Chapter 109 – Hard Bargains


Month 2, Day 6, Saturday 5:15 p.m.

Finding a reference book for basic negotiation tactics in the library was easy. The more Sebastien read of it, however, the more she realized how right Ana was. She shouldn’t have accepted fifty percent interest on the loan Katerin gave her. That was just ridiculous, but Sebastien had felt like she had no other options. And look where it had gotten her.

She probably could have gotten more than seventy percent of the price of the offerings the Nightmare Pack gave her for their meeting, but she hadn’t leveraged her own value. Without her, Oliver would have had no chance at the star sapphire or the pixie eggs at all. Subconsciously, perhaps, she had let her amiable relationship with Oliver affect her judgment. He certainly hadn’t been doing the same, even if he made it seem like he was being generous.

There were other, smaller incidents, but they added up.

Realizing how much coin she’d lost herself made it hard to sleep that evening, and on Sunday morning, Sebastien looked up the cost of a well-bred Erythrean horse before heading out for Dryden Manor. She needed to know how valuable he found the textile industry sub-commission.

Knowing that Oliver’s schedule had been hectic in the wake of the Morrow takeover, Sebastien arrived at his home early. She found him coming out of the kitchen with a breakfast tray.

Sharon caught sight of Sebastien and tried to coax her to sit at the table with the other servants and take breakfast, but Sebastien begged off. “I have some business to discuss. If you’ll save me a little, I’ll be back down to pick it up in a few minutes.”

“Oh, nonsense, Mr. Siverling.” Sharon said, waving a rag at her. “I’ll bring it right up post-haste. Knowing you, you’ll be holed up there all day over a steaming cauldron, half-starved. You’re much too skinny.”

Oliver, who had paused at the base of the stairs to wait for Sebastien, grumbled something unintelligible under his breath, glaring at his own breakfast tray, which he was carrying himself.

Remembering her commitment to take better care of those who showed her kindness, Sebastien reached out and gripped Sharon’s hand within her own. “Thank you. You’re the best, Sharon. My favorite auntie.” The words felt uncomfortable coming out of her mouth, but Sharon didn’t seem to notice.

The woman blushed scarlet and shooed Sebastien away in a fluster while the other servants snickered into their food. Sebastien felt comfortable around the working class in a way that she didn’t around the Crown Family crew. They lived in the same world as her, one she understood.

Oliver glowered sleepily at Sebastien as she followed him up the stairs. “Sweet-talking my servants, are you?”

Sebastien shrugged. “Like you don’t do the same. You treat everyone you’ve ever met like they’re the most interesting person in the world. To their faces, anyway. I’m just trying to return a little of the kindness people show me. To those who are deserving. I’ve realized I can be…just a tiny bit rude, sometimes. More rude than necessary, that is.”

Oliver snorted, but the amusement quickly slipped from his face. As they entered his office, he sighed, “Perhaps I, too, have been slipping in that regard lately. I may have been too caught up in the big picture and forgotten the importance of the basics, the foundation.”

“People are power?” she said, quoting something he’d told her shortly after she met him.

“They are. An angry cook can make your life quite miserable,” he said, sounding as if he were imparting great wisdom.

“While I still prefer the power of magic, I cannot deny that a network of well-placed connections can be supremely valuable.” She sat down at a chair to the side of his desk, resting her elbows on the armrests and steepling her fingers together under her chin. “That’s what I’m here to discuss, actually.”

Oliver raised an eyebrow, taking a sip of pitch-black coffee. He pulled it away with a grimace, wiping chunky coffee grounds from his lips. “Oh? I thought you were here to get a head start on your brewing, since you missed yesterday.”

“Well, I’ll do a little of that, too, but I need to stop by the market for the components for some new concoctions. No, I’m here because I heard that you got turned down for a Gervin textile commission.”

Oliver set down his coffee. “You heard about that already? I barely got the notice yesterday evening.”

“I’m friends with Anastasia Gervin, heir to the Gervin Family, and she visited home yesterday. I heard about it from her. Would it be right to assume the loss is a rather large deal for the Verdant Stag?”

“Well, yes,” he admitted. “It won’t entirely devastate my efforts, but it is a great blow. I’m hoping to appeal the decision, but if that doesn’t work, many of my plans will need to pivot. It’s possible I could try to legitimize some of the smuggling operations I’ve taken over through a commission from the Emberlin Family. I’m also working on a large-scale project to bring more alchemical products into the common citizen’s life, which, outside of healing applications, doesn’t need the approval of any Crown members. The problem is, as reports from Osham are already showing, with some machinery, the textile industry has the opportunity to employ a large number of non-thaumaturges while also providing a much-needed product to those who can’t afford the luxury market anyway. I would prefer not to abandon this path.”

Oliver ran a hand down his face, the stubble on his jaw creating an audible scratching sound. “I wonder if Lord Gervin realized that. Perhaps he, or someone he would prefer to work with, wanted to take advantage of the opportunity once I showed it to him. It all seemed to be going so well, and then, out of nowhere, a rejection. I don’t understand what changed, but I’m hoping this is still salvageable.” He lowered his head, taking a bite of his slightly burnt, unbuttered toast.

“I have a solution,” Sebastien said.

Oliver looked up, crumbs on the edge of his mouth. He forced himself to swallow. “What?”

“As I said, I’m friends with the Gervin Family heir. She has access to her father’s paperwork, and has assured me she could approve a sub-commission without her father’s input. Once it’s been filed through the Edictum Council, it won’t matter what Lord Gervin’s plans are, he won’t be able to go back on his legal word. I might even get you more favorable terms. Of course, I have to do a favor for her in return.”

“What kind of favor?”

“I’m going to help her depose her uncles, who are a little too power-hungry.”

Oliver nodded thoughtfully, his expression slowly brightening. “Keeping a valuable ally in a position of power is worthwhile. But how do you plan to depose the uncles? Do you need the Verdant Stag’s help?”

“Ana has a preliminary plan. We’ll be refining it before going forward with anything. I might find a bit of aid useful, but I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know. However, while my favor to her is quite set in stone, hers in return is unfixed. Anastasia Gervin could do a lot for me personally. Something of equal value to her Family’s sub-commission.”

Oliver seemed surprised, but only for a moment. One side of his mouth turned down in a wry twist. “And you want me to make it equally worth your while.”

“I do.”

“Did you forget that you are vow-bound to pay off your debt with either gold or favors to the Verdant Stag? You cannot simply refuse unless you find our request morally objectionable.”

Sebastien lifted her chin, anger kindling in her at this proof of his willingness to take advantage of her. “This was not your request. I brought this opportunity to you. And I must say, I find it morally objectionable to be asked to perform favors without proper recompense. That’s extortion, in a way, isn’t it? I don’t think the vow will stop me from walking away on this one.”

Oliver grimaced, leaning back and waving a hand at her. “I wouldn’t actually force you to do anything you don’t want to, you know. Go on, then. What is it you want from me?”

According to the information Sebastien had looked up that morning, Erythrean horses, being magical and so hard to breed properly, sold for between one to two thousand gold, depending on quality and if they had been gelded. Of course, not all of that would be profit, but she estimated that Oliver had given away seven to fifteen hundred gold, net, with that bribe to Lord Gervin. She was hoping for somewhere over eight hundred gold, to pay off her debt and have enough left over for other things. “For salvaging the opportunity to take a chunk of the textile industry for the Verdant Stag, with a favorable, long-term sub-commission from the Gervin Family, I want five thousand gold.”

Oliver’s eyes widened as he straightened. “Five thousand!? Are you insane?”

Sebastien knew it was an outrageous amount. That was why she’d said it. By “anchoring” the conversation at such a high value, he would be less likely to offer her something like fifty or a hundred gold. The negotiation would hopefully settle much higher than it otherwise might, with her real goal seeming, in comparison, more reasonable. “I assure you, I am moored quite firmly to reality. Five thousand would be enough to pay off my debt and get me through the next few terms at University. I’m sure you would earn considerably more than that over the next few years, if the deal goes through.”

“You do realize that not all the income from a business is profit, right? I’m already pouring money into the infrastructure, the employees, and the supplies to make the cloth. I have no proof that the business model will be successful here.” He threw up his hands in exasperation. “I could be losing money for a long time on the whole endeavor. I would be willing to pay five hundred gold for your help. That’s an actually reasonable sum, and still quite generous.”

His seeming irritation did not cow Sebastien. Though she had made an excessive initial demand, his counteroffer was unreasonably low, and for once she held the position of power in this negotiation. “You could be losing out on a lot more than five hundred gold if you don’t accept my offer. How about four thousand?”

His eyes narrowed. “Out of the question. In fact, I might be able to salvage the contract on my own. In that case, I wouldn’t need you at all.”

She shrugged. “If you can do that, fine. You’ve already failed once, and you might just end up making it more difficult for Ana to push the contract through without her father noticing. But if you want to go that route, I’ll just extract a different payment from Ana. Some small percentage stake in her Family’s income, once she becomes the head, perhaps. I would probably make a lot more going with that option. I’d just need to wait a few years for the coin to start rolling in.”

“Sebastien,” Oliver said, placing his hands flat on the desk and leaning forward, as if to impress the importance of his words on her. “Funds that go to you are funds that can’t go into building up our territory, or into the pockets of the poor who really need them. It would be irresponsible of me to pay you that much, even if I wanted to. And you don’t actually need that kind of coin. How about I waive your debt to the Verdant Stag and give you a stake in the earnings this fabric and clothing business provides? That’s about eight hundred gold immediately, and…a one percent cut of all profits, after expenses?”

“It’s not my responsibility to get paid less so that others can be paid more, nor is it my responsibility to keep the Verdant Stag afloat. Do you think that just because I’m familiar with being poor that I can be convinced to work for less? After all, you ‘gifted’ Lord Gervin an Erythrean horse while you were in negotiations, and all he would have had to do is sign some documents. I’ll be putting in actual work here, and perhaps putting myself in danger to go against two Crown Family members. And as for a stake in the business…” Sebastien’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Didn’t you just tell me you could be running that business at a loss for years? One percent of the profit doesn’t seem so enticing. How about three thousand gold upon completion, and a ten percent stake in the total revenue, before expenses?”

Oliver’s expression darkened, not with anger, but an internal settling of some sort that Sebastien couldn’t read. “Twelve hundred gold upon completion, and a three percent stake of the profit, or a minimum yearly payment of four hundred gold paid in quarterly allocations, whichever is more.”

Sebastien’s heart was pounding, and she hoped the flush in her cheeks wasn’t noticeable. “Fifteen hundred gold, and a five percent stake in the profit. The minimum payment is fine.”

“A four percent stake, and if you require aid to complete your mission, you’ll hire someone from the Verdant Stag to assist you…and pay at the standard rate.”

Sebastien hesitated. Earning fifteen hundred gold was near the upper end of her initial hopes, and she hadn’t even considered getting a stipend. She almost agreed immediately, but stopped herself, narrowing her eyes. “I’ll hire Stags only if their skills fit my needs and they are reasonably priced. I won’t pay more for services than they’re worth. If I do end up needing help, payment will be taken out of my eventual earnings rather than required upfront. And I won’t be liable for payment if the mission fails. I won’t be going into any more debt to you, Oliver.”

He gave her a small smile. “Not to me. To the Verdant Stag.”

She snorted.

“Agreed,” he said. “I’ll let Katerin know. She’s in charge of the Verdant Stag’s funds and all our contracts, even if technically this will be running through my civilian name. You can go down to her office to seal the vow whenever is convenient.”

Sebastien let some of the tension flow out of her shoulders. She would be doing that as soon as possible, just to ensure nothing changed.

Oliver shook his head ruefully, standing and moving to the shelves on the wall nearest his desk, where a large object sat. He opened its lid to reveal a strange, bulky artifact, with a strip of paper running across the front, underneath what looked like a blocky fountain pen suspended by a wire framework. Oliver pulled a lever on the side, which brought the pen down into contact with the strip of paper. Carefully, he wrote out a message, using a crank on the bottom to move the strip of paper sideways when he ran out of space. When he finished, he moved the lever back up, tore off the strip of used paper, and filed it in a binder to the side.

Sebastien watched the whole thing with fascination. “Is that a messaging artifact?”

“Yes. Recently developed by a University graduate, in fact. They’re quite hard to obtain, but I have some contacts that managed to get me a set. Katerin has the other. You use the tuning knobs to choose a particular band—a small area from a wide range of possibilities. Any of the devices tuned to that same band will receive the message. It allows much more detailed messages than other long-distance communication artifacts, while maintaining moderate security. They’re calling it a distagram.”

Sebastien stepped forward to examine it closer. “If you had a whole group, say one in each major city, could you send the same message to all of them?”

“If the distagram was powerful enough. They are magically cheap—efficient—but my set only covers a twenty kilometer diameter. I believe the Gilbrathan coppers are adopting them, though the Red Guard and the army had the initial monopoly on all production. That’s a large part of why it’s so difficult to get one as a civilian, but I believe they will quickly become widespread as production increases. I’m trying to get a sub-contract to produce them from the Cyr Family, now that they’re coming into the civilian luxury domain. Having more of these would certainly make Verdant Stag operations simpler.”

“But anyone on the same band could intercept the messages, right?” She wondered if it was working off the invisible light frequencies. It seemed plausible that this was the artifact Damien had mentioned. Rather than creating the more magically intensive sympathetic link between two artifacts, if the distagram instead sent and received the message through a particular frequency of electromagnetic waves, it could be feasible at much longer distances.

Oliver moved away, taking his breakfast tray around to the table in front of the couch facing the fireplace. “Messages can be intercepted, which is why you send only innocuous information, or communicate in code, and change the shared band at a regular interval.”

“Still, that’s amazing. Think of how convenient it could be!”

He grinned back at her. “And how cheap. Affordable enough for commoners to use. I also think it could be useful for long-distance merchant caravans and ships. They could have a common channel and use it to warn others of dangers in their area. If you had a relay of them at equidistant, strategic points, you could get critical messages all the way across the continent in just a few minutes.”

“Magic is amazing,” she sighed dreamily.

His smile shrunk, and he turned back to his breakfast. “Yes. Even better if it can benefit everyone. Well, why don’t you go pick up your food from the kitchen and rejoin me? We have something else to discuss.”

Regaining some of her tension, Sebastien moved to leave, but Oliver stepped closer as she passed by him, clearing his throat. “As much as your new penchant for vicious haggling has hurt my pocketbook, I must say that was well done. You’re coming into your own, Sebastien. I’m happy to see it happen.”

Sebastien tilted her head to the side. “You’re not upset, then?”

“I actually prefer it this way. Otherwise it feels like I’m taking advantage of you,” he said solemnly.

She raised an eyebrow. “You were trying to take advantage of me. You would have if I’d let you.”

He grinned. “Exactly.”

Sebastien felt a sudden rush of outrage rising up through her chest, but what burst out instead was a single, breathy laugh that surprised her.

Oliver laughed, too, and gave her a surprisingly warm look. “You’re always interesting.”

She snorted. “Some might take that as an insult.”

“I assure you I did not mean it as one. To be clear, Sebastien, I’ve never tried to get you to agree to anything I thought you wouldn’t be able to get out of eventually. I don’t believe you should bind people with a collar they have no chance to escape. There always has to be a reasonable way out, or I’ve become a problem. And when people lose hope, they start looking for other ways to solve their problems.”

“Like assassinating you?” she asked, tilting her head to the side.

He winced. “Well, among other things. And beyond the utility of it, it just makes me feel bad if I think I’ve ruined an innocent person’s life. I prefer feeling good about my impact on the world.”

“Is that why you do all this?” Sebastien asked, feeling she’d had a sudden insight. “It makes you feel good?”

“Well, that is one of the reasons,” he admitted. “Maybe even the main one, if I’m being honest. People will go to extreme lengths to feel pleasure, happiness, satisfaction.”

“Yes, your methods of entertainment are quite…moderate, considering,” she said mockingly. “Just a little criminal world takeover with the purpose of revolution. Some people try exercise, or taking up a new hobby like painting, I’ve heard.”

Sharon knocked then, bringing in another breakfast tray, this one loaded up much higher than Oliver’s—including unburnt, buttered toast, and a full cup of properly filtered coffee.

Oliver seemed suddenly awkward, taking an absent sip of coffee which he immediately choked on. Apparently, he had forgotten it was filled with loose coffee grounds.

Sharon gave him a few hard slaps on the back, cooed at Sebastien to ring the bell if she needed anything else, and left without looking back as Oliver heaved for breath, his eyes watering.

He almost went to take another sip of the offending coffee to soothe his throat, but Sebastien stopped him in time, pressing a hand to the mug to keep him from lifting it.

Exasperated, Oliver pressed his hands together in a pleading motion. “Ask Sharon for an extra cup of coffee. But don’t tell her it’s for me!”

Author Note 6/9/22:

I’m making good progress toward the end of the book, but as always seems to happen, things are expanding beyond my original plan. Still, I’m on track to finish the first draft in a few weeks, which is exciting!

Also, in case anyone missed it, the short story Codename: Moonsable is out in audio for Grandmaster-D level Patreon supporters. Really quite fun. A Binding of Blood is currently in audio production, and supporters at that same tier are going to have a chance to get the audiobook early, before it’s released anywhere else.

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