Hager Bainel sat across from us, his attentive eyes focused wholly on us – but mostly on me. Rosalind had made it clear that I was to take the lead in negotiations, and so the onus of securing a good deal lay upon me. I felt that perhaps she placed a little too much faith in my abilities, but I decided to do my utmost in responding to her trust. The noontime sun peeked through the curtains we had drawn across the windows; we would have allowed it in, were it not for the fact that we wished for the business negotiations to be conducted discreetly, at least until we had agreed upon a deal. It would not be fair to Bainel if his rivals should somehow hear of our discussions before they were finalised – we might perhaps be able to squeeze additional profit out of a deal, but we would lose Bainel’s faith – and I felt that to be too great a loss, given his influential standing.
It was for this reason, as well, that we had given our three employees strict instructions to only report for work when we opened in the evening (they often came earlier to make small talk among themselves). Also owing to this arrangement, I found myself preparing and serving the tea, for there was nobody else to do it – Rosalind was lacking in this area. She had no sense for the right temperatures required to draw out the flavours of the different tea leaves. I, on the other hand, had learnt tea ceremony as part of the etiquette required by ladies of the Imperial Court. Though my regular capacity of service was as a warrior and general, my gender forced certain additional expectations upon me in court. I was not even allowed to wear proper armor when in attendance, and it had taken me months of threats and an enemy attempt on my life just to get permission for a modified dress – the ruqun that lay in my room, upstairs. I still recall the looks of disapproval that everyone – men and women – gave me when I walked into the palace with a sword belted to my side. Only the Emperor – ever the pragmatic man – approved of my form of dress. The emperor, and…
Was there someone else? I could not remember.
Regardless, as a result of that etiquette training, I was versed in the ways of tea preparation – though I employed what the people in my world would likely term the Eastern method of brewing. It was a method that Bainel spared no time in pointing out.
“Hm? Miss Elysium, the teapot you’ve selected seems to be rather small. Have you perhaps made a mistake?”
He spoke up with indignation as I filled the ceramic teapot with hot water. He was clearly a lover of tea. Perhaps I should have expected it, from his appearance and manner. Of course, it is unwise to profile based on appearances. I completed my task while responding,
“No, I’m quite sure this is the right size. This is a method of brewing tea that’s from… my hometown, as it were. I promise you, it lends quite a different flavour to the leaves.”
I turned to Rosalind, hoping for some affirmation, but she just shrugged – she knew not the difference.
Bainel looked on skeptically as I poured his cup for him.
“Surely you haven’t steeped it long enough! I hope you don’t intend upon serving me some bland excuse for tea!”
I simply smiled and urged him to take a sip. As he did, his eyes widened, staring at the cup.
“Why this… this is exquisite! Strong, filled with character, and sweet. What leaves are you using, may I inquire?”
His eyes widened further. Next to me, even the clueless Rosalind stared at me with mouth agape. Shaln Red was a common, cheap type of leaf, known for being extremely bitter, such that children hated to drink it. Its main purchasers were families of commoners who wished to seem wealthier than they truly were. I had chanced upon it at the market and purchased it due to the low price, to the horror of Rosalind and our three employees. Of course, I soon realised that the bitterness arose from the way in which it was brewed – the usual method, which involved steeping it in a large quantity of water for long durations, caused its bitterness to infuse into the water. On the other hand, the Eastern method of brewing, which steeped the leaves in smaller quantities for short durations, brought out the strong sweetness of the brew while not giving enough time for the bitterness to emerge, resulting in a blend that could rival even high-quality teas. In view of an opportunity such as this, I had not taught the method to anyone else, and it was the first time I had given a cup to someone else. The effect was as expected: Bainel quickly stood up, and shook my hand reverently.
“Please, Miss Elysium, you must teach me the method you use to brew! To make even Shaln Red taste like the sweetest of fine teas, it is revolutionary! You have opened my eyes to a new world!”
“Well, if you say that I have opened your eyes to a new world, it is only fair that you should do the same for us, is it not?”
Bainel froze, the knowledge of his error creeping across his face. He did not bother to hide it; possibly because he knew I had already seen all I needed to. I now held something he desired. The first bout was my victory.
Bainel coughed and collected himself.
“Yes, of course. Our main course of business. I presume you wish to propose a partnership?”
“Indeed. You’ve seen Rosalind’s performance, as well as the crowds. In that case, you should have noticed something rather interesting about the crowds, yes?”
“Of course. I have never seen a crowd of strangers quite so fervent as that which I saw yesterday. Certainly, their cheering was loud enough to drown out the march of an army. And that call – ‘encore’, was it? An invention of yours, no doubt. Though I cannot quite grasp the intention behind it, the way they rallied behind that cry was, frankly, frightening. But what of it? Do you intend something for their irregular fervour?”
“What if I told you I was thinking of monetising that fervour?”
“I would call the idea dreadfully enticing, yet thoroughly deluded. How do you intend on twisting something as intangible as that into profit?”
“The same way sellers of religious items capitalise on the belief of the masses.”
“Those religious items are tangible. They are able to claim the blessing of divinity – though such blessing rarely exists, the zealot is easily convinced of its efficacy. What do you intend to do – sell sculptures of Rosalind? She may be beautiful, but she is by no means a god.”
“While that would be nice to consider in the future, I am not foolish enough to believe that we could accomplish it at this time.”
“So what, then, do you propose?”
“Mister Bainel, what do you suppose is the greatest limiter on our profits right now?”
“I suppose it would be space. I saw a long queue upon leaving yesterday – I doubt you were able to serve all of them before the night ended. There must have been a few who left for home, disappointed. If you had a larger space to work with, you would be able to bring in more customers at a time and thus make more profits off their purchases.”
“I am in agreement. Space is the limiting factor. With that in mind, we intend to hold a concert next month – yes, I’m aware it’s an unfamiliar term, allow me the leave to explain. A concert is a one-time performance in a designated space. Rather than performing in the Ezov, we will book the Town Hall for a night and stage a performance there. The performance will be longer than usual, and thanks to the larger size of the Hall, we will be able to accommodate a larger number of people, thus massively increasing our profits for a night.”
“Certainly, taking such actions would allow you more profit – but only slightly more than usual. I can hardly imagine that booking the Town Hall is a cheap venture, and the fact that nothing will change regarding your clientele aside from how many you can accommodate at once does not seem like it would be sufficient to generate a profit once you deduct the costs of rental and preparation. Besides, all this seems like something you could do on your own; I have yet to hear what is to be my part in this scheme.”
“Ah, but you have just hit upon the problem we would like you to help us resolve. Your company has a monopoly on the mining of Resound Jewels, as well as a trade partnership with the Craftsmen’s Guild, correct?”
“Yes, that’s correct. You’ve done your research.”
“Well, to further increase our profits, we intend to sell special merchandise inspired by Rosalind’s image, at the concert. Nothing as expensive as statues, as you suggested, but trinkets; pendants or wooden carvings made in her image. Items small and inexpensive enough to be affordable.”
“…and though each piece may bring in little profit, the sheer volume of merchandise sold would generate large amounts of revenue. I see. Certainly, it is not unlike the smaller religious trinkets bought by the masses, as you’ve said. It’s risky, but looking at the crowd yesterday, there is a reasonable chance of it turning a profit. And it would certainly lend more credence to the benefits of holding the ‘concert’. That explains why you require my connections to the Craftsmen’s Guild. But what of the Resound Jewels? Surely they’re far too expensive for you to sell on a whim – they are a specialty item, and thus prohibitively expensive.”
“Even if we hold the ‘concert’ in the Town Hall, there’s no guarantee that we will be able to house all of Rosalind’s supporters. Furthermore, we would like the Ezov to continue functioning independently, even while Rosalind is at the Town Hall. As such, I wish to install a large Resound Jewel in the Ezov, attuned to a smaller one that will transmit Rosalind’s voice.”
Resound Jewels. A type of mineral unique to this world. By running a blast of mana through two jewels, it was possible to form a link, allowing for sounds to be transmitted through them. Additionally, it was possible to encode a main-slave hierarchy, such that only sounds received from the main jewel would be transmitted to the slave jewels, while blocking input from the slave jewels.
In other words, it was perfect for a makeshift microphone-speaker system.
By installing a Resound Jewel in the Ezov, even people who were unable to secure tickets to Rosalind’s concert would be able to listen to her, provided they paid the customary entrance fee to the Ezov. This would allow us to earn profits from two sources at once, thus minimising our opportunity costs. Bainel nodded his head in understanding, quickly comprehending my intention. However, when he next spoke, it was with a tone of triumph.
“I now understand what you intend to do, and why you need my help. Certainly, no other merchant would be able to meet your needs.”
It was my turn to curse my foolishness. In my description of our plans, I had made it clear exactly how much we needed his help. This second round was my loss. However, I had a secret weapon.
“Ah, your cup is empty. Allow me to brew a second. After all, I am the only one in this world who knows this method.”
I said this with an air of nonchalance while pouring the water into the teapot in a convoluted pattern – it was a pattern that truly served no purpose, of course, but it would do nothing to the taste. I handed the cup to him and smiled sweetly.
“I think you’ll find that it tastes different this time. Still pleasant, but in a different way. That is, after all, one of the benefits of my method.”
Bainel flinched, and gazed at his cup – clearly he was debating whether to drink it or not. Eventually, his love for tea won out over his love for money, and he took a sip, before setting it down and collapsing into his chair with a defeated look. Now that he had tasted of the forbidden fruit, there was no turning back. A smile played across my lips as I surveyed my victory. Seemingly determined to make some last struggle, he spoke up.
“Miss Elysium, I do hope that you realise you’re asking me to take an immense risk here. What you ask for is going to cost me a lot of money – money that I have no guarantee of seeing again. To lend such expensive aid to a business in which I have no stake is unheard of! This is not an easy decision to make, madam.”
I delivered my final blow.
“Ah, but I’m not so unreasonable as to ask you to invest in something when you have nothing to gain. We would like to sell you the rights of ownership to the Ezov.”
Bainel’s eyes widened in surprise.
“I’m sorry? Sell me the Ezov? Certainly, if I had ownership of the establishment, I would be able to earn greater profits from my investment, and if it failed, I could repurpose the shop to something more profitable. But are you sure you’re fine with selling it to me?”
“Ah, of course, there will be numerous conditions which we’ll have to work out, and we’ll have to negotiate about Rosalind’s appearances, but-”
Rosalind, who had been sitting quietly beside me the whole time, spoke up for the first time, uttering a sharp rejection in a low tone. Bainel and I both turned to her – I could see anger smoldering in her eyes, anger directed at me. I tried to calm her down.
“Rosalind, please, let me handle this, you said-”
“I said no. I’m not selling the Ezov.”
Her eyes, firm in their conviction, seemed to be boring holes into mine. Her face held host to an expression I had never before seen on it, proving to me just how much she disapproved. She broke her gaze away and turned to Bainel, who shivered.
“I apologise, Mister Bainel, but I’d like you to leave for now. Clearly, Miss Elysium and I are as of yet unagreed on certain points of this deal. We’ll contact you at a later date, should you still wish to do business with us, but for now I’d like you to leave us.”
Bainel took a look at the tea, then at the two of us, who were staring each other down. Then he glanced back at the tea with a look of resignation and longing, before taking his coat and giving us a cursory nod.
“Very well, I shall take my leave. When you two have sorted out your stand, please feel free to call upon me at the Ram’s Abode inn. I shall be staying for the rest of the week. I do sincerely hope that you too can resolve your differences and present me a united case – you have gotten me quite interested in this proposal of yours.”
With that, he shut the door behind him, leaving me alone with Rosalind, the embers of outrage dancing behind her lids.