Ascendance of a Bookworm Chapter 57
“Welcome back, you two!”
Tuuli opens the door for us with a big smile. When she sees the two of us on the other side, she blinks a few times, and starts to look a little worried.
“…What’s wrong, Dad? You’re looking kind of grim, you know? Is it too cold outside? Is Maïne too heavy?”
“That’s mean, Tuuli!” I pout at her.
My father gives me a thin smile. “You’re too light, Maïne. You need to grow bigger.”
He sets me down and gently ruffles my hair. Now that his mood’s lightened a bit, Tuuli smiles slightly in relief. “Sorry, sorry,” she says, coming over and brushing off the leftover snow that was clinging to my head. In my heart, I applaud her for changing the mood so quickly.
“It started snowing a bit on the way home, and it got really cold!” I say, with a sour expression.
Copying me, she gives me a sour look back. “You got Dad to carry you, and you got him to wrap you up in his coat, so you weren’t cold at all, were you? I can’t do that!”
Giggling, I head to the bedroom to put my tote bag and coat away.
By the stove, my mother is working on putting dinner together. “Welcome home. …Shall we eat dinner first, then?”
It seems that, despite what we were talking about, my mother had taken in my father’s strained mood and tense facial expression and guessed that something’s up. She frowns for just a moment, then smilingly gets to work setting the table.
“Now, eat up!”
At my mother’s urging, we start eating dinner. We’re much less talkative than we usually are. I haven’t even said anything yet, but my father’s brow is furrowed, my mother is looking away, and Tuuli looks on anxiously. The atmosphere is already heavy. As I look around at the three of them, I lift a spoonful of hot soup to my mouth.
Will it really be okay if I tell them? If I say something like “I’ve got one year left,” won’t my dad just go absolutely insane? How should I bring this up? I want to hide how expensive that magic tool was, too…
I keep eating, but all I can think about is the conversation that’s going to come after this, and my heart starts pounding loudly in my ears.
“Thanks for the food.”
After my mother hangs up the tableware, she picks out some herbs that have a calming effect and boils them into an herbal tea. The cups clunk onto the table as she sets them in front of us.
“Did something happen?” she asks my father, sitting down next to him. “It looks like you have something to say, don’t you, dear?”
He shakes his head slowly. His pale brown eyes snap to me. It’s scary to see him look so serious, without a single trace of the lovestruck smile he always looks at me with. I gulp, noisily, my breath caught in my throat.
“Maïne’s the one who has something she wants to talk about.”
When he says that, everyone’s eyes turn to me. Even though all I’m trying to do is talk to my family, my throat has gone dry from the tension.
“Umm, well, this is about my sickness, so…”
What do I say now? How should I best explain this so that it’s easy to understand? Those are the only thoughts tumbling around in my head, yet the words I need to give a basic explanation won’t come forth. I break out in a strange sweat, and my head goes blank as I try to hurry my thoughts along.
As I open and close my mouth soundlessly, failing to find my words, my father narrows his eyes at me.
“You’ve been cured, haven’t you? You went to the guild master’s house for a few days, and when you were cured, you came back home. Isn’t that what happened?”
“Umm, the short of it is that I’m not cured.”
My explanation vanishes entirely from my blank head, and I just say the conclusion. It’s like I set off an enormous bomb in the middle of them. After a moment of stunned silence, they all simultaneously gasp loudly, their eyes going wide. Then, my father suddenly stands up, so forcefully it knocks his chair over, and slams his hand onto the table.
“…What do you mean?!” he says. “Was the guild master lying to us when he told us you were?!”
“You’re not all better?!” asks Tuuli.
They crowd in close to me, my father from in front of me and Tuuli from the seat next to me. I frantically wave my hands, trying to get the two of them to calm down and sit back down.
“Whoa, calm down, sit. I don’t know much about this myself, and I don’t really know how to explain this, so I just said the first thing that came to my mind, so that’s…”
Grinding his teeth so hard that I can hear it, my father sits back down with a clunk. My mother seems to have somehow kept her cool. She picks up her cup with shaking hands, swallows a mouthful of tea, then urges me on.
“Yes, please explain it to us properly.”
Next to me, I see Tuuli reach out for her cup as well. I pick mine up too, take a gulp, and start talking.
“My sickness is, um, called the devouring. It’s a really rare disease.”
“I haven’t heard of it…” says my father, nodding.
Tuuli, though, grips her cup tightly. In a quiet voice, she says, “Maïne told me about this before. She said it takes a lot of money to treat it.”
This time, it’s my mother who stands up with a clatter, her eyes wide. She looks deathly pale. There’s no doubt that she had noticed that the guild leader had never asked us for any money. I’d hoped that, if at all possible, I could hide just how much money it was, but I think I’d better not try to do that now.
“Mommy, I’m trying to explain, please listen,” I say.
She slowly sits back down, looking at me like she still has something to say. Feeling everyone’s eyes still on me, I begin to explain, starting with the devouring itself.
“So, the devouring, it’s like a fever that’s always in my body, and sometimes it just starts moving around on its own, and it’s always just slowly building up. If I get really mad, or if I get sad enough that I feel like I want to die, or anything like that, then it starts running wild through my body. It feels like I’m being eaten alive when that happens.”
Tuuli is white as a sheet as she stares at me. She glances down at my fingers and then up to the fringe of my hair, as if checking to make sure I’m really not being eaten away at right now.
“The fever is something that I can keep from moving around with my willpower. If I focus on the image of locking it up deep inside me, that works for a while, but it keeps slowly, steadily multiplying.”
Tuuli, visibly trembling, squeezes my hand tightly.
“When I can’t lock it up, then it just explodes out, like it’s going to overflow out of me. If it overflows, then I’ll get swallowed up, but… last time, when that happened, the fever flowed out, and I was drowning. The guild leader used a magic tool and sucked the fever away. He sucked up a lot of it, but now it’s starting to build up again, so I definitely haven’t been cured for good.”
Tuuli, whimpering quietly, stares at me with moist, quavering eyes, looking like she’s almost about to start crying. Or, maybe, instead of “staring”, should I say that she’s making a face like she’s trying desperately not to start crying? I feel like I’m going to start crying too if I keep looking at her, so I turn my eyes away and instead drink another gulp of tea.
“Then, um, Freida told me that I’m not really going to get much bigger, since there’s a weird fever always nibbling away at me. You need magic tools to cure the devouring, and only the nobles have those, so they’re really expensive. Also, if your family doesn’t have connections to people in the nobility, you can’t get them either, she said.”
“So, then, it… really was the guildmaster that saved you, wasn’t it?” my father says weakly, his voice cracking. There’s no sign of his explosive emotion from earlier.
I nod. “Yeah, the guildmaster sold me one of the magic tools that he bought for Freida. But, she also said that if I didn’t have any magic tools, then I should decide really soon what I’m going to do about it.”
“Do about it? Does that mean there’s another way you can be cured?!”
My father leans forward, hope blazing in his eyes. Even Tuuli, who looked like she was moments away from crying, has a glimmer in her eyes. Seeing their sudden hope hurts me deeply, and I tell them what I could do if merely living was my only goal.
“She said my only alternatives were to either make a contract with a nobleman and be their pet forever, or to rot away with my family…”
“Be their pet forever?” asks my father. “What does that mean?”
From his facial expression, it seems he’s having trouble grasping the concept. Tuuli’s face is blank as she tilts her head to the side, perhaps because she didn’t understand the words I was using. My mother’s face is pale as she grips her cup.
“Freida has a contract with a nobleman, so she has the magic tools she needs to be healthy. She said that since her family is a wealthy and powerful merchant family, the contract is really favorable for her. Since I don’t have any connections to any noblemen, any contract I get would keep me alive, but she couldn’t say how well I would be treated.”
“…You can’t even call that living, can you,” he murmurs, weakly.
I nod at him. From what I learned as Urano, I can’t imagine that I’d be anything but someone that does exactly what she is told, living without any freedom at all.
“So, Maïne. How much did it cost?” asks my mother, unable to bear it any longer. “I can’t imagine that the magic tool that the guildmaster gave to you was free, you know?”
I nod, but in my heart, I know that I’m sunk.
“I had enough, don’t worry.”
“But how much was it?”
“It was a lot, but it was to save my life, so, well…”
“I’m asking you, how much was it? You can tell me, right? Don’t keep secrets.”
I try to dance around the topic, but my mother’s eyes flash dangerously as she gets angrier. I moan quietly to myself, turning my eyes away, then mumble out the answer.
“…two small gold and eight large silver.”
At the mention of a total that’s roughly what my father would make in two and a half years, everyone’s eyes go wide and their mouths drop open in shock.
“Two small gold and eight large silver?! How did you get that kind of―”
“I sold Mister Benno the rights to my ‘simple shampoo’,” I say, frantically. “The manufacturing rights, the distribution rights, the rights to set the price… I sold all of that to him, so that when the devouring―”
“Whaaaat?!” shouts Tuuli, who has constantly been helping to press out oil to make it. “That stuff was worth that much?!”
Since the manufacturing process is just gathering nuts and herbs from the forest and pressing them down for oil, it’s very labor-intensive but costs nothing to make. It seems like Tuuli can’t comprehend that something like that could be sold for such an enormous amount of money.
“Yeah, it seems that if you sell it to the nobility, you can make a lot of money. He’s got a workshop for it and everything, and―”
Just as I’m about to start telling Tuuli about the workshop for making rinsham, my father interrupts, shaking his head as he stares at me angrily.
“That’s enough about that. Here’s what I want to know about: you’re sure it will relapse?”
“…When? Based on how you’ve been talking, you know, don’t you? You changed the subject so quickly, it’s something you don’t want to be asked, isn’t it?”
I didn’t expect him to be that sharp. “Wow, you caught on quick…” I sigh.
My father, just after hearing that the devouring wasn’t cured, had kicked over his chair and slammed his fists into the table. Of course I don’t want to tell someone that enraged just how much longer I have left. Even though I’d been planning to avoid it, now that he’s said that I don’t think there’s anyway I can weasel out of it.
“I’m your father, of course I caught on. …Come on, stay focused.”
He looks at me with glinting, pale brown eyes. I get the sense that if I try to deceive him, it won’t just be the truth that I’ll be running away from, so I open my mouth to answer.
“…About a year.”
“She said that she thinks the next time the devouring fever overflows will be in about a year, so I need to think about things now.”
A heavy, oppressive silence blankets the room. My father, who I’d thought would be enraged, hangs his head, eyebrows tightly knotted together.
Tuuli is the one to break the silence when she starts sobbing.
“Guh… Maïne, you’re going to die? In a year? …Don’t say that!!”
She cries loudly, like she’s letting out all the tears she’s been holding out, and leaps from her chair next to me, grabbing me in a tight hug. I wrap my arms around her and pat her on the back, trying to calm her down.
“Tuuli, calm down. I’m not dead yet, you know. Freida and the guildmaster sold me a magic tool, so now I’ve got another year.”
The words that I had hoped would calm Tuuli down instead act like oil poured on a fire. She shakes her head furiously, crying herself ragged.
“Ngh… don’t talk about how you were dying! It’s only a year! I hate this! Hic… and you were finally getting better too! Like we could start going to the forest together again! You can’t just die!!”
When I died as Urano, it was in a big earthquake, so I didn’t have to see any of my family’s grief. Did I make them cry so sorrowfully for me, I wonder? And now, I’ve made my new family cry, too. I’m such an awful daughter.
“Don’t cry, Tuuli. Hey, c'mon now. Even if I don’t have any magic tools, there’s got to be something I can do about the devouring, and I’m going to find out what that is.”
“And what if you can’t find it?! Then you’re gonna die, aren’t you?! No! I hate that! Waaaaaah!”
Being held so tight by someone crying all over me makes my own chest tighten up. My eyes grow hot, and even though I was trying to hold them back, my tears begin to flow, too.
“Tuuli… don’t cry. I’m the one who wants to cry…”
“Hic… sorry, Maïne. I’ll help you look. There might be something that can cure you somewhere, and we’ll look for it, so… Nnn, but, even though I’m trying not to cry I just can’t stop.”
My own tears still spilling, I pat Tuuli on the back as she tries her hardest to stop crying. My father speaks up, in a quiet voice.
“What do you plan to do, Maïne? There’s the way Freida suggested too, isn’t there?”
I sniff. “…Since I don’t know how a nobleman would treat me, I can’t even imagine wanting to be separated from my family. Hic… Freida said that the nobleman she made a contract with is allowing her to stay with her family until she grows up. So, what would have happened if he didn’t?”
The answer is obvious.
“She’d have been taken away immediately, wouldn’t she? There probably aren’t that many noblemen who’d wait, I think…”
“…Mm, you’re right.”
I have not even the slightest clue as to what in the world a nobleman would find useful about the devouring fever. However, I think that one who would grant some extra time after signing the contract would be someone benevolent indeed. If I consider that I’d be taken away as soon as the contract is complete, I know that I won’t have much time with my family at all if I go down that path.
“So, you know, I’m thinking that it might be okay if I live with my family until I die. Uu… I don’t want to leave you all…”
Tears glisten in my mother’s eyes as well. She turns away slightly, as if she doesn’t want her children to see it, and wipes them away. My father keeps a neutral expression, his eyes fixed on me.
“I’ve still got a year,” I say. “So, I’m going to try my hardest to do the things that I want to do, and live so that I have no regrets. …Can I stay here? Or… is it better for me to go away with a noble?”
“Maïne, stay here with me!” says Tuuli. “Don’t you dare go away!”
Both of my parents nod, as if Tuuli had spoken for all of them.
I wipe away my tears, happy to be told that I can stay here, and give them a strained smile.
“So, here’s what I actually wanted to ask you…”
“There’s more?” asks my mother, startled.
All of this exposition to make them aware of the state of my illness wasn’t actually askingthem anything, though. Now that they know what’s going on, I’d like some advice from them.
“It’s about… my work.”
“You’re going to be a merchant, right?” asks my father, frowning doubtfully.
Taking solace in the fact that my father is listening to me calmly instead of raging, I continue.
“That was the plan, but maybe I was being naïve, or maybe not thinking through it all the way, but… it’s not the kind of job that I can do, given my strength, you know? Mister Otto said something like that too, like I’d just be a bother at the shop.”
“Ugh, Otto…” growls my father, irritatedly.
All I wanted to do was get Otto’s objective, outside viewpoint. It would be disastrous if my father were to explode on him later. Frantically, I start outlying the plan he had suggested.
“So, what he proposed was that I take a job I can do at home, like copying letters or official documents, then I can keep going just like I am now, selling things to Mister Benno and then helping at the gate when I’m feeling healthy enough.”
“Oh, Otto said that, huh…? Hmm, he’s right. It’s best for you to stay home. You shouldn’t overdo things.”
He sounds a little happy, his mouth quirking up into a smile as he confidently declares this. Both Tuuli, who is still clinging to me and sobbing, and my mother nod vigorously in agreement.
“Um, I’d made a promise with Mister Benno to work at his shop already, though… is it okay to break it?”
This is what I wanted to ask my parents the most, since I still don’t really know much about anything work-related in this town. Would there be issues if I were to break this arrangement?
“It’s not like you’ve officially started work yet,” says my father. “Since it’ll be hard on him too if you suddenly collapse on the job, I’m sure it’ll be alright if you make sure you explain things thoroughly to him.”
“Okay! So, even though I hate to waste a job offer that I’d worked so hard to get, I’ll try hunting for a job that fits my condition.”
Perhaps I should consult with Benno to see if there really is a job that I can do at home. I’ll need to make sure to ask him in detail when springtime comes around.
Because the conversation had dragged on for so long, the instant there’s a gap in the conversation an enormous yawn forces its way out of my throat. Seeing this, my mother claps her hands together.
“If that’s all you have to talk about, go to bed already. It’s late!”
“Yeah. Good night.”
“Snf… hic… goog night…”
Tuuli, still blubbering, accompanies me to the bedroom and crawls into bed with me.
“Tuuli, don’t cry. You’re way cuter when you smile! Tomorrow let’s do lots of things together.”
“Okay, yeah, let’s play together a lot! Because you’re here.”
As I console her, I slip beneath the covers of my bed. She immediately follows, grabbing onto me tightly as if she’s not going to let me go anywhere. I decide to leave her be, if it’ll calm her down, and close my eyes.
I thought my father was going go berserk or start screaming, but unlike what I was expecting he simply sat and listened to me, saying very little. I let out a sigh of relief, glad that I was able to properly say everything I needed to, and slowly drift off to sleep.
I had decided to let Tuuli do whatever she needed to do in order to let her calm down as we slept, but now my eyes snap open as I realize I’m being strangled. I frantically unwind her arm from around my neck and escape from there.
I nearly died! Not even from the devouring, but from being choked to death.
As I rub my neck, I blink a few times. Ordinarily, when I wake up at night, the bedroom is usually pitch black, but now there’s a dim light filtering in. I rub my tired eyes, but this doesn’t seem to be a dream. The door is half-open, and I can tell that there’s still a fire lit in the stove. I can’t hear any voices, so I don’t think that both of my parents are still awake. Looking through the gloom, I see a dark lump on my mother’s bed; perhaps because she’s already gone to sleep.
Did she forget to put out the stove?
I quietly slip out of bed, stepping as lightly as I can to avoid waking Tuuli, and head towards the kitchen.
In the gloom of the kitchen, lit only by the flickering of the stove, my father sits alone, drinking. Unlike the happy drunkard he is in my memories, he sits there, wordlessly drinking, and crying silently.
I avert my eyes, as if I could hear his voiceless wailing, and quietly go back to bed.