Lily smirked as she regarded Victoria, garbed in unexpectedly ladylike clothing.
“You certainly look different.”
Victoria averted her gaze self-consciously as she murmured a reply.
“It’s not like I hate these kinds of clothes… they just get in the way when fighting…”
Lily arched an eyebrow. It seemed that the woman was far more conscious of her femininity than Lily’s first impression had led her to believe.
“Ah, in any case, I assume you’re on a day off? You weren’t at the guard post on our way in.”
Victoria did not seem like the type of person to leave her post without reason, so Lily drew her own conclusions about the woman’s present appearance and location. To her surprise, Victoria laughed loudly as she corrected them.
“Hardly. If anything, the last time you saw me was on my day off.”
Lily stared blankly at her, uncomprehending. Victoria grinned and explained herself.
“As I previously mentioned, I am the mayor of this town. I’m responsible for its upkeep, protection and prosperity. I’m also responsible for mediating ties between demons and non-demons. Although I vastly prefer to don armor and stand on a battlefield, fighting alongside my friends, my position and noble heritage unfortunately confine me to a desk most of the time, handling any number of complaints and requests. But on my days off, I go to the guardhouse and train with the soldiers there, to keep myself sharp. ‘Tis truly an invigorating break.”
Lily resisted an urge to make a quip about how it seemed counter-intuitive to spend a rest day on more training, accepting that Victoria perhaps found joy in her training and fighting, just as Lily found joy in her mechanical art. Instead, she focused on one aspect of Victoria’s explanation that intrigued her.
“Hm. Noble heritage, you say? And earlier on you called yourself the daughter to some noble house? I suppose that means your clan functions as a feudal society?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘feudal’…”
“Ah, like, noble families own land, and the people living on the land owe their loyalty to the nobles and pay taxes to them, in return for the protection of the nobles. Is your clan’s society something like that?”
Victoria put one finger to her lips, comparing Lily’s description to the truth of her clan’s society.
“Hmmm… It’s… similar, I suppose. All demons swear allegiance to the Demon King, a title that can only be passed down through direct succession. Each clan has a clan chief that answers directly to the Demon King, and the heads of the noble houses in each clan answer to the chief. Each noble family does have a number of people under its responsibility, but the difference is that we don’t ask for loyalty or any such payment. As nobles, our duty is to protect and watch over the people in our care, but any decisions that may create a significant effect on the domain as a whole are decided by majority vote of the people within our lands. Of course, we still collect taxes, to help fund the upkeep and improvement of the lands under our protection.”
Lily made no effort to hide the fact that she was impressed. What Victoria had just described was shockingly unconventional – it basically meant the nobles bore the obligations of nobility without the advantage of authority that usually came with a noble title. A number of scholars back in Azoria had theorised a similar system as the ideal form of feudalism, but the idea was always dismissed as hopelessly idealistic – no noble family would be willing to take on the burden of protection and governance without the benefits of power and wealth that came with it. And yet, here was a society, consisting of demons, that followed such an idealistic system. Lily continued her line of questioning.
“And you’re a member of one of these noble families?”
Victoria nodded and straightened her back, pride evident on her face.
“Indeed. I am a daughter of the house of Fangheldt, the oldest and most influential noble house amongst the Horned clan. That said, I am the third daughter. I am unlikely to become the head of the household in the future, nor do I desire the position. Even so, I have been elected as mayor of this town, and therefore have been and will continue to watch over it in the fashion I was taught.”
Lily narrowed her eyes. Despite learning about the relative friendliness between human and demon in this city, she had her doubts that the humans would so willingly accept being governed by a demon.
“So, how did you end up as a mayor, anyway? Did the Demon King assign the post to you?”
Roan, who had been quietly observing the exchange from behind Lily, suddenly burst into laughter. The sudden sound caused Tate, standing at Lily’s side, to jump, surprised.
“Nay, we elected her. The people of this town, human and demon both. We had an election between several candidates, and Victoria wasn’t even one of them. Turns out, most of us voided our votes and wrote down her name. A popular one, she is.”
Victoria flashed Roan an annoyed look, which quickly dissolved into a look of exasperated resignation.
“And so, despite my being completely uninvolved in the proceedings, most of the town voted for me. Faced with such earnest support, I could hardly refuse the post. And that brings us to where we are now.”
“And where exactly would that be?”
“That would be me offering to buy the shield from you.”
Lily raised an eyebrow.
“Aye? You could justify the expense?”
“Indeed. The coffers of the Fangheldt house are well-stocked. Even a shield as luxurious as this would be a barely noticeable expense. Our family receives a large amount in taxes and through our own businesses, yet we are taught to live frugally. That said, occasionally, we must make a show of spending our money lavishly. Extravagance is also a duty of the nobility. This shield, expensive yet practical, would be a perfect opportunity for this.”
Tate tilted her head, confused by Victoria’s statement. For the first time since the conversation began, she spoke up.
“I don’t understand. Why do you say that extravagance is a duty? Isn’t extravagance a bad thing?”
Victoria turned her attention to the younger girl as displayed a gentle smile as she explained.
“That’s right. Unnecessary extravagance is bad. But as a noble in charge of land, it is our duty to, on occasion, spend extravagantly on some unnecessary expense. It builds confidence, see?”
Tate’s head remained tilted. Clearly, she did not see. Lily, having understood the point Victoria was trying to make, decided to elaborate.
“Tate, imagine this. Two customers walk into your smithy to buy a set of armor. The first is dressed plainly, in simple clothing, with a modest atmosphere. The second is dressed in the finest silks, wearing jewelry of pure gold and with large bags of coins clinking at his side. From a profit-maximising perspective, who would you be willing to spend more time negotiating with?”
“Well, the second, I suppose, since he clearly has more money so would be able to pay a higher- ah!”
Tate’s head perked up as her eyes lit up with understanding. Lily smiled and ruffled Tate’s hair.
“Correct. Likewise, if a noble makes a show of spending money, it is the equivalent of flaunting the prosperity of their land. Seeing this lavish expenditure gives merchants the confidence to enter the territory and do business. At the same time, it also keeps the spirits of the townspeople high, as it is concrete proof of the financial power of the nobles who protect them. Of course, such expenditure must be done in moderation: too much of it will have a reverse effect.”
“Indeed. Spending too much, too often, calls the judgment of the nobility into question, which deters merchants from entering. Furthermore, it might draw the resentment of the townspeople since it shows a diversion of funds from crucial infrastructure. Trying to strike the balance between these conflicting needs is also the duty of a ruler.”
Victoria completed Lily’s explanation and made a show of massaging her brow, perhaps to demonstrate just how troublesome the burdens of nobility were. As Tate nodded in understanding, Victoria’s serious expression returned.
“A shield is something that I can use. It’s good for battle, with the healing properties giving me an edge. The level of craftsmanship is additionally exquisite enough that the shield can be used as a decorative piece. Making a purchase of the shield would be an effective display of this city’s prosperity, and the fact that my first purchase of note is a tool would solidify my status as a pragmatic leader, which would be excellent for building confidence in my competence as a governor. As such, considering I am perhaps one of the only people in this town with enough wealth to comfortably purchase this item, I hereby offer…”
She paused in the middle of her speech to turn to Roan, her eyes asking for a valuation. Roan considered for a few moments, then gave a figure.
“I can’t place a monetary value on the crystals, they’re unique items that you likely would not be able to find anywhere else in the world. Nor do we have any indicator of how it will hold up in battle. As such, it’s probably best to evaluate it as a decorative item. So, just considering the craftsmanship… perhaps… 1600? No, 1900. Now, considering the gems add to the aesthetic, we’ll need to take into account the visual attractiveness of the crystals. If they were made of other precious stones, such as Sapphire, they would increase the price to about 5800 Sigils. But these crystals have no set market value, as they’re not created with the same degree of labour and therefore the manpower costs involved in acquiring them are unknown. So I’d say about 90% of that is a fair price. 5220 Sigils is the maximum I’d pay for it if I were in your position.”
Victoria nodded and turned to Lily.
“Well then, there you have it. I trust Roan perhaps more than any other evaluator of goods in this town, so let’s go with that. I’ll take it for 5220 Sigils and cover the tax.”
Lily narrowed her eyes as Victoria mentioned an annoying word. Victoria looked at her and smiled sheepishly.
“Aye, tax. I actually came here to talk to you about that after hearing word of your visit from the guards. See, we have a large variety of businesses in this town. Most are rather small, turning a modest profit, with only a few becoming rich enough to join the ranks of the great merchants. When merchants from beyond our walls visit with goods, they steal business away from our resident businesses. To make it more appealing to buy local rather than imported products, we therefore levy a flat 12% tax on all imported products before their seller leaves the town. This, naturally, includes your products.”
Lily glared at Victoria suspiciously. What Victoria was describing was a protectionist tax. It was hardly rare, but…
“What about our last visit? We were not subjected to any taxes of any kind for our sale of the gold.”
Roan chuckled and interjected.
“Aye, but that’s because Victoria here paid the tax for you out of her own pocket.”
Lily’s expression softened as Victoria blushed and averted her gaze.
“It was the least I could do to repay your parents.”
Lily smiled with a mix of sadness and gratitude. Even in death, her parents were looking out for her. She then turned to Tate, her consultant.
“So? Do you think 5220 Sigils is a fair price for your work?”
Tate nodded quickly, without hesitation. Her eyes betrayed her disbelief at the high valuation, which caused Lily to grin and pat her proudly on the shoulder. Lily turned back to Victoria, hand extended.
“It’s a deal, so make sure to buy more of our work in the future.”
Victoria grinned and took the offered hand.
“Aye. May this mark the start of a fruitful, mutually beneficial business relationship. You’re paying the tax next time, though.”