Merchant King

11 – First to Market

Hadiin was happily humming to himself when Marian showed up. 

“Oh! You sold all the leather already?” she asked in mild surprise. 

He sat up in the wagon with a smile. “I did! And to a single customer no less.” He flashed her the three gold coins, rather proud of himself. Most people at his level didn’t have any money to their name. Not that this was enough to buy anything really useful, like magic armor or weapons or anything. And it was less than he’d started the game with. But it was his first big sale and that was something. 

“Nice!” she nodded in approval. “What now? You were going to use that money for something, right?”

“Correct.” He hopped down from the wagon. “Now, we have some shopping and experimenting to do.”

“What do we need?”

“Primarily? Milk and sugar. And some vanilla beans.”

“Milk, sugar and… Oh!” Her eyes widened. “We’re going to make—“

“Yep.”

“With the—“

“Exactly.”

She screwed her face up in distaste. “Ew.”

“Oh, don’t be like that. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“But who’s going to buy that, knowing what’s in it?”

His eyes twinkled. “Who says we have to tell anyone our secret recipe?”

“Uh…” She seemed taken aback by that, perhaps a little conflicted. 

He rushed on lest her doubts grow stronger. “It’s going to be a smash hit. Tell me this, Marian, my darling. Have you seen anyone else selling it while you were walking around?”

She had to think about it. “Um, no? But I didn’t go into any restaurants or anything.”

He felt a touch of prudence that he was glad for. “Hmm. You know, it might pay to do some research on the market before committing to production. Let’s split up. You take that side of the street, I’ll take this one. Investigate and see if anyone else is making or selling it.”

“Got it.”

They each canvassed one side of the street. Hadiin made polite, general inquiries to several shop vendors on Market Street. He also turned down a couple of cross streets and popped into cafes and restaurants. After about fifteen minutes, he rejoined Marian on Market Street. 

“Anything?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Nothing. You?”

A slow smile crept over his lips and he twirled his moustache. “Nothing. Marian, I do believe that the entire market may be ours alone.”

His excitement was contagious and a spark lit in her eyes as well. “Which means more money.”

“Yes, it does. Let’s go shopping.”

They easily acquired a jug of milk and a bag of sugar for a reasonable amount. Their first obstacle, however, came when they inquired about vanilla.

“Vanilla?” a spice merchant scratched his head. “Never heard of it.”

Hadiin was surprised. “Really?”

“What’s it taste like? Perhaps I’ve got something similar.”

“Well it… I mean it has sort of a…” He struggled with how to explain the taste of vanilla. So he turned to his companion. “Marian, tell him what vanilla tastes like.”

“It…uh, well, you know. Plain. Normal. Like…vanilla.”

The spice merchant tilted his head and frowned.

Hadiin growled in frustration. Vanilla was everywhere, it was ubiquitous, common, the very definition of standard. That it did not exist in this world was troubling. And trying to find a way to explain the flavour was only giving him a headache. Growing desperate, he turned to the merchant. “How about chocolate?”

The man inhaled sharply. “Oh, we have it. Very expensive.”

“How expensive?”

“One gold per cocoa bean. And you’ll still need to process it into actual chocolate.”

Hadiin experienced a mild heart attack. “That’s insane!”

“Well, it has to be imported from another continent. And there’s not much of a market here for it. Or I suppose there might be, but most people have never tried it. Chocolate is something only the nobility and the rich eat.”

“I see… What about other flavours?” he asked. “Something for deserts?”

The merchant looked thoughtful. “Hmm. Other than mint?”

Hadiin’s brows rose. “Other than? Why do you say that?”

“Well, you know.” He waved his hands vaguely in the direction of ‘outside the city’. “Cuz winter mint grows around these parts like weeds. It’s why so many desserts and other dishes are flavoured with it here. Belleville’s renowned for exporting winter mint extract and winter mint jelly.”

Hope blossomed in Hadiin’s chest. “A…weed you say?”

The merchant spoke matter-of-factly. “Yup. Probably not much growing immediately around the town, but walk a few minutes in any direction and you’ll find armloads just mixed in with the grass and other plants. Like I said, it’s a weed.” 

Hadiin turned and nodded to Marian. “Change of plans. Let’s harvest some winter mint.” He thanked the merchant for his help and they strode in the direction of the town gates.

Marian, however, was less convinced. “I don’t know… Mint isn’t the most popular flavour. It’s not universal. And it’s something that everyone around here is already going to be familiar with. Won’t that hurt sales? We need something more popular, and that they aren’t bored of.”

“Hmm. Good points. But what else can we do? He did sell other spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, ginger. Unfortunately, they were all rather expensive and I fear out of our budget. I suppose that’s not really surprising giving the level of technology and commerce here. And none of those are really popular either. Liquorice flavour is going to be even more niche than mint.”

“Too bad we can’t do chocolate,” she wistfully murmured. “I love chocolate…everything.”

They came to a cross street and paused to let a wagon pass. 

Hadiin sighed and looked up at the sky in thought. No vanilla. No chocolate. He blinked, then lowered his gaze back down again. And facepalmed. 

“What?” Marian asked, mildly alarmed at the smacking sound.

Hadiin just sighed and pointed up.

Confused, she looked up—and then laughed. 

💰

While Marian ran outside to gather mint and two other easily available flavours, Hadiin secured a private place to experiment. He rented a tiny, first floor apartment in a poorer part of town for a few hours from a housewife for only 5 silver. Then he fetched the wagon and parked it outside and unloaded the cryo slime into the apartment. Wagon empty, he went back to the main street and picked up Marian and all the ingredients she’d collected. 

Marian waited for him on a street corner, under a fruit tree. Piles of mint, apples and pears sat next to her. She herself had a ripe pear in her mouth, clear juices dripping down her chin. 

Hadiin grinned. Belleville had apple and pear trees growing on every street corner. And all that fruit was free for the taking. Of course, like most lazy humans, folks around here didn’t bother to pick it because they took all those fruit trees for granted. So there were literally tons of ripe apples and pears just hanging there. 

They put a bunch of fruit and the mint into the wagon and carted off. As they drove, Hadiin gazed about. That’s when his eyes alighted on all the flowers and his brows drew together. 

“Roses…” he muttered.

Marian caught on instantly. “You want to try?”

“Why not? Would at least make for a very artistic sample, wouldn’t it?”

They parked the wagon and separately wandered along the street, pretending that they were admiring and sniffing the flowers on the many rose bushes lining the fronts of houses and businesses. A number of fresh flowers were quietly plucked and joined the other ingredients in the wagon. 

At the house, they unloaded, closed all the windows and locked the door. Then they began to experiment. 

“And now…to make ice cream!” Hadiin announced.

“With cryo slime,” Marian added, gagging at the bucket of frozen slime she held. 

Hadiin, of course, had never made ice cream before in his life. He was not someone who cooked or baked or did anything like that. However, he did have the Basic Cooking skill now. And this was just good enough for him to intuitively understand the basic ingredients needed, and a rough idea of portions. Of course, the recipe didn’t call for cryo slime, but that was fine. That was where the experimentation came in. This was science!

First, they borrowed a pot and heated it on the charcoal stove. Inside the pot, they melted sugar into the milk. Then they crushed a handful of mint and dumped it in.

Marian looked askance at the leaves floating in the bubbling mixture. “Shouldn’t we extract the oil or something?”

“Maybe. But I like the colour. It really communicates the flavour and makes the ice cream more fun, doesn’t it?”

She shrugged. “Maybe. Or it looks like we were too lazy to process the mint.”

“No no. You have it all wrong. It’s not lazy. It’s premium organic style.”

She guffawed. “Oh my gosh. That’s fantastic.”

“It’s all in the marketing.”

After the milk, sugar and mint were blended, they removed the pot from the heat. 

“Now the tricky part. How much slime to add.” Hadiin cracked the icy film over the bucket and dipped a ladle into the gooey, white-blue slime below. 

He added one ladle at a time until the mixture in the pot cooled and took on the consistency of soft serve ice cream. Then he slowed down and added smaller amounts until it crystallized just enough to feel like hard ice cream. He pulled out a spoon and dipped it into the mix. “Ready to taste?”

She backed up, hands up. “Uh uh. This is your crazy idea. You first.”

He shrugged and opened his mouth, then paused, then closed it. “Say… A big reason I thought to try this is because the slime stays cold on its own. You don’t think it’s going to freeze me solid from the inside, do you?”

Her eyes widened. “I do now!”

He hesitated. “Well, maybe just a tiny bite.” He gingerly tasted a bit of the cryo-slime mint ice cream. 

Marian’s face screwed up. “Ew. Slime.”

Hadiin tasted it in his mouth. Then he took another bite. This, too, he savoured. “Wow. It’s pretty good.”

“Really?” She didn’t look like she believed him.

But he slowly nodded. It really was. “Quite passable. More like really rich ice cream, the kind they make with tons of sugar and real cream? The expensive stuff?” He put a hand on his stomach. “And I can feel the chill. This would be perfect on a hot day.”

She gave the pot an uncertain look, but reluctantly took up her own spoon and gave it a very small taste. Her eyebrows rose. “Ok. It’s actually decent. Still not sure I want to eat a ton of it and freeze myself solid.”

“For safety’s sake, we should put a warning on it. Or…perhaps we’ll just start by selling it in really small amounts.”

“Should we test it on, uh, someone first? I mean, not that I want to hurt anyone. Maybe we can find someone crazy who’ll do anything for a gold coin.”

Hadiin just waved his hand. “Nah. It’ll be fine. I’m sure it all breaks down in the stomach anyway. If things get too cold, they can just have a hot drink or something to help.”

She didn’t seem too sure of that, but she didn’t object. 

He clapped his hands together. “Let’s see how long that lasts. I’m very much hopeful that the ice cream will stay frozen on its own. That’s a big reason I collected it in the first place. If not, we’ll have to use some of the cryo slime to keep it cold. If it does last on its own, we can make even more ice cream.”

They put the pot outside and sat next to it for an hour, waiting. While it was a cool day after raining earlier, the ice cream didn’t melt a bit. 

Marian was excited. “So? The flavours are free. Should we spend all 3 gold on milk and sugar and make as much ice cream as we can?”

He thought about it. “There’s no fee to rent the stall, so that’s fine. We should probably keep, say, 50 silver for emergency use.” He appraised her. “I’d also like to invest some of the money into marketing.”

She looked down at herself and then back at him. “What do you mean?”

“Marian, if I haven’t told you already, you have a very beautiful figure. And a lovely face. You’re smashing, delightful and, quite frankly, I think you’d be ravishing in the right outfit.”

She blushed. “Oh, um. Thanks.”

I’m quite certain that many others no doubt see you the same way I do. Would you have any objection to wearing a more—compelling—outfit? Something that would draw in customers?”

“Ooh. I see.” She shrugged good naturedly. “Sure, that’s fine. But I don’t think women want to see boobs.”

“Perhaps not. But let’s see if we can find something that’s alluring to both. And cheap.”

“We could probably just buy a shirt in a much smaller size.”

“I shall leave all fashion decisions in your capable hands, my dear.”

She like the sound of that and smiled. “Good.”

He handed her all three gold. 

She looked surprised. “You’re trusting me with all of it?”

He nodded. “Absolutely. I trust you.”

She stood a little straighter at that.

“Now, keep 50 silver as savings and use 50 to buy clothes with. Remember, the more you save, the more we can invest. However, don’t be so cheap that it’s a waste of money. If you find the right outfit and it costs a bit, go for it. Boosting sales with the right look is more important than saving a few silver.”

“I understand.” She pocketed the money. “But why give me all 3 gold?”

“Use the remaining 2 gold on milk and sugar. While you go shopping, I’ll start cooking the first batch.”

“Ok. I’d better take the wagon then.”

He nodded and they parted ways. 

💰

By the time all the ice cream was made, it was quite late, well past dinner time. Already, they’d had to dip into the 50 silver reserve fund when Hadiin belatedly realized that they needed containers for the ice cream, something more appealing and sanitary than buckets and barrels. 

They also needed something to serve the ice cream in. The rest of the money had gone to a baker who they’d talked into making tiny waffle cones. These weren’t anything like real waffle cones, they were more like actual mini waffles that were rolled up and baked crisply into a cone shape. But they would work. The baker would be on standby during the day, ready to bake more. They’d run to him as money came in from ongoing sales. 

Unfortunately, they were, once again, completely out of coin and everything depended on the venture being successful. And Hadiin hoped very seriously that no more expensive problems would come up. 

That night, they parked behind an empty stall on Market Street, dropped the sides and hid inside with the ice cream. They planned to sleep the night there, and started to do just that. But when they woke up an hour later, shaking from the cold because the temperature was something like the inside of a fridge, they chose to sneak under the wagon and sleep there instead. 

Why sleep in or under the wagon on Market Street and not in a bed? Because they didn’t have money for an inn and they wanted to stay close to the goods lest they be stolen. And Market Street was regularly patrolled all night long. As was the nearby Merchants Guild. The only risk was having one of those guards kick them awake and force them to leave because they were loitering. Luckily, they got away with it and slept easy until dawn. 

Once Market Street came alive and the Guild opened, they crawled out into the daylight. Hadiin went to the Merchants Guild and secured another stall for the day while Marian changed into her new clothes. 

Hadiin admired her on his return. “Well done! Cute, fashionable, eye catching. Yet not slutty. Even with your…uncommon proportions.”

She looked proud of herself as she stood next to the wagon. She wore a plain, white button up shirt that was too small for her. It showed a hint of belly and several top buttons were undone to show some cleavage. On the bottom, she wore a deep red skirt, almost the shade of fresh blood, that was light and hung to her ankles. She’d borrowed a knife and cut a tear up one side that allowed her leg to flash occasionally. “You like it? I think it’s good. I think red is gonna be my colour. I am a fire sorceress after all.”

“Isn’t fire orange? And isn’t really hot fire blue or white?”

She gave him a flat stare. “Shut up.”

They went to the stall they’d booked, which was as close to the Guild as Hadiin could get, about fifty meters away from the central building. But the entire morning, they didn’t even get out of the wagon. They got plenty of strange looks from passerby, and a few fellow merchants looked at them and tapped their foreheads, signing, ‘they’re crazy’. And as they waited, the sun rose higher and higher and the day warmed quite pleasantly. And then the lunch hour approached. 

They got to work. It was simple enough. Hadiin unloaded several old, worn pots full of ice cream onto the stall table. The pots were used and barely good enough to cook in. They’d gotten them dirt cheap from the Flea Market, a separate district from Market Street. It had still cost much of their reserve fund. Because they’d made a lot of ice cream. 

Hadiin, a bit nervous, rubbed his cold hands together. “I hope we sell all this.”

“I’ll start handing out free samples and drawing customers in,” Marian announced. 

“Excellent. I believe in you!”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be corny,” she replied. But she still looked pleased at the encouragement. 

The day before had been a stormy mess. But today was bright and beautiful, a glorious summer’s day. It was just hot enough to sweat if you were doing anything active. Market Street buzzed with activity, especially this close to the Guild. Hundreds of merchants and shoppers walked along, chatting and haggling, and more people were showing up by the minute as tradespeople and office workers and others came out into the warm sun to grab some lunch. 

“Ice cream!” Marian called to the river of people. “Ice cream! Mint, rose, apple, and pear! Frozen dessert that melts in your mouth! Come try some!”

At first, her calls only attracted passing glances. But it didn’t take long for curiosity to bloom, especially when she started handing out free mini cones of various flavours to people. People love free food.

A woman’s eyes bloomed as she tasted apple ice cream for the first time. “Oh my gosh! This is incredible!” she gasped aloud. 

Both young boys at her feet tugged on her skirt. 

“Mommy! Me too!”

“I wanna try!”

Of course, children love sweets, and this promoted a chorus of pleasure. And faces coated in ice cream. 

A labourer stopped by, giving Marian an admiring look before accepting the cone from her hand. He took a bite, his brows rose, and he put the rest in his mouth all at once. You could tell from the expression that he was feeling the ice cream all the way down as it made its way to his stomach. He touched his belly. “Well, damn. Doesn’t that just cool you right down.” He laughed. “I’ve been swinging a hammer all day in the sun. Wish I’d come by sooner!”

A quartet of teen girls skipped up. They were well dressed and giggled and snottily whispered as they eyed Marian’s cheap clothes. But they weren’t about to turn away free desert. Their eyes lit up at the taste. Each had gotten one of the four flavours and, after the first lick, were eagerly passing the cones around so they could try all of them. 

The mother bought extra cones for her boys and herself. The labour another and promised to bring back his crew. The teen girls another each. Surprisingly, none really balked at the price: 1 silver. So Hadiin quickly bumped it to 2 silver. And then 4. 

Within a half hour, there was a small lineup of a half dozen people. After an hour, the line had tripled in size. Even after the typical lunch break had ended, word continued to spread and people were seen making their way to the stall from every direction in order to try this revolutionary new treat called ice cream. 

Hadiin held a cone out and eyed the man in front of him. The man wore an apron covered in food stains and his sleeves were rolled up. “Are you a cook of some kind?”

The man’s eyes shifted. “Me? Uh, no. Nope. Uh, just covering. For a friend.” He snatched the cone and ran off, delicately tasting it and squinting as he tried to analyze the dessert.

Hadiin watched him go. The man was probably not the first, and certainly would not be the last customer who bore signs of having come from a restaurant or cafe. He also saw many of the nearby merchants not only keeping a watchful eye on his very brisk sales, but coming out of their stalls to try the ice cream for themselves. 

Even the Merchant Guild took notice. Several members lined up for cones. Guild tax collectors, in their telltale uniforms, passed by regularly, hawk-like eyes on the money that he was collecting. The silver was fast filling multiple pots that had been emptied of ice cream. 

At one point, Hadiin had to run to the bakery and order a huge supply of mini waffle cones. The baker’s helpers ran over three times to restock the stall, delivering them still steaming from the ovens. The combination of cold ice cream and hot cones was a further hit with happy customers. 

Another suspicious person showed up, a woman in a little cafe apron. She shook her head in wonder as she tasted the ice cream in front of Hadiin. Then she leaned forward. “How is it made? I mean, you must be using magic to keep it frozen, right? But how? Magic is so expensive. How can you sell it for such a low price?”

“Trade secret,” he replied with a wink.

She looked crestfallen.

He leaned forward too. “Hoping to make it yourself for your own customers?” he asked.

This time she seemed embarrassed. “What? Oh, no. Of course not. Just curious. Excuse me, I have to get back to work.” She hustled off, thinking hard.

Then he thought about Phase Three of his plan. He called out to her. “Miss!”

She stopped and turned.

“Come back tomorrow. 4 pm. And…you might have a chance to learn how it’s made.” He grinned.

Her eyes widened and she curtsied before departing with a determined air. 

A dozen others stepped out of the lineup and ran off, suddenly in a hurry. 

He laughed. Then an announcement flashed across his vision.

Merchant

Level 3

“I levelled up!” he happily announced.

“Gratz!” Marian cheered from the street where she was still waving in customers and keeping an orderly line.

Hadiin was astonished when he reached the bottom of the final pot of ice cream and handed out his last cone. The dessert had sold out fast, despite the volume they’d started with. It wasn’t even four in the afternoon yet. He held his hands up. “I’m sorry, good folks, but we’re all out of ice cream.”

A frustrated groan came from the long line of people, some of whom had been waiting for quite a while. 

“Don’t worry!” Marian shouted with hands cupped around her mouth. “We’ll be back tomorrow, too. Noon!”

The customers grumpily wandered away while Marian and Hadiin put the empty pots back into the wagon. Well, not all were empty. 

Look at how much money we made!” Marian squealed, looking into the pot in her arms. It was full to the brim with silver coins. “This is insane. No-one at our level would have this much money.” Her eyes were glued to the silver.

“If I had to guess, I think we’ve a lot more than we started with here.” He was very pleased with how successful they’d been. “For tomorrow, you won’t need to stand out there attracting attention. Word will spread. They’ll be lining up on their own. I think we’ll both be able to stand behind the table and sell.”

“Then let’s go shopping and turn this into as much ice cream as we can!”

He was about to agree, when it hit him. “We can’t! We’re all out of…our secret ingredient.” They’d both agreed to absolutely not mention what that ingredient was anywhere in public. 

“Oh, right.” She put the pot of coins in the wagon. “We’ll have to go hunting. But we don’t have much time left today.”

“True. Damn. Why is it that I keep thinking of things too late?” He was frustrated with himself. He needed to learn to plan things better. 

She sighed and shrugged. “I guess we’ll have to skip selling tomorrow and wait until the day after.”

He pinched his moustache. “We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Phase Three starts tomorrow. At four in the afternoon.”

“Phase Three? What’s that?”

“You’ll see. I’d love to wait a day to get more of the you-know-what, but I’ve already put things in motion.”

A look of recognition came over her face. “Oh! You said something about tomorrow at four to that women. Right.” She frowned. “But why would you want to give away the recipe? We could make so much more money!”

“Like I said, the recipe will get stolen soon enough. We need to strike while the excitement is fresh. Which means selling as much as we can tomorrow.”

“Surely we can do this for a week or two,” she pleaded.

He shook his head. “We’ve already got problems. First, we’ve got all this money. Sitting in pots. Someone could try to steal it.”

That sobered her. “And I’ll burn them if they try. But, agreed, we really need bags of holding.”

He nodded. “Also, we need ingredients for tomorrow. And after the whole town just got a taste of ice cream for the first time, everyone will want to find out how we do it, especially all the cooks and merchants and other money makers. I’d bet anything that we’ve got eyes on us right now. In fact, we’re going to have eyes on us the whole time we go about finding more ingredients.”

She tsked. “Ah. And then the secret will be out.”

A furtive look around revealed a number of people standing within sight of them and their wagon, suspiciously casual as they leaned against buildings or strolled too slowly, all of them regularly looking at Hadiin and Marian as if waiting for something. 

He scowled. “Dammit. I didn’t think of spies. I should have. Stupid.”

“Hey, no help for it, right? So what do we do?”

He looked about, shoulders drooping. “That’s a very good question.”

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