Ascendance of a Bookworm


Ascendance of a Bookworm Chapter 60

Vested Interests

The next day, we need to bring in the bark from the river and strip the dark outer bark down to the light inner bark, so we bring the board, pot, and bucket with us. Sitting by the fire (and, occasionally, dipping our hands in the hot water to warm up), we use our knives to strip down the bark.

“I have to say it: I don’t want to be doing this when it’s not summer. My fingers are completely numb right now,” I say.
“You can say that again,” replies Lutz. “Going into the river is awful.”

As we grumble, we force ourselves to keep our hands steady, and work our way towards finishing up the tronbay inner bark. Even now that we’re stripping it down, I’m still not seeing any spots on it that look like it might be mold, so I let myself breathe a sigh of relief.

“…Doesn’t look like any mold grew on it after all. I’m glad!”
“I mean, the folin’s one thing, but didn’t I tell you that the tronbay was going to be okay?”
“It’s a pretty dangerous plant, huh?”

After we finish stripping the bark, we go foraging in the forest. Since it seems that there are a lot of medicinal plants that only grow during this season, Lutz and I go together, him teaching me as we go.

“Hey, Lutz. Why aren’t we picking up this red fruit here? Is it poisonous?”

I notice that Lutz avoids a fruit that hangs along our path as we walk past. It’s red, and about the size of the first knuckle of an adult’s thumb. I’d have to guess that this fruit is somehow dangerous. I point at it, careful not to touch it, and ask Lutz about it.

“Ahh, it’s better to just leave tau fruit alone. Basically, all that’s in there is water. You can’t eat it, so if you bring it home all it does is dry out, so there’s not really any use for them right now.”
“What do you mean, right now?”
“Oh, in the summer, they grow about as big as your fist, and when they hit something, they explode and send water everywhere, so then we all chuck them at each other.”

It seems like I should look at these as some sort of naturally-occurring water balloon. Since all it would do is wither if we brought it home, it seems like it would be best to leave it alone, otherwise it won’t grow any bigger.

That’s a weird fruit.

“All the kids and adults in the town come together and have a big fruit fight using these. Man, isn’t the Star Festival great?”

I’ve been here at least a year, but I can’t recall anything about this particular festival at all.

“…Hey, Lutz, I haven’t heard anything about this Star Festival, though? It sounds like some sort of summer festival… thing?”
“Oh, around that time, you were basically dying, weren’t you? I wanted to invite you, but your mom said your fever wasn’t going down at all. I brought your bamboo strips around after that.”

Ahh, around then, huh?

Based on what he’s saying, I can figure out which time in particular I was in the process of dying. My mokkan got burned up, which prompted the first episode in which I can clearly remember feeling like I was being swallowed alive by the devouring. Since it seems like I was totally unconscious for quite a few days, and stuck in bed for a while after that, even if there was a festival, going to it would have been completely out of the question. I’d guess that my family didn’t go, either.

“Tuuli probably wanted to go, but I guess she didn’t because of me, huh?”

I might be robbing Tuuli of her opportunities to make happy childhood memories! I hang my head as I think about that, but Lutz just shrugs, shaking his head.

“Nah, your mom stayed to keep an eye on you, so Tuuli got to participate. Ralph and I picked a lot of tau so that we could team up against her.”
“Oh, really? That’s a relief.”
“It would be great if you could make it out this year, Maïne!”

I promise him that I’ll keep an eye on my health so I can participate in the Star Festival, and we finish up our foraging. Even though I made that promise, however, I have no idea whether or not my parents would allow me to participate in a festival that involved chucking water balloons at each other.

From the next day on, we work out of the warehouse. At this point it’s turned into work that we have to have warm water nearby to constantly warm up our hands in, but we get to work on making paper out of folin, using the new contract-sized bamboo paper mats. As we let that paper dry over the course of a few days, we start working on making paper out of the tronbay inner bark.

“The folin paper’s pretty dry, now. I think it’s because today was super clear.”
“The tronbay paper should be dry after tomorrow, maybe?”

As I check on the manufacturing process, I take the twenty-six sheets of folin paper and split them evenly with Lutz. As he takes his thirteen sheets from me, he frowns, troubled.

“Hey, Maïne. Why are you splitting it up here? Isn’t it just fine to split up the money after we’ve brought all of the paper to Master Benno?”
“I mean, what I really want is the actual finished product. It would be wrong for me to keep paper that Benno bought us the materials for, it’s okay for me to keep the stuff that we made from materials we gathered ourselves, right?”

If I were to sell paper to Benno and then buy it back, he’d take his 30% commission off the top. In that case, it’s better for me to just not sell it to him in the first place.

“So you’re not going to sell any?”
“I’ll sell just half of it. I’m gathering paper so that I can make a book!”

Now that we’ve not just established the proper formula but have also started growing increasingly familiar with the actual manufacturing process, our success rate is starting to increase, meaning that we’re producing fewer and fewer failures. That makes my end goal of making a book more complicated. My mother has told me so many stories by now that recording all of them is going to be a huge task.

After completing our work, we immediately head to Benno’s shop to bring him our finished paper, bringing the key to the warehouse along with us.

“Oh, it’s done?”

Benno takes the two stacks of folin paper from Lutz and I, then counts them. Lutz’s stack has thirteen sheets, and mine has six. He frowns, noticing the blatant difference in number.

“Maïne, you’ve got way less in here. Why’s that?”
“Because what I ultimately want is the paper, I’ve kept some for myself. Of course, this wouldn’t be paper made from materials for which you paid, but from materials we gathered ourselves; that should be alright, is it not?”
“…Hm, sure. I don’t particularly care about what you do with your own materials, but what exactly are you going to be using all that paper for?”

He wears a slightly guarded expression as he asks me that question.

“I’m going to be making a book. That’s why I want paper.”
“A book? …Why’re you making one of those? To sell?”
“Huh? I just want one to read myself, though…?”

Benno and I exchange strange looks, collectively tilting our heads to the side. There’s no way that Benno, who can’t comprehend using such a high-value good as paper to make something not for sale, and I, who just wants a book and doesn’t actually care about the material value, could understand each other.

“Well, whatever. Paper this size will sell for one large silver coin. My commission is thirty percent, so, how much is your share?”

Lutz doesn’t really understand percentages yet. As he stammers, frantically trying to work out the math, I quickly respond with the correct answer.

“Seven small silver coins, sir.”
What?!” yells Lutz. “Seven small silver coins?! Wh… th… that’s too much, isn’t it?!”

Lutz, upon hearing a number so completely beyond his expectations, gapes at me in sheer shock.

“…Lutz, calm down. I know it sounds like a lot of money for us to be earning, but we’re only going to be seeing profits for this until our baptismal ceremonies, you know? If you think about how much money Mister Benno is going to be making off of this paper from now on, this is really a pretty tiny amount, so don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it? You…”

I’d tried to calm him down, but his eyes start rolling around in his head in pure uncomprehending shock.

“Since you’re selling thirteen sheets,” I say to him, “you’ll be getting nine large and one small silver coins. I’m selling six, so I’ll get four large and two small silver coins.”
“Uh, when you say ‘nine large silver coins’ there’s no way I can hear that and think that’s a 'pretty tiny amount’, right?”
“Hm? Then, should we reduce the selling price?”

I incline my head slightly to the side in doubt, looking at Lutz as he seems to be paralyzed with fear, as I make my suggestion. However, Benno, still sitting in front of us, smiles at us wryly, shaking is head while he rejects our suggestion.

“We can’t sell it for any lower. We’d just be creating needless strife with some people who have vested interests in the field. Let’s keep it at the same price for now. When this starts actually circulating around the market, I’ll start thinking about changing the selling price. Hey, if you’re scared of that much money, how about I increase my commission?”

That last bit he aimed directly at Lutz, grinning broadly.

“We don’t have any say in how much it gets sold for,” I say, “so we’ll leave determining the actual sale price to you, Mister Benno, but I won’t agree to any change to your commission. Hey, Lutz. If you don’t need that money, how about you give it to me?”
“As if I’d give it to either of you!” he yells. “I was just a little shocked at how much money it was, that’s all!”

Lutz clutches his guild card tightly to his chest. Since guild cards are bound to their owner by blood, it’s impossible for anyone but the actual owner to use them. It’s a perfectly safe place to keep your money.

“If you store it with the guild, then you don’t have to look at the cash itself, so it’s not so scary, is it?”
“Crap, I’m kinda jealous how weirdly shameless you are about all this, Maïne.”
“Whoa, shameless?! That’s meaaan!”

In my Urano days, I saved my money in the bank. Then, in this world, I’d earned entire small gold coins, and then spent basically all of them paying for that magic tool, so I guess I’m just pretty used to the movement of large sums of money by now. There’s no way I’m being shameless about it.

As I sulk, I reach out to tap guild cards with a broadly grinning Benno, settling our accounts. I get five large copper coins in cash from him to bring back to my family. Lutz does the same, getting some coins for his family, and we finish up our transactions.

A few days later, when Lutz goes to retrieve the key for the warehouse, he comes back carrying a letter and a fairly large package. More accurately, it’s not a letter, but a wooden board upon which an invitation has been written. In the package are a couple hooded coats, designed to be pulled on over the head like some kind of poncho.

“What are these?” asks Lutz, frowning at his differently-colored poncho.

I look over our written invitation. It succinctly lists the time, place, and reason for the meeting.

“It says that we’re to meet in the central plaza at the fourth bell for the purpose of purchasing clothing,” I say.
“Huh? Clothes?”
“…It says that there are people who have come to voice objections to the paper we’ve made. While the sender of the invitation wants to meet with them to discuss a possible resolution, it seems that it would be best for us to not stand out so that our existence doesn’t become known. Since our appearances don’t blend in at the shop, we’re to wear these when we go to meet with the sender.”
“Uh? What the heck is this?! This sounds really dangerous, right?”

The two of us slip the ponchos on over our heads to try them on. They’re very warm, and cover our clothing entirely. For now, it seems that it’s best to cover up our raggedy clothing. When we raise the hoods, both our hair and our faces are hidden, so when we’re walking around we should keep them up. My hairpin, it seems, is very conspicuous.

“I don’t know whether or not it’s actually dangerous, but since we’re going to be meeting Mister Mark, how about we make sure we bring in the tronbay paper beforehand so that we can sell it while we’re at it? Oh, although, maybe it would be better if we weren’t weren’t walking around with it when we were just told we shouldn’t stand out?”

I start checking on the state of the tronbay paper, but Lutz suddenly gets really mad.

“Maïne, why’re you so relaxed about this?!”
“Huh? I mean, I basically already expected that a new product like this would run against someone else’s vested interests. I guess it’s a little sooner than I would have thought, though…”
“'Vested interests’?”

Lutz frowns, repeating the unfamiliar term.

“Some person (or people) who already have rights to earn profits from something. Mister Benno mentioned it yesterday, you know? That if we lowered the prices we’d be creating strife. If I had to guess, this time it’s the people who make parchment.”
“What do the parchment makers have to do with it? Our paper is made from wood, so they’re not related at all, right?”

If you just look at the manufacturing process, they’re completely unrelated, but both the end use and the level of the clientele are exactly the same. Until now, there was nothing at all that could threaten the parchment makers’ profits, so the sudden appearance of a previously unknown kind of paper has probably sent them into a panic, I think.

“Ummm, so, if nobody but them could make any sort of paper, then no matter how expensive they made it, everyone would still have no choice but to buy parchment if they wanted to write contracts, you know? But, if a new kind of paper showed up, then that new paper could steal some of their existing customers, see?”
“Ahh, I guess you’re right.”

Lutz nods, seeming to understand. If a new product that’s good for the same thing appears, then of course some customers would be drawn away towards the new thing.

“If that’s the case, then they couldn’t take in the same proceeds, you know? And they wouldn’t like that. Plus, if we got to the point where we could sell a lot of paper, then the sale price would start going down, too.”
“Huh, really?”

I draw a graph on my slate. I mark two lines for the X and Y axes, then draw two intersecting curves as simple representations of supply and demand, and then start to explain their connection.

“So, this graph shows how 'supply’ and 'demand’ are connected. This line’s the 'supply curve’, and this one’s the 'demand curve’. 'Supply’ is the amount of a good exists, and 'demand’ is the number of people wanting to buy it.”
“Ahh,” he replies.
“If there’s lots of people who want to buy a good, and there’s not enough of it on the market to sell, then the price of that good goes up.”

As I explain the importance of the left side of the two curves, he seems to understand. “Ah, if there’s a shortage you can charge as much as you want,” he murmurs.

“Then, as more of the good is able to be sold, then the people who want it can start buying it, and then you’re left with fewer people who want it, you know? So then, the price starts to go down.”

As I explain, I slide my finger along the curves, until I reach the intersection point in the middle.

“If there’s more goods available than people who want to buy it, then no matter how much of it you put out for sale you won’t actually be able to sell it, you know? In that case, then the price will just get lower and lower, right?”

As I keep dragging my finger right, the supply and demand curve completely switch places on the Y-axis.

“Do you get it? Just because of the fact that we’re able to make paper, prices are going to start dropping. Since the parchment makers aren’t going to want to reduce the price of parchment, and they want to maintain the same amount of profit that they had before, they had to voice objections over a new kind of paper entering the market.”
“Hey, isn’t that really bad, though?” he asks, anxiously.
I shake my head, smiling. “Since Mister Benno’s telling us to keep ourselves hidden, what he’s really saying is that it’s okay to leave taking these people on to him. It’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. …Although I don’t know exactly what’s going on since I haven’t been told about it in any detail.”

By the time our meeting time comes around, we’re able to finish twenty-four sheets of tronbay paper, but since we’re waiting to see what the actual plan is, we leave it behind in the storehouse.

“Lutz, put your hood up too, for now, so that way they won’t be able to recognize your face or your hair color.”

The fact that Benno went as far as to send us clothes to wear means that there’s no way that there’s zero chance we might get caught up in something dangerous. As we nervously wait in the central plaza, the fourth bell rings, and Mark comes to meet us.

“Thank you for waiting,” he says. “As promised, shall we go acquire the clothing you’ll need as apprentices?”
“Yes please, Mister Mark.”

Since I’m not going to become an apprentice, I don’t actually need the clothes, but if I’m going to be coming and going from Benno’s shop, then it might be a good idea for me to have clothing that won’t stand out. I contemplate whether or not this is actually a waste of money as we walk, leading Mark to mistakenly believe that I might not be in peak form and scoop me up into his arms.

“I can walk on my own?!” I protest.
“Ah; I had heard you moaning, so I had merely grown somewhat anxious. Please, for the sake of my own peace of mind, let me carry you.”
“I was just thinking while I walked. There’s nothing wrong with my health!”

His smile not faltering in the least, Mark speeds up his pace just a little bit. It seems like he’s of a mind to completely ignore any of my arguments.

“Then, please feel free to think to your heart’s content.”
“Luuutz!” I whine.
“This’ll be way faster, so stay like that,” he says.

With my plea for Lutz’s help struck down so firmly, I cease my struggling.

Grr, why do I feel like I’m surrounded by my enemies!

The three of us enter a clothing store, and the shopkeeper comes out to greet us with a smile. Both the employees and the clients here are all dressed sharply in elegant clothing. If Lutz and I had come to a store like this on our own, we’d have been shooed away immediately.

“Oh my, if it isn’t Mister Mark? Welcome! Are these new apprentices?”
“Yes, that’s right. I’d like to place an order for two sets of clothing, if you would.”

This may be the shop that Mark buys all of the apprentices’ clothing from, as with just that brief request the shopkeeper smiles and nods.

“Huh?” I say. “Two sets… is that one for me, too?”

Lutz, of course, needs a set, but I’m certainly not becoming an apprentice. However, Mark simply nods, his smile as polite and constant as ever.

“When you come and go from the shop looking like you do now, no matter what you do you wind up standing out. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ll still be having clothing prepared for you as well. Even if you won’t be working as an apprentice, you will still be visiting our shop, so I think it will be handy for you to have at least one set of clothes for yourself.”
“…You’re right, I guess.”

I’m not going to be an apprentice, but since I’m going to be working on developing new goods and am going to need to consult with Benno about both my earnings as well as whatever work he gives me to do at home, it’s likely that the frequency with which I visit the shop won’t actually change much from where we are now. Even worse, next to Lutz’s pristine apprentices’ garb, my worn-out clothes will just look all the more pitiful. Since I have some cash to spare right now, it might indeed be best for me to have some clothes made.

Lutz is pulled deeper into the shop ahead of me, stripped down to his underwear, and measured all over. I’m pulled into a different room, and stripped down as well. Even just after having all sorts of measurements taken here and there, I’m left extremely worn out.

“The advance fee will be one small silver coin.”
“Alright,” I reply.

We order everything apprentices need to wear, from top to bottom, including shoes, then use our guild cards to pay them one small silver coin. Just like Benno had said, the final total will be a little less than ten small silver coins. With that, it seems we’ll have a complete set of apprentices’ clothes.

After we finish our clothing order, Mark leads us to Benno’s shop. There, we find Benno staring at our paper with a bit of a glare, but when he sees the two of us, his expression softens.

“Ah, you’re here? It looks like things have gotten somewhat bothersome, so I’m being vigilant, even if I wonder if I might be going a little overboard. You two, be as vigilant as you can, too. Don’t let your guard down. These people could be anywhere, and I have no idea what they’ll do now that their interests are at stake.”

It seems like Benno’s being a little overcautious, but he just tells us not to be unprepared for people whose interests we’re affecting. Since the two of us are still unbaptized children, he adds, if we’re wearing apprentices’ clothes, then he things we shouldn’t draw anyone’s attention, even if we’re loitering around the shop.

“You’d written 'vested interests’ on that board; so is this the parchment makers, then?”
“That’s right. The parchment makers’ association has filed a complaint with the merchant’s guild, it seems.”
“With the merchant’s guild?”

I tilt my head to one side, not exactly certain what the relation between the parchment makers’ association and the merchant’s guild could be. Benno gives a simple explanation of how the guild’s jobs includes protecting vested interests, resolving strife caused by new enterprises, and mediating disputes.

“It seems that the complaint they lodged last evening was that there’s someone making paper who wasn’t a member of the parchment makers’ association and wasn’t paying them their dues. They contacted me, demanding to manage our activities, saying we’re outlaws arbitrarily doing things of our own accord.”
“Huh,” I say, “and then?”

There’s no way that Benno would just quietly lie down and give up. He’d probably try to find some point of compromise. When I, completely unconcerned, prompt him to continue, a triumphant, predatory smile spreads across his face.

“I immediately refused. I told them that since this isn’t paper made from animal skin, the parchment makers’ association has nothing to do with it, and that they should get out of my face.”

The blood drains from my face when I see how excessively belligerent Benno’s being. If he could find some sort of compromise, then he wouldn’t have to fight with them over sales at all, would he?

“Huh? Ummm, so you didn’t try to compromise or negotiate, then?”
“Idiot. If I start acting all modest from the beginning, they’re not going to take me seriously, you know? The reality of it is that we’re not stealing any of their manufacturing methods, so they can’t charge us any sort of technical fee. There’s no way you can make plant-based paper using a process designed for making paper out of animal skin, so there’s no real hierarchy here. What these guys really want to do is have a monopoly on everything paper-related at all and, if they can, steal our profits for themselves.”

It looks like I’ve got my way of doing things and Benno’s got his, so even if I try to object it looks like nothing will come of it, but I wonder if there’s a way we could handle things a bit more peaceably?

“Ummm, I think that since parchment’s made of paper, they won’t be able to suddenly increase their production. If the guild’s going to be intermediating, then perhaps they could restrict the kind of paper they could use for official contracts to parchment only? If you’d agree to that, then they’d still mostly keep their existing market and their existing products; how about that?”
“You’re as soft as ever, kid.”

Benno snorts derisively. I wonder if he thinks that guaranteeing them their existing clientele and profits by letting all official contracts be written on parchment would just be quietly rolling over? I wonder if this might just not work.

“I just don’t like doing pointless things,” I say. “Besides, what I really want is to increase the circulation of paper so that lots of people can do new things with it. I want to see books, notepads, paintings, paper art… I want it to be something that people will even let kids use.”
“That’s… a much grander dream than I expected,” he murmurs, his eyes open with amazement.
“Huh? You think it’s grand? I’ve been thinking that if we could just make a lot of paper, then we could make it happen. That’s why I think that if we want to be bold and sell folin paper at a way lower price than parchment, then as long as people are using it for things besides writing contracts, then it should be fine, shouldn’t it? For instance, look at that report. If that was written on paper, then it would be easier to carry, and easier to store, too. And it’s way easier to write on than boards…”
“I see, you want to differentiate the use of different kinds of paper, huh… I’ll try proposing that.”

This time he doesn’t tell me that I’m being soft, but instead gives me a scheming sort of smile. It seems like I might have actually tickled the profit-seeking center of his brain.

“If we’re differentiating between kinds of paper,” I continue, “then how about we treat tronbay paper as a high-grade good? To be honest, I think it’s a much higher-quality product than parchment.”
“You’re right. I’ve already been planning on selling it at a much higher price than parchment.”
“Huh? Much higher?”

I look at him with wide eyes, wondering if he might have misspoken. Benno, on the other hand, narrows his eyes, looking back and forth between me and Lutz, scrutinizing us.

“…Did the two of you just not notice?”
“Huh? Notice… what?”
“Lutz, what are the special properties of tronbay?”

Lutz jumps, startled by the sudden question, then starts listing off the various characteristics of tronbay as they come to mind.

“Huh? Properties? Well, it sucks up all of the nutrients from the surrounding soil, it grows really quickly, it’s hard to burn—”
“Ah!” I interject, “is that it! …Is paper made from tronbay hard to burn?”

Come to think of it, my father said that furniture made from tronbay is fire resistant, to the point where it’s often left standing after a big fire. The young, soft wood isn’t useful for making furniture, he said, so we made paper out of it.

“Yeah, that’s right. Compared to ordinary paper, it’s extremely hard to burn. Of course, it isn’t completely impossible to burn it, but it’s still an excellent paper for writing national secrets or national public records. Something like a hard-to-burn paper will sell for a very high price indeed.”

That’s certainly a special kind of paper, so of course it would sell for a high price. Even in Japan, it’s not like all kinds of paper cost the same. If it took a lot of labor to make, if it’s made out of something rare, or if it’s otherwise somehow special, then a single sheet could sell for an astonishingly high price indeed.

“I understand,” I say. “…Then, how much would a sheet of tronbay paper sell for?”
“For a contract-sized sheet, I’ll be selling them for five large silver coins each.”

The enormously huge price he’s assigned to it gives me a sudden headache, while Lutz is so shocked that he can’t even say anything, but Benno merely says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world, that “it’s a fire-resistant paper made from a hard-to-find material, that’s why.”

“So, then,” he says, “until negotiations with the parchment makers’ association have finished, don’t show your face around the shop for a while. I’ve got a good reason for why I don’t want you two to be seen. Specifically, if your paper-making method were to leak and start spreading around, we’re going to start seeing corpses.”

I stand there, blinking, shocked by how quickly the conversation turned grim. Benno then starts reminding me of some things about the contract magic that I’d completely forgotten about.

“According to our magical contract, the individual who decides who can manufacture paper is you, Maïne, and the individual who determines who can sell it is you, Lutz. If someone who doesn’t know anything about this contract tries making or selling paper on their own, I have no idea what might wind up happening.”
Whaaat?! Contract magic is that dangerous?! It even affects people who don’t know anything about it?”

This completely unforeseen development has me reeling. I hadn’t even considered that the magical contract that guaranteed us safe employment would have such an incredibly dangerous function to it.

“It’s meant to guarantee the rights of people who deal with the nobility, right? Even if the person who violates it has no knowledge about the contract at all, some kind of punishment will still be handed down. That’s why I want to keep your existences a secret, declare to the merchant’s guild that I have a magical contract saying that my shop makes and sells the paper, and thus keep the parchment makers’ association in check.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t be calling this magical contract something that secures our employment, but something that puts us in incredible danger. It declares that I hold the sole right to determine who is able to make plant-based paper and Lutz holds the sole right to sell it, and that, in reality, puts us in a really dangerous situation, doesn’t it?

“I’d like to keep it a secret that you two are the ones who control who can sell it. I’ll leave the key to the storehouse with you, so don’t come around here for a while. When I’m done with my negotiations, I’ll contact you through Otto.”

Benno, appearing as trustworthy as ever, says this to us, and Lutz and I nod in agreement.