Ascendance Of A Bookworm - Chapter 75
Interlude: Pound Cake Tasting Party
My name's Benno. I'm the owner of the Gilberta Company. I'm twenty-nine, and a bachelor.
After a long meeting at the merchants' guild, attended by every shopkeeper who not only owns a store in the city, but owns a big enough one that they have to pay more than the minimum tax, the old asshole that runs the guild looks around the room at each and every one of us before speaking.
’’That's it for today, hm? Well then, I'm holding an exhibition in the large conference room for a new kind of dessert that I'm planning on selling soon. Feel free to stop by if you've got the time. I've made sure to have some ready for any attendants you've brought along as well, of course.’’
I stand up and start heading towards the conference room. The only people here are the owners of large shops. In other words, this is a room full of people who have the money to buy high-class desserts as well as discerning eyes for quality product. If that old bastard had tried throwing a sampling party at his home or at his shop, I don't actually know how many of us would have dragged ourselves all the way out there, so he's hosting it here, right after a meeting, close enough that walking there barely even stretches my legs. I'm almost mad at how well he pulled this off. That old man definitely pays attention.
Pound cake. The dessert that Maïne basically gave away the secret to. On top of that, this tasting party is something that Maïne just offhandedly suggested, which got that shitty old man's granddaughter all fired up.
That absolute idiot just won't stop! She just keeps yanking out product after product after market-destabilizing product! And she doesn't even realize just how much work I have to put in to prevent everything from falling apart! That thoughtless little...!
Because one typically wants to have a monopoly on their shop's signature merchandise, people have avoided throwing events like this to widely reveal their new products before they make it to market. If they wanted to build interest in a product before it reached shelves, they'd try to impress people by advertising whatever amazing inventor actually made the thing. That way, another shopkeeper couldn't just immediately copy the new product before it went up for sale.
What really grinds my gears is that sugar isn't really a thing that's widely circulated around here. Basically the only person who's managed to get any of the sugar that's coming out of Central is the guild master. Worse, since sweet things are ’’in’’ right now in the capital, the nobles here are clamoring for desserts. And on top of that, it's pretty obvious that this sampling party isn't just so that the guild master can show off, but so his granddaughter can do so too. That girl has the same nose for coin as her shitty grandfather.
’’Welcome to the pound cake sampling party. Please, select the kinds of cake that most suit you, then place these tokens in the corresponding box.’’
When we enter the conference room, a few young boys and girls, wearing cloths over their faces, are lined up, handing three wooden slips to each of the guests as they walk in.
’’You may vote for your favorite three times if you choose, or you may split your votes across three different varieties of cake.’’
I palm my stack of tokens as I glance around the room. All of the people already circulating through the room have the same cloths draped over their faces, making it easy to immediately tell who's staffing the party and who's a guest. Not many guests have made it here yet, and those that have are still warily looking around the room, so nobody has yet to start reaching for any cake.
’’So, this is pound cake, huh...’’
On tables in the center of the room, pieces of cake have been neatly arranged, each table containing a different variety of cake. The cake's been cut into bite-sized pieces, but there's more varieties of it than I'd been expecting.
’’Oh, Mister Benno!’’
’’Master Benno, sir!’’
The two children waving their hands at me are the ringleader of this fiasco, Maïne, and my apprentice, Lutz. Lutz is wearing my shop's apprentice uniform, but Maïne's wearing the same clothing as the people running the party. I casually wave at the two of them, beckoning them over, then when Maïne gets within arm's reach I chop her on the head.
’’Maïne, what do you think you're doing here?’’
’’Ow ow ow! I'm just helping out, okay?’’
As she rubs her head, asking if it wasn't obvious based on what she's wearing, I reach out and yank off the cloth covering her face.
’’Go get changed, now. I don't want any of the merchants that are about to come strolling in here to learn what you look like. Why do you think I'm trying to keep the existence of the paper-inventing, hairpin-making little girl a secret, hm? Are you trying to bring everything down on my shop? Is this some sort of flashy self-promotion, perhaps?’’
’’Nrgh... I'll go get changed. Lutz, stay here, okay?’’
I return her cloth to her, and she quickly heads out of the conference room. Watching her leave, I let out a small sigh. Maïne's unusually clever for a girl her age, and picks up on things very quickly. She knows quite a bit that she ordinarily wouldn't. Despite that, though, she is terrible at paying attention to her surroundings. This is probably pretty normal for a kid, but it's really obvious how little she thinks about how much she stands out and how completely unconcerned she is about how dangerous that might be.
As much as possible, it's best that she doesn't stand out at all. If a kid without any serious backing stands out too much, it doesn't turn out well for them at all. For example, my father died and I inherited his shop just about when I came of age. Everyone looked down on me for being inexperienced, and all sorts of awful things happened as a result of that. A kid fresh out of her baptismal ceremony would just be meat to them.
’’You are... quite strict with her, sir.’’
’’Lutz, if you want to protect that girl, remember this: without the backing of a merchant, Maïne, who doesn't even have a noble guardian at the temple yet, is in an extremely precarious position.’’
When I think of how joining the temple will prolong Maïne's life, as well as how it'll let her form new relationships with the nobility, it's clearly the right decision for her. However, even trying to imagine what might happen if she keeps going on like she has for the last couple of years gives me an amazingly piercing headache.
’’Huh, but, aren't you her guardian...?’’
’’Technically, I am the responsible party for Maïne's Workshop, which allows me to be treated as something like her patron, but that's a pretty flimsy connection. If I'd been able to make her my apprentice like I did with you, I'd have more I can do, but it's already been decided that she's joining the temple, and my arms don't yet reach quite that far. Unlike how things are now, even you are going to have a hard time keeping an eye on her. It's best that she doesn't do anything to stand out.’’
’’Mm, I see. You're very right.’’
’’Even if that weren't the case, that girl thinks in ways that I just don't understand, and the instant I take my eyes off of her she's gone and done something strange again. So, I think a little strictness is probably in order.’’
’’Aah... that makes quite a bit of sense.’’
Lutz nods calmly, exactly like Mark does, and I suppress a chuckle. After he was baptized and started working as my apprentice, he very quickly started to change his speech patterns, and started mimicking Mark's posture and mannerisms. I'd bet that Maïne told him to use Mark as a role model at some point.
Lutz's upbringing, which was so completely different from a merchant's kid's, left him pretty lacking in a lot of areas when it comes to being a merchant. He's been frantically trying to cover up all of the ways he's different from the other apprentices. I'm very well aware that he's been studying both me and Mark intently, copying even the tiniest little things from us.
Kid's got ambition. I like that a lot.
’’Lutz, what do you think of pound cake? As a commodity.’’
’’...I think it would undoubtedly sell quite well among the nobility. It'll probably get a really good reception.’’
’’And what are you basing that on? I'm pretty sure you don't know anything about what the nobles' tastes are like or what they usually eat, do you?’’
I'd tried to cut deep with that question, but Lutz seems particularly unperturbed as he quickly answers.
’’Umm, I heard from Maïne that since Freida is going to be living in the nobles' quarter, the guild master did everything he could to collect things that the nobility use in their daily lives. This seems to include their cook, who he hired away from a nobleman. That's why I think that if Freida and that cook are both confident that it'll sell, then it'll sell.’’
’’Hmm, alright then.’’
I actually hadn't heard much about the guild master's house. I know that he'd put a lot of money into it, but I didn't know that he'd gathered things to mimic the nobles' daily lives. My eyes widen a little in amazement at this information. Looks like I can't underestimate the value of the information that kids might share between themselves.
’’Lutz, I'm back!’’
Maïne returns, wearing the apprentice's clothes for my shop. Now, if anyone looks at the three of us, nobody will think anything's odd at all.
’’Master Benno,’’ says Lutz, pointing at the cake on the far right table, ’’this is the pound cake with nothing else added to it. This is the kind that I tried before.’’
He looks like he's about to start drooling, maybe because he's thinking about what it tasted like last time. His eyes are basically glued to the line of cake, glimmering with raw expectation.
’’Miss Ilse is really enthusiastic about self-improvement, so she's made it way better than last time. And then also, the cake on this table has ferigine added to it. This table's cake has honey in it, and that one has walnuts. The one over there is the latest invention, and it's got tea leaves added to it. Please, try some!’’
She's puffed out her chest proudly, as if all of this was her own achievement. I snort, looking down at her, somehow entirely unamused.
’’And this is because you just told them about all of these varieties, didn't you?’’
’’Urgh... I, I traded sugar for these, so I wasn't just giving them ideas for free.’’
It seems like she somehow managed to trade that information for some sugar for her own personal use. I'm caught between wanting to praise her shrewdness for actually being a little merchant-like and wanting to smack her on the head for giving them such incredibly valuable information.
’’Also, the only ones I told them about were this ferigine one and the tea leaf one. Most of this is because of Miss Ilse's research, so it's not like I came up with all of this.’’
She looks away, pouting, then reaches for a piece of cake.
’’You should try this, Mister Benno. It's good!’’
She pops the piece of cake in her mouth and savors the taste. Lutz reaches for his own slice, too. Based on the astonished voices that I'm hearing, it's pretty obvious that it's it's actually good. I take a bite as well.
What is this?!
I could tell from the moment I picked it up that it's soft and fluffy, and when I put it in my mouth it crumbles and almost melts away. It looks like bread at first glance, but no bread I've ever seen has been this tender. Bread is something you dip in soup to eat.
I'm also shocked at how I've never tasted sweetness like this before. It's very sweet, but unlike things that have been soaked in honey, it's not a concentrated, cloying sweetness, nor is it anything like the sweetness of a fruit, but instead a gentle sweetness that spreads all throughout my mouth. That sweetness, mixed with the savory taste of butter, stimulates my appetite and leaves me wanting more.
’’It's tasty, right?’’
Maïne looks up at me, eyes glimmering, probably looking for some sort of praise. Honest praise like that just kinda annoys me, so I ignore her, reaching for a piece of the ferigine cake. It's as light and tender as the first piece, but the aroma of ferigine fills my mouth as well. The taste is refreshing, and it goes down easily. Just by adding a little bit of flavor to it, my impression has changed dramatically. I glance up, looking at the other tables.
’’Miss Ilse is really great, isn't she?’’
I brush off Maïne as she talks about how great someone else's cook is, and move to the next table. I pick up a piece of the honey-laden cake and pop it into my mouth. Unlike the other pieces I've eaten so far, this cake is a bit heavier, and the sweetness is much more concentrated. It's a more familiar taste, and this feels like it's the sweetest cake out of all of the ones I've eaten so far. This'll probably be the one that's most popular with kids, who tend to put sweetness above all else.
’’It's sweet, but it's not too heavy, right?’’
The next is the one with walnuts. It's the most familiar-looking cake of the bunch, since it resembles bread with walnuts in it. However, the texture is entirely unlike the bread that I normally eat. The cake itself is far lighter, giving the impression that the firm nuts are floating in it. The tender cake quickly melts away in my mouth, leaving only the nuts behind. I think this kind of mouth feel would probably be good if I got used to it, but I don't really like it all that much.
’’Hey, Mister Benno. Answer me, please?’’
’’Shut up. You're too loud.’’
I hush Maïne, who's been circling restlessly and chirping incessantly at me like the noisiest baby bird, and move on to the final table. The fact that I'm told it has tea leaves in it gives me momentary pause, but when I hesitantly take a bite, the flavor of it really hits me. Unlike the walnuts, the leaves have been thoroughly ground up, so I don't notice them at all. It definitely tastes like tea, but also like a sweet dessert, which is something entirely new to me. The sweetness isn't as strong, but it's still delicious. This, I think, is going to be the most popular with men. At least, it's my favorite.
’’Which are you going to vote for, Mister Benno?’’
Every single one of these cakes is an eye-poppingly fantastic delicacy. These are, without a doubt, going to spread like wildfire amongst the nobility. This is the kind of taste that everyone will crave. It would not be an empty exaggeration to say that there's a huge difference between these and the desserts already on the market.
’’What is it, sir?’’
’’Why'd you give this recipe to the guild master?’’
For someone trying to break into noble society, this recipe would have been a massive weapon in my arsenal. I would have wanted this. When I glare down at Maïne, though, she just blinks, tilting her head to the side.
’’But I gave it to Miss Ilse, though...’’
’’That old bastard's the one selling it. Same thing either way.’’
This pound cake is only going to strengthen that shitty old man's clout amongst the nobles. Maïne frowns, concernedly, looking like she's maybe picked up on my frustration.
’’Mister Benno, you always seem to have a really bad relationship with the guild master, don't you? Why's that?’’
It suddenly occurs to me that I might not have actually told her that story, but as I think about that, fragments of unpleasant memories flash across my mind.
’’When I was growing up, he always had it out for my family's shop, but when my dad died, that utter asshole tried to get my mom to be his second wife so he could absorb the shop too.’’
One day, when my father had gone out travelling to my uncle's shop to do some business, he was attacked by a thief, who wanted his money, and was killed in the process. Since he was still near the city when this happened, they were able to recover his corpse, but it was cut up so badly that my mother locked herself away for a while after she saw it. And then that old bastard just gleefully waltzed right in on her in the midst of her grief.
’’Huh? Th... the guild master wanted her to be his second wife?’’
’’Yeah. She refused, of course, and then after that he started doing one little thing after another to harass us. It's still going on now! Remember how much trouble we had getting you registered with the guild? How he tried to find any excuse to reject your application?’’
Maïne and Lutz both grimace, remembering the times when they'd gotten tangled up in this mess. That shitty old man doesn't just hurt me, he goes after everyone around me, too.
’’Now, if you had to constantly deal with deal with the kind of person who'd come up to you right when your lover dies and, with a big smile on his face, introduce you to his daughter, or, worse, constantly try to pawn off his sons, who are much older than me, on your little sisters who haven't even come of age yet, do you think you'd be able to maintain a nice, friendly relationship?’’
If I were to talk about business too, I'd have all sorts of stories about the unreasonable demands he's piled on me, but Maïne won't get much meaning out of those kinds of war stories. It's good enough to just make sure she knows how terrible of a person that old bastard is.
’’...Ummm, I guess, depending on your point of view, that means that the Gilberta Company is really highly-valued, isn't it? I'm not saying that the guild master isn't causing you trouble with how pushy he's being, though.’’
She avoided replying directly, but it seems that she basically understands how troublesome that guild master is.
’’So,’’ I say, ’’why did you give that troublesome guild leader your recipe?’’
’’I mean, if you really want to know... all I wanted to really wanted to do was make sweets with Freida, like I'd promised her.’’
’’But then you made a contract, didn't you?’’
’’It's just a one-year exclusivity agreement, you know? Is that really something to get so mad at me about?’’
Putting a time restriction on that contract was remarkably well thought-out for one of Maïne's deals, but I'm not at all assured that she'll be able to enforce that. I wonder if Freida's going to be able to coax her into extending the monopoly deadline indefinitely?
’’...So you're really going to open the recipe to the public after one year?’’
’’Yes, sir. I don't want sweets to be monopolized. I want lots of people to be making them!’’
Even if she's saying that she only sold them monopoly rights to the recipe for one year, though, if nobody can actually get their hands on sugar, then the guild master's shop is probably still going to effectively have a monopoly on it. I've got a bad feeling that, even though I don't want to be left behind more than I already have, there's so many more ways they can pull further ahead.
’’Say, you mentioned that you know other recipes, didn't you? You sure you don't want to sell those to me?’’
’’...Even if I did sell them to you, you wouldn't be able to do anything with them, right? You don't have any sugar or any cooks.’’
She stares at me blankly, head tilted.
’’What do you mean?’’
’’All of the recipes for sweets that I know require sugar. But, more importantly, the most important thing I need is a really good cook. If they're not as skilled as someone who's worked in a noble house, then even if I told them what the recipe is, they wouldn't immediately be able to recreate it.’’
’’Why a noble house...?’’
’’Because they need to be able to use an oven whenever they want. I don't think that there's ovens anywhere except bakeries, so they're not really spreading, are they?’’
There aren't very many households that have their own personal ovens. Generally, unless you're very rich or a gourmand, there's no real need for one. So, in other words, the guild master's house has an oven, and they also have someone who is capable of using it well.
’’Oh my,’’ snickers a child from behind me, ’’it looks like I might be able to buy all of Maïne's recipes before you can even get all of your things together. Our cook, after all, is always hungry for new recipes.’’
I turn to look, and see the guild master's daughter, with hair the color of spring flowers gathered into bunches over each of her ears.
’’Good afternoon, Mister Benno. Good afternoon, Lutz.’’
The way her eyes are so full of challenge when she looks up at me is exactly like that old bastard. I kept trying to tell myself that if that shitty old man disappeared one day, my life would get a little easier, but I can't underestimate this girl. She's got the same nose for money her grandfather does, the way she's been getting so close to Maïne.
Despite the fact that Maïne has been increasingly vigilant against me, when she sees Freida, she smiles widely and waves at her, greeting her in a friendly way. I can't help but be a little irritated at just how well they're getting along.
’’Freida! How's the party going?’’
’’Spectacularly, thanks to your help. Everyone is loving the pound cake. And, since you've been talking about releasing the recipe in a year's time, there's no small number of people looking forward to that as well!’’
How many times do I have to tell this idiot to be more careful until she gets it!
I've managed to trick her a few times, but every single time she unhappily puffs out her cheeks and then still follows through. She doesn't watch out for the kinds of expressions people are making, how much attention they're paying, or even whether or not they're testing her. She lacks so much wariness that I'm actually concerned. I'm convinced that the concept of wariness just fell out of her head at some point and she never bothered to go looking for it.
Even still, as an adult watching from the sidelines, there's no way that I can intrude on two little girls having a friendly chat with each other. Unless she makes some sort of promise or gets caught up in something strange, the only thing I can do is stand here with Lutz, glaring at the two of them.
’’Lutz,’’ I say. ’’How can that girl be so friendly with someone who used the fact that she was on her deathbed to swindle her?’’
’’...I don't think I know how she know how she thinks most of the time. Also, I don't really like Freida all that much.’’
It's plainly written on his face how much he wants Freida to stay away from Maïne. It's a difficult to tell if the desire to monopolize her that I can see in his green eyes is because she's his most important friend, or if this has already blossomed into romance. Either way, when I see how much Lutz cares for Maïne, I can't help but remember bittersweet memories of my lover from years ago that I'd put aside when she'd died, which leaves me with an itchy, uncomfortable feeling.
’’You're in for a rough ride, Lutz,’’ I say.
’’Keeping hold of Maïne isn't going to be an easy task at all.’’
I rustle his hair as I encourage him. He looks up at me, green eyes gleaming, and nods slowly.
’’Maïne, how's everything tasting?’’
A sturdily-built woman approaches, greeting Maïne as if she knows her from somewhere. A sweet smell rolls off of her body, and she has a cloth covering her face to show that she's part of the staff. Lutz and I look at her, on our guards, wondering who she is. Maïne, on the other hand, smiles broadly, running over to her.
’’It's amazingly delicious, of course!’’ says Maïne. ’’I'd tried a little before, but you've made a lot of improvements to the cake with the tea in it! I knew you could do it.’’
’’Glad to hear it,’’ says the woman, grinning broadly at Maïne's praise.
It seems that this woman is the cook who works at the guild master's house and the person who made this pound cake. I size her up, as any merchant would, studying the cook who was poised to make the guild master a lot of money. She looks back at me.
’’Ah, you're Mister Benno, then?’’
’’Yeah, I am, and?’’
I don't really understand why the guild master's cook would be calling to me. Did Maïne do something again? As I scowl, Ilse looks me up and down.
The look in her eyes when she studies me, like she's trying to figure out who she's up against, reminds me a lot of the guild master. I narrow my eyes. If I'm going up against a young girl like Freida, her immaturity might cause me to unconsciously hold back, but against an adult, I need exercise no such restraint.
’’Ah, so you're the one who's trying to tie Maïne up and hog all of her knowledge to herself, are you?’’
’’Hm? Well, some job I'm doing, then. You're the one with her pound cake recipe, aren't you?’’
It's true that I'd like to monopolize whatever information I can, but Maïne refuses to just sit there and let me do it. Ilse describes it as tying her up, but even the stuff that accidentally falls out of Maïne's mouth has the potential to throw the market into chaos, so, honestly, being careful about parceling out what she knows is for the best.
’’I'm generally the one who has to pick up after this kid,’’ I say, ’’but you've managed to snatch up whatever tasty things she thinks up, haven't you?’’
For Maïne's sake, I've gathered all sorts of information, arranged for contract magic in order to strengthen her connection with Lutz, formed a papermaker's association to hide her identity, and done so many other things in the shadows. That thoughtless girl isn't causing the guild master any trouble at all. No, that all falls on me.
’’But Mister Benno,’’ says Maïne, pouting, ’’you're always ripping me off, aren't you?’’
I flick her forehead. ’’The money I saved on the rinsham by ripping you off went straight into those two magical contracts, you know?’’
’’Huh?’’ she says.
’’...Two magical contracts?’’ says Freida.
The two girls look up at me with the same foolish expression, their mouths hanging open in shock. I shrug.
’’Seriously, you don't even know what I go through...’’
’’I don't particularly care what you're going through,’’ says the cook. ’’Maïne's said that she's only going to hand her recipes over to people that she thinks can actually make them. You can do whatever you want with whatever else she's got, but her recipes are mine.’’
This is a declaration of war. It seems like even that old geezer's staff have it out for me.
’’Hand them over, huh?’’
As if I'd let the guild master keep a monopoly on pound cake forever! Over the next year, before that monopoly agreement expires, I need to find a good cook. I can probably get a lead on sugar if I lean on some of my distant relatives, so it'll take some doing but I'll probably manage to get my hands on some of that.
As I continue to glare at Ilse, countless calculations flying about in my head, Maïne tugs urgently on my sleeve, a worried expression on her face.
’’Mister Benno, Mister Benno! It'll be really hard to find a cook, you know? If you don't have an intermediary you can use to get in touch with the nobility, then it'll be kinda impossible.’’
’’Why would I need an intermediary? All I'm looking for is someone who can use an oven and is into self-improvement, right?’’
All that the whole needing someone good enough to work in a noble house thing boils down to is that I need someone who can get good at using an oven. It's not like I actually need someone who's actually, literally worked in a noble house themselves.
’’Maïne,’’ I say, ’’you know how you keep saying that since there's no books you're going to make them yourself? So, what would you do if you didn't have a cook?’’
’’I'd... train one myself?’’
I'll get the facilities ready, find a good cook from somewhere in this city, and then train them up and get them specialized specifically in making pastries.
’’...Let's give this a shot, hm?’’