Ascendance of a Bookworm


Ascendance of a Bookworm Chapter 56

Otto’s Consultation Room

When I step outside, I am dumbfounded by just how much snow has accumulated. During the winter, I’m essentially just a shut-in, so I’ve almost never really been outside like this before. So, when I look up at the snow, piled higher than I am tall, I can’t help but stare blankly in awe. Through the alleys leading to the main streets, a narrow pathway has been shoveled out, allowing travelers to somehow manage to make their way forward, but the mounds of snow alongside the path look terrifyingly close to crumbling down on top of us.

“Maïne, up here,” says my father. He leans down, stretching both arms wide, and I quietly let myself be picked up, clinging to his head. If I were to try to walk through this, we wouldn’t make it to the gate in time for my father’s shift. Now that I’m being held up, though, my head is above the snow. A cool wind blows across the broad, white expanse, sending eddies glimmering across its surface like ocean waves.

“Daddy, are you going to be shoveling snow on the main street today?”
“The noblemen have to be able to drive their carts,” he agrees.
“…In this snow, I’d think I’d rather stay inside.”

With this much snow on the ground, I thought there wouldn’t be that many people out and about, but there are quite a few more people hurrying about their business than I expected.

“There’s a lot of snow out here, but there’s still so many people outside,” I say.
“It’s one of those rare days when the snow isn’t falling, isn’t it? When it is, there’s about as few people out as you’d expect.”

As he says this, though, a sprinkling of snow starts fluttering down from the sky, prompting my father to pick up the pace.

“It’s starting to snow. Let’s hurry, Maïne. Hold on tight!”
“Aaah!! I’m gonna faaall!!”

We arrive at the gate, clamoring the whole way. After taking a moment to roughly brush off the snow clinging to us, we quickly head towards the night duty room. After a light knock on the door, we push it open. A desk has been set up near the fireplace, atop which a veritable mountain of paperwork has been stacked, behind which is Otto, working on calculations.

“Otto, your long-awaited assistant has arrived!” says my father. “Make room by the fire.”
“Squad leader, thank you very much! I’ve been waiting for you, Maïne.”

The documents atop the desk rustle as Otto tidies them up, making space for me to work at. Judging by the absolutely enormous smile he’s giving me as he welcomes me, it looks like the work has piled quite high, too. I pull my slate and slate pencils from my tote bag, then haul myself up onto the slightly too-tall chair.

“Now then, Maïne. Please go over the calculations for this duty post, and make sure they match up.”

Well, it looks like I won’t be able to have my discussion until this mountain of paperwork is first straightened out. I look at the pile of documents that had been set heavily on the table in front of me, and pick up my pencil.

For a while, we work in silence. The only sounds that filled the room were the quick snap of beads from Otto’s calculator and the scratching of my pencil against my slate.

A knock at the door cuts through the silence, and a young soldier steps into the room.

“Excuse me. I have a question for Otto…”
“Maïne, you handle this one.”

Otto doesn’t even look up as he volunteers me, his eyes glued to his documents and his calculator.

“Huh? Me? Oh, um, wait one moment, please, let me just finish this line…”

I finish working out the calculation, mark the answer off as verified, then look up. The young soldier looks at Otto, who is flicking the beads on his calculator around with frankly terrifying intensity, then at me, then sighs, holding out a roll of parchment.

“Please help me with this.”
“What is it? …Ahhh, a noble’s introductory letter. Is the Private First-Class on duty?”
“No, he has the night shift today…”
“Then, get the chief’s stamp and make immediate arrangements for them to head towards the castle walls. Since it’s been a long journey through all this snow, even the gentlest noble might be on edge, so be as quick as you can.”
“Yes, ma'am!”
“If you do have to keep them waiting, I think you should make sure there’s a fire in the waiting room, get them in there immediately, and make them some warm tea.”

The young soldier salutes, then rushes out of the room. I return his salute, then turn back around, resuming my calculations.

“You’ve gotten good at that,” remarks Otto, taking a brief break from his calculations to rest his hands.
My pencil keeps moving as I reply. “They’re all dealt with the same way, after all.”

The work done at the gates is pure bureaucratic red tape. Fundamentally, the response to every situation is the same. Once you’ve read through the manual once, you can deal with everything that isn’t completely out of the ordinary.

After calculating for another long while, I’ve gotten a little tired. I tidy up the pile of calculations I’ve verified, then lean back, stretching my arms wide. Otto, as well, seems to have found a stopping point, and starts gathering up his documents.

“Man, I’m tired,” he says. “Shall we take a break?”
“Please,” I reply.

Otto brings in some hot tea from the mess. As we slowly sip at it, I start asking him for advice.

“…and then, there’s what my mother said to Lutz when we were talking. She said that if he was always looking after me, then he wouldn’t be doing enough work to really be pulling his weight as an apprentice. If he was keeping his attention on me, he’d leave the job half-finished.”

Otto gives me a look as if my mother’s words were the most obvious thing in the world.

“Isn’t that obvious? If he’s only doing half of his work while looking after someone else… of course it would wind up half-finished. If Lutz is really aiming to become a merchant, he can’t afford to spend his time looking after you, I think.”
“…That’s what I thought.”

Right now, we’re not yet apprentices, so we don’t do any actual work at the store. We just go there to deliver our goods. As such, Lutz is able to keep an eye on my physical condition while we work together. When we become apprentices and have to do real work, he’s very likely not going to be able to stop worrying about me, and I can’t let myself put him under that sort of burden.

As I sit there, wondering what I should do next, Otto looks down at me with gentle eyes.

“Hey, Maïne. Are you serious about becoming a merchant?”
“That’s my plan for now, yes. I’ve been thinking of a few things I might be able to commoditize…”

My decision is based on the fact that you can’t buy or sell things without the approval of the Merchant’s Guild.

“Leaving commerce aside, I think it would be better if you didn’t work at Benno’s.”

It’s already been decided that my apprenticeship would be under Benno. I’ve lately been feeling anxious about my actual work, but I’d like to know why Otto is telling me that I shouldn’t work for Benno.

“Why do you say that?”
“That store’s growing quickly. Every single person there is working earnestly. It’ll be exhausting work, and I don’t think your body can take it.”

The reason he gives me as he lightly shrugs his shoulders is the same reason I’ve been feeling anxious, and the same thing that I heard from Benno the other day.

“…Mister Benno actually asked me the same thing, whether or not I could really do the work.”
“There’s work to be done that just involves doing calculations and validating documents, but even a merchant’s job has deadlines, so it’s hard to entrust that kind of work to a girl who could collapse at any moment.”
“That’s true, isn’t it.”

I know full well that Benno has been thinking about how the information in my head could be turned into new goods or otherwise profited from, which is why he doesn’t want me to go to any other shop. However, when you think about my ability to actually work in a shop, my lack of strength and stamina is a fatal flaw.

Hiring an employee whose health makes her actual attendance rate constantly uncertain would be a hard decision to make, even in Japan. If I were in charge, I wouldn’t want that kind of employee.

“My other opinion is the kind of harsh thing you don’t really say around children, do you still want to know what it is?”

I tilt my head slightly to the side in thought, and Otto studies my reaction closely. The ultimate reason I came here was so that I could get an honest, objective opinion from someone like Otto, who doesn’t feel like they have to handle me with care. Under the table, I clench my fists, steeling myself for whatever answer I’m about to get, then slowly nod.

“The number one reason I think you shouldn’t go to work for Benno is, frankly, human relations. You’re going to wreck the social dynamic of the shop. If a brand new apprentice is, thanks to her poor health, constantly taking time off from work and, when she’s actually there, only doing physically undemanding work, wouldn’t all of the other employees feel more and more upset as time went on?”

Even if it’s made clear that the problem is my health, there will almost certainly be problems with the people who see that kind of favoritism, even if they aren’t immediately apparent. I’d been working so frantically to make sure Lutz secured his apprenticeship that I hadn’t actually considered what things would look like after I’d actually started my own.

“And then… I think there’d be a problem with your wages, you know?”
“Hunh? My wages?” I hadn’t even considered thinking about my wages being a problem, so my voice comes out a little weird. I tilt my head doubtfully to the side.
Otto sighs. “You’re already bringing in a huge amount of profit to the store, Maïne. There’s no way the other apprentices will be making as much as you are, right?”
“My base pay would be the same. I thought I’d just be getting my share of the profits added as a special case…”

Although Lutz and I have waived our profits for making paper in order to secure our employment, I’ve been planning on holding tight to the profits on any goods we come up with after that. I have no intention of handing over all of my secrets for free.

“Even if it’s a special case, you’re still going to be a brand new apprentice earning more money than the ten year veterans at the store. I really think that’ll be a huge problem.”

Human relations certainly are very quick to strain when money’s involved. What Otto is pointing out is completely correct. On top of that, if human relations collapses, then there’s a high probability that the shop itself might go down too. A shop, ultimately, is made of people.

“It really does look like I shouldn’t work at the shop, no matter how you think about it.”

Every one of Otto’s points is correct, and I have no rebuttal for any of them. I’m starting to feel like all I would do at Benno’s shop is sow the seeds of discord amongst his employees.

“And then, there’s one more thing I"m worried about.”
“What is it?” I urge him on. He’s laid out so much stuff already, I can take whatever he’s got left.
He leans in a little closer, lowering his voice. “Maïne, your illness… it’s the devouring, isn’t it?”
“Mister Otto, you knew about it?!”

My eyes open wide, but Otto starts lightly shaking his head in denial.

“Ah, no, I didn’t. I learned about it after Benno brought it up as a possibility. The other day, Corinna came to me and asked, ‘do you know anything about this disease called the devouring?’”
“Miss Corinna did?”
“A little while ago, Benno was unusually out of sorts, it seemed, and he said something about it to her. Something about how the devouring’s symptoms had suddenly manifested, and someone nearly died in his shop? Around then, the squad leader started acting extremely out-of-sorts, too. Between his behavior and what Corinna said, I pieced together that you must have been the one to collapse from the devouring.”
“…I’m sorry to have worried everyone so much.”

It looks like the story had spread far and wide. I’d collapsed in Benno’s shop and gotten carried to the guild master’s house. In hindsight, that must have been extremely conspicuous.

“The squad leader said you’d been cured, but… from what I’ve heard from Benno, it’s incurable, isn’t it?”
“…That’s right.”

The magical implement might have staved off the devouring for the time being, but even now I can feel it building back up again. Freida, as well, had told me that it’s going to build back up to overflowing again in less than a year.

“Have you told him?”
“No, not yet,” I reply. “My family’s so happy now that they think I’ve been cured, so telling them that I haven’t been is…”

Talking about the devouring would involve discussing a lot of extremely painful subjects, like how much magical implements cost or how much longer my life will actually be, so when the subject comes up I’ve been dodging around it as obliquely as I can. I don’t know much about it myself, other than “there’s a strange fever that keeps building up inside me on its own and if it overflows then I die”, so it’s really just difficult to talk about in general.

Otto shakes his head slowly, a stern expression on his face.

“You should tell them. Your father thinks you’ve been cured, so he probably thinks that you’ll be just fine going to work. Once you’ve made sure to take care of the things you need to take care of today, then we can start talking about your job prospects for tomorrow. If you’re just going with whatever works in the moment, you’re going to cause a lot of trouble for a lot of people.”
“I understand.”

Since I’ve recently realized myself that I have a tendency to charge ahead without regard for how much trouble I’m causing others, I have no choice but to meekly agree with Otto’s rebuke.

“So, for the future, since you’ll need magical implements to live, if you want to meet with the nobility then you should go to the guild master’s shop, I think. Benno’s shop is big, but it’s still very new. No matter how hard he tries, history and tradition carry a lot of weight. That’s not the kind of thing you can get past so easily.”
“That may be true, but…”

As I waffle, Otto raises his eyebrows.

“Is there some sort of problem with you not working at Benno’s?”
“It’s not that I wouldn’t be working at Benno’s, it’s that I don’t like the guild master. He’s pushy, and the way he runs his business is…”

Being overbearing might be a necessary quality for a merchant, but I can’t stand that he tried to deceive me by quoting a too-low price for a life-saving magical implement. I’m certainly thankful, but I have no intention of making his acquaintance.

“Benno’s the same, isn’t he?”
“Hmmm, Mister Benno’s pushy, and he’s greedy when it comes to money, and he’s the kind of person who tests other people the moment he meets them, but I can tell he’s picked up on a lot of my flaws and is helping me try to grow past them.”
“Ohhh?” he says, an unsettling smile spreading across his face.

His expression gives me pause. I’m absolutely certain my last sentence is going to go straight to Benno’s ears.

“Also, I haven’t decided yet if I want to live the rest of my life stuck uselessly under a nobleman’s thumb.”

Now that I’ve finally started to think that I actually want to keep living with my family, I’m finding it difficult to imagine wanting to live as a nobleman’s pet, especially when I don’t know what kind of treatment I would wind up facing. Like Freida, said, my choices are to either rot away surrounded by my family or to live out my life in a noble’s captivity. If I had to make that choice right now, I think I’d choose my family.

“Well,” says Otto, “if you haven’t decided what you want to do with your life then there’s not a lot to talk about. If you’re not going to work for a shop for the sake of building connections with the nobility, then I think even more that you should think about your other options besides working at a shop. Honestly, from where I’m standing, if you and Lutz do the "Maïne thinks it up and Lutz makes it” thing and make sure to keep control of the profits and the rights, there’s no need for you to actually work for a shop, I think.“

I give him a big nod. I certainly haven’t been thinking about anything but working alongside Lutz, but if thinking is the only thing I can really do, then there’s no real need for me to work for a shop in order to do that.

As I nod to myself, mulling his words over, Otto breaks into a beaming smile. It’s such a brilliant smile that it’s actually a little suspicious.

"Let me see… perhaps you could have a job that lets you work from home and keep a close eye on your health, like transcribing letters or copying paperwork, while also just focusing on developing new products? You could force your products onto Benno, and then when your health is good you can come help me with my work here. Your life wouldn’t be much different than it is right now, which I think would be great for your health in the long run!”
“…I’ll think about it.”

Maintaining the status quo might indeed be best for my body, but I’m incredibly wary of the intent behind that suspicious-looking smile.

“Well, this is something you’ll have to talk about with your family first.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Now then, break time’s over. Let’s get back to it, shall we?”

Otto clears away our cups, and I put my slate back out in front of me. My pencil clacks against its surface as I go back to working out the numbers, making sure there’s no mistakes in Otto’s calculations.

Talking with my family, huh… I’m scared that if my father knew that I only had a year left to live that he’d go insane with grief.

“Maïne, let’s go home.”

By the time my father, finished with his shift, comes to the night duty room to pick me up, I’ve done far too many calculations. By this point, I’m dizzy. When I close my eyes, all I can see are numbers floating through my brain.

“You’ve been a big help, Maïne,” says Otto as we leave.

Otto, who’s been flicking beads around on his calculator this whole time, is still very energetic. I’m starting to think that clerical work involving nothing but calculations might be utterly impossible for me.

“Daddy, aren’t you cold?”

Snow lightly falls from the sky as we walk home. My father has wrapped me in his coat as he holds me in his arms, but while I’m nice and warm, I can’t help but think that he must be freezing.

He just smiles and shakes his head, though. “I’m not cold if I’ve got you, Maïne. I’m actually really warm!”
“Ah,” I say.

He truly loves his family and is ridiculously devoted to his daughters. How will he react when I tell him about the devouring? I worry that his smile will freeze off of his face. It’s a scary thought, but… I can’t avoid this topic any more.

“What’s wrong, Maïne? You’re looking a little gloomy.”
“…Daddy, I’ve got something to tell you. About my sickness.”

With just those words, my father stops walking, his face rigid. His mouth tightens, and he looks down at me very seriously. He casts his eyes away for a moment, then starts walking again, more quickly this time, hurrying as if he’s trying to run away from something.

“Let’s talk about it when we get home. Your mother will want to hear about it too.”

I can’t tell what he’s thinking about, but my fathers arm’s tighten around me, holding me closer to him, as if he’s never going to let me go.