It took him a pathetically long time to return to the wagon. He was struck, in turn, by periods of resignation and giving up any hope of recovering all that he’d acquired so far, and by frustration that he couldn’t get there faster to save it. But at least he didn’t run into any trouble along the way.
Surprise and hope blossomed in his chest when he emerged from the forest and saw the horse and wagon where he’d left them. And neither was on fire. That was good! Better, there didn’t seem to be any monsters about. That was excellent! But perhaps they’d simply robbed him and fled. But even if they had made off with the leather, they’d at least left the wagon and horse, so he could live with that. He slowed down and gave himself time to catch his breath and calm down.
Something was on fire though. As he neared the scene, he saw that it was the mino-churl. It lay on its face, oily, black smoke rising from the flames dancing along the corpse.
“Marian?” he called out.
“Hey. You’re back!” She reclined in the back of the wagon, arm behind her head, out of the rain, chewing a piece of deer jerky left behind.
Hadiin looked around in astonishment. “You killed them all? By yourself?”
She looked very proud of herself. “Yup!” She grinned. “And I levelled up.”
“I’m level 4 now,” she told him with a smug grin.
Hadiin bit back a smart-ass retort. Instead, he twirled his moustache and smiled. “Congratulations, my dear. And…I’m very impressed. Handling all those churls, and a fae mage too. Really quite something. Especially at your level.”
“Thanks. I thought so too. Which is why we’re gonna split the profits a little differently: 75:25.”
His eyes widened and despair pierced his heart.
“Only fair, right?” she continued matter-of-factly. “I mean, I did save everything. Well, except one bucket of cryo slime. I had to use that to take out the churls. But I saved everything else. And the slime is super cheap to reacquire. So 75:25 sounds fair.”
Hadiin’s brain kicked back in after the initial shock. He really shouldn’t have been surprised by her audacity. And a part of him did understand that her demand was actually reasonable given the circumstances. But still, he couldn’t afford to give up his future profits that easily. Could he change the way she thought about the issue? He bowed his head, putting on a thoughtful face. “Yes. That does seem fair,” he pretended to agree.
Her brows lifted. “Really? You’re not going to argue?”
He waved in acknowledgement. “Well, I freely admit that you’ve done masterfully, Marian. Saving not just the goods, but also the horse and wagon, that’s the real prize. I could never have done it without you. You’re amazing.”
She sat up straighter and seemed to flush a bit. “I’m glad you recognize that.”
“I do! You were brilliant. Deadly. The bane of churls everywhere,” he flattered. “I have no doubt that you’re going to grow into a powerful dragon sorcerous.”
She grinned. “Damn right.”
He lifted his hands and shrugged. “If you want to cripple our future for a payout right now, I understand. It’s your right. 75:25 sounds fine.”
Her grin vanished. “Cripple? Why?”
“Basic rule of business: it takes money to make money,” he casually explained. “The whole point of doing all of this is to raise funds so we can invest in bigger and better ventures. But that requires seed money for the next. And if you take most of the profits then it means I have less to invest, which means it’ll take that much longer to make more money.”
She opened her mouth to object, then closed it. Crossing her arms, she sat back against the stacks of leather again. A few seconds later, a thoughtful expression came over her and she relented. “Does that mean if I give up my half share you’ll do even more with it than if you only have your share?”
He sensed victory approaching and suppressed a smile of relief. “I could, yes.”
Her nose twitched. “Fine. When we get to the town, take all the money we make and reinvest it. But you’ll owe me. And I mean extra for supporting you.”
He face brightened. “Marian! Thank you. That will make things much easier.” He gave her his best smile. Thank goodness he’d changed her mind.
She turned a shade of pink and looked flustered. “Well, don’t just stand there. Let’s go.”
He started to tell her to help him free the wagon, then thought better of it. No sense pushing his luck after that nice little victory. Though he was honestly grateful that she was letting him take all the revenue from the future sale of their goods. He’d have to think of some way to pay her back later. After all, she really was turning out to be a blessing.
It took a little while to get the wagon free and back onto the road. But by then the sky was clearing and patches of blue appeared behind the iron gray storm clouds. Hadiin took the driver’s seat and guided them towards their destination.
In no time at all, they spotted roofs and spires on the horizon. They passed a stone sign, carved with the words Town of Belleville, a little row of rose bushes in front. Then the town wall came into view. The bottom half of the wall was stone, but the top half was wood, indicating a town that either wasn’t attacked very often, did not have the funds for a proper stone wall, or it said something about a people who perhaps cut corners and spent their gold unwisely.
Hadiin wondered if the sight of the walls foreshadowed anything about the future. If nothing else, as a merchant, he tried to pay close attention to the details around him. One never knew when something seemingly in the background could prove to be a useful — and profitable — clue for later. And anything that indicated the way the people here felt or thought could be very valuable indeed. Commerce was, after all, about people far more than it was about goods alone.
They lined up with others waiting to enter the town. There were a few newbie adventurers and two more wagons ahead. Guards lazily checked the other two wagons, peeking under canvas and knocking on barrels. The adventurers passed through with only a quick word.
Marian rolled the sides of the wagon up behind him and watched the goings on. “Are we gonna have to pay a tax to get in?” she wondered aloud.
Hadiin froze. An entry or import tax. Of course. That was standard for merchants. Except…he checked his purse. Yep, still one silver piece. He delicately cleared his throat and looked over at his companion. “Dear Marian—“
She glowered at him. “What?”
“Well, you are quite astute. If there is some kind of entry fee—“
“You want me to pay?”
“A temporary loan?” he suggested.
She grumbled. “Fine. At 50% interest.”
His smile wavered. Well, he was just starting out as a merchant. He had to expect to struggle, right? And maybe next time he’d hold a little bit more coin in reserve for this sort of thing. Live and learn. Anyone who lived without learning was a fool destined for poverty of one kind or another, be it monetary or of the heart and soul.
They pulled up to the gates. A guard waved them to a stop. He was plain looking and wore worn and faded, black leather armor and a simple helm with a dent in the top. A longsword hung from his belt, the wrapping on the hilt threadbare. He had a bored look on his face. “State yer business!” he called up to Hadiin. The big, red nose indicated a man too fond of ale.
Hadiin bowed his head. “Come to trade. Leather and goods to sell.”
The guard nodded as if this was routine. He reached over into the wagon and pawed through a couple of leathers, his eyes checking Marian out a lot more than the goods. Then he saw the buckets and barrels of cryo slime. His features screwed up. “What the abyss you carryin’ that stuff for?”
Hadiin shrugged and smiled. “Don’t know yet. Thought it might be worth something.”
The guard snorted and shook his head in a way that indicated he thought very little of Hadiin’s mental competence. “Slime’s worthless. Everyone knows that.” He looked around. “That it?”
The guard nodded. “Fine. Move it along. Market Street is just along this road. Keep going ’til yer there.” He waved in that direction.
Hadiin politely bowed and started the horse moving. As they passed through the gate, he turned over his shoulder to speak to Marian, he saw the guard wander away from his post a little too casually.
The man reached up to rub his unshaven jaw while standing next to a gaggle of impoverished youths who were lounging in the shade of a nearby building. As he touched his face, he tapped the side of his nose.
One of the youths looked away and stood up with a bored look on his face. Sticking his hands deep in his pockets, he shuffled along the street, in the same direction as Hadiin and Marian. But at the first intersection, he turned and headed another direction.
Hadiin frowned. His imagination, or had that been some kind of signal and prearranged maneuver?
The town was sizeable, probably holding several thousand residents. Most of the buildings were two stories, though a few were three or even four or five stories and poked up here and there. Roofs were blue tile or wood shingle. The main road, lined with black iron street lamps, was cobblestone, turned black from the rain. Small swathes of grass grew on either side of the road in front of houses, shops, trades and others, giving the place a rustic feel. Patches of wildflowers and rose bushes in the grass gave the area a riot of colour, even on a gray day. At each intersection, a grand apple or pear tree stood on each corner, heavy with fruit that anyone might pick as they came by. There were even tall ladders standing next to a few so that one could reach higher fruit.
Market street was a long, open stretch with a row of big, colourful stalls lining each side of the main road. On either side, behind the stalls, was an alley filled with merchant wagons and carts. It appeared that the main thoroughfare was for shoppers only and sellers parked behind their stalls with their goods. A wooden fence placed across the street proved that foot traffic only was allowed beyond that point.
A guard in front of the fence waved for Hadiin to stop. “What stall?” he asked.
Hadiin shrugged. “Whatever’s open will be fine.”
The guard made a long-suffering sigh. “You don’t have a stall booked?”
“Do you even have a license to sell yer goods?”
The guard rolled his eyes as if to say ‘yet another idiot merchant wannabe who doesn’t know the rules’. He pointed to the alley on the right. “You can park your wagon just there. But leave room for others to get past. You can’t sell anything without a license. Visit the Merchants Guild. Come back with one. You’ll need to book your stall there as well.”
“But someone might steal—“
“Not around here they won’t. Leave the wagon. We’ll keep an eye on it.”
“Ah. I see. Thank you, kindly, sir.”
The guard just rolled his eyes again and waved them to the right without further word.
They parked. Hadiin was a little anxious about leaving his wagon and goods attended though. “Marian, would you mind staying and guarding everything?”
“Why?” She jumped down to the ground. “I’m sick of the wagon. I want to walk. And I want to see this merchant guild.” She brushed herself off and looked around. “Besides, he said the guards would watch it.”
Yes, but who would trust these lacklustre fools? They might officially be town guards, but so far, none of them gave the impression they were a very professional lot. Plus, there was that signal that had been given at the gate, which may or may not have had anything to do with them. Hadiin fretted for a long moment, paranoid. He looked around. There was a lot of people about. Maybe it would be ok. “Let’s be quick then.”
They asked around and found the Merchant’s Guild down a ways, in the middle of Market Street, a four story affair overlooking the commerce below.
Marian looked up at the building. “This is the richest building on the whole street, isn’t it?”
“Probably,” he acknowledged. “I’m guessing it’s not just a guild. It probably doubles as a bank as well.”
The guild hall was large, with plenty of open windows on the second to fourth floors, though all had bars on them. That said, the bars were all stylishly formed so that they looked more like wrought iron vines than basic security. The doors to the guild were heavy, reinforced steel, the metal brushed and engraved with symbols for grain, cattle, metal, wood, a keg for beer or wine, wooden crates, and coins.
A pair of mages in robes, one in white and the other red, stood on the roof, watching over everyone. Two very muscular guards stood on each side of the front doors. Unlike the town guards, these were in much nicer armor, with steel cuirasses, and were armed with nasty-looking pikes and spiked maces. No boredom here, they grimly scrutinized all passerby as if anyone might be an enemy.
Probably placed here in order to combat the negative effect of the guards, two extra-cheery women stood out front, chatting with passerby and trying to be helpful.
The nearest guild greeter turned to Hadiin and Marian as they approached. She beamed and reached out to greet both of them, using both hands to shake each of theirs. “Hello! How can the Belleville Merchant’s Guild make your day wonderful today?”
Hadiin answered. “We’re trying to obtain a market stall. And a license to sell goods in town?”
“Of course! Of course. Just inside, good sir. Our lovely receptionists will take care of everything for you. Please, right this way.” She, unnecessarily, led them to the door only a couple of meters away and grabbed the handle, swinging it open for them. “Welcome!” She waved them in and bowed.
Hadiin smiled at the sight of the interior. Ah, now this was exactly the kind of thing he had in mind as a merchant. Yes, this was definitely going to be much more interesting than swinging a sword around. As a merchant, he was going to make some real money.