The Eccentric Merchant
If I had to describe Hager Bainel in a word, I would likely refer to him as a dandy. He dressed smartly, wearing a crisp coat over a neatly maintained shirt that paired with unruffled pants. His hair was slicked neatly to the side in a parting which came close to bring a center parting, yet somehow managed to barely miss the mark in an almost imperceptible manner. His unassuming build, no different from the average man on the street, concealed a refreshing eccentricity that only showed itself when he spoke.
“Ah, Miss… Elysium, was it not? It is a displeasure to only now make your acquaintance; were that I had met a woman of such remarkable beauty years ago, I might be a content man now – though that would have rendered this meeting impossible, so perhaps we should call it fortunate that I have been thusly misfortunate. Hager Bainel, demanding your service. Of course, you already knew that. I made a reservation.”
When I was greeted with such a line, my first reaction was bemusement. My second was wariness. One thing I had learned in my years at the negotiating table was that merchants rarely, if ever, are truly eccentric. The eccentricity is usually a front, a trick to throw the other party off-kilter. Even if the merchant is acting eccentric out of habit, it is likely that this habit was cultivated for the purpose of deception. A merchant had to keep their cards to themselves until the opportune time, and what better way to do that then to convince their partner that they play a different game?
I flashed Bainel a smile and gestured toward the interior of the Ezov with a gloved hand.
In the months past, we had redecorated the Ezov to fit the more refined atmosphere that befitted an establishment of its ilk. The walls were still made of the same wooden panelling, but rather than having long beer tables, we now had numerous smaller round tables, fit for parties that ranged from 2 people to a maximum of 8. The long benches had been replaced by comfortable individual chairs, and we had placed upon the tabletops small, magical candles to add to the ambience of refinement. Additionally, lining the walls and pillars were several counters, where one could stand and watch the performance. Opting to stand was, of course, a cheaper option, but it was also our most popular option. In the center of the building, connected to a spiral staircase that led to our rooms, was a raised platform that served as the stage. Slightly to the right of it was the only part of the interior that had been unchanged – the counter. Though it used to dispense beer and house our liquor, it now bore several bags of coffee beans and several jars of tea leaves, keeping the company of the two girls we had hired as employees. They glanced at me and bowed their heads in respect, but otherwise seemed rather bored. Understandable – there were no customers today. Bainel had reserved the entire shop. For now, at least, he was the only customer, and since I was personally attending to him, the girls had nothing to do.
Of course, I had no intention of going along with his request to reserve the whole shop, but I compromised and told our regulars that we would be opening an hour later. This meant that the crowd would come in while he was still enjoying the performance, but that tied in to my negotiation strategy as well. I led Bainel to his seat, facing the stage, but of middling distance from the edge of the stage – neither too close nor too far, the optimum position from which to watch Rosalind’s performance. As I waved to Caren, signalling her to bring over the tea cart, I engaged in conversation with the guest. Rosalind, staying upstairs, was listening to our conversation, though that fact was hidden from Bainel. We had arranged a cue for her to reveal herself, so the timing was up to me.
“You flatter me, Mister Bainel. It is rare that I receive compliments regarding my feminine charms. A part of it is the uniform, I believe.” The butler uniform was, after all, a traditionally male piece of attire. “That said, I assure you that no matter how beautiful you believe me to be, Rosalind herself possesses more beauty by far.”
“Ah, yes. The famed songstress. I happened to be passing through one of the border towns when my ears caught wind of someone – a young man, as I recall, an excitable youth of maybe twenty years – sharing his experience in this place with his friends. I went up to- oh, perfect, nothing better to fuel a conversation than a good cup of tea. Let’s see now… hm, you don’t seem to have Springflow, so… I suppose the Lakeside Red will have to do.”
Interrupted by Caren sidling up next to us with the tea cart, Bainel had effortlessly appraised our stock of teas in but a moment – it spoke volumes of his experiences as a merchant. I picked out the tea leaves he had decided on and began to brew the tea, setting the teapot on the table as I gestured for him to continue.
“Where was I… oh, yes, I had heard about a woman who sang in a tavern in this small town. I’d passed through here before, but this was the first time I’d heard of such a thing – a bard who sang in public! Who would have thought. I’ve long held the view that the appreciation of music has nothing to do with your birth or wealth, but society seems adamant on disagreeing. Well, society itself is rather disagreeable, so I’m not particularly surprised. Regardless – a bard who sang in a public place, a bard not in the employ of a noble. What a novel idea! How talented is she? How did she make money? Why did she not enter the service of some noble house? My curiosity was roused, and thus I sit here before you today. So come, then. Show me what it is you’ve invented – show me something the world has never seen.”
A smile played across my lips. The situation could be described as close to ideal: Bainel was driven by curiosity and a desire to see something new. He was an explorer, hoping to unearth some hidden innovation that could be turned into profit. It fit perfectly well with the plan of action I had set forth. In a way, I could not have asked for a better partner.
“Well then, I promise we won’t disappoint. Allow me to introduce the star of our establishment, Rosalind.”
‘The star of our establishment’. That was our cue. Rosalind began descending the spiral staircase, clad in her blue dress, the same one she had worn on her first performance. Any of her dresses would have been fine, but this dress was special to the both of us, and its relative simplicity implied that our new brand of bard – our “idol” – cared little for the lavish fashions and colourful prestige of serving in the courts of nobles. The bard certainly played a large role in politics and held great prestige within educated circles, but the idol cared nothing for such trivialities – she simply desired to sing.
Her act long since honed to perfection, Rosalind began to sing while descending the stairs, keeping her gaze focused on Bainel, the only member of her audience. I stole a glance at him, recognising that he was no longer paying any heed to me – his eyes were transfixed on Rosalind’s performance. The mask of shrewdness, of aloof eccentricity, had been lost, and he looked on with a sincere wonder present in his eyes. When I saw his expression, I knew – Rosalind’s talent had pulled through. This was our win.
Rosalind performed several other songs, while Bainel continued to watch on – his initial entranced state faded quickly, but he continued to watch silently, with a look of admiration. Of course, that expression of composed admiration dissolved when the other patrons started coming in.
About an hour after his arrival, I opened the doors to the other patrons, who had already been queueing outside the shop. As the shop flooded with people, Bainel shot me a look of clear irritation.
“I thought I made a reservation for the entire day.”
I simply smiled calmly – his ire was within the scope of our plan.
“I’m sorry, we have a strict reservation policy – three hours is the absolute maximum, but I decided to open the doors after an hour to show you what a performance is really like. You’ll be compensated for the reduced time, of course.”
“What a performance is really like, you say? Do you mean to say that what I just saw was not the genuine article?”
“Yes, but also no. What Rosalind will be doing is identical; she will not change the way she sings, moves, or acts. But the crowd will make all the difference. I do believe that you’ll find the difference of great interest.”
Bainel furrowed his brow, clearly disgruntled, but silently sat back in his seat. I could sense his curiosity – who would not be curious, when confronted with a statement as vague as that I had just delivered?
Rosalind resumed her performance, singing to the cheers and clapping of the audience, her voice somehow managing to carry over their shouting. Somehow, the idol culture from my world had begun to develop here, as well, and the audience had gotten into the habit of clapping along to the beat for songs, while some took the effort to sing lines from Rosalind’s songs in tandem with her voice, particularly at memorable chorus lines. Some of the more extreme aspects of the subculture had yet to appear here, and I found myself constantly struggling to decide if I should forcefully introduce them, as I had with the encore call.
As Rosalind’s song faded to an end, a single voice about midway from the stage was the first to call for an encore, earning its owner angry glares from those around him – being the first to issue the encore call had somehow taken on aspects of a trophy, as if it were some great feat worthy of celebration. Just another oddity of the subculture that had begun to bud surrounding Rosalind’s performances. Nonetheless, the crowd quickly took up the encore call, until almost everyone in the building was echoing the same word. I glanced at Bainel, who seemed to be the sole exception. The look on his face changed rapidly, from surprise, to understanding, and then finally to consideration. Any semblance of his eccentricity forgotten, his face was that of a purely profit-driven, calculating merchant as he surveyed the crowd that was charged with excitement. Clearly a merchant as practiced as he could not fail to notice the wonderful business opportunity I had taken the liberty of presenting.
He turned his head and met my gaze, and the two of us regarded each other for a while. His face betrayed not a hint of his inner thoughts, and to the best of my ability, I endeavoured to do the same. After several moments, just as Rosalind was starting into her next song, he nodded and made to leave.
“You’ve given me much to ponder. Perhaps I could stop by again tomorrow?”
“Oh, certainly. In fact, feel free to come before we open. I’ll treat you to a cup of tea. Think of it as an apology for cutting your reservation short.”
“…Hm. Perhaps I shall.”
With those words, unassuming words that confirmed the date and time of our negotiations, Hager Bainel walked out into the street, stroking his chin the whole way.