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The six days of winter travel had taken a toll on his body.
While it was fortunate that there had been no snow, cold was still cold.
What blankets he had were bought by the bundle and closer to softish boards than proper bedding. Anything that could plausibly ward off the chill had been stuffed under those blankets.
The warmest thing of all, naturally, would have been another warm-bodied creature, ideally one with fur.
If said creature could talk, though, well—that would be a problem.
“I cannot but muse that I am on the losing end of this bargain, ’tis true.”
The sky was growing faintly brighter, the last vestiges of the night still caressing his face as though reluctant to leave.
Normally after being awakened by the cold, he would stare up at the paling sky for a time, unwilling to emerge from the blankets—but today his furred companion was obviously in a terrible temper.
“Look, I said I was sorry.”
“Oh, aye, if it’s a question of who is in the wrong and who should be apologizing, ’tis you and sure enough. I help ease night’s chill as I can, and I’m even generous enough not to charge you for the favor.”
The young man buried underneath the blankets, his face exposed and looking up at the sky, was Kraft Lawrence. He turned his head to the left.
Lawrence had been on his own as a merchant since he was eighteen—seven years now—and he had a fair amount of confidence in his ability to talk around even the most unreasonable of customers.
But even this seasoned merchant found himself at a loss for words when confronted by his companion, who lay to his right, directing at him a displeased stream of words with a sharp gaze to match.
The girl with her dark red eyes and flaxen hair was named Holo.
It was a rare name, but that was not the only rare thing about her.
After all, she sported a pair of keen, beastlike ears atop her head, and a splendid wolf tail sprouted from her waist.
“And yet! There are things one may do and things one may not, nay?”
Holo would not have been as angry, presumably, if Lawrence had done something as easily understood as assaulting her in her bed while his wits were still dulled by sleep.
She would have simply mocked him mercilessly until he could barely stand, laughed a hearty laugh, and called it a day.
But no—the reason Lawrence endured this ceaseless stream of recrimination was because he had done something unforgivable.
What had he done? Owing to the cold, he’d unconsciously nestled his feet on Holo’s furry tail. Worse, when he turned over in his sleep, he had caught her fur.
The centuries-old Holo, the self-styled wisewolf, the girl who was sometimes called a goddess (though she hated it) had uttered a piercing, girlish cry—the pain alone must have been insult enough.
Nevertheless, Lawrence felt a bit aggrieved at his subsequent treatment. He had been asleep, after all.
Despite the fact that even now Holo continued to rail at him, the instant his feet tangled in her fur and he stepped on her tail, she had punched him hard, twice, in the face.
Surely that was punishment enough, he felt.
“ ’Tis bad enough that you humans tread so easily upon one’s feet when you are fully awake. But even when you are asleep! But lo—this tail is my pride! The only proof that I am me!”
Though the tail that Lawrence had rolled over was unharmed, a bit of fur had come free.
More than any pain, it was that indignity that infuriated Holo so.
Worse, before he’d rolled over, his feet seemed to have flattened a section of fur on her tail as they slept.
After staring dazedly at her tail for a moment, Holo tackled Lawrence, who had sensed that the situation was turning ugly and tried to escape from underneath the blankets, and she began to verbally assault him.
When angered, most would either turn cold and cruel or demand a duel of some kind. Holo’s method of reprisal was far more effective.
It had been quite warm sleeping underneath the blankets with Holo, and the hour was just before dawn, and Lawrence’s body was beleaguered after many days of winter travel.
It would hardly have been surprising if he began to doze off in the face of such unrelenting abuse.
If Lawrence’s face betrayed even a hint of sleepiness, though, no doubt he would never hear the end of it.
It was like torture.
Holo would have made an excellent sheriff.
The interrogation did not cease until Holo exhausted herself with anger and dozed off again.
Lawrence was well aware that Holo’s wrath was something to be feared and that anger could take many forms. He’d had no particular desire to discover yet another facet of it, but discover it he had—and having done so, he started the wagon moving along.
Worn out by her own tirade, Holo had stolen the blankets entirely and curled up like a caterpillar against the cold.
But she wasn’t in the wagon bed. Instead, she lay sideways in the driver’s seat, her head resting upon Lawrence’s lap.
She certainly looked suitably meek and lovely, but given the timing… No, the depth of her calculation was frightening.
If she’d bared her teeth, that would have given Lawrence an excuse to fight back. If she’d ignored him, he could have ignored her in turn.
But forcing her head onto the merchant’s lap only further worsened his position.
He couldn’t get angry; he couldn’t ignore her. And if she were to beg him for something to eat, he’d be unable to refuse her. Her actions, after all, made it clear that she was mollified.
Though the sun had now risen, taking the chill off the morning air, the sigh that came from Lawrence’s mouth was a heavy one.
Despite warning himself that he would need to be more careful of Holo’s tail in the future, it was hard to resist such warmth when camping in the winter.
If there had been a god to ask, he would’ve prayed: “What should I do?”
But then the mute morning travels came to an unexpectedly sudden end.
As the pair had not passed anyone so far that day, Lawrence assumed that they had a long way yet to go. But as they crested a small hill, a town came into view.
He’d never been to this region before and lacked any sense of the lay of the land.
It was slightly to the east of the central region of Ploania, a vast nation that was home to both pagans and church followers. Lawrence wasn’t sure about the military importance of the area, but he knew it held little to interest a merchant such as himself.
The only reason he was here at all was because of the devilish girl who lay asleep on his lap.
He was guiding her back to her homeland, Yoitsu.
Because of the centuries that had passed since she had left, her memories of the details of the place were blurry and dim. Much had changed in the world over such a span of time, and Holo was eager to learn even the tiniest rumor of her homeland—all the more so now that she had learned of the legend recounting Yoitsu’s destruction.
Six days earlier in the town of Kumersun, they’d made the acquaintance of Diana, a chronicler who collected folklore. Diana had told them of a monk who specialized in tales of pagan gods.
The monk in question lived in a remote monastery, and only the Church priest in the town of Tereo knew its location.
The path to Tereo was not widely known, however, so the pair headed first to another town, Enberch, to ask directions.
It was that town at which they had finally arrived.
“I wish to eat sweetbread.” As they approached the town’s gatehouse, Holo stirred and awoke, and these were the first words from her mouth. “And by sweetbread, I mean—you know. Wheat bread.”
What she requested was not inexpensive, but Lawrence had no right to refuse her.
Lawrence didn’t know what would sell in the region, so he’d brought wheat with him—wheat he had bought from his friend Mark the wheat seller, to whom he owed a favor. But as Lawrence and Holo traveled, it was bitter rye bread he’d chosen for their rations.
His miserly decision had made him the target of no small amount of complaining on Holo’s part.
He couldn’t help thinking darkly of the high-quality, grandly risen bread Holo would no doubt demand.
“We’ve got to sell our goods first, in any case.”
“I suppose I’ll allow that.”
Truthfully it had been Holo who begged Lawrence to allow her to accompany him, yet most of the time Lawrence felt like her valet.
She seemed to notice Lawrence’s irritation. “Ah, but my lovely tail has been trampled ’neath your feet. ’Tis only fair that I trample upon you a bit in return,” she said mischievously, stroking her tail beneath her robe.
He’d expected Holo to continue complaining for some time, but it seemed she had spoken her piece.
Lawrence sighed inwardly, relieved, and turned the wagon toward the miller’s.
Though Enberch was remote, it seemed to be the acknowledged trade center of the region and fairly busy.
Lawrence and Holo had merely happened to approach the town from a less-trafficked direction.
Throughout the town square were carts loaded with grain, produce, and animals that had been brought from nearby villages. Buyers and sellers jammed the area.
There was a large church that faced the square, its doors flung open to accommodate the bustling trade it seemed to do. Through the doorway passed a steady stream of townspeople coming to pray or to attend service.
Enberch was the sort of rural town you could find anywhere in the world.
Upon asking at the gatehouse, Lawrence learned that the largest miller in town was the Riendott Company.
Though it was little more than a miller’s shop, the word company had been tacked onto the end. It struck Lawrence as awfully countrified.
Yet past the north edge of the square on the right side of the clean, straight road, there stood the Riendott Company—complete with a wide storefront and grand loading dock. The merchant understood why this business would want to maintain its reputation.
He’d bought up about three hundred trenni worth of grain in Kumersun.
About half of this had carefully been winnowed and ground into flour. The remainder had merely been threshed.
The farther north one went, the harder it was to raise wheat—thus the price rose.
If a merchant was unlucky enough to encounter a few days of rain on his journey, the wheat would quickly rot—and in any case, it was too expensive for northlanders to afford as a staple, so finding buyers could be difficult.
Lawrence mostly carried wheat simply because, as a merchant, he hated to travel with an empty wagon.
It was also because, having made a large profit in Kumersun, he’d decided to err on the side of prudence.
In any case, a town the size of Enberch should have a few nobles or Church officials rich enough to afford wheat, so Lawrence expected the Riendott Company would be willing to buy from him.
“Ho, is that wheat?”
It was Riendott himself who emerged to greet Lawrence, probably because Lawrence’s wagon was loaded with wheat. Riendott was a round man, giving the impression more of a butcher than a miller, and his face seemed a bit troubled.
“Indeed. Half as flour and the other half in grain. I’ve a writ of quality to go with it.”
“I see. I’ll allow as how kneaded and baked it would make fine bread—but as you can see, we’ve had a huge harvest of rye this year. We simply lack the resources to deal with extra wheat.”
The company’s loading dock was indeed piled high with sacks of rye, and on the wall next to them, placards were affixed, upon which delivery destinations had been scrawled in chalk.
“Though for our part, wheat does yield a nice profit. We’d like to buy from you given the chance, but we’ve no spare funds on hand…”
The owner was surely thinking that rye—which was guaranteed to sell—was more important to him than wheat that might or might not be easy to sell, depending on the whims of wealthy customers.
Interpersonal relationships were important in business. This was doubly true in remote areas like Enberch. The miller could scarcely afford a single traveling merchant disrupting his business with farmers who would bring in rye year after year.
“I gather that you’re a traveling merchant—have you come to create a new trade route?”
“Nay, this is merely a side business.”
“I see. May I ask your destination?”
“I’m bound for Lenos, but there’s a place nearby I’d like to visit first.”
Riendott blinked his surprise.
Though Lenos was yet farther north, it was sure that the master of a trade company—even one like this, a glorified mill—would know it at least by reputation.
“Good heavens, you’re headed quite a ways… quite a ways, indeed.”
It was obvious that Riendott assumed Enberch was the only town in the region worth a merchant’s time.
“Aye, though I plan to stop in Tereo first.”
Riendott’s surprise was obvious. “Goodness, what would take you there?”
“I’ve business with the Church there. Ah, and merchant matters aside, would you happen to know the way?”
Riendott’s gaze swam for a moment, as though he’d been asked the price of the very first good he had ever sold. “The road that leads there has no forks, so you needn’t worry about losing your way. I’d say it’s about half a day’s travel by wagon. The road is poor, though.”
Maybe it really had been a strange question to ask. Maybe there truly was nothing of note in Lenos.
Riendott hemmed and hawed for a moment, glancing toward Lawrence’s wagon. “Will you be coming through Enberch on your return?”
“Unfortunately, no; I’m taking a different route.”
No doubt the miller was contemplating buying on credit if Lawrence had been coming back through Enberch.
But no—Lawrence had no plans to add the region to his regular route.
“I see, well… unfortunately, I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it at that, then,” said Riendott, his face twisted with regret that was probably at least half-false.
Buying up expensive wheat from a traveler just passing through was a dangerous gamble.
The wheat flour could easily have been cut with flour from other grains, or it might merely appear to be of fine quality, only showing its true colors upon baking.
If the miller could buy on credit and defer payment for a while, then even if the quality was bad, he could con some distant countryside nobility into buying the wheat.
But Lawrence had no particular need to sell his wheat immediately.
The time was not right. He shook hands with Riendott and prepared to take his leave.
“I suppose ’tis true—the fastest way to sell wheat is not as flour, but as baked bread,” said Lawrence.
Bread’s quality could be easily determined with a single bite. A taste was far more effective than the grandest tale of a sack of flour’s supposed quality.
“Ha-ha-ha. All us merchants think so. It’s a sore spot with the town bakers!” declared Riendott.
“Ah, so the bakers here are tough, are they?”
“Aye, and how. If anyone besides the bakers begins selling bread, they’ll come running, stone rolling pins brandished high!”
Merchants bought and sold, and bakers baked—this division of labor could be found anywhere in the world.
It was a reality, though, that if a merchant was to take over the entire process, from buying wheat to baking bread, the profits would be substantial.
As it was, the process between harvesting wheat to selling baked bread was long and involved many different people.
“Well then—God go with us,” said Lawrence.
“Indeed. I look forward to your future patronage.”
Lawrence gave Riendott a smile and a nod, and then he and Holo put the shop behind them.
Though Lawrence was mildly disappointed about not selling off the wheat, he was more concerned with Holo’s ominous silence.
“You didn’t say anything this time,” he said casually.
Holo’s reply was quick. “That miller, he said Tereo was a half day’s journey from here, yes?”
“Huh? Oh yes, he did.”
“So if we leave now, we can be there by nightfall,” said Holo, being strangely confrontational.
Lawrence leaned away from the tone of her voice. “I was thinking it would be nice to rest. You’re tired yourself, are you not?”
“If it’s rest you need, we can rest in Tereo. If we’re going, I’d prefer to go sooner.”
Lawrence finally realized the reason for her unusually obstinate tone.
Though she rarely spoke about it, Holo clearly wanted to meet this monk who collected tales of pagan gods as soon as she possibly could.
Holo was stubborn and could be strangely proud.
She would consider it beneath her dignity to be constantly urging Lawrence to hurry.
But with their destination so close, the embers that smoldered in her chest were turning to blazing flames.
No doubt she was tired. The fact that she urged him on nonetheless proved how desperate her need for knowledge was.
“All right, then. But let’s have a hot meal first? Surely you won’t mind that.”
Holo looked stunned at Lawrence’s statement. “Need you even ask?”
Lawrence grinned—just as surely as Holo’s stomach growled.
Just when it seemed that the gently rolling hills would never end, the landscape shifted—here it appeared that God had taken a more active hand in the molding of the terrain.
The undulating geography was like bread dough, carelessly folded over upon itself. A river flowed through the valley between the mounds, and here and there were lush stands of woods.
The wagon on which the pair rode made little creaking sounds as it bumped along the road following the river.
Lawrence looked over at Holo, wondering if he should have forced her to rest while they were in Enberch.
Between nightfall and dawn, the chill of winter made deep sleep difficult. One was always waking, then sleeping, and then awake yet again. Though Holo’s true form was lupine, as a maiden she seemed to possess a maiden’s constitution.
The long journey could not have been anything but difficult for her.
She leaned against Lawrence, asleep, looking utterly exhausted.
He considered asking for lodgings at the monastery.
It was possible that the accommodations would be plain, which Holo might grumble at… As Lawrence considered the matter, he noticed that the river was beginning to widen.
The river wound around a slope ahead so he could not see where it led. The basin was certainly widening, though, and the flow slowing.
And then a certain unmistakable sound reached his ears.
Lawrence immediately understood what lay ahead.
Holo’s keen wolf ears picked up the noise as well. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and looked out from under her hood.
Tereo was close.
Just where the river’s flow slowed to a stop, forming a small pond ahead, a snug little waterwheel and millhouse were situated.
“If there’s a waterwheel here, we must be close.”
In places where water was limited, people would store it up, and then use the elevation change to power the waterwheel.
Owing to the lack of water, the method worked for only so long—and with the harvest complete, the time when a line of villagers had waited to grind their grain at the millhouse was past.
At the moment, the blackened, river weed–tinged millhouse merely sat there, forlorn.
Just as Lawrence drew near enough to the mill that he could begin to make out the grain of the wood from which it was constructed, a shadow leaped out from inside.
Surprised, Lawrence pulled back on the reins. His cart horse let out a disgruntled whinny, shaking its head from side to side.
It was a young man who had rushed out. His sleeves were rolled up despite the cold weather, and his arms were white with flour.
“Whoa—whoa there! Say, are you a traveler?” inquired the youth, coming around in front of the cart before Lawrence could either voice his irritation or continue along his way.
“… I suppose if you put it that way, aye, a traveler I am. And you?”
Though he was a boy, the youth could not have been more different from Amati, the lad against whom Lawrence had sparred in the marketplace a week earlier. The boy in front of him was slender but had a sturdiness born of physical labor. He was about Lawrence’s height with the black hair and eyes that were common in the northlands. He looked strong enough that Lawrence imagined him wielding an oxbow. His black hair was haphazardly dusted with flour.
Asking this flour-dusted boy, who had just emerged from a millhouse, who he was would be like standing before a baker’s stall filled with bread and asking what was for sale.
“Ha, well, as you can see, I’m a miller. So, where’d you come from? You don’t look like you’re from Enberch.”
Lawrence found the boy’s carefree smile rather childish.
He inwardly guessed the boy to be six or seven years his junior, and he was suddenly wary of Holo catching yet another hapless pup’s eye—creating yet another mess for Lawrence to clean up.
“As you might guess, I’ve a question for you,” said Lawrence. “How much longer will it take to make the town of Tereo?”
“The town… of Tereo?” repeated the youth, stunned for a moment. He then grinned and continued. “If Tereo’s a town, then Enberch is the royal capital! I don’t know what brings you out there, but Tereo’s a tiny smear of a village. Just look at this pitiful millhouse!”
Lawrence was vaguely surprised by the lad’s words until he remembered that like Holo, Diana (who had given him the information about the town) was hundreds of years old. In her time, Tereo may well have been the largest, busiest town in the region. Decline was hardly rare.
Lawrence nodded and posed his question again. “So how far, then?”
“It’s just ahead. Of course, it’s not like there’s a grand wall surrounding the place—you could even say you’re already in Tereo.”
“I see. Well, thank you,” Lawrence said shortly, guessing that left to his own devices, the lad would probably continue his rant.
Lawrence flicked the reins and began to ease the wagon around the boy, who became flustered and quickly moved to block the wagon’s path. “H-hey now, don’t be in such a hurry, eh, kind traveler?”
With the youth’s arms blocking the none-too-wide path, there was no way for Lawrence to get by.
It would have been easy enough to force his way past, but if the lad was injured, it would hardly leave a good first impression on the people of Tereo.
Lawrence sighed. “What business have you, then?”
“Ah, er—well… Ah! Your companion—she’s quite the beauty!”
Holo, her head covered by the hood she wore, suppressed a chuckle, though her tail wagged her amusement.
Lawrence might feel the occasional frisson of superiority thanks to his charming companion, but lately his worries over the trouble she seemed to attract outweighed those brief flashes of pleasure.
“She is a nun on pilgrimage. Will that do? Only a tax collector can block the path of a merchant, sir.”
“A-a nun?” The youth’s surprise at the unexpected word was obvious.
Given the grand church at the center of Enberch, it seemed unlikely that the tiny village of Tereo would be entirely pagan. Even in the northern regions of Ploania, a pagan village would need considerable defenses to resist a nearby Church stronghold like Enberch.
Surely there was a church in Tereo—so why would the youth be surprised?
As Lawrence thought on it, the youth noticed his contemplative state. It seemed he was more concerned about Lawrence than Holo.
“Understood, traveler. I won’t obstruct you any further. But listen to my words—you’d best not bring a nun into Tereo.”
It did not seem to Lawrence that the lad was joking.
Just to be sure, he nudged Holo beneath the blankets to get her appraisal. She nodded quickly under her hood, confirming his assessment.
“Why might that be? We’ve come with business at the Church in Tereo. Surely if there’s a church, there’s no reason for a nun not to enter the village. Or is there no—”
“N-no, there is surely a church. But the reason… there’s a bit of a fight, you see. With an unpleasant lot from the Church in Enberch.” The youth’s expression was sharp, like a newly trained mercenary.
The unexpected force of the youth’s gaze took Lawrence momentarily by surprise, but then he remembered the lad was just a miller.
“So, that is how it is. How should I say it…? If a nun were to arrive now, things could become complicated. That is why I’d rather you didn’t go.” Putting away his hostility, the youth was now suddenly the picture of good-natured concern—but still, there was something strange about him.
Given that he did not seem to bear Lawrence and Holo any particular ill will, Lawrence decided not to question him further.
“I see. Well, we’ll be cautious. Surely we won’t be thrown out as soon as we arrive.”
“Well… no, I don’t suppose you will.”
“My thanks to you. I’ll keep your advice in mind. Suppose she’s not dressed as a nun—no one would mind, then, would they?”
The youth seemed to relax. “That would be a boon, yes.” His wariness of Lawrence seemed to have turned to entreaty. “But what business have you with the church?”
“We need directions.”
“Directions?” The youth scratched his face, dubious. “So… so you haven’t come to do business, then. You’re a merchant, right?”
“Aye, and you’re a miller, are you not?”
The boy grinned as though his nose has been flicked, then slumped, defeated. “And here I was hoping I might be of some use to you in business.”
“I’ll call on you if need be. Now, may I pass?”
The youth seemed to have something yet to say, but unable to put the words together, he nodded briefly and gave way.
The look he gave Lawrence was a deeply imploring one.
It was clear, though, that he was not asking for an information fee.
Lawrence loosened his grip on the reins and extended his hand to the youth. He looked directly into the boy’s eyes, speaking clearly and evenly. “My name is Kraft Lawrence. What are you called?”
In an instant, the lad’s face blossomed into a smile. “Evan! I-I’m Gyoam Evan.”
“Evan, then. Understood. I’ll remember that.”
“Please—please do!” the young miller shouted in a voice loud enough to cause an easily startled horse to panic, gripping Lawrence’s hand tightly. “Come by upon your return, if you would,” he added as he stepped back from the wagon and into the doorway of the little millhouse.
He stood there in front of the black wooden millhouse, his face whitened with flour, looking distinctly lonely as he watched Lawrence and Holo drive away.
Then—just as Lawrence had expected—Holo turned to look over her shoulder, waving a hand tentatively to the youth. He started as if surprised, then returned her wave grandly with both hands, a huge smile on his face.
He seemed less like a lad waving to a beautiful maiden and more like a boy happy to have found a friend.
The path ahead curved to the right, putting Evan’s mill out of sight. Holo turned back around to face forward.
“Hmph. The boy seemed to look at you more than he did me,” she announced, displeased.
Lawrence smiled for a moment, then heaved a sigh and replied, “Well, he’s a miller. His is not an easy life.”
Holo regarded Lawrence dubiously, her head cocked.
There must have been a reason behind the lad’s desire to shake hands with Lawrence the merchant rather than Holo the maiden.
But was it a pleasant reason? Surely, the answer was no.
“It’s no different from being a shepherd. Both are necessary jobs, but the people who toil in them are held in contempt in towns and villages.”
Naturally depending on the region, this was not always the case. But Lawrence was quite sure that the people of Tereo did not hold the millhouse here in much regard.
“For example,” continued Lawrence, “think of the wheat that’s in the pouch about your neck.”
Holo did indeed wear a small pouch around her neck—though it was hidden beneath layers of clothing at the moment—which contained the wheat in which her essence dwelled.
“If you were to hull and grind that much wheat, how much flour do you think it would yield?”
Holo looked down at her chest.
She could control the harvest’s quality and quantity, but even she seemed not to be entirely sure how much flour would come from the handful of grain.
“Suppose you have this much grain,” said Lawrence, putting the reins down for a moment and tracing the outline of a small mound in his hand. “If you hull and grind it, you’d probably get about this much flour,” he continued, making a much smaller circle with his index finger and thumb.
Once ground in a mill, wheat’s volume became surprisingly small.
So what must a farmer think, toiling day in and day out to raise his crop, praying always to the god of the harvest, only to see his months of labor ground into a depressingly small amount of wheat?
Holo uttered a small sound of assent after Lawrence put the question to her.
“They say that millers at the waterwheel have six fingers and that the sixth grows from the palm—for the purpose of stealing flour. Also, most waterwheels are owned by the local landlord, who levies a tax on all who grind their grain there. But the landlord can’t watch over the millhouse all day, so who do you suppose collects taxes in his place?”
“I suppose it would be the miller.”
Lawrence nodded and continued. “Aye, and no one is happy about paying taxes. But it is necessary. So who do you suppose bears the brunt of their resentment?”
She might not have been human, but Holo’s understanding of the human world was deep.
She knew the answer immediately.
“Ah, I see the way of it. So the reason that pup was wagging his tail with such vigor at you, rather than me, was—”
“Even so,” said Lawrence with a sigh and a nod. Ahead of them, the houses of the village of Tereo finally came into view. “He would like nothing better than to leave this village.”
Millwork was an important job that had to be done.
But those who did the thankless task were often resented.
The more thoroughly grain was ground, the better the rise of the bread made from it.
However, the finer the grind, the smaller the volume of the resulting flour.
Doing a good job yet bearing the resentment of those who benefited from it—Lawrence had heard the story somewhere else. Holo looked straight ahead, as though sorry she had asked.
“But it’s a necessary task, and there are those who appreciate it,” said Lawrence. He stroked Holo’s head gently before taking up the reins again. Holo nodded slightly under his touch.
Though Evan had called it a tiny smear of a village, Tereo was not so bad as he would have Lawrence believe.
The only real difference between a town and a village was the presence of a wall. There were plenty of “towns” with walls barely more than a rickety wooden fence, so for a supposed village, Tereo was rather grand.
Like other villages, its buildings were not packed closely together (instead they had been erected in a more scattered fashion), but there was some stone-walled architecture in what seemed to be the heart of Tereo. The streets, while not cobbled, were clean and free from holes. The church was large enough to be visible a fair distance away, and it had a proper tower and bell.
Truly, in order to be called a town, all Tereo lacked was a wall.
Heeding Evan’s warning, Holo covered her head with Lawrence’s coat, cinching it up with a cord about her neck as though she expected rain. She eschewed her typical town-girl clothing. It seemed a bit too stylish and might attract attention.
Holo stood out enough as it was.
Once she had finished changing, Lawrence steered the cart toward the buildings of the village.
Having no walls meant there was no gatehouse, which in turn ensured that travelers passing through the village could not be taxed.
There was no one to stop the cart as it rolled into town. A man busy bundling sheaves of wheat stared openly at Lawrence and Holo; Lawrence nodded in greeting.
The village was dusty, its smaller streets bumpy and pitted. Buildings of both stone and wood were on the large side with low roofs. Many of the houses had gardens—a rare sight in larger towns.
Here and there along the roadside were piles of straw, the sign of the recently concluded harvest. Bundles of firewood were interspersed among them.
Pedestrians were few; it seemed as if they were outnumbered by the pigs and chickens that wandered here and there.
The one way that the village was like other places of its kind was the staring—upon noticing the travelers, every villager stared at Lawrence and Holo.
In this sense, Tereo was every bit a small village.
Lawrence felt his outsider status keenly in a way he hadn’t felt in many years.
He had grown up in a poor village himself. He was well aware that such places offered little in the way of amusement and that a traveler was the perfect diversion.
Lawrence thought on this as he drove. They eventually arrived at a wide square with a great block of stone placed in the center.
It seemed to be the center of the village, surrounded as it was by various buildings.
Based on the wrought iron signs that hung from the buildings’ eaves, there appeared to be a tavern, an inn, and a baker’s shop, along with what seemed to be a wool weaver’s workshop. A building with a larger entrance faced the street, and it was surely a common area where the harvested wheat could be threshed and sifted.
Other buildings seemed to be the homes of the village’s older, more influential families—and of course, there was also the church.
There were unsurprisingly a good number of people—children playing in the square and adults standing and talking. Lawrence and Holo found themselves yet again the subject of curious stares.
“That’s quite a stone there. What’s it used for?” asked Holo casually, unconcerned by the villagers’ scrutiny.
“Probably for ceremonial use in some festival or for dancing or maybe for holding meetings, I suppose.”
The stone in question had a smooth, flat surface and came up to about Lawrence’s waist. A wooden ladder leaned against it, which suggested the stone hadn’t been placed here as a mere landmark.
The only way to know for sure would be to ask a villager, but Holo merely nodded vaguely and leaned back against the wagon seat.
Lawrence guided the wagon around the stone and toward the church.
Despite the constant bombardment of curious gazes, it was clear that this was no isolated mountain hamlet.
The wagon stopped in front of the church, at which point the villagers seemed to assume that the pair had come to pray for safe travel, and the level of interest dropped.
“Seems like they’re almost disappointed,” muttered Lawrence to Holo once he’d stopped the wagon and climbed down. Holo smiled conspiratorially.
The church was a grand stone building, its great wooden door framed in iron.
It seemed to have weathered many a year. The corners of the stone blocks that made up the edifice were rounded with age, though the iron knocker affixed to the church door seemed strangely unused.
It was odd, too, for the door to be closed. It wasn’t a cloister, after all, nor did there seem to be a service in progress. The doors of any normal church would have been open.
If he had to put it simply, Lawrence would have guessed that the church was unloved by the village.
But there was no point in conjecture. Lawrence grabbed hold of the knocker and rapped it several times.
Klang, klang— the dry sound echoed strangely across the square.
There was no reply for several moments, but just as Lawrence was beginning to wonder if anyone was there, the door creaked loudly, opening just a crack.
“Who is it?” A girl’s voice, none too friendly, was audible through the crack.
“I apologize for calling without notice. I am Lawrence, a traveling merchant,” said Lawrence with an ingratiating smile. The girl on the other side of the door narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
“That’s right. I’ve come from Kumersun.”
Churches so cautious in their admittance were rare.
“… What about her?” The girl’s gaze turned to Holo.
“Circumstances have led to her traveling with me,” said Lawrence simply.
The girl looked back and forth between Lawrence and Holo before sighing softly, then slowly opening the door.
As the great door creaked open, Lawrence was surprised to see that the girl wore a long-sleeved priest’s robe.
“What is your business here?” she asked.
Though Lawrence was confident he’d concealed his surprise, the robed girl bore a severe expression that matched her tone. Her dark brown hair was bound up tightly, and her honey eyes glittered with challenge.
Her attitude aside, this was the first time Lawrence had ever been asked what his business was upon calling at a church.
“Ah, yes—I’d like to speak to the priest, if that is at all possible.”
Normally it was impossible for women to serve in the Church’s priesthood. The organization was entirely patriarchal.
That had been Lawrence’s assumption when he’d asked the question, but the girl’s brows only furrowed more deeply at his words.
She looked deliberately at her own robe before replying, “Though I am not a full priest, I am responsible for this church. My name is Elsa Schtingheim.”
A woman in charge of a church—and such a young one at that.
Lawrence would have been less surprised to discover that the owner of some large, successful company was a woman—and that would’ve been surprise enough.
Elsa seemed to be used to this reaction. Again she calmly asked her question: “What is your business here?”
“Ah, er, we wish to ask directions…”
“Yes. We need to find a particular monastery—Diendran Abbey, under the care of Abbot Louis Lana Schtinghilt.”
As Lawrence said it aloud, the similarity between the abbot’s name and Elsa’s occurred to him. Elsa’s surprise was immediately clear.
But before Lawrence could so much as ask what was wrong, she wiped the look of surprise from her face. “I know it not,” she said.
Elsa’s words themselves were polite enough, but her severe mien revealed her true feelings. She began to close the door without waiting for Lawrence’s reply.
Yet what sort of merchant would he be to let the door be closed in his face?
Lawrence quickly jammed his foot in the crack before it could close, smiling. “I have heard that there is a priest here by the name of Franz.”
Elsa glared bitterly down at Lawrence’s foot before looking him dead in the eye. “Father Franz passed away in the summer.”
She took advantage of his surprise to continue. “Are you satisfied? I know not of the abbey you seek, and I’m very busy.”
Lawrence felt that if he was to persist and she was to call out for help, he’d be in trouble.
He withdrew his foot. Elsa gave one last angry sigh, then closed the door.
“She certainly hated you.”
“Maybe it’s because I didn’t leave a tithe.” Lawrence shrugged and looked over at Holo. “Is it true that Father Franz is dead?”
“She did not seem to be lying. However—”
“She was lying when she said she didn’t know of the abbey.”
Lawrence could have been blindfolded and still seen through that lie so obvious was her surprise at hearing the abbey mentioned.
But was it true that she was in charge of the church? It seemed a dangerous thing to joke about.
Perhaps Elsa was Father Franz’s daughter, if not by blood, then by adoption.
“What shall we do?” asked Lawrence.
Holo’s reply was quick. “In any case, we cannot force our way in. Let us find an inn.”
Still the object of many a curious gaze, the two reseated themselves in the wagon.
“Ooh… It has been so very long…,” said Holo, flinging herself onto the bed and stretching out.
“It certainly trumps sleeping in a wagon bed, but mind yourself—there may be bugs.”
This bed was not wool or cotton stretched over a wooden frame, but rather had a mattress made from tightly bound straw. Most likely there were insects hibernating within the straw, waiting for the summer breeding season.
He knew that it mattered little whether she heeded his caution or not. Insects would love her fluffy tail.
“Mind myself? Why, I’m already followed about by the largest bugs of all.”
Holo grinned mischievously, her chin cupped in her hands. Lawrence sighed. It was true—she would attract that sort of insect, too.
“This is a very small village. Don’t cause a fuss,” he said.
“That will depend entirely on your attitude.” After sneering unpleasantly at Lawrence, Holo rolled over, her tail swishing, and yawned hugely. “I’m tired. Might I sleep?”
“And if I say no?” Lawrence asked with a chuckle.
Holo looked over her shoulder and narrowed her eyes suggestively. “Why, I would doze off at your side.”
Humiliatingly, Lawrence considered the possibility and did not find it at all unpleasant. He coughed, avoiding her gaze—which made it all too clear that she saw right through him—and decided to avoid a confrontation. “Well, I suppose you really are tired, yes? If you rest now before you collapse from exhaustion, that would be a boon to your traveling companion.”
“Hmph. Well, in that case, I shall take my rest.”
Holo abandoned her offense and closed her eyes.
Her swishing tail flicked to a halt as well. Lawrence felt like he might hear her snore any moment.
“But first take off that cap and the robe about your waist as well and my coat that you just tossed aside there. Fold it neatly, and put a blanket on the mattress. Honestly.” Lawrence couldn’t help thinking of the spoiled princesses that showed up in stage plays.
Holo did not so much as move her head at Lawrence’s nagging.
“If the clothes aren’t folded by the time I get back, you won’t get a nice dinner.”
It was as though he were scolding a disobedient child. Holo played the role to a tee as she looked up sharply. “You’re too kind to really do that.”
“… You’ll meet a bad end someday.”
“Oh, aye, if you can bring yourself to do something about it. Never mind that—are you going out somewhere?”
Holo’s eyes were beginning to look bleary even as she spoke. Lawrence couldn’t help walking over and drawing the blanket over her. “I wouldn’t bother if we were just passing through, but as it seems we’ll be staying here for a bit, I’d best see the village elder. The elder might know where the abbey is as well.”
“… I see.”
“Quite. So you just sleep here.”
Holo tugged the blanked up over her mouth and nodded.
“I doubt I’ll find a souvenir for you, though.”
“… I care not.” Holo’s eyes opened slightly, and she added in a sweet, soft voice that sounded like she might drift off to sleep at any moment, “So long as you return…”
He knew it was a trap, yet was still unable to conceal his fluster.
Holo’s ears pricked up happily.
She might not be getting a souvenir, but she’d been able to see his foolish face.
“I’ve already got my souvenir. Good night.”
Holo snuggled in beneath the blanket. “Sleep well,” Lawrence replied by way of surrender.
Lawrence unloaded some wheat from his wagon bed into a moderately sized bag, and once he’d asked the innkeeper where the village elder’s house was, he left the inn.
The local children seemed very concerned with the traveler who had come to their village during the dead of winter. As soon as Lawrence opened the inn door, though, they scattered.
To hear the innkeeper tell it, the festivals held in the spring and fall—for planting and harvest, respectively—attracted some people from outside the village, but since Tereo was well off the beaten path, visitors were generally rare. At the moment, Lawrence and Holo were the only guests at the inn.
The Tereo village elder’s home was the grandest building facing the square. Its foundations and ground floor were made of stone while the second and third floors of the stately edifice were constructed from wood.
The front door had the kind of iron frame Lawrence expected to see on a church door, and it was finely wrought with subtle designs.
The door knocker was fashioned in the shape of a lizard or a snake and was a bit tasteless.
It was probably to venerate a local deity of some kind. Snake and frog deities were surprisingly common.
“Excuse me, is anyone home?” Lawrence said as he rapped the knocker. After a short while, the door opened and a middle-aged woman emerged, her apron and hands covered in a dusting of flour. “Hello—who might you be?”
“I apologize for the intrusion. My name is Kraft Lawrence; I am a traveling merchant. I’ve—”
“Oh, goodness. Elder, sir! The one everyone’s been talking about—he’s here!”
Though Lawrence was taken aback at having been cut off so abruptly, the woman seemed not to take notice as she turned around and called out, “Elder, sir!” again, walking back into the house.
Having been so roundly ignored, Lawrence cleared his throat in order to center himself.
At length, the woman returned, escorting a small, elderly man carrying a cane back to the door.
“See, here he is!”
“Mrs. Kemp, you’re being rude to our guest.”
Lawrence heard the entire exchange, though he was not so narrow-minded as to become angry.
And anyway, a cheerful village wife could be a powerful ally when doing business.
Lawrence smiled brilliantly at the two.
“Please forgive our terrible manners. I am Sem, elder of the village of Tereo,” said the old man.
“I’m very pleased to meet you. I am Lawrence, a traveling merchant.”
“Well, now, Mrs. Kemp, do go back inside and take up with the others… Goodness, my apologies, sir. A visitor so late in the season sets all the idle goodwives’ tongues wagging.”
“I surely hope the rumors are good ones.”
Sem smiled. “Come, come in,” he invited, leading Lawrence into the house.
A hall led straight in from the entrance. Lawrence could hear laughter issuing from a large room farther inside the house.
As he walked, flour dust tickled at his nose. No doubt the women were chatting and laughing as they kneaded the newly ground wheat flour into bread dough.
It was a common sight in the countryside.
“If you head into the inner room, you’ll end up white with flour! Come, follow me,” said Sem, opening the door to a large room. He gestured for Lawrence to enter first, then followed.
Lawrence was immediately stunned.
A giant snake was coiled up atop the shelf against one wall of the room.
“Ha-ha-ha, be at ease. It is not alive.”
Lawrence looked again, and true enough, the black gleaming scales were dry, and the body was wrinkled. The skin had been dried, stuffed, and sewn back together.
He remembered the snake-shaped knocker on the door. Perhaps the village truly did worship a snake deity.
At Sem’s suggestion, Lawrence took a seat, thinking he would have to ask Holo about this later.
“So, then, what business is it that brings you to our humble village?”
“Ah, yes. First, as we’re staying in your village, I should offer my regards. Here is some of the wheat I have stocked,” offered Lawrence, producing the sack of wheat he had filled for the occasion. Sem blinked rapidly.
“Goodness gracious! Most traveling merchants these days start talking business from the first word out of their mouths.”
This was a bit unpleasant for Lawrence to hear, given that it described him perfectly—up until recently.
“And what would your other goal be?” asked Sem.
“Ah, well. We are looking for an abbey and were hoping you would know its location.”
“Yes. We inquired at the church earlier, but unfortunately they did not know it.” Lawrence’s expression was troubled, though his keen merchant eyes continued to watch Sem carefully for any reaction.
He saw Sem’s gaze drift for just a moment.
“I see… Unfortunately I, too, have heard of no abbey in this region. Where did you come by this information?”
Lawrence’s gut told him that Sem knew.
But if he were to lie about his source of information, it could become troublesome later. He decided to be honest.
“In Kumerson. A chronicler there told me.”
Sem’s mustache twitched.
Lawrence was sure he was hiding something.
No—not just that, Lawrence realized.
Sem and Elsa did not just know where the abbey was, they knew what could be found there.
Diana had told him about a monk there—a monk who specialized in collecting tales of pagan gods.
If Sem and Elsa knew about this, too, they might have been pretending ignorance to keep from getting involved.
In any case, Father Franz—the man Diana told Lawrence to ask about this abbey—had already been called to heaven.
It was hardly surprising that those he left behind wanted to close the door on the matter.
“The chronicler in Kumersun told me that if I spoke with Father Franz, he would be able to tell me where the abbey is.”
“Ah, I see… Unfortunately, this summer, Father Franz…”
“Yes, I heard.”
“His loss was hard. He devoted many years to his labor for the village.” Sem’s sorrowful expression did not seem to be an act, but neither was it borne of respect for the Church.
Something seemed awry.
“And now Miss Elsa has taken his place?”
“Even so. She’s quite young—no doubt you were surprised.”
“Surprised indeed. So then—”
Lawrence was about to continue when there was a pounding at the door, and a voice cried out, “Elder!”
The questions Lawrence wanted to ask welled up in his throat, but there would be no gain in haste, he decided.
“You seem to have another visitor. I had best take my leave. I am worried about my companion.”
“Oh, goodness. I am most sorry I was unable to be of any service.”
The knocking continued for a while until Mrs. Kemp went to answer the door.
“I hope the tidings are good ones,” Lawrence heard Sem murmur when a man wearing traveling clothes, his face red and sweaty despite the cold, entered the room briskly, brushing past Lawrence on his way to Sem.
“Elder, I’ve brought this!”
Sem gave Lawrence an apologetic look, and with a smile, Lawrence left the elder’s home.
He felt he had given a good representation of himself as a traveling merchant.
It should be a bit easier to stay in the village now, Lawrence thought.
But what was it that the man had brought to Sem?
Upon leaving the elder’s home, he immediately saw a horse whose body fairly radiated heat. It had not been tied at a post, but simply left there. A group of children gazed at the animal from a distance.
Based on the horse’s tack, Lawrence could tell that it had been ridden some distance; the man, too, had been dressed for travel.
For a moment, he wondered what would cause a villager to go on such a journey, but then he remembered he had not come here to do business.
His first priority had to be getting Elsa or Sem to tell him the location of the abbey.
So how to do it?
Lawrence remained deep in thought as he returned to the inn.
Holo was sprawled out so comfortably on the bed that Lawrence couldn’t help but lay himself down beside her for a nap, only to fall fast asleep.
When he awoke, the room was dim.
“There’d be a poor dinner unless the clothes were folded, nay?”
He opened his eyes and sat up, realizing he was now covered in a blanket he had no memory of using.
“You’re too nice to really do that,” he said, repeating Holo’s earlier line back to her through a yawn.
Holo giggled as she groomed her tail.
“Seems I slept for some time. Aren’t you hungry?” asked Lawrence.
“Even if I was, surely you know I am far too kind to wake you from slumber.”
“And you didn’t take the opportunity to slip some coin from my coin purse?”
Holo merely grinned in her peculiar way, baring her sharp fangs.
Lawrence rose and opened the wooden window, gazing outside as he worked the kinks out of his neck.
“Night falls early here. It’s not so late, but the square is deserted.”
“And nary a stall to be found. Will we be all right for dinner?” said Holo, worried, suddenly concerned as she looked at Lawrence, who sat on the window frame.
“We’ll be fine if we go to the tavern. It’s not as though this town sees no travelers at all.”
“Hm. Let us hurry, then.”
“I’ve only just woken—oh, fine. Fine!” Lawrence shrugged at the glare he caught from Holo, then noticed something as he got to his feet. “What’s that?”
A single, shadowy figure moved across the dim, deserted town square.
As he narrowed his eyes, Lawrence realized it was Evan the miller.
“—!” Lawrence very nearly cried out in surprise as Holo appeared at his feet. “Don’t just appear like that!”
“My, but you are a skittish one. Never mind that—what did you see?”
Anyone would be frightened if someone appeared before them without so much as the slightest hint of rustling clothing, but Lawrence was not up to quarreling over every one of Holo’s japes. “Nothing important,” he said. “I just wondered where he was heading.”
“Seems he’s bound for the church.”
Millers had to be more honest than any other profession.
Back in Ruvinheigen, Norah the shepherdess was probably attending Church services just as assiduously as ever, even though that same Church imposed difficult constraints upon her work.
Evan might go to services just as often.
“Quite suspicious,” said Holo.
“We’re the suspicious ones.”
As Lawrence and Holo bantered, Evan knocked lightly on the church’s door. His knocking had a strange rhythm to it, as though it were a secret sign to communicate his identity.
There was a furtive quality to his movements, which only seemed strange until Lawrence recalled Evan’s vocation.
And it did not seem that the Church was well regarded in this village, either.
Lawrence turned away from the window with a sigh of faint disappointment when Holo tugged at his sleeve.
In response to his question, Holo merely pointed her finger out the window.
Assuming she was pointing at the church, Lawrence looked back out the window at the building.
He was surprised by what he saw there.
“Oh ho, so that’s how it is,” murmured an amused Holo as her tail swished as though sweeping the floor.
Lawrence was mesmerized for a moment by what he saw, but he soon returned to himself and closed the window.
Holo immediately looked up at him, annoyed.
“Only the gods may spy on others’ lives,” he said.
“… Hmph.” Holo said nothing further, only glancing in displeasure at the now-closed window.
When Evan had knocked at the church door, it had of course been Elsa who answered.
As soon as she emerged, Evan had gathered her up in a tight embrace, as though she was something very precious.
Given Elsa’s manner as she leaned in to Evan, it was hard to dismiss the embrace as a mere greeting between friends.
“Are you not interested, then?” Holo asked.
“Perhaps if they were secretly talking of business, I would be.”
“They may well be. My keen wolf ears could listen in—what say you?”
Holo narrowed her eyes and grinned a lopsided grin that showed a single fang.
“To think you’d be interested in such nonsense,” said Lawrence with a long-suffering sigh.
Holo narrowed her eyes even further. “What’s wrong with being interested?” she growled.
“Well, it’s certainly nothing to be complimented on.”
Pressing one’s ears against the wall for hours at a time to overhear someone’s business secrets was no vice—indeed, it was the paragon of mercantile cunning. But eavesdropping on lovers—it was the height of boorishness.
“Hmph. ’Tis not as though I am motivated by vulgar curiosity,” asserted Holo, folding her arms. She cocked her head and closed her eyes, as though trying to remember something.
Lawrence was genuinely interested to hear what besides curiosity could possibly be her motivation.
She stood that way for a while, and then she finally spoke. “If I absolutely must give a reason, I suppose it would be to study.”
“Study?” It was such an ordinary response that Lawrence couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
What would Holo possibly need to study?
Did she have designs to swindle the monarch of some kingdom?
He briefly considered demanding tax exceptions from this hypothetical king should her plan succeed before shaking his head to clear it of the ridiculous notion. He reached for the water jug to have a drink, and Holo continued.
“Indeed, study. To see how you and I must look to other people.”
Lawrence’s fingers bumped clumsily into the jug, tipping it over. He tried to recover it and failed.
“Listen, you. Would you not agree that one needs an outside perspective in order to truly understand a situation? Are you listening to me?”
Lawrence knew Holo was chuckling under her breath, and even without turning around, he could guess the expression that she wore.
Fortunately, there had not been much water in the jug, so it was hardly a disaster—though the teasing he now endured was disaster enough.
“So that is how I look to others when I’m with you…,” said Holo, mulling it over, her voice serious.
Lawrence shut his ears in an effort to stop himself from reacting further and began to wipe up the water he had spilled.
He didn’t know what he should be angry about.
He didn’t even know why he was so irritated.
Perhaps it was the fact that he had been so obviously flustered.
Holo giggled. “Well, at least I know we’re certainly a match for them.”
Lawrence couldn’t guess what sort of trap he might fall into if he was to respond to this.
He put the jug in its place after finishing what little was left with a gulp.
He wished the water had been strong wine.
“Now then,” Holo said shortly.
Lawrence knew that if he ignored her, it would only bring down her ire.
If it came to a fight, he would certainly lose.
He sighed and turned to Holo, defeated.
“I’m hungry,” she said with a smile.
She was always a step—or two—ahead of him.
Excerpted from Spice and Wolf, Vol. 4 by Hasekura, Isuna Copyright © 2011 by Hasekura, Isuna. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 29, 2013
I've seen both seasons of the show, currently reading the light novels and finished the manga till the most recent volume. Can't wait for the release of volume 8 as well as for the novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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