Merchant King

12 – More Cryo Slime

The first problem they faced was money. As in, they actually had some for once. But they couldn’t very well go around with heavy buckets of silver coins. They were ‘saved’ from having to deal with this by an overly friendly and aggressive Guild tax collector. 

The Guild agent was a middle-aged man with a balding pate and round-framed glasses. He veritably blinked into existence next to them with a thin smile. “Good afternoon. May I assume that the two of you have concluded business for the day?”

Hadiin jumped at the sudden voice. “Uh, yes.”

The collector eyed the silver coins meaningfully and the edged smiled widened. “My my, what a profitable day for you both. My sincerest congratulations. This new product called ice cream is quite a hit, isn’t it?”

Hadiin sighed. “And now you’d like your cut, is that it?”

The tax collector looked frankly at him. “Taxes are every individual’s responsibility, sir. They are an integral part of not just a thriving business, but civilization in general. After all, taxes go to pay for the roads your wagon drives on, the guards that prevent unsavoury folk from making off with your wares and your profits, they fund health and education and government, so that we have a society in which you have customers who can afford four silver coins for a temporary treat on a hot summer’s day.”

“Of course,” Hadiin replied with a forced smile. “We’d be happy to do our part.” Actually, he’d be happy to keep his money in his own pocket, but this was an unavoidable cost of doing business. Well, unavoidable for now, until he got himself an accountant and learned the various loopholes in the system. 

Because of course there were loopholes. There were rich people in this world, yes? And you didn’t get rich by working hard and paying taxes. You got rich by making others work for you and paying as little taxes as possible. If some bleeding hearts said that was unfair, well, build a better system to prevent it. He was just playing the game better was all. 

The tax collector called over someone to help with the pots and buckets of money and then led them to the Guild. There the money was counted and deposited into Hadiin’s account. They’d earned a total of 13 gold and 46 silver. Out of that, they paid taxes on the ice cream and the leather sold previously, leaving them with 10 gold and 17 silver. 

It pained Hadiin to see so much of his money disappear into the oblivion that was bureaucracy, but the 10 gold felt very good in his hand. “Not bad, eh, Marian?” He wiggled his brows. 

She grinned. “It’s a start.” Then she plucked a gold from the pile in his palm. “An advance on my share. A girl needs spending money.”

“Uh, of course.” He swiftly pocketed the rest before any more of it could disappear. “Now, to resupply.”

The tax collector waved them towards the Services counter. “The Merchant Guild would be happy to led you a hand in that regard, sir.”

“Oh?” He glanced at the Service agents. “How so?”

“Simply leave them a list of what you require and the funds necessary for acquisition or allow them to draw on your account in your name. They’ll send runners out to shop for you and should have most anything you need in very short order.”

“I see. And what would that service cost me?”

The agent shrugged easily. “A mere 5% of whatever is spent.” As if it were a trifle expense. 

He mulled that figure over. Sure, it would help to have someone else run around and buy things for him. But he wasn’t sure if he should be wasting money so early in his career when every silver counted. So he shook his head. “I think we’ll be fine on our own for now. Although, we will need another stall for tomorrow. We plan on doing even more business than we did today.”

“Of course. Let me just have a quick word with one of the Service clerks and we’ll make sure that you have the same stall for tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”  

The tax collector bowed his head and strode off for the Services counter. 

Marian rolled her eyes after he was out of earshot. “Gee, isn’t he helpful?”

“Of course. The Merchant Guild is a business. They’re out to make money.”

“Would be nice to have someone do the shopping for us. Not that we have much to buy though.”

Hadiin watched the tax agent speak with the Service people. “Hmm. I also suspect that they pay full price for everything, that they don’t negotiate while shopping for you. Lowering the price would mean they wouldn’t earn as much for their help.”

She put her hands on her hips and looked around. “So? What now? The milk and sugar?”

Hadiin drew her away towards an unused corner of the Guild foyer. The room was quite busy, as always, and there were ears everywhere. He lowered his voice. “We can probably wait until morning for those. After all, we have nowhere to store them except the wagon and there’s no sense in having milk that goes bad overnight.”

“True. We can pick fruits in the morning then too.”

“Agreed. Though we’ll have to get up early.”

She groaned. “Ugh. I prefer sleeping in.”

He patted her on the shoulder. “Yes, well, we only have so many hours to get everything made. We’ll need more pots. We should put in an order with the baker for the waffle cones. We can do that today.”

“And we need to fetch more mint, along with the you-know-what.”

Hadiin watched as one of the conspicuous loiterers he’d seen outside wandered through the front doors of the guild and looked around, spotted them, and then meandered back outside. He sighed. “We’ve definitely got eyes on us.”

“Leaving the city is going to be tough.”

“We do need mint though, and they should realize that. That gives us a reason to go out there.” He tapped his chin in thought. “Yes. Yes, perhaps a bit of subterfuge might work.”

They exited the Merchant Guild both talking openly, and somewhat loudly, about going to pick more mint. No doubt, others heard. Picking up the wagon, they bought a few more old tin buckets, booked a huge order with a very grateful baker for waffle cones and getting some free sausage rolls in return, and then trundled out of town, stopping only to ask a passing adventuring party about where to farm low-level monsters, and buying a couple of water skins. 

The ruse seemed to have worked, mostly. Most watchers seemed to have thought that they were only going out for mint and that it wasn’t worth following them.

Hadiin sat in the driver’s seat as they angled off the road a ways out of town and headed towards a forest in the distance. “How many on our tail?”

It was past dinner time and the sun was getting low. They’d been downing the sausage rolls, which had turned out to be quite good. 

Marian sat against the side of the wagon, licking her fingers and watching behind them. “Two, maybe. Both on foot and acting like they’re just out for a stroll that’s got nothing to do with us. Except that they’re terrible actors and keep watching us. One guy has a bow, like he’s going hunting. Other one has a staff. Could be a magic user.”

“Are they together?”

She barked a laugh. “Ha! Not from the dirty looks they’re giving each other.”

“We’ll park on the edge of the trees up ahead and start collecting mint. We do need some.”

“But how do we get more cryo slime?”

“Can we leave it to you?” he suggested. “I’ll get the mint and set up a campfire.”

She frowned. “What? And make me do all the real work?”

He turned in his seat, one hand on the reins and tried to reassure her. “No! You just see if you can find a few slimes and kill them. The experience helps you level, right? I’ll…be the one who collects the slime and hauls it back.” 

She grudgingly relented. “Hmm. Ok then. As long as I don’t have to do the manual labour after doing all the killing. Though I don’t mind cooking the ice cream. That’s fun.”

Hadiin relaxed, or tried too. “I just hope nobody thinks to ask those adventurers about what we were asking about.”

She lazily slouched further in the wagon and out her feet up on the other side. “It should be ok, even if they did ask. I mean, you asked about hunting low-level monsters, not slimes, right?”

“True. But after they told us about monsters, we asked specifically about slimes.”

“Sure. But if anyone asks those adventurers, they’re going to remember that you wanted info on monsters first. So that’s what they’ll pass on.” She seemed utterly unconcerned. 

“See?” he pointed out. He couldn’t shake his anxiety.  “This is why we’re selling the recipe. Trying to keep it a secret is next to impossible. If we actually wanted to keep things to ourselves, it would require a bigger effort. We’d need more people involved, our own place to manufacture, all kinds of security. It just wouldn’t be worth the investment at that point. Because sooner rather than later, the secret ingredient would be out anyway and we’d have wasted all that money.”

Marian yawned. “Yeah, I guess. Shame though. You’re a merchant. Aren’t you planning on some kind of regular income? Like a shop or something?”

He nodded. “Later. A shop costs money: rent, inventory, staff. I’d like to, but maybe in the city where there’s more of a market. Don’t worry though, I have a lead on how to make our next score after this.”

She pondered that for a while. “The elves, right?”

“Yep.”

“But they were dirt poor. Almost literally.”

“Perhaps. Can’t hurt to investigate though.”

She scoffed. “Yes it could. Remember when they attacked us and wanted to kill us? That would hurt.”

“It feels like an opportunity though. And there’s money to be made in opportunities that others don’t know about, or refuse to look into. The ice cream proved that.”

“Whatever. I hope it isn’t a waste of time though. And we’d better find more help if we’re going back there. I can’t take on a dozen elven warriors all by myself yet.”

“What? I thought you levelled up,” he teased. 

“Hmph. Probably would have levelled up more on my own by now.”

“True. But then you wouldn’t in on the ground floor of my burgeoning new financial empire.”

“Financial empire?” she laughed long at that. “I’ll stick around to see what happens tomorrow. After that, I’ll be taking my share of whatever we make. And then I’ll decide if I’m sticking around or going out on my own.”

He was silent at that and surprised to feel a little down at the idea. Eventually, he spoke and shared his true feelings. “I do hope you stay, Marian. This has been a lot more fun with you here too.”

There was no reply from the wagon so he left it at that. Though as they drove, he couldn’t help but wonder what the lack of reply meant.

They neared the forest, where a pair of creeks trickled out from under the leafy trees and met together in a small lake. The area was a plethora of greens around the blue water, the cool shade of old trees allowing mint to grow in abundance in the region. Hadiin parked so that the back of the wagon faced the forest and let the horse graze.

Marian made a show of going off to hunt and entered the trees. They’d been told that cryo and aqua slimes could be found in this forest; her job was to find them.

He grabbed a bucket and meandered along the edge of the forest and lake alone, plucking up stalks of mint every now and then. He made sure to never take the entire plant, never take roots, and never take too much from one area. That way, the plants would have a better chance at recovering and multiplying for the future. Not that he planned on being back for mint anytime soon, but it felt like a smart way to do things; good practice. 

Never over harvest in pursuit of a quick return because it puts future profits at stake. 

After collecting a small bucket of green leaves, he returned to the wagon. The man with the bow was prowling the edge of the forest a few hundred meters away. The man with the staff was idly strolling about the grasslands as if looking for herbs or plants. Neither seemed all that intent on their job. 

 He decided to make camp, a place to sleep, a fire for warmth and cooking. Which is about the time that he realized that he’d completely forgotten about the gear he’d started the game with: backpack, bedroll, candles, tinderbox, water skin. Yeah, all that would have been super useful about now. Except that he’d put it down somewhere in the first village while running all over the place doing stuff and then never remembered to take it with him when he left. 

And boy, did he feel stupid now. 

At last he’d bought a new water skin. He sat and slumped in the grass next to the wagon, taking a drink. He’d have to wait for Marian to return in order to make a fire, as she could do it—by hand.

He laughed at his own joke. See, it was funny because she could cast fire magic. 

It was well into evening now and the sky was a dark blue turning to black. He knew that he’d be up late tonight retrieving whatever slime she’d found and thought he might get some sleep. Until he imagined something creeping up on him while he was unconscious. This might be a generally safe area this close to town, but he was still pretty defenceless against beginner monsters. Which was why she was hunting lowly slimes and he wasn’t. 

He pulled out the book he’d gotten from the Merchant Guild and re-examined the skills for sale. Picking up an offensive skill would make him a lot less useless regarding confrontations of a physical nature. He didn’t know how powerful Coin Snap might be, but it was the cheapest one on the list, ranged, and he could probably use it alongside Marian. Actually, if she was planning on leaving him after this venture and he was forced to rely only on himself, a combat skill really was probably the best option. 

He looked at the prices for skills. “These are not cheap,” he muttered aloud. Some were thousands of gold. It was hard to imagine that he would ever be able to afford these. And yet even if he bought everything he could from the Guild, it would surely be a fraction of the millions of gold he’d need to take over the crown. 

Hmm. Perhaps he should aim for a smaller and poorer country. Maybe a run-down city state hard on its luck with bad debts. He chuckled. 

It was fully dark and nearing midnight by the time Marian returned. She held one hand up, covered in flames like a torch, in order to see with and crashed out of the bush looking tired and grumpy. “Done. Your turn.” She sat heavily next to the fire pit he’d built and lit the stack of wood therein. 

He gave her a smile. “Thanks for all the hard work! So you were able to find some?”

She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Yeah. A bunch. And not just slimes.” A sly smile crept over her lips. “I levelled again.” 

“Fantastic!” he exclaimed. “That’s…level 5 for you?”

“Yep. Better hurry up and level some more, slowpoke. Check out my new spell.” She pointed into the darkness. A bolt of fire shot forth and zoomed off into the night.

A figure was briefly illuminated and screamed as the bolt passed. 

Hadiin snorted. “Apparently they’re still spying.”

She looked smug. “And now I can barbecue them at range.”

“It’s a cool skill. I assume this levels up to fireball later?”

Marian grinned with excitement. “Yeah! I can’t wait to start throwing fireballs at everything. The only thing cooler is dragon’s breath.” She danced a bit in her seat.

He stood and took a deep breath. “I guess I’d better get going.” He turned and paused, then looked back at her. “Uh, how do I find all the slime?”

She blinked at him. “Fuck.” She flopped backwards onto the ground and loudly groaned. “I don’t want to get up again. I’m tired of walking!”

“Don’t worry. I won’t make you carry any of it.”

She didn’t move. “I hate you. Your plans always suck.”

“Sorry.”

She sighed again. “What about the spies? They’re just going to follow us.”

He looked off into the darkness beyond the circle of firelight. “It’s night, so they’ll follow the light. You carry, er, be the torch. I’ll pretend to walk with you, then slip off in the dark and hang back. When one of the spies comes along, I’ll tackle him and we’ll take him out.”

She raised her head enough to give him a flat look. “I’m pretty low on mana, you know.”

“We’ll just have to do our best,” he said with determined optimism.

She laid her head back down and thought for a moment. “How about we go into the forest in the dark and I won’t light the fire until we’re well inside, so they don’t see where we’re going?”

He paused at that. “Hmm. Ok, that might work better.”

“See? Your plans suck.”

“You’re kind of mean when you’re tired.”

She snorted. She still showed no sign of getting up.

Hadiin looked for some way to motivate her. “What if I…promise to buy you the best breakfast in the entire town when we get back, no matter how much it costs?”

She raised a brow at that. “Just breakfast?”

“And lunch?”

She narrowed her eyes at him, but then finally sat up again. “You’d better remember all this when it comes to divvying up the spoils later.”

He gave her an elaborate bow and grinned. “My dear Marian, I promise you, if all goes well tomorrow, we’ll be staying at the fanciest inn and drinking the finest wines. We’ll get you a massage even. Go shopping. What do sorceresses use? Magic orbs?”

Her eyes lit up. “Arcane foci! Ooh, but they’re expensive. And I’m probably too low level. But shopping it is.” She got to her feet, flashing a good bit of cleavage as she did. “Ok, let’s go.”

A thought occurred to Hadiin. “Wait. I have an idea.”

They doused the fire with dirt. It was a cloudy night, so there was very little light to see by. The two hid near the rear of the wagon for a long while, waiting to see if anyone would show up to investigate. Sure enough, the man with the staff came creeping up. He prowled, near silently, until he reached the wagon. Then he lifted the side cover and peeked in. 

They rushed him and tackled him to the ground. Raining punches and kicks on him, he soon cried out for mercy. It turned out that he was no magic user or anything remotely threatening, just a random guy hired for a few desperate coins. Marian threatened to melt his face off and he ran back towards town about as fast as he could go in the dark. 

“That leaves one,” Hadiin stated with satisfaction. “Let’s go.” He grabbed a stack of empty buckets and pots.

They picked their way through the forest slowly as it was almost pitch black without a torch and both hoped no monsters were lurking in wait. Tripping over a party of goblins would have sucked. After they were inside the trees a good hundred meters, Marian lit her hand up. After that, there was a lot of wandering in circles and backtracking as she tried to figure out all the places she’d been now that there was no daylight to see by. 

This was, on the one hand, frustrating and dangerous, but on the other it might have helped to confuse the hunter who could have been following them. 

They came to the first scene of slime carnage. Hadiin worked by torchlight to get all the cryo slime he could into the containers. 

A rustle sounded behind him and a man spoke. “Don’t move. I’ve an arrow trained on you.”

Hadiin did as he was told. He slowly raised his hands up. “I’m unarmed.”

“Yeah? And how about the mage? Where…?” The voice trailed off, puzzled. “Where’s the mage?” he snapped. For the only light was that of an actual torch, a branch set on fire, not Marian’s hand. She was nowhere to be seen.

Hadiin turned with a smile. Just in time to see a fire bolt hit the archer in the back. And for the archer’s arrow to release. It zipped forward and grazed him along the ribs. “Ow!” He fell backwards, missing the ensuing fire show. By the time he picked himself up, checking to see that he wasn’t bleeding too badly, he saw that Marian had the man face down on the ground. The hunter’s clothes smoked but he was alive and whimpering.

The hunter had rope with him. They tied him up with his back to a tree and his hands stretched behind him and around the trunk. They told him they’d probably be back later to get him. If they remembered. 

Perhaps the fear of being left here int he middle of a dark forest at night got to him. Or he didn’t like being so easily bested when he’d expected to be the one springing a trap. Either way, he was angry. “You bastards. I’ll tell everyone what’s really going on. Your secret ingredient is cryo slime. The whole world will know!”

Hadiin shook his head, amazed. “Well, that wasn’t a bright thing to say. Definitely not going to remember to come back for you now.”

The anger melted from the man’s face and he paled. “Wait—“

“Bye bye now,” Marian waved. 

They ignored his pleas and continued their harvest. Now that both threats had been dealt with, Hadiin insisted that she only light the way while he did the rest of the work. It went slowly, but they eventually filled all of their containers and Hadiin worked himself into a heck of a sweat hauling them back to the wagon. He did not have the strength nor stamina for this sort of thing, but Marian had done more than enough and he needed to do his part too lest she feel things were unfair.

After he got them all loaded, he wiped his brow. “It’ll be dawn soon enough. You should get some sleep.”

“What about the guy we left?” She pointed with her thumb at the forest.

Hadiin shrugged. “Leave him. If he gets back to town, he’ll spill the secret. And we need to keep it secret until at least five in the afternoon.”

“Monsters might get him,” she pointed out, though she didn’t seem all that worried.

“He’s a spy. He should have known the risks.” He waved his hand. “We can come back for him tomorrow evening, I suppose. Maybe he’ll still be alive.” He turned and bowed to Marian. “Thank you for everything today. I really appreciate it.”

She looked a bit awkward but pleased at his sincerity. “You’re going to make it up to me later, so it’s fine.” She yawned, looking exhausted. More than all the exercise, she was likely suffering mana drain as well.

“Why don’t you get some sleep in the back while I drive us back to town?”

She nodded. “What about you?”

“I’ll tough it out. I want to be at the gates when they open in the morning. There’s a lot of work to do.”

She yawned and agreed, then curled up in the wagon to rest. This time though, they left the cover open so it wasn’t get as cold from all that slime. And she filled the last empty pot with firewood and set it ablaze as a heater.

By the time the sun cracked the horizon, Belleview’s gates were in sight.

Comments Off on 12 – More Cryo Slime