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Ascendance Of A Bookworm - Chapter 4

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Town Exploration

Yesterday, I cried, and cried, and cried. When my parents called me for dinner, and even when they got mad at me for getting their bedding so dirty, the only reaction I could muster was more weeping. This morning, my eyes are hot and puffy from crying too much, and my head is pounding. However, my fever has gone away completely, and my body no longer feels sluggish and heavy. All that crying seems to have cleared away my foul mood as well.

After breakfast with my family, my mother fussed over my puffy face.

’’Ah, your fever's gone.’’

With hands still cold from washing up, she feels my forehead, then rubs at the corners of my eyes. The coolness of her touch feels amazing.

’’Say, Maine,’’ says my mother, ’’now that you're well, would you like to help with the shopping today?’’

’’Huh? Mommy, what about work? My fever's gone now, so is it okay for you to not go to work?’’

Didn't she say something earlier, like... ’’Work at the dyer's shop is unbelievably busy right now, so even though Maine has a fever, I can't take any time off’’? She's a working woman! Is this okay?

She looks at me, with my head cocked curiously to one side, then looks down sadly.

’’Tory has been taking care of almost all of your nursing, and I thought it was such a shame that I wasn't letting her go outside even a little... but yesterday, you were crying and crying, and Tory got so concerned. She said that she thought you might have started crying because you were so lonely, so she went around and begged our neighbors to help me take some time off.’’

At those words, my breath caught in my throat. I, a woman with the mental maturity of a twenty-two-year-old, spent an entire day crying, without even bothering to think of what anyone around me would think. I'm so ashamed that I want to go dig a hole and bury myself in it. Now that I've finally calmed down, what I did seems so unbelievably embarrassing.

’’I'm... I'm... sorry...’’ I stammer.

’’You don't need to apologize, Maine. Being sick makes everyone feel a little helpless.’’

My mother gently strokes my head to comfort me. Her gentleness only makes my feelings of guilt crash down on me even harder.

I'm so sorry. I was crying out of despair from realizing that there were no books, not at all because I was lonely because you were gone. Going looking for books as soon as Tory left the house... I don't know what I was thinking. I'm truly, truly sorry.

’’Tory's going with everyone to the forest nearby,’’ says my mother, ’’but I don't want you to push yourself when you've only just gotten better. How about coming with me and doing some shopping?’’

’’Yeah!’’ I reply.

’’Oh! You cheered up quickly.’’

My mother smiles happily at me, probably thinking that I'm overjoyed to spend some time with her.

I grin back at her. ’’It's gonna be fun!’’

My mother looks so happy, so I'm in no hurry to tell her this, but the real reason for my mood swing was the realization that if I went outside, I might be able to get something to read. If I come along to go shopping, I might even be able to get my mother to buy me a book! It doesn't have to be a really thick one. For now, all I want is something that will help me learn the writing system. A workbook or something like that, aimed at kids, would be perfect. Maybe even just a chart with all of the letters on it!

I'm positive that if I smile cutely and say something like, ’’I won't get lonely if I have a book! I'll be a good girl and stay inside and help with the chores,’’ then my mother will eventually cave to the begging of her adorable, frail little girl and buy me a picture book. Eh heh heh. This is going to be fun indeed.

’’Mom, I'm heading out,’’ says Tory, peeking into the bedroom with a huge smile on her face. Since our mother has the day off today, Tory, who would ordinarily be stuck watching me, has the day off as well.

’’Alright, go meet up with everyone. Take care out there!’’ says our mother.

’’Yes, Mom!’’

Tory slings a big wicker basket over her back like a backpack, then takes off with a spring in her step. She's acting like she's going to go play with her friends, but in reality this is yet another chore. She's gathering firewood! While she's at it, she'll also be looking out for nuts, berries, and mushrooms to bring back with her. Whether our next few meals will be tasty or bland depends entirely on Tory.

You can do it, Tory! Spice up my life!

Children in this world seem to be put to work helping out with the chores very early in this world. It seems like there aren't any schools in this world, in addition to everything else that's missing. At the very least, I didn't see anything that looked like a school at all when I was digging through my memories. Tory's starting to grow up a little bit, so it looks like she's starting to work as an apprentice.

If I can, I'd like to do my apprenticeship under a librarian, or maybe even at a bookstore. Today will be a perfect day for me to gather some information while we're out and about. I'll figure out where the bookstore is, then make friends with the shopkeeper, and eventually become their apprentice. Hey, it's okay to be impressed by the cunning of this little girl, heh heh.

’’Now then, Maine, shall we head out as well?’’

This will be my first time leaving this building since I became Maine! The first time I've worn clothing that wasn't just pajamas, too. These clothes are worn-out hand-me-downs as well, but they're a little thicker, and I've been bundled up in countless layers. I'm so fluffy that it's hard to move! It would seem that it's cold outside.

I reach up to take my mother's hand, and follow her, for the first time, outside.

Cold!

Cramped!!

Stinky!!!

The buildings are all made of stone, and it feels like their walls are sucking what little heat there is out of the air. Despite all of the clothes that I'm bundled in, the frigid air seeps through immediately, chilling me to the bone.

I'd give anything for some Heat-Tech, or some fleece, or even one of those chemical warmer things. While I'm wishing, I want a face mask, too! Something to block this stench and stop me from getting sick again.

Immediately outside the house is a stairway. A stairway so steep and narrow that I, stuck with the athletic ability of a three-year-old, am terrified of taking even the first step. My mother pulls on my hand, and we go down, with the warped boards creaking beneath our feet as we turn and turn and turn. After about two stories, though, the wooden stairs are replaced by sturdy, well-maintained stone.

This is the same building... why's there such a difference?

My face may be screwed up against the cold and stench, but I'm finally outside. By my estimation, I think our house is on the fifth floor of this seven-story building. Honestly, with my tiny body, weak constitution, and general lack of strength, even just going outside is heavy labor by itself. I guess it's only natural that most of Maine's memories are of being indoors.

’’Haaahh, haaahhhh... Mommy, I can't... breathe... Slow down!’’

We've only just started, and already I'm completely out of breath. I'm so weak that I have no idea if I'll even be able to drag myself to our destination without collapsing in the street.

’’We've only just left the house! Are you okay?’’

’’Yeah. I'm okay. Let's go.’’

At the very least, I want to figure out where the bookstore is. As I take some time to catch my breath, I take a look around my surroundings. Right outside our apartment building is something like a small plaza, centered on a public water well. The area immediately around the well has been paved with stone, and it's full of old ladies chatting while they scrub away at their laundry. This must be the place where Tory goes to do the dishes, and where that big water jug gets filled up every morning.

’’Mommy, did you do the laundry?’’ I ask.

’’I did! It's all done already.’’

These clothes still look a little dirty, but they've apparently been washed. Perhaps the detergent here isn't very good... I'm going to have to think about making some soap, too.

The plaza is surrounded on all sides by other tall apartment buildings, with a single road leading out to the rest of the town. We make our way along that narrow street, turn the corner, and find ourselves in an enormous main avenue.

Whoa, the streets of a foreign country...

The unfamiliar townscape stretches out before me. Pack animals, vaguely like horses or donkeys, clop along the cobbled roads, passing the merchants' stalls that fill both sides of the streets.

’’Mommy,’’ I ask, ’’What store are we going to?’’

’’Hmm, Maine, what are you saying? We're going to the town market, you know? We don't usually go to the shops.’’

It seems like the neatly-kept shops set up in the first floor of these buildings are usually frequented by people who actually have money, and lowly commoners like us usually don't have any need to go there. Instead, the daily shopping seems to be done at the town's market.

...So, does that mean that the bookstore is going to be a shop in one of these buildings, then?

As I look around, searching for any sign of a bookstore, I catch sight of an impressively large building, which looks like a local landmark. It's simply built, but its off-white stone walls radiate majesty and draw the eye to it.

’’Oh, a castle?’’ I ask, pointing at the building.

’’That's the temple, you know? When you're seven, you'll be going there to get baptized.’’

Ah, a church. A church, hmm. I really dislike the obligations of religion. I'd really rather not get anywhere near there, if I can help it.

Thanks to my modern Japanese sensibilities, I want to keep my distance from religion. I'm not sure how acceptable that's going to be in this world, though, so I bite back my objections. Instead, I turn my attention to the walls I see beyond the temple.

’’Mommy, what about those walls?’’

’’Those are castle ramparts,’’ she says. ’’The lord of the land makes his home in there, as do the rest of the nobility. We don't really have much business there, though.’’

’’Hmmm...’’

I can't see anything besides tall, stone walls, so from here it looks less like a castle and more like a prison. Maybe they're built like that so that they're fortified against outside attack? For some reason, when I think of European-style castles, I imagine them to be really luxurious. Ah, although, I guess it does kind of look like a castle that also needed to be a fortress.

’’So, what's that wall?’’

’’That's the outer wall. It protects this district from the outside world. If you keep going straight along this road, you'll find a gate going outside. Your dad's probably working there right now.’’

’’...Daddy?’’

From Maine's memories, I know that my father is some kind of soldier, but I didn't know he was a gate guard. More importantly, though, the lord's castle is built like a fortress and surrounded both by ramparts and the outer walls. Based on that, I wonder if I should be thinking of this place as a city? Judging by the size of the walls surrounding this district and the stampede of people that fills this street, this doesn't seem to be a fairly large district, but I'm comparing it to, say, Tokyo or Yokohama, and I don't know how valid that comparison really is.

Aaaaargh, the size of a bookstore depends on the size of the city, and I don't even have a basis for comparison! Is this district big? Is it small?! Please, tell me, O great teacher!

’’Maine, let's get going,’’ says my mother. ’’If we don't get to the market soon, all the good things will be gone!’’

I nod. ’’Okay.’’

As we walk, I keep my eyes peeled, constantly on the lookout for any sign of a bookstore. Strangely enough, I notice that the signs advertising the shops that line the streets are all illustrated. There's wooden signs with images painted on them, and metal signs with graphics engraved or beaten into them, but I have yet to see a single thing that looks like a written word. These signs are all designed so that even someone like me, who can't read at all, can understand them easily, which has made searching for a bookstore really easy, but... I suddenly have a terrifying thought.

Huh? Is there anything written down here at all? Not just in our house, but in this entire district? Maybe the literacy rate is low? ...Maybe, writing hasn't even been invented yet?!

The color drains from my face as I realize the ramifications of this idea. I'd never even bothered to think that writing itself might not exist. If the written word hasn't been discovered, after all, books just don't exist.

’’Maine, there's lots of people out here. Don't fall behind!’’ says my mother, chidingly.

’’...Yeah,’’ I say in a small voice.

I'm barely conscious of the movement of my feet as I struggle to hold back my terror, so we arrive at the market before I know it. The chattering of a crowd unexpectedly assaults my ears, and I lift my head to see a bustling square, packed with carts, stalls, and people milling about. It kind of reminds me of the crowds you'd see at festivals back in Japan, and for a second I feel strangely nostalgic.

Suddenly, I spot something at a nearby fruit stand that I had given up all hope of seeing. My eyes go wide and I start grinning uncontrollably, and I tug on my mother's skirt to get her attention.

’’Mommy, look! There's something 'written' there!!’’

Wooden signs have been fixed to each basket of merchandise, and written upon them are some sort of glyphs. I can't read them, so I don't know if they're numbers or letters, but one thing's for sure: writing does indeed exist here. Just from seeing this one thing, blood rushes to my face, and I'm keenly aware of how hungry I've been for writing.

’’Oh, that's the price. That's there so that you know how much you'll need to pay if you buy it.’’

’’But it's written!!’’ I exclaim.

My mother must be confused as to why I've suddenly become so energetic, but that doesn't matter right now. As we walk around, I have her read off every single number I can find, and I focus as hard as I can on matching the numbers to the symbols.

All right, all right! Come on, my synapses!!

’’So, is this one thirty lions?’’ I ask.

After a while of having numbers read to me, I cut in and read one out loud on my own, then look up at my mother for her reaction. It looks like I'm right: my mother is looking down at me, blinking in astonishment.

’’That's amazing, Maine, you picked that up so quickly!’’

’’Heh heh...’’

There are ten numerals, so it looks like the counting system is in base 10. I'm really glad it's not in base 2, or base 60, or anything else like that. Now that I know what symbols are attached to which numbers, performing calculations should be a piece of cake.

Ah, could it be, have I tripped the Genius flag? Although, that is the kind of flag that says I'll be a prodigy at ten, merely talented at fifteen, and then just ordinary after I hit twenty...



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