Our town, Monspiere, was well enough out of the way that we received very little traffic in and out of the town. Aside from relatives of the people staying here, most of the people that passed through were either soldiers marching toward the wall, or otherwise travelling merchants trying to find a good deal in the countryside. Even then, the merchants who passed this way were usually relatively unknown individuals charmed by old tales of merchants finding some novelty or other in a secluded town and leveraging that novelty to become successful. Most of them stopped coming by after realising that those tales were lies invented by older generations of merchants to prevent new competition from encroaching on their territory. Established merchants like Ruth and Bainel visiting this town were a rarity, but when they did stop by, they invariably stayed in the Ram’s Abode inn.
The Ram’s Abode offered a magically heated bath, round-the-clock room service, three meals prepared to specifications with the freshest available ingredients, a vast variety of alcohol in the cellars, a private courier service, privileged connections to various mercenary firms if an escort were required, a live-in tailor and a squad of highly-trained guards that handled security. All of this, on top of the magically enchanted room which kept the temperature at a constantly comfortable level, was available for the low price of 70 Miry a night!
…Or so the tagline went. 70 of the gold Miry coins equalled 7,000 Ciry silver coins. As a frame of reference, the average monthly income of a household with two working adults and a single working child tended to fall within the range of 6,000 to 8,500 Ciry. A single night’s stay at theRam’s Head would obliterate the monthly income of a small family. And the place only offered single rooms. Double rooms were 100 Miry per night. In other words, the price of the place was ridiculous.
People often wondered how the place managed to stay afloat when it received less that ten guests per year, given the location of Monspiere. Rumours had surfaced that it was being financed by either a member of the nobility or some hyper-rich criminal syndicate, as a front for something else. While the rumours had some substance to them, I did not concern myself with them. If it were the case that they were being funded by some external party for some unknown purpose, no good could possibly come out of being involved with them. It was none of my business. Rather, my business in visiting the Ram’s Head on that day was with its sole guest, Mister Bainel.
I clutched the rolled-up parchment in my hand and approached the innkeep, a young lady around my age who wore an outfit not dissimilar to my own butler uniform – though it was far less worn and seemed to be made of a higher-quality material. Her blonde hair was cropped into a neat bob, and a pair of spectacles rested on her nose. She inclined her head slightly in greeting as I approached.
“Good morning, can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m here to meet with Mister Bainel, of the Bainel Trading Company. Tell him Elysium is here to speak with him; he’s expecting me.”
“Please wait one moment.”
With that, she walked out from behind the desk and trod up the stairs that led to the upper landing, presumably to relay my message to him. As I waited, my eyes fell on the guard who stood watch by the foot of the stairs. A man who seemed to be slightly older than me, his muscular build was clad in a set of light armor, with metal plating only around his vitals. His light brown hair cast a shadow over his sharp green eyes, constantly darting around in vigilance. A shortsword was sheathed at his side, one hand resting on its handle. Looking at his build, he was a fighter who favoured agility over strength – he was muscular but not bulky, and his choice of armor seemed to indicate a style that required easy movement. His manner of standing was light and vigilant, his weight shifting from foot to foot rather than remaining evenly distributed. The shortsword was likely a choice made with the consideration of indoor combat, but it might also have simply been the weapon he was most familiar with using. I could tell that his overall ability was higher than the average soldier, but his combat experience lay in brawls and not war – he would not fare well in a situation where he was heavily outnumbered.
I decided that based on my assessment, if I were to fight him, I would probably win easily, partly because of my enhanced physical abilities, but also because my level of skill was simply far beyond his. Satisfied, I nodded to myself, then shook my head to clear away these distracting thoughts. My old habits were coming back at an inconvenient time. I was no longer a soldier. There was no need for me to evaluate the fighting ability of every warrior I met. I had other things to worry about now.
While I was distracting myself with these pointless thoughts, the receptionist had finished her business and descended the steps, and promptly showed me to the door that led into Bainel’s room, before returning down the stairs. I knocked twice on the door, at which I heard Bainel’s voice bid me enter.
On entering into the overly luxurious room – I shall omit the details of its splendour for fear of an inability to do it justice, and instead suggest that you should stay a night, if you are ever in the area and have the money to do so – Bainel received me with wide eyes.
“My word! You look terrible, Miss Elysium.”
I laughed, letting a hint of my tiredness creep into my voice.
“Do I? I spent most of last night working on my new proposal, and have not yet had the chance to look at myself in a mirror.”
That was a lie. I had in fact spent a good fifteen minutes in front of the mirror, making sure I looked every bit as tired as I actually felt. I had even applied some eyeshadow to enhance the effect. Seemingly unaware of my subterfuge, Bainel quickly brought me over to a chair and offered me a seat.
“Perhaps that is for the better. Seeing yourself in such a state might prove a shock. Tea?”
I shook my head, and instead held up the rolled-up proposal.
“Not today. Our meeting the last time ended on a rather abrupt note, but here is my new proposal.”
He took the paper from my hand and set it aside, on the table. I looked at him with half-lidded eyes, silently demanding an explanation for not looking at the work I had done. He laughed and waved his hand to dismiss my concerns.
“No, no, I’ll look at it later. But first, I’d like to ask… I notice the young Miss Rosalind isn’t here with you. When I left, the two of you were engaged in a disagreement. Before we can proceed, I must inquire: is it resolved?”
“Resolved? …In a sense. We’ve spoken about it at least. I can’t say that we’ve come to an agreement, but we’ve both firmly stated our stances.”
Bainel frowned and cast a glance at the proposal.
“…I hope you’re not going against her wishes with your new proposal. Business is one thing, but my forty years of life have taught me the importance of friends. New business opportunities will always come, but friends are few and far between. I am, after all, a merchant, so it won’t affect my evaluation of the proposal, but it would weigh heavily on my conscience if your friendship were to end on my account.”
I allowed my lips to curve up into a smile.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve taken her wishes into account while drafting the new proposal.”
“Oh? Impressive. Come. Tell me about it – I shall read the full proposal later, but I’d like to hear it in person, first. I trust you will find that advantageous, as well.”
I struggled to hide my surprise at his generosity. If I could make him agree to the broad terms of the proposal before he even looked at it, I would be able to avoid tripping over any weaknesses in the proposal that I might have otherwise overlooked. He had placed me in a very advantageous position – but also a very perilous one. This put the burden of persuasion on my pitch, but I had confidence in my idea.
“Well then. My original proposal was to have you buy the shop from us and ascribe a fee for Rosalind’s continued services as a performer. This would relieve the burden of management from our hands, and allow for us to travel freely without worrying too much about the continued prosperity of the Ezov. Unfortunately, that plan failed due to Rosalind’s refusal to give up the deed to the shop. So instead, under the new proposal, we’ll retain ownership – but you’ll receive the profits.”
“Oh? How do you mean?”
“We will continue to own the shop in name, that is, we will keep possession of the title deed. However, we’ll sign a contract with you that pledges 70% of the Ezov‘s profits to you. We would leave all management and hiring decisions to you, but Rosalind and I will have the right to contest or make decisions about the shop if we are in unanimous agreement. Does that sound reasonable?”
“70% is certainly a good proportion, but I’d much rather have 100%. This proposal is clearly more disadvantageous to me than your initial proposal of selling me the shop. I’m afraid it’s going to be hard for me to agree unless you can detail the benefit in this arrangement for me. Your revenue is the revenue of but one shop, in a secluded town. I doubt that the amount I would have to invest into having it properly managed and staffed would be made up by 70% of the profits, at least not for several years.”
My eyes glimmered as we got to the main part of the proposal.
“Ah, but that’s where the proposal gets interesting. The profit right now might not be particularly awe-inspiring, but think of this as a long-term investment. You’ve seen firsthand the power of Rosalind’s voice, yes?”
“As you’re well aware, I have.”
“Then do you agree that if others would only hear her sing, they would become as enamoured with her as her current supporters?”
“I can’t say for sure, but it’s a likely outcome.”
“Ergo, what do you predict would happen if we were to travel around the country and sing at various towns?”
“…Ah. Certainly, you would gain followers all over. Her name would spread far and wide.”
“And those people who have once heard Rosalind sing would have the incentive to visit the Ezov – both for the privilege of listening to the recording and live broadcasts of her performances, as well as the opportunity to buy our special Rosalind-inspired merchandise. Merchandise that would, naturally, be sold exclusively at the Ezov. If you think of it in these terms, do the possible future returns not far outweigh the present cost?”
“While you may be right, it remains the fact that the Ezov is located in an extremely secluded area. Even if you were to attain these new supporters, it’s unlikely that more than a small percentage would have the financial ability and the inclination to travel all this way, no matter how devoted they may be. As long as the Ezov remains in this town, I don’t see how this plan of yours will bear fruit in the long run.”
“Ah, but the Ezov‘s not going to stay in this town.”
“I plan to buy over several other taverns or shops, one in each major city, and open each of them as a branch of the Serene Ezov.”
Bainel’s eyes widened.
“A branch… for a tavern? This is certainly a first.”
“Perhaps, but it’s not quite as groundbreaking as it seems. There are already branch offices for guilds and trading companies, are there not? Your own Bainel Trading Company has branch offices in several towns – as well as in other countries. I’m simply taking the concept and applying it to the Serene Ezov.”
“Yes, but our trading companies and those guilds are all large-scale organisations that hold influence all over the country. To do the same for a single shop is… ridiculous! You don’t have the scale of influence that would warrant such a move.”
“Yet. You’ve seen Rosalind. You know it’ll work.”
Bainel seemed prepared to retort, but fell silent as he properly considered the issue. Indeed, based on my observations of Rosalind’s fans, if we could simply have her perform in more locales around the world, it was certainly possible to reach the same level of influence as a large organisation. As I left him to struggle with the concept, I pressed on.
“Of course, acquiring the shops to rebrand as branches of the Ezov would be expensive, and we would require your financial support on that matter, but once it gets started, we’ll install Resound Jewels in all branches, and grant these branches exclusive rights to sell our merchandise. This should allay your concern about our supporters being unwilling to travel to this town. In addition, I’ll teach you the method I used to brew the tea that you so enjoyed, and we can arrange for all branches of the Ezov to employ that method, providing yet another unique product to attract crowds. With that, it is highly unlikely that the branches will fail to earn profits, and under the contract for ascribing 70% of the Ezov to you, you’ll receive 70% of the combined profits from all branches. Surely, you can imagine how much money that will amount to. I expect that you will recoup your investment within the year – no, rather, within 6 months.”
Ending my pitch, I faced the dumbfounded Bainel with a confident grin.
“Well then, Mister Bainel, there are several more details that I’ve outlined in the proposal, but that’s about the gist of it. What I’m doing is the equivalent of a revolution in how businesses operate – we’ll be the first non-organisation to establish branch offices. Years from now, perhaps centuries, the Ezov will be spoken of as the brave pioneer of a new business model – but only if you are willing to lend us your support. There will be risk, of course, but great ambition will always bring along great risk.”
I extended my hand.
“What do you say, Mister Bainel? Will you take the risk with us? Will you join us in the creation of a new industry?”
Bainel stared at my hand for several moments, then sighed and clapped it in his own with a tired smile.
“You’ve hooked me now. I can’t deny that the idea intrigues me – part of me thinks that the risk is too much to take. But a larger part of me wants to see what results your gamble will bring. When you reach my age, you start thinking on legacy, on leaving things behind for future generations. If your idea works, we will both go down in the annals of history as pioneers. You’ll have my support as far as is reasonable – both for the production of merchandise and the procurement of funds and Resound Jewels for the branches.”
He took the rolled-up proposal and spread it out on the table, holding down the corners with inkbottles.
“Now, walk me through the details.”
“Certainly. This right here is a map of the cities where I intend to establish branches…”