I tugged uncomfortably at the collar of my new shirt, unused to the sensation of having a piece of clothing pressing into my neck. I turned to the mirror in the fitting room and looked myself over. A white collared shirt, overlaid by a black jacket. A black vest. A pair of black trousers. A pair of white gloves. A black tie to join the collar in constricting my neck – or it was supposed to be a tie. I had no idea how to tie the thing, so it just limply hung on both sides of my neck as two black strips of fabric.
In case I haven’t made it sufficiently clear by the above description, the outfit that Elysium had ordered for me was a butler outfit.
I had groaned the moment I saw it. A part of me had suspected she would pull something like that, but I hadn’t thought she would really go and do it. Matching outfits? Really? Besides, she had the grace and the manners to be able to pull off the butler look – I didn’t. I looked extremely out of place, even with my typically unruly hair having been straightened and combed. I stared at myself in the mirror and saw a fourteen-year-old street rat trying to pretend to be someone he’s not. I looked ridiculous.
I turned around a couple times, trying to figure out how I could make this work. Aesthetics aside, the outfit was already paid for, and refusing Elysium’s goodwill in having it made for me would be inconsiderate and dangerous. Inconsiderate for obvious reasons, dangerous because my continued food and lodging depended on my remaining in her good graces.
Biting my lip, I experimentally turned around jerkily, testing to see if the outfit was liable to tear in the midst of my training with Elysium or Ruth. Immediately I found that the vest was very restrictive. It also trapped heat, making the outfit even more uncomfortable than it already was. I quickly removed the vest and placed it on a hook in the fitting room, breathing a sigh of relief as my torso was freed from its bindings. Looking at the mirror again, I found that with just the black jacket over the white shirt, I looked much more natural. But the fact that my shirt was tucked in without the vest ruined the look. So I removed the shirt’s hem from the waist of my pants and let it rest over the waist instead. Then I looked myself over again. Much better. Now I looked more like a reckless, abrasive butler-in-training, rather than a scruffy kid forced into a butler outfit. Which admittedly wasn’t much of an upgrade, but I was willing to take whatever I could get.
I took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure what I would do if Elysium disapproved. If she asked me to wear it properly, there was little I could do to refuse – though refusal would be my ideal outcome. Well, if she really insisted, I was resolved to follow her instructions, given how much I owed her.
I pulled aside the fitting room curtain, revealing Elysium, who had been patiently waiting for me to get changed. Her eyes swept over me from bottom to top, clearly evaluating my appearace. Then she nodded in approval.
“Forgoing the vest was a good choice. You don’t quite look as professional as I had expected, but the way you’re wearing it suits you.”
I blinked in confusion.
“Wait, you’re okay with me wearing it like this?”
“Sure. Why not? Better than being a regular butler. That’s boring, and doesn’t bring in the cash. Much better for our public image to have a collection of unusual individuals – this way, people are less likely to forget about us.”
I sighed as I realised her approval was not founded on aesthetic approval, but rather on economic concerns. In all honesty, I should have seen it coming. In the short two weeks I had spent with Elysium and Rosalind, I had quickly come to realise that Elysium prioritised pragmatism in all things. Except when it came to Rosalind. But when engaging in any activity that didn’t directly involve Rosalind, she was constantly thinking about how said activity could be used to turn a profit. Naturally, the issue of my clothing would be no different. I decided to change the topic.
“Anyway, I doubt you told my teacher to give me the afternoon off just to collect this outfit. What else are we doing?”
“Good catch. Ros told you about our business model, right?”
“Well, I’m going to bring you to the place we’ve bought over to use as the local branch of the Ezov.”
“Eh? You’re setting one up in this city?”
“Yep. It’s large and well-positioned; since it’s on the border between three duchies, there’s a lot of traffic. Barring the lower class district, public order is generally good. Theft rates are high, as I’m sure you’re aware,” She winked at me and continued. “But actual violent crimes are relatively rare. The guards seem well-disciplined, and the city’s walls are well-fortified – a necessity, I think, given the geographical position of this place. These factors make it perfect for a branch – people moving from one duchy to another will be able to stop by, I’ll have to spend less on security, and that means a higher profit margin.”
“Huh. Makes sense, I guess. And what about me? What am I doing here?”
“Oh, I just want you to watch. It would be good for you to know exactly what kind of business we do and how we operate.”
I shrugged and followed her out of the store, giving a grateful nod to the tailor who had assisted us. Four main streets and probably ten or more turns later, we found ourselves in the middle-class district, standing before a large storefront. The sign which declared its name had already been removed, but judging by the fact that its storefront had only two windows, both easily covered by curtains, I suspected it had been either a restaurant or a tavern. Shops that sold actual products tended to have spaces in the shopfront to display the types of wares they sold, or otherwise had large, magically-strengthened glass windows to allow visitors to see the goods on sale.
Stepping into the building proper, the presence of a counter and a kitchen confirmed my suspicions. It was at this moment that Elysium spoke up, as if reading my thoughts.
“As you’ve already surmised, this used to be a tavern. Whenever we set up a new branch, we try to buy over a restaurant or tavern. Since we serve food and beverages in addition to our Ros-related products, a restaurant or tavern will have the necessary infrastructure in place for us to begin operation without having to install plumbing or knock out new rooms for the kitchen. Saves us a lot on renovation costs.”
Several of the workers looked up as we came in and nodded in acknowledgement to Elysium. One of the men – a supervisor, judging by the massive stacks of paper he was sorting through – raised his head and waved us over.
“Ma’am. I suppose this boy’s the new hire?”
“That’s right. I brought him over to take a look at how the business works. I hope that’s no trouble?”
“Not at all. We don’t really have much to do, anyway.”
“Oh? Then I suppose you won’t object to me lowering the payment for the job.”
“Come now, ma’am, I have a family to feed.”
“I know, I know. I was just joking. More importantly, how are things going?”
“As well as you can see. We’ve got the wooden tiling more or less done, and the kitchen is about halfway done. The podium for the Jewel’s already up, too, so I’d say… give it another week, maybe nine days, and we should be finished.”
“Oh? That’s reassuring. That means we might be able to open before Ros’s concert.”
“Yes ma’am. Speaking of that, when does it start? The wife’s pretty excited about watching it, and she keeps bugging me to get tickets for us.”
“Well, nothing is set in stone yet. But I’ll make sure you’re one of the first to know. I’ll even give you a discount.”
“Much appreciated. Anyway, given that you’ve personally come down today, I take it that you’re here to oversee that?”
“Yep.” She turned to me. “Okay, so you remember how I told you about Resound Jewels and using them to broadcast Ros’s concerts all over the country?”
“Well, today is the day one of the Resound Jewels come in, so we’re going to install it. Well I say install, but it’s really a lot simpler than that. You’ll see.”
A Resound Jewel. I knew what it was, but I had never actually seen one in person. It was prohibitively expensive to purchase, so ordinarily a street rat like myself would never have gotten the opportunity to see one. Needless to say, I was more than a little excited at the prospect.
Elysium and the supervisor chatted for a while more, talking about various things such as budget and possible compromises, while I patiently listened and made sure to absorb everything I could. It might prove useful in the future, perhaps if Elysium needed me to conduct these negotiations in her place – after all, if she had brought me along today, clearly she expected me to need this information at some point.
After about an hour of this, a knock on the door heralded the entry of a group of burly men, carrying a large round object, with a cloth draped over it. They were accompanied by another man, slender in build, wearing long, grey robes. A magician, probably in the employ of the noble class. These magicians served in the courts of nobility, doing various odd jobs in exchange for research funding and access to the nobility’s excessively large libraries. They tended to be extremely proficient in magic, often the top of their respective years in the magic schools. They were also very expensive to hire. I briefly wondered what the man was here to do, but the sight of the cloth being removed from the Resound Jewel made me unable to focus on anything else.
It was beautiful. A single, spherical crystal, its surface perfectly polished. It seemed to contain a rainbow within it, the orb containing an explosion of colour shining from within. The men placed it carefully atop a wooden podium with a hollow in it, and then stepped back. Elysium stepped forward and produced a single, smaller Resound Jewel from her pocket and handed it to the magician. The magician touched it to the larger orb, and a high-pitched ring echoed through the room for a split second. Then the magician passed the smaller Jewel back to Elysium and began to etch a magic circle into the ground around the podium – a protective spell.
After a few minutes of watching him work, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Turning around, I saw Elysium, holding up a pair of smaller Resound Jewels, each about the size of an egg.
“I’m giving these to you. Ask your tutor how to pair them up, then use them for practice. I’ll be counting on you for that in our next location. Oh, and I don’t know how effective your light magic is going to be at it, but maybe ask her about protection magic as well. If you can do all that, we can save on costs the next time.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and instead gratefully accepted the Jewels. Economic benefits aside, I was genuinely interested in learning how these crystals worked – watching them sparkle so radiantly had given me more than a few ideas, and I was eager to have the chance to put them to the test.