Ascendance Of A Bookworm - Chapter 44
The Source of the Failure and the Plan To Fix It
The three of us make our way towards the workshop where they're making simple shampoo, with me being held in Benno's arms. Along the way, Benno asks me a question that seems to be a just a little difficult for him to verbalize.
’’Hey, Maine. About that hair-washing liquid...’’
’’Yes? What about the 'simple all-in-one shampoo and conditioner'?’’
’’That name's too long and hard to say. Is there something else we can call it?’’
It certainly is a long name for this world, especially when the people here, like Benno, don't actually understand the meaning of the underlying Japanese and know it only by sound. So, in other words, he's asking for a name for this new commodity that would be easier for his noble clientele to pronounce.
I blink, surprised, then nod at him with a smile. ’’Ohhh, I just called it that on a whim when Tory wanted to know what it was, and it stuck, so I don't particularly care what we call it?’’
’’...Is that so?’’
At the time, I was so happy that my head was no longer so itchy and that my hair had gone from rustlingly dry to silky smooth that I just called it whatever came to mind. I didn't really put any thought into it.
’’Yes, sir. Please feel free to call it whatever you'd like.’’
’’You say that, but that just creates new problems...’’
Benno frowns, eyebrows drawn together, as he thinks. Naming an entirely new product requires really good instinct, I think. Thinking that he might need a little help, I keep speaking, hoping to give him a little hint.
’’We should probably think of this like a brand name. I think it would be best if it were something easy to say and easy to understand. Perhaps instead of finding words that describe what it does, like ’’hair-washing liquid’’ or ’’cleanser’’, should we describe the results, like how it makes hair glossy and silky?’’
As I list off ideas, Benno's expression grows even more and more grim. I wonder if, instead of giving hints, I was stressing him out?
Benno's eyebrows are deeply furrowed, but Lutz just shrugs lightly.
’’Since I've been saying 'sim-pull ah-rin-won sham-pooh und kun-dishner' all this time, I think it's probably fine?’’
’’Maine,’’ says Benno, ’’Is there... anything... else you'd call it?’’
Having perhaps completely failed to come up with any suitable words, Benno looks down at me, seeking help. Since I've been referring to it as ’’simple all-in-one shampoo and conditioner’’ this entire time, I can't just arbitrarily come up with some other name for it when prompted. There are similar Japanese words I can use, but that's not going to change the fact that nobody in this world will understand what they mean.
’’Ummm? I can't really think of anything, besides something like 'rinse-in shampoo'...?’’
’’...So 'rin', 'sham', and 'poo' are necessary, huh?’’
’’No, um, not really, but I think whatever you come up with would be much...’’
Benno mumbles to himself for a while, but in the end, maybe because he couldn't come up with a name that worked, or maybe because ’’simple all-in-one shampoo and conditioner’’ is already fixed in his head, or maybe he even just made a decision based on my second suggestion, he decides on just calling it ’’rinsham’’.
Uh... is that going to be okay?
When we pass through the central square, Benno turns to walk towards the west. I blink in surprise;I would have thought that, since this is a workshop for pressing oil, it would be on the streets where the other craftsmen are.
’’Are there workshops on the west side as well? I thought it would be where the other craftsmen work.’’
’’There's workshops that handle more foodstuffs over there. They have a lot of things coming and going, so being close to the west gate is ideal for them.’’
’’Ah, right, melil fruit is a foodstuff. I've only really been using it to make rinsham, lately...’’
When I had been at my wits' end with how constantly my head was itching and desperately wanting to wash it, I hadn't considered even for a moment that the simple shampoo I was making would have become a commodity. At the start, I was just thinking about what I could actually use, seeing as how I neither had any seaweed nor could use water after washing rice with it. I searched through my memory for everything I knew about shampoo, recalling various magazines about things like natural lifestyles and naturism, trying to remember everything I could about using natural ingredients in beauty products.
From my memories, I remembered that you could make a shampoo by using plant-based oils coupled with salt or powdered orange peel to use as a scrub. I also remembered that you could make a facial by whipping egg whites until they're firm, a lotion out of dried plums and sake, and a whole lot of other things, but I didn't really need either of those things for a child's soft skin. The pressing necessity was finding raw materials for a shampoo.
...Although getting the oil was tremendously difficult.
I'd wandered around the kitchen, searching for things that might contain oils, and discovered the somewhat avocado-like melil that had been put out on the kitchen table. I thought that it might have oil in it, but I didn't at the time know what it was actually called, so I couldn't go and get more of it, and my head was itchy, so everything was terrible. Since curing my itchy scalp was such a pressing necessity, I constantly begged Tory to go get me more of them, not knowing in the slightest how difficult gathering things from the forest actually was. Thanks to that, my scalp was soothed, and, having brought gloss and silkiness back to my hair, I could focus in earnest on building a more hygienic lifestyle for myself.
Tory, thank you!
The workshop that Benno brings me to is something like a large warehouse. Just as I had heard about workshops that did a lot of work with foodstuffs, various smells drifted through the air, mingling together. Various workbenches were lined up throughout the workshop, with different benches seemingly set up for different tasks. Along the walls, shelves are set up for storing tools, with all sorts of different implements visible on them.
Benno catches one of the workmen. ’’Is the master here? Tell him Benno's come.’’
The workman, panicking, lets out a strangled ’’yes!’’ and runs off. Benno sets me down, and we wait for the master of the workshop to arrive. Shortly, a slightly plump older man, having been called by the workman from earlier, emerges from further back, his belly swaying as he walks.
At first glance, he's very much a man in charge of someplace that makes food. He has the physique of a man who, from the bottom of his heart, loves to eat. If this were Japan, he'd only be thought of as a little fat, but in this city where food is not overly abundant, a belly like that is considered to be quite fat indeed.
’’Master Benno, thank you so much for walking all the way out here. ...May I ask who these children are?’’
’’These are the kids that originally figured out how to make rinsham. I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone.’’
Benno's eyes sharpen dangerously as he speaks. The workshop master rapidly nods many times in agreement.
’’So,’’ says Benno, ’’have you fixed the problem?’’
’’No;we've changed the tools we're using, changed the people making it, and a whole bunch of other things, but I have a feeling that we're starting to get pretty far off the mark.’’
Benno can't conceal his irritation that no progress was being made. When I see how greatly embarrassed the workshop master is, I suddenly feel like I'm somehow being scolded along with him.
I tug on his sleeve. ’’Umm, would it be possible for me to see how you're making this?’’
’’Sure. ...If you notice anything wrong, it'd be a huge help if you could teach me about it. For some reason, the stuff we're making here doesn't actually seem to clean anything.’’
He leads us to the corner where they make rinsham, and he shows me their process. Since he doesn't want to waste any resources on another failure, he uses a single melil fruit. He places a heavy weight on top of the fruit, and crushes it in a single instant. It's very different than how Tory and Lutz squeeze out oil by using a hammer. Next, the foreman picks up the cloth underneath it, then tightly wrings it out, causing oil to drip into a bowl.
’’This is how we make the oil. You with me so far?’’
There isn't a single problem I can see with their oil-extracting process. Lutz mumbles that there's no room for error there, so there doesn't seem to be any mistakes, at a glance, with this step of the process.
’’The two of us couldn't use a weight to press the oil,’’ I say, ’’so we had to use a hammer. However, I don't think a difference like that would be enough to cause this kind of error.’’
’’Ahh, a kid wouldn't be strong enough for that, so they'd need to use a hammer, huh.’’
As the warehouse master mumbles about perhaps trying a hammer next, I make a request.
’’That oil. Would it be alright if I take a look at the oil you extracted just now?’’
He hands me the oil bowl. Inside, a clear, green oil, devoid of any impurity, sloshes around.
’’Ah! Got it.’’
The instant I see the oil, I realize what's wrong. On one hand, I'm happy that the problem is so simple, but on the other hand, it's for such a depressing reason that I almost want to cry.
’’What?! Were we doing something wrong?!’’ asks the warehouse master, with such ferocity that I think he might bite my head off.
My shoulders drooping a little, I answer. ’’...It's the cloth you're using.’’
When I say this, Benno shoots a glare at the warehouse master, whose eyes go wide in shock. Grabbing the cloth in both hands, he brandishes it frantically, flapping it around.
’’The cloth?! This is a brand new operation, so we used the best cloth we could get!’’
’’...That's the problem.’’
Now it's not just the warehouse master who's staring at me in shop, but Benno as well. Shrugging, I set the bowl of oil down on the table.
’’The fabric that the two of us have at our homes is all very coarse. I'm sure you can see from our clothing, but we don't have a lot of money. Since we don't have a finely-woven cloth like this, the oil that we make has a lot of plant fibers and tiny fragments of the seeds mixed in with it.’’
The oil that Tory and Lutz press isn't a clear green like this, but whitish and cloudy. The reason is simple. The cloth we're using is so rough that it can't even compare to the one they're using at this workshop. Also, in order to avoid any waste, we press every last drop we can get out of the fruit, and we wring every last drop out of the cloth without caring too much about any impurities.
’’Those fragments work as a 'scrub'... ah, I mean, they are necessary for removing any impurities as you're washing your hair.’’
Essentially, you can take a pure oil like they've made at this workshop and add ground salt, nuts, and dried citrus peel in order to make a scrub. However, in our case, the oil itself already worked just fine as a scrub. To make things worse, my lifestyle isn't one where I can talk about adding more things to it. The best I could do was mix the large quantity of herbs I gathered from the forest in to it to make it smell better.
The workshop master seems befuddled by my explanation, his mouth hanging open. It seems the source of the problem was vastly outside his expectations. It wasn't what I was expecting, either. For the final product to deviate so much from the sample just because of the decision to use good-quality oil... I bet he's sick to his stomach.
Benno, having understood the source of the problem, lets out a sigh of relief. He picks up the squeezing cloth with his fingertips, then shrugs.
’’Never would have thought it was the cloth. For something to fail just because we're using a high quality thing... I'd thought that there was some sort of trick to mixing the herbs in.’’
’’The herbs are basically just there for the scent.’’
The warehouse master breathes an enormous sigh of relief. With an expression that's somewhere between relieved and troubled, he whispers to himself.
’’If we need a rougher cloth, the stuff we've pressed so far is useless, huh...’’
’’Um?’’ I say. ’’You can use it, you know? It would be a waste if you didn't.’’
If I could, a pure, high-quality oil like this would actually be what I'd want to use. If you added a scrub to this, then you'd wind up with a product of much higher quality than the rinsham that I was making.
’’All you need to do is add a 'scrub' to the oil you've got so far. If you pick your ingredients carefully, you could make something much higher quality than what I made.’’
’’Oh,’’ says the warehouse master, impressed. ’’Young lady, you're quite knowledgeable, aren't you?’’
As the warehouse master looks at me praisingly, I notice that Benno's eyes are suddenly gleaming with a terrifying light, like he's just spotted fresh prey.
Shit. I got carried away and said too much. All the blood drains from my face. I glance over at Lutz, who is staring at me with an expression so amazed that he doesn't even have to say what a huge idiot I am. This is exactly what happened when I accidentally let too much information slip to him, earlier.
Aaaaaargh! I'm a colossal idiot! Am I even capable of learning?!
The corners of my mouth twitch slowly into place as I try to paste a smile onto my face.
Calm down, calm down, I still haven't leaked anything, everything's just fine.
’’If you add anything rough to the mixture, there's a chance it could injure someone's scalp when they're washing, so please be careful about that.’’
Smiling, I try to make a quick escape, but Benno clamps down hard on my shoulder, a ferocious grin on his face.
’’It looks like you know about quite a lot of other things, don't you?’’
I do know a lot more, but I cannot let myself say anything else lest something slip out. From now on, I want to live a calm, tranquil life here, so Benno having strange suspicions about me would be very problematic. Somehow, I have to escape from Benno's interrogation.
Since Benno didn't know the previous Maine, he won't have the same sort of mistrust that Lutz did, so the conditions are different this time. If I try hard enough, I think I should be able to manage. I'll show him somehow.
Although my back grows cold with sweat, I refuse to be dominated by the force of Benno's gaze. I brace my legs, put on my best smile, and bluff as hard as I ever have.
’’I'll have to charge for anything more. I'll need an information fee. That's all I'll say for now.’’
Benno smiles broadly, raising his chin a bit, telling me to name my price, but no matter how much he might offer I have no intent on telling him any more. However, if I say that out loud, then negotiations would be over immediately. Right now, I need to figure out how to get Benno to withdraw.
My heart pounding furiously in my ears, I frantically shake my head.
’’...You have a product you can sell already;if you want more, how much are you willing to spend to purchase that information?’’
I smile sweetly at him, and we lock eyes for a little while. The sheer ferocity in his reddish-brown eyes makes me instinctively want to back down, but there is no way I can give in. I know that no matter what I say, people look at me funny, but I can't say anything more right now.
Benno breaks eye contact, calling out to the warehouse master.
’’Can we borrow your negotiation room?’’
’’Y... yeah, go right ahead.’’
The instant the warehouse master replies, Benno grabs hold of me tightly, picks me up, and literally abducts me towards the negotiation room.
’’We're just going to talk! Nobody come in!’’
Lutz staggers as Benno roars, freezing in place. The workshop master nods rapidly in agreement as well.
Benno, having forcefully taken over someone else's negotiation room, sits me down on a chair, then sits facing me. After staring at me for a little while, he opens his mouth.
’’Two small gold coins.’’
I misheard. I have to have misheard. I'm pretty sure I just heard him offer a tremendous sum, but I definitely have to have misheard.
I notice that my jaw has fallen open in shock, but since I've obviously just misheard, I frantically compose myself, snapping it shut. When I do so, Benno repeats himself, enunciating very clearly.
’’I'll pay two small gold coins. Tell me about any improvements, changes, alternate plants, absolutely everything that you can think of. All of it.’’
If he's willing to pay two small gold coins for improvements and changes, I have to wonder just how much he's estimating that he'll be able to sell rinsham for. If it's a luxury good like Freida's hairpins, is he planning on massively overpricing that too when he sells it to his noble counterparts?
’’...Mister Benno, just how much are you planning on selling rinsham for?’’
As I stare back at him, Benno's eyes narrow slightly.
’’That's none of your business,’’ he scoffs.
’’But I'm trying to sell you information about how to manufacture it, so it is literally my business, isn't it?’’
Convinced that saying that will end the discussion immediately, I breathe a sigh of relief in my heart, and put my hands on the table as I prepare to stand up.
’’Three small gold coins. Not a copper more.’’
Benno firmly grabs my hands as soon as I put them on the table, and with a pained expression, raises his price. The eyeball-popping sum of money makes my heart waver, but if he's unwilling to raise the price any further then negotiations are obviously over. For the sake of my peaceful future, I need to dodge any further investigation.
’’I must ref...’’
’’Take it and save it. The only thing that can help with the devouring is money.’’
Just as I was about to decline, Benno suddenly stares at me intently, clenching his jaw and speaking in almost a whisper. My eyes go wide in astonishment.
’’...Mister Benno, do you know about... the devouring?’’
’’I thought there was a chance, so the other day I had that old bastard tell me everything he knew.’’
When Benno says ’’that old bastard’’, he means the guild leader. I wonder what the guild leader told him? Does this have anything to do with the fact that he was a lot less wary around him after we delivered Freida's hairpins?
With a different sort of impatience than before coiling around my heart, the strength leaves my body. Having been halfway out of my seat, my butt lands hard on the wooden chair.
Seeing that I've sat back down, Benno leans low over the table, bringing his face close to mine, then starts speaking in a voice so low that only I can hear. Strangely, despite the fact that he's whispering, his voice strikes my eardrum with perfect clarity.
’’His granddaughter had the devouring too, same as you, but between his money and his connections to the nobility, she was saved. Sell me the information you have and save the money so that you'll be ready when the day comes.’’
’’And by that you mean...’’
’’When the fever in your body... can't be kept in check anymore.’’
Comprehension floods through my body. I had been kind of thinking that the devouring fever was a little more active lately, but I thought it was just my imagination, or that it was because of my physical condition. So, Benno and the guild leader think that someday the devouring fever is going to spread out so wide that I won't be able to force it back down, huh?
When comparing my own life to the risk of being found to be disturbing after giving up this information, the conclusion comes far too quickly.
I still don't want to die.
I finally made some paper. I've finally managed to create an environment where I can make a book this winter, though it'll be made out of failed scraps. I've gotten used to this lifestyle, and I've started getting along really well with my family. I've started to discover ways that I can be even just a little useful, despite being so useless all around.
I've finally started to enjoy living here.
I can't die now.
Simultaneously, I consider what would happen if I gave Benno this information and he decided he found me disturbing.
If Benno thinks I'm disturbing, what would happen? Unlike Lutz, who knew the previous Maine, all Benno would think is that I'm a child that knows a disturbing amount of strange information. I don't think that being disturbing is enough of a reason to have me killed, and since he isn't tied closely to my family like Lutz is, if he tells them that I'm creepy, it won't actually be that damaging.
In the worst case, he distances himself from me and Lutz, and the two of us can no longer become apprentices at his shop. However, in that case, we could take the guild leader and Freida's offers instead. It's not like we'd have nowhere to go if Benno casts us out.
If having enough money means I can live, then I want to live.
’’...Understood,’’ I say, looking up at him. ’’Three small gold coins it is.’’
He nods slightly, releasing my hands. Then, after we touch our guild cards together, he arbitrarily grabs my tote bag and yanks out my ordering set.
’’Hey, that's my bag!’’
’’And these are my things.’’
’’I mean, you're right, but please at least excuse yourself first!’’
’’Ah, excuse me,’’ he says, in a tone of voice that makes me think he's not actually the slightest bit sorry.
Taking pen and ink in hand, he gets an order form ready to use as a notepad.
’’Well then, how about you start telling me? Let's start with how you think we can sell the failing oil from before.’’
’’You need to add some sort of 'scrub' in order to loosen the dirt. There are a lot of different things you could use as a 'scrub', but I think the best thing to use would be salt. If you grind salt into a fine enough powder, it will not only clean off any dirt but should also serve as a deodorant.’’
’’Salt, you say?’’
In my memories of what I'd read, the simplest solution would be to take a vegetable oil, then mix it with finely-powdered salt. Benno's eyes widen, perhaps because he wasn't very familiar with salt and was a little surprised.
’’...Then, if you add dried 'citrus', I mean, ummm, feriginne peel, ground up very fine, then it'll clean and smell much better than if you didn't add anything else.’’
’’Feriginne peel, okay. Anything else?’’
He glances up at me, pen still clacking on the board as he writes.
’’Anything else? Mixing in tiny pieces of 'nuts' ...argh, nüst would be good, I think. I haven't been able to do any of these, though, my family really doesn't want me to waste anything,’’ I say, with a small laugh.
Benno stares at me pointedly, like he's just heard a particularly interesting piece of information.
’’You haven't done any of these, but you still know them? ...Maine, who are you?’’
’’That's a secret. Small gold coins won't buy that.’’
Benno twists his mouth, looking like he swallowed a bug. Sitting in front of him is a person he doesn't himself understand. Under his suspicious gaze, my heart suddenly starts pounding again. The longer this goes on, the less composed I become. I'm not strong at all.
I paste a smile onto my face, then make a gamble that could overturn everything I've worked for.
’’You'd fire a creepy kid like me, wouldn't you?’’
’’I was ready for something like this, giving you that information, you know?’’
Benno looks down at the table, noisily scratching at his head, then lets out an enormous sigh. He shakes his head back and forth slowly, then looks up at me.
’’No, if I thought I could make money off of her, I wouldn't want her getting snatched up by someone else, so I'd keep her locked up as tightly as I could. I'm a merchant, after all.’’
Having noisily stood up, he reaches out and gently ruffles my hair, like he always does. With that familiar action, he tells me that we're maintaining the status quo. After I breathe a long sigh of relief, I shove his hand, which was still ruffling my hair, away, and stick my tongue out at him.