” I say, “so it’s really hard to tie it back with a string since it just keeps slipping out. All I can really use to keep it up is my hairpin.”
“It’s a mystery to me how a wooden stick like that can keep hair in place.”
“Hmmm, well, it was kind of a last resort, since I couldn’t find anything else nearby that would work…”

When Yutte feels my hair is appropriately washed, she leaves Freida to continue working on that while she starts scrubbing my body. Since I can’t really run away while Freida’s still working on my hair, I have no choice but to sit there and let her do it.

“There, now you’re all clean too,” says Freida.

Freida, who has basically just been ruffling my hair for a while, seems satisfied with her handiwork and pulls back, and I reach for the bucket. However, Yutte quickly snatches it out of the way.

“Now then,” she says, “I’ll rinse your hair out for you, so please get in the bathtub.”
“B… but I can do it myself?”
“You are a guest here, Maine. Please, go right ahead.”

With a smile, she forces me forward, so I get into the tub like Freida had, resting my head on its rim. I let my hair hang down, and Yutte starts carefully rinsing it out. She pours warm water over it, gently shakes it out, and runs her hands along my scalp.

Ahhh, it’s like a spa. This feels good…

I wonder if Yutte always helps Freida take her baths? Her practiced motions are very comfortable; at this rate, I might just drift off again…

“Hey, Maine,” says Freida. “How do you wash your hair when you can’t use a bathroom?”

Freida’s question snaps me back awake in an instant. This is not a spa. I can’t fall asleep here. I look around for her, moving only my eyes, and see that she’s quietly slipped back into the tub next to me, her head resting on the side of the tub in the same pose as I’m in.

I look up, past the steam hanging in the air, at the patterns in the tile mosaic on the ceiling, then start explaining how I usually wash my hair.

“When you don’t have a bathroom, you’d fill a bucket like that one about halfway full of water, then mix the rinsham into that. Then, you soak your hair in the bucket, and wash it in the liquid in there. Then you wipe off your hair over and over with a cloth to make sure no liquid remains, and then you comb it all out.”

You first dilute the rinsham to the point where it should be more-or-less okay if you can’t get it all out of your hair, then you wash it over and over, then you towel it off many, many times to make sure that there’s no rinsham left over. Even this was a last resort, developed when I really wanted to wash my hair but had no access to a bath. If my family had a bathroom, this wouldn’t have been a problem.

“Is rinsham your thing, Maine?”
“No, Mister Benno has all the rights to it. He should be about ready to start selling it soon.”
“I see…”

Freida looks like she wants to say something, but before the words can leave her mouth, Yutte stops working on my hair.

“Should be all rinsed out by now, I think?”
“Thank you very much,” I reply, sitting up. “That felt really good.”

Yutte stands up smoothly. “Now then, I’ll be in the other room getting the next things ready. The two of you, please warm yourselves thoroughly.”
“Okay~!”

As soon as Yutte leaves the room, I slump down into the water, all the way past my shoulders. I scoop up some water, splash it over my face, and breathe deeply.

Ahhh… paradise.

“Maine, you look like you’re melting,” says Freida.
“But this bath feels so good! It’s so luxurious, being able to stretch out and soak all the way up to my shoulders like this.”
“You’re pleased with it, then?”
“Yeah, really!” I reply, my whole face breaking out into a smile as I nod. “I want to take one every day.”

However, I can’t see much of a smile of enjoyment on Freida’s face.

“…Do you not like it, Freida?”
“It’s not that I dislike it, but, it’s very hot, and when I get out my head starts spinning.”
“Oh, you’re getting dizzy. You’re staying in too long!”

I answer entirely by reflex, and Freida’s eyes widen.

“Oh really? I was told to warm myself thoroughly, so I’m just staying in as long as I would in a normal bath, though?”
“Well, in a normal bath, the water starts cooling off pretty quickly, you know? This tub, though, has that statue, which is constantly adding more hot water. So, if you stay in for the same amount of time, you’ll get dizzy, and it’ll feel bad. Why don’t we try getting out a little early today?”
“Let’s do that.”

Freida and I get out of the tub early. It’s quite early by my own intuition, but Freida, thoroughly warmed up, is bright pink all over.

“Did it not feel good?” asks Yutte. “Are you okay?”
“We’re done for today,” replies Freida.

After we exit the bathroom, Yutte tells us that she’ll give us a massage with a perfumed oil, but I turn down the offer. I’d ordinarily be inclined to accept, but in my particular case, I won’t be taking another bath anytime soon. After I return home, I don’t know if I’ll be able to clean it all off when Tory and I are scrubbing each other. I put on my clothes, dry my hair, and then watch Freida as she gets her massage.

“Massages… they’re so refined,” I say.
“I don’t particularly like how long all this takes, but my grandfather says that if I’m to enter noble society, I’d better get used to this kind of thing.”

Ahhh, I finally get it. She got in the bath even though she thinks it’s too hot and doesn’t feel very good, and she’s getting a massage even though she’s making that slightly bothered face, all to practice for when she’ll be joining noble society. I have absolutely no clue to what extent, but Freida’s life must be very different to what it used to be.

“…Ah, I see. If you have the chance to get used to it, then you really should. There’s definitely going to be big differences in common knowledge, manners, and so on, after all.”
“My grandfather said the same thing. That’s why he’s acquired a lot of things for this house that one might find in a nobleman’s residence.”

Corinna’s premarital lifestyle probably wasn’t that different from what it is now. I had thought that this house felt very different than hers had, despite the fact that they’re both the houses of merchants, but it seems that the extravagance of the guild leader’s house is not just because he’s a wealthy merchant. The food, the bath, the various supplies, they’re all of vastly superior quality here, and it seems that they’re all things that the nobility have, gathered for Freida’s sake.

Wow, he dotes on you.”
“…He’s investing in the future. He’s planning a lot of things ahead, making it so that I won’t run into any problems when I open my shop in the noble’s district, and so that we’ll be able to make use of the foothold we’ll finally get there.”

Freida purses her lips, looking slightly dissatisfied. I certainly don’t think that Freida’s view is wrong, but all this is definitely not something done without any love at all.

“It’s your dream to open a store, Freida, and isn’t he helping you out with that? When your grandfather ordered your hairpins, what I saw in him was a man who saw nothing but his granddaughter.”
“…Oh.”

Does Freida, perhaps, really long for other people?

She couldn’t go outside very often while she was sick with the devouring, and when she was finally freed from that she was immediately contractually bound to a nobleman. Since it’s been decided that she’ll be that nobleman’s concubine, she’ll be living for that reason, and making friends might be very difficult in such wildly different circumstances.

To live in noble society, she’ll need to learn to be both stubborn and calculating, and she also needs to learn everything she’ll need to know in order to manage her own shop by the time she grows up. I’m positive she spends every single day studying hard, all for her own sake, with the pressure of her very life, her future livelihood, and the expectations of her family weighing down on her. I think this must be an enormous burden for a little girl to have to bear. On top of that, although her family is spending a lot of money on her, it’s obvious that they’re operating out of their own self-interest, so she can’t just quietly sit back and depend on their care.

Is that why she’s so attached to me?

We both have the devouring, we’re both already involved in business despite not yet being baptized, and if Lutz is to be believed then we both let our weird hobbies run wild. We seem to be quite similar. Compared to the other kids, we have a lot in common, and there’s no denying that we get along pretty well. Is that why she wants to trap me?

“Maine, this is amazing. My hair’s so smooth!”

While I was spacing out, Freida finished her massage, got dressed, started running her fingers through her hair, and raised her voice in wonderment. Yutte, in the process of neatly combing it out, lifts up a lock of Freida’s hair as well.

“Yes, it’s turned out quite well.”
“I’m happy you like it!” I say. “I hope it’s enough of a thank-you for letting me use your magic tool?”
“Oh my, you already paid me for that, so you don’t need to worry about that, right?”

Smiling wryly at Freida’s very merchant-like words, I shake my head.

“I really felt like I wanted to thank you. If the guild leader hadn’t collected all of those magic tools for your sake, then even if I had a lot of money, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything anyways.”
“…I guess you’re right.”

We leisurely finish up in the bathroom and head back upstairs. When we arrive, a delicious smell is once again wafting out of the kitchen. It seems Ilse is tackling her second pound cake.

“I finally have a new recipe,” she chuckles, with a trustworthy smile, “so I have to make sure I memorize it!”

I’m thrilled that a tasty recipe is spreading, so I can definitely support this.

“Ilse,” says Freida, “since you’re making a new one, it’ll be okay for Maine and I to eat the one we made earlier, won’t it? I’d like to enjoy some tea with her, please make some for us.”
“I’ll bring it out in just a bit.”

As we move to the dining room for tea, Lutz arrives, just in time.

“Hey, Maine! I smell something amaaazing.”

I chuckle to myself over how sharp his nose is when it comes to smelling sweets. Lutz, though, turns to face me, narrowing his eyes and peering at me very closely.

“What’s up, Lutz? Is something wrong?”
“Uh, Maine. Did you kinda overdo it today? You got way too excited about your fever going down, didn’t you? Go get some sleep, like, now. You’re going to get another fever from exhaustion.”
“Huh? Huh? You’re kidding. I feel great, you know?”

I pat my face, tilting my head doubtfully, but Lutz only scowls and shakes his head.

“You’re just too excited to notice it. You’re not looking so good.”
“Oh my,” says Freida, “but her fever from the devouring has gone away, and all we’ve done today was bake sweets and take a bath, you see?”

Freida, backing me up, lists off what we did today, her head tilted to one side. Lutz rubs frustratedly at his temples, sighing.

“…Alright. Freida, when you don’t have the devouring, you’re a pretty healthy person. When Maine doesn’t have the devouring, she’s still really frail. Whether she collapses because of the devouring or because of exhaustion, it’s fast enough that anyone who’s not familiar with the signs won’t see it coming.”

At those words, Freida and I spontaneously exchange a look.

“Maine, is that true?!”
“Freida, you’re not really weak?!”

It seems like we’d arbitrarily decided we understood each other. Freida thought that since my devouring was gone I was perfectly fine, and I thought that the devouring had left Freida just as weak as me so I should be fine if I just kept up with what she did.

“I don’t really know what a bath involves, but anyway, since it was your first time, and you wanted to show Freida a good time, you put in a lot of effort, right?”
“Urgh… It wasn’t a lot of effort…”

It’s the undeniable truth that I’ve been feeling a little pressured this entire time, on top of being convinced that if Freida was doing okay then I must be doing okay too.

“You look like you’ve been moving around way too much today. Don’t take your own weakness too lightly. You really are weak, remember?”
“You don’t need to keep calling me weak like that!”
“It’s true, isn’t it? Aren’t you supposed to come home tomorrow during the baptism ceremony? If you get sick again here, your family’s going to get really mad, you know?”

If, after getting help in curing the devouring, I run around a whole lot doing various things to try to show my thanks, then straight-up collapse with another fever as a result, I’d be throwing the favor right back in their face. My father, who’s looking forward to me getting well and coming home, would be very angry, my mother would scold me endlessly for being such an enormous bother to Freida, and Tory would just be flabbergasted. “Why can’t you just be good for once?” she’d say.

“Aaaarnghh…”
“He’s absolutely right,” says Freida. “You’re here under my supervision, so I can’t let you ruin your health on my behalf. Maine, please, go rest. Alright?”

When Freida says that to me, a worried look on her face, I give the two of them a big nod.

“Okay, I will. Thanks, Lutz, for telling me. …Freida, sorry, but, would you mind splitting that 'pound cake’ with Lutz?”
“Yes, of course. Yutte, please help Maine get back to her room.”
“Certainly, miss.”

I’m led back to the guest room, and when I lie down on the bed, I’m suddenly keenly aware of how exhausted I actually am. My entire body goes limp. It seems that the slight hotness I’ve been feeling isn’t actually from having been in a bath for the first time in ages.

That’s Lutz for you. It just took him one look…

This was my first time in Maine’s body working under the pressure of failure while making those sweets, and my first time in an actual hot tub instead of bathing as I normally do, so I had no idea how to adjust for that, I think.

Not only was I nervous about being in someone else’s house, but just as Lutz said, I was in way too high spirits.

Wrapped up in the soft, comfortable bedding and the warmth of my own body, my consciousness immediately drifts away.


Translator’s notes for this chapter:

1. The room is described as being about the size of a 6-tatami room, which is about 2.73m x 3.64m. I’ve rounded to preserve the feel of the estimate.
2. When bathing in Japan, you wash and rinse yourself off completely before entering the bathtub itself. That way, the bathwater stays clean so that you and others can enjoy relaxing in it.